Full Frame vs. Crop: Which is Better?

A short while back, I explained the differences between full frame and crop sensors. I’ve since gotten the question, “Well, which one’s better?” The short answer? Both. And if that didn’t work for you, here’s a slightly better short answer: Depends.

Since neither of those answers is particularly helpful, let’s try this again. Let’s start, in fact, by re-framing the question, and then looking at the pros and cons of each. Which one will work best for you, and why?

DX has a “crop factor,” typically in the neighborhood of 1.5x to 1.6x. Here’s what that means in plain English: first of all, it means that the image you’re taking will be enlarged, similar to the effect of using digital zoom but without the loss in optical or image quality. Second, it means more reach on your long lenses. You bought a 200mm lens? Congratulations. It’s going to work like a 300. If you bought a 300, it’s going to give you the magnification of a 450mm. Great news if you routinely photograph things like birds and wildlife. DX, in other words, is like having a built-in teleconverter, minus the added cost and hassles.

Now the bad news. Shooting architecture? A 24mm f/1.8, which would generally be adequate on a full-frame sensor, is now a 35mm. Wide, in other words, but not that wide. You want a “normal” lens, you can pick up a nifty fifty, only to find out that it’s closer to 75mm (so you might end up going for something in the 28mm-35mm range instead). There are wider lenses for DX (several of which start in the 18mm lens, with other options starting anywhere between 11mm and 17mm), but some of these are terribly expensive, or distort at certain apertures.

I’ve also heard crop sensor shooters complain that they’re losing too much at the long end if they shoot in full frame. Having done both, I’ll concede you have a point there. Full frame cameras generally have a crop option built in, however, so you can always switch to that if you need the additional reach. This wasn’t always a great option since you’d lose several MP in resolution, but one upshot to the new crop of FF cameras having a ridiculous number of pixels is that you can now shoot in crop mode at 10mp or more. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider that several older SLRs only shot 6MP. Those 10MP give you all the image quality of a Nikon D60, itself no slouch. That’s also with a newer processor and larger pixels, so it’s not a bad tradeoff.

How about depth of field? As a rule of thumb, smaller sensors give more depth of field, even with all else being equal. f/2.8 on a point-and-shoot, versus a crop-sensor SLR, versus a full frame SLR, will all give different degrees of DOF, even at the same distance to the subject. For some purposes, that added depth of field is a great thing (landscape or macro photography, for instance), but at other times (say you’re shooting portraits), it becomes more of a challenge to throw your background out of focus, and yet rendering your subject with a reasonable degree of sharpness. Remember, even though your lens might shoot f/1.4 or f/1.8 wide open, lenses are usually going to be sharper once you’ve stopped them down by at least a full stop. On a small sensor, that can end up making a significant difference.

Then there’s ISO. If, like me, you like shooting in low light without flash (or you’re shooting sports, and can use an extra stop or three of shutter speed to freeze action), good performance at higher ISO is extremely helpful. Sensor technology – and the processor technology to which it’s linked – gets better every year. My current compact (a Fuji X10) runs rings around the Kodak that it replaced in terms of IQ and high ISO performance, but it couldn’t hold a candle to my old D7000 or my D600 in either respect at high ISO. And I’ve seen a significant step up in noise control between the crop sensor D7000 and its full-frame counterpart, the D600. High ISO may not be your be-all and end-all (especially if you’re shooting with flash, or a full lighting setup), but on the off chance that it is important to you, sensor size can (and often does) make a difference.

Finally, there’s image quality. There are several variables that influence how your images will look (exposure, sharpness, good lenses, filters of good quality if you’re in the habit of using them, camera settings, et cetera, et cetera). With that said, larger sensors tend to give higher picture quality (partly due to resolution, partly because the photosites (pixels) are larger) than their smaller counterparts. They also tend to give more latitude in terms of dynamic range and rescuing shadows or highlights that are under/overexposed. Take a look at the photos out of a Phase One or Mamiya medium format camera versus your average SLR, and there’s a pretty significant difference there.

These are hardly the only considerations, of course. There’s weight, cost of bodies and lenses, controls, and a lot more. The broader point, then, is if you’re buying your first interchangeable lens system – whether it’s going to be Micro 4/3, Four Thirds, APS-C, Full Frame or something else altogether – you’ve got some serious research and thinking ahead of you. You’ll want to think about your budget, and what you’re comfortable schlepping on a long day’s shooting, to be sure; but don’t forget to give some thought to your subject matter, as well, since that’s going to have a significant impact on the kind of bodies and lenses you’ll want to check out.

Your turn. Have you shot with multiple formats (including those of you who shot with film for years before shooting digital)? Sound off about your experiences!

Suspicious Birds_mini

10,000/365 Day 11: Color

Today was a dull, overcast day — which is great for catching color, generally, but it was also raining, which tends to put a damper on photography when you’re used to shooting outdoors to change things up. Today’s photo is an object lesson in why you should always have your camera (since I snuck this photo under the noses of the people in the local supermarket).

It’s also about color.

Color has always been a factor in photography, even before color photography (it was common to hand-color prints in the days before color processes became common). And it’s no wonder. Not only do we see in color, but color also has different cultural, artistic, and even emotional associations that can add layers of resonance to a photo when it’s used properly.

That’s a post for another day. To whet your appetite in the meantime, there’s a very good explanation of color theory and its use in photography here: http://www.framedreality.com/color-in-photography-color-theory

Keep up with the project, share your progress, feedback and questions:
Project page (where you’ll also find a FAQ and other goodies)
The entries day-by-day (the blog entries)
10,000/365 Flickr Group (to share and discuss your shots)

Apple to Oranges
Apple to Oranges

10,000/365 Day 10: Shape

If we want to strip photography down to its barest essentials, it’s all about two things: lines, shapes, and light. Think about it a second: everything else can either be stripped away (take out the color and you’ve still got a black-and-white) or related back to one of those things. Depending on your personal preference and style, there are different ways you might choose to deploy those things, or visually “accessorize” them, but those are the essentials in your toolkit.

So today, it’s all about shape.

Sometimes your shape is your subject. For instance, you may find yourself wanting to emphasize the shape of something if that’s the most striking thing about your subject. Luckily for you, there are several ways to do this:

  • Backlighting can help to wipe out some of the surface details of something by portraying it in silouhette
  • Backdrops can be useful for subjects that can be moved or posed
  • Black and white is a good remedy if the shape of something works but the color in the image draws more attention than the shape (as in the two photos of the meters below)

At other times, the shape of something might be incidental to a larger subject, but still serve a compositional purpose. It’s also useful to remember that shapes are themselves collections of lines; because of that, shapes are capable of serving the same compositional purpose that lines do in terms of drawing attention to or through a particular part of the photo. And don’t be afraid of asymmetry, since asymmetrical shapes, besides having a certain visual appeal, also do a better job of leading the eye through a photo.

It’s not just photographers who are concerned with this sort of thing. Picasso’s cubist work, and abstracts by the likes of Joan Miro and Piet Mondrian (artists’ names link to representative works) throw realistic depiction out the window and reduce the visual plane to a series of shapes, although in Picasso’s case, the shapes are still — albeit loosely — deployed in the service of something vaguely figurative. We’ll be delving into abstraction later on, but for now, pay attention to shape in the arts and crafts, as well as in the world beyond your door.

Keep up with the project, share your progress, feedback and questions:
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Meters 1Meters 2

10,000/365 Day 9: Perspective

Having experimented with lines, let’s go a step further today and take up perspective. As it relates to photography, perspective is simply how an object appears to the naked eye (or your capture medium) based on spatial relationships. Perepctive can vary depending on several things, such as the lens used, our position relative to our subject, and subjects’ positions relative to one another.

The form of perspective that most of us are familiar with is linear perspective. This manifests in two ways: first, as objects become more distant they appear smaller because their visual angle decreases. Second, if you have strong lines or edges in your photos, they will appear to diminish toward what’s called a vanishing point. The further away you are from your subject, the more pronounced the perspective effect; this is also, in turn, influenced by the type of lens used. Take the photo of the row houses as an example; the part closer to the photographer appears much larger, and diminishes as the distance from the camera increases. If the houses were longer, there would be an even more pronounced vanishing point, ’til the last houses in the row would appear very small if they were visible at all. The building is the same height from end to end, but because of the perspective, its far side appears much shorter than the near side.

