Site update, and a few words on Sandy…

 

Point Pleasant Beach, July 4, 2012

The aftermath of Sandy has left me sans internet access for the time being, which means that there’s a lot in the queue that… well, is going to remain in the queue for the time being.

Right now, however, that’s the least of my worries. In contrast to Irene last year, the area where I live now has gotten off relatively easily. Trees down, power outages, gas lines reminiscent of the ’70’s, but nothing major, and certainly nothing compared to the catastrophic flooding and damage seen hereabouts this time last year.

I wish that I could say the same of my hometown, and much of the rest of the Jersey shore. Large sections of Brick, Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights, Mantoloking, Asbury Park, LBI, and several other towns up and down the coast have either been severely damaged, or altered beyond recognition. The photos that’ve trickled across my newsfeed are heartbreaking enough; I’m afraid of what it’s going to look like once I’ve had the chance to go back and wander the places I grew up.

In the days ahead, once I’m back on line, I’ll be sharing resources for those who need help, and also for those who’d like to pitch in. This being a photography blog, I’ll be looking for opportunities for photographers to do what they do best, and pitch in where we can. If you know of, or are affiliated with, photo charities involved in the relief effort, please contact me (thefirst10000 at gmail.com)

For my friends, family, and neighbors back home on the shore, hang in there as best you can. My thoughts and prayers, however inadequate, are with all of you.

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)

Nikon D600 Review: Ten Pounds of Camera in a Five-Pound Bag

The box is the only dull thing about this camera.

For years now, no camera discussion forum has been worth its salt if it hasn’t included a thread or two speculating about how neat it’d be if someone would stick a full-frame sensor into a crop-sensor body and slap an affordable price tag on it. Rumors have come and gone and come again, but now we’ve got the real deal with the Nikon D600, which was announced barely three weeks ago, and has actually been available in stores since its September 18 release date (if you’re even a casual Nikonian, you know this is nothing to take for granted). Read below for the results of real-world use (read: no test charts or silly photos of brick walls) from a real live photographer.

Sign

The D600’s $2,100.00 price tag isn’t exactly pocket change, but as full-frame cameras go, it’s enough to put this Nikon in the “affordable” category, relatively speaking. The price is held down by a few things; it doesn’t have the D800’s 36MP sensor or control surfaces, or a huge buffer, or the D4’s frame rate. Its body largely carries over from the D7000, from the remarkably similar design, measurements and weight to the use of titanium only for the back and sides. With all that being said, this isn’t a no-frills camera; there’s an awful lot of capability packed into a comparatively small package. Read on to find out more.

Hands (Crop; 1600 ISO)

Sensor: If you’re the kind of person who obsesses over lab tests, the DXOMark score for the D600 is 94 (third only to the Nikon D800 and D800E, which came in at 95 and 96; more on that here). If, on the other hand, you’re concerned more with the resultant photos…  Look, the thing’s got 24.3 megapixels. You can, in other words, crop like an overzealous barber and still get good shots out of this puppy. There are caveats, of course. Higher-megapixel sensors have a tendency to show the flaws of the lenses put in front of them (or of the photographer behind them), not to mention that the file sizes are much larger. Color depth is very good, and the dynamic range is… well, it’s a good reason to give this camera a close look if you hadn’t already.

Fireman (Crop, 3200 ISO)

Ergonomics and Controls: this is, naturally, highly subjective; one thing I’ve always liked about Nikon is that they feel right in your hands, and the D600 is no exception. There are plenty of knobs and buttons, which makes a huge difference when it comes to changing settings quickly (if it has, or can be assigned, a knob or button, that’s one less thing you’ve got to hunt for in a menu). Some of the buttons do double duty, controlling different functions depending on how you’re using the camera at the time; in other words, the buttons that control ISO and white balance will control your ability to zoom in and out on an image during playback. Some people see this as a major drawback… I’m not one of them. Like anything else, you adapt. The D600 is further helped by the inclusion of user-customizable menus, as well as two banks’ worth of user settings on the mode dial, which can be useful if you’re making lots of wholesale changes to your settings for certain situations. So if, for example, you’re doing product photography strictly for the web, you can dial in smaller file sizes, different color and ISO settings, et cetera, and recall them on the dial rather than having to set everything manually each time you want to shoot that way. As an added bonus, both halves of the mode dial now lock, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally changing from Aperture Priority to Manual when you take the camera out of your bag.

Fireman (Crop, 6400 ISO)

ISO: Native ISO spans 100-6400, with a “Low” setting of 50 and a “HI2” of 25,600 ISO. I was fully prepared to write off the HI modes altogether; on the D7000, 6400 was useable, but just barely, and by Hi2, it was as noisy as a bar band. Even without noise reduction, you can get useable prints up to 6400. Noise is very well handled in the upper ranges. The pleasant surprise here is in the reaches beyond 6400. It’s still noisy in the Hi modes, and there’s still loss of detail, but it’s held down much better on this camera than on the D7000. What’s more, even where there’s grain, it looks (up to 6400) like film grain. I’m not seeing the kind of luminance noise with the 600 that I’ve noticed with nearly every other camera I’ve tried – even in RAW, or in JPG with noise reduction turned off.

