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?

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?

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.

Rule 37: Use It or Lose It!

The Ballerina Revisited

If you’ve ever attempted a workout routine, stuck with it for a while, and then stopped (injury, bad weather, loss of motivation), you know how hard it is to get started again. You also know, as you start to get back into the swing of things, that you start to ache in places you never knew could ache. While photography doesn’t have that many aches and pains to go with it (though with heavy gear, that’s also a possibility), you still need to keep your skills sharp through plenty of practice.

This is especially true when you’re trying something new, like a different compositional technique or a camera setting that you don’t use very often. The first time or two, you may have to take mental — or literal — notes, or even refer back to the camera manual. Do it often enough, and it becomes second nature.

But if it’s something you may only be doing every so often, it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned. Yes, I know, some smartass is probably going to say that it’s just like riding a bike. If that’s the case, I’ll have to be extra careful not to fall off my tripod. But I digress. If you haven’t used a skill in a long time, it’s easy to forget how to do it, or even not to do it quite as well as you would have if you’d been in practice.

I was reminded of this comparing some recent shots to an older series taken in the same place. The more recent batch was better in a number of ways (I hadn’t been shooting that long the first time I’d gone), but I noticed in that earlier batch that some of my shots used things that I liked (and still do) but that I’d let fall by the wayside, like using frames within my shots.

Now, that’s a pretty minor thing, all things considered. With that being said, the skills and little tricks that we bring to bear on our craft are a language unto themselves. They have their own vocabulary, their own syntax. As with your spoken/written vocabulary, the more you’ve got, the more options you also have to express yourself. Imagine yourself trying to express something, but you’ve forgotten the word or words that go with it. Your photography’s like that, as well… it becomes just a little bit harder to express the things you’d like to express without the right “stuff” with which to do it.

So. If you’ve picked up some new skill, be sure to dust it off every so often. Leave yourself a reminder, or go back over some of your older work. In either case, it’s a good way to ensure that your skills stay sharp (or at least don’t get too severely blunted) for when you need them later.

Do Over!

Seward Johnson, King Lear

A lot of artists understand the importance of keeping a childlike spirit. With that in mind, here’s your official permission to call the occasional “Do over!” It’s not quite the same as when you’ve lost your 874th Rock, Paper, Scissors or hit a wiffle ball over the neighbor’s fence, but every once in a while, you just need to go back to something that didn’t go the way you planned the first time (or even one that may have gone perfectly well), and give it another go.

Things change all the time. I was reminded of this on a visit to the Grounds for Sculpture this past weekend. Several of the pieces on exhibit were still there from my first visit a couple of years back, but (as with any other museum) several had also been changed. So, while I had the chance to revisit some of my previous “subjects,” as with the photos at left of Seward Johnson’s King Lear, some old friends had gone, and some new ones had been put in their places. That’s often true of our subject matter, whether it’s human, animal, vegetable or mineral. Those changes, incidentally, are an opportunity to revisit those subjects over time, to note and document those changes.

Seward Johnson, King Lear

The technology we use “evolves,” too. Sometimes it’s the difference in a camera body — we’ve moved from point-and-shoots to SLR’s, changed the software with which we edit (and how we use it; I’m not as heavy-handed with the edits as I once was), discovered speedlights or tripods or wide-angle lenses… and each of these things allows us to do something we couldn’t do before, or at least to do what we’d done earlier a bit differently.

But, of course, it’s not just the subjects and the gear that change. We’re changing and evolving all the time as well. We pick up new skills and new ideas, while some other things fall by the wayside. I’m not the same photographer that I was two years ago, for reasons that have nothing to do with which camera was around my neck when I made these photos. I would hope that my skills now are a bit sharper than they were then, my eye perhaps a bit more receptive to what’s going on in front of it. As that happens, it can be a good idea to go back to something you’ve shot earlier, not just to see how you’d do it differently, but also hopefully to shoot it better than you did the first time around.

Seward Johnson, King Lear

Subjects, gear, skills… it’s all changing and evolving daily. And it matters, all of it. We can’t, or at least shouldn’t, shoot as though nothing’s changed if and when something does. So revisit your subjects from time to time, since all of them make a difference in how, what, and sometimes even why we shoot what we do, the way we do.

Your turn (no tagbacks)!

A few words about the shots that accompany this post: All three are of the same subject, in the same place. The first was shot in November, 2010 on a Kodak compact; the second shot on a D7000; and the third on a Fuji X10. The odd color cast on the Fuji shot actually isn’t post-processing, but rather a happy accident owing to a quirk in how Picasa reads Fuji RAW files.

More on the Grounds for Sculpture: http://www.groundsforsculpture.org

Using Portrait Versus Landscape for Your Photos

Figure 1

Let’s start off by explaining what Portrait and Landscape are, exactly, for anyone reading this that doesn’t know. Portrait orientation is a more  generally reserved for… well, portraits, like Figure 1. Landscape orientation for landscapes, as in Figure 2. Makes sense, right? So what’s with Figure 3, which shows a portrait (of sorts) in Landscape orientation?

