It’s Not About The Gear

Many a times, I have offered helpful advice to friends on how to improve their photography skills.  While some of them are absolute beginners, others have had some experience with basic cameras and typically think of “upgrading their equipment” the moment they contemplate taking the hobby seriously.

Sadly, more often than not, expensive gear is not the answer.

If it’s “photography gear” you’re seeking to upgrade, I’ve covered it in Guide to Photography Gear.  However, if it’s your skills that really need the upgrade, read on…

It goes without saying that there is no “rule” as to what makes a great photograph; It is, after all, subjective.  That said, when people typically evaluate a photograph, they usually do it on two parameters:

1. Technicals
2. Aesthetics

Technicals refers to aspects about Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO – the triad that makes for the right “exposure”.

The Digital Photography School is a great website to get started on the basics of any thing remotely related to Photography.  DPS1, DPS2 are two writeups that will explain the concepts of exposure more than adequately.

This should give you a decent understanding of the basics of Exposure, but feel free to dig deeper.  Highly recommended is Fred Parker’s Ultimate Exposure Guide.  Also highly recommended is the book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, and this writeup on Understanding Histograms.

But, if you’d really like to take this to the next level, I suggest you pick up an old (I mean decades old), manual film-based SLR and get your hands dirty with a few rolls of film.  Ask any of us who learned photography the old-school “manual” way, and you’ll see what I mean…

Aesthetics is obviously a matter of personal opinion, but includes that most critical aspect of good photography – “composition”.

In my experience, a good sense of composition can be developed over time, irrespective of the gear you use.  That’s the reason great photographers can make great pictures even with a crummy camera.  In fact, it may be argued that no matter how “advanced” your gear is, it will only help control (manipulate?) the light that enters the frame.  The rest is just composition.  In other words, as long as the available light is adequate, the kind of camera or lens you use does not really matter all that much in the end.

The most important piece of advice I have seen on improving your composition is in this article.  It’s written by Ian Bramham – an architect from UK who does wonders with the most basic, entry-level DSLR from the Nikon family.

FoldedSpace offers an explanation of why Photography can be such a challenge to many:

Photography is a subtractive art… during composition, the photographer works (yes, works) to subtract elements from the image until all that remains is that which he wishes to capture on film. Angles shift, focal points change, light alters until all that is left is that which the photographer sees in his mind’s eye.

Yes, modern technology has made it extremely easy for any one to try their hands on an art form that was barely accessible to the common man, just a few years ago.  But, no matter how easy (or affordable) digital photography has become, it is a daunting task to reduce the beauty of all that you see around you to a two-dimensional paper and make it convey what you felt when you were there.

That’s why, when you get it right, it can also be its own reward!

Photographer or Terrorist?

Digital Photography School published a very useful post by Elizabeth Halford on “How to shoot in public with confidence“.  In it, Halford shares with us her experience in the UK, and offers some helpful advice on how you can avoid being pulled-up by the cops for “suspicious activity”.

I am including a brief extract for your benefit, but you should read the entire piece:

These days, photographers are routinely made to feel like terrorists. Highly suspect criminal characters who must be watched closely.  In England, the new anti terrorism legislation and child protection laws cover all manner of photographic sin and is what prevents photographers going about their business in a dignified fashion…

Know Your Rights – Look up the law in your land

Be Prepared – Be ready and shoot loads!

Be Polite and use Common Sense

Ask First – It’s the right thing to do

Have A Reasonable Expectation (of privacy and public spaces)

Safety In Numbers – Go places where there are other photographers

After the Mumbai terror attacks and the suburban train blasts, a photographer’s life in my hometown has also become quite restrictive.  I, myself, have been “caught” on several occassions by well-meaning authorities for simply taking photographs in public.  To add to it, law enforcement in India is not so clear and transparent as elsewhere in the developed world.

Hopefully, some of these tips will work… (Thanks, Elizabeth!)

P.S. Michael Reichmann of Luminous Landscape has also posted some very sensible advice on Street Photography, that can help you make the most of candid moments without raising fear in others.

See Also : PhotographerNotATerrorist.org

The Big Picture

I must confess, as someone who cares about the environment, when I first read about the concept of Earth Hour, my immediate reaction was not quite positive.  After all, could one hour of switching off non-essential lights really make a difference?!  But, when you think about it, doing so wouldn’t hurt either.  And, if the result of this effort was only a bit more awareness among earthlings, even that would be a step in the right direction.

