Thoughts on Camera Handling   

The act of taking pictures and doing photography has become so easy that many of today’s up-and-coming photographers have come to rely completely on their camera’s tiny computers and are sure that the automated programs will always deliver wonderful results. All one has to do is put the digital camera up to the eye, or shakily extend arms, push the shutter release, and count on modern technology to make all the necessary decisions.

Last week a photographer proudly showed me some enlargements and asked how I liked them. They were reasonable images and the printing was ok, but as I looked at them closely I could see they weren’t very sharp, lacked depth of field, and contained tiny spots in the sky.

If I had been in a classroom environment it would have been a perfect time to break into a discussion on camera handling techniques. Using a camera effectively includes more than just moving a camera body around in front of one’s face and pushing the shutter. Camera handling means understanding how to use and control a camera in the most effective way.

Carpenters, cabinetmakers, mechanics, quilters, and cake decorators, to name a few professions, would nod their heads knowingly if I mentioned how important it is to learn how to control and use the tools of their trade correctly. However, when taking photographers and their tools of the trade into consideration, many believe that owning a feature-loaded camera is more than adequate, and if the photos from one’s camera aren’t great, they think the answer is to buy another camera.

With that in mind I have a few very basic camera-handling suggestions that would have helped that photographer to produce better pictures than those he showed me.

  1. Examine the picture and if there are lots of tiny dark spots, clean the sensor.  Cleaning the sensor is fairly easy and all that is usually required is a few minutes with an air-blower.
  2. Vibration reduction features only helps with shaking hands, not subject movement.   He should practice following subject movement and try to keep the camera as close as possible to his body to reduce shake.
  3. When handholding the camera, faster shutter speeds will produce more “keepers” than slower shutter speeds. For example, shutter speeds like 1/125th or higher are probably the safest to control both camera shake and subject movement. And follow that old rule to match the shutterspeed with the lens focal length.
  4. The current infatuation with wide aperture lenses is great, but the larger the aperture  opening is, the less the depth of field will be, and that will mean areas in front of and behind the selected subject will probably be out of focus. That photographer must understand that the smaller the aperture is the more chance the area in front of and behind the subject will be sharp.
  5. Using “program” or “auto mode” leaves exposure decisions to in-camera computers and takes creative and intellectual control away from the photographer. Some digicams and all DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras have manual exposure modes. My advice is to experiment and practice to find out when manual mode is most effective.

Photographing the garden in the March snow.     

 

Jo McAavany

Jo McAvany

Jo McAvany

This time last March I wrote about flowers as portraits, and discussed my indoor makeshift studio setup using modifiers like reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes to photograph potted plants.

This year I decided to put my winter boots on and wander out in the sub-zero, snow-laden garden out side my front door to see what interesting features I could discover.

As I have written before, I prefer using flash and the waning March light at 7PM was perfect for my off-camera flash equipped with a shoot-thru umbrella.

I really don’t care what time of year or the weather, I like photographing the plants and flowers in my garden. Shrubbery, weeds, and vegetation in general always make for fun subjects.

Plants are so much easier to photograph than people, plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery, and always are happy to wait for me. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

This time my goal was to photograph anything that caught my eye.

It didn’t matter how the late afternoon light was, because I had my key light with me. Relying on ambient light is so troublesome, and I knew that the only way to give my subjects “pop” and reduce deep shadows caused by sunlight was to use flash.

The slowly dimming light was perfect for my sojourn through the garden. I easily metered the ambient light, then under exposed slightly so the flash would become the main light instead of the late afternoon sun. The soft modified light from a shoot-through umbrella was even across the image with a gradual transition from highlights to mid-tones to shadows.

The snow was deep and more than once it filled my boots as I trod off the packed down path. However, there were lots to things photograph I didn’t care.

Branches and sticks poking out of the snow, shadows along the fence, a rusty old wagon wheel, the red leaves of Oregon grape, weathered boards, dead and dried out flowers, and as the sun sunk below the mountains, a light bulb hanging from the snow cover above my car.

I was enjoying myself so much that I texted my friend (Jo lives down in the valley and across the river from me) and suggested she grab her camera and join me.

We took turns holding the stand mounted flash and finally, when it was to dark to see things and we finished our photographic we went inside to load our images on my computer and warmed up with a glass of red wine as we looked over the pictures we had just taken.