This is worth thinking about since it’s one of the first decisions we make when we decide to make a photo. Here are a few things to think about when you choose whether to shoot in Landscape or in Portrait:

First of all, where’s the eye going? Also bear in mind that once the photo’s taken, you’re effectively trying to lead your viewer around by the eyeballs. Where do you want their eye to go? While there’s a lot that goes into composition, a general rule of thumb is that landscape tends to lend itself to “panning” (the eye’s following the horizontal axis), whereas portrait favors “tilting” (the eye follows the vertical axis) Sometimes there will be lines within the photo that draw the eye, but just as often it’s the shape of the subject itself (or the interplay of its various shapes) that’s doing the work for you.

Figure 2

Landscape is great for creating a sense of context, since it practically begs you to provide some background for your subject. Portrait orientation, on the other hand, is helpful when you want your subject to be the center of attention. Of course, that’s only a guideline, since the way you frame the shot in either case (and specifically, how close or far you are in relation to your subject) can either isolate or contextualize your subject just as well as the way you’re holding your camera.

And that, in a roundabout way, brings us to another consideration. We’re conditioned by years of seeing things presented in a certain way. So much of what we see — television, the monitor on which you’re reading this, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks — is in Landscape that we expect certain kinds of scenes to be presented that way. It’s expansive, inclusive, and informal. On the other hand, so much of portraiture, from Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington to Platon’s portraits of world leaders, relies on what we’ve come to read as the formality of the Portrait format. Using one format where the other would normally be used is a way to work against type on a subconscious level; a horizontal portrait, for instance, can make someone seem more approachable.

 

Figure 3

Using the Rule of Thirds sometimes also means changing your orientation. If you’re using your viewfinder or LCD’s grid lines (or even just eyeballing it), you may have something that lines up perfectly where it “should” on the grid lines. However, it could also be an awkward, or otherwise ineffective, composition. Try changing the orientation and reframing the shot. This is also true when you’re shooting more than one person, since a vertical photo tends to emphasize closeness (something to bear in mind if you’re shooting a group of friends), whereas a horizontal photo, if not framed properly, can make your subjects seem a bit lost or insignificant.

Here’s what I’d like you to do: Experiment. If you tend to shoot everything in one orientation, try the other. Or, if you tend to shoot certain types of subjects with the same orientation, change things up and see what it does to your composition and framing. If you’re all about context, see what happens when you zoom in on the details; this can have the added bonus of making you notice, and appreciate, details you might’ve missed or otherwise passed over. If, on the other hand, you’re all about detail, enjoy the forest and skip the trees for a bit. Sometimes these small changes can make a big difference, especially at times we’re starting to feel things getting a bit stale.

Figure 4

And here’s something else to try, just for fun: Instead of aligning your camera in a conventional portrait or landscape orientation, use a diagonal line within the photo (even if it’s a diagonal created by a vanishing point) as a guide to align the camera. Take Figure 4 as an example; the landscape format would tend to lead the eye from left to right, and in fact the signs do just that. At the same time, however, the slight diagonal tends to lead the eye “upward” at the same time. The results aren’t always going to be spectacular (indeed, the jury’s still out on Figure 4), but I’ve found that this can be effective at times when you have a really busy frame. When you’ve only got one strong subject, it just looks like they’re toppling over, but if there’s a lot going on, tweaking your orientation can be an option to slow your viewer down. Not only can this give you a different perspective (literally), it’s also a way to play with the leading lines within the photo and where the viewer’s eye is led as a result.

Autofocus Versus Manual Focus

Pan

If you’re anything like me — which, for the purposes of this post, means you’re just about blind as a bat without your glasses — autofocus can be a godsend. It’s pretty useful for a host of other reasons and situations as well. Shooting sports or animals, shooting from the hip, shooting at odd angles… there are times that it’s a good thing that the camera can take care of at least one variable for you, and generally do it pretty reliably. There are times, however, when AF isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and you need to eyeball your shot for the best results.

  • Shallow DOF (Depth of Field): This comes into play in two situations. One is when you’re using a lens wide open (say, in the 1.4-3.5 range), either to let in more light or to blur your background. The other is when you’re using a long lens. Someone who knows the physics of these things could probably explain far better than I could, but for whatever reason, a lens racked to 300mm at f/8 acts very much like a 50mm at f/1.8. In either case, your focal plane (the part of the photo that’s in focus) can be razor thin. While autofocus will pick something to focus on, the camera’s idea of what should be in focus may not be the same as yours.
  • Low Contrast/Lousy Lighting: Whether your camera uses contrast detection or phase detection for autofocus, both systems require varying degrees of contrast in order to work well (there’s a better explanation here). Bottom line: if there’s not much contrast (your subject’s color and lighting is similar to its background, for instance) or if you’re working in low light, your camera’s AF may “hunt” for a focal point.
  • Stealth: In low light (where your AF assist light is likely to go off) or if you’re using older, screw-drive AF lenses (which are cheaper than their newer counterparts, but can also be noisy), you may inadvertently draw attention to yourself at a time when you’re trying to stay incognito.
  • Deer Photobomb

    “Busy,” Cluttered, or Active Scenes: I usually love my camera’s AF system, but there are times that it works a little too well. I had initially tried a couple of shots of the deer in Figure 2 using autofocus, only to find that the little AF point in my viewfinder kept skittering between blades of tall grass rather than locking on the deer, where I wanted it. Similarly, if you’re trying to shoot through a chain link fence or a window (especially if the window’s dirty, or if there are reflections you’d rather didn’t distract from the subject), you may find that the AF keeps wanting to focus on what’s closer.

