Year Two: While We Were Out

Today marks the second anniversary of The First 10,000. It’s been a much quieter year hereabouts than I intended, but I plan on remedying that starting… well, now-ish. There’ll be plenty more coming in the days ahead.

And just because we’ve been away (in a manner of speaking) doesn’t mean we haven’t been paying attention to the goings-on in the world of photography. In case you missed them, here’s a roundup of some things that caught our eye. If you’d like to see more like this, incidentally, head on over to our Facebook page and “Like” us there, since I plan to keep these little incidentals on that page rather than taking up too much space with them here. In the meantime, thanks for sticking around (both of you)!

Let’s get started, shall we?

Greg Bottoms’ “Dear Mr. Eggleston” uses one of Eggleston’s best-known images to spark a discussion, or maybe a reverie, on memory and photography, and the place where the two intersect.

http://killingthebuddha.com/mag/exegesis/dear-mr-eggleston/

A bit late to the party (as usual), but I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Wired magazine’s Raw File, which turns an eclectic eye on photography. While you’re there, don’t miss Raw Meet, which intermittently talks to various movers and shakers in the world of photography.

Raw File: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/ Raw Meet: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/section/raw-meet/

Photography in the News (Part One): the internet briefly lost its shit over Swedish photographer Paul Hansen’s prizewinning image “Gaza Burial”. It was initially suggested that it was a composite taken from multiple images, but later analysis would show that this wasn’t the case. The debate over what constitutes acceptable photographic editing in journalism apparently isn’t over just yet.

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/05/15/world-press-photo-of-the-year-2013-paul-hansens-gaza-burial-not-faked-pictures_n_3277080.html?1368605821

Photography in the News (Part Two): No sooner had the furor over Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s comments on maternity leave started to die down, she stepped in it with photographers. Saying that Flickr would no longer offer a Pro option  because there’s no such thing as pro photographers any more. I was perplexed; this hit the news within days after I’d gotten an email from the service suggesting that I go pro (apparently pros don’t exist, but their money’s still as good as anyone else’s). The considerable number of people who are pro photographers reacted with a combination of anger and scorn, to the extent that they bothered to think of Flickr much at all (the service has lost many of its professional users to other services). My brain hurts thinking about this, much less writing about it. Imaging Resource has a higher tolerance for this sort of thing than I do, and their take is here: http://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2013/05/22/yahoo-ceo-marissa-mayer-apologizes-on-twitter-for-misstatement-about-pros

Photography in the News (Part 2 ½): On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Ms. Mayer; the PhotoShelter blog had this rather depressing item about the Death of Photojournalism. It’s a topic that’s bloomed like a hoary perennial for the last decade or so, but given that the Chicago Sun-Times had just laid off the entirety of its photojournalism staff, they may have been onto something. http://blog.photoshelter.com/2013/05/how-the-internet-killed-photojournalism/

The Washington Post avoids controversy with their “Iconic Images” series, which also manages to avoid both context and history… while there’s little arguing with the images they chose to feature, anything of this nature will raise eyebrows (or hackles) with what it leaves out. The WaPo seems to think that not much of note took place prior to 1945, which would be news to some of the best practitioners of the art and craft of photography. http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/iconic-images/2013/04/21/8a7b4ec8-aab8-11e2-a8b9-2a63d75b5459_gallery.html?tid=ts_carousel#photo=1

And of course, there’s some photography.  I’ve come across some great photo projects in the last few months. If they share anything in common, it’s that they’re coming from photographers with a more inclusive eye for beauty.

Photographer Angelica Dass calls Humanæ “a chromatic inventory, a project that reflects on the colors beyond the borders of our codes by referencing the PANTONE® color scheme.” Her project subverts the ways we normally look at, and think of, race and “color.” http://humanae.tumblr.com/

Marian Drew’s Still Life / Australiana (2003-2009) consists of breathtaking shots of roadkill. Yes, I wrote that sentence, and I mean it without a trace of irony. http://mariandrew.com.au/index.php?mact=Album,m4,default,1&m4albumid=38&m4returnid=50&page=50

Rick Guidotti’s Positive Exposure is a direct response to the fashion photographer’s frustration at being told, in effect, what was and was not beauty. His response? Illuminating the beauty of those with genetic differences. http://positiveexposure.org/gallery/

Jens Juul’s Six Degrees of Copenhagen turns a sympathetic eye on that city’s denizens.  http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/05/30/jens_juul_six_degrees_of_copenhagen_gives_a_glimpse_into_some_of_the_residents.html

Mark Laita’s series Created Equal is a meditation on social mobility and inequality.  http://www.thephotomag.com/2013/05/created-equal-stunning-photo-series.html

Finally, of “Impaired Perceptions,” Brian Charles Steele says, “These portraits show each person’s humanity and force the viewer to see them as individuals.” http://www.briancharlessteelphotography.com/fineart.html

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Camera Bag Buyer’s Guide

We’ve spent the better part of a week covering various types of camera gear, and now you’re going to need a place to store all that swag. After all, camera equipment seems to multiply quicker than a hutch of randy rabbits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. But you’re going to have to find something in which to store and/or carry all of that stuff, and that’s where things get interesting. There’s no one size fits all solution. After all, it’s not just about finding something that fits everything; it’s also about whether it fits you, and fits your style of travel and shooting.  Here are the most common types of camera bags, with a handful of specific recommendations thrown in for good measure.

Duffels: If you got one of those camera “bundles” that had a camera, memory card, and a few extra doodads, chances are that one of the extras was a camera bag branded with the company’s logo. These generally provide enough space for the body and a couple of lenses, along with a few other things. The problem — at least in my experience — is that their bulk belies a startling lack of space on the inside, and makes them a bear and a half (metric) to try to carry, since they tend to protrude and bounce if you’re using them with a shoulder strap. Add to that the fact that the company logo screams, “EXPENSIVE GEAR FOR YOUR THEIVING PLEASURE!” and you may want to consider other options. However, there are other duffels – like those made by Domke – that provide ample space, thoughtful design, and even a touch of style.

Waist/Holster Packs look like an oversized, tricked-out fanny pack. Some, like Tamrac’s 5515 Adventure Zoom, look very much like fanny packs, in fact. There are also bags like the LowePro Toploader, which have a longer, less discrete profile. Then you’ve got holsters, like the Think Tank Digital Holster 10, which bear a passing resemblance to a pistol holster (and, in the case of the Think Tank, have an expandable zipper at the bottom to accommodate bodies and lenses of different sizes). Most of these can either be worn on a belt or a specialized carrying system, and most will also allow you to attach a shoulder strap.

Satchels/Messenger Bags are great for the times you’d rather not call attention to yourself or your gear. The designs tend to place a premium on style and stealth rather than padding, so they’re not as well-suited to, say, a long hike. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to blend in on a city street, a satchel is just the ticket. Typically, you’ll be able to fit your camera (with lens), at least one spare lens, plus batteries, memory cards, et cetera. Crumpler’s Million Dollar Home series are beloved by many photographers for combining function with stealth, and Kata’s bags perform well also.

Slings shouldn’t be overlooked. I own a Lowepro Slingshot AW202, with which I’m quite happy (though it’s starting to get a bit cramped). Why? Better form factor than a duffel and better protection (and, in the mid- to large-range, more room) than a satchel, plus better weight distribution than either. While they’re not quite as comfortable as a backpack, they do provide much easier access to your camera and gear.

Backpacks work best when you have a lot of gear — a multitude of lenses, speedlights, batteries, bodies, laptops, etc. – and absolutely must carry all of it. Yes, they’re heavy, and bulky, and it can be a pain in the ass getting your camera in and out to shoot quickly. But they’re also better designed for the weight and bulk, and distribute it better on your body, making them ideal if you’re in the habit of schlepping a lot of gear, on foot, over long distances. Some also come with wheels for the times when you’d like to give your back and shoulders a break.

Hard Cases are worth considering if you’ve got to check your gear on a flight, or you’re worried about dust, water, shock, or any number of other occupational hazards. They’re padded generously, built like armored cars, and heavy as a baby rhino when they’re loaded (when the bag’s loaded, that is; stay away from drunken African fauna). They’re generally water-resistant (though some are billed as being waterproof). They’re also expensive, but much less so than having to replace your gear if it gets wet or terribly banged-up. Pelican makes some of the most-respected hard cases in the industry, though you can also get by with less-expensive alternatives from Promaster or relative newcomer Nanuk (whose cases, rather than being targeted at photographers, are touted for their flexibility for everyone from paramedics to geologists).

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (and at the risk of looking silly given that the links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, in the interest of full disclosure), I don’t suggest buying camera bags online unless you’ve checked them out in person first (and if you’ve done that, for Pete’s sake, support your local camera shop, unless “your local camera shop” is a Best Buy in a strip mall on the highway, in which case feel free to buy wherever).

The differences in size and layout may look — and might even be — miniscule between one bag and another, but there’s no substitute for loading a bag up with your gear and seeing how it feels around your neck, shoulders and back. It’s not that different than buying shoes, actually, because a bad fit can lead to all sorts of discomfort when you’re schlepping your gear around for the day. The amount of room available varies from one to the next, so you’re going to want to give a lot of thought to what you’re carrying (and why), and what will be the smallest solution possible for that amount of gear. Besides checking for fit and finish, I also suggest checking out the bag’s degree of weather/water resistance. Messenger bags tend to be downright lousy in this respect (since most are open at the top, and still have significant gaps even with the flap down). Many bags have rain-repellent covers that you can deploy (especially from LowePro and ThinkTank), but check to see how much coverage they provide, and how easy it is to get them out of their pouch or compartment and over the bag.

Any suggestions, or personal favorites, when it comes to carrying a bag that’s stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey? Sound off in the comments below!

Postscript: If you’ve found the perfect bag and it’s not a camera bag, don’t despair. Head to http://clickwhirl.com/diy-camera-bag/ for tips on converting it into a serviceable camera bag. The same thing can be done with a hard-sided case or laptop bag, with the only difference being that instead of using the padded inserts found in most camera bags, the easiest thing to do is go somewhere that sells upholstery or fabric and buy thick, dense foam. You can then cut it to size, and cut inserts in the foam for lenses, flash, camera body, and anything else you’d like to squeeze in there.

Your purchases through the affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!

