Friday, August 7, 2009

The great photography learning curve

Isn't it ironic that for all the advertising and hype about how easy it is to take great photos, in actual fact it's really hard and drives most of us crazy.

Now I don't mean it's not easy to point a camera, push the shutter and get a great exposure. That bit's not hard at all. Hell, Koko the gorilla got the cover photograph of National Geographic back in the 80's so how hard can it be? Right?

Well, not exactly. Like anything, if you just want to skate along the surface it's actually not too hard at all. It's when you delve deeper into this fascinating art form that it gets progressively more interesting, and progressively more frustrating.

One of the greatest things about the internet is the ability we now have to tap into the minds of people prepared to share with us a little bit of their hard earned knowledge. Indeed that's the reason I started the blog, to give back to the photographic community that's been a part of my life for so long.

But it's a double edged sword. There's so much knowledge to be found that it can be hard to know where to start, or what to concentrate on. My post last week about photography and fear touched on the subject of remaining true to your passion, but even while you do that how do you learn what you need to know?

For me the answer is firstly to ignore everything I don't need to know. In other words if you don't need to know how to process a Raw file because you only every shoot Jpeg don't bother reading about it. If you don't need to know how to get 8 frames per second out of your camera because you only ever shoot landscapes, skip that particular article. I have no interest in HDR whatsoever so know absolutely nothing about it. And I'm fine with that.

Instead concentrate on what you need to know to improve your own photography, and aim to learn it bit by bit. There's a lot to learn and you don't need to do it all in one day. Not quite sure how the different focal length of lenses work? Don't go out with a bag full of lenses and explore all of them. Take one lens out and use it for a whole day, week or month until you intuitively know how it will make your pictures look. And once you know in your mind what a picture is going to look like before you even put the camera up to your eye, that's when it's time to move on to the next lens in your arsenal and learn how it makes images look.

When we all first switched to digital there was a huge learning curve - Raw processing, workflow, file formats, Photoshop skills. I went as crazy on this as the next photographer. Spent months holed up in front of a computer trying to learn how everything worked. But you know what? Now that I know how to do what I need to do (which isn't very much let me tell you!) I just don't read about that stuff any more. No more buying books on lots of different things I'll never do.

Not to say that a photographer's learning curve is ever over, but it begins to slow down as you filter out what you don't need to know and really concentrate on the things that excite you. So as you go out photographing this weekend sit down and think about what you really don't understand. And resolve to go out there and spend some quality time on this one technique until you've got it down pat. Will it be fun? I certainly hope so because if you've chosen this technique because it will help you improve your images then it should be a blast. Have a fun weekend!

Oh and by the way, I forgot to say where to find me on Twitter. My profile page is here.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Follow me on Twitter

Alright, now you'll have to give me some breathing space on this one. I'm not really sure how it works, and even though I'm only in my late 30's I suddenly feel like I'm a long way behind the technology eight ball!

I've signed up at Twitter under the name of @PaulDymond. I mainly did it for those of you who haven't signed up to an RSS feed yet but are avid Twitter users. The blog posts will automatically feed to Twitter so you know when I've updated the site.

What else will I be using it for? At this stage I have abso-bloody-lutely no idea! I can't imagine myself being able to say anything pithy or interesting in only 140 characters, I'm more of a lengthy diatribe kind of guy myself but we shall see.

Anyway for those of you who live and love your Twitter I just wanted to let you know that you can follow me there too.

Oh and I'm on Facebook as well here. Hell I almost feel like putting on a backwards skateboard cap and yelling 'Awesome dude' at the top of my voice! :) My son would love that.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How do you pick the right depth of field?

OK, maybe I phrased that a bit wrong. There is no right or wrong in terms of depth of field. What I meant to say was 'how do you know the aperture you've chosen will give you the depth of field you want?' but that was a bit too long for a blog post title!

As I mentioned yesterday, I mostly use aperture priority because it lets me control my depth of field, which is very important for a lot of my images.

When I teach students I tell them to not get too caught up in the numbers. So don't fret about whether you need to take a shot at f8 or f11 because at the end of the day the pictures won't differ THAT much. You just need to keep in mind that a big aperture (small f number) will give you a shallow depth of field and a small aperture (large f number) will give you a big depth of field.

And for the most part that's a good thing to keep in mind. The concepts are more important than the actual numbers themselves but once you've got a handle on the concepts then you can really stretch your creative vision by precisely controlling your depth of field.

Take this image of a Buddha statue foundry in northern Thailand. Now if the background Buddhas were just a big blurry mess then the image would have lost all its meaning. You need to see that there's lots of them there so you need to see that the background is full of Buddhas. But if they're too sharp it takes your eye away from the main foreground Buddha too much. So there's a very fine line between a good depth of field and too blurry/too clear.

