Wednesday, December 26, 2012

5 non-technical things to improve your photos.

  1. Plan your photo - often photos are little more then accidents. We see something, think wow that's really neat, and we push the shutter. I understand this frequently happens because our photos are as much a way to maintain memories as they are anything else, but take a moment to think about how the camera will capture the image and adjust your shot so the image will be a decided on shot and not just an accident. In this way you will quickly learn what elements improve your images and which ones detract from them.

  2. Pay attention to the details - frequently we only think about the subject as we are composing our image, but the foreground and the background both will make up the photo. Take a moment to think about how this will impact you images, you may want to change f-stop to soften the impact of the foreground or perhaps you want to Chang your angle to eliminate a distraction. This can be something as simple as a bright patch of sun blowing out part of the background, our eyes will migrate to the brightest part of the image, anything brighter then you subject will compete with it for the viewers attention.

  3. Shoot outside of your comfort zone - it is commonly suggested to take photos from kneeling, lying down, standing on a chair or some other different vantage point to give a unique view. So common that when it is suggested people say "yeah I know that" but when you look at their portfolio everything is taken standing up from five feet away (or what ever their comfort zone is). When you are about to take a photo make yourself change, move to a different location shot something with a wide angle that you normally want to shoot telephoto, move in close and use telephoto when you think you should be shooting wide. It doesn't matter what you change, just force yourself out of your comfort zone.

  4. Make mistakes - this sort of parallels shooting outside your comfort. But in this case I am telling you to break everybody else's rules. Everybody says don't shoot a moving subject with 1st curtain flash. Break that rule, or others like it, in this way you will find ways to make photos work where the rest of us have failed.

  5. Don't fake it - entirely to often I hear people say "oh I'll just fix it in photoshop." Photoshop can be a very useful tool, but it has its limitations, fix the color balance on the camera, remove lint and smooth wrinkles I the backdrop, if you want light falloff in the corner turn your light or use a flag or Inverse Square Law to adjust the lighting. Photoshop is a destructive process, the more you take the time to correct before you push the shutter the grater latitude you will have for other manipulations. This will improve your overall skill as a photographer will, if you rely on photoshop then you will be improving your skills as a digital editor.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The "BIG 3"

When discussing photography it is common to hear people talk about ISO, shutter, and aperture as the "BIG 3". These are the on camera controls that effect exposure, but it greatly limits your photography to think about it this way. The most fundamental part of photography is light. ISO, shutter, and aperture effect how your camera records that light, so the logic generally goes something like this - my camera tells me I need a shutter of 1/60th at an aperture of f4 with an ISO of 200 for a proper exposure. Hence the idea of the "BIG 3", because all three are used in determining exposure.

But let's break this down a little. A shutter of 1/60th is about the slowest you can use and still handhold the camera, you will need a quicker shutter if you are zoomed out, or else camera shake will be evident. With f4 you will get a nice shallow depth of field allowing you to keep the interest on your subject, and an ISO of 200 insures that you will not have noise in the shadows. This could give you a nicely exposed image, or it may not work at all. For instance if you are trying to get a nice tack sharp image of your daughter doing gymnastics. For this you would need a much faster shutter, say 1/250th a change of two stops. You can't makeup that change in the cameras aperture, you might have an f2.8 setting perhaps you even have an f1.4 which will get you close but then your depth of field will be so shallow it will be very difficult to keep your subject in focus especially when she is moving. The only alternative you are left with then is to increase ISO from 200 to 800 which will likely start to introduce noise, which again will effect the over all appearance of sharpness in the image.

The other option is to think of it as a BIG 4 not 3, the fourth element being light. With this approach you gain a lot of flexibility. If we look at the example above and we say well I really need a shutter speed of 1/250th but I don't want to sacrifice ISO and I can't make it up with fstop (remember to change one setting you have to balance it with a change to a second setting) that second setting can be the introduction of more light. In the BIG 3 model you are looking at a triangle where two points have to be changed - but if you ad light to the equation (or subtract it as needed) you then can balance your exposure with this fourth element without having to sacrifice your other settings. In this way you can use f4 to maintain focus on your subject and you don't have to sacrifice shadows to noise with higher ISO settings.