  • Portraits: If you’re filling the frame with your subject’s face (and, for that matter, even when you’re not), you usually want your subject’s eyes in focus. Not their cheek, their nostrils, nose hairs, unibrow, et cetera. And it never fails that when you’re close in on your subject, your autofocus will focus on anything but the eyes.
  • Moving subjects: This one may seem counterintuitive, and it takes practice, but if you’re dealing with a moving subject, it can help to manually focus rather than hoping the AF locks on correctly. It’s especially true when you’re dealing with a subject that’s moving through a scene with lots of foreground/background distractions.
  • Static Subjects: If you’re photographing, say, your dinner, it’s not likely to run away on you (I hope). Using manual focus at a time you don’t necessarily have to can be useful because it forces you to slow down, but also because it can give you the ability to fine-tune what you want in focus.
  • Prefocusing: This isn’t purely manual focusing, but I’m going to add it here because it’s related. If your AF system is having difficulty acquiring your subject for one of the reasons above (or any of the others) but you don’t want to turn AF off for some reason, you can manually focus on your subject (or at least get close to correct focus) and then let the camera take over.

Last, but by no means least, there’s the Stubborn Camera. There will be times that your camera will, for reasons known only to itself, focus on anything and everything but your subject. You could be taking a photo of a black spider on a white wall, and your camera will seemingly fall madly in love with a nondescript part of the wall, totally ignoring the spider. Or it will focus on the clouds, rather than the bear that’s looming over you, threatening to… well, in that case, I think focusing is the least of your problems.

Have any tips you’d like to share? Comment below, or feel free to inbox me!

Prompts and Photography

Paul Simonon by Shepard Fairey

I’ve been writing far longer than I’ve been photographing (though I guess you’d never know that by this site). One thing that you’ll find in many creative writing guides are series of writing prompts meant to help writers break through creative blocks, and to help take their writing in different directions. Since writers are hardly the only ones who hit a wall from time to time (it happens to all creative types sooner or later), or who need a change of direction, I thought I’d take the subject up today.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve discussed this before, but really only obliquely, in a post about photo projects. The idea of a “project” can be intimidating, especially if you’re a hobbyist* (where, after all, will you find the time to commit to something like that, to say nothing of the motivation?), so it can be useful just to have a bite-sized moresel to ruminate over without having to worry about biting off more than you can chew. If we’re going to extend the writing/photography metaphor a bit further, this would be like freewriting, where you free associate for a page or so, usually on a particular subject or theme, versus trying to crank out a short story or novel.

Now, if you’re not a writer, it’d probably help if I explained what free writing was. What you’re doing is a stream of consciousness exercise, leaving aside any considerations of form, grammar, spelling, and even content. If it’s in your head, it goes on the paper, simple as that. It gets a bit more complicated for photographers (we can’t just visualize a muskrat and have it magically manifest in front of the camera), but that doesn’t mean it’s not still useful. What writers and photographers have in common, I think, is a tendency at times to mull something over to a degree that the thoughts get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish; in plain English, we overthink the damn thing (about which, more in the next post).

So where does that leave us? Well, for starters, give yourself a series of prompts. We’re not after sweeping ideas, or grand, arching themes here. The whole idea is to stay deliberately small and eminently manageable. Instead of thinking to yourself that you’re going to come up with a photo essay on the passage of the seasons in your favorite park, tell yourself you’re going to shoot something feathered, for instance.** Or set a particular small theme for the day, even if it’s something as simple as “red.”

The next thing is to just shoot. Take some time to let the rules go out the window. The results, same as they’d be for a writer, won’t be pretty, but then, pretty isn’t the point here. The point is to get your ass out there and make photos. The only rule? For whatever length of time you choose — a few minutes, an hour, or a day — if it catches your eye, it’s getting its photo taken. Once you’ve gotten to, or over, that bit (especially if you’re blocked), then you can engage your brain and start taking all of that raw material and following it in whatever direction it suggests to you.

Finally, a little something for any writers who may have come across this post accidentally (you didn’t think I’d leave you out, did you?): even — or maybe especially — if you’re not a photographer, find a camera (even if it’s just the one on your mobile phone), get yourself away from the computer, and take some photos. Once you get back home, you will have snapped enough writing prompts to last you a while. Repeat as necessary.