Compression depending on focal length: If your photo contains multiple elements, you can use perspective as an element of composition to change the apparent relationship among those elements. Let’s try that again in English. The images of the bicycles below show how the use of different focal lengths effect the apparent “distance” between the bikes. The shots were taken at 24mm, 50mm, and 85mm, with the framing of the shot more or less the same from one photo to the next. You’ll notice that the bicycles haven’t been moved; they’re in the same position. I wasn’t (I had to keep stepping back as I zoomed in to maintain the composition). You’ll notice that in each shot, everything appears a bit closer together even though it’s still occupying the same physical space.

Perspective comes into play in nearly every form of photography, including portraits, nature photography, and pretty much any other form you can think of. It’s a reason to choose your lenses carefully, but it’s also a good reason to decide whether you want to “zoom” with your feet or with the lens, since it’s not just the “size” of the subject that will change within the frame, but also its relation to the rest of what’s depcited.

Keep up with the project, share your progress, feedback and questions:
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85mm
85mm
50mm
50mm
24mm
24mm

10,000/365 Day 8: Lines

I’m a day behind on writing, but still on time with the shooting… which, I suppose, is better than the other way ’round. Anyway, today — by which I mean yesterday — it’s all about lines.

Power Lines
Power Lines

Strong lines in a photo serve a few purposes, but one of the most important is to lead your eye through the photo, or to emphasize a certain portion of it. Paying attention to the kinds of lines you have in your photo, and where they lead the eye, leads to stronger compositions.

Too many lines (as in the shot of the power lines) just create confusion and disorientation. The sidewalk shot that’s featured here, while it’s visually “busy,” features the strong curve of the bricks against the straighter linear jumble of the concrete (and the color contrast also helps). So pay attention to how the lines “work,” or don’t, in your photos. We’ll get to the color, and quite a bit else, in the days ahead.

Strong verticals and diagonals (among other things) lead your eyes upward.
Strong verticals and diagonals (among other things) lead your eyes upward.

Stepping away from photography for a minute, let me give you an example. Think for a minute about church architecture. If you stop to think about it, regardless of what they might share in common in terms of iconography, church buildings all share one feature in common, whether the rest of the building looks like a saltbox or Saint Patrick’s Cathedral: for the most part — inside and out — they feature strong diagonals and other architectural features (like buttresses) that, in addition to any architectural functionality they have, serve to lead your eyes up.

We can do the same thing with our photos; lines are one way of delineating the geometry of a photo, but they also act like railroad tracks, or steeples: done right, they lead our eyes through the photo, adding emphasis to some parts and de-emphasizing others. Just the same as we try to avoid extraneous “stuff” in our photos (like telephone poles sticking out of people’s heads), extraneous lines — too many of ’em, or in the wrong places — can undermine an otherwise good photographic composition.

 

Keep up with the project, share your progress, feedback and questions:
Project page (where you’ll also find a FAQ and other goodies)
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10000365 08 Lines

Digital Camera Setup Guide

ManualYou’ve been to the camera shop, bought your camera, gotten it home, and unboxed it. It still has that new camera smell, even. So, stick the battery on the charger, wait two hours, and you’re good to go, right? Well, not exactly. Your camera probably comes with a quick start guide, which will tell you not to charge your camera in the bathtub or put saltines in the SD slots. Anything beyond that, you’ll need the manual. The only problem is, if it’s your first time with an SLR, it may take a while for you to figure out what you need to set up for optimal performance; it’s a challenge finding something when you didn’t even know you needed to look for it. To save you some time, I’m going to give you a list of things you can do to make sure your camera’s ready to give you its best shot.

Now, granted, you can get acceptable photos on an SLR straight out of the box. As long as there’s a lens on it and it’s turned on, you’ll get a photo of something if you point the camera at that something, focus, and press the shutter release. However, something with as many options and controls as an SLR has needs to have some kind of factory default settings, and “one size fits most” just might mean that you’re that guy or gal who falls outside of that “most.” Let’s take a look under the hood at some of the more common camera settings that you might want to tweak.

Firmware Update: This should always be your first step with a new camera, and it’s not a bad idea to check periodically after that. The firmware is the software that runs your camera. Whether your camera’s a relatively new model or it’s been on the market for a bit, go to the manufacturer’s website and search for firmware updates. You’ll find an option in the menu to view the currently installed version of the firmware. Compare versions; if the numbers match, you’re good to go; if, on the other hand, the website shows a more recent version, update it. While you’re on the manufacturer’s website, download the PDF manual for your camera, and put that on your smartphone or tablet for easy access later.

File Formats: You’ll generally have the option of choosing RAW, JPG or both. If your camera has a single card slot, choosing to shoot both can mean gaps between shots. If there are two slots, you’ll usually have the option of JPG on both cards (with one card slot acting as either backup or overflow), RAW, or RAW+JPG, with RAW files being written to one card and JPG to the other.

Picture Quality/Size: If you’ve just landed a thousand miles from the nearest camera shop and you need to make an entire week’s worth of photos fit on a single memory card, you have one of two options: take fewer, more carefully shot, photos, or just use a really small file size. Otherwise, use the best quality and the largest file size you can, since the only way to get a smaller file size is to shave a significant amount of data off each file. For some purposes (like shooting for the web), you can likely get away with something that uses more compression, but if you plan on cropping, editing, or (especially) printing, you’re going to want as much information in those files as you can get.

Color Settings: At the very least, you should be able to choose from monochrome, desaturated, normal, and varying degrees of additional saturation. I suggest shooting color (I explain why in this article), but the type and degree of saturation you choose is a matter of personal preference.

Noise Reduction (NR): This comes in two “flavors”. There’s Long Exposure NR, and High ISO NR. Long Exposure NR generally only comes into play with long exposures, or repeated long-ish exposures; you’ll notice noise, or color artifacts, that occur when the sensor heats up from the extended use. High ISO’s, meantime, will give you different kinds of noise (grain, chromatic noise) that NR can handle. NR sometimes works quite well, but it can also lead to loss of detail. If your camera loses detail in the upper reaches of the ISO range to begin with, excessive NR just makes a bad situation worse, so use it sparingly.

ISO and White Balance Settings: This is a matter of personal preference. I generally try a few test shots under relatively controlled conditions (i.e., shots under a single light source, and multiple light sources) to see how reliably the camera chooses white balance. Most SLRs do a good job of it, so Auto White Balance isn’t such a bad thing. Auto ISO, however, can be a mixed blessing. That’s especially true if your camera has a habit of boosting ISO when its ISO performance at 1600 and above is spotty. Take a test shot in low light with auto ISO (or three shots at 800, 1600 and 3200) and check the results. If you’re happy with the results at 800, but not as much past that, there’s normally an option to limit how high the Auto ISO will set your ISO in low light. You can either use that, or just adjust ISO manually as needed (which I’ve found to be an easier option).

Metering: Matrix metering is generally reliable, but there are times (like shooting a bright subject against a dark background, or vice versa) when you’ll want to use either spot or center-weighted metering. If you’re not sure, set it to Matrix/Evaluative metering, and use the other metering modes as needed.

Exposure Compensation: This is strictly optional. I’ve noticed that every Nikon I’ve used has tended to overexpose slightly, especially in bright light, so I usually set the EV to -.3 and just leave it there, though there are times that I’ll change it (if I’m using a polarizing filter, or when I’m bracketing an exposure, for instance).

Focus Mode: From the number of AF points that are active, to whether you’re using continuous or single-servo AF, you’ll want to choose the mode that best fits the kind of shooting you do (or anticipate doing). Here, again, your manual will prove invaluable (you see a pattern emerging here?)

AE/AF Lock: You’ll be able to choose how this button “behaves,” and whether it’s going to be used for Exposure Lock or Focus Lock. If you haven’t used this feature before, it may help you to shoot for a bit and revisit it when you’ve a better idea of which one you’ll use most often.