DSLR Buyer’s Guide

I’ve seen – and repeated, and believe to a big extent – the photographic maxim that it’s not the gear that matters. But that statement should always have an asterisk next to it, because sometimes gear does matter.* If you’re shooting with a point-and-shoot camera or a camera phone and realizing that A: you’re really enjoying photography, and B: you’ve started to hit some frustrating limitations with your current gear, you’ve probably given some thought to buying a DSLR or compact interchangeable lens system. As with the other guides that I’ve put out this week, the SLR guide (which you can also apply to Micro 4/3) has less to do with brands than with the questions it’s helpful to ask – sometimes of yourself, sometimes of the person at the camera shop – before you buy.

Do You Already Own an SLR? If you shot in the film days and still have a brace of lenses, it may be worth sticking to the same mount. Of course, there are caveats: if you used Pentax, Nikon, or Leica, more of those lenses will fit the manufacturers’ current models without adapters than the others. If you used Minolta (whose later AF lenses fit the Sony Alpha mount), Canon (who changed mounts in the 1990’s) or Olympus, your mileage may vary… some lenses will fit, while others will require adapters. Not all lenses will work perfectly on all cameras; you may lose autofocus or metering, for instance. But being able to use older lenses on a new body can represent a significant savings.

What Can You Spend? Start here. What you’re willing or able to spend is going to determine quite a bit else. If you’re budgeting for lenses along with the camera and something’s got to give, go cheap on the body, not the glass, and you’ll thank me later. Once you’ve figured out your price range, you can narrow it down to a set of bodies that fall within those price points.

What Category of SLR? Here, we’re talking about types rather than brands. Broadly speaking, your choices break down to entry-level, consumer, “prosumer” and professional, in addition to the usual divide between full frame or crop sensors. Because a camera is consumer-grade doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to get consumer-grade photos out of it; a number of factors, including the quality of the lenses you put on the camera, and the skill level of the person behind the camera, will do just as much to determine that as will the body.

That’s also not to say they’re all the same. Each step up in a manufacturer’s lineup adds something that the camera “below” it didn’t have. By way of an example, let’s do a cursory comparison between the Nikon D5100 and the Nikon D7000. The 7000 has a larger, heavier body that’s sealed better against the elements, and uses more metal in its construction. It also has a built-in AF screw, more manual controls, dual card slots, better battery life… I could go on, but I think you get the point. A similar comparison between the entry-level D3xxx and the consumer D5xxx would reveal similar differences. Figure out the specs that matter to you, and buy accordingly. And don’t worry if your next-door neighbor shoots with a “better” camera (unless he offers to pay, in which case, he can be as opinionated as he’d like); after all, you’re the one who’s going to be using the thing.

New or Used? If you can find a used camera with a low to moderate number of actuations (clicks), it can represent a significant savings over buying new. A body that’s two to three (or more) generations old can run a fraction of the cost of something newer, and as long as you’re buying from a reputable seller (that is to say, a local shop and not Craigslist or eBay), it should be a safe buy. Used equipment is also good for someone who’s just dipping a toe in the waters, or just doesn’t feel like plunking down hundreds/thousands more on a newer model. The trick to buying an older body is to know what improvements have been made in technology since the model you’re looking at was last on the shelves. Each generation brings improvements in ISO, image quality, and other parts of the feature set, and knowing the differences between models allows you to make an intelligent decision on the kinds of tradeoffs you’re willing to make.

How are the Reviews? Go to a well-trafficked forum (dpReview, Canon Rumors, Nikon Rumors and the like) or a review site like Amazon, Adorama, or B & H, and check out the reviews for the most recent models within the price points you’ve chosen. If a camera has several good, and well-substantiated, reviews, you may have something worth a closer look. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of negative reviews overall, or certain issues with the camera, take those into consideration. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a small handful of models, you’re ready to go further in depth on your research.

How’s the Ecosystem? If you’re married, or have ever thought about marriage, you’ve probably heard it said that you don’t just marry someone, you also marry their family. That also, in a roundabout sort of way, applies to cameras. You’re not just buying a camera body, after all; you’re buying a “family” of lenses and peripherals (speed lights, GPS dongles, video microphones, and lots more) to go with it. The investment in glass alone can – and likely will – run you at least as much as the cost of the body, if not much, much more.

And the lenses are more important, in a sense, than the body. Remember, the technology in your camera will become obsolete at some point. That doesn’t mean won’t still make photos (and very good ones). But you may find that in a generation or two, you may want to upgrade your body. Lenses, if you choose them carefully, don’t become obsolete; they hold their value much better (at least in the case of OEM lenses, though some aftermarket lenses retain value well).

If you’re buying a used body, you can usually find a good, and inexpensive, used kit lens. Your other alternative is to pick up a 35mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.8 as your first lens. On one hand, you don’t get the convenience of a zoom lens. On the other, however, primes are great learning tools, in addition to being great for creativity and shot discipline. They’re also sharp, inexpensive, and fast. You’ll appreciate the flexibility you get in low light, or in isolating subjects with shallow DOF, that you won’t get to the same degree with a zoom unless it’s a very expensive zoom.

Examine the Guts:  The person at the big box electronics store is probably going to lead with the megapixels. They’re the least of your worries. A higher megapixel count has its places, but also its problems. Higher MP counts mean larger files, which mean slower write speeds if the camera’s processor is poky, and also means that you’ll find yourself running out of drive space that much faster. If you’re trying to decide between two versions of the same camera (say, a T2i and a T4i), pay attention to the processors as well, since changes in the processor can mean better stills and videos, quicker write speeds, et cetera.

How’s the Build Quality? Although SLRs mostly share a very similar form factor — pentaprism or pentamirror atop a body that accepts lenses of varying types and sizes, usually with a grip of some sort — there are variations (some subtle, others not) in how those things are implemented, and how it all fits together. See if the body is metal or plastic; if it’s a bit of both, see how it’s deployed, and how the camera feels in your hands. If the camera has a built-in flash, see where the flash is relative to the lens. A test shot with the flash (with the zoom racked out to its longest reach) is helpful to see if the lens casts a shadow.

Controls – what you’ve got and how it’s laid out – also matter a great deal. Just remember that generally, more manual (more knobs, buttons and dials) means more money. The upside is that it can also mean fewer headaches, since those external controls give you the option of changing settings at eye level versus having to explore menus every time you want to change something. Even if the camera has more controls than a small aircraft, I’d still suggest that you go into the menu and see how easy it is to find and change the settings you use, or think you’ll use, the most often. You can and should familiarize yourself with the manual, but a good menu layout is vital when it comes to being able to change something quickly and still get the shot.

Ready for Your Closeup? Take test shots under as many conditions as you can. You’re looking at two things here: the camera’s performance while you’re shooting, and the photos that come out as a result. The one caveat I’m going to add before you get started: whatever lens you plan on using at first – a kit lens, a 50mm f/1.8, an 18-200mm – use that for your test shoot. You don’t want to put a 60mm macro on the camera to test it, and then go back home and shoot with an 18-55mm. You want the photos to look like they’d look as you would shoot them.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks. In terms of performance, how quick and accurate is the autofocus system in low light? In normal light? How about with a low-contrast subject (like a white box against a white background)? How’s it feel in your hands? How quickly is it writing files? How smooth is the zoom? How well does it handle close focusing? Is the viewfinder bright and easy to use for manual focus? Is the LCD sharp and clear, even in bright light? If you plan on using the video feature seriously, make sure you also put the video features through their paces.

Next, take a long, hard look at the images. How accurate is the auto white balance? How sharp are the photos? How’s the default exposure? Is the camera’s color rendition pleasing? How well does the camera handle the noise from high ISOs? If you’re going to a local camera shop and you don’t have to buy that day, bring some memory cards with you if you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of finalists. Format, shoot, and check them out on a monitor. Don’t forget that this is all about capturing your vision, so it’s all about what looks pleasing to your eye.

A Few Thoughts in Closing: Remember that you’re not done just because you’ve picked your camera. You’ll also want to consider the following:

  • Spare batteries: I strongly suggest a battery from the camera manufacturer, especially if you’re buying new.
  • Memory Cards: One for the camera, plus one spare (or one per slot if the camera has dual card slots, plus spares). Avoid Class 2 cards, and stick to class 6 or class 10, especially if you plan on shooting video or doing a lot of burst shooting.
  • Case: You’ll need some protection from the elements, and room to put other “stuff” (like the items listed above) so it’s all in one place. There’ll be a case buying guide in this space tomorrow.
  • Strap: I know, your camera probably came with one. You want to hear the one thing that pretty much any photographer — die-hard Nikonian, ardent Canon fan, Sony partisan, etc. — can agree on? Ask them about the straps that came with their cameras. They’re uniformly scratchy and uncomfortable. Don’t do that to yourself, especially if you’re going to have it around your neck for any length of time. There are much better options, from the pricey but lovely Black Rapid to straps by MOD and Crumpler (the latter is my personal favorite, especially if you’ve got heavier glass on the end of your camera). Your neck will thank you.
  • Support: If you’re shooting with an SLR, I’d suggest investing in a tripod or monopod before putting money into additional glass. Even a mediocre tripod beats the best image stabilization system if you use it properly. Just don’t be stingy spending on a tripod. Yes, you can get one at a flea market for 25 bucks… and that $25.00 “investment” is all that’s going to be between your expensive gear and the pavement. Think about it.
  • Cleaning Equipment: I’ve written elsewhere about cleaning supplies for cameras, and rather than belabor the point here, I’m just going to suggest you check out that article:

There are other doohickeys and gadgets to go with your camera… speedlights, ring lights, reflectors, macro tables, backdrops, extension tubes, teleconverters, and lots, lots more. However, if you take the stuff above into consideration and choose carefully, you’ll have built the foundation for a solid kit, and a hobby — or an obsession — that you can spend a lifetime learning and perfecting.

*For why the gear doesn’t matter, read this. For why it does, kinda, read this. Then take an aspirin, which you can probably find here. The first two links are my takes on the “gear doesn’t matter” argument, and that last one’s an Amazon affiliate link. Your purchases through that link help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!

**Incidentally, if you don’t want to spring for a new camera strap yet, consider a seatbelt cover. It’s not the most attractive option, but it’s cheap, effective, and surprisingly comfortable. If you end up with a pair, use the other one for the shoulder strap on your camera bag if that’s not already padded.