Now with digital cameras these days you can just take a photo look at the LCD and adjust from there, but there's a quicker way. Down the bottom of your lens mount you're likely to find a little button called a depth of field preview button.

Whenever you look through the viewfinder of your camera it's wide open to let as much light as possible in so you can see properly. In other words you're looking at the image with its shortest possible depth of field. Push the shutter button and the aperture closes down at the time of exposure and then opens up again. In other words your small aperture image will be completely different from what you see through the viewfinder.

So how can you see what your depth of field will look like at a small aperture? Push that button to find out. The first thing you'll notice is that the viewfinder goes really dark as the aperture closes down and less light comes through. Give your eye a moment to adjust and you'll notice that background objects will have magically come into focus. Try changing your aperture while holding the button down (if you're shooting Canon) and you'll notice the background get clearer and blurrier as you spin through the apertures. NB If you're shooting another brand of camera then you'll have to release your finger from the DOF preview button before changing apertures and then push it again.

The depth of field preview button is a great tool which I use all the time to make sure that I'm getting exactly the depth of field I want every single time.

Oh, and as a side note my wife makes sure I tell everybody that sees this picture that I copied it from her! She saw it first and I liked it. :)

Monday, August 3, 2009

What mode do you shoot in?

These days cameras come with lots of modes. Aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, sports, portrait, landscape, macro and on and on and on.

You know what? I only ever really use one of them. And that's Aperture Priority. Known as AV on the Canons (stands for Aperture Value) and A on pretty much every other brand, the photographer chooses the aperture and the camera will automatically choose the shutter speed for you.

So why do I pretty much always use this? Because for the style of work I do the aperture is pretty much the most important thing because it controls the depth of field.

Take this image here. Now I'm focussed on the eyes of the Buddha at Boudnath Stupa in Kathmandu. In front of it are a series of prayer flags. Now imagine what this image would look like if the prayer flags were just a blurry mess of jumbled colour with no shape. Not only would you have no idea what they are but they would be really distracting.

By choosing the right aperture I've ensured that they're sharp enough that you can tell what they are, which helps contribute to the story.

But what about when you want a fast shutter speed? Don't you use shutter priority? Well, no I don't. For a couple of reasons. One is that the camera can trick you. It assumes that once you come out of idiot mode you're not an idiot. And the problem is that sometimes we all are. :)

You see the problem with Shutter Priority is that if you choose a really fast shutter speed to stop some action, say 1/8000th of a second, but there's not enough light to let you use that fast a shutter speed the camera will still let you take a picture. And what will that picture look like? Well it'll be pitch black basically. The only warning you have that there's not enough light is a flashing warning. On the Canons the aperture flashes, on the other brands you get a message such as Low flashing at you.

I'm here to tell you now that in the heat of the moment you're not going to notice a flashing warning. Anything short of a mallet coming out of the battery chamber to whack you in the head will not help you. So in order to ensure I always get a fast shutter speed I leave the camera in Aperture Priority mode and open up to my widest aperture - usually f2.8.

If you remember back to Photography 101 a big aperture will give you a fast shutter speed so if you open up to your biggest aperture you'll ensure that you always have the fastest shutter speed you can get for the lighting conditions.

Of course some cameras have what's called a Safety Shift function so that if you choose too fast a shutter speed for the conditions it will automatically default down to the fastest shutter speed possible so that's another option if you have it. If you don't then Aperture Priority is the trick!

Besides leaving it in Aperture Priority all the time means I don't wear myself out having to turn that little dial all the time. :)

Have Camera Will Travel Slideshow

I thought you might like to see a little slideshow I put together of some of my favourite images. Put together on Photoshelter it's a work in progress but I love the ability to stick it in the blog. There's a bigger version over on my website.

Have Camera Will Travel - Images by Paul Dymond

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Monday's Links

First up here's a great link for some tips on how to take great photographs, as well as various tips on running a photography business. It's presented by the people at Photoshelter and there's a lot of really great information here.

Next up the famous nature and wildlife photographer Art Wolfe has a great piece in Outdoor Photographer magazine about selling your images. In this day and age when many of the big agencies aren't taking on new photographers it can be confusing as to where the best place to put your images are. According to Art it's to sell them yourself.

For those of you who grew up shooting film Kodak has a great tribute to its recently retired slide film Kodachrome 64. There's an interview with my all-time hero Steve McCurry who shot the Afghan girl on Kodachrome 64. It was my first slide film and a firm favourite for many years. In fact I loved it so much I carried 145 rolls of it through Africa!

And for those of you who have ever thought about turning your hand to writing a few stories to go along with your travel photos David Farley has some great tips on how to write a really bad travel story!