With this approach you can then dedicate the shutter speed to the function of freezing or blurring action, the fstop can be used solely to determine depth of field and the ISO setting can be kept low to reduce noise. Once these settings are decided upon based on your artistic vision, exposure can be determined by adding or subtracting light. The easiest way to start this process is by turning on or off extra lights or to use the cameras flash to add light and neutral density filters or gels to subtract light. This is a good way to learn to start blending artificial light control with the ambient light in the environment, but in the long run you will want to develop this skill far beyond the use of simple lights to include grids, snoots, barn doors, scrims and the like so you can not only determine over all exposure but you can also control shadows, specularity, light fall off and light direction.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

RAW vs Jpeg

You may be asking yourself “So what is all of this talk about RAW? Should I be shooting in RAW?”

I commonly hear people say things like “Once I started shooting in RAW I won’t shoot in anything else?”, or “Memory cards are so cheap why shoot in anything other then RAW?”, and “Shooting in Jpeg is like owning a sports car and never taking it out of 2nd gear.”

So what exactly is RAW? The short version is that it is all of the light data the camera has captured. Jpeg is a possible interpretation of that data. This is an important distinction to understand. If you have the RAW file you can then create several extremely different interpretations during post. Which really is the time to use RAW, when you plan extensive post manipulation, either to achieve a look the camera can not create or because the lighting conditions are such that they dictate post op correction i.e. mixed light sources (tungsten and florescent) and extreme dynamic range (very bright harsh light), then that is the time you will need to use the RAW setting.

So to answer “Should I be shooting in RAW?” Generally no. I know you may be thinking, “But you just said it lets you do these great things, why not shoot RAW?” 

Well for one thing, while memory cards are cheap, computer hard drive space is a bit more precious. This may not be an issue for you if you only shoot a few thousand photos a year, it is not uncommon for me to shoot 2000 photos in a week. At this rate of fire I not only avoid RAW I throw out a lot of good images so I have plenty of space for the images I am selling and the really good and great images.

Another is work flow, particularly speed of work flow. RAW takes longer to download, longer to process, just for a start. But how much time are you going to spend beyond that in post? If you are working on a project that needs a lot of post then the time is already considered. Most of the rest of your images should not need a lot of post, if they do you need to correct your shooting.

“So what about the sports car analogy?” you may ask. Lets take the analogy a little farther. If creating a photograph is a mile long trip, the camera is the last two blocks. Do you need a sports car to go two blocks? A photo starts with an idea, it consists of subject and background, all of which is bathed in light to bring the idea to life A photograph is much more then just shutter, aperture, ISO, the camera only gives you shutter, aperture, ISO. Shooting in RAW does not change that.

Most of what you shoot you will be able to shoot in Jpeg, it will speed your work flow save you space, but more importantly it will limit your ability to just shrug and go “I can correct that color / exposure or what ever later and force you to be a more aware shooter. Greater awareness will bread greater skill. So whenever possible shoot in Jpeg.

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Canon vs. Nikon

Canon vs Nikon is probably the second most common question I get. It is about as valid an argument as Chevy vs Ford. Both Canon and Nikon manufacture excellent cameras. There are other options as well such as the Sony Alpha series.

There are a few things to consider. As a rule Nikon preforms slightly better in low light, less sensor noise. Canon performs slightly better for high speed subject matter like sports with faster frame rates and slightly better auto focus tracking. But the performance differences are very minor.

The main thing you should consider is how does it feel, do the controls and menus make sense, and does it have the options you are looking for? I am a Canon shooter. This is because I learned on Canon cameras, and now I am very invested in Canon specific lenses and speedlites. When I buy a point and shoot camera I look at Canon first because the controls and menus are very similar, this saves me learning a new system. However the last point and shoot camera I purchased was a Panasonic. Geotagging was a very important feature - really the reason I replaced my old Canon A630. The Canon model at that time preformed very poorly, it was slow to locate its position and the battery life while the GPS was operating was about 30-40 minutes so the feature I was buying the camera for was essentially useless, where as the Panasonic was giving me about 8 hours, a couple of hundred shutter releases and faster positioning.

Yes I bought both and took back the one I did not like, this can be a good strategy if you are unsure what to buy, it lets you experiment with both for a week or so. In my case I bought the Canon expecting it to preform and when It did not I took it back and bought the Panasonic. Fortunately the Panasonic did preform because at the time I did not really have any other options.