More photography prompts to follow… In the meantime, have any you’d like to share or suggest? Comment below!

*Or even a professional, since pros are prone to talking at great length about all the stuff they’d be shooting if they weren’t so busy making money off their craft.

**With your camera, of course.

Photo Projects

Self Portrait in Rust

It’s easy to settle into a rut. Even when we know, on some level, that it hasn’t really “all been done,” we feel as though we’ve done… well, if not everything, then enough of the same thing to feel like we’ve settled into a rut. It can be helpful at times like that to set a project for yourself. Having a set of guidelines — as loose or specific as you feel you want or need — can be a great motivator, and a good way to beat the block. Here are a few of my personal favorites:

1. 365 Days project: This one’s a perennial favorite, probably because it can be either as simple or as complicated as you’d like. The most basic requirement is to take a photo of something every day. Beyond that, you can add additional “rules.” Daily self-portraits are common (and more challenging than they might seem; see below). You can also, as one of my friends has done, choose a specific time at which each photo must be taken, or blog the results, as another friend likes to do.

2. 52 Weeks project: Maybe you’re pressed for time, or just plain absent-minded. In that case, set aside one day a week and photograph something at the same time each week.

3. Choose a limit: Take a day, or several, to shoot with only a prime lens. If you don’t own a prime, choose a single focal length on your zoom lens and stick to it. Or, if you usually only shoot in color, set your camera to black-and-white. Only shoot during the day, or during the Golden Hours? Try night photography, or challenge yourself to shoot in lighting conditions that you’d normally consider crappy. In each instance, the idea is to break your old habits and patterns and find new ways to shoot.

4. Shoot one thing: This is a variation on the 365 Days/52 Weeks idea above. Find something — be it a building, an object (like your car) an animal (like your cat) or even yourself, and take at least one shot of it daily. Not only will the resulting photos let you track the changes in your subject over time, it’s also much more challenging than it might seem in the first few days. After all, you’ll soon find yourself looking for new angles and new ways to shoot the same subject, which can present its own set of challenges while it also pushes you to expand your imagination and creativity.

5. Find a Theme: This can be something concrete (shooting shop windows, or in cemeteries, for instance) or something relatively abstract (like trying to capture a photo of a concept, like love or death). The challenge here is to avoid cliches, whether in your choice of subject matter, or in your composition/representation if you’ve chosen a subject that’s often photographed.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to experiment. Put your own spin on these ideas, or come up with something daring of your own. If you’ve come up with an interesting project, let us know!

Copy Shamelessly

Ballerina

I save lots of things. I have piles of ticket stubs, recipes, magazine articles, greeting cards, scraps of paper that I jot things down on… and writing. Lots of it. I’ve discarded quite a bit of what I’ve written over the years, but I’ve also hung onto enough of it to have a pretty good idea of how my writing has evolved over the years. 

With the older writing especially, I can usually tell what I was reading at the time by how I was writing: A bit of Benchley here, a pinch of Barthelme there, the occasional pinch of Rushdie. It’s not just writers who do it, either. Anyone who creates pretty much anything relies on the work of those who’ve gone before for equal parts inspiration and road map. So it’s hardly surprising when we find our work echoes, or even outright mimics, those whose efforts inspired us to do what we do.

When we first catch on to the fact that we’re doing this, we might be a little ashamed. If we were any good, we think, our work would be more authentic, and would speak with something more of our own voices. It’s okay, though; what’s important, at least early on, is the simple fact that you’re doing something, creating something. It’s in that process that we find our voices, and the confidence to speak with them. It’s only later on, if we’re using someone else’s voice or style as a crutch (or actively plagiarizing them) that it becomes problematic.

There’s something useful buried in that imitation, though, and it’s something that only became clear to me by hindsight. When we consciously set out to imitate someone, we’re picking apart their style and disassembling (or deconstructing, if you want to get all fancy about it) what they’ve done to figure out what makes it tick. Putting someone else’s work under that kind of microscope gives us insight into their technique, but actually trying to do what they’ve done can help us to make sense of our own work if we approach it the right way.

So, try this some time: choose a photographer, and do your level best to create something that looks exactly like that person would’ve done it. If, for instance, you feel ambitious enough to take on a David LaChapelle shot, try to re-create the lighting, the makeup, the post-processing… everything. You may not be able to afford all that goes into a LaChapelle shoot (props, lighting setup, assistants, Amanda Lepore), but it can also be fun figuring out ways to get the same results on a shoestring. In the course of doing all of this, you’ll be adding to your own skill set, and also gaining an appreciation for all the work that goes into making a great photo, while also finding new ways to express your own voice in your own work.

Serendipity: Have Better Accidents

Flytrap

It’s probably no accident that one of my favorite words in the English language is “serendipity.” It’s defined as a chance happening that works in a fortunate way, which is a longish way of saying that it’s a happy accident.