Shutter Release: You can usually program your camera not to take a photo if the AF isn’t locked in (which can be helpful, frustrating, or both, depending on the circumstances).

Set Up Your LCD: There are usually multiple display options with the LCD: levels of brightness, grid lines, virtual level, exposure information, histogram, and quite a bit else. Cycle through your options, and see what works best for you. Some of these things matter more if you’re shooting more in Live View than through the viewfinder, while others will be related more to your Playback menu. The options here aren’t quite limitless, but they’re close enough that covering the lot of them would take us quite a way off-topic. Just bear in mind that this is one thing (out of many) to take into account and adjust.

Program Your Function Button[s]: Not every SLR has a Fn button, but several do. These come in handy when you have a button on the back of the camera that changes a function you use often, or if that function’s buried in a menu. Usually the Fn button is easily accessible with the camera at eye-level, so this makes it easier to change something without having to lower the camera. If you’re just getting started and you’re not sure what to program the Fn button for, don’t worry about it; after a week or two of shooting, you’ll get ideas. Some cameras that feature a DOF Preview button will also allow you to reassign that to another function as well.

User Customizeable Settings: Some cameras allow you to customize menu banks so that a single press of the menu button brings up your most frequently used settings. Some have user-assignable softkeys (like a dedicated Fn (function) button, or the ability to reassign another function to your Depth of Field preview, for instance). Your mode dial may also have the ability to assign a series of settings that can be pulled up with a quick turn of the knob. In any of these cases, give some thought as to the kinds of shooting you do, and how these options affect your workflow when you’re shooting. User preset banks are great for the times when you need multiple settings changed all at once and quickly, while customizeable menus come in handy for features that can’t be assigned to a user preset, or for those things that you may not use often, but that you need to access quickly when you do.

Adjust Your Viewfinder’s Diopter: With the camera in autofocus, choose an object that’s easy to focus on, and use the diopter — it’s the little wheel thingy next to your viewfinder — to adjust the viewfinder’s magnification. IMPORTANT: However you plan on shooting normally — with or without glasses, contacts, a monocle, et cetera — adjust the diopter for that. You’ll need to see clearly to verify that the AF system is focusing on the thing(s) you had in mind, to say nothing of focusing manually.

Check Your “Extras”: Some things aren’t exactly mandatory, but can be helpful depending on personal preference. These include things like a framing grid in your viewfinder, an electronic level, vignette control, lens correction, AF confirmation beeps, and a host of other features.

I’m admittedly glossing over a vast numbers of menu options here. My purpose, however, is to get you started; for the rest, you have the manual. And for Pete’s sake, please RTFM! In the meantime, besides getting your important more-or-less permanent settings the way you want them, there’s another reason that this initial setup helps: as you’re navigating the menus, you’re familiarizing yourself (even if only a bit) with the different options baked into the camera. There’s no substitute for the manual (even the camera’s Help function, assuming your camera has one, requires you to find an item in order to pull up the available information about it), but getting acclimated in this way helps to demystify the camera (especially if this is your first one) and gets you used to the idea of actually using some of the great things that are now at your fingertips.

One thought in closing: The first time or two that you try this, it’s not uncommon to get lost in the maze of menus, submenus, and options, and have a “WTF?” moment where something seems irreparably screwed up. If that’s the case, don’t despair. Your camera will have an option to reset all your menu options back to their factory defaults.**

*I should note that I’ve shot Nikon almost exclusively since I’ve started shooting DSLR’s, so a lot of the nomenclature I’m using here is from what’s in their menus. If you’re using another brand, they may use different terminology. If all else fails, open the manual.
**If that doesn’t work, despair freely. Or just take it to the shop, and they’ll get it back in working order. See why it’s important to buy local?

Full Frame vs. Crop: An Explanation

 

50mm f/1.8 Shot in Full Frame

The whole crop-sensor versus full frame sensor thing never quite made sense to me, ’til I saw the difference between a 50mm lens on a crop camera versus the exact same lens on a full frame sensor. If this whole thing already made perfect sense to you, feel free to skip this post. For those of you to whom the whole thing makes about as much sense as Finnegan’s Wake — in Swahili — read on.

Sensors come in several sizes, from the thumbnail-sized sensors in your average point-and-shoot to the 120mm sensors in medium-format cameras. If we’re taking a 35mm film frame as our point of reference (also the size of the sensor in a “full frame” camera), any sensor smaller than 35mm is going to have a crop/multiplier factor when used with 35mm lenses. You’ll recall that some time back we talked about the difference between digital and optical zoom, where digital zoom essentially crops the image captured by a sensor at its native resolution; the crop factor introduced by a smaller sensor does the same thing, minus the software trickery.

Here’s why it didn’t exactly make sense to me. Lenses have different fields of view at different focal lengths. A fisheye lens (say, 8mm) can give you a 180 degree angle of view. A 50mm lens, sometimes called a “normal” lens, closely approximates your natural field of vision. A much longer lens, like a 300mm lens, gives a much tighter field of view (around 8 degrees).* You’d think (or I thought, at least) that regardless of the size of the sensor, the photo would be the same because the lens’s field of view at a given focal length would be the same in any case, so a lens racked out to 300mm would have the same FOV whether you used it on a full-frame sensor, a crop sensor, or a point-and-shoot.

50mm f/1.8 Shot in Crop Format

Only it isn’t quite. So how’s this crop thing work? By way of analogy, think of it like this. Let’s say you’ve got a slide projector that’s ten feet from a three foot wide screen. The image fills the screen with no problems. The projector is your lens; the image coming out of the projector is the “image circle”; the screen is your sensor. When you’re using a crop sensor, you’re not moving the projector relative to the screen; it’s simply changing the area covered by the projected image. So if you put a two foot wide screen in front of the projector, you’re going to notice that a much smaller part of the image is visible on the screen (with some of the image spilling over to the area beyond it). A DX lens has a smaller image circle (in essence, focusing the “projector’s” beam more tightly), so it’s going to fill a smaller “screen” (sensor) easily enough, but it’s going to come up short on anything larger.

This is also, incidentally, why a lens that exhibits light falloff or softness in the edges and/or corners on a FF camera generally looks better on a crop camera. Most lenses — at least once you stop them down a bit — are going to be reasonably sharp in the center. The part that’s sharp is the part that’s being projected onto the smaller sensor, whereas a larger sensor’s going to also incorporate the dodgy bits from the perimeter of the frame.

Therein lies a lesson. Some people — and I was one of them — purchase full frame lenses when they have a crop sensor camera just in case we decide at some point to jump to a full frame camera. When you’re reading reviews of lenses, therefore, one of the things to pay attention to is who’s using the lens as they review it. It’s not unheard of for a lens to get rave reviews from DX/crop users only for the FF people to point out flaws in the lens’s image quality. If you have no plans to switch formats, you may not have much to worry about (though other issues, like lens flare, coma and color fringing will typically manifest no matter what body you’re using). But if you’re going to be switching at some point, pay attention to those flaws. You may be willing to put up with them, but at the very least, go in with eyes open.

Oh, and about the images accompanying this post: the camera wasn’t moved relative to the bookcase (it was on a tripod). I’m also using the same lens (a 50mm 1.8) in both shots. The only change is that the first shot was taken in the camera’s full-frame mode, while the other uses its crop mode.  So on full frame, the 50mm looks… well, like a 50mm looks. In crop mode, it acts more like a 75mm.

If I haven’t been as clear on this as I’ve tried to be, feel free to sound off with your questions (or better examples) in the comments section below. We’ll be revisiting this topic (albeit from a different angle) soon.**

*If reading this is making you trade your confusion over sensors for confusion over angles of view, there’s a very good explanation at the always-reliable Mansurovs Photography: http://photographylife.com/equivalent-focal-length-and-field-of-view

**The “different angle” is a post taking up whether a crop sensor or full frame is “better.” (click the link for my take)

Courtesy for Photographers (A Primer)

She went thattaway.