Metering: I’m finding the metering on this camera to be a tad more reliable than on the D7000. Left to its own devices (at least in matrix metering, which I tend to use most often), the 7000 had a tendency to slightly overexpose. The D600 blows fewer highlights in Matrix metering than the D7000, and also has visibly improved dynamic range (the inclusion of in-camera HDR is a nice touch, but I haven’t used it nearly enough – or used dedicated HDR programs like Photomatix at all – to be able to say exactly how well it does HDR).

Victory (Crop, 12500 ISO)

Autofocus: 39 focus points with 11 cross-type sensors. While I don’t have the fancy gear of the folks at Popular Photography or DP Review, I will say that the AF is noticeably faster in low light, even with my finicky, screw-drive 105 f/2.8D mounted to the camera. The one thing that may pose an issue for you, depending on what you shoot and how, is the grouping of those AF sensors. It’s essentially the same grouping as on the 7000, and in the same amount of space. In other words, what gave you pretty generous coverage on a DX sensor instead gives you a relatively tight grouping toward the center of an FX sensor. If you’re used to shooting with a single sensor point (or coming from a camera like the D60, which has only three evenly-spaced focus points on a single horizontal plane), this doesn’t present a huge issue.

Victory (Crop, 25600)

Battery: The D600 uses the same EN-EL15 that’s used in the D7000 and D800. It’s CIPA rated for 900-1050 shots. I haven’t shot quite that many frames (yet) with this camera, but my experience using the same battery in the D7000 bears this out. Other factors (overuse of the burst mode, lots of chimping, using the onboard flash, cold weather) can, of course, lead to your results varying.

Finder: 100% coverage, .71x magnification. It’s big and bright, with the option to overlay grid lines, plus a frame that shows the DX coverage area if you’re using a DX lens, or if you set the camera to shoot in crop mode using an FX lens. Unlike previous and other current Nikon FX cameras, the 600 carries over the square viewfinder found on the DX line (not that I mind; it means not having to buy another eye cup for the finder).

Lenses: You can use practically anything with a Nikon F mount on this camera, including DX lenses, from your old AI-S lenses, to the more recent 2.8D screw drive AF lenses (the drive’s built in, as it was on the 7000) to the newest VR G lenses. If you’re weighing the move from a dedicated DX camera to FF but have hesitated ‘til now because you needed the additional magnification provided by the crop sensor (and/or didn’t want to lose too much resolution), you’ll be happy to know that this shoots at a respectable 10 megapixels in crop mode, so you can still use that 70-300 like a 450mm at the long end if you need to.

Video: I’m a stills guy. I can count on my fingers and toes how many videos I’ve shot with any cameras I’ve used that had the capability, and would only need one hand for the number of those videos I’ve actually kept. I bring this up by way of suggesting you take this section with a grain of salt. Video quality was, to my eyes, pretty darned good in daylight, but not so much in lower light. The edge still goes to Canon (or Sony) on video performance, though Nikon’s improved significantly since they introduced SLR video with the D90. Audio’s spotty, but then again, I didn’t expect much from the audio to begin with;  nearly any non-video camera that relies on a built-in condenser mic has poor sound quality, and picks up every whirr, click, and hum from the camera’s and lens’ guts. If you’re serious about DSLR video, get a shotgun mic. But then, if you’re serious about DSLR video, you already knew that.

Extras: A strap, which is the usual cheap, garish and and uncomfortable nylon Nikon strap; if you haven’t already, I’d suggest buying something more comfy (like the Crumpler Crumpler Industry Disgrace***), especially since your neck’s going to feel like hamburger if you’ve got anything larger than a 50mm on the camera for any length of time. There’s also a USB cable, the little thingy that protects your hot shoe, that other little doohickey*that you’re supposed to put over the viewfinder if you’re not going to be shooting at eye level, another slab o’ plastic that covers the rear LCD, instruction manuals in English and Spanish (which you probably won’t read, choosing instead to ask on the NikonRumors forum, you scallywag), one EN-EL15 battery (with charger) and a body cap.

The Verdict:

Pros include excellent dynamic range, very good high ISO performance and color depth, good ergonomics, plenty of manual controls and buttons, quick buffering, and all the perks that go with shooting full-frame packed into a body with the form factor of the prosumer D7000. Cons** include a tightly-grouped 39-point AF system, slightly slower burst rate, and 1/200 flash sync.

