Thursday, June 30, 2011

How To Get Started In Photography, Part 6

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

So you've read The Art of Photography, you've discovered that it doesn't matter what camera you own, you've acquired a camera or two, you've downloaded some free photo editing software, now what?

Filters

The most common accessory you may want to consider are filters, which screw on the front of the lens. There are a bunch of different ones that do a bunch of different things. Some common types are UV, polarizing, warming or cooling, yellow, orange or red when shooting black-and-white, and neutral-density (including graduated neutral-density). There are many others, and different verieties of each.

Do you need filters? No. Is it a good idea to own some? Yes.

It's hard to say which ones you should get and which ones you should avoid, because they all do something. So it depends on if what you are photographing benefits from the use of a specific filter. It might also depend on if you can easily replicate the effect of the filter later in photo editing software (you may not want to spend the money on the filter if you don't have to).

Camera stores are quick to sell UV filters, but in reality they do very little. That is not to say you should not buy one, but be aware you are getting little more than a lens protector. Yes, UV filters remove small amounts of haze from an image, but it's not noticeable in most cases. It is best to spend your hard-earned money on something that actually visibly improves the photograph.

Polarizing filters darken blue sky, slightly increase saturation, and remove reflections. Warming filters are good to have if you are using color film. If you are using black-and-white film, you should have a yellow, orange or red filter (or, perhaps, all three). A neutral-density filter could come in handy when photographing moving water. Graduated neutral-density filters might help you when the dynamic range of what you are photographing exceeds the capability of the medium you are using to capture it.

Which should you own and how many are questions only you can answer. The answers will depend on what you are photographing, what you are using to photograph it, and what you want the image to look like.

Learn what each filter does and decide if you would commonly use it or not. You might decide you have no need for filters. You might decide you need a lot of different filters.

A basic kit might include a polarizing filter, warming filter and orange filter. If you just have a DSLR (and not a film camera), a polarizing filter and graduated neutral-density filter are good options.

The filter size will depend on the size of the lens. Look at the front of your lens and you'll see a number (52mm, for example), be sure the filter size matches. You'd hate to spend money on something that doesn't fit.

Tripods

Some photographers use tripods most of the time, while others never use them. They certainly come in handy in low-light situations or when using a long telephoto lens. If you don't own a 300mm telephoto lens and don't plan to photograph in the dark, you probably don't need a tripod.

My suggestion for most photographers is to buy a cheap one because it will be light-weight, fold up small, and, if you find that you rarely use it, well, it didn't cost much. If you decide that the cheap one isn't good enough, you can always upgrade later.

Cheap tripods are not always as steady as you'd like them to be, so you need to move yourself away from the camera to prevent accidental movement. Yes, even pressing the shutter release button can cause some slight and unwanted movement on long exposures.

The simplest (and cheapest) fix is to use the camera's built-in self-timer. Some cameras allow you to adjust the length of the timer to as short as you want. Another option is a remote control. I'm quite happy with the remote I purchased for my DSLR from ebay for less than $10. You can even use your universal TV remote to operate your camera. Also, a cable release cord is an option for many older cameras (and some newer cameras, as well).

Lens Hood

If you don't like lens flare, you probably want to purchase a lens hood. If it is not in your budget, you can always craft your own with construction paper and rubber bands--or a yogurt container.

Personally, I like lens flare and I think--if you can find ways to use it creatively--it can add interest to the composition. However, many photographers will go to great lengths to avoid lens flare at all costs.

Flash

Most cameras have a built-in flash, and most built-in flashes do a good job of fill-flash. Depending on what you are photographing, there is a pretty good chance that is all you need.

Should you need to purchase a flash, look on e-bay and you can find a decent one for under $25.00, including shipping. Should you need studio lighting, here are some good alternatives to spending large dollar bills on "professional" equipment: here, here, here, and here.

Camera Bag

I have two: one that is a backpack and can hold several cameras, and a smaller one that can hold only one camera. I'm not overly happy with either, but they both get used and adequately perform the job of keeping my equipment organized and safe. Unless you find a camera bag that you know is the one you will love, I would not recommend paying full price or spending large sums of money on this. Shop around and find a good deal.