Mean people suck. So do rude people. Mean, rude photographers, needless to say, also suck, and what’s worse is that they give those of us who mind our manners a bad name. There’s a lot to be said about the ethics of photography (several posts’ worth, actually), but it’s worthwhile to consider a few bits of photographic common courtesy. Especially since “common courtesy” doesn’t seem to be so common nowadays. So here are a few common-sense rules for photographic common courtesy.

1. Be mindful of your surroundings. This can take any number of forms. Sometimes, it’s knowing the rules or customs where you’re shooting (especially if you’re shooting in a place where the culture is much different than the one from which you came), and finding someone who can act as your interpreter/guide/educator if you’re unfamiliar with the area. It’s also knowing, or getting to know, the people; realize that your camera doesn’t confer on you some form of King- or Queen-ship (they’re people, not just your “subjects”). Some things — whether you’re photographing a parade, or shooting in a cemetery — require an awareness of the other people who are/might be present, and some basic respect for their space and feelings. Finally, don’t be a typical tourist or the “Ugly American” (regardless of your nationality).

2. Be mindful of other photographers. One other reason (among several) that I’ve never wanted to be a wedding photographer is because I can just imagine the havoc that 60 people taking flash photos must raise when you’re trying to capture that once-in-a-lifetime shot. What’s even worse are times when I’ve seen people casting dirty looks in the photographer’s general direction as though she’s in the way. Here’s a tip: unless someone in the wedding party has paid or asked you to photograph or film the proceedings, give the photographer a wide berth, and let him/her do the job for which they were paid.

3. Please, don’t be an ass. I’ve said this before, but it bears/needs repeating. It’s one thing to try, gently, to coax a smile out of a subject; it’s something else to resort to conniving, deceit, or other forms of fuckery. Don’t ever be a jerk just for the sake of getting a photo. You’re ruining it for the rest of us, and making it that much harder to get honest photos out of people who will probably be on their guard all because, y’know, you’re an auteur. Or something.

4. Don’t brag on your gear. Yes, we all know you spent a mint on your camera. And maybe the person next to you is shooting with a TLR that’s older than your grandma. That doesn’t mean that you’re a better photographer, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to get all high and mighty over what’s in your camera bag (“Oh, a D40. How quaint. When were you going to upgrade?”). At that point, you’re not a photographer, you’re just a camera collector, and an obnoxious one at that.

5. Know when to put the camera down. Some things are meant to be experienced directly, without being mediated through a viewfinder and a stack of ground glass. I can understand the desire to want to document things (I’m a photographer too, after all), but sometimes the best document of something is the warmth you feel when you look back on something, the goosebumps, the stories… There’s nothing wrong with telling someone, “You just had to be there.” But if you’re going to be there, then sometimes you’ve just got to be there, and be fully present.

Have you come across any bad behavior recently? What are your pet peeves regarding your fellow photographers?

World Photography Day 2012

A quick post today, just a little something that I wanted you to know about. August 19, 2012 is World Photography Day. It’s not a holiday (yet)… just a day for photographers to get together and document their respective worlds. It’s a humble idea that’s gotten to be pretty big; it launched in 2009, and it’s mushroomed to involve photographers from 150 countries in the few years since.

Their mission is a simple one: Our mission is to unite photographers across the globe to remember the history of photography, celebrate the present and discover the future.

So, in that spirit, get out with your camera on August 19 and celebrate!

The World Photography Day website: http://www.worldphotoday.org/

On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/worldphotoday#!/worldphotoday

On Twitter: https://twitter.com/worldphotoday

Understanding Memory Cards

So you’ve got your camera, and now you’ve got to figure out where all those photos are going to be stored. There are tons of options for organizing and storing photos once they’re taken, but we’ll get to those another time. For today, let’s take a minute (or five) to go over the myriad options available for memory for your camera. Sandisk, Lexar, Promaster, Kingston, and literally dozens of other companies make memory cards, and to further confuse the issue, there are several types of cards (SD, SDHC, SDXC) and classes of cards (Class 2 through Class 10). Most cameras currently use SD or XD cards, although a handful of holdouts still rely on Compact Flash cards, sometimes alone but other times in tandem with SD. Since SD is used in far more cameras, I’m going to leave CF to someone else; there’s a great explanation of CF cards here: http://www.compactflash.org/faqs/faq.htm In the meantime, let’s see if we can make heads or tails of the SD situation.

Let’s start with the types of cards. SD (technically SDSC, where the SC means Standard Capacity) simply stands for Secure Digital. The “Secure” part comes from the fact that it’s non-volatile memory (it doesn’t have to be powered up to store something). SDHC is SD High Capacity (4MB to 16MB), and SDXC is SD eXtended Capacity (32MB to 2TB). You might be tempted to buy a 2TB card or two (it would, after all, be the last time for a long time that you’d need to put a new card in your camera). Before you do that, bear in mind that things can, and do, go wrong with SD cards. Having something go wrong with a 2TB card means losing an awful lot of your work in one fell swoop, so it can sometimes be advisable to buy several smaller cards and switch them out frequently; if something goes wrong during a shoot, you’ll still have something left.

Having looked at the types of cards, let’s take up speed versus class. Loosely speaking, the card’s speed rating is its top speed, and is a concern mostly when it comes to burst shooting. Just the same as your car may be capable of 120 miles per hour, however, you’re not going to drive it that way all the time. Just the same as your car has a cruising speed, the card’s class is the sustained write speed for which it’s rated. So a class 4 card should be able to write 4MB/second for sustained periods of time (this is especially relevant in video recording, where the write speed has to be sustained for minutes at a time, versus short bursts).

Speed ratings and class can be a bit deceiving. As with anything else, your setup is only as strong as its weakest link. So let’s say you’re using a Class 10 SDHC card, which is capable of writing 10MB/second. Pretty fast. However, your camera may only have a write speed of 4MB/second. No matter how fast the card is, the camera has other things in mind. Conversely, if your camera’s native write speed is 10MB/second and you use a Class 2 card (2MB /second), it’s going to be slow going even though the camera’s fast; in essence, the card can’t keep up.

And of course, there’s an added wrinkle, which is your camera’s buffer. Let’s say your camera is capable of 7 frames per second, and has a 56MB buffer. If you’re shooting low-quality JPG images that might come in at 1MB each, you can hold that button down ’til the cows come home and you won’t have to worry about your camera freezing up on you (what you’re doing to your shutter is something else altogether). If, on the other hand, you’re shooting high-quality JPGs (which, for the sake of the example, let’s say are 5MB each), it’s only going to take you about a second and a half to fill your buffer. Your camera’s going to slow down while the buffer’s full, and will only allow shots again once the buffer has room for them. If you’re shooting RAW, the buffer will fill faster still because of the larger file sizes. In this case, the camera’s acting sluggish not because your card’s too small, too slow, or a piece of junk, but because you got a bit overzealous with the burst shooting, so this is something that’s probably best saved for times when it’s vital. If, like me, you tend to double up on shots (I do this if I’m shooting unsupported at slow shutter speeds, just because I’m more likely to get one that’s in focus), just be sure to keep your bursts small and evenly spaced.

In any case, read the fine print. In this case, that means two sets of fine print. First, know your camera. If it’s rated for Class 6, get a Class 6 card; a lower class will cause bottlenecks, and the camera won’t write any faster if it’s using a Class 10.* Second, know your cards. Don’t cheap out on a card that’s classed lower, and try to avoid off-label brands. Third, use brands recommended by the camera’s manufacturer, as they typically recommend higher-quality cards that won’t fail you at an inopportune time. Failed cards mean lost photos, and even if you can use a data recovery program, that’s no guarantee you’ll get all of your photos back, or that the files won’t be corrupted. Finally, regardless of the card you’re using, make sure that the first thing you do is to format it when you first use it with your camera so that the camera “recognizes” the card and puts it to its best use.

Any questions, or anything I’ve left out? Feel free to comment!

*Let me add a caveat: if you’re getting some kind of discount for buying cards in volume and you have more than one camera, then by all means, buy with the higher-specced camera in mind so you can safely use the same card in both (just make sure you’re using the correct format for the cards). There’s nothing wrong with buying nothing but Class 10 if you simply have to have the best and fastest of everything, but your camera may not need the added speed.