Is this the camera you need? Well, that all depends. As with any other camera, a lot has to do with expectations. My last camera, traded in toward this one, was a D7000. That wasn’t an easy choice to make; the 7000 was an excellent camera, and if I had to do it over again, I’d buy another without hesitation. I heard gripes about the 7000 (notably, hot pixels, and sometimes gimpy AF, especially in low light). I didn’t have the same hot pixels that some early adopters had (one of the benefits of waiting), and given that I was coming to the 7000 from a point-and-shoot that could be poky in broad daylight, I found the 7000 a joy to use. If you’re stepping up to the 600 from an older generation of the D series (say, anything from a D40 to about a D80), this camera is a quantum leap.

Build quality is identical to the D7000, and the frame rate in burst is half-a-frame slower. If those things are deal breakers for you, plunk down the extra $900.00 for a D800 for the added build quality (and 36MP) and a more evenly-distributed 51 point AF. Or, for just (just?) an additional $3,800.00, you can get 10 frames per second, 51 point AF, and the build quality (not to mention concomitant weight) of a freakin’ tank with a D4.

I could easily sum up the D600 in two words: Holy shit. I’m a bit given to profanity as it is, but this camera had me cursing like a sailor on shore leave. Over and over again, it’s performed better than I expected: quick AF, jaw-dropping performance at high ISOs, the ability to crop with impunity, the lovely bokeh that’s the reason you buy fast lenses to begin with, and superb image quality.

If you’re on the fence because you’ve got a D90, D7000, or D300, all I can tell you is, put this puppy through its paces. Its controls are very close to those of the 7000 (with a couple of minor variations), and its dimensions and weight are so close that you won’t feel the difference in your hands. If you’re looking for the successor to the D700, this could well be that camera (keeping the caveats above in mind). If you’re looking for a backup body for your D800… well, that all depends. In terms of image quality, the D600 gives the D800 a run for its money, but the controls on both are very different, so unless your other camera’s a D7000, that could prove to be frustrating. With all that said, here’s the bottom line: if the compromises that come with this camera are the kind that you can live with (for me, they were) then this is a damn good camera for the price.

Buying options***:

Nikon D600 with 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR AF-S Kit Lens

Nikon D600 (Body Only)

Nikon EN-EL15 Rechargeable Li-Ion Battery (you’ll want a spare battery)

*Sincere apologies for all this technical jargon.

**Whether some of these things are “cons,” of course, depend on your needs and expectations.

***Amazon affiliate links. Your purchases through these links help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks!

A note on the photos: The file sizes on the original photos, as you’d expect on a camera with a 24MP sensor, are enormous. The photos above have, therefore, been cropped and downsampled. The only one that’s had any processing applied beyond in-camera noise reduction (set at Normal) is the flower photo above.

D600 User’s Manual (PDF/English)

D600 User’s Manual (PDF/Spanish)

If you’re using a smartphone, I suggest just putting the manual directly on your phone.

The Personal Is Historical (Some Thoughts on 9/11 and the Still Image)

Roger Mark Rasweiler (Image reproduced by kind permission of Shelly Castellano)

Every year around this time, for the last decade or so, I think about writing about 9/11, and I always tend to come up short. It’s not that there’s any shortage of memory or feeling there; like nearly anyone else old enough to remember that day — especially if, like me, you live in the shadow of NYC — I can recall where I was that day in more detail than I remember nearly any other day of my life, nearly down to the minute. The problem is moreso one of volume. So much has been spoken, written, filmed, and repeated that it feels like anything I’d have to say would be but a drop in the ocean. And yet, I can’t quite shake that day, and can’t quite shake the image that made the whole thing immediately and terribly real for me.

The photo that accompanies this post wasn’t chosen at random. The first time I saw Roger Mark Rasweiler (or his photo, at any rate) would’ve been some time around ten thirty on September 12, 2001. I was just getting on the train back home from work, and I saw a flyer just like this one in several of the train cars. I stopped to study the face, said a small prayer, and hoped against hope that this kindly-looking gentleman had just been detoured to Queens, or maybe a hospital somewhere in Manhattan or Hoboken. 36 hours after the towers fell, that wish didn’t yet seem as futile as it would in the days ahead, or as it did when I visited Union Square a week later, only to find the faces of the missing staring back at me by the thousands from subway cars, PATH trains, fences, and storefronts.

What does any of this have to do with photography? Maybe nothing at all. On the other hand, maybe everything. Those initial hours, after all, were a flood of words and images. The sheer volume alone would’ve rendered the lot of them overwhelming, but when you add the emotional heft — all the grief, confusion, anger and sadness with which every page and every frame was weighted — you’re left with something nearly staggering. It might just be me, but there was, and there sometimes remains, something in all of it that defies our attempts to cut it down to size, much less to make sense of it. Of course, it’s hardly the first or last time that would happen; we’ve had other catastrophes visited upon us before and since, and each time the end result is much the same: we’re practically struck dumb by the  weight of history and documentation behind it all.