I bring this up because I know in many past posts, I’ve emphasized mindfulness and care in making your photos. I still stand by that on general principle, because a careless process often leads to careless photos. With that said, let me emphasize, often but by no means always. I’ve also mentioned, after all, that sometimes we need not to try so damn hard, and I’m reminded as I go back over some of my work that some of my favorite photos didn’t happen because I set up the perfect shot; they happened more or less in spite of me. They happened, in other words, by chance, as happy accidents.

This reminds me a bit of the Taoist idea of Wu Wei, variously defined as “action without purpose,” or even “action of no-action.” For practical purposes, it means not worrying about process or about control, and essentially getting the heck out of your own way. Photos like the one that accompany this post came about not because I’m such a skilled photographer. If I had a mind to, I could pick out several things wrong with this picture. The point, however, is that if I’d taken the time to think all of them through and fix even a fraction of them, I’d have missed the shot. Sometimes you just need to stop worrying, point your camera in the general direction of something interesting (or that has the potential to be interesting) and see what develops.

In a roundabout sort of way, that brings me to another point: if, like Woody Allen said, half of life is simply showing up, the same holds true for our best (and worst) photographic accidents. Just the same as it’s important to always have your camera, it’s important sometimes to just get the shot. True, if you pass up the shot, you can’t really screw it up. But you also pass up the chance of creating something that could be great, or at least a lot of fun.

Have any interesting accidents to share? Pass them along and we just might feature them here!

A Few Thoughts On Digital Infrared Photography

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery 2011 (D7000 and an inexpensive Polaroid IR filter, converted to black and white)

Infrared (IR) photography can provide some unique, very striking images. Blue skies are nearly turned black, while grass, trees, or skin can take on an eerie, ethereal glow. Having that option in your toolkit can be very tempting.

As with so much else, there’s a catch. In the film days, you needed special IR film and an IR filter (which filtered out the visible parts of the spectrum to leave you with mostly infrared light) to capture that part of the spectrum. Digital sensors, left to their own devices, will pick up the IR and UV (ultraviolet) parts of the spectrum just fine on their own. Therefore, most digital cameras have what’s called an antialiasing filter installed in front of the sensor to block out IR and UV (ultraviolet) rays that could otherwise make a mess of your photos. Over the years, these  filters have gotten stronger and stronger, making it nearly impossible to attach an IR filter and get anything close to an IR image.

If you’re really serious about IR photography, your best bet is to get a secondhand camera (like a Nikon D70) that has a weak antialiasing filter, or sending your existing rig in for modification. Either of these options will run you a considerable amount of money (and the latter option, if I’m guessing correctly, is likely to make your warranty vanish like steam from a bathroom mirror).  There’s another option: pick up a secondhand film body* and some IR film (Ilford makes a pseudo-IR 35mm film that’s well-reviewed and not as tempramental as the older IR stock from companies like Kodak), and snap away. The advantage to this, naturally, is that you can shoot regular 35mm to your heart’s content if you get bored with IR.

In any event, it’s a good idea to think about exactly how much IR photography you’re going to do. It’s a bit like cilantro; some people love the stuff, others can’t stand it, and its overuse gets quite tired very quickly.

The same image, in color. A tad creepy, but not in a good way.

The conventional wisdom about filters is that since your gear is only as strong as its weakest link, you generally don’t want to cheap out on whatever you stick on your lenses. While that’s true in a lot of cases — indeed, I’ve seen cheap UV and polarizing filters cause more issues than they were supposed to solve in the first place — this is one place where I’d suggest you go with something inexpensive if you decide to ignore my advice and try IR photography with a newer camera. Given that you’re not likely to get true IR results, all you’re going to be doing is sticking a very strong red filter on your lens (see the images that accompany this piece). Nothing wrong with that, but plunking down $100.00 or more for something that’s very easy to do with a few clicks in Photoshop or GIMP is a silly use of money that’s probably better used elsewhere.

*If you’re going to go the film route, I’d suggest getting a cheap old rangefinder. Once an IR filter is on a conventional SLR — where, remember, the viewfinder shows the view through the lens — you can’t see a darn thing. Since a rangefinder usually relies on split focus (through a finder that doesn’t rely on the view through the lens), it’s a lot easier to compose and focus.

Cold-Weather Photography Tips

If your camera had teeth, they’d be chattering right now. When the days grow shorter and colder and you’ve got Jack Frost nipping at your extremeties, you might be tempted to stay in, make some hot cocoa, and save the photography for warmer weather. Don’t; you’re missing a lot of photo opportunities!