That's it!

Now get out there with your camera in hand a photograph the world around you!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How To Get Started In Photography, Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Photo Editing Software

Do you really need it? Yes. Unless you are using film and have your own dark room, photo editing software is required.

Photoshop is the standard software used by hobbyists and professionals, but it is quite pricy and difficult to use (it is not user-friendly). Don't have over $500 to spend on software? Don't have hours to learn how to use it? No problem! There are good alternatives that are completely free.

First, all digital cameras have built-in editing software. Some are very basic and give you very few options. Others are more sophisticated and have the ability to do common post-processing functions. I'm very impressed with the built-in software on Pentax's latest DSLR cameras--you could get away with not even owning a computer! All the post-processing tools you need (and some you don't need) are right there on the camera.

Even with 3G and 4G cell phones you can get free photo editing "apps" that allow you to post-process right on your phone.

Nowadays, most computers come with simple photo editing software. You can only do very basic post-processing, but sometimes that is all you need.

Your DSLR camera also likely included photo editing software (in addition to the built-in software) that can do common post-processing functions. Some are better than others. All of them have at least the basic functions that you need.

Another option is Google's Picasa, which is a free and easy-to-use photo editing software. It has all of the essential editing functions and is a very good photo organizer. It's certainly worth trying and you might find that it does the trick.

If Picasa doesn't have all the tools you desire, try Paint.net, another free photo editing software. Here is a little secret: 90% of what you can do with Photoshop you can also do with Paint.net. It's not as user-friendly as Picasa, but it has a lot more tools and options. Really, Paint.net is all that you need and it is what I recommend when someone asks what software he or she should use.

You could spend $100 and get a program similar to Paint.net, such as Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro. But why spend $100 when you can spend nothing?

GIMP is another free option that can do 99.5% of what Photoshop can. My opinion is that both Photoshop and GIMP are overkill for most photographers, and the complexity and learning curve of both will slow you down more than it will help you. Anyway, Photoshop will cost over $500 and GIMP is free. If you don't think Paint.net has all the tools you need, try GIMP before you break the bank on Photoshop.

Sure, you can spend over $500 on photo editing software, but for 99.99% of photographers out there a free software will more than suffice. And in many cases, the free software will be easier to use. Talk about value!

But what if I want HDR or portrait touch-up software?

If you think you need it, buy it.

However, it is best practice to get the picture correct in the field and have as little post-processing as possible later. You could literally spend hours fixing one picture with software, or you could spend a couple minutes carefully getting it correct in the camera--which is best? A lot of photographers waste a lot of time trying to fix their mistakes in Photoshop or some other software instead of learning how to take the picture right to begin with.

Take the photograph correctly and you'll spend a lot less time in front of the computer.

99% of those who use HDR (high dynamic range) software do so because they don't know how to craft a great photograph--they use a gimmick instead. Check out these websites: here, here, here and here.

There are a small handful of photographers who are successfully using HDR; however, those photographers are using three (sometimes four) different softwares to get it to look right and are using HDR in moderation. They already knew how to craft great photographs prior to HDR and are spending a lot of time and effort to make minor improvements to their images.

Most photographers that use HDR software are not creating successful photographs. Most have poorly toned, over-saturated, fuzzy, and noisy photographs with halos and sometimes cartooning. But because they don't know what a great or even good photograph is they have no idea that their images are poor.

Learn how to craft great photographs first, then try HDR.

That is, if you are even still interested in HDR. There are common alternatives that have been around for many, many years. The most talked about is the graduated neutral density filter. Another is to simply use negative film, which has a greater dynamic range than digital. The best alternative is to actively seek great light. Or, perhaps, use all three of those approaches. Then you won't be spending hours and hours on a computer combining images.

JPEG vs. RAW

RAW is a file format that you can choose that is uninterpreted. With JPEG, your camera, based on what settings you have chosen, interprets the data from the sensor, presenting you with an image and discarding everything unused. RAW has yet to be interpreted, so nothing is discarded. You don't have a photograph until the RAW file has been interpreted with photo editing software.