Time and time again, we hear the numbers of casualties thrown out when we discuss catastrophic events, be they the six million of the Holocaust, the three thousand of 9/11, the hundreds of thousands in the Boxing Day tsunami. Those numbers, by themselves, don’t illuminate much of the larger story; they reduce the victims to a single, faceless mass. How do we wrap our heads and hearts around something so enormous?

Something of the answer — for me, at least — is in that photo of Mark Rasweiler. Those single, still images invite us to step away from the whorl of emotion and motion; they provide a stillness, a point of reflection, in which we can pause and begin to attempt to understand. Just as importantly — perhaps even more importantly — they give us a sense of the human scale of inhuman events. Those three thousand weren’t a monolithic, homogeneous mass; they were three thousand individuals.

We were reminded again this year, as we’ll be in the years ahead, to never forget those three thousand. I don’t disagree. But as I enter my twelfth year with the memory of Mark Rasweiler, and the others who died with him, might I suggest we remember them one frame, one person, at a time?

Postscript:

This article appeared a month after the attacks, and is one author’s take on the Missing posters and spontaneous memorials that sprung up in New York:

http://www2.facinghistory.org/campus/memorials.nsf/0/79960486B7BD852385256FAB00664696

Image of Roger Mark Rasweiler reproduced by kind permission of Shelly Castellano, whose work appears here: http://scpix.photoshelter.com/image/I0000D8VJdzXCD4M

Rule 51: Know When To Break The Rules

Rules can be a good and useful thing, within limits. They’re helpful aids to composition (think of the Rule of Thirds), exposure (Sunny 16), and even lighting (how often have we been told to always shoot with the sun at our backs?). Similar to writing, the rules of photography help to set forth a visual grammar that helps the viewer to make sense of the photo even as it aids the photographer in composing a better shot.

But then, we’ve all heard the old expression… “Rules are made to be broken.” In his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell writes: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Trying to shoehorn a photo into a rule that doesn’t quite fit it makes it less a photo or an exercise in creativity than an exercise in form that’ll be less about the subject than about the formal constraints you’ve imposed on it.

Sometimes there are practical reasons for this. For instance, the easiest way to eliminate distortion on a fisheye lens is to keep the horizon dead-center in the photo, which is a supposed compositional no-no. Or maybe the only way to get your shot is by shooting directly into the sun… you don’t want to pass up a shot just because it might not conform to some rule or other. At other times, artistic considerations come into play. If, to your eyes, the photo “works” even if it’s not technically perfect, trust your instincts and your own vision.

I’ll include two caveats to all of the above. If you’re a photographer of a certain temperment, it can be tempting to say — sometimes to yourself, sometimes to anyone who’ll listen — that you’re bound and determined to break all the rules. Nothing wrong with that; make sure, however, that you’ve bothered to learn the rules first, since not knowing the rules doesn’t lead to breaking them as much as it leads to sloppy photography.

The other thing is, you’ll want to keep in mind not only what rule(s) you’re breaking, but also why you’re breaking them. There’s a certain pleasure to be taken in breaking rules just for the sake of it (Screw it, I’m eating breakfast for dinner. But first, let’s have dessert.), but sometimes all that rule-breaking just means we’re trading one set of constraints for another. Think about it: if you decide you will never again use the rule of thirds/will only use plastic cameras with plastic lenses and severe light leaks/are extremely enamored with lens flare, you’re not avoiding cliches, you’re embracing them (or becoming one). Rule breaking, like the rules themselves, should be something that gives you more options, rather than limiting them.

Review: 2013 Photographer’s Market, edited by Mary Burzlaff Bostic

2013 Photographer’s Market, edited by Mary Burzlaff Bostic

The 2013 Photographer’s Market bills itself as “Everything You Need to Find Buyers for Your Photos.” By its nature, dust jacket copy tends toward the hyperbolic, but this is one instance in which they’ve got it about 98% right.

For years, I bought and used the Writer’s Market series of books, so I already had a fair idea of what to expect even before cracking open my copy of the Photographer’s Market. It’s thick — nearly the same size that phone books used to be back when people still used them — and packed to the rafters with information.* In addition to the listings of consumer and trade publications, submission requirements, and contact information that’ve been this series’ stock in trade since it started, there are also interviews with industry insiders, plus information on galleries, art fairs, contests, workshops, and agents/representatives.

The yearly updates ensure that what’s there is up to date. The other advantage is that, like the companion volumes put out every year for writers, illustrators, and others, a great deal of time and thought is put into where the industry is, and where it’s going. The upside — a pretty big one, as it turns out — is that you’re not stuck with a publication that assumes that photojournalism and editorial are thriving right now. The authors don’t just acknowledge that photography has changed significantly, but they’ve also laid out a number of tools, resources, and strategies to keep photographers up to speed on the current state of the market. There are segments dealing with everything from running and marketing your photo business to maintaining a healthy life-work balance. On top of all that, the print edition comes with a free 1-year subscription to ArtistMarketOnline.com (e-reader users are left out in the cold on that last bit).