Lens Buyer’s Guide, Part Two

You don’t have to be a frequent visitor to photography forums to have asked yourself whether you should be investing in bodies or in lenses. My personal opinion, for what it’s worth ($.05, adjusted for inflation) is that if you choose your glass wisely, you’ll have an arsenal that you won’t outgrow, and that will be equal to any camera body you put it on. Your investment in lenses will probably surpass what you spent on your camera body, so it’s best to research carefully before buying.

Sometimes the latest glass really is your best bet, especially when there are performance issues addressed in later iterations of something, or when the design is significantly upgraded (quicker autofocus, better coatings, et cetera). The issue there is that the latest lenses also come with the highest price tags. When I posted Part I of the Lens Buying Guide yesterday, I hinted that there are ways to save significantly. There are two ways of doing this: one is by purchasing older lenses, some of which are still made (or were made in sufficient quantity that your local camera shop will still new copies in stock). Another option is buying used.

A word of caution before we get started: before buying a lens — new or used — consider whether or not you actually need it first. If you’re undecided, check out the Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to Buying Anything and Everything, which is your handy Magic 8 Ball for buying camera gear. For the rest of you who’ve decided, here’s an annotated checklist for your next lens purchase. Some steps will apply mainly to purchasing used lenses, while others are a good idea whether it’s used or brand new.

1. Check your mount: Some systems, like Pentax or Nikon, are very flexible. Nearly everything ever made for Pentax SLR’s will fit nearly every Pentax SLR ever made, and Nikon’s used the same F mount on its SLRs since 1959, though not all lenses support all functions (see below). If you’re using another brand, your mileage may vary; if you’ve got older Canon,  Olympus or Sony lenses, you can use older glass (in Sony’s case, lenses made by Minolta before Sony bought them out lock, stock and barrel), but in some  cases you’ll need an adapter.

2. Autofocus (AF) Type: If you’re using an older film body that doesn’t autofocus, or if you prefer/don’t mind manual focus, AF stops being an issue. Some SLRs use a screw drive AF system, while others require the lens to use a built-in motor. Consumer SLR’s generally won’t have an AF motor, so lenses that require one in order to autofocus will only focus manually. If you’re used to manual focus, or if it’s a lens that’s as likely to require manual focus to work correctly (like a macro telephoto), an AF motor isn’t as much of an issue.

3. Lens Speed: Consumer zooms typically have a variable aperture, with many starting at f/3.5 at the wide end and stopping down in stages as you zoom in (typically stopping down to f/5.6 by the time you’ve hit the end of the zoom range). Prosumer and professional zooms tend to have a constant aperture throughout the zoom range (generally f/4 or f/2.8), but the size, weight, and cost of those lenses are going to be higher (often much higher) as a result. The cost of a prime, in the meantime, is dictated in large part by their maximum aperture. An f/1.4 will be more expensive than an f/1.8, which will be more expensive than an f/2 or f/2.8. The added speed does give more options when you’re trying to blur a background out of focus or shoot in very low light, but unless you need that all the time, it might be hard to justify spending several times more on a 1.4 for a fraction of a stop of extra light.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what you’re dealing with, it’s time to start getting a bit more specific about your research.

4. Check Reviews: As I mentioned yesterday, reviews can be a good indicator of whether a lens is worth your time and consideration. They’re not foolproof, but they’re certainly helpful. Poke around enough and you’ll see references to other lenses – sometimes older/newer versions from the original manufacturer, and sometimes alternatives from a third party manufacturer like Sigma, Tamron or Tokina – that may also be worth a look. If you’re looking for a single lens (let’s say a macro telephoto), make a list of your options.

5. Build Quality: This may be covered in your research ahead of time, but you’ll also be able to tell quite a bit from an in-person inspection. See if the lens mount and filter threads are metal or plastic, and also how much plastic is used in the rest of the body. Heavier lenses tend to be better-built, but they’ll also tire your neck and shoulders that much faster when the camera’s around your neck for any length of time. It’s up to you to decide whether you want (or may need) to sacrifice a bit for the sake of weight.

6. CPU vs. Non-CPU Lenses: Newer lenses will have a CPU or “chip” that communicates distance and exposure information to the camera. As with AF, if your camera doesn’t support those features, you may not need the added cost that they bring. If you can do without the chip (maybe you’re using a light meter, for instance, or maybe your camera can be programmed to meter without the chip), that’s another opportunity to save money.

Now that you’ve researched your options, it’s time to get down to brass tacks in the camera shop. Some of the steps below will apply more to buying a used lens than a new one, but many of them should be done whether it’s new or straight from the factory.

7. Inspect Filter Threads: Check to make sure the filter threads aren’t dented or stripped. Dents usually indicate that the lens has been dropped or mistreated, and stripped filter threads will keep you from using filters on the lens. Also bear in mind that larger filters are more expensive, so a polarizing filter that’s downright cheap in a 52mm size could be frighteningly expensive if you need it in 82mm.*

8. Inspect Front and Rear Elements: The “elements” are, in this case, the glass on either end of the lens. Make sure it’s clean, and free of chips/scratches. You’ll also want to make sure that the lens coating isn’t worn or cloudy.

9. Try the Zoom and Focus Cams: does the zoom work smoothly, or is it too stiff/loose? Is it working across the zoom range, or does it stop at a certain point (i.e., does it get to about 105mm on a 200mm lens and continue to “zoom” without actually changing distance)? Check focus as well, to make sure that it doesn’t feel too loose, and that the lens manually focuses accurately at different subject distances.

10. Check Aperture Function: The aperture blades should open and shut smoothly, and the blades should not be oily.

11. Bring a Flashlight: Open the aperture fully, and shine the light from both ends around the inside of the lens. Look for mold, fungus, bugs (yes, bugs; I’ve seen dead creatures in lenses) and any other kind of foreign matter in the lens. A little dust in the lens isn’t terrible (and is pretty much inevitable when you’re dealing with a lens that telescopes when you zoom – they breathe), but mold and fungus can turn a sharp lens foggier than a bathroom mirror. Not sure what a dead crawly in your lens does to your photos, and I’m not eager to find out… if you’ve had the experience, please share.

12. Check the AF: Slower lenses (f/3.5-f/5.6) are also a bit slower to autofocus. The reason for this is that a lens will go to its maximum aperture when it’s focusing (even if you have it set to f/16) in order to send enough light to the AF system. For this reason, a 1.8 will generally focus faster than a 3.5. Try the AF in different lighting conditions. Is it quick and reliable, or does it “hunt,” especially in low light? Also check the accuracy of the AF, and make sure it’s not front or back focusing.

13. Check for Sample Variations: If the lens is reviewed well and your results don’t match, it could be a poor sample. This goes both ways, obviously, since it’s also possible to get a good copy of a lens that’s gotten bad reviews (I speak from experience here). If a lens performs worse than expected, ask to see multiples (and if it performs better than expected, be happy). If the person helping you is serious about photography, they’ll understand.

14. Pixel Peep: If at all possible, bring your camera body with you to the camera shop (and let me underscore, to the camera shop; they won’t let you do this in a chain store) to test the lenses. You’ll see how the lens performs on your camera as you’ve set it up, with all your quirks. I don’t know what in the hell they do to cameras at the camera shop, but it seems like every last thing is ass-backwards on them. Save yourself the frustration.

But I digress. Shoot plenty of photos, and then get them home. Look at them nice and close. How’s image quality? Check at different apertures, with different subjects and distances. Look for distortion, vignetting, lens flare, color fringing, and sharpness. Also look at the lens’s color rendition; some lenses will be warmer or colder than others, or a bit more or less contrasty. Remember to check various focal lengths and apertures, since a lens that tends to distort or vignette wide open at 24mm (for example) may perform differently when it’s stopped down, or when you zoom to 28mm.

If you’ve done all that and the lens passes with flying colors, it’s probably a safe bet.

Oh, and before I forget: If you’re buying used, consider buying a good UV filter, caps and a hood. Make sure the type of hood is appropriate to your lens type; petal hoods are a must for wider lenses, and bayonet mount hoods are much easier to use than their screw-in counterparts (besides which, they don’t always give good results on wides).

Do you have any tips, or have you scored a killer deal on a used lens? Share your tips and experiences in the comments section below!

*If you have lenses that take filters in similar sizes – one that takes a 72mm and one that takes a 77mm, for instance – consider buying the larger size along with a step-up adapter, and use the same filter on both lenses. Buying the bigger filter means a bigger hit to the wallet initially, but it’s a savings longer-term when you’re not buying two of everything.

Lens Buyer’s Guide, Part One

Raptured Scarecrow

Your camera is thoroughly broken in, and you know your kit lens like the back of your hand… its capabilities, its limitations… Its freakin’ limitations. Darnit. So you’ve decided it’s time for a new lens for your camera. Where do you start? Right here, of course.

There are several types of lenses, and while I can’t cover every last one of them (apologies to LensBaby fans, among others), I’m going to cover many of them here. As with yesterday’s guide, I’m not going to get much into brands. The aim, instead, is to familiarize you with your options as a starting point for even more research. Tomorrow, there’ll be another guide that will tell you what you need to take into consideration when you’re buying a new or used lens.

Let’s get started with the normal lens. It’s called that because its FOV (Field of View) roughly approximates that of the human eye. On a full-frame or 35mm camera, a 50mm lens is “Normal,” while on a crop sensor camera, lenses between 28mm and 35mm (42-52mm equivalent) closely approximate a Normal lens. The 50mm 1.8 is a great next step from your kit lens, since its simple optics and small size usually mean a lens that’s fast, light, sharp and cheap. There’s the added bonus that the faster aperture means more control over DOF (Depth of Field), pleasing bokeh (the out-of-focus circles of light that appear in photos taken with the aperture wide-open) , and more options in low light.

When you see a lens referred to as wide or telephoto, they’re using a normal lens as a frame of reference. So a wide angle lens is anything wider than a normal, while a telephoto is anything that gives you a narrower FOV than a normal lens. Your kit lens likely starts at 18mm if it’s a crop sensor (meaning it’s about 27-28mm equivalent), or 24-28mm on full frame. Wide angle lenses are most often used for landscapes and architecture, though some photographers swear by them for other purposes (like street photography) as well. When considering wides – especially wide-angle zooms – pay attention to distortion, especially at the widest end of a zoom lens. Many wides will exhibit barrel distortion, particularly if you’re shooting at or around the lens’s maximum aperture.

