Thursday, July 30, 2009

Film, fear and delight

If you've never shot film then you probably don't understand the feeling I'm about to describe. Total fear because you have no idea if what you photographed actually worked or not!

It wasn't a situation you would get into on a regular photo shoot, it was a feeling saved for those times when you went out of the bounds of photographic normality.

When you had to put your camera on a tripod, leave the shutter open for 30 seconds or so and hope that the people in front of you would light up the walls of the cave enough for you to be able to see something.

You did it with your fingers and toes crossed and you shot lots of images hoping that one (or maybe even more!) would actually turn out OK. Then after a couple of weeks you'd get back to home base and put the films in to get developed. When they were ready a few hours later you'd quickly pull the slide sheets out of their packets to find the right roll of film. You'd hone in on the ones shot in the caves and quickly put them on the lightbox (which was conveniently located next to the cash register for all the paranoid photographers!)

Then you would have either one of two reactions. Either total disappointment because something had gone wrong. Aperture not open wide enough, shutter not open long enough, not enough light hitting the walls of the cave. Or you might whoop for joy and invite everyone over to take a look. That's what I did with this picture. Ah it's a nice way to be when little things like this can keep you happy for days. :)

I have two sons - the youngest of whom has very severe allergies to milk, egg and peanuts. When I say severe I mean stop breathing in a couple of minutes severe. Something that has had my wife and I living a kind of paranoid existence for the last 4 years. But I should put the sentences above in the past tense because today a re-test showed that he is no longer allergic to either peanuts or egg. A fact proved by the fact that he ate a peanut and had no reaction.

While little pictures make me happy, big things like my family being healthy make me ecstatic. There's a big discussion on microstock over here so of course I had to get in and say my piece. But at the end of the day, you know what, agree or disagree there are more important things in life. Appreciate what you got.

Oh and would I go back to that feeling of dread with film? Not on your nelly! :)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Photo accessories you must have 2

Alright so Gunjan nearly got it in one yesterday! My second must-have accessory is a polarizing filter. Think of it as a pair of sunglasses for your camera.

The most common use for a polarizing filter is as you see here. It really darkens blue skies and brings out the white in the clouds. It also makes colours pop.

This was taken at a place called Arltunga, which was the first pioneer settlement of Central Australia. As you can see the day was screaming out for the polarizing filter.

The trick with these filters is to control how strong you make the effect. The front of the polarizer spins and as you rotate it you can actually see the polarization effect getting stronger and weaker in turns. If you put it at full strength in these kind of conditions you can turn your sky to an ugly black. The trick is to dial it to full strength and then back it off a little bit to retain a natural feel.

But, you say, that picture yesterday didn't have any blue sky in it at all. No it didn't, but it did have lots of reflections. The other thing the polarizer is used for is to cut down on reflections. Think streams where you can see the fish in the water with your sunglasses on but take them off and the reflections of the water don't let you see below.

Now in yesterday's pic it wasn't the reflection in the water I was trying to cut out. It was the reflection from the leaves. In warm, tropical areas the leaves of the plants tend to be large and flat. The large surface area tends to work like a giant mirror sometimes and the reflections are really strong. It's the main cause for less than vibrant colours in rainforest pictures. Using the polarizer helps get rid of the reflections and bring the brilliant greens back to your pictures.

Now there are a couple of different kinds of polarizers - circular and linear. Only the circular ones will work with the auto-focus on your camera so that's the one to get. You can also get them in different thicknesses. There is the normal one and a special thin one which is designed for use with wide-angle lenses. The regular thickness polarizer can tend to vignette at the corners of the frame on really wide-angle lenses. This effect is where you can see the edge of the filter in the corners of your picture. The thin polarizer is designed to negate this problem, but it comes at a price as they are quite a bit more expensive.

So there's my second must-have photographic accessory. I don't tend to carry many filters with me these days as the White Balance function has taken away the need for a lot of them, but I'm never without my polarizers - one for every lens I own.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Photo accessories you must have 1

At the start of any of my photo courses I usually give my students a warning. I'm in no way responsible for them going out and spending lots of money on camera gear and accessories! I haven't been abused yet by an irate husband or wife after checking their partner's latest credit card bill but I'm not taking any chances. :)

Seriously though compared to a lot of photographers I'm pretty light on equipment. Travel photography means just that - you gotta travel. And when you do that you have to carry everything. When you're like me and only weigh 60kg sopping wet you don't need too much equipment before you get tired pretty quickly.

But there are a couple of things I would definitely advise you to buy. Both of them were used to take this photo of a rainforest stream but I'm only going to talk about the one today. I'll leave you to guess what the second one might be!

The hardest thing about shooting in the rainforest is battling the contrast. If there's even a hint of sunlight you either have totally blown-out highlights (the tops of these rocks for one) or deep, dark shadows with no detail whatsoever. It's hard enough to get all the detail on a cloudy day, on a sunny one forget about it.

But what do you do if you've only got one day in the rainforest and it's sunny? You do like I did here and wait until the sun has gone down. I mean almost so dark you can hardly see your face in front of your hand. In a place like Mossman Gorge the sun tends to go down behind the mountains (in Winter) at about four in the afternoon. But just because it's gone behind the mountains doesn't mean it's time to photograph yet.

The contrast levels don't really drop until the light levels do which might be up to an hour later. In fact this shot was taken at about ten to five. It was so dark that most of the tourists were leaving and I was there by my lonesome with a torch (flashlight).

So what's the accessory you need? A tripod. And a good one. When the light is this low your shutter speeds are going to be very long indeed. You want your camera to be as steady as possible on top of its metal mount.

The best way to tell if a tripod is going to do the trick is to push down on it from above. If you push down and the legs start to flex don't even think about it. You also need something that will get down low for photographs of small plants etc so you want to avoid those tripods with the little metal struts that run from the legs to the centre pole. Those little struts prevent the legs from opening wide enough to get you down low.

And you don't want to hurt your back when using it so the tripod needs to be tall enough so that with the camera mounted on it and the legs fully extended (but the centre column down) you can look through the viewfinder without having to bend over. A good friend of mine is over 2 metres tall (about 7ft) and his tripod is taller than me!

A couple of technique tips when using a tripod. Firstly don't try and compose your pictures with the camera mounted on the tripod. One you look really silly walking around with a camera attached to a tripod up to your face, and two your photos will all be taken from the same height. Compose the picture first with the camera off the tripod, and then once you've found a composition you like bring the tripod down to where you are.

If you get a tripod with quick release plates it will make this technique a lot easier. You don't want to be screwing your camera into and out of the tripod all the time so definitely look for a quick release system. And get a quick release plate for all your cameras and lenses that need them otherwise it will turn into a very slow release system.

Of course you use a tripod when your shutter speeds are slow to prevent camera shake but that's not the only cause of camera shake. Just the act of pushing the shutter button with your finger can cause the camera to vibrate. Either use a cable release or if you don't have one (or are too lazy to get it out like I sometimes am!) you can put the camera on the self-timer.

The other big cause of camera shake with longer exposures is mirror slap. This is the vibration caused when the mirror slaps up to let light pass through and hit the sensor. Most cameras have a mirror lock-up function which will allow you to lock up the mirror before firing the shutter. It leaves a couple of seconds between the mirror coming up and the shutter firing. This gives the mirror vibrations time to die down before you take the photo. Definitely use this function as it will eliminate a lot of the blur out of your pictures.

So that's my first must-have accessory - a tripod. Now see if you can guess what the second accessory I used was. And it wasn't a spirit level. :)