There’s enough here that anyone — whether you’re looking to keep a professional photography business going, or just to make a few bucks on the side — should find something they can use. I’d especially recommend this book to people who’ve just bought an SLR and are now calling themselves “professionals” because they’ve gotten a few bucks here and there for head shots, or doing a wedding on the cheap. Even a cursory read of this book should be enough to let you know that there’s much more than that to being a professional photographer. For some people, no doubt, that’s going to be a discouraging prospect. For the rest of you, it’s a good thing, since if you’re willing to put in the work, there’s plenty here to get you off on the right foot.

Way back in the first ‘graf, I mentioned that the jacket copy got it about 98% right. So where’s that other couple of percentage points? Well, by its nature, a book like this can’t go into a great deal of depth on any one thing. If you’re new to making money at your photography, it’d be in your best interest to take one or more topics that this book only scratches the surface of, and doing further reading and research to build your skills and knowledge. That might mean picking up a good introduction to photography technique if you’re literally just starting with a camera, but if you’ve been shooting for a while, it’ll mean checking out other, more specialized books on the business (like David duChemin’s VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography) or legal (like Edward Greenberg’s Photographer’s Survival Manual: A Legal Guide for Artists in the Digital Age) aspects of photography. But as a starting point — and as a comprehensive single-volume reference — I can’t think of another book that does what this one does, or that handles the job quite this well.

*Yes, I know books don’t have rafters. It’s a figure of speech, dammit.

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

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?

Rule 50: Learn Some Theory

I’ve toyed with this post on and off for a while now, and I’m finally going to bite the bullet and just write the darn thing. The short version? By whatever means you can — websites, books, college, osmosis — learn yourself some artistic and photographic theory.

Since I can’t very well just leave it at that, let me elaborate.

There are a couple of acknowledged classics in the field, such as Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but the theoretical framework for photography exists from the medium’s earliest days. Some of this theory concerns itself with ground that’s already been trodden by other arts (you can recycle the philosophical questions around esthetics, for instance, ’til you’re blue in the face), while in other cases there’s more of a concern with how the photographer finds meaning in a subject, or how the resultant photo conveys meaning (or fails to). The one unifying thread through the 150-odd years of theory that’s out there is a desire to make sense of the inner workings of photography, and it doesn’t show any signs of abating as time goes on, since the advent of digital has only added not only more photos, but also more writing about them, into the mix.

So what’s the use of all this theory, anyway? For one thing, it gives us a different lens through which to view and interpret what the medium is about, and is capable of doing. In some ways it also fulfills the same role that literary theory does for the written word. Just the same as we can shoehorn language into stuff as mundane as shopping lists and as sublime as, say, Pablo Neruda, so too can photography be approached in as quotidian or as ambitious a way as you’d like. Reading Barthes, the Adamses (Ansel and/or Robert), Rowell or Sontag will not make you a better photographer any more than watching “This Old House” will make you a better carpenter, but using either of those things as starting points and incorporating them into your practice can lead to a different (and sometimes even better) understanding both of what you’re doing, and why you do it.

In closing, however, let me add two very big caveats, in flashing neon lights if necessary:  Let me add to that the thought that the role of theory and the theoretician should be similar to that of the critic and their criticism; that is to say, theory, like criticism, is only useful insofar as it furthers your understanding of something. If what you’ve read only serves to confuse you, or to muddy the waters, you have two options: come back when your practice has taken you further (to see if the theory makes more sense, or holds more water, in light of what you’ve experienced), or decide that maybe that particular bit of reasoning just doesn’t resonate for you, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Second, and even more important, don’t — and I mean do not ever — allow theory to be a substitute for practice. All that theory, all the philosophizing and philosophy and rules and regulations, has its uses, to be sure, but it also has its limitations. Theory can only explain so much, beyond which point it falls (or should fall) silent.

Interested in learning more?

http://www.photographyandtheory.com/ (Photography and Theory) is a conference, now in its second year, that covers… well, you’d probably already figured that bit out, hadn’t you. The Photograph In Theory is an article by Elizabeth Chaplin that covers not only photographic theory, but also where it can intersect with the practice of other disciplines (e.g., sociology)… and there’s quite a bit more out there, if you’re so inclined.

Beyond Photography: Joe Strummer at 60

Joe Strummer by Joe Kerrigan (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Joe Strummer — guitarist, lyricist, provocateur, one-time Clash frontman and the guiding force behind the 101er’s, Latino Rockabilly War and Mescaleros — would’ve been sixty years old today. As I write this, with Strummer and the Mescaleros’ “Global A Go-Go” blasting through the speakers, and I’m reminded of an old saying: “It’s not where you take it from. It’s where you take it to that counts.”

