Photography in the rain     

 

 

Last Sunday was cool and rainy. I had wandered a bit outside, but only long enough to feed my chickens and move some wooden chairs under a canopy so they wouldn’t get wet in the downpour.

Mostly, I just wasn’t interested in the rain or the cool light breeze and by noon I was content to just sit listening to music, and had just started a beer when there was a knock and my door and my friend Jo McAvany’s smiling face appeared through the window.

Some years ago one might have heard, “Can John come out and play?”   I really didn’t, I was enjoying the blues music and my beer on that rainy day. However, Jo had her camera and I knew I didn’t have much of a chance. She said, “How about we wander around, I want to take some pictures in the rain.

Ten minutes later we were ambling around pointing our cameras at features that on a sunny day might not have given us as interesting and creative photographs.

There are some cameras that are almost waterproof. A Nikon advertisement I once read stated that some models are, “splash proof’. Nevertheless, my main accessory for a rainy day is an old kitchen T-towel for wiping the rain off my camera. Every now and then I give my camera a wipe so the rain doesn’t accumulate, and continue on.

Shooting in the rain is one time that I enjoy a modern camera’s ability to use high ISO. Back in the painful days of film we were limited to 400ISO with colour film. There were a few black and white films that were rated at 3200, but their ability to give photographers reasonable image quality wasn’t all that good.

Wide scenic photos aren’t very pleasing in the overcast flat lighting, so we concentrated on more intimate and close-up subjects. Both Jo and I were using 70-200mm lenses that focused reasonably close. Not macro close, but close enough for us to confine and restrict the view.

Cloudy days always seem to be more colourful for plant photography, and there is something about green leaves and grasses on rainy days that attract me.

I once read, “one should embrace the rain’s infinite photo opportunities”. I like that. Photographing in the rain gives the photographer the chance to explore a whole new world that on a sunny, shadow filed day is invisible. The raindrops and the wet subjects are so inviting.

I know those gray clouds can be disappointing. However, keep a positive attitude. Sure there is a strong possibility that your hair and the knees of your pants are going to get wet, but in my opinion, wet knees are certainly worth the voyage. And remember you don’t have to go far, and with a bit of creative thinking and preparation you’ll be out having fun making photos, even in wet weather.

 

Composing a photograph includes eliminating the irrelevant   

 

 

 

 

Years ago the Hasselblad camera company published a series of photography pamphlets. While I had my Hasselblad I collected and studied the information contained in them.

Recently I thumbed through one titled “The Eye, The Camera, The Image”.  Although meant for medium format film cameras it’s filled with information that is still appropriate for digital camera users.

I skimmed over topics like Using the focusing hood magnifier, Colour film and colour balance, Types of exposure measurement, Double exposure and Polaroid film, all are interesting reads if one is concerned with photographic history, however, not practical or useful for those searching to be a better photographer in our modern digital age.

However the topic, “We see far to much” caught my attention and it said,

“The eye is our organ of sight. It’s lens has a focal length of about 17mm and covers a 150-degree vertical and 120 degree horizontal field; the binocular vision provided by our two eyes gives a 180-degree angular field. We seldom have any need for images encompassing so wide a field. The wealth of detail in such a field would be rendered small and insignificant when reduced to images formed in a camera when composing a photograph outdoors or elsewhere. We always need to crop our field of view.”

In my experience, most successful photographers want to “tighten up” on their composition, by that; I mean they only include those elements that add to the visual discussion of a photograph. Beginners are apt to aim with only the excitement of their subject in mind and don’t pay attention to other additional features captured by the sensor.

Photographers printing or posting their photos are surprised when they look and find a picture filled with irrelevant and disruptive items they wished they hadn’t included.

Hasselblad continues, “This elimination of irrelevance is vital. The trick often involves excluding most of what you see. Making a selection is a basic feature of all art, whether it is painting, drawing or photography. Art consists of picking out the most interesting, most illustrative, most instructive, the loveliest or most emotional components among a myriad of components in a subject.”

Photographers should train themselves to be specific with a subject, only showing the viewer what is important. How do we slow down to do this in an age of auto focus, auto aperture and rapid-fire shutter release? I have an easy answer – get a good tripod!

I know many photographers have never owned or used a tripod and some have only experienced rickety, inexpensive models. Using a sturdy, well-made tripod makes one slow down and pay attention to the subject in the viewfinder or LCD. In addition, the process of setting up the tripod and attaching a camera gives photographers time to think about composition.

I agree with Hasselblad’s contention that “we see far to much” and need to eliminate irrelevant items in our photos.

When an interesting subject is seen, stop the car and get out. Don’t be lazy and merely hunker down against the window to take the shot. Get that sturdy tripod out of the trunk; and as you do that think about, or “previsualize”, the photograph about to be made.

Set up the tripod, attach the camera and look through the viewfinder. I suggest making several shots starting from a narrow, limited view and zooming the lens out to a wide-angle view. That way there will be several choices for that picture.

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To sum up, eliminate those elements inconsequential to the picture and compose for only those items important to the final photograph, not by looking at the subject and snapping away in a hurried fashion to include everything seen in the viewfinder, and take my advice, use a tripod.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A snowy walk to Chase Falls

 

The day was grey, flat and cold. but, I was bored with watching TV and wanted to get out and put some footprints in the snow.