Dune Shadows

At the other end of the spectrum are telephoto lenses, which are anything over 50mm. Short telephotos (40mm and 60mm on a crop sensor, 60mm and 85mm on full frame) are popular for portraits because the perspective they offer tends to flatter the subject. Longer telephotos (in the 200-500mm range) are great for bringing the action in close.

Specialized lenses: There are lenses that may fall into one or more of the above categories, but that are designed for particular purposes. Perspective Control lenses are beloved by architects, for instance, because they allow the camera to be kept horizontal while shooting a vertical subject. This is done to eliminate the converging perspective that you’d normally get when shooting from the foot of a building and pointing your camera upward. Fisheye lenses provide a 180-degree field of view, which can be very useful for landscapes and certain types of architectural photography (and, in capable/creative hands, even portraiture). The optics of Macro lenses allow closer focus and often much sharper results than would be possible with other lenses.**

If you don’t have, don’t want, or can’t afford a particular lens, there are times that you can approximate the same effect in post-production (cropping, perspective correction and distortion in Photoshop, for instance, can mimic the behavior of a zoom, perspective control, or fisheye, respectively). Macro photography can be done with inexpensive close-up filters, although the results won’t be nearly the same as using a good macro lens. If it’s something you don’t plan on doing or using very often, there’s nothing wrong with taking a shortcut here and there. On the other hand, if you plan on doing a lot of something, or if the end result is critical (a paid job, for instance), then you’re better off spending the money.

Butterfly

Bear in mind that you can get primes for a huge number of focal lengths between 8mm and 1,000mm (or more), or you can purchase zoom lenses that will cover various focal lengths. These range from wide zooms (like the Nikon 20-35mm) to telephoto zooms like the common 70-300 and 150-500.*** The “trinity” of primes (35mm, 50mm and 85mm) can easily be covered by a single zoom (like a 28-85mm 3.5/5.6, a 24-120mm f/4, or nearly covered by a 24-70mm f/2.8), but bear in mind that there’s a significant tradeoff in terms of speed, and sometimes also of image quality using a zoom. The 24-120mm, as of this writing, retails around $1,300.00, and the 24-70 for close to $600.00 more than that. It’s easy to assemble the trinity and then some (throw in a nice macro, for instance), especially if you’re willing to go with older or off-brand glass. Which brings us to another question: what’s the best way to narrow down to a specific lens and brand? I’m glad you asked. We’ll take that up in this space tomorrow.

*For a more detailed explanation of crop versus full-frame lenses, see http://www.thefirst10000.com/2012/10/full-frame-vs-crop-an-explanation/

**Be aware that not all Macro/Micro lenses are created equal. Some lenses will offer the close focus of a macro, but the optics won’t be as tack-sharp.

***For a detailed explanation of zooms versus primes, see http://www.thefirst10000.com/2011/09/primes-vs-zooms/

Compact Camera Buyer’s Guide

Kaleidoscope
Kaleidoscope

If you’re looking to buy a compact camera, you’ve come to the right place. Let me preface this little buyer’s guide with a little disclaimer, however. This isn’t going to be a typical guide, with reviews of individual cameras. There are a number of reasons for this. First, most compacts have the average lifecycle of a fruit fly. Second, if you pick nearly any manufacturer, you’re going to find some cameras that are awful, some that are acceptable, and some that are really good. Finally, and most importantly, my criteria for a camera — for everything from its controls to its image quality — may not be the same as yours, so there’s no substitute for actually picking them up and trying them.  With that in mind, here are some suggestions as to what you should look for, ignore, or avoid from one camera to the next.

What’s It Cost? Start here, since quite a bit else will stem from what you’re able and willing to spend. You can get a competent compact for under $100.00, but venturing beyond that price point adds more features (some more useful than others) that you may find helpful, or even essential, for your purposes.

How will you use it? Think about your typical subject matter, and what kind of shots you need, or expect, to get with the camera. When I bring my Fuji X10, I know I’m not going to get distance shots. The upshot – pardon the pun – is that I can always have a camera with me, and I can bring that camera with me places that I can’t get away with (or don’t want to take) my SLR. I’ve also used the compact for close-up shooting and put a zoom lens on the SLR for distance work. But again, that’s up to you, and what you want/need from it.

How Are The Reviews? Go to a well-trafficked review site like Amazon, Adorama, or B & H, and check out the reviews for the most recent models within the price points you’ve chosen. If a camera has several good, and well-substantiated, reviews, you may have something worth a closer look. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of negative reviews overall, or certain issues with the camera, take those into consideration. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a small handful of models, you’re ready to go further in depth on your research.

Let’s consider some of the most commonly discussed specs, and what they mean for practical purposes.

How Many Megapixels? The person at the big box electronics store is probably going to tell you that you want something with lots of megapixels. Don’t believe him.  Especially on a compact, more isn’t necessarily better. A point and shoot sensor’s about the size of your thumbnail, which means 16mp is the photographic equivalent of stuffing ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag. They’re not making the sensor bigger; they’re making the pixels smaller, which means that at some point image quality starts to fall off. A 10-12MP sensor will give you good quality, the ability to do some cropping, and better high ISO performance, all else being equal.

Optical or Digital Zoom? I’ve covered this in another post (Optical vs. Digital Zoom: What it Is, Why it Matters), so I’ll give you the short version here: they’re not the same thing, and if you have to choose one or the other, optical always beats digital.

What’s the Zoom Range? I don’t suggest going too “long.” Here’s why: first, the greater the range on a zoom, the more complicated the optics. A lens that gives you 30x magnification sounds good in theory, but doesn’t look great on (photo) paper. There’s another issue with any long lens: high magnification doesn’t just magnify your subject, it also magnifies camera shake. If you’re shooting at 600mm equivalent in low light, you’ll notice (because of the slower shutter speed) that the camera’s picking up every last shake. This is true of long SLR lenses, too, but the added size and weight of SLRs make them easier to stabilize. You could put your compact on a tripod, but the added bulk and weight rather defeats the purpose of traveling light in the first place. At any rate, most of the better cameras max out between 105-120mm equivalent zoom.

How Are the Controls? Maybe the camera only shoots in full auto, with a handful of scene modes (portrait, sports, fireworks, etc.) thrown in for good measure, and maybe that’s all you need. On the other hand, maybe you’re starting to get serious about photography (or you’re already serious, and already used to an SLR or interchangeable-lens camera), and would like a higher degree of control. After all, more control means more options. Well, more manual means more money, but it can also mean less time spent spelunking in the menus, and fewer headaches, especially if there’s an assignable soft key among all the other knobs and buttons. I’d also suggest that you go into the menu and see how easy it is to find and change the settings you use, or think you’ll use, the most often. Yes, you can look at the manual (and you should), but a good menu layout is vital when it comes to being able to change something quickly and still get the shot.

How’s the Build Quality? See if the body is metal or plastic; if it’s a bit of both, see how it’s deployed, and how the camera feels in your hands. See if the lens has a cap or those little doors, and whether the lens is threaded for filters. Look for a hot shoe or accessory shoe, and if the camera has a built-in flash, see where the flash is relative to the lens. A test shot with the flash (with the zoom racked out to its longest reach) is helpful to see if the lens casts a shadow.

Does it Have a Viewfinder? Most compacts don’t come with viewfinders. They’re mostly useful for shooting in bright light or at longer shutter speeds (it’s easier to stabilize the camera closer to your face than it is when you’re holding it out in front of you), but strictly speaking, they’re not 100% necessary. Viewfinders come in two types, Optical or Electronic (OVF or EVF). OVF is nearly useless for macro shooting on a compact (because of parallax issues), and an optical finder usually also has less than 100% coverage, meaning you have to second guess what’s going on outside the frame. An EVF, while it generally provides 100% magnification, doesn’t have the same resolution, drains the battery a bit faster, and also, in many cases, shows a bit of a jelly effect when you’re trying to pan.

How’s the Video? You’ll want to check the quality (whether it shoots in HD, for instance), and what that quality looks like to the naked eye. Also check the camera’s noise damping, and whether there’s a mic input and/or HDMI output (if you plan on using either). Video performance is usually competent, but — same as SLR video — the sound quality is a crap shoot, partly because of the mics used (condenser mics, which don’t pick up sound with great fidelity, and which pick up noises you didn’t even know your camera was making).

How Does the LCD Look? It doesn’t have to have the same kind of resolution that, say, a MacBook with a Retina display does. However, resolution does matter. If your opportunities for getting the shot are limited for one reason or another and you need to know if you got it right the first time, it doesn’t help if there’s terrible glare, or if the quality on the display looks like a bad VHS transfer of a 1920’s silent movie.

How Big is It? Compact cameras range in size from comparatively tiny, to “bridge” cameras which have the same kind of fixed lens that a compact has, but a body that’s closer in shape to an SLR. What you choose depends on how much the form factor matters, and how vital it is to you that the camera is truly compact. Added bulk means it’s not something you can stick in a purse or a jacket pocket (unless they’re big).

Is It Ready for Its Close-Up? Now, test shoot. Take test shots under as many conditions as you can. You’re looking at two things here: the camera’s performance while you’re shooting, and the photos that come out as a result.

In terms of performance, how quick and accurate is the autofocus system in low light? In normal light? How ‘bout with a low-contrast subject (like a white box against a white background)? How’s it feel in your hands? How quickly is it writing files? How smooth is the zoom? How well does it handle close focusing?

Next, take a long, hard look at the images. How accurate is the white balance? How reliable is the metering? How sharp are the photos? How’s the default exposure? How well does the lens handle distortion? Is the camera’s color rendition pleasing? How well does the camera handle the noise from high ISOs? Do you notice flare, color fringing, or vignetting? If you’re going to a local camera shop and you don’t have to buy that day, bring some memory cards with you if you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of finalists. Format, shoot, and check them out on a monitor.