“Big Youth booming in Jakarta, Nina Simone over Sierra Leone, big sound of Joujouka in Nevada, and everywhere, everywhere Bob’s bringing it all back home…”

Joe struck me as something of a magpie, taking a little of everything from a little of everybody. However, it was where he took it — that stew of musical influences, passion, politics, and humanity — that made, and makes, his music worth listening to. It also ensured that Strummer was never “just” a punk, some kind of one-note joke or one-chord wonder. Sure, his earliest recorded work (available on the 101’ers Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited*) has a ragged proto-punk intensity, and early Clash material like “White Riot” and “London’s Burning” had all the venom, fury, and irresistable force that the Pistols had. But from Strummer’s earliest days, the worldview and the music were so much more, and so much wider. You can hear it on the covers (“I Fought the Law,” “Pressure Drop,” “Armagideon Time,” and “Redemption Song”), the originals like “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” and “Get Down Moses” that name-checked and musically referenced everybody from Bo Diddley, Johnny Cash and the Mighty Sparrow to the Skatalites and Baaba Maal.

Anyway, it’s good to be sent back to the underground. There’s always a good side to bad things and the good side to this is that at least everyone has to go back down.

Of course, it wasn’t all ups. When the Clash dissolved in 1984, Strummer was at loose ends. During these “wilderness years,” he’d release Earthquake Weather,* a mixed bag that drew decidedly mixed reviews. His soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Walker* fared better critically and artistically (the juxtaposition of the jaunty “Filibustero” over the movie’s violent opening scene is a stroke of genius), but he’d essentially dropped off the radar, taking stray acting gigs, scoring small indie films, and even joining the Pogues to fill in for a wayward Shane MacGowan. All that would change in the early 1990’s when Strummer formed the Mescaleros, a band that would, over the course of three albums (Rock Art & the X-Ray Style,* Global a Go-Go,* and the posthumously released Streetcore*), alternately build upon his roots, and branch out in new directions. He never quite recovered a Clash level of fame and reknown (indeed, one scene in Dick Rude’s Let’s Rock Again shows Joe handing out flyers and busking on the Atlantic City boardwalk). But his later career was, I’d argue, every bit as important as his earlier work, and has aged gracefully in ways that, say, the Pistols and Buzzcocks reunions didn’t.

So what do I take from Strummer’s work, and why am I bothering to write all this? For starters, if you’re going to pursue your craft, do it as though it matters, even if you’re the only one to whom it matters for now. For another, wherever it takes you  — the ups and downs and then the ups again — handle it with as much grace and humor as you can muster, but also with no small measure of gratitude.

Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods / You can get inspiration along the highroad

Above all, though, approach your craft wide open. Eyes, ears, heart, the whole lot of it. Our work, whatever it may be, doesn’t exist only in our minds. The act of creating something puts it out into the world, and also — even if it’s only in a small way — acts on the world. In some way, then, we need to acknowledge that the world exists, and acknowledge the people who’ve shaped it and with whom we hopefully engage. We’re confronted every day with something, or someone, new. Whether it’s our neighbors, or what comes out of their stereos, their ideas, or their way of life, they present us with a choice. We can stop to learn from them, or run in the other direction with our eyes shut and hands clamped over our ears to drown them out. But of course, if we do that, we cut ourselves off from a give-and-take that could otherwise have expanded our options, our understanding, and ultimately ourselves… all of which is to say that the world doesn’t stop with us, and so our art and craft shouldn’t, either.

Joe Strummer passed away on 22 December, 2002. This December, in other words, will mark a decade that he’s been gone. It seems a lot more fitting, however, to celebrate his birth and all that he brought with him into the world, along with all that he left behind. Rest easy, Joe.

Postscript:

On the Web: Joe’s legacy lives on via Strummerville, the Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music. You can find out more about it (and hear from a ton of bands and solo artists I expect we’ll probably hear a lot more from in years ahead) right here: http://www.strummerville.com/

Audio: Any of the Clash’s albums are worth having, even the sprawling wreck that is Sandinista!* (my personal favorite). If you have to start somewhere, I’d suggest either The Clash (US Version)* or London Calling*. Yes, there are collections (like the excellent Clash on Broadway*), but the albums have a power and cohesiveness that you’d miss if you just listened to the singles. When it comes to Joe’s post-Clash output, his work with the Mescaleros is far better than his work on Earthquake Weather, while the Walker soundtrack is a bird of an altogether different feather. You can get the Mescaleros stuff in order (linked above) or all at once (on Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years*, just released on MP3 today as it happens) but bear in mind that as band members dropped in and out, the group’s sound changed markedly from one album to the next.

Print: Two books are essential if you want to learn more about Joe and the Clash in depth. Marcus Grey’s The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town* has been revised several times and covers the history of the Clash with detours into the members’ lives after the band broke up, while Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer* is a revealing portrait of Joe before, during, and after his time with the band. There’ve been other books written about both the band and the man, but none that I’ve read were as good as these.