The advantage of RAW is that you can choose how you want the image interpreted later at home while sipping coffee. You have complete control over white balance, saturation, contrast, and a few other things.

The advantages of JPEG are smaller file size (takes up less room on the SD card and saves quicker) and there is less post-processing work needed (since the data has already been interpreted by the camera).

Which is best?

My opinion is that you should use JPEG and not RAW. If you take the picture correctly to begin with, there is no need to interpret the data later. All DSLR (and even many digital point-and-shoot) cameras give you the controls you need to get the picture right when you take it. The only reason you may want to give yourself the ability to interpret the data later is if you are unsure of how the different options (such as white balance) should be set and you know you have one, maybe two chances to get "the shot". It may be best to "play it safe" and use RAW. Even so, many DSLR cameras will allow you to save the image as both a RAW file and JPEG. If the JPEG is not correct you can then use the RAW, or if the JPEG is correct you can simply delete the RAW file.

For most photographers, the use of RAW just adds more work--more time in front of the computer and less time behind the camera. But if you feel RAW is the best option for you, by all means use it.

In How To Get Started In Photography, Part 6 we will discuss other equipment that you may need.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How To Get Started In Photography, Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Camera Options

So, sure, the camera doesn't matter, but that doesn't help me decide what camera to buy. Where do I start?

I said in Part 3 that your budget will be the #1 factor in determining what camera you will buy. That is not to say that the more expensive the equipment the better that equipment will be. There is a saying that is generally true: "you get what you pay for." But what's more important is value: getting the most for the least.

If you have $10,000 sitting under your mattress that you have set in your mind you will use to get started in photography, you will spend that amount of money. If you have $2,000, or $500, or $100, or a quarter in your pocket--whatever amount you have already budgeted, that is the amount of money you will spend.

You can spend as little or as much as you'd like.

Something we need to explore a little right now is value, because that will help you make a smart decision.

Which is the better camera, the Leica M3 or the FED 5? Well, the Leica is (but the FED is not far behind). Now let's take a look at ebay real quick: the Leica M3 is typically listed for $1,000 or more while the FED 5 is typically listed for $50 or less. So is it better to spend $1,000 or more on the Leica or $50 or less on the FED? The real question is this: is the Leica M3 20 times better than the FED 5? Absolutely not! It is not even twice as good.

So which camera has the better value? Well, the FED 5 has the better value by a significant margin, even though the Leica M3 is the better camera.

In other words, if you don't have $1,000 under your mattress waiting to be spent on a camera, you are much better off buying the FED 5 camera.

Now let's talk about film vs. digital. I said on the right side of the page in the About Me section, "I had avoided digital photography for several years, but the quality and value has now exceeded that of 35mm film."

Has the quality and value of digital photography really exceeded that of 35mm film? No. I originally made that statement about one year ago and fully believed it at the time. But it is untrue, or, at least, only half true.

The quality of digital photography has increased by leaps and bounds over the last 10 years. And the price has steadily decreased. It has reached a point where good quality can be purchased for a reasonable price. But only the highest end digital cameras can match the resolution of a good-quality-scan of 35mm film. So a $7,000 Leica M9 camera and the $50 FED 5 with a roll of $7 film, processed and scanned for $17.50, will produce nearly identical pictures. That's less than $75 compared to $7,000. Heck, the tax alone on the Leica would pay for the FED camera, plus film, plus development and scan!

The advantage of digital is that (for the most part) the full cost is paid when you purchased the camera. With film you are constantly buying and processing film, which can quickly add up. $24.50 for a 36 exposure roll of film (including development and scanning) multiplied by however many rolls of film you will use over the life of the camera. About 285 rolls of film and you've matched the cost of the Leica (that's over 10,000 pictures).

Perhaps you have no need for all that resolution (and you probably don't need all that resolution), so maybe a 12-14 MP digital camera is all you want. You might spend as little as $350 or as much as $2,000 for a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera and lens. You won't be able to match the quality of film, but over the life of the camera you will spend a lot less.