  • Keep your batteries toasty: You might keep your AA’s in the fridge so they don’t drain as quickly. Your camera battery, similarly, won’t perform at its best when it’s cold. Keep your camera warm the best you can; failing that, keep a spare battery in an inside pocket. If your battery’s showing a faster-than-usual rate of drain, switch it for your warmer backup.
  • Use a polarizing filter if you have one. The bright light caused by the angle of the sun, and by the glare reflected off the snow. Since you may find yourself stopping the lens down to f/22 or thereabouts (which isn’t where your lens is at its sharpest), the polarizer lets you lose a couple of stops of light. In dim light, this can be a drawback, but when it’s very bright, it can be a godsend.
  • As with other times, fill flash can be helpful when the light is hinky.
  • Pay attention to your white balance; snow and bright light can wreak havoc on metering and white balance.
  • Be aware that plastic — whether in camera bodies or in lenses — behaves much differently in the cold than it would at “normal” temperatures. It loses flexibility and can become brittle. A bump or ding that might leave a small mark under normal circumstances can lead to cracks and chips in cold weather.
  • Watch out for moisture. Bring a large Ziploc bag (large enough for your camera and lens) and bag the camera before you’re inside. Similar to leaving a glass of iced tea on a table during a summer day, bringing a camera indoors from cold weather can lead to condensation in and around your gear. Bagging it first means bagging colder, drier air with your camera; the bag will fog, but hopefully your camera won’t.
  • Purchased any electronics lately? Hang onto those silica gel packets; they’re useful for removing airborne moisture.

It should go without saying that your first priority should be keeping yourself warm and safe. Bundle up, keep gloves handy, and have fun!

Short Tips: Finding Keepers

Outdoor Plumbing

In recent weeks, I’ve mentioned the importance of deleting photos, and also of viewing your work objectively. In both cases, one of the resons for doing these things is to narrow what you’re saving down to your “keepers,” the photos you want others to see, or may want to do something with at a later date. One of the challenges you can expect to face as you try to cull your work — separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were — is figuring out what, exactly, is your best work. There are a few quick ways to do this that can help to cut down on the time you’re spending on your sorting process.

Often as not, when I’ve just come back from a day of shooting, the first thing I want to do is load my work onto the computer, view it, and critique it. After all, seeing your work at full size on a large screen is often a great way to realize what works and what doesn’t. I’ll generally sort by three categories: the stuff that’s obvious crap (out of focus, hopelessly under- or over-exposed, badly composed, or a photo that just isn’t “about” anything); the stuff that could be useable given some reasonable editing (a slight crop, maybe some work on color and contrast); and the stuff that works more or less as it is. The issue is when something doesn’t fall neatly into one of those categories. Maybe it doesn’t work as it is, but could later; maybe there’s just the nagging sense that something’s “off.” When that happens, it’s time to take other measures.

1. The Thumbnail Test: Let’s say you’ve viewed all of your work at full size, and there’s a handful of shots that you’re still not sure about. View these shots as thumbnails, rather than poring over them repeatedly at full size.* When you’re looking at something at 1,024 x 768 resolution, you may find yourself getting caught up in a series of details within the overall picture, versus seeing it whole. This can be useful if you can pull a decent-sized chunk out of the whole to function as an image all its own (let’s say that you’d end up cropping about a third of the image), but if the only thing that works is a solitary squirrel in the corner munching on a bagel, you haven’t exactly got a keeper. Viewing a thumbnail allows you to see the entire image at once, and to evaluate it in its entirety. You may not want to use this for your initial cull (something that looks sharp in thumbnail form might in fact be badly out of focus; similarly, you might miss some small detail or splash of color that could redeem an image that needed a little something on the first pass), but it’s useful if you want to narrow things down after you’ve gone through the batch the first time.

2. The Calendar Test: Let’s say you have a handful of images that might be keepers, but you’re not sure if they’re as good as you thought they were the first time out. Start by asking yourself a question: If this was on a calendar, would I really want to look at it every day for the next month? Of course, you’re not going to start printing calendars like they’re going out of style just to evaluate your images. But try putting a folder together and revisiting it on a day-to-day basis, or setting an image as your desktop background. If it’s already revealed all it can tell you by the second or third day, you might want to reconsider it.

3. The Audience Test: It’s hard to be objective about your own work. On one hand, we can become so attached to our own work that it’s hard to give it an honest critique. On the other, we can at times be so critical of our own work that we’re set to throw out something that might, in fact, have been done very well. If you have someone whose eye, judgement, and honesty you trust, ask their opinion. The perspective that a fresh set of eyes brings to your work can be invaluable in evaluating the quality of what you’re doing, and also in measuring what you’re trying to communicate with your images versus how an audience — even just an audience of one — receives them.

But those are just my tips. What are some things you’ve found useful in critiquing and sorting your own work?

*If your workspace has sufficient room, you can get a similar effect by backing away from your monitor. 

Short Tips

Untitled, Unknown

A few bits of randomness for your reading and photographing enjoyment:

Take Notes: This is especially true if you’re learning by shooting manually with a film camera rather than a digital, or if you’re learning film after having shot in digital for some time. Digital cameras will, in most cases, give you detailed EXIF data. Shooting with film? You’re on your own in that regard. If the exposure is perfect, congratulations – and good luck remembering what you did to get that perfect exposure. If, on the other hand, you’ve made a proverbial dog’s breakfast of the shot, you won’t know how to avoid making the same mistake later. As a friend used to say, “The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory.” Write it down, bearing in mind that having a pad and pen with you is useful for a number of other reasons as well, like jotting down other photographers’ contact information, giving them yours, taking down emails so you can send photos to people whose pictures you’ve made, jotting down ideas for future shoots… the list is practically endless.