If you are looking for point and shoot Cameras there will likely be 6-8 manufacturers making cameras with the options you want in your price range. It is worth researching all of them. At this time there are really only 3 options for DSLRs: Canon, Nikon and Sony. There are other manufacturers but they are not widely supported or as readily available making them much less practical. Sony is definitely worth a look and is the only one of the three that offers geotagging, though Canon is due to release the 6D which is a full frame camera with GPS, WIFI, and uses SD memory. Brining many of the advantages of the Sony series to the Canon line. Features which can be a very handy, especially if you travel. You may feel like this leaves you with more questions then answers, but hopefully now you will know which questions you should be asking.

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What Camera Should I Get?

As a photographer the most frequent question I hear is "what camera should I get?" While a few people are asking this question in ernest, many really are asking for justification in buying the most expensive camera they can afford, or in some cases they can't afford. When selecting a camera there are really a couple of things to consider. The first is what is the end usage of the photos? The second is does the end usage support a budget that exceeds the 80-20 rule? There is a third question too, and really this is the one that justifies the budget, where will I be shooting, in what lighting conditions? I will get back to this but let's take a moment to look at the first two.

What is the end usage of the photos? Unless your end usage is giant, as in 3 feet by 4 feet or larger prints, any modern camera will likely suffice. For 8"x10" prints you only need a 2 megapixel sensor, less than that if you just want images for emailing to family or displaying products on your website. The camera sensors in cell phones are plenty for these uses.

So does your usage justify exceeding the 80-20 rule? Well let's take a look at the 80-20 rule. This rule basically says that you get the first 80% of the performance for 20% of the cost. In professional photography we have to be able to provide that last 20%, that is what we are paid for. But most armatures and hobbyists are going to find that their budget can be much better spent elsewhere than on that last 20% of performance.

This really brings us to my third point. This is the one that really deserves the attention. The camera is actually one of the least important pieces of equipment. Now I know what you are thinking. You are thinking "Brendan, you must be crazy, what do you mean the camera is one of the least important pieces? How do I take pictures without it?" Well consider this, there is a theory that Leonardo Da Vinci created the worlds first photo without a camera AT ALL. It is believed that he used a room referred to as a camera obscura to burn his likeness onto a piece of fabric creating the Shroud of Turin. It really does not matter if that event is factual, at the time camera obscuras were commonly used so that artist could paint the images projected onto their canvases. 

This brings us to the heart of photo-graphy "light-drawing", when you look at it this way it is easier to see why the camera is less important. Light, the ability to modify it and control it is what IS important. And it is a much better place to spend 80% of your budget then the camera is. Which in a round about way brings us to point three where are you shooting, what are the lighting conditions like? These factors determine which lighting options you need. I will cover this point much more thoroughly in a later entry. But a couple of things to consider. 
  • Do I need to freeze action? If the answer to this is yes then you will need strobes of some kind. 
  • What kind of natural light is usually available? If there is not much then a couple of basic floods and modifiers may be the route to go. Buy fluorescents, they are so much cooler to work around. If you are likely to have a lot of natural light then scrims,  reflectors, gobos, and flags (negative bounces) may suite your needs.

Ok so now we have an idea of what to consider, how does this actually work. Lets say your total photography budget is $1000.00, then you want to look at cameras in the $200.00 range leaving you $800.00 for lighting equipment. Depending on where and what you are shooting this may not come close to meeting you lighting needs but it will certainly get you started with some quality options. But let's say your total budget is more like $300.00 if you look at the 80-20 rule that would only give you $60.00 for a camera. Not really the best budget. But it is not as bleak as it seems. If you already have a camera invest that $300 in lighting. Talk to a camera shop and a local club and find a few lighting options that will work for the kind of shooting you want to do, and that will continue to do so when you upgrade later. Then in 6 months or a year you can look at your budget options for a camera that will compliment what you are already learning, or you may find that the camera you have is better then you thought.

In general you will be in the $100-$300 dollar range for a quality camera. It is important to find one with full manual controls and if possible manual flash controls also. Not just on/off but intensity settings as well. Having a wide range of optical zoom options is handy too, but don't be fooled by digital zoom, that just degrades image quality.

A couple of exceptions. Lets say you want a camera to take photos of your kid in marching band and there is no way for you to control ambient light and it is out of the practical range of strobes. Then saving money for lighting is a mute point. In which case a prosumer with its larger sensor size and long telephoto option may be the way to go and will run about $350 - $450 dollars.

If you are really ready and determined to make the leap to DSLRs then buy the least expensive body and invest in glass. Lenses will last four or five camera bodies at least and if you put a crap lens in front of an expensive sensor you will get crap pictures. So invest in the lenses first just as you should prioritize investing in lighting. 

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