As I have written before, I photograph my garden in every season.    I know there are many photographers that only take pictures of plants when they are in bloom and prefer colourful representations. However, spring, summer, fall, winter, snow, rain, sunny, or overcast, my garden is filled with ever changing subjects that always offer something new.

As always, my advise to photographers that think they must wait for inspiring weather before their next garden safari is, there’s always something to photograph no matter the weather or the season, just get up close and look for the small stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leading another class on photography         

The first class I ever taught on photography was sometime back in 1976. I think.

I had just moved from Los Angeles to Kamloops, British Columbia and a coordinator from the local Parks and Recreation Association asked me if I would teach a class for beginning photographers.

He had talked to some friends and found out that I had worked as a photographer for the Los Angeles office of Education and also spent time teaching grade school age children in private schools, so he thought I would be a perfect fit in their community education program.

I always liked sharing my knowledge of photography with those that, like me, were excited about this exciting medium and always enjoyed hanging out with other photographers. I had trained to teach grade school, but I wasn’t sure about adults.

Well, here I am all these years later. Gosh, 1976 seems so darned long ago. And I have shared my knowledge with so many people. I taught classes all over the province and was even employed as a college photography instructor for many, many years. So when a friend’s mother; who works for the Ashcroft community association asked me get up early on a Sunday morning and travel two hours to teach a photo class to fifteen eager photographers, lazy as I am, I couldn’t say no.

I designed the sessions I lead for busy adult beginning photographers that have lots of other stuff on their plate. I break my presentations into four separate headings that allow me to add information as I go along. I begin with Modes and give participants my opinion as to why they should only use and how to use, Shutter priority, Aperture priority and Manual modes. The terminology varies with different manufactures, but the discussion is the same. I can then easily plug in all sorts of tips and directions regarding their camera menus without loosing track of our exploration of Modes.

Naturally my next heading is Understanding Exposure, how could it not be after examining their camera’s Modes. Then as they scribble notes on the handouts I have given them I turn on my projector and begin my talk about Depth of Field.

Depth of field is, “that area in front of and behind the subject that is acceptably sharp”. Treating DOF as a main topic helps to show learners how the Aperture and Shutterspeed have a use other than just choosing a way to make sure their image isn’t under or over exposed.

Finally, and my favourite discussion of the day, I present Composition. The word composition gets thrown around a lot. I’ll read forums where members might say something like, “great capture, good composition,” or sometimes, something as meaningless as “I love your composition”.

I know they don’t actually mean composition as a photographic technique. I think it’s become an alternative word that means, “Picture”. They want a more modern word, and I suppose using the word “composition” instead of “picture” has sadly and ignorantly become that word.

Photographic composition is defined as, “the selection and arrangement of subjects within the picture area.” And my discussion is about using composition and compositional guidelines to enhance a photograph’s impact.

Those four topics allow me to interject all sorts of information about using their cameras and I can sum every thing up as I finish discussing Composition.

I always hope that those in attendance take the time to reread the handouts I gave them, browse their notes, practice their photography when they leave the same way one would when learning a musical instrument and when the opportunity arises, take another class on photography.

In my opinion the learning never should end.

Volunteering your photography and using a flash           

 

This Christmas I volunteered to be a helper and photographer for a neighbourhood community friendship group.

Each year Dale Northcott, owner operator of Northcott’s New and Used, joins other local help organizations to put on a Christmas Meal for anyone in Kamloops that would like a big home cooked meal during Christmas.  This year Northcott asked me if I would take a few pictures of the event.

For those that might wonder about photographing a large room full of people, I’ll remind them that I use flash. I always have a flash attached to my camera when I photograph people close up, indoors or out. However, I never use the ineffective little pop-up flash that is part of the most modern digital cameras and I also don’t just slide a flash on the hotshoe.

I have never liked that bright directional light created by being inches away from the center of the lens. It is harsh and unflattering. The best would be to carry an off-camera flash mounted on a stand, but in crowded circumstances that doesn’t work very well. So the next choice is to have the flash mounted on a bracket that puts the flash up and off camera at least four or five inches.