What is Aspect Ratio?

 

1:1 Aspect Ratio

The ratio in which a work of art is presented has a host of artistic, practical, and — for some, anyway — even mystical considerations. As photographers, we come across ratios every day without giving them much thought. Let’s remedy that, and think about them a bit, shall we?

An aspect ratio is simply a proportion that describes the measurements of something in terms of its proportionality of length to width. So, in other words, something that measures four feet by three feet would have the same aspect ratio as something that measured 20 miles by 15 miles. In former times, some people got awfully worked up about ratios, claiming some to be not only better than others, but that one ratio in particular (1:1.6, known also as the “Golden Ratio” or “Golden Mean”) was divinely inspired. If you think those people were silly in comparison to artists today, you haven’t been on an internet discussion board lately. But I digress.

3:2 Aspect Ratio

Where were we? Ah, yes. Theory. Enough of that. Let’s get practical. Nikon and Canon sensors often use a 3:2 aspect ratio, which is roughly the same ratio as a frame of 35mm film; this holds true whether you’re using a full frame camera (i.e. the sensor is also the same size as a frame of 35mm film) or a cropped sensor, which is going to be somewhat smaller. Later digital cameras have tended to use a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is the same — coincidentally or not — as the aspect ratio used by many computer monitors and standard-def TV screens. Medium and large format cameras also frequently make use of 5:3, 5:4, and 1:1 ratios, while HD video is either shot at or scaled to a 16:9 or 16:10 ratio to fit the size of the screen on which it’s being shown. Remember, this has nothing to do with the size of the sensor, since two sensors — or two of pretty much any object — can make use of the same ratio with very different measurements.** 

16:9 Aspect Ratio

Let’s get even more practical, since this determines not only how your photos are made, but also how they’re displayed. Many computer monitors utilize the 4:3 ratio, as mentioned earlier. If we stop to think about common print sizes, 6×4 format is 3:2, 10×8 is 5:4, and 7×5 doesn’t quite fit any of the aspect ratios in common use. What that means for practical purposes is that if you’re going to print your photos, you now know the relation between your camera’s sensor and the print sizes you’re likely to be using. You also realize, if you’ve given this a second’s thought, that in a good number of cases, the printing process is going to involve some kind of trickery to match the sensor or film’s native aspect ratio to whatever it is you’re using to print. So if you’re using a 4:3 (or four thirds) camera, you’ll have to stretch (or shrink) the print to fit, put a border of some sort around the print, or crop out some part of your image so that everything stays proportional between the two media. The latter two instances are generally safer bets, since the first option generally leads to objects in your photo looking misshapen to one degree or another (you’ve probably already seen how video solves the problem of differnt aspect ratios, especially if you’ve seen something shown in letterbox format).

Screenshot from a Fuji X10 showing how different aspect ratios effect file size

Some cameras — and this is especially true of compacts — will allow you to shoot in different aspect ratios than the one for which the sensor was designed (which you’ll sometimes hear referred to as the “native” aspect ratio). The sensor’s aspect ratio might be 4:3, in other words, but the camera will still allow you to shoot in 3:2 or 16:9 formats. You’ll notice something when you’re not shooting at the camera’s native aspect ratio, however: those photos will generally have smaller file sizes than the “normal” ones (see photo at left). The reason for this is that your camera’s sensor isn’t somehow changing its proportions just because you’ve selected a different setting; it is instead telling a certain number of pixels to step out for coffee and donuts while the rest do the heavy lifting. In other words, you’re not shooting at full resolution.

Hopefully this clears up the question of what an aspect ratio is. If I haven’t been clear, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try (again) to clear the air.

*It should be noted that these ratios are expressed in what we’d think of as landscape format, so it’d be 4 wide by 3 long; if you’re looking for the proportion in portrait format, just invert the numbers.

**Put differently, some digital cameras use a 1:1 sensor that might have dimensions of 1″x1″, for a surface area of one square inch. Now, if you also happen to bake, that 9×9 pan you’re using for your brownies has a 1:1 aspect ratio too, but has a surface area of 81 square inches (while your 13×9 is an almost-but-not-quite 4:3, but if people are paying closer attention to the formatting of your brownies than their taste, I humbly suggest you find another recipe).

Postscript: Maybe you came here looking for information on cinematic aspect ratios. If that’s the case, you’ll probably find this article helpful: http://www.thelooniverse.com/movies/west/aspectratio/aspectratio.html

Composition Basics: Negative Space

Figure 1

In simple terms, negative space is the space around your subject. Sometimes this means completely isolating your subject against a stark background, but just as often (as with this photo by Robert Adams,  or to a lesser degree in Steve McCurry’s famous photo of an Afghan refugee girl)  it involves the creative use of emptiness as a backdrop against which your subject can breathe. While we sometimes want context and plenty of it, there are other times when having too much in the frame takes the focus off of your subject where you’d like it.

Figure 2

There are a lot of ways to acheive negative space. Shadows, silouhettes, bare backgrounds, and shallow depth of field all help to isolate your subject. The end result can change the meaning of the photo by putting the subject in a different frame. In short, it’s a good compositional technique to have in your toolbox.

But enough about theory. Let’s see what this looks like in practice, starting with Figure 1. My eight-legged friend — we’ll call him Boris — was mending his “net” first thing in the morning. Using a shallow depth of field takes details out of the background against which it would’ve been easy to miss Boris. I also chose to underexpose significantly (according to the meter, anyway) to give Boris and his web a bit more “pop” against a darker background.

Figure 3

Negative space can, of course, be tricky to navigate. It’s one thing when your background is a holly tree; it’s something else when your background is busier, as happens with this statue — who we’ll call Dolores — that’s set against a background of brightly-colored flowers, columns, trees, grass, and a pretty sizeable swarm of gnats. In Figure 2, I experimented with having Dolores surveying her domain, and figured that a shallow depth of field would give the impression of the columns without them ending up a distraction. You can see about how well that worked out.

So in Figure 3, I reframed the shot. Better, but still not quite there. This time poor Dolores looks as though she’s got a tree growing out of one side of her face (in case you’re wondering why I didn’t just shoot her other side, I’d have been trading columns and flowers for the less-attractive side of a house and some particularly ugly undergrowth).

Figure 4

So we end up at Figure 4, where I’ve said to hell with negative space, and decided to mostly fill the frame with Dolores’ cracked visage. “But wait,” you say. “This was supposed to be about negative space!” And it is, dear reader, it is… including not being so attached to the idea of something that you settle for a bad photo just to say you used it. If negative space “makes” the image, by all means, use it. But there will be times, as I’ve shown here, that no matter how badly you’d like to use something, it’s not necessarily the best tool for the job. Put that in your pipe and smoke it (preferably against a nice, neutral background).

Beating the Block: Sense From Nonsense

 

Okay, now what?

While we tend to think of being blocked as a long-term thing, it’s not always that way. In fact, we could be having a great day shooting, and suddenly come across a scene that stops us in our tracks (and not necessarily in a good way). We look and look, trying from every angle we can think of, and nothing seems to be happening. Okay, now what?

For starters, make sure there’s a there there.* In your best Dr. McCoy voice, remind yourself that, dammit Jim, you’re a photographer, not a miracle worker. Some things are just dull, while in other cases it’d take another set of eyes on the scene to find and flush out a good photo. Don’t drive yourself nuts and let a speed bump turn into a brick wall; move on to something else.

But let’s assume that you’ve got something in front of you that your intuition tells you ought to be photogenic and you’re just not finding it. If you can’t change your subject, change your approach to it.

I think that sometimes we discard things out of hand out of expectations that they’ll make a certain kind of sense, which is to say, we expect them to conform to a certain look. Whatever it is — a landscape, a person, a car — we usually have a set of experiences with that thing, or things like it, and with those experiences come a set of memories and mental images. We remember the last great sunset we saw, or the last oddball on the boardwalk,** and we wait for the thing in front of us to look more like that. Our eyes are trying to reconcile the thing, or things, in front of us with what our mind’s eye remembers or expects.

