Use that Old Gear

By Roger (7 September 2014)

When you get a bunch of photographers together, you can be sure that, sooner or later, there will be some talk about the gear. He wants this new lens; she thinks this camera is better than that one. These debates/discussions/arguements can go on for hours.

Like most everyone else, I love the nice gear, especially high quality lenses. But you don't want to make gear more important than your creative vision. Don't use old gear as the excuse to sit at home, instead of going out to make new work.

Potomac River, Virginia

Potomac River, Virginia

Too often, new photographers think gear is the answer to make their photos better. It's not hard to figure out where these feelings come from. They see experienced photographers, with expensive gear; they see great photos made by the experienced photographers, with this gear; and they conclude they need the expensive gear to make similar photographs.

The truth is you don't need the most expensive cameras and lenses to make good photographs. Oh, sure, there are bells and whistles on that gear that makes them worth the cost, but, even without those features, today's less expensive gear will make exceptional photos. As I explained (here), last year, I was forced to leave my D4 and 70-200mm in the hotel room and shoot a wedding with a D5200 and 28-300mm. I had to work a little harder, but the photos were fine and bride and groom happy.

Wedding Vows

Wedding Vows

These days, camera bodies are depreciating as quickly as computers. Regardless of the price level you buy into, the cameras are replaced with newer models every few years. If you are constantly chasing the latest model, you will spend thousands of dollars for gear that will almost certainly NOT improve your photography. Sure, you'll get that momentary high from the new camera smell when you open the box, and you'll run out somewhere to play with the new buttons. However, a couple weeks (days?) later, you'll be back to wondering why your photos don't look like the ones _insert some other photographer's name_ made or why your new camera doesn't magically give you the creativity you are seeking.

Lenses for your camera can last much longer; with proper care, they can last until they don't fit on any camera. New lens smell can have the same effect on you as new camera smell, but you'll come crashing down just the same, if you think the gear makes the photographer.

I love this expression.

I love this expression.

So, how do you fight what is commonly called “gear acquisition syndrome,” or GAS? (I'm not making this stuff up, you can Google this term!) Let's assume you're not suffering from any real problems that cause an addiction – I'm not qualified to address that. What you have is just the unreal expectations and natural desires that result from too many photography equipment ads and wanting “the best” of everything.

Your first step here is to put the camera ads down and go look at some work from people who are known as masters of photography. You'll get the best experience from a museum or gallery showing, but you can find examples on the internet. Your opinions of who should be considered “master photographers” will probably differ from mine, so I won't name names. Just do some independent searching. Their work was done on film, with many more equipment constraints than you are working with. How did they accomplish this with such basic equipment? Their cameras did not autofocus; had no built-in light meter; had to be reloaded with film. Why, they couldn't even look on the back of the camera to get a preview of the photo they took.

I hate to beat a horse we've beaten to death here, but my first answer is know your current equipment. Learn the capabilities and limitations of what is in your bag. Have you tried even half of the features listed in your current camera's menu?

Photography is about your vision, not your capture device. Your phone camera is probably more capable than what the professionals paid thousands for just 10 years ago. I'll just move along before this becomes an old guy rant.

Don't make the old guy angry.

Don't make the old guy angry.

If we're being logical, we know new gear is rarely the solution to our creativity problems. If we're being realistic, we know we're probably got our eye on something we want. Just don't wait until you buy that thing to get out there and make something new.

And don't think, without fancy equipment, your photos can't look their best. All of the photos in this blog were chosen because they were taken with “inexpensive,” variable aperture lenses and older cameras – in fact, you can't buy any of these cameras as new items today.

So, let's take our current gear out for a walk in the woods and smell the flowers before they disappear under the snow. You never know what you'll find, and I promise you your camera and lenses are good enough for you to have some fun.

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Don't forget to sign up for the 11 October Worldwide Photowalk here. You can join Mark and I, in Harpers Ferry, WV, at 0930, beginning at the Amtrak station. You can sign up for our walk here. We hope to see you there.

I make no promises that there will be elephants for our photowalk.

I make no promises that there will be elephants for our photowalk.

Composites—the more challenging stuff

By Mark

Last week I wrote about the basic techniques used in compositing.  When you are trying to combine very different elements into a brand new creative image it requires more techniques and even some preplanning.   As humans, our optical systems are pretty amazing. Over millennia, we have evolved the ability to detect when something is just not right in a scene.  We might not recognize just what it is, but we know when something is off.  

The most critical and immediate thing we notice is where the shadows don’t make sense.   Shadows are a natural consequence of the blocking of light.  Our brains see where the light sources are and then know where the corresponding shadows should be.   What is usually the biggest light source?  The sun, of course.   Now for the tricky question; how many suns do we have?  That’s right, only one.  Why then do so many composite fails look like they were shot on Tatooine?   Yep, people put images together with competing suns.

Here are two images that I want to put together.  The model was from last year’s Photoshop World Westcott Lighting both, while the other is a river in New Mexico.   As you can see her lighting came from high up on the right side.  Unfortunately, the lighting for the river scene comes from the opposite direction.   If you just put them together and mask out her black background, it doesn't look natural.  

Luckily, since we are not trying to be photojournalists you have options to correct this.  The easiest thing to do is just flip one of the images on its axis.  Since there is no text in either image it doesn’t matter which one.   I flipped the background and…voila!