At this point in time the value of digital and the value of film is about the same. You can go either way, or even use both. There is no right or wrong answer.

Some advantages of film (aside from the resolution being higher than most digital cameras) is that digital has yet to match the color vibrance of Fuji Velvia reversal film (without looking unnatural, anyway), negative film--especially black & white--has a larger dynamic range (ability to handle high contrast before losing details) than digital, and some low ISO films have a film grain that is finer than the "noise" (noise is basically the digital equivalent of film grain) of even the best digital cameras.

Some advantages of digital are instant gratification and analysis, the freedom to take as many photographs as your SD card will hold, longer shutter speeds when handheld, and the ability to easily adjust to different types of light.

Which is right? Which is best? Which should you choose? Both have advantages over the other. My suggestion is to use both. Have at least one digital camera and have at least one film camera, if your budget will allow.

Since you already know that what camera you own is unimportant and irrelevant to making great photographs, the key is finding a camera with good value.

One quick way to find value is to look for cameras that are on sale. For example, I own a Pentax K-x DSLR, which has an MSRP of $649.95. It's a good little camera with a lot of features, an excellent sensor, and a good lens. Compared to the other brands, I felt like the camera already had good value at that price. I shopped around, looked for sales, and found it for $490--which is an excellent price for what you get! Is the camera a Nikon D3X or even a D90? No, but the D3X is not 14 times better than the K-x and the D90 is not 3 times better. The K-x holds it's own pretty well against the D90 (the Pentax camera is better in some ways, not as good in others) and the D3X (being a 24 MP full-frame DSLR) is substancially better--perhaps 3 times better--but the K-x has significantly better value.

Do you need the Nikon D3X? No. You could purchase the FED 5 and create better photographs with the same resolution for a fraction of the cost. Most likely you don't need that resolution anyway, so the D90, or D3100, or Canon EOS 60D, Pentax K-5, Pentax K-x, or any number of other DSLR cameras that are on the market, would be a better choice.

Which one is the best? Whichever one has the most for the least. My opinion is that Nikon and Canon are quite proud of their products and they are priced accordingly. Look at some of the other brands and you'll find equally capable cameras for hundreds of dollars less. Do a Google search and read a few reviews. Make a short list, then shop around for sales and find the lowest price possible.

Whichever DSLR you end up with won't be significantly better or worse than any other DSLR make and model. Yes, the top-of-the-line $7,000 camera with a $3,000 lens might be three or four times better than the bottom-of-the-line camera, but it also cost a heck of a lot more, too. And you can get that quality with the film camera you are going to purchase, anyway.

The camera doesn't matter, so worry less about it and worry more about how to become a better photographer. You can take great photographs and make great works of art with any camera you choose.

Regarding film cameras, I am a big fan of the FED. You can pick them up (including shipping) for $50 or less and they take excellent photographs. Be aware, these are Rangefinder cameras and not SLR, so they work a bit differently, and they are fully 100% manual. It doesn't take long to learn, but there is a learning curve. The Canon AE-1 is another great option. Don't be afraid to pick up a Holga.

I recently added a FED 5c, Holga 120N, and Canon T70 (with two lenses) to my collection for under $70 total, including shipping and tax. While I still prefer the ease digital, those cameras are great tools to use for different purposes.

Don't forget you probably have a digital camera on your cell phone. Since you usually have your cell phone with you, that means you usually have a camera with you. Be creative with it and you might be surprised at the results.

In How To Get Started In Photograph, Part 5 we will discuss photo editing software.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

How To Get Started In Photography, Part 3: Your Camera Doesn't Matter

Part 1
Part 2

Your Camera Doesn't Matter

It might seem odd that I placed the "choosing your camera" section here and not in Part 2. After all, in Part 2 I said you need to take pictures. Learning-by-doing is the best way to understand how your camera works and basic photography principals. If you don't have a camera, how are you supposed to take photographs?

The reason is because learning what makes a picture great--how to create art using photographs--is by far more important than what tools you use to create a great picture or work of art.

