What is Aspect Ratio?


1:1 Aspect Ratio

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

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

3:2 Aspect Ratio

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

16:9 Aspect Ratio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composition Basics: Negative Space

Figure 1

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

Figure 2

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

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

Figure 3

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

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

Figure 4

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

Beating the Block: Sense From Nonsense


Okay, now what?

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s a bit better.

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

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

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

Beating the Block: Douglas Beasly’s Vision Quest Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Sharper Photos!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beating the Block: Taming the Muse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Aftermarket:

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

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

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

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

Toss Up:

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

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

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

Buy OEM:

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

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

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

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

Smartphones for the Smart Photographer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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