Well, that’s a bit better.

Let go of it. Short of having your third eye squeegeed, try to find something that at a glance makes no sense and work with it ’til it does, or starts to. Our minds look at something and say that it “works” or doesn’t. When we approach something that’s not so readily apparent, we do something very useful for ourselves; we’re giving our mind something to chew over while we’re not necessarily consciously thinking about it. The results of what it churns up can surprise us, or send our thinking in new directions, but we have to be open to (and actively allow) the possibility to happen.

*If you’re having difficulty with this sentence, read it aloud. It should make more sense at that point. If it doesn’t, my apologies. Some days I swear my poetic license is on the revoked list.

**And if it’s the oddball on the boardwalk, wait a bit. There’ll be another one along any minute, trust me.

Beating the Block: Douglas Beasly’s Vision Quest Cards

I came across Vision Quest Cards when I was browsing projects on Kickstarter. The concept seemed promising: a deck of cards that would act as prompts for photographers (either alone or in groups) who might find themselves stuck from time to time. I was sufficiently intrigued to plunk down the money for a deck, and now that I’ve had the chance to look them over, I’m glad that I did.

The deck consists of 36 cards, each of which represents a short project. These range from the simple (like the first card, with the simple instruction to “Photograph the color red.”) to the more abstract or challenging (“Walk an area you would normally drive past. Bring your camera and make photos of what you might normally overlook.” Sound familiar?) The card format makes sense, partly because the assignments aren’t numerous enough to sustain a book, and partly because they’re not meant to be used in quite the same way you’d use a book. You don’t plow through this deck start to finish, in other words. It’s something more like a well from which you can draw when the inspiration’s run a bit dry.

This deck might not be for everybody. There’s a simplicity here that a certain breed of photographers (the ones, generally speaking, who pride themselves on how advanced they are and aren’t afraid to remind you of that fact) might find beneath them. That same simplicity allows the project to be as little as you’d like (if you’re pressed for time, it’s not as though it’s that hard to find something red) or as complex as you’re willing to make it, as well. The option for simplicity is a good thing, though, since if you’re stuck, the last thing you need is more complications. Besides which, someone who’s dug themselves a nice, deep hole probably ought not to complain about the color of the rope that’s thrown to them.

Which, of course, is another way of saying that if you’re willing to approach the cards with an open mind, they have the potential to be quite effective. In fact, perhaps the best thing about Beasly’s cards is that you could, if you had a mind to, very easily expand the deck yourself using nothing more than a stack of index cards and a ballpoint pen. They won’t be as elegant looking as the original pack of 36, but as I’ve mentioned before, it can be very useful to keep a stock (or a stack) of ideas in reserve, ’cause you just never know when you might need a shot of inspiration. The Vision Quest deck will easily fit into your camera bag for quick reference.

Postscript: You can find out more at www.visionquestcards.com

Optical vs. Digital Zoom: What it Is, Why it Matters

I was recently in a big box electronics store and was wandering through the camera department when I overheard the following rather dismaying exchange:

CUSTOMER: This one’s got optical zoom, and this one has digital. What’s the difference?
EMPLOYEE: There is no difference. They’re the same thing.

I’m going to give this employee the benefit of the doubt and say that he wasn’t doing what I’ve seen, and been on the receiving end of, so often at chain stores: salespeople who’ll tell the customer anything, as long as it results in a purchase at the end of the conversation. No, we’re going to assume that this guy honestly didn’t know there’s a big difference between optical and digital zoom, or what that difference is. After this, you’ll know the difference, and won’t get snookered.

First off, let’s see what optical zoom is. The “optics” in question come from the lens on your camera, whether it’s the fixed lens on a compact, or the interchangeable lenses on an SLR. The movement of the optical elements (a fancy-ish term for the bits of ground glass that make up the lens) is what allows the lens to focus, and to zoom. Doing either of those things just involves finagling the right combination of movements of those different pieces. Some lenses can have a dozen or more elements, usually arranged in groups; how they’re arranged will affect not only your zoom and focus, but also sharpness and focal distance.

Now that we’ve covered optical zoom, how does digital zoom work? Well, you’ve still got lens elements to handle focus, but they’re being used only for that. The zoom function has nothing to do with the lens. Instead, you essentially have a prime lens on your camera, and the camera’s image processor is taking that image (let’s say it’s effectively 50mm) and cropping it in camera, making it look closer, as if it was shot by a longer lens. This is the same thing that a photo editor like Photoshop or GIMP is doing when you crop an image. The quality of the crop will depend on how much you’re cropping, and on the quality of the resizing algorithm the camera is using, which generally won’t be up to par with even a decent dedicated editing program

The difference between the two should be pretty clear at this point, but in case it’s not: The advantage of digital zoom is sometimes a design consideration (it’s difficult, though not impossible, to squeeze optical zoom into a camera phone), and just as often a cost consideration (precision ground glass, coupled with precision engineering, isn’t cheap). The advantage of optical zoom is that despite the added expense, you don’t have to trade optical quality for the added “reach.” If you’ve already got your camera, and it offers only digital zoom,* my advice would be not to use it. Take the picture at the camera’s native resolution and default focal length, transfer it to a computer, and crop it then. You’re still starting with the same initial photo that the camera would be before it “zoomed,” but you’ll be using better software to crop, and should get a better result because of it.

*Or if, like many compacts, it offers optical up to a certain point, and then switches to digital past that

Take Sharper Photos!

Want to avoid photos like this? You’ve come to the right place.

I’m a sucker for sharpness. Not so much sharp objects (oh, the stories I could tell…), but sharp images. Not all types of photography call for razor-sharp images — we don’t need to see grandpa’s nose hairs in high-def — but often as not, if you’re shooting anything from architecture to zebras, you want a tack-sharp image. Our eyes, after all, resolve quite a bit of detail. We don’t even realize how much detail ’til we look at a photo of something we’d seen earlier with the naked eye and realize it’s a bit soft. What follows are a baker’s dozen tips for getting sharper images.

1. Focus properly. If you haven’t done this, it doesn’t matter how many of the subsequent steps you get right. Whether you’re using auto or manual focus, figure out what your camera’s going to be using for a focal point. Some cameras will default to a center point for both focus and metering, while others will either allow you to select a focal point, or will choose one for you depending on the focus mode you’re using (AF-S, AF-C, MF, etc.). If you’re not sure which your camera’s using, or how it uses them, consult your manual.

2. Compose properly. Related to the point above, depending on what and/or how much needs to be in focus, you may need to tweak your composition to keep the right bits in focus. If you’re shooting wide open on an f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens and your subject’s not facing you full-front, you may find that one eye’s in focus and the other’s not, for instance. This might mean re-framing the shot.

3. Support your lens properly. Your best bet is to use a dedicated support, like a tripod (your best bet) or a monopod (not as good as a tripod, but not chopped liver, either). When that kind of support isn’t allowed (in a museum, for instance), isn’t practical (you’re on a long hike and even a few extra ounces would be too much), or just isn’t available (you left your tripod at home, you scallywag), then proper handholding technique is a must. There’s a great tutorial at http://www.moosepeterson.com/techtips/shortlens.html If you’re sans support, use anything else that’s close at hand; brace yourself or your camera against a building, branch, table, rock, friend, or whatever else you’ve got handy.

4. Use a fast shutter speed. As a rule of thumb, I try not to go below 1/125 if I’m “holding”. However, on a full-frame camera, your shutter speed should be, at a minimum, the same as the focal length you’re using, while on a crop-sensor camera, it should be the same as the effective focal length. In the former instance, that means if your lens is at 200mm, you should be shooting at 1/200; in the latter instance, 200mm on a crop sensor is 300mm, so shoot at 1/300.*

5. Use good gear. I know, I know. Gear doesn’t matterexcept when it does. Not all cameras and lenses are created equal. Some lenses just aren’t sharp. Buy the best you can afford, comparing lenses, and checking for sample variations.** Similarly, if you’re going to use filters, don’t cheap out. Yes, good filters (UV, polarizer, ND, or even effects filters) can go for upward of a hundred bucks or more… but if you buy a cheap filter that vignettes at the wide end, flares badly, or softens your images (and filters can do all those things, and then some), you’ve hobbled your lens.