A great painter can use brushes, paint and canvas purchased at Walmart and still create a masterpiece. Sure, those supplies probably would not be his or her first choice, but given that limitation the artist can still convey the message and emotion of the scene.

Why? Because the brushes, paint and canvas do not make a painting great, a great painter does.

It's the same with photography. A great photographer can make a work of art using any camera. He or she might choose a $5,000 camera with a $5,000 lens if he or she has the money, but that photographer could still create wonderful art with a $1,500 camera and lens kit, with a $150 point-and-shoot, with a $25 Holga, or even a cell phone camera.

Chase Jarvis used a cell phone camera to create works of art that were recently published in a book. Several photographers have successfully used disposable cameras. David Burnett took an award-winning photograph of Al Gore that was displayed in the Corcoran Museum of Art using a cheap Holga "toy camera".

You don't have to have the latest Nikon, Canon or Leica to create works of art that can win awards, hang in galleries, or be published in books or magazines. Yes, if your budget allows, having a $5,000 camera with a $5,000 lens would be nice, but it's far from required or necessary.

The equipment is far less important than the skill of the one using it.

That is why "choosing your camera" is in Part 3 and not Part 2, because Part 2 is much more important and I wanted to emphasize it. And Part 2 can be summarized by two things: learning-by-doing is the best way to learn (so go out and take pictures so you can learn!) and you have to buy and read The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum. Those two things will have more of an impact on your photography than what camera(s) you own (or don't own).

What camera (or cameras) you decide to use will depend more on your budget than anything else. If you have $10,000 laying around and you're not really sure what to do with it, go ahead and buy a Leica M9 and their top-of-the-line lens to go with it. Most likely you don't and that's ok--you are not any less of a photographer if you don't have that camera (or any more of a photographer if you do).

I read in a photography forum yesterday one user tell another user, "You have the right Nikon to take great pictures." Nikon makes great cameras, but, nowadays, there is not significant differences between brands and even levels ("semi-pro", "pro", etc) of cameras. Any camera is capable of taking great pictures, Nikon or not. Is the photographer capable of taking great pictures? That is the real question.

If the photographer is not capable, it makes no difference what camera is in his or her hands because the pictures won't be good anyway. If the photographer is capable, it makes no difference what camera is in his or her hands because the photographer can use whatever tools are available to create art.

Ansel Adams said, "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it." In 1937 he said (to a photographer who was worried about what lens to buy), "Any good modern lens is corrected for maximum definition at the larger stops. Using a small stop only increases depth." Ansel Adams was saying that the camera doesn't matter and the lens doesn't matter--it's the photographer that is important.

The take away is that, whether you are a beginner or experienced, a hobbyist or professional, always strive to improve yourself. Challenge yourself to take better photographs. Become a better photographer each time you take pictures. Then the question of "what camera should I own?" becomes unimportant as you realize it matters not.

I wish someone had told me that 10 years ago.

In How To Get Started In Photography, Part 4 we will discuss some different camera options and film vs. digital.

Friday, June 3, 2011

How To Get Started In Photography, Part 2

Click here for Part 1.

Hobbyist & Professional

I'm lumping these two categories together because, aside from one thing, they are nearly identical. What applies to one will almost always apply to the other. The one thing that seperates a hobbyist from a professional is that one gets paid for his or her photographs and the other does not. It is assumed that the professional knows more about photography and can produce higher quality images than the hobbyist, but that is not necessarily true. There are some hobbyist who can make amazing photographs, but they do it completely for fun and don't earn a dime. And there are some professionals out there who have subpar pictures, and it's pretty amazing there is someone willing to buy their work. Generally speaking, the professional will have more photography knowledge and the ability to take better pictures than the hobbyist, just not always.

If your desire is to be a hobbyist or professional photographer (or perhaps a hobbyist first with the idea of being a professional at some later date), how should you get started?

If you don't know what aperture, shutter speed and ISO are (and how they relate), the first place to start is with a photography book designed for beginners. This is not something you want to spend a lot of money or time on, but you do need to know and understand the basic camera functions and basic photography principals before you can move forward. The library is a good place to look. Used book stores are another. Langford's Basic Photography is a good option, although certainly not the only good option.