That flash bracket is my choice. Most of the time it puts the subject’s shadow down and behind them and its slight distance from the lens makes a more flattering light. My Nikon flash comes with a frosted diffusion cup fitted over the flash head that modifies and softens the harsh, direct light of the flash.

I always test my location and try for a balanced light. Fortunately, in this location I was able to adjust the room lights to get plenty of ambient light bouncing off the walls and the ceiling so I wouldn’t get that “deer-in-the-headlights” effect.

I think sometimes photos are of the organizers and volunteers get overlooked, and those were the people I approached as soon as I got to the hall. I am not one of those that nervously says, “Hi my name is so and so, can I please take your picture”?  I walk right up to the person and start talking as if we’ve always been friends. I rarely have to ask questions, because my new friends usually tell me about themselves, their organization and how important the event is. Then all I have to say is, “I gotta get a picture of you, hey grab that bowl or how about you wash some dishes…this is going to be a great picture.” And in this case I also said, “ I’ll be giving the pictures to Dale Northcott so you can get one.”

There was another photographer that knew many of the people sitting down to eat and I let him take their pictures. As I was about to leave he commented that one person asked him to delete their picture. I said, “and of course you did”, and he smiled and said, “yes I did”.

It was a fun event to attend, I liked taking pictures of the volunteers and organizers, and I got in great conversations with people that finished eating. My favourite comment was “did you get enough to eat” and “can I get you more”?

I know there are those that seem to believe their cameras are too valuable to be used for free, and the photographs they make are also too valuable to be given away. In the forty plus years I earned a living in this exciting medium of photography, I have never been one of those people.

My best wishes to readers on this festive season. And I hope everyone has a Happy New Year.

Photographing the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train 

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how much I like Christmas lights.

Well, the Christmas holiday season isn’t over yet and to prove it I got a chance to set my tripod up on the cold, winter’s river beach a few minutes down the hill from my home to photograph Canadian Pacific Railroad’s Holiday Train.

CP Rail’s website says, “The CP Holiday Train program launched in 1999 and has since raised more than $13 million and four million pounds of food for communities along CP’s routes in Canada and the United States…. The holiday season is the best time of the year, and we look forward to bringing together thousands of Canadians and Americans this season for this incredibly important cause and a great time.”

As I have in past years, I positioned myself on the beach across the river so I could get a wide shot of the brightly lighted train passing on the opposite side with the dark hills and forest behind.

I arrived an hour in advance while there was still plenty of light and made a few test shots. The schedule put the train at our location a bit after 4PM, just as the sun was going down. The time was about right for my preference of shooting just while there is still that cool, blue light illuminating the sky and I have enough light in my photograph to define the train from its surroundings.

I set my camera at ISO 3200. That allowed me to keep my aperture at f/5.6 for plenty of depth-of -field. I was a bit under exposed, but a stop or two really didn’t bother that kind of low light image. After all, the train’s lights were very bright.

As with past years there was a strong, cold wind blowing down river. In past years it was colder and I had bundled in the car drinking hot chocolate till the train arrived, but this year was warmer and I just stood there enjoying watching my neighbours children running around on the beach. When the train finally arrived the three year old boy and I both yelled, “The Christmas Train” I am sure his mother, shivering in the cold wind, just shook her head thinking, “Boys”.

A young fellow purchased a 1980s film camera from my shop today and we talked for some time about how interesting prints made from film are. He was really thrilled to begin capturing the world around him with film.

As I selected the images that I had edited and worked over using several computer programs for this article I thought of that young photographer and the journey he is beginning with film.

I am sure he will have fun, but the photographs I made of the Holiday train would have been beyond the ability of most popular films he will find at local outlets, and I had the unfair advantage of computer programs with which I could squeeze every bit of data there was in the digital file I made.

Photographing the Holiday train was fun and I am always surprised that there aren’t carloads of photographers joining me on the beach when the train comes by.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Is The Concept of Depth Of Field So Elusive?     

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d-of-f-2a

 

The topic of Depth of Field just keeps coming up and I suppose it deserves a revisit for this year. There must be a reason why Depth of Field is so elusive to photographers.

I wonder if it is because modern cameras have computers that focus, balance the colour, and control the exposure. All are impressive functions that make new users believe all they need to get a good photo is to point and shoot.