6. Know your gear. Lenses generally perform best between f/8-f/16. Some will allow for up to a stop in either direction, but they won’t be at their sharpest from corner to corner (you’ll lose sharpness in the corners first). You already know, hopefully, that shooting wide open tends to severely limit your depth of field, but there’s a tradeoff if you stop all the way down, too: while you’ll theoretically get more depth of field, you’ll also lose sharpness, and gain lens diffraction.***

7. Use a light touch, especially when shooting handheld. Don’t “jerk” the shutter button or mash it down, since that introduces a bit of blur into the picture.

8. Use Low ISO. Higher ISO’s introduce noise and loss of detail. Use of noise reduction, either in-camera or in post, can remedy the noise problem, but in nearly every instance, also leads to further loss of detail and sharpness. Use the lowest ISO you can get away with while keeping your other settings (shutter and aperture) within reasonable limits for the way you’re shooting, and also bear in mind that what counts for “high” ISO and noise will depend both on your camera and on your personal preferences.

9. Relax. Ragged breathing, shaking, and nervousness can all blur your images. If you need to, take the time to clear your head, catch your breath, and relax.

10. Shooting at a slow shutter speed? Use your camera’s burst feature. I prefer to get the shot as close to correct as I can on the first try. With that said, I’ve found that if I’m shooting under less-than-ideal conditions (in the wind, or at a slightly lower shutter speed), it helps to fire off a short burst. One of those three should be a useable shot.

11. Does your camera or lens have image stabilization? Use it. Shooting unsupported in low light with a slow lens? Consider using flash if it’ll salvage your aperture and shutter speed.

12. If you’re using a camera that doesn’t allow much manual control, like a camera phone or a compact, don’t despair. Familiarize yourself with its modes and options; most will have image stabilization or ISO boost features, and several companies manufacture supports small enough to fit in a pocket or purse that can be used on the ground or on tabletops. Using a support in conjunction with your camera’s timer feature (and nearly every camera has one) can be a huge help.

13. Failing all the above, sharpen in post. Just bear in mind that sharpening (known in some programs as an unsharp mask) is meant to take what’s soft and enhance it, not to rescue a photo that wasn’t in focus to start with. It also helps to bear in mind that over-sharpening can add noise and other artifacts that will detract from the photo rather than making it look better.

Finally, remember that not every photo needs to be tack-sharp throughout. That doesn’t mean that you should pass off all of your sloppiest work as “art,” but if your instincts tell you that the subject is compelling and the composition is dynamic, a bit of imperfection can actually be just the thing to humanize the photo, as with the example at left.

*Compacts make an utter mess of this, since you can’t always tell what the crop factor is. If your camera doesn’t have any way of telling you, use your best guess. There’s an article here that’s good if you’re trying to make sense of the whole full frame versus cropped thing.

**Sample variation: In theory, two of the same lens from the same manufacturer should perform the same way. In practice, they don’t always. You want to check autofocus speed (if the lens autofocuses), focus accuracy, and sharpness at several focal lengths and apertures. This goes much faster with a prime (there’s only one focal length to test) than with a zoom, but it’s a good idea to check. Sometimes there’ll be significant differences between lenses; sometimes they all perform equally well (or badly). At least you’ll have found out before you get it home.

***Lens diffraction: In brief, here’s what happens: past a certain point (usually around f/22 and above), your aperture blades diffract (scatter) light because you’re trying to squeeze it through a smaller opening. This can be used to interesting effect (you can get a “starburst” look from bright light sources), but you’ll be sacrificing sharpness to get it.

Beating the Block: Taming the Muse

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As I alluded to in yesterday’s post, muses are fickle creatures, coming and going more or less on their own schedule. If you wait around for inspiration to strike, you could end up waiting a very long time, which is bad enough. What can be just as difficult is when your muse just won’t shut up. I know that for a creative type, that sounds like a good problem to have, but it’s not always. So how do we deal with these cycles of feast and famine?

As I’d also mentioned yesterday, one way of getting around the famine that is a creative block is by simply, stubbornly, plowing through it. That works surprisingly well some of the time. At other times, however, you’ll need or want a bit more structure than you’d get by just “winging it.” When that happens, it helps to have a little something saved up, as it were.

I say this because in my own experience (your mileage may vary), ideas don’t often come one at a time. They come in clusters, or clumps, and sometimes they take on a life of their own, with some ideas spawning other ideas that lead to still more ideas… Before you know it, there are actually too many ideas, too much stuff for one person to do in a day, or week, or even year. Even when we’re working at full capacity, other things (work, food, water, sleep, social activity) have to be taken into account sooner or later.

And if you have a good idea, or even just one that’s got potential, why let it go to waste? If you can’t get to it now, save it for later:

  • Write it all down. If you do nothing else on this list, at least do this. If you’ve got just the bare bones of something — a title, an overarching concept — get that on paper, but if your mind takes you farther than that, follow it, and jot those thoughts down as well. You may not need these ideas now, but if you hit a dry spell later, this can be one of the things that gets you out of it.
  • Prioritize the list. Your ideas, mine, or anyone else’s, aren’t all good, and even the good ones aren’t equally good. It will be easy to picture some things as completed projects or fully realized ideas, while others may be only half-baked or might only be the vaguest starting point. Depending on what you need, or what you’ve got the time for, go to that part of the list.
  • Revisit your list from time to time. Some things that seem blindingly obvious to you when you first think of them may not hold up quite as well given a month on the shelf. Others may have barely made sense when you wrote them down (you did write them down, didn’t you?) but might make more sense now that your subconscious has had the chance to mull them over for a bit.

And by the way, if you have ideas that have nothing to do with what you’re doing now, write them down anyway. The reason I bring this up (and actually, the genesis of this post) is that over a period of about a week some time ago, I got ideas by the dozen for several different visual projects. This was before I’d ever picked up a camera, but I wrote every last one of them down. Hey, you never know when you might change directions or want to try something new; you also never know when you might come across a collaborator (or a friend who’s blocked), and you might find that you’ve already got the seeds of something, just waiting to be planted.

Do you have any proven “cures” for the dreaded block? Let’s hear ’em!

OEM Versus Aftermarket Gear: A Buyer’s Guide (Sorta)

You’ve got your new camera, and darnit, you’re fired up. You’re going to buy one of everything to go with it (two, if you can find enough change in your couch cushions). Well, hold on a second. Read this first.

Here’s the thing: regardless of which camera you’ve purchased, you have options as to what you buy. More specifically, will you buy OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), or aftermarket (someone made it who’s got no connection to the manufacturer)? There are advantages and drawbacks to both; below, I’ve listed some instances in which aftermarket gear and accessories are a good idea; others in which your results may vary; and finally, times when you’re best off going with the original manufacturer.

Buy Aftermarket:

1. The Strap: The strap that comes with your camera, provided it has one, is probably scratchy and uncomfortable. The straps that ship with Canon and Nikon cameras (the ones with which I have direct experience), while they’re strong enough, have two big drawbacks. One, they’re emblazoned with the manufacturer’s name, which doesn’t lend itself to subtlety, much less stealth. Much more importantly, they feel as though they could cut through your neck if you attach anything heavier than a loaf of Wonder bread to them (and your average setup, even with an entry-level SLR and 18-55 kit lens, ain’t exactly lightweight). There are literally dozens of other options, some much more stylish (MOD and Capturing Couture have some funky options), comfortable (I particularly like my Crumpler) or functional (a number of pros probably wouldn’t give up their Black Rapid straps except at gunpoint, and maybe not even then).

2. The Bag: Many manufacturers sell bags with their name on them. They’re competent enough; they’ll hold and protect your gear just fine. The problem is, in both their design and their very conspicuous branding, they practically scream “Camera bag!” There are other options that don’t draw as much attention to themselves, like Domke’s expensive but refined-looking bags, messenger bags from Crumpler and Tenba (not my personal cup of tea; they’re a little too exposed), and more specialized bags from the likes of LowePro, Pelican and Think Tank.