Once you think you are beginning to "get" what the book is saying, you then need to test what the book is saying. Actually taking photographs is the best learning tool out there, period. There is nothing like real-world experience to validate or challenge what you think you might know. This is a time of discovery! Don't forget to pay close attention to the camera settings and lighting conditions--or, even better, take notes.

Once you have completed that step, or if you already know basic camera functions and basic photography principals, the next step is another book: The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum. This is a must read! This is not a step you should skip. If learning-by-doing is the best tool out there, then Bruce Barnbaum's book is the second best. I highly suggest carefully and thoroughly immersing yourself into The Art of Photography.

I can't emphasize this enough. The suggested retail of the book is $44.95, but if you shop around (try here, here, and here) you may be able to find it for much less. It's the best money you will spend on photography. So go get The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum today!

Next is choosing which camera to buy, and that will be the topic of How To Get Started In Photography, Part 3.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

California Trip #2, Day 1

Another trip to central California means another chance to photograph. I brought one digital camera and three film cameras, but, due to time restraints, only used the digital camera.

Sunday, May 29th

This was a travel day, so opportunities to photograph were limited. However, even on "travel days" there are times here and there to take pictures if one keeps their eyes open. In fact, if you have a camera with you then you should keep your eyes open. Ansel Adam's famous Moonrise Over Hernandez was impromptu. You just never know when something amazing will present intself, and you'd hate to miss it because you didn't have your camera or weren't paying attention.

 Green Leafs
Redlands, California

Purple Tree
Redlands, California

Red Flower
Redlands, California

Tree
Redlands, California 

Blue Canopy
Riverside, California

Geese In A Row
Riverside, California

Riverside National Cemetery
Riverside, California

Lake And Cemetery
Riverside, California

Boy With Flag, Riverside National Cemetery
Riverside, California

Flags, Riverside National Cemetery
Riverside, California

Peter H. Avila, Riverside National Cemetery
Riverside, California

High Tension Wires
Kramer's Junction, California

Tracks To The Storm
Johannesburg, California

Hills And Storm
Johannesburg, California

Hills And Rain
Johannesburg, California

California Trip #2, Day 2

Previous day.

Monday, May 30th

Happy Memorial Day!
In the early afternoon I photographed the Kern River in Kernville, which was high and flowing fast. I used the shade of the large trees along the bank to diffuse the light into something usable. Later, just before sunset, I drove up a couple back roads to photograph the Erskine Creek and the mountains around Lake Isabella.

Tree Trunk
Kernville, California

White Triangles
Kernville, California

Drainage Pipe
Kernville, California

River And Tree
Kernville, California

Rock And River
Kernville, California

River And Styx
Kernville, California

Grass And River
Kernville, California

Tree In The Kern River
Kernville, California

Headlight
Lake Isabella, California

Evrole
Lake Isabella, California

Flour Corp Chevy
Lake Isabella, California

Fence
Lake Isabella, California 

Yellow Hills
Lake Isabella, California

Mountain Cliffs
Lake Isabella, California

California Hills
Lake Isabella, California

Dirt Road
Lake Isabella, California

Erskine Creek
Lake Isabella, California

Water And Stick
Lake Isabella, California

Erskine Creek Falls
Lake Isabella, California

Sunlight Through The Forest
Lake Isabella, California

California Forest
Lake Isabella, California

Erskine Creek Over Drainage Pipe
Lake Isabella, California

Flowing Erskine Creek
Lake Isabella, California

Mountain Road
Lake Isabella, California

Forest And Erskine Creek
Lake Isabella, California

Country Mountain Road
Lake Isabella, California

Mountain Over Isabella
Lake Isabella, California

Mountain Drive
Bodfish, California
Mountain Hills
Bodfish, California 

Oak Tree And Mountain Hills
Bodfish, California

California Ridges
Bodfish, California

Sunswept Hills
Bodfish, California

Green Hills
Bodfish, California

One Tree Hill
Bodfish, California

Last Sunlight On Mountains
Lake Isabella, California

Blue And Green Hills
Bodfish, California