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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Camera’s LCD.                

Of all the modern technology conveniently packed into our DSLRs there is one major trap DSLR users should be aware of when attempting to find a correct exposure. And that, in my opinion, is relying on the camera’s LCD.

That little picture screen will lead you astray faster than believing a politician’s promises. It should never to be trusted.

This past week I talked to two different photographers that were wondering why their photos were improperly exposed when they downloaded them into their computer. However, when they handed me their cameras in hopes I would correct some programing error I immediately saw their problem.

The LCD is great for previewing and checking for closed eyes and composition, but it’s never completely trustworthy, and committing the following three transgressions are a sure way to give yourself an unpleasant surprise when you download your images for processing.

I’ll begin with the LCD’s Brightness. If you leave your camera on auto it will change the brightness based on ambient lighting and that can be confusing when one reviews images.

I suggest setting the LCD’s brightness manually for a more reliable way to judge the image. Some photographers even change it for different events so they know exactly how their image is meant to look for different ambient light levels. However, for most of us, a static setting will be just fine. Whatever brightness we our LCD to, it’s going to be better than auto.

My next thought goes to the Histogram. Even with the LCD set to manual brightness, many still only rely on that JPEG preview without paying attention to, in my opinion, one of the best features on digital cameras; The Histogram. The histogram gives a mathematical bar graph representation of the image’s tones. It is also a quick and easy indicator of an under or over exposed capture. And most importantly when the graph shows clipping on the far right or far left, that the photograph is losing detail.

Reading the histogram may be a bit daunting at first, but it’s just a simple bar graph and with a little research and practice reading the histogram will become second nature.

And finally the Highlight alerts. Highlight alerts are a flashing overlay that can be set up to alert when there are clipped highlights. This means that some areas of the photograph are to bright and have no detail recorded at all. The flashing areas on the LCD that many affectionately call, “blinkies” show us where the detail is missing.

It is important to remember that what we are looking at is, in fact, a JPEG preview and hopefully you are shooting raw and won’t actually lose that all that data when opening the image to post-process. However, if a large portion of the image is flashing your camera is alerting you that much of the data may not be recoverable.

If the subject is a bride and her white gown is flashing on the camera’s LCD, you’re in trouble and need to dial back your exposure or face a very angry bride when she sees her expensive gown is reduced to a wash of pure white.

Every camera should come with an instruction manual. The Instruction Manual is one of the most important accessories you have with your camera. And if the camera was purchased second hand it is very easy to find the instruction manual on line. The instruction manual will help you understand and control the three important LCD features I have dicussed.

 

 

 

 

Light the Portrait workshop part two.                                              

 

 

 

The second of my two day off-camera lighting workshop is now over and I am pretty sure I have converted a few more photographers to using off-camera flash indoors and out.

The session we just finished was all outside. I would have been happier with a warm, sunny day that had deep shadows and harsh light, but what we got was a cold, slight overcast day instead. Oh well, at the end of the last session I told everyone (yes, our model too) to come prepared for a cold wet day.  As it was, the rain came at night with a wind that dried things out by morning, so all we had to contend with was a cool October, and fortunately, windless day.

Whether one is shooting under a bright sun or overcast conditions, the goal should be to balance both the ambient and the light from the flash. The subject shouldn’t look like a deer-in-the-headlights and the background shouldn’t be unusually under or over exposed.

I began by discussing TTL flash and how to set up and use high-speed sync. Then progressed to demonstrating manual flash lighting. I will say that TTL is wonderful for fast moving events and high-speed sync allows the photographer amazing control over ambient light.

Our first location was in the middle of a field where I had set up a backdrop and two flashes. The 15X15 foot backdrop was a well-used old painter’s tarp that I had found when sorting through the garbage at a house vacated by some tenants who snuck out during the night to avoid paying rent. A drag for the landlord, but an excellent find for me.

Painted backdrops are expensive, especially if they are large and seamless. However, for budget conscious photographers I suggest purchasing a painter’s cloth from the local hardware store and dying it grey. All those that want to be creative need to do is work on the dyed cloth with some spray paint or a large sponge dipped in paint. Instead of spending the extra cash on a seamless cloth, one just employs the cloning tool on the seams in post-processing.