3. The Accessories: Here, I’m talking primarily about hoods, and lens and body caps. For something that’s basically a little plastic widget, some of these have no business carrying the price tags they do. There are scads of aftermarket options available here, many of them every bit as good as what ships from your camera maker of choice.

Now, a caveat: I strongly suggest against buying any of these things online. When it comes to straps and bags, you want to check build quality and comfort (not to mention, when it comes to a bag, how well it organizes and holds your stuff). No matter how good the description or product photos, they won’t tell you how the product feels, which makes a big difference when it’s hanging around your neck, or on your shoulders, for hours at a time. Also, you’ll want to try caps and hoods with your lens. If you’re not happy with the fit (some caps fit better than others, some hoods may fit your lens but vignette badly), find something that works better.

Toss Up:

1. Lenses: This one’s a subject of some debate. Every manufacturer makes some lenses that are very, very good, and a handful that are either mediocre or that flat-out suck. OEM lenses are generally better (even if sometimes only by a hair), but can go for twice as much or more than their aftermarket counterparts. Tokina, Tamron and Sigma each have some lenses that are very close in optical quality to their Nikon/Sony/Canon/Pentax counterparts, while some manufacturers (Zeiss, for instance) routinely make lenses that shame anything made by anyone else, though they have a price tag to match. Research carefully, paying attention to the good and bad that’s said about any lens, and be sure to try them for yourself, since even lenses with decent reviews may not be up to your standards. I found this to be the case with a Tamron 18-270 that I tried a while back; it was, to my eyes, unacceptably soft, and the autofocus was so slow that I could probably have left the shop for coffee only to find the lens still hunting for a focus point when I came back.

2. Gadgets and Peripherals: Even Amazon has now gotten into the game of selling remotes and such for different cameras. In some cases, the price point is low enough that you’d might as well go with the “real” brand (especially cable releases and wireless remotes). An off-brand battery grip might be much less expensive than, say, one by Nikon, but you may also find that there are issues that make the price difference seem much less attractive (build quality, etc.). This can also be true of GPS and WiFi peripherals. Again, shop around and do your homework.

3. Speedlights: Here, I’m going to speak mostly for the brand I know (Nikon): There are a few companies that make less expensive speedlights, but Nikon’s stuff is engineered to work with the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System), which is a big reason that some people choose Nikon over other brands. I suspect (though I’m admittedly going out on a limb here) that other manufacturers’ flashes are probably better built to work with their cameras than a number of the alternatives. With that said, if you’re not picky about how your speedlight works (heck, somebody’s got to be buying this stuff), the savings on an aftermarket product can be significant. One word of warning: DO NOT purchase an older speedlight (or use one you happen to have laying around) for use with a newer camera. Older speedlights can fry the electronics in many newer cameras. Check with the manufacturer, and/or with your local camera shop.

Buy OEM:

1. BATTERIES: If you buy an aftermarket battery, you may save a few (or several) bucks over one with a big  brand name on it. You may also find that it drains faster, overheats or catches fire, or does something else you’d generally rather a battery didn’t do to your camera. Your warranty generally won’t protect you if you’re not using an OEM battery, so be careful here. The same also applies to camera and battery chargers for the same reason.

2. Memory Cards: Check your owner’s manual, since some manufacturers only approve certain cards for use with their cameras. While camera manufacturers generally don’t make their own cards, there are a couple of big brands with a lot of market share (and mind share), like SanDisk and Lexar, and quite a few that make less expensive stuff (PNY, ProMaster, Kingston, Transcend, et. al.). The problem here is that some of them don’t “make” them so much as re-badge other manufacturers’ substandard stuff (if that Class 10 only clocked as a Class 6, it might end up with someone else’s name on it). In short, stick with reputable brands, and spend the extra cash. I’m not going to name names here (I’d rather not put up with a lawsuit), but that’s why you’ve got Google.

3. Filters: Some camera and lens companies, like Nikon and Hoya (which owns Tokina), make filters. Some companies (like Polaroid) license their name to other manufacturers, and other companies aren’t affiliated with anyone in particular. The bigger names are generally your better bets here, since they use better glass and coatings, and manufacture to higher tolerances. Some of the aftermarket options, on the other hand, use inferior or uncoated glass, or inferior manufacturing processes (and the Polaroid filters, in most cases, aren’t even glass; they’re plastic). Since you’ve presumably spent good money on your gear (especially your glass), don’t let your filter be the weak link.

Did I miss something? Have your results varied from what I’ve listed? Let me know in the comments!

Smartphones for the Smart Photographer

Hydro-Pruf (f/5 1/800 65 mph)

Camera phones have come a long way in the last few years, from something that wasn’t suited for much beyond Facebook and email to something that, in some cases at least, could rival the quality of a halfway decent point-and-shoot. A lot can be written (and has been) about taking good shots with a camera phone, and at some point I will join that particular fray; for today, though, I’d like to suggest a few uses for  your smartphone (and sometimes its camera) that go above and beyond the usual.

Let’s start with the obvious. If you’ve got another camera that usually acts as your primary (whether an automatic compact or an SLR), your smartphone can be a relatively competent backup. For a variety of reasons (tiny sensor, digital zoom, lousy high-ISO performance), it’s not going to replace your camera of choice any time soon, but if it comes down between getting, or not getting, the shot, use the darn phone. As several people have pointed out, the best camera is the one you’ve got. Since, as I’ve mentioned before, you should always have a camera with you, this is one camera you’re practically guaranteed to have at all times. So no excuses!

Then, of course, there are the apps. Here, I don’t mean applications for making half-assed shots look “artsy” (curse you, Hipstamatic!). I mean apps that allow you to use your phone in tandem with your camera. There are several of these, with new stuff being added constantly. Depending on your phone’s operating system (whether you’ve got a Crackberry, iPhone or Android-based phone), some applications may or may not be available for your smartphone. Read the reviews (they’re often a good indicator of whether an app will work on your particular phone, and how well) and release notes (ditto), and remember that your mileage may vary.

Some of what’s been released up to this point includes various light meter apps (which display values in lumens, or exposure values, or both), blueSLR’s Bluetooth adapter that allows for remote control and geotagging (in some cases at a fraction of the cost of an OEM geotagging dongle), Flashdock’s hotshoe attachment allows you to mount your smartphone to your camera, and controlling WiFi bridge devices. I should note that I haven’t personally tried any of this stuff, so I’m not endorsing any of it; if you’re interested in finding out more, however, check out the supplied links below and do some additional research of your own. If/as I incorporate any of this stuff into my own setup, reviews will appear here.

There are a couple of uses that won’t require any apps to download, and so won’t cost you a penny. For starters, put your camera manual on your smartphone. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner (probably because I didn’t have a smartphone ’til recently). Most manufacturers make their camera manuals available as PDF files, and keeping yours on your phone means not having to have one in your camera bag.

Finally, create shot lists, and store them on your phone. Wedding photographers use shot lists all the time, and I’ve begun to do a bit of it myself. In either case (yours, or the wedding photographer’s), it’s a good way to make sure you don’t miss something you’d wanted to catch. Think of it a bit like a shopping list. Rather than going to the grocery store empty-handed, plunking down $132.50, and getting home only to realize you never picked up eggs, you make a list. Similarly, if you know ahead of time where you’re going and the kinds of shots you’d like to get, make note of them. It can be helpful to have a reminder so you don’t get home and realize that you’d forgotten something you would like to have shot.

If there’s something useful I’ve missed — and in this case, I’m almost certain I have — feel free to comment or email me. In the meantime, here are a few links you may find useful in your research:

B&H Photo has a writeup on the blueSLR controller and app here.
Pocketdemo has a variety of smartphone-related gadgetry here.
NikonRumors has a short piece on a lower-cost way to control higher-priced cameras.
Finally, if it’s apps that you’re after, Google Play has you covered for Android, while the Apple App Store has what you’ll need for the iPhone and iPad.