Eyes Front
Eyes Front

By definition, small cameras are about compromise. You’re giving something up — oftentimes lots of somethings — for the sake of portability. The other thing to consider is that compacts typically have a much shorter life cycle than SLR’s. It’s expected that an SLR will be on the market for at least two years (longer, in some cases) and be used even longer still. Therefore, there’s a lot more attention paid to the feature set, build quality, et cetera. Most compacts aren’t designed or built like that, ’cause in another year they’re going to be replaced anyway (there’s a lot of market pressure to turn compacts out quickly ’cause for a lot of manufacturers, the volume of sales of the cheap stuff helps keep the more expensive stuff afloat). What you need to decide is what things you absolutely can’t live without, and adjust accordingly.

But let’s assume you’ve narrowed it down to your final choice. You’ve picked your camera. Congratulations! You’re not done yet! You should also give thought to each of the following:

  • Spare Batteries OEM if it’s proprietary; if the camera takes AA batteries, invest in rechargeables.
  • Memory Cards One for the camera, plus one spare; Class 6 if you plan on doing a lot of video or burst shooting, otherwise it probably doesn’t matter unless it’s a higher-end compact.
  • Cleaning Equipment At the very least, pick up a microfiber cloth or two and keep them with your camera. They double to keep your specs clean, too.
  • Case Something water-resistant, preferably. Your camera might well fit in the pocket on your shirt, jacket, or cargo pants. But things can, and do, fall out of pockets. A case gives you some protection from the elements, and room to put other “stuff” (like the items listed above) so it’s all in one place.

That probably sounds like a lot of stuff to consider. And, now that I read over all of it, I suppose it is. Here’s the thing, though: camera gear doesn’t come cheap (unless you’re buying a $40.00 Vivitar off the rack at your local drugstore). If you’re going to be plunking down a decent amount of money for any kind of gear – and lets’ face it, even $100.00 isn’t chump change – you want to make sure that the money’s well spent. A piece of gear that isn’t doing what you need it to, or that doesn’t work as expected, is frustrating, so spare yourself the frustration by doing your homework first, and then making your purchase.

I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but if you think I’ve missed something or would like to chime in, sound off in the comment section below.

*In case you’re wondering why I don’t do something like this for camera phones, there are far too many options, for one thing. For another, I don’t know anyone for whom the camera on their phone is a primary consideration. I’ve found CNet to be a reliable judge of camera quality on mobile phones, and would suggest that you start there.

**I should point out that I’m using “compact camera” to cover a slew of non-interchangeable/fixed lens options. I’m aware that there are some great options for compact interchangeable lens cameras (the Olympus PEN series, Sony’s NEX cameras, the Fuji X-01, the Nikon V and J series, among many others), but we’ll be taking those up another time.

Psst: Want to help support The First 10,000? Your purchases through through this Amazon Affiliate link help keep us going!

A Small Rant (Don’t Touch That Dial!)

I feel like I should be stepping into some kind of photographic confessional typing this. Come to think of it, I wonder if anybody’s done that? They’ve converted churches into other things, why not repurpose an old camera shop as a church, with photo booths as confessionals?

Ahem. Sorry. My mind’s off on a tangent. Let’s focus. Where were we? Oh, yes. Confessions. So here’s mine: I have shot in program mode. And sometimes — quelle horreur! — in full automatic. I have even been known, albeit rarely, to utilize my camera’s Scene modes. Forgive me, for I have sinned.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “Why all the wailing and gnashing of teeth? And could you please warn me if you decide to move on to rending of garments, that I may avert my eyes?” Alright, probably you weren’t, but play along for a minute.

The reason is this: I recently overheard someone declaring that so-and-so “only” shoots in Program, right down to shooting a wedding that way. As in, “That simpleton doesn’t use Manual, and ergo, is not a real photographer.”

I don’t know if writers get worked up over crap like this. I’ve never heard a writer declare that someone’s work was better or worse because it was written in longhand with a quill pen, or with a manual typewriter, or on a computer running Linux. I’ve never eaten a delicious meal and thought to ask about the pots, or looked at a painting and worked myself into a lather wondering whether the brushes were made of badger hair or nylon. And yet, for some reason, I’m supposed to look at photographs as though the settings used say anything about the quality of the photo, much less the quality of the photographer? Are you flippin’ kidding me?

Don’t get me wrong; if you’re buying a camera that gives you that degree of control, stretch out. Try it. The creative possibilities that open up for you by learning how to use your aperture and your shutter speed, by being able to throw ISO and exposure compensation into the mix, are vast. You’ll be able to do things with your camera that you may not have believed possible (or that you knew were possible, but weren’t quite sure how to do). But you are not a lesser photographer if the camera’s not set to A, S, or M.

And if you’re a photographer, try this on for size: the next time you see someone shooting in a mode of which you disapprove (and yes, you really are being as silly as I made that sound), instead of passing judgment and sniggering behind your counterpart’s back, you might consider asking them why they shoot the way they do. It could be someone’s first day with the new camera, in which case you probably have something to offer them; they may be experienced, but find themselves coming up short in some situations and they’d rather not miss the shot; they may also have been shooting longer than you have, and might rather put more thought into composition than settings just then. Don’t assume, ask. Barring that, leave the judgment to yourself, lest ye be judged… and I say that secure in the knowledge that each of our portfolios — yours, mine, and anyone else’s — is the artistic equivalent of a glass house. You may show your best work, but we’ve all got plenty of stinkers buried on (or quickly deleted from) our memory cards and hard drives. And some of them were taken, no doubt, in Manual mode.

Well. I feel better now. Question is, what do you think?

Photography Highlights and News, August 2012

The monthly pile o’ links for your reading and photographic enjoyment…

You Say You Want a Revolution: I’m not going to beg, but I will strongly suggest that you read photographer Jim Austin’s Slow Photo Rebellion (SPR), a post-cum-manifesto that he’s published on his website. Some years ago, I read — and thoroughly loved — Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slowness, which I’ve tried (with varying degrees of success) to apply to my life and especially to my photography. Austin manages to nail where the slow ethic and photography intersect in a way that I’ve been trying to do to one degree or another since this blog launched, and I’m glad that he has. Read the piece, but don’t just read it. Take it to heart, and try, at least, to incorporate it into your practice.

Mark Your Calendar: From the 11th to the 13th of August, the Perseid Meteor Shower will be at its height. The peak of the meteor shower will be on Saturday the 11th, but the waning full moon means that you may actually have a better view (depending also on your area’s cloud cover and degree of light pollution) on the nights following. For more information, see this article in the Brevard Times, and also this piece from earthsky.org. If your concerns are more earthbound, the original Dynamic Duo (Adam West and Burt Ward) will be appearing at the New York Comic Con, which runs from the 11th to the 14th of October (don’t say we didn’t warn you). More information is here on examiner.com.

Yes, I Have Read And Agree To… Wait, What Again?: Check out Terms of Service; Didn’t Read for a breakdown on several websites’ terms of service, with each site rated depending on how good/awful the terms are. It’s a crowdsourced project, so your input helps.

Postcards and Memories: Photographers and lovers of ephemera will find plenty to like in Charles Simic’s ode to The Lost Art of Postcard Writing in the New York Review of Books blog. If you’ve ever lamented the passing of these masterpieces of epigrammatic brevity — or if you just like a well-written essay, for Pete’s sake — head on over.

And More Again, such as the TED Blog’s piece on photographer Giles Duley and how he found the inspiration to keep going after a life-changing injury, Poynter on AP photojournalist Greg Bull getting a once-in-a-lifetime shot of Olympic gymnast and gold medalist Gabby Douglas, and a chance encounter experienced by Joel Runyon, An Unexpected Ass Kicking that’s a good reminder to get out there and just keep doing what you do…

User Survey

I’m doing something a little different today. We’re a month into our second year here at The First 10,000, and I’m going to ask for your help. I’d like to make sure that what I’m posting here is helpful and relevant to you (whoever you may be). I thought about putting up a survey with a handful of check boxes, but the problem with that is that I may not think to ask what you’re looking to answer. So let me know, either via the comment section below or via the Contact page:

Have you found the blog readable and easy to understand?

Are there topics that you’d like to see covered more often?

For that matter, is there anything you feel I might be covering too much at the expense of something you’d find more useful?

Any general comments or suggestions?

And, finally, the bottom line question: my purpose is to help you become the kind of photographer you’d like to be. How can I help you get there?

Thanks for the help!

Ten DIY Photo Projects

 

A Charming Fixer-Upper

There comes a time in each photographer’s life when we ask ourselves why we didn’t choose a less expensive hobby. Camera bodies don’t come cheap, lenses range from expensive to “Are you kidding? I paid less for my car!,” and a lot of the accessories aren’t exactly light on your wallet, either. While most of us don’t have the skills to design and build our own lenses, there are plenty of other workarounds for expensive gear that, while they may look suitable for There, I Fixed It or another, similiar site, work as well as their pricier counterparts. With that in mind, here are a handful of DIY projects from around the web, with a disclaimer that I have not tried many of these myself, and cannot personally vouch for their reliability. If, however, you’ve got more patience and creativity than cash, you might find these are right up your alley.

1. The DIY Light Tent: Light tents sell individually, or as kits that include backdrops, lights, and other doodads. By themselves, they can easily cost $100.00 or more, so building your own can represent a significant savings over buying one that’s been mass-produced. Check out this tutorial from Digital Photography School for more information: http://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-make-a-inexpensive-light-tent

2. DIY Macro Extension Tubes (Onion Dip Optional): On the off chance that you wanted to try macro photography with the lenses you’ve already got, and didn’t want to shell out the money for high-end extension tubes, you can do what photographer Haje Jan Kamps did, and opt for a Pringles can instead (preferably after you’ve eaten the chips). See his process on Pixiq here: http://www.pixiq.com/article/macro-photography-on-a-budget

3. DIY Time-Lapse Photography: Some cameras have an intervalometer or other doohickey built in that allows for time lapse photography; you can set the camera to photograph at set intervals, and as long as there’s enough room on your memory card (and a full charge on your battery), you can shoot some pretty cool time-lapses. I lucked out; my camera’s got said doohickey. If yours doesn’t, you can invest in something that’ll do the same thing for you (a few manufacturers build battery grips and other accessories that add the function), or you can go to Photojojo, and they’ll give you an alternative: http://content.photojojo.com/tutorials/ultimate-guide-to-time-lapse-photography/

4. DIY PVC Manual Focus Lens: I was going to say that I’m not 100% sure why you’d do this when it’s possible to buy older lenses that’ll do many of the same things a newer, more expensive lens will do (except autofocus, and sometimes metering), only cheaper; then I remembered that Lensbaby has made a multimillion dollar industry — literally — out of charging gobs of money for stuff that’s meant to make your SLR shoot like a cheap plastic camera. If that’s the look you’re after, check out this handy tutorial from DIY Photography: http://www.diyphotography.net/manual-lens-from-pvc-pipes

5. DIY Pinhole Camera: You know that guy in college who could make a bong out of nearly anything? Well, there are photographers who apply the same approach to their photography; they can, and will, make cameras out of anything from Altoids tins to oatmeal containers or toilet paper tubes. There are gobs of tutorials on the web for pinhole cameras, but there’s also a very good book on the subject, Pinhole Cameras: A DIY Guide* by Chris Keeney. Most of the projects require a familiarity (or the patience to familiarize yourself) with film development, but Keeney lays all of that out, as well.