After using different light modifiers at the backdrop location we moved to the edge of the meadow with it’s colourful background of fall leaves. Then we all carefully climbed down into the deep shadowed creek for some photos. After that our model, Sarah wanted to pose against a discarded Cadillac resting in the field. That Caddy was caked up to its bumper in mud from a spring flood that washed out the bridge and almost damaged the studio. From there we posed our model against an old rail fence and finished with a setup using flash and reflectors in a large open barn.

I know that between the very active day and all the handouts I gave those in attendance everyone was dealing with a bit of information overload. Hopefully they will review their notes and remember how we set up the pictures they have on their memory cards. After a few days and a bit of practice everything will come into focus. Pun intended.

Light the Portrait workshop        

 

 

This past weekend I lead the first day of a workshop titled “Light the Portrait”. My goal during the two sessions was to help photographers understand how to use light, indoors or out, when they photograph people.

Fear-of-Flash has always been a topic of discussion for photographers photographing weddings, and portraits both indoors and out.

American photographer and author of the Strobist.com blog David Hobby said,  “…You hear a photographer say, “I’m a strictly available light photographer, I’m a purist.”  He continues, ” What I hear is, I’m scared of using light so I’m going to do this instead. Well, for me lighting was a way to start to create interesting pictures in a way that I could do it.”

It’s with those words that I began the workshop that would discuss using both studio lights and speed lights. Adding that personally, I always use a flash when I make a portrait of someone inside or outside. I don’t care if the ambient light is bright or dim.

My goal is to not only help photographers gain an understanding of off-camera lighting, but to also convince them that using flash will separate their photography from those that rely on natural or as I prefer calling it, “ambient light”.

The first session was about the big studio lights and accompanying light modifiers like, umbrellas, softboxes and reflectors, to name a few we employed during the day.

Those of us in Kamloops British Columbia are fortunate to have a local portrait studio that is not only large enough for a class, but also is packed with all sorts of lighting equipment, backdrops and change rooms for models. The portrait studio, Versatile Studio, also comes complete with a kitchen and dining area. And there are all sorts of props for posing.  All I needed to do was write up my lesson plan, print some handouts, book the studio, hire a model and show up in time to start leading participants into the exciting world of off-camera lighting.

I enjoy leading; I like that word better than “teaching”. I know to teach “is to show or explain to people how to do something”, but most of those that attend know a lot about photography and have already been shooting portraits for some time. All I need to do is build a bridge for them between what they already know and what I am presenting.  And as I stand with them in the studio/classroom I get watch that quick tightening of shoulders, widening of eyes and smiles when they suddenly get it. When that happens I can’t help but smile too.

Well, the first day is over and, as usual, they tired me out. However, I am already looking forward to next week with those enthusiastic photographers (and our energetic model). I wonder if I should begin next week’s session with the words of legendary filmmaker from the 1920s, D.W. Griffith. “Lights camera action”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vancouver Camera Show and Swap Meet     

 

 

There wasn’t a better way to end this year’s dry, hot, smoke filled summer than hanging out in a large air-conditioned hall filled with cameras and other camera enthusiasts.

The year-end Vancouver Camera show and Swap meet was on the first Sunday in October and, of course, I was there!

I had convinced my friend Laurie Patmore to join me for the big camera sale. Actually it didn’t really take much convincing. If I remember right all I said was, “Do you want to go with me to the October 1st Camera sale?” And without hesitation he replied “yes”. Then I slide in, “If we take you all-wheel drive I won’t have to change to my snow tires.” I was glad he said yes to both, because I was too lazy to change my tires.

We didn’t need snow tires for the beautiful dry 4-hour drive through the mountains, even though they were required by October 1st.   With that notethe next morning we woke to a cool, clear, coastal, (also dry) autumn day, and by 8AM we were at our table setting out everything we had to sell.

I always wonder what will be popular with photographers I meet there. Last spring the trend was for vintage equipment and although I could see lots of older photographers walking through the door, the majority were a younger crowd. However, as usual, I’ll use the word “diversity” here to describe the mixed bag of photographer types with different interests, specialties in photography, some preferring film, others digital. There were collectors of both past technology, and some that were looking for the latest digital had to offer. Nevertheless when the doors opened they all rushed in to find sweet deals that I am certain they got.