Whichever way you feel about the event, you won’t be able to deny the beauty in these photographs taken from urban landmarks across the globe, showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ effects of Earth Hour 2009… 

Here’s how The Boston Globe’s “Earth Hour 2009” page describes its effort:

Started in Sydney, Australia in 2007, Earth Hour quickly grew into a global observance. More than 1,000 cities in over 80 countries observed Earth Hour 2009 on Saturday March 28th, as homes, office towers and landmarks turned off their lights for an hour starting at 8.30 pm local time to raise awareness about climate change and the threat from rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Collected here are a series of before-and-after photographs – which (starting with the second one below) will fade between “on” and “off” when clicked.

Let me state that again, since I know not everyone reads the whole intro here – starting with image #2 below, click on the image to see an animated fade between “on” and “off”. (This effect requires javascript to be enabled.)

Have fun!

Guide to Photography Gear – Part 2

This series of posts is written for the amateur/hobbyist/newbie photography enthusiast, and will try and address the questions that typically arise when you’re in the market for photography gear. Part 2 includes “How do you choose a lens?” and “Digital vs Film”…

 

Note: This series of posts is written for the amateur/hobbyist/newbie photography enthusiast.  It will cover much of what I’ve learned through hundreds of manhours of research and nearly fifteen years of practising photography.  It will include more details on Nikon as I am more familiar with the Nikon system.  However, my own experience with photography gear includes both manual and automatic SLRs in 35mm and digital formats from Nikon, Canon and Pentax.

If you haven’t already, please read Part 1 of this series before proceeding…

How do you choose a lens?

There is no right answer for this question.  It all depends on your individual needs (or shall we say, “wants”?), and the amount of money you’re willing to spend to address that need.

Any lens is a tradeoff.  Size & weight often clash with build quality and optics. Zoom range can compromise distortions and aberrations, and wide apertures (i.e. “fast” lenses) usuall comes at a cost.  You have to choose what you need/want most.

If you’ve just bought your first DSLR kit, and are already shopping around for “another lens”, my advice to you is STOP!  Shoot a few hundred (or thousand) photographs, first.  Then, look at all of them and ask yourself: “What couldn’t I do with my kit lens that a new lens will allow me to?”  The answer for which is the right lens for the job will come from that (and your budget, of course!)

The world is also divided between those who swear by lenses made by camera makers like Canon and Nikon, and those who think that “off-brand” versions from Sigma or Tamron or Vivitar will do just as well.  Typically, off-brand lenses lose much of their market value in a re-sale, but there are exceptions to the rule.  Once again, you decide what works for you, and what you can afford.

There’s also the “subject” to think about.  If you work in low-light conditions, you need fast glass.  If you’re into birding and wildlife photography, you need a telephoto in excess of 200mm (and a fast glass, if you can afford it!).  If your thing is landscapes, you may want a wide or an ultra-wide lens.

A mid-zoom like the 18-55mm on the entry-level DSLRs (equivalent in field-of-view to the 28-80mm on 35mm film cameras) is a good starting point for most newbies.  But your specific need will determine if you need any thing else, and whether or not a particular lens can deliver it for you.

Then, there’s the issue of dust on the sensor (on DSLRs), and the matter of changing lenses when you’re on the field trying to capture that “good light”.  If you’re looking for an ideal walk-around lens, you’ll need to figure out the focal length that works best for you, given your specific needs.

If you shoot wide as well as long, you should consider a versatile zoom like the 18-135 or a super-zoom like the 18-200.  It’ll save you the bother of changing lenses, and let you capture every thing you can see over a really wide range.  Don’t sweat too much about distortion figures or chromatic aberrations that are a part of any super-zoom… you can always correct it in Photoshop if you’re really picky about it.

Just remember, AF lenses don’t always autofocus with different camera models – there are a lot of variations out there, depending on when your particular model was made.  e.g. If you’re a Nikonian, the entry-level DSLRs (D40/x/60/3000/5000) will not AF with the older lenses and will need an AF-S lens for autofocus.

Tip: Unlike in the old days, “big” or “heavy” (or even expensive!) glass does not necessarily translate into better quality.  You’d be surprised what modern-day technological advances can do to lens design.  The Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D is a fine example of outstanding optics in an affordable package that costs less than $150.

As an aside, if you are buying big or heavy, you will also need a tripod.  That is a subject matter for an independant post, but the short story is Tripods come with three attributes: Capable (sturdy), Light-weight, Affordable – You can choose any two!

One more thing: Lenses also use different filter sizes, and the lens you really want may use a non-standard filter.  In the long run, this translates into more hassle maintaining and changing filters, for someone who owns several lenses. (e.g. Nikon’s lenses use a few standard filter sizes, which keeps things simple).  Many serious photographers get around this problem by buying the biggest filters each time (77mm) and use step-up rings to mount them across their different-sized lenses.  That, of course, costs more but is also more convenient.

Finally, here’s an extensive writeup on all you need to know about Nikon Lenses’ features and compatibility. (Thanks, Ken!)