Another Use for Paper: A sheet of paper can be used as an impromptu white balance card* if you’re trying to set custom white balance in a situation with screwy (or mixed) lighting. If it’s small enough, it can be used as a bounce card for your camera’s on-board flash, or even for a speedlight. As if that weren’t enough, it can also be used as an improvised reflector if your subject is strongly back- or side-lit. It won’t work quite as nicely as a purpose-built reflector, but it’s better than nothing in a pinch.

Use Your Hands: Lighting, especially outdoors, can be tricky to meter. This is especially true if you’re dealing with a scene that has numerous changes in light values (much darker or brighter in some areas than others) or when you’re trying to meter for an odd situation. For example, let’s say you’re outdoors on a bright day. You might be standing under an awning, and trying to meter for something under another, similar awning across the street. You and your subject are in shade, and there’s an awful lot of light between you. If you don’t want to use spot or center-weighted metering (or you’d like to but you don’t have the time to go back to the menus), meter on your hand.

Find Some Gaffer’s Tape: Gaffer’s tape is to photographers what duct tape is to handymen and rednecks. Many a photographer will tell you the stuff is great, if expensive. You can use it as it was intended (taping down wiring so nobody trips and breaks their neck), but why stop there? You can use it to cover the logo on your camera, to secure reflectors and other paraphernalia, to make sure your subjects know where to stand, or to make minor repairs. I’ve even seen it used as an impromptu band-aid (though I’m not endorsing that here, so as not to have a lawsuit on my hands). It’s every bit as strong as duct tape, but with a less messy adhesive and a surface that doesn’t shine, making it less obtrusive and also giving you a decent grip if you need it.

Any short tips, odd techniques, or random finds you’d like to share with our readers? Drop me a line!

No Image Stabilization? No Problem.

In this instance, the less said about proper hand holding technique the better.

At this point, nearly every camera manufacturer has incorporated something into their cameras to reduce the blur that’s caused by camera shake. It goes by an alphabet soup of abbreviations, depending on the manufacturer: VR (Nikon, “Vibration Reduction”), IS (Canon, “Image Stabilization”), OS (Sigma, “Optical Stabilizer”) and a host of others. While many manufacturers build this feature into the lens, a couple (like Pentax) build it into their bodies, so that no matter what lens you’re using, it should help.

Here’s a layman’s explanation of how it works. You’ve got small gyros* in the camera which sense camera motion; these movements are then communicated to a processor, which will essentially instruct small motors in the lens to move lens elements (usually in groups) to compensate for that motion. Some manufacturers claim up to a four-stop improvement in camera shake, which I think is great marketing hype, but too optimistic. More realistically, it’ll take care of a little bit of shake (minor instability), but not that much (if your hands are about as still as the average earthquake).

So what if neither your lenses nor your bodies have some kind of image stabilization built in? Well, this is where it helps to take a cue or two from film shooters, who generally didn’t have any of this fancy stuff either. Your first, and best, solution is a support, whether in the form of a tripod or monopod. If you’re using a timer, shutter release cable or a wireless remote, you don’t even have to worry about touching the camera at all once it’s mounted.**

There are going to be times when a support’s impractical, or you just don’t have one handy. There’s a simple rule that should eliminate most of your camera shake, and give you nice, sharp photos (provided you have a reasonably steady hand). The reciprocal of your shutter speed should be the same as the focal length you’re shooting with. So if, for instance, you’re shooting at 105mm, you should be fine with a shutter speed of 1/125. At 200mm, you’d want to shoot at a minimum of 1/200.

There’s a slight wrinkle here if you’re shooting with a cropped (non full-frame) sensor; the crop factor acts as a magnifier/multiplier, so that 105mm is actually behaving like a 155-160mm, and a 200mm will give you a magnification closer to that of a 300mm. This is a double-edged sword, since on one hand, you’re getting a bit of extra reach (think of it as a built-in teleconverter), but on the other, you’ll also have to shoot at higher shutter speeds as a result (1/320 on a 200mm lens versus 1/200).

This is all fine and dandy in daylight. After all, shooting Sunny 16 at ISO 200 will give you enough shutter speed to keep your images nice and sharp with many lenses. But if the light’s a bit iffy, your other settings will start to come more into play; you may need to tweak either your aperture or ISO (or both) in order to get a higher shutter speed.

Image stabilization’s a great option to have, but it’s not going to solve every stability issue that comes down the pike. Using your shutter speed (in conjunction with your other settings, if you’re feeling adventuresome) can be a good supplement to, or even replacement for, the image stabilization you’ve already got. Otherwise, a support – whether it’s your trusty tripod, or just leaning against a tree – will work wonders.

*Those would be gyroscopes, not tasty Greek sandwiches. That would be awkward and messy.