I spent an exhilarating day talking non-stop with other photographers about, hmm…just about everything photography. They readily showed me their cameras and told me stories about places and subjects they photographed. There were long time friends that stopped by to say hello, new friends to keep in touch with, and to my delight, local Vancouver blogger Michael Hoffmann (michaelhoffmannphotography.com) took time out of his busy day to show up and say hello. Gosh, in spite of a great day of selling the cameras and lenses I had on my table I even got time to wander around to check out all the neat photography equipment at other tables.

I know my main goal at the Vancouver Camera Swap and Sale is to “swap and sell”, but I must admit meeting people from all over the province, and finding out about their different interests means just as much to me.

I guess I finish with some words as I do every time to describe my day at Vancouver Camera Swap meet. It was, as always, invigorating, energizing, stimulating, entertaining, exhilarating and educational. Or maybe I could shorten that to just good fun.

The Vancouver Camera Swap Meet is an excellent way to meet and exchange information with other photographers, and to look at, check out, and buy an impressive selection of used photographic equipment that would not be so accessible anywhere else in Canada.

Memories and photography   

 

 


I joined a friend for lunch last week and he began reminiscing about his long ago trip to Japan. We hadn’t been talking about that place, but something in the restaurant (could it have been the sushi?) brought his memories on. With that in mind I thought I’d revisit this article from 2011.

I am sure many of us experience that flash of instant memories when some song comes on the radio. That happed to me this morning as I drove to town. A 1970’s song by the Bee Gees came on the radio, and suddenly I was thinking about July 1978 when I played their tape over and over during my journey to a place in Wyoming’s Teton Mountain range called the T Cross Ranch. I was there attending a photography workshop lead by photographer, and writer, Boyd Norton.

I had been given Norton’s book “Wilderness Photography”. I poured over that book with its instructions and ideas about photographing the great out-of-doors. I don’t recall how I found out about his class, nevertheless I was so determined to attend that I sold my VW to pay for it. The cash from that sale was enough for my tuition and expenses to Wyoming, it also helped pay for an airline ticket for my girl friend (later my wife) to Salt Lake City, Utah. Our plan was to meet up there after my course and spend time photographing Arches National Monument, Zion Park and the Grand Canyon.

The T Cross Ranch was just outside of Dubois, Wyoming, and our class was comprised of photographers from Germany, New York, Florida, Idaho, Colorado, Tennessee, and two of us from Kamloops British Columbia.

We hiked and wandered during the days, photographed everything, and in the evenings had lectures in a wonderful 100-year-old antique-filled log house.

Our instructor wanted to provide instant feedback for us and had a new three-chemical-process for developing slide film. The first morning I noticed him reading the instructions and without thinking I said I could figure it out and immediately became the official class technician. So each evening while my classmates were sitting around the fire talking about the day’s events I was in an abandoned walk-in cold room removing film from cassettes, rolling them into large processing tanks, then developing and hanging the rolls for overnight drying. Hmm…me and my big mouth! We were excited that we could have our images for critique so quickly. I thought that film technology had finally become the best it could be.

I preferred using a huge Mamiya RB67 at that time. The RB used 120mm medium format film and the negatives were 2¼x2¾ inches.

One afternoon we trucked up to a mountain plateau and Norton said, “There is a lightning storm to the west and we’ll see antelope coming this way to stay out it. Find yourself a good position for some great shots.” I waited behind an old salt lick as several antelope came bounding our way. The lens on the RB67 racked back and forth on a rail instead of turning like modern lenses. I tried to keep the antelopes in focus as they ran toward us, but to my dismay I couldn’t. I didn’t get a shot!

When I came back within weeks I sold the RB and purchased a jaunty little Hasselblad that I used for years, until, coincidentally, I attended another wilderness class in 1999, that time in Washington State, and was introduced to digital. I returned to Kamloops after that class and bought my first DSLR. Both instances were because of the influence of other photographers. Getting together with other photographers, in my opinion, not only creates excitement, but also is the best thing one can do to become a better photographer.

Reminiscing about that trip while I listened to the Be Gees was fun. However it also reminded me was how important it is to interact with other photographers and participate in workshops, classes, and photo tours. The other thing I thought about as I sat rewriting this article is how dramatically and constantly, technology changes for those of us dedicated to this exciting medium of photography.