 

Digital vs Film?!

Is that even a valid question?  It’s natural for a newbie to wonder why, in today’s age, would any one consider Film?!  After all, you’re probably reading this because you’ve finally taken the decision to move from Film to Digital, right?

I started photography more than a decade ago, naturally, with a film-based camera.  At first it was just reading about photography, then using some friends’ equipment, then my very own manual SLR (Zenit Z12), and then a nice little Canon AF SLR (EOS 300).  Every one starts off in film, and then goes digital.  But, when you’ve shot enough digital, you can begin to truly appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of each medium.  And yes, there are limitations in both.

There are volumes written about the “dynamic range” or “latitude” that film offers that digital simply cannot, or about the hi-magnification print output possible with standard 35mm film that is mostly unmatched by DSLRs, even today!  It is also a fact that Film (because of its cost) forces you to plan and frame each shot carefully, instead of firing away carelessly on your digital.

Today, I mainly shoot digital, but I also enjoy having a vintage Pentax Spotmatic with a Super Takumar 35mm lens at hand, for those times when I just want to slow down and “experience” the art of photography to its fullest. It all depends on which stage of the learning curve you’re at.

Tip: Yes, shooting film is expensive, and only affordably for a few.  When you’re a newbie, the best tool to really hone your photography skills is the “instant replay” feature of digital and the ability to shoot without worrying about the costs.  Here’s a detailed analysis of film vs digital, if you’d like to know more.

Parting Thoughts?

This series is the beginner’s version.  Each time you encounter a term or concept that you didn’t know about, you need to start digging more.  Do your own research.  There’s no substitute for it.

There is plenty of rich information on photography forums like Flickr.com and review sites like ByThom.com, KenRockwell.com, DPReview.com or Steves-Digicams.com.  Don’t believe every thing you read in any one place, if you want to play it safe.  I’d recommend reading multiple sources and forming your own opinion.

Last but not the least, remember that the only way to get better at it is to shoot, shoot, shoot…

Happy clicking!

Guide to Photography Gear – Part 1

This series of posts is written for the amateur/hobbyist/newbie photography enthusiast, and will try and address the questions that typically arise when you’re in the market for photography gear. Part 1 includes “Prosumer vs DSLR?” and “Should you spend more on a body or a lens?”…

Note: This series of posts is written for the amateur/hobbyist/newbie photography enthusiast.  It will cover much of what I’ve learned through hundreds of manhours of research and nearly fifteen years of practising photography.  It will include more details on Nikon as I am more familiar with the Nikon system.  However, my own experience with photography gear includes both manual and automatic SLRs in 35mm and digital formats from Nikon, Canon and Pentax.

Update: Jan 2012:

If you’re jumping onto the DSLR bandwagon for the first time, you may want to consider alternatives to DSLRs like mirrorless “hybrid systems” and “EVIL” cameras. Purists will argue that a DSLR is a DSLR, but you must answer for your self – Do you want a DSLR or do you want to shoot the kind of pictures it is capable of taking? As always, your answer may differ from mine.

Update: June 2011:

Camera makers keep releasing newer models, and marketers will keep trying to convince you that you really need to buy that latest, shiny piece of Technology to make your dream come true.  It’s been a while since I wrote this post, and they no longer make some of the models referred to in the examples.  However, conceptually the writeup still holds true.  So, while the D40/x/60 family has been replaced by the D3x00 or the D5x00 lineup, do bear in mind that the examples used throughout this post are just that – examples. 

Philosophically, entry-level DSLRs still make it affordable for folks to upgrade to a DSLR by crippling “semi-pro” features like the ability to autofocus with older (cheaper) lenses, it still makes sense to invest in better lenses than in better camera bodies, and you still ought to do a fair bit of introspection about your specific needs before deciding on which camera system or lens is the ideal for your unique needs…

Should you buy a compact or a DSLR?

Excellent question ; The fact is, it depends on your particular needs.  Let’s face it, today the price difference between an expensive compact, an affordable prosumer and an entry-level DSLR is almost non existent.  This makes the decision even more difficult!

If portability is of paramount importance, go for a nice compact aim-and-shoot that you like handling (ergonomics, ease of use, etc.) from Fuji, Casio or Canon.   If “reach” is what matters most (i.e. shooting closeups of far away things), you’ll be best served by a prosumer with a mega zoom factor upwards of 12x.  Here, I’d recommend the excellent and versatile Lumix FZ35.

As a rule, compacts and prosumers have smaller sensors (hence, less light-gathering capacity), fixed lenses, consume much more power and are slower to respond than DSLRs (which limits shooting pets/kids/things that move).  If portability or reach is not a criterion, go for the lightest, smallest DSLR you can afford, choosing your “system” wisely.