6. DIY Macro Table: This was actually the impetus for the post you’re reading right now, as I’d gone into a local camera shop and found a really nice macro table for “only” $400-odd dollars. Looking at the construction — a lot of aluminum tubing, a handful of plastic joints, a sheet of plexiglass, and some strategically placed metal bits to hold everything together — it occurred to me that this is the kind of thing someone could probably knock together in a workshop. I’ve come across several options online, but I rather like this one because it uses materials that are a bit more readily available and easy to work with, even if you’re all thumbs like me. Besides, how can you not like a photographer who calls himself Grumpy John? http://www.grumpyjohns.com/index.php/2010/diy_studio_light_table_for_productmacro_photography/

7. DIY Flash Diffuser: To say that I’ve lost count of the number of light modifiers I’ve seen is a bit misleading; I never quite started counting, since what I saw from Gary Fong alone made my head spin. Suffice to say, they exist in oodles, but there are at least as many options if you want to make your own. There’s a great post from photographer Chester Bullock that covers a number of them here: http://www.chesterbullock.com/2008/11/03/do-it-yourself-light-modifiers/

8. DIY Light Reflector: Reflectors are one of the few photo accessories where you can find something that’s both cheap and effective. It’s literally possible to make a reflector or beauty dish with little more than cardboard and aluminum foil, or to make a large diffuser (for available-light shots outdoors) using K’Nex and a bedsheet. Lighting Academy has several projects here (also available in German) http://www.lighting-academy.com/index.php?id=diy_anleitungen&L=1

9. DIY Camera Bag: It can be frustrating trying to find just the right bag — durable, looks good, fits your stuff, doesn’t let the world know you’re carrying your gear — at the right price. Sometimes you may already have, or have seen, the perfect bag, only it’s not really designed for a camera. There are workarounds that allow you to modify anything from a standard messenger bag to a backpack, purse — even a diaper bag or ammunition case, if you were so inclined — into a perfectly serviceable home for your gear. In this case, I’m including two tutorials, one from the guys at Click Whirl Photography that’s strictly quick-and-dirty (http://clickwhirl.com/diy-camera-bag/) and one from Patty at My Craft Spotlight that would appear to require sewing, glue guns, and a number of other things with which I’d probably make a terrible mess… you can find that one (actually, those; it’s a handful of ideas) here: http://www.mycraftspotlight.com/top-10-diy-padded-camera-bag-tutorials/

10. DIY Photo Effects: I’ve seen a handful of these over the years… they’re essentially ways to modify how your lens “sees” and renders what’s in front of it. One word of caution: if you’re going to do any of these, I strongly suggest slapping a cheap UV filter on your lens first, ’cause it’s quite a bit better to damage one of those than to potentially damage the lens itself. You can do a pretty respectable simulation of a haze filter by putting panty hose over the lens (secured with a hair tie). You can also get a soft focus effect by putting vaseline (or anything else that’s a bit greasy) over a UV filter (which is also, incidentally, why you should never use Puffs Plus or any other tissue that contains lotion to clean optics). It’s also possible to modify the shape of bokeh (those lovely bits and blobs of light rendered by the lens when it’s wide open), as is shown by Make:Projects here: http://makeprojects.com/Project/Bokeh-Filter/371/1

By way of a postscript, if you’re feeling especially adventuresome (or just want to waste the better part of an afternoon looking at some uber-cool DIY stuff), drop by DIY Photography (http://www.diyphotography.net/), which is a great resource for all sorts of do-it-yourself goodies. And if you have any DIY tips or hacks of your own, share ’em in the comments below.

*That’s an Amazon affiliate link; purchasing Keeney’s book (or pretty much anything else) through the link helps support The First 10,000. Gracias!

Monthly Link Dump

New Leaf

Signs of the Times: The BBC has a feature up about photographer Simon Roberts, and his work documenting the recession. Happily, Roberts does much of the talking, and both he and his camera have plenty to say. Some of the pieces discussed (like the Occupy London tent city) are familiar, but some of the others — collaging demonstrators’ signs as well as sale placards — are a different visual representation of the unrest that’s accompanied the downturn.

Bears… in… Spaaaaace! The Daily Mail reports on some British students sending stuffed critters into low Earth orbit using weather balloons. Photography is only incidental to this story, which I’m including because, well, bears, space and science — what’s not to love?

Does This Lens Make Me Look Fat? On Petapixel, John Cornicello explains why the camera adds ten pounds, with illustrations. Elsewhere on Petapixel, Michael Zhang has unearthed a 1902 book on photography mistakes (helpfully titled Why My Photographs are Bad), reminding us that in photography and in life, the more things change the more they really do stay the same.

What is This “Copyright” of Which You Speak? The Register (UK) tells of an English proposal that guts the rights of copyright holders. They do a better job of explaining it than I could, so check the article out at this link. If you don’t live in the United Kingdom, I’d still suggest taking a look, because this is an object lesson in how fragile creators’ rights to their own work tend to be.

The Closest A Cheeseburger Will Ever Get To Kate Moss (and Vice Versa) Design Taxi takes us behind the scenes of a McDonald’s “fashion” shoot, complete with fancy lighting, fluffing, and lots and lots (and lots) of retouching. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about what it says about us as a society when we treat our food like models and our models like meat…

In Which Photography Gets All “Meta” When is a photo not a photo? Wait, let’s try that again. When is your photo not “your” photo? No, that’s not it, either… Well, anyway, the Guardian has a piece on photographers repurposing Google Street View photos as art by applying a bit of cropping, a dash of context, and a pinch of processing, calling it their own, and getting some serious accolades for it. There’s plenty of precedent for this kind of thing, although the convenience with which it’s done is something new. Check out the article, and sound off in the comments below; what do you think?

The Expert Myth (or, Three Books Versus 10,000 Hours)

Oh to be home again, in old Virginny…

What constitutes expertise, whether it’s photography or anything else in life? If you do a quick Google search, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve essentially got two options: to read three books, or to spend ten thousand hours. Wait a minute, that can’t be right…

The “three books” scenario is a simplification of an idea popularized by Timothy Ferriss in The Four Hour Workweek. The somewhat longer version goes like this: You join a couple of trade organizations, read three bestsellers on your topic, give a free seminar at the nearest university and a couple more at big companies, write a couple of articles for trade organizations (maybe even the same ones you’ve joined), and then sign on with a service that journalists use if they’re looking for a service to quote for their articles.

Doesn’t sound too bad, right? If you’re diligent (and a quick reader and writer), the whole process outlined above could probably be taken care of in about fifteen hours’ worth of work.

Here’s where that falls apart: let’s start with the books, since everything else probably stems from that (you want to be able to carry on a somewhat intelligent conversation with the people at ye olde trade organization, after all). With that as a starting point, I’m already a potential expert in any number of things, from the Spanish Civil War to Zen Buddhism, cooking, humor, architecture, philosophy, and the poetry of W. H. Auden, to say nothing of photography. So I find, say, a group of fellow Auden enthusiasts. Since the most likely place for that is the English department of your average university, I’ll sign up there and it ought to be a short step from that to giving a free seminar in Auden. Damn, I’m good! It won’t be long, obviously, before I’ve got Charlie Rose, the MLA, and the Associated Press burning up my phone, to say nothing of journalists and scholars wanting to partake of my expertise for the sake of their eager readers.

It isn’t rocket science, and certainly doesn’t take a PhD in Twentieth Century Poetry, to see that Ferriss’s idea is laughable on the face of it. So what’s the alternative? Well, the alternative’s also been popularized, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, wherein he suggests that to become an expert in something — and not just any expert, mind you, we’re talking about you being the Mozart or Jordan of that thing — you need to devote about ten thousand hours to it. That’s just four hours a day. Every day. For seven years. Or eight hours a day every day for three and a half years. Or you could go on some kind of amphetamine bender and not sleep at all, and you could “knock it out” at something like 24 hours a day for a year and change, and then promptly drop dead of exhaustion and malnutrition.

Let’s step back, take a deep breath, and consider a couple of things for a minute.

First let’s think about what these books are about, and what they’re for. Ferriss is neither the first, nor last, person to come up with his own little “system.” Thing is, Ferriss is talking mostly about “information products,” which is a polite marketing term for putting as little information in as large and glittery a package as you can, and getting people to buy it. When you’re interested merely in commoditizing information for people who’ll probably skim something once and then move on to the next shiny object/package, Ferriss’s formula, his three books’ worth of information, probably is quite enough.

Gladwell, for his part, wrote his book to talk about people who stand head and shoulders over the rest, and how they got there. The book’s called Outliers for a reason; these people are abnormal. In a good way, granted, but there’s nothing average about them. If you’re looking to be the Lance Armstrong of photography, then ten thousand hours isn’t an unreasonable amount of time to spend on your craft, but it rather begs the question of where that leaves the rest of us.

The short answer is to find a middle ground. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous quotation, from which this site takes its name (“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”) is probably a good place to start. That’s not to say that you’ll be an expert after the first ten thousand, or even the ten thousand after. However, if you’re not seeking to become some kind of photographic ubermensch, or to simply turn out commoditized crap, it does represent a happy medium. It sidesteps the “expertise” issue, to be sure, but it also allows us to comfortably and realistically master the medium while still accomodating the rest of our day-to-day lives. That, I think, might be more useful than the shortcut of a handful of books, or the headaches that come with aiming for thousands of hours. As an added bonus, it also allows us to cultivate a mindset that allows that photography isn’t something with a clearly defined endpoint; it can instead be a life’s work… one day at a time.