I have discussed Depth of Field in my blog numerous times. And find myself constantly explaining how depth of field works to photographers that visit my shop. I must admit that many photographers just smile and nod like they understand what I am talking about. However, unfortunately, when I see their photographs I realize otherwise, and I expect most would have been much happier if I just told them the reason their picture wasn’t really sharp was because they needed a new lens. (Buying a new lens is so much easier than taking a class in photography.)

Understanding of the concept (and I guess technique) of depth of field will make their photographs better and save them money, as they did not really need a new lens.

This past week, I viewed an image a photographer posted online. He wrote that he was proud with his creative and unusual view. The overall exposure was fairly good, the colours were close to reality, and the centre of the picture was in focus. Nevertheless, other than that small, in-focus, central area the rest of his subject wasn’t in focus at all. The foreground was blurry and the background was blurry.

The definition of depth of field is, “that area around the main subject, in front of and behind, that is in acceptably sharp focus”. In application the wider the lens’ aperture is the less the depth of field, or that area of sharp focus, around the main subject will be. Practically, the depth of the field of focus will be 1/3rd in front and 2/3rds behind the subject.

Using a wide aperture can increase the exposure in limited lighting conditions; but, along with the benefit of additional light reaching the camera’s sensor, the resulting effect is reduced depth of field. Creating a field of focus behind the subject of 4 inches or so might look really good when making a portrait, but it is not effective in a scenic.

The smaller the lens aperture the more the area of focus around the subject will be. I prefer using a small aperture for scenic photography. I am concerned with all elements in the photograph, front to back, of being sharp and in “acceptably sharp focus”.

The Internet is packed with information on scenic photography, and there are thousands (millions?) of books on photography that are easy to read. I expect that any discussion on scenic photography will include a full discussion of Depth of Field.

Commenting on Depth of Field     

D of F 3 women                                                                                                                                        

Depth of field is a seemingly elusive topic that I discuss in my classes and repeatedly explain to photographers who come to my shop complaining about problems with their lenses.  The problem is really just a lack of understanding of how the aperture controls the field of focus around the subject.

Long time readers might remember my many articles over the years discussing “depth-of-field”. Hopefully, I won’t bore those that understand how to use depth of field, but it is always a good thing to review this concept.  I will reuse an example I used a couple years ago about a photographer that showed me an image made during a wedding. The photographer showed it to me commenting that he had chosen that lens because it had a wide aperture which allowed for photographing in low light, but was bothered that the expensive lens wasn’t very sharp.

The image showed a view of the central aisle of the church with pews left and right, leading up to the bride in the distant centre, approximately 20 feet from where the photographer was located.  The overall exposure shot at an aperture of f/2.8 was fairly good, however, what bothered him was the guests around the bride standing in the aisle weren’t very sharp

The definition of depth-of-field is, “that area around the main subject, in front of, and behind it, that is in acceptably sharp focus”.  

Wide aperture lenses are very popular and using a lens at a wide aperture like f/2.8 when making a portrait isolates the main subject and produces a soft, out-of-focus background by reducing the depth of field.

The photographer was relying on the wide aperture to increase the exposure in limited lighting conditions.  That additional light allowed for a faster shutterspeed for handholding, but along with the benefit of additional light reaching the camera’s sensor the photographer forgot, or didn’t realize, that the resulting effect would also be a reduced depth of field.   

Using a wide aperture reduced the field of focus in front of the subject of a couple feet and the same behind the subject. That would be fine in a close-cropped portrait, but in that photograph of the church aisle, the guests in the foreground and guests in the background, appeared to be out-of-focus.

                        The further your subject is away the more the Depth of Field.  

                        The closer your subject the less the Depth of field.

                        The smaller the aperture the more the Depth of Field.

                        The larger the aperture the less the Depth of Field.

                        The Smaller your aperture the slower your shutter will need to be.

I prefer using a small aperture for scenic photography and, as in this instance, for interiors.  The answer to that example, and the examples I saw posted online, would be how to solve the low light problem not with a wide aperture, but by increasing the ISO so a smaller aperture could be used.

Depth of field is that area in front of and behind your subject that is acceptably sharp.  Practically, the depth of the field of focus will be 1/3rd in front and 2/3rds behind the subject.  Photographers who understand how to use depth of field will become progressively more successful in their photography.