Video: Finally, there are several films about both the Clash and Joe. For the former, check out Don Letts’ The Clash – Westway to the World* For the latter, there’s Dick Rude’s Let’s Rock Again* and Julian Temple’s The Future Is Unwritten*, which feature archival footage of Strummer, alongside interviews with bandmates, friends, and those he influenced.

It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you’re nothing.

Links with an asterisk (*) are Amazon affiliate links that help support The First 10,000. Links to song titles go to YouTube videos. The Strummerville link goes to Strummerville.

 

Rule 49: Concerning the Proper Way To Eat an Elephant

Twice in a Blue Moon

In case you’re wondering about the title (and whether or not I’ve taken leave of my senses), it’s from an old riddle. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

If you’re just starting out on the photographer’s path, it can be awfully intimidating, what with all the stuff you have to learn. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure, composition, the Rule of Thirds, lighting, Sunny 16… I’m reminded of a bit from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, where Michael Palin’s preacher solemnly intones, “Oh Lord, ooh you are so big…” Substitute “photography” for “Lord” in the preceding phrase, and you start to get an idea of the problem. Photography is so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here I can tell you.

Ahem. Sorry. Got carried away there. Where was I? Oh, yeah, photography.

So anyway, there’s no getting around the fact that photography is really freakin’ large. Lots of moving parts. Many things to learn. And with something, anything, of that size, there comes the temptation from time to time to just throw up your hands and say to hell with it, ’cause there’s just no way you’re going to learn all that stuff all at once.

Easy there. Nobody said you had to. Best of all, there’s no prescribed (or proscribed) order in which all this stuff needs to be learned. You can be as systematic or as haphazard as you’d like. You can invent your own learning system, set your own learning curve… or you can just pick up a camera one day and start shooting, gradually working your way through options and menus ’til you know the thing like the back of your hand (then buy a new camera and start all over again). Or you can shoot ’til you realize there’s something missing, something you’d really like to do, and figure out how to do that thing, moving from thing to thing as you need to, one side effect of which is that there are things you’ll have no idea how to do, but the things you do, if you’re diligent, you’ll do really, really well.

But above all, remind yourself that nobody learns anything — photography, knitting, playing the bagpipes — all at once. Just the same as you can’t swallow an elephant whole*, you cannot reasonably expect to master the whole of your craft in one fell swoop (and if you have, or think you have, congratulations; you’re doing it wrong.) Take it one step — one setting, one shot — at a time. Your photos will be better for it, as will your skills. And there’s less risk of indigestion.**

*Unless you’re a boa constrictor

**I hear elephant repeats pretty badly.

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?

What’s My Motivation?

I read a post a couple of months ago called “Why Photography?” by Steve Coleman. The same day, Brian Miller had a post up called “Why Make Photographs?”

If it came from a non-photographer, it would’ve drawn the same response that I get when someone tells me they don’t like to read, or that they “just don’t like the taste of food.”* In short: WTF? But these weren’t non-photographers. Maybe it was something in the water?

At any rate, the same question, posed the same day, by two photographers whose work I respect and enjoy got me to thinking (and thinking; as you can see, it’s two months later, and the question’s still very much on my mind). You may have asked yourself that question as well, with the inflection changing depending on your mood. If you’re not yet a photographer, or just getting started, the question comes out, “Why make Photographs?” or “Why Photography?” As in, “Why this thing, and not some other?” How come I’m a photographer and not, say, a bassist (easy — no hand/eye coordination to speak of), singer (can’t carry a tune in a bucket) or painter (the less said about that, the better)? I could probably have stuck with bass, or found a vocal coach, or gone to art school, but I didn’t. I did, however, pick up a camera, and found it very difficult to put it down. Sometimes you find your medium, or maybe you just meet it halfway. But if it speaks to you — and allows you to speak through it — it’s hard to ignore that.

So then you’ve done this photography thing for a bit, and you like it enough to do more than take snapshots. The question then becomes, “Why Make Photos?” Somewhere along the line, the relationship has deepened and you’ve decided that you and the camera are more than just friends. You start to move beyond the ability of the camera to simply document, and you decide that maybe you’d like to try using it to interact with, or respond to, not only what’s in front of you, but also what’s starting to show itself in your mind’s eye. There’s an old expression that when you’ve got a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Well, spend enough time behind the camera, and if you really throw yourself into it — you really start to look deeply at things, really start seeing — before too long, everything starts to look like a photograph.

Then you hit a wall. Sometimes it’s after a bad day of shooting, or a bad month (or more), where it seems like the inspiration’s gone and the world’s gone flat. Now all of a sudden, the question is “Why Make Photos?” or “Why Photography?” (whereupon you may shake your fist at the sky, your camera, or both). It happens (or it will, if it hasn’t yet; trust me on this). When it does, it’s helpful to revisit those first two versions of the questions. Revisit your motivation, revisit your joy, revisit doing the work just for the sake of it. The frustration will pass, will turn on a dime or a shadow or an interesting bit of geometry or eye-popping color.