No matter what kind of photography you want to do – birds, buildings or beasts – a good DSLR can give you results that are just not possible with a fixed-lens camera, no matter how much it costs or how long the zoom is.  The list of DSLR-only features usually includes startup times of less than a fraction of 1 second, excellent results in high ISOs (i.e. unbelievable results in low light, if you know what you’re doing), and very fast AutoFocus – stuff that lets you “get” that shot in an instant.  And, don’t forget, the DSLR can always be used in its “Auto” (or even better “Program”) mode, just like a point-and-shoot!  In short, every thing is better on a DSLR!

(Through the rest of this post, when I say “DSLR”, it includes modern-day post-DSLR variants like 4/3rds and micro 4/3rds and every other mirrorless design that offers interchangeable lenses.)

Tip: Start with any entry-level DSLR from Canon, Nikon, Sony or Pentax, and you should do just fine!  Plus, if you stick with a good “system” like Canon or Nikon, your investment stays relatively future-proof as it will allow you to use great lenses over a period of decades.

 

Canon, Nikon or other?

Broadly speaking, Nikon and Canon systems allow you access to a universe of glass.  And they’re both fantastic camera- and lens- makers that you can rely on.

Personally, I prefer Nikon because of their commitment to quality, their superior ergonomics and their serious approach to design.  As an example, Nikon has consistently chosen to limit the megapixels (totally irrelevant to picture quality) instead, working on increasing ISO capabilities in their camera bodies (totally relevant to picture quality), in spite of enormous market pressures to do otherwise.  If you handle comparable models from both Canon and Nikon, you will also find that Nikon cameras make it easier for you to get to the features that matter.   I also like the fact that, thanks to the ‘Nikon’ system, modern cameras (with few exceptions) can mount almost any lens made since the 1950s’!

If you already have old glass (i.e. lenses), the choice is easy.  If not, you’ll have to factor in other dependancies like memory cards (Sony’s proprietary format?), service support in your country (Pentax’s non-existent presence in India?), etc.  If you have no such constraints, you can start with any thing.

You should also bear in mind that innovations in industry often come from other players, not the market leaders. One example is how entry-level Pentax DSLRs have had in-body Image Stabilisation (IS) for years!  Another example is Panasonic’s recently launched (DMC G1) – a completely new mirror-less shutter design in a new micro four-third mount, making it half the size of a comparable DSLR!

The fact remains that there are alternatives to Nikon and Canon that have a lot to offer at comparable or lower costs.  Do your research, and factor in your personal constraints to make the choice that’s right for you.

 

Should you spend more on a better body or a better lens?

The short answer : Lenses.

Remember, DSLR bodies get obsolete in two years but a good lens can last you for two decades or more.

The long answer : Don’t compromise significantly on the body either.  As in all things, it’s a tradeoff.  Make sure you’re well informed about which factor you’re trading for what benefit.

For example, Nikon’s entry-level DSLRs (D40/D40x/D60) are simply outstanding in what they do.  But, they don’t AF with older (non AF-S) lenses, as the AF motor is not on the body but on the bundled kit lens.  This also keeps their costs down, making it more affordable for you to buy.  And, this is not a problem when you’re starting off, since the kit lens works just fine and autofocuses too.  But, if you want to expand your kit to include other lenses (new or old), you’ll soon discover that AF-S lenses cost significantly more than their AF counterparts.  So, you’ll have to spend many more times the dollars you saved on the body, on buying lenses that AF with that body!

And, in case you’re thinking : “I’m never going to buy a bunch of lenses”, think again.  Sooner or later, you will.  And you will also discover the other golden rule of buying photography gear – The investment you made on the first DSLR was only the beginning, not the end!

Tip: If you’re on a budget and still want AF capabilities with older lenses, go for a used Nikon D50 / D70 / D90. You should be able to get one for a bargain (with its kit lens!).

There is enough and more out there on the issue of whether or not the equipment matters.  My own take?  Many a times, newer technology helps you shoot in light conditions where earlier technology may not have.  At least when it comes to modern-day DSLRs, every few months or so, there are significant advances made that can be used to your advantage.  That said, bear in mind that all things newer are not necessarily “better”.  Detailed reviews of DSLR models from even Canon and Nikon – the global leaders in this category – will show how a certain feature (like metering) worked better on the older model than it does on the newer one!  So, do your research.

Thom Hogan has written the best writeup I’ve ever encountered on choosing lenses rationally.  Also, If you want to compare specifications across Nikon DSLRs, see these links for current and old models. (Thanks, Thom!)

That said, I wouldn’t worry too much about buying Nikon or Canon technology that’s a year or two older than the current.  But it may make a difference to you if you want a feature that they rolled out only in the last year.

Continue reading Part 2