Postscript: There’s a different, and interesting, take on the ten thousand hour rule on Chris Anderson’s blog The Long Tail, which you can read here: http://www.longtail.com/the_long_tail/2008/12/do-something-ne.html

Meantime, if you’re so inclined, you can check out The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss here*, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers here*

Your purchases through the Amazon affiliate links above (marked with an asterisk) help to support The First 10,000. Thanks!

Joerg Colberg’s “Photography After Photography” Considered (Or, A Response to A Provocation)

This Photo Has Already Been Taken (?)

Joerg Colberg has two thought-provoking essays making the rounds on the web right now. The first – we’ll get to the second shortly – came out earlier this month; in “Photography After Photography (A Provocation),” Colberg argues that the medium is now “dominated by nostalgia and conservatism. Even the idea that we now need editors or curators to create meaning out of the flood of photographs ultimately is conservative, looking backwards when we could, no we should be looking forward.”

We’ve been here before. First of all, this isn’t the first time that photography has been democratized. Indeed, what we’re witnessing now is just a logical extension of a process that began with the first Kodak cameras a century ago. What has changed is not just the gear that enables the work, but also the means by which that work – potentially all of it, and pretty much all at once – is viewed and shared. In other words, there’s more of the past hanging over us than at any time before in our history, and since by definition there’s so much more past than future, it’s become that much harder for newer and more innovative work to be seen. On one hand, anyone with a broadband connection could theoretically view your work. On the other, good luck getting them to find it among the other couple billion or so photographers (and tens of billions of photographs) out there.

Furthermore, every art form has cycles of stagnation and rebirth. As Colberg notes, photography was supposed to be the death of painting ‘til painting discovered abstraction. Rock dies as regularly as the drummer in Spinal Tap, but some new thing – a pinch of punk, a dash of grunge – brings it back to life. The likes of Henry Moore and Duane Hanson similarly took sculpture to new and unexpected places.

I think that one reason that digital photography hasn’t delivered on its promise quite yet is because it’s a potentially new medium, but dressed in old clothes. But then, it doesn’t help much when we’re predicating not only our understanding of what something is, but also what it’s capable of, on old models. The amount of possibility someone can find in, and wring from, new things comes from the ability to find and exploit the differences between the new medium and the old one, rather than using them the same way they would’ve used the original. Spray paint on canvas seems almost as silly as laboriously composing a still life in oil paint on a subway car, just the same as playing a Moog like a piano (I’m looking at you, Rick Wakeman) overlooks a huge palette of textural possibilities, not to mention the difference between an Edison wax cylinder and Brian Wilson getting Pet Sounds out of his head and onto multi-track tape.

A further issue arises when it comes to subject matter. If we stop to consider abstraction, it’s clear that painters have it relatively easy, whether we’re talking about Mondrian’s playfully severe geometry, the fierce urgency of Pollack’s later work, or artists like Mills or De Kooning’s melding of abstraction with more straightforward figurative painting. A painter can invent out of whole cloth, nothing but paint and imagination. One of the intrinsic (and highly obvious) limitations of photography is that you’ve got to have something in front of the camera for it to make much sense at all. The supply of “stuff” to place there, and angles from which to photograph it, while bewildering, is finite.

Another reason that photography seems stuck is because it’s a hell of a lot easier to “fake” it in photography. Whether it’s the camera or the software used after, it’s all too easy to use a preset that replaces the usual process of trial and error. In contrast, you can’t set a guitar, paints, clay or a rack of lamb to automatic and have a reasonably acceptable result at the end of it. The short-term mastery (and let me emphasize, I’m not talking about the longer-term effort that we put into learning and perfecting the craft if we want to get it right) is much easier than it is in other media. Taking painting as an example again: if you’re not very good, you either learn what you need to learn in order to move to a point where you get better, or you realize you’re a hopeless case and you stop. With photography, it’s easier for the average person to get into a rut of careless technique because it’s easy enough to get to “good enough.” Bypassing the trial and error means that you pass up a process that leads not only to understanding, but also – vitally – to accidents. Honestly now, how often do you hear photographers, photography teachers, or books on photography – in short, the places where your average photographer gets their information – to have more, and better, accidents?

Until relatively recently (i.e., the last 200 years or so), we took for granted the idea that the work of art was a “finished” product, a finite event. In tandem with that has usually gone the assumption that the work of art was in some sense inviolable, the text or object being somehow beyond alteration. As Benjamin reminded us in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, if you’re looking at an “original” print on a museum wall or if you’re looking at a facsimile in a textbook, it’s the same piece.  The work of art has traditionally been done once and then been finished–even mechanical reproduction giving rise only to more copies of the same finished product– but this no longer needs to be the case. Rather than just our approach to a given work evolving, the work itself could also be evolving right along with us. Photography is episodic by nature, and just as we don’t expect to open the New York Times, or turn on CNN, and find the same news we did the day before, it might help to approach photography in a way that allows us sufficient ambiguity that something new reveals itself each time we view the photo.

So what happens when photography stops being finished? What happens when each thing is free to be not only what it is, but what it might be, a stepping stone to something else? This way, you have something that’s always changing, growing, evolving; something that is intuitive and responsive rather than limiting or dictating responses and consequences.

Which brings us, in typically circuitous fashion, to Colberg’s second essay, “The Digital Revolution Has Not Happened (Yet?),” wherein he states:

In the past, progress often meant something new, something that not only could not be done before, but that was also pushing the boundaries. In a nutshell, photographers often took the new tools to expand the medium.

Colberg states in his first essay that he’s not quite sure exactly how to get photography from where it is now to where it’s going, and as I think about it, I’m not entirely sure myself. I think, however, that in the problems as he states them we might at least find the seeds of a solution.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not just the change in the capture medium that we need to take into account. The medium in which it’s viewed should also have made some differences, but hasn’t quite. Yes, some slightly more adventuresome souls print on canvas or metal, to say nothing of various art papers. When someone figures out how to combine still imaging with the technology that’s emerging in 3D printing, there arises the potential for something that hybridizes both photography and sculpture.

Similarly, taking advantage of how most people currently view photos (on an LCD or LED screen) suggests that there are possibilities for display that allow for genuine interactivity (allowing others to actively manipulate, or somehow participate in, what would otherwise have been a “final” result). What if, instead of simply tweaking and processing a picture a bit, the photograph and its delivery system itself were reacting to you simultaneous to your reactions to it?

For that matter, what if photographers were to attempt something akin to remixing? Rather than being viewed as a finished artifact, songs – not only the song that acts as the foundation for something, what we’d consider the original, but often other people’s work as well – become the raw material for something that sometimes is barely recognizable as the original. Might it not be possible to find some way of doing the same to the printed/pixelated photo? There’s precedent for this throughout artistic history (and plenty in photography, whether it’s montage, the darkroom, or Lightroom). Like a Moog, however, it might be helpful for someone to come along that takes these things out of the accepted/expected realm and into uncharted territory. In other words, we could move the photo from pride of place as an art object to something that’s altogether more elemental, namely raw material to be reassembled and recontextualized.

Those things might, admittedly, be some time off. For right now, photographers are working in well-trodden forms (street, landscape, portraiture, etc.) that may be reaching – or may already have reached – the limits of their possibilities. On the other hand, because someone hasn’t yet pushed the envelope to its limits doesn’t mean there’s no more pushing to be done. I’m not sure that we’ve exhausted the possibilities yet, and because of that I think it’s entirely possible that there are people out there doing very innovative work right now. Maybe someone, or even several someones, has been doing precisely the kind of work of which Colberg speaks, but, like Vivian Maier, doesn’t get discovered ‘til time, fashion, and innovation have all long since moved onto new things.

But if we reframe photography (pun only partly intended) – what it’s for, how it works, and what it’s capable of doing – we might move closer to something that’s always changing, growing, and evolving, that is capable of being intuitive and responsive rather than limiting or dictating possibilities. In the meantime, the rest of us will fumble along as best we can, looking for and trying new ways of seeing and new ways of creating until, by sheer stubbornness and persistence, someone somewhere arrives at something truly new.

MTV and Photography

MTV Logo (from logoinn.org)

I get to thinking about MTV every so often, and then I try to stop because it makes me sad. I’m old enough to remember when the channel first went on the air in the early 1980’s, and the absolute mess they made of the television dial in those early days. Production values were rough around the edges even for the time, the programming was an eclectic mess (you were as likely to see the Charlie Daniels Band or King Crimson as Modern English), and everything about the channel gave the impression of something being made up as everyone went along.

Over time, things changed. While I miss those freewheeling early days, I realize looking back that the creeping change from a DIY ethic to the slick, corporate, non-music playing behemoth that the channel has become was probably inevitable, mirroring the death of free form radio at around the same time. But there’s another lesson to be drawn from the whole debacle that MTV has become, and it’s one that artists of nearly any stripe can learn from.

To quote a song that was big in ’83 or thereabouts, “Money changes everything.” It doesn’t have to, of course, but it tends to do just that. If you stop to think about the early look (and, for that matter, the early playlist) of MTV, you start to realize that it was cobbled together from whatever was available and affordable at the time. A mix, in other words, of improvisation and desperation. As the money started to roll in — reflected both in the channel’s slicker production values, and also by the attention (not to mention cash) paid by bands and record industry types — much of that improvisational spirit started to wane. Innovation, such as there was, fell by the wayside, to be replaced by programming that had the look and sound of that one person at every party who talks and laughs just a little too loud to let you know they’re edgy, or having so much fun.

What’s that mean to the rest of us?

When we start out in our craft, most of us (there are, of course, always exceptions) are broke, relatively speaking. We can’t afford all the best stuff. We don’t have the same tools, or knowledge, or sense of history, that the heavy hitters in our little niche have. Some people piss and moan and flame out, but others look at what they’ve got and decide that one way or another, they’re making this thing work. They improvise. They break rules they don’t even know they’re breaking, then invent new ones on the way to learning the old ones.