I lazily thought about wandering the deep snow in my yard or just taking a drive on the slushy roads above my home. However, I hadn’t visited the nearby Chase falls since a hot day in July and I thought it would be fun to see if there was any water coming over the falls.

When I visited the falls last summer I was joined by my photographer friend, Jo McAvany. I remember Jo loudly complaining about the mosquitos on that hot dry summer day. So I called her and asked if she wanted to trudge through the two-foot deep snow up to the falls and promised the mosquitos wouldn’t be too bad this time of year.

I don’t know what kind of deal she made with her husband on his day off work, but she said, “sure I want to go”.

As I thought, the trail into the falls hadn’t been tramped down by people, and other than foot prints of a lonely racoon that I expect has a warren somewhere in the river canyon to hide in when he’s not marauding garbage cans in the tiny town of Chase, we were breaking trail.

Last July Jo complained about the mosquitos. However, this time it was me complaining that I should have worn high top boots because the snow that filled my short-topped boots left little room for my feet.

I would have liked to climb down to the falls, but the snow hid all the boulders and caution said venturing beyond the trees might end in a very cold bath.

Jo had mounted a 24-105mm on her camera and I had my trusty 24-70mm on mine. We both had put longer lenses in my backpack, but the wide-angle lenses were the most comfortable to use.

The day was mostly cloudy and flat, but every now and then things lightened up just a bit. Not enough to create shadows, but at times there were highlights on protruding rocks, tree limbs and the water.

On a bright day one always struggles with overexposure on a waterfall. I prefer a slight overcast or a foggy day, and I did get some reasonable photographs of Chase Falls this time. Bright sun, deep shadows, a scene with too much contrast or mosquitos didn’t bother me this time. But just a bit more light (and less freezing snow in my boots) would have been nice.

Over the past forty years have visited those falls at least once in every season, and I can’t begin to count or even remember all the different cameras I have pointed at the falls and the surrounding area in that small canyon.

There has been lots of change as the canyon errodes, logs and boulders are swept over the falls and trees and foliage grow taller and denser. I am hoping to be making that short walk each season for at least ten more years.

Thoughts on upgrading to a better camera.     

 

In the previous era of film cameras many serious photographers would come to a point when they would consider whether to upgrade from an automated point and shoot type camera to a 35mm interchangeable lens SLR or to trade in the their well used 35mm SLR for a medium format 120mm camera, and maybe even to take the climb to a 4X5 view camera.

For film-based cameras it was all about the size of the film and bigger was better.  I recall feeling bad for those people that had friends photograph their wedding with a 35mm camera. The only way to get quality-wedding photographs was really only by photographers using larger film in their 120mm medium format cameras.  If one wanted a colourful, sharp, grain free enlargement then 120mm or larger was a must.

What do I now say to a photographer that is considering a more serious approach to photography?   I will always begin with the question, “what are your interests and what subjects do you like to photograph?”

My short answer for digicam and iPhone users is, if sports and fast action, wildlife or quality print enlargements are the goal, then, yes absolutely get a DSLR.    DSLR cameras don’t have shutter lag so sports photography is easy and action demands a camera (and quality lenses) that can adjust shutter speed and aperture. Wildlife photographers prefer a selection of telephoto lenses that can be changed at will, and obviously the best images are produced with sensors that are considerably larger than digicams and iPhones.

Digicams & iPhones are convenient for candid shots. Most of us have ’em in our pocket anyway. However, for photographers that are aware of the huge limitation of those tiny sensors and cheap little lenses the next question is, what is the best choice for a first time DSLR?

For this discussion I will put DSLR cameras in two simple categories, amateur and professional.  The difference between amateur and pro cameras has surely become hazy. If I were to offer a short comment I would say the most obvious difference is durability.  Pro cameras feel sturdy, are heavy and sealed against the elements. When dropped, they usually don’t break, and even with hard use will last a long time.  The amateur camera generally has lighter weight and smaller size.

When the first DSLRs came onto the scene there was definitely a difference in the quality of the images between entry level and professional level cameras, but that is not as distinct now. The technology for sensors and in-camera processing has rocketed.  The latest entry-level model may well have the same sensor as the previous year’s expensive pro model as the technology is transferred over.  The main difference is in the weight, substance, durability, and controls.

The new models are always being introduced, with that many previously great camera models will be reduced in price, discontinued and there are opportunities to purchase at reduced prices.  As always there will be a flurry of megapixel chasers that change their camera with every new model upgrade, making used cameras available.

Whatever the camera availability, my advice to those photographers asking the “upgrading” question is to consider what kind of photography they want to do. Talk to other photographers about the cameras that are interesting, go online and check out the many photography forums to find out what others with that same interest are using, and attend some classes.

So what are my thoughts on upgrading to a better camera? If it’s affordable, don’t hesitate, do it. Using a new camera is always fun, educational, and I believe the process of learning how to control and effectively use the unfamiliar technology a new camera offers is like a shot in the arm that gets the excitement going and ultimately helps one become a better photographer.

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.