Of course, your mileage may vary. What I’ve written about is my experience, and yours (the experience, the motivation, and all that goes with it) could well be very different than mine. And that’s okay. I could also quote at length from both of the essays mentioned above, but I won’t. Read them — and quite a bit else on both Steve and Brian’s blogs — for yourself. It’ll be time well-spent. And in the meantime, what about you? Why do you make photographs?

*Someone actually said this to me once, and I’m still agog over it.

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

Rule 48: Be Glad For Your Ignorance

At a glance, that probably sounds like the most counterintuitive advice you’ve ever gotten. After all, we have it drilled into our heads constantly that knowledge is power. And as someone who seeks to spread knowledge and understanding about photography, even if it’s only in a small way, you’d think I’d be the last person to advocate for knowing less. But let’s go beyond the title, and the negative connotations of the word, for a moment.

In its most basic sense, ignorance is simply not-knowing. That lack of knowledge isn’t something to wear like a badge of honor, but it’s a necessary part of the process, something that’s worth honoring and putting to good use. As long as it’s a point of departure, it’s a phenomenal tool for growth and something worth having around if you plan to get any better at what you’re doing, whatever that may be.

Stripped of our ignorance, we’re stuck. We have nothing new to learn, nothing new to see, and nothing new to say. Think about it: some of the worst of what we’ve done, whether they were wars, race hatred, religious extremism, blinkered political systems, or any of the other myriad forms of hurt, hatred and stupidity of which we’re capable, came about because we “knew” something. We knew better than someone, or knew we were better than them.

What do we have to show for our ignorance? Landings on the Moon and Mars, the exploration of the depths of the sea, decoding the human genome, better understanding of our own minds and bodies… we’ve accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge, the net effect of which has been to further illuminate the depths of our ignorance, which in turn spurs us on just a little bit farther.

What we “know” as artists doesn’t turn us into genocidal maniacs, obviously. But it arrests us, stunts our growth as people and as artists. Knowing something, we put it off to one side; it loses its appeal and some part of its importance. It’s barely worth our attention, much less our continued effort. So ignorance (whether we’re calling it that, or giving it some other name like Zen does with Beginner’s Mind) is vital to our progress, our growth, and our joy.

If we can forget what we know — or begin to realize all that we don’t yet know — we have something to work toward.  We don’t know it all. We don’t even know all of a little bit of much of anything, come to think of it. And we should probably be glad for that, because as long as it’s true, there’ll always be something new to learn, and some new surprise, awaiting us at each stage of our learning and putting what we’ve learned into practice.

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…

Play To Your Strengths? Maybe Not.

I had a conversation with one of those life coaches a few years back that’s mostly slipped my mind, save for one thing she told me that’s always stuck with me: “Your biggest strength, or any strength if you overuse it, becomes a weakness.” Pause a second and let that sink in.

I thought about it, and realized that I’m a very analytical person by nature. You need something analyzed? I’m your guy. I’m great at gaming out a scenario — every last what-if, every contingency — ’til analysis becomes paralysis. Over time, I’ve learned to recognize when I’m doing it, and to remind myself to cut it out.

I bring this up for a reason. It isn’t just our personal or character strengths that can inadvertently trip us up. When you try something creative, it’s really easy to find your strengths and ride them ’til the wheels fall off. Photographers aren’t immune to this, so it’s probably a good idea for us to step back, take a look at our work, and figure out what it is we do really well so we don’t do too much of it.

For starters, it’s not just subject matter that starts to get repetitive. It’s also the ways in which we shoot what we shoot. If you’re an architectural shooter, you start to look for the same shapes and patterns, or relying on the same kind of lighting; if you’re a portraitist, it might mean relying on a set of poses that you know could flatter Quasimodo; if you do weddings, it can mean sticking to the same lighting setups and situations that’ve always worked for you.

To be clear, there’s a reason that people rely on formulas. Sometimes — especially when time is tight, or the results are critical — any artist has to know they’ve got things in the old kit bag that they can pull out at will, and that will almost certainly be effective. Once those things are done, they’ll use the time left for a bit of experimentation. So there’s a time and a place for formula, for going from strength to strength and playing it safe. Sometimes, we just need the safety net.

But let’s be just as clear on something else. Sometimes we need to forget the net. We can’t, obviously, just forget or unlearn all that we know (and it wouldn’t be a good idea even if we could). But we can, and sometimes must, at least set it off to one side for a bit. Yes, it’s a challenging, and sometimes even uncomfortable, way of working. However, the skills and ways of seeing that you pick up when you try something new — even if it’s not your usual subject matter or way of doing things — aren’t just about your new subject or the skills that go with it. Those things spill over even into your “usual,” giving you greater options and new ways of doing the same old stuff in a way that it doesn’t have to be the same old same old.

What would you like to do to shake up your photography? What would you like to strengthen, and what kinds of situations or subjects might help get you there?

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.