I don’t subscribe to the O’Jays school of thought on money… it’s not the root of all evil. At the end of the day, it’s a means to an end; in other words, like anything else in your kit, it’s a tool, and whether it’s a good or bad thing depends on how you use it, or misuse it. Some of this gets back to the idea that if we just had a bit more (x many more lenses, x many more dollars), it’d all be better. We’d be better. We’d have more tools, more time at our disposal, and we could finally get around to that project we’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s street photography in Melbourne or photographing polar bears on the ice floes.

The thing is, just the same as the gear doesn’t make us better photographers, the money doesn’t either. Your net worth and your artistic or human worth are not one and the same. I’m not suggesting that we should all subscribe to the myth of the “Starving Artist,” since artists who consciously decide to suffer for their art for the sake of some kind of misguided “purity” generally want us to suffer right along with them. But we ought not to mistake the means for the end, or think that there’s a single magic bullet that’s going to get us where we want to be.

You have resources now. Use them. Use the gear you’ve got, granted, but also don’t forget to use the time you’ve got in the best way you can. Don’t wait for a set of conditions to be met in order to do what you want. Wing it. Can’t get the polar bears in their natural habitat? Head for the zoo (just don’t pass those photos off as something they’re not). Can’t make it to Melbourne or Mumbai? Unless you’re living in a ghost town, there’s things going on and people living their lives just steps from your door. Improvise! And later on (or right now, if that’s where you are as you read this) when you have the resources to burn on anything you’d like, and can shoot whenever and however you’d like, remember where you came from. Revisit it from time to time.

Don’t let what you’re doing now — the creativity you’re bringing to bear on your craft, whether it’s born of desire or necessity or some combination of both — be overtaken by the desire to shoot, or to be, something else. Shoot as though you have nothing but this camera, this shot, this now to get it right (or interestingly wrong). Shoot as though nothing but the photo matters. And, perhaps most important, shoot each time as though the only payoff you’re going to get is the love of the process.

…And More Photographic Randomness

It’s time* for your monthly installment of good reads from around the web; links go to the original posters’ websites.

For starters, there’s a thought-provoking (and certainly debate-provoking; read the comments) post on Jim Harmer’s Improve Photography, titled In DEFENSE of Momtographers Everywhere. Read, and join in the debate.

Point-Counterpoint, both courtesy of PetaPixel: A bride complaining about “wack” wedding photography prices (be sure not to miss Nikki Wagner’s thoughtful response**), and a photographer suggesting that people who want his work for free come and work for him at no cost.

A sure way to gin up controversy? Make a top 10/20/50/100 list of anything. You want proof? Complex’s The 50 Greatest Street Photographers Right Now is it.

Popular Photography has announced their 2012 Readers Photography Contest. Details are at this link. One caveat: I haven’t yet read the terms and conditions to see if they’re reasonable, so I’d suggest you have a look before entering.

A great little post is up on Inspiration Feed, titled “8 Digital Photography Tips to Tell Your Children.” It’s good reading if you’d like to encourage your little one to get behind the camera.

A very short film called “School Portrait” is making the rounds lately. It’s a collaboration among Greg Ward, Agnieszka Mruk and Liang Peiyu, who are grad students at London College of Communication. Ward’s website notes:

Many years have passed since the photos were taken; physically they have all changed, but to what extent are they still the same people? In general, most people have had school photographs taken of themselves when they were younger. The photos are fantastic visual records of how people once were, however how often do we look back and reflect upon what we were like as kids? Sometimes in order to know where we are going in life, it helps to remember where we have been. (h/t laughingsquid.com)

One time years ago, I saw photos from Japan of construction machinery that was painted in pastels and festooned with stenciled butterflies. More recently, I came across this gem from Visual News: a series of decorated manhole covers from various Japanese cities.

And finally, if you need a shot of inspiration:

*Porque I said so
**Which, incidentally, should be required reading not only for brides but anyone who’s thinking of hanging up their shingle as a wedding photographer

Follow Friday: Ubuweb

The UbuWeb Homepage

The last few times I’ve done the Follow Friday thing, I’ve typically included a few people whose work is compelling and from whom you can learn something, a bit about them, and where to find them. This time out, I’m trying something a little different, and only suggesting a single “follow” or destination, a website called UbuWeb.

Thinking of it as just a website is a bit deceiving, and is a bit like calling the MoMA “a building.” This isn’t your ordinary website. What started out in 1996 primarily as a repository for concrete and visual poetry has become a veritable museum of unique, often-forgotten, art by often-forgotten individuals. While there’s not a ton on here that’s related to photography, there’s enough on the history and theory of nearly everything else to make this a vital stop if you’re trying, on one hand, to expand your cultural literacy (which, remember, should not be limited to any one art form), while on the other, trying to venture a bit off the beaten path.

And that, to me, is one of the best things about Ubuweb. It takes people who are kinda-sorta household names, or at least known by name to people who know a little bit about art, or film, or music, and fleshes them out. You’ve probably heard of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Buckminster Fuller or Kenneth Anger, but in a lot of cases some of these names are only that. We have a vague awareness, but there’s not much to go with that name, nothing to anchor it or suggest a life (or life’s work) behind it. This provides content, and context, also making connections between collaborators, schools of thought, and historical periods, all outside of the obvious and better-known names we were given in some cursory introduction to something or other.

It’s too easy, perhaps, to be scared off by the sheer volume of culture, between what’s available online, in libraries, in museums and elsewhere. There, I said it. There’s tons of “output.” Films, music, books, photos, paintings, not to mention all the things that are hybrid forms of different media. Don’t let that frighten you off or keep you from learning more. If you wait for the right starting point or the right invitation, it’s like deciding you’ll learn to swim once you’ve seen the right water molecule; it’ll never happen, and you’ll end up paralyzed by indecision.

Instead, welcome this ocean (or, if it helps, think of it as a swimming pool) into which you can dive at any point (trust me when I tell you, it’s deep enough even in the shallows that you can dive safely) and immerse yourself. Spend a few minutes, an afternoon, or a lifetime, but by all means, find the time and make the best use of it you can.

Postscript:

Okay, you still want a starting point? Kenneth Goldsmith sums UbuWeb up rather messily (appropriately enough) here. If you’re looking for something more concrete by way of suggestions on a place to start your exploration, here are a few personal favorites:

A collection of Alfred Stieglitz’s proto-Dadaist 291 magazine

An overview of Germany’s Bauhaus

Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New (BBC TV series, 1982)

Leslie Thornton’s Photography is Easy (Short Film, 2010)

Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic which also contains the original version of the haunting, strangely moving Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet)

And if, after all that seriousness, you need to descend temporarily into silliness, check out the Ubuweb 365 Days Project, which curates all sorts of strange, wonderful (and wonderfully strange) music from all over.

“Are you going to finish that?”

Overcaffeinated and Oversaturated

Opposites: Ansel Adams, besides painstakingly composing his photos and sometimes waiting the better part of a day for just the right lighting, also meticulously developed his own film, dodging and burning to perfection. Henri Cartier-Bresson, on the other hand, would compose quickly, then send his photos out for processing. For some photographers, once the “decisive moment” has passed, that’s all she wrote. The moment’s been and gone, the photo’s in the can. End of story. For others, there’s not so much a decisive moment as a cascade of events that in some sense prolongs the photo, both before and after the shutter’s been pressed.

I don’t think they had CVS or Walgreens (much less Photoshop) in those days, but photographers have tended to fall on a continuum between those two points. The question that always hovers over us is, “When is this photo done?” Is it when the photo’s taken, frozen on film or encoded on a memory card? Is it after we’ve made a few small crops and tweaks? After we’ve processed it more than your average can of deviled ham? Or just after we’ve paused to vacuum the cracker crumbs out of our bellybuttons?*

When I started in photography, my enthusiasm for post-production was matched only by how awful I tended to be at it. Sometimes it was because I was using the wrong tools for the job; other times, it was because I was using what could very well have been the right tools, just with a little too much enthusiasm. To say I was heavy-handed sometimes would be an understatement… think of the photographic equivalent of opening a jar of pickles with a hammer, and you’d have a pretty good idea of the end results.

Over time, I’ve learned (I hope) to edit with a lighter hand. A touch of sharpening, a few tweaks to the lighting or white balance, maybe a crop… Which isn’t to say that sometimes I’m still not tempted to throw everything at the photo just to see what sticks.

But enough about me. What about where that leaves you? How do you know when the photo’s finished, what the right kind, or amount, of processing is?

You just do.

"Meh" Angel

What did you have in mind before you made the photo, as you set up your shot and chose your settings? How about when you took the photo? What was your subject trying to say, or what were you trying to say through your subject? If you’ve gotten your answer straight from the camera, lucky you, you’re done. If there was something else you had in mind, or in your mind’s eye, then post-process to your heart’s content ’til you get it where you want it. This is the photographer’s equivalent of “season to taste.”

Of course, tastes vary. What looks “artistic” to you might, to someone else, be not unlike dumping turmeric over grapefruit, or playing a kazoo during one of the more somber bits of a requiem. What’s “done” to you might be “overdone” to someone else (maybe they prefer RAW, or at least medium rare). That’s okay too.

Tastes also change. You may start out preferring a very deliberate process, with great care and time taken at each step, only to move toward a quicker and less self-conscious process (and/or vice versa). That’s fine. It’s all part of the (post-) process. At the end of the day, it’s your muse you’ve got to follow, and your vision to which you’re accountable.

*Just making sure you’re paying attention.

More Photographic Randomness

Got a Light?

It occurred to me tonight, as I was looking through my Favorites in my browser for something to write about, that I’ve got a lot of little odds and ends worth sharing that wouldn’t necessarily sustain a post on their own. I’ve decided to just lump them in one place and let ’em simmer for a bit.

 

Allen Murabayashi’s Rant: I Love Photography might just be the best thing you read on photography this year.

 

Grover, portrait photographer:

Hopefully Grover doesn’t take the “professional” photography advice from 27b/6 seriously (warning: do not drink anything while reading this post)

Dorothy Brown gives photographers a reminder that once in a while, we really should step in front of the lens instead of spening all our time behind it.

Sure Beats Putting Posters on Telephone Poles: check out ifoundyourcamera.net, a repository of lost cameras…

A bit of photography humor from the reliably awesome xkcd:

 

Now you, too, can look like a supermodel, thanks to Fotoshop by Adobé:

And, finally, The New York Times’ “Lens” blog has a photo essay made up of contest entries from Kodak’s early days.