**I should mention that if you’ve got a stabilized lens or body and you’re using a tripod, you’ll want to shut it off. It can actually lead to your photos being less sharp if used in conjunction with a tripod, for one thing. For another, depending on how your body/lens works, it may lead to a slightly faster battery drain, since the camera’s going to be trying to stabilize the image whether it needs it or not.

A Photographer’s Checklist

Abstract Lights

Atul Gawande knows his checklists; his book, The Checklist Manifesto, has garnered rave reviews and spent ages on the bestseller list. He’s a general and endocrine surgeon who relies on them to keep things going smoothly in the OR. It’s a good thing, too, since even a small failure can have disastrous consequences. As photographers, what we’re doing doesn’t generally leave lives in the balance, but it’s still a good idea to have our own checklist to make sure that everything goes well during a shoot, whether we’re in it for the money, or just a good day of shooting. What follows are the essential things to look out for when you prep for a day out with your camera.

•Is your bag clean, inside and out? Lint brushes are helpful for the bag’s exterior, while a vacuum helps get stuff out of the interior. No sense in cleaning your lenses if your bag’s just getting them dirty.
• Are your batteries charged? This includes not only the camera’s battery, but also batteries for your flash, and making sure the backups are also charged.
• Is a backup battery packed? Some batteries are rated for thousands of shots. They’re not rated for nearly as many shots if you don’t have them with you. I had one long weekend when I made the mistake of leaving one camera battery at home in the charger, so I was thankful to have my “spare” to get me through.
•Are your memory cards clean (i.e. images backed up) and formatted properly? Having a few days’ worth of stuff on your card(s) means not having room for today’s shots, and can also mean frantically going through older pictures trying to figure out what to delete to make room. Save yourself the headaches.
• Spare memory packed? An additional caveat to the point above. It’s especially vital if you’re going on a long vacation or a shoot that you know is going to involve a lot of photos.
• Camera body clean, free of dust, dirt and fingerprints (including viewfinder and LCD)? Enough said.
• Lenses packed? Sometimes you’ll only want to carry part of your kit with you. Think about where, and what, you’ll be shooting, and pack accordingly.
• Lenses clean and capped (both ends)? Dust, smudges and fingerprints can wreak havoc on your photos.
• If you use a UV or other filter to protect the lens, is it secure? This is especially something to look out for if you’re using multiple filters (say, a UV or skylight filter to protect the lens, along with a polarizer), since sometimes taking one filter off the lens will loosen the other.
• If you have other filters (Polarizer, ND, Infrared), are these also clean and in a safe place? Get a filter wallet, or, barring that, use the cases the filters came in for protection.
• If you’re using a tripod, is the quick release plate already on your camera? Over time, I’ve gotten in the habit of just leaving the quick release plate on the camera all the time. It only comes off if I’m using the monopod. This way, I always know where my quick release plate is, and it’s always ready if I want to use my tripod, versus having to pause and put the thing on the camera each time. Besides, if you’re changing it too often, you can strip the threads on either the quick release or the camera itself.
• Is your tripod/monopod clean, and is all the hardware (especially the head and clamps) in proper working order? Make sure everything’s as tight as it’s supposed to be, especially if you’re in the habit of using a heavy lens on a heavy body.
• Have you packed, at the bare minimum, an air blower and cleaning cloth? Even if you’ve taken care to clean your gear before a shoot, sometimes conditions – dust, pollen, inquisitive toddlers – can lead to issues during a shoot that can affect your images.
• If you’re planning on using a remote release, are its batteries working?
• Have you packed your manual or other reference? You never know when you’ll suddenly want to use a feature or setting that you haven’t touched since about a week after you bought the camera, and have since forgotten how to use.
• Are you bringing lens hoods with you?
• Do you have a pen and paper with you? You never know when ideas will be sparked, or connections made. Have something with you to record what needs recording.
• Have you packed a towel or washcloth for those “ohshit” moments? It’s not just the gear that gets dirty, sometimes it’s us. If you don’t want what’s on you on your camera, get it off before it becomes a problem.
• If you’re shooting an event, have you made a checklist of the shots you expect – or are expected – to get?
• Finally – and perhaps most importantly – have you checked your settings? I’ve missed shots because I forgot to reset things like white balance, exposure compensation or ISO from a previous shoot, and have also lost time switching modes or settings on the fly, when I could’ve avoided the issue by checking ahead of time. These things don’t take long to change with practice, but sometimes even those brief intervals make a huge difference.

So there you have it… the essential checklist for your essential “stuff.” Incidentally, it’s also helpful to go over these items after a shoot, as well. Leaving your equipment dirty, your batteries depleted, or neglecting any of these other items after you’ve used your gear isn’t a good idea either, since there are times you’ll want to be able to just grab your kit and go, without having to worry over whether one or more of its component bits are going to fail you. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to print this list, or one like it, out, at least ‘til you’ve committed to the routine and do it as a matter of course. There are other lists you could make as well, dealing with individual photo shoots, postproduction workflow, and other things, but we’ll take those up in the future.

Have I left anything out? Is there something you do to take care of your gear as part of your routine that you could share? Email me!