More for next week!  

Try Some Experiments

By Roger (28 August 2014)

Last week, I talked about my trip to make a few train photographs, but it was just a part of a much bigger theme I think is important to improving your photography – you need to experiment. I brushed across it when I said I needed to make some photos of a subject other than people; however, I thought it needed a little bit more discussion.

It really doesn't matter where you are on the continuum of photography experience, you should take the time, every now and then, to stretch yourself to try new things. If you want to improve your photography and keep it from becoming boring task, you need the variety.

A beginning photographer, can use experiments to better understand the workings of his camera and post-processing techniques he wants to master. Experiments can help you learn what happens when you move your camera out of Program mode to Aperture or Manual. Or how different lenses affect the way your camera records the same subject. Here are some example photos I used to show the difference in fields of view in different focal lengths.

Wide field of view with a 35mm focal length.

Wide field of view with a 35mm focal length.

Similar framing and subject size, but different field of view from 200mm focal length.

Similar framing and subject size, but different field of view from 200mm focal length.

I think beginners should concentrate their experiments on camera and lighting techniques, until they feel they are comfortable with the capabilities and limitations of their equipment. If you can learn the basics of photography – understand how your camera interprets what you point it at – you'll be further along than most people who just pick up the camera and aim it at something. You can learn this through experiments.

Pick and choose your time for experiments. Your child's wedding probably isn't the best time to try some radical experiment. You don't want to try something new and unfamiliar when your subject matter is something important, in case your experiment fails.

And some of your experiments will be a disappointment to you. Things won't work the way you envisioned them. When this happens – and it will – your job is to figure out why it didn't work or what you need to do differently to get what you are looking for. As we've said before there are often several different ways to accomplish the same thing.

As you gain experience, I encourage you to continue to experiment. Your experiments will be in areas you decide to work on to advance your skills. Just because you can work the camera doesn't mean you should stop learning. It may be more complex subjects; post-processing techniques; or things you need to practice with. This is what I was doing when I shot the trains.

I'm a people photographer, so my experiments usually take the form of other subjects. And, besides the trains, I was trying to find interesting light in scenes I found while I was walking near the depot. And, although you may be experienced, if you're pushing into new territory, you'll still find some disappointments.

That's what experiments are for. You don't have to show people those disappointments. They're for your benefit, a way for you to learn.

Here are a couple of my results from last week's “interesting light” experiments.

Abstract or disappointment?

Abstract or disappointment?

This is an abstract of light in nature, filtered through the green vines and nourishing the plants, juxtaposed against the dirty, man-made structure (window) that has been neglected. Beauty in ruin, as it were. ;-) Ok, yeah, I laughed typing that. It might just be an experiment in interesting light that didn't work. At least, I thought it was interesting when I saw it, in person.

So, how would I fix it? I'm not really sure it is worth the effort. But, if I was to do it again, I would probably try focus stacking to get more plant in focus. Maybe, do some HDR for the exposure problems. I'd probably look for a cleaner window with similar vines, so I didn't have the spider webs and bug bodies distracting me.

I did make another photo of interesting light that I do like. The subject isn't as interesting as the light, but it isn't as hideous as the window was. As I was walking through the woods, I saw this beam of light coming through the trees and spot-lighting another tree trunk. Since it was a warm, early morning light, it was a pleasing site. The light fall-off created a natural vignette. (It would have made a nice background for a portrait.) This photo won't find its way into any portfolio, but I found what I was looking for – interesting light.

I like the light on this tree

I like the light on this tree

Set up your own experiments, and learn to see better to improve your photography. I promise you'll advance your skills and have a fun time learning.

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Don't forget to sign up for the 11 October Worldwide Photowalk here. You can join Mark and I, in Harpers Ferry, WV, at 0930, beginning at the Amtrak station. You can sign up for our walk here. We hope to see you there.

Compositing

By Mark

Two weeks ago we talked about selection techniques.  Isolating specific elements from an image is one of those capabilities which Lightroom just cannot do.  It requires a pixel level editing program like Photoshop or even elements.  The ability to place things and then work on different layers is also one of those capabilities where Photoshop rules.   Building composite images takes full advantage of these three elements. 

In my mind there are three basic categories of composited images. We are going to cover the first two types in this blog.  The first are the simple replacements—ooh, I don’t like that sky and so I will put in a new one.

Taos Cemetery

Taos Cemetery

.   Starting with this nice happy image from the Taos cemetery, I just used the “color range” selection for the sky to create this mask. I inverted the selection to keep only the ground.   

I then took another big sky image I shot from that same trip and opened it up as a smart object.   Why as a smart object?  Well I wanted to be able to resize it without damaging the original file. 

With the sky as a new layer beneath, it’s a much more dramatic image.

The other two types are more artistic in scope.  The creative composite, where images and effects are layered and blended together and you intend for the viewer to be able to see this as part of your message.   Using that same cemetery base shot and the same mask I created a completely different look.   I shot this at Epcot Center during a fireworks display.  I keep it tagged in my effects and colors.  

When you make this into the sky, you need to add an orange cast to the markers themselves.  I just picked out a color from the new sky and then created a new fill layer on top.  I then reduced the opacity way down, just to give it a little glow. 

The last one, which we are saving for later, is where you take various elements from multiple images and create a seamless effect that could be a photograph from a completely different world.