I’m a photography snob, I guess

Random commentary and advice for beginning photographers.

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“The Lexx”

Partly because I have the hubris to think that 50+ years of shooting pictures with literally hundreds of different cameras means I must have learned something about the subject. Possibly about the predicate as well.

Partly because I look at shots from today’s pros and wonder if they’re really trying with the pictures they present or are just posting up random shots, holding their best work in reserve for paying gigs. Maybe it’s only my opinion that they are trying to demonstrate their ability with what amount to little more than snapshots. Or maybe those shots are what are deemed great work these days. O tempora, o mores?

Heaven knows I post a lot of junk shots, but always with a purpose. How many dozen photos of the old sheds have there been? That’s because you need a consistent subject to demonstrate other variables, and that particular scene has a lot going for it in terms of resolution and colour potential – as well as being close at hand.

One of the things that makes me question my own ability is the lack of feedback on images I’ve done which I think are really top-notch. Perhaps I’m wrong in my evaluation of composition, framing, and exposure. Maybe my pictures are the amateur ones and I’m doing it all backward. It could be that I’ve learned nothing over half a century, or learned it all wrong.

Or possibly not.

Anyway, I still like them and when it comes down to evaluating your pictures you are the best (if inevitably overly self-critical as we all are) judge. Did they come out the way you wanted? Are you satisfied with the result? Yes? Then they’re fine.

Fortunately I generally keep my big mouth shut in respect to others’ works specifically. If someone asks I might try and gently guide them toward what I think is good and what could be improved. Sometimes I’ll see something and make a hopefully innocuous suggestion about a potential alternative rendering. Usually I’ll just go with commenting on what is good in it and remain silent about any perceived flaws, no matter how glaring. But I’ll give you all this bit of generalized advice gratis: the most persistent mistakes are in framing and composition.

Okay, enough of that. Here’s some random comments on photography equipment, for whatever they’re worth. Maybe you can glean something worthwhile from the chaff.

Full-frame sensors. I just read an excellent commentary on these about how people are wrapped up in the psychology of the terminology: “full” must equate to “better”, right? Nope. This is a holdover from film days when larger format was how you got better resolution because the grains of silver on the celluloid were all the same size regardless of film type and you can only pack so many in the space available. When it comes down to molecules, film is digital too. Consider how the image is to be displayed and you will see that even the 18 MP sensors are usually ‘overboard’ for resolution. One of the nice aspects of them (as I have demonstrated previously) is the ability to do some “digital zooming” in the post-processing stage and still have a shot that can make a decent full-size print. There are even people who turn their camera’s resolution down because they don’t need/want >10 MP (yes you can do this on many cameras).

RAW format. I can’t see why people get so hung up on this. You don’t really need it, even if you are a “pro”. It takes up a lot of memory space (not much of a problem considering how cheap that is these days) and what’s more takes up a lot of time to process. For the most part, spending huge amounts of time processing RAW data to get a shot that could have been had straight out of the camera in JPEG is just ridiculous. There are times when a lot of hard work with the RAW file will render the results you want, but how often? I have seen such shots looking “too real”: they may be spectacular art, but they necessarily are in the same category as other “processed” photo art; more art than photo. Also, have you not read the complaints from photographers who realize they get caught up in processing and never know when to quit? It’s easy enough to do that when just tweaking contrast. Maybe I’m an old school film-type snob, but you ought to be able to get the basic shot you want right out of the camera (and without in-camera tricks). Admittedly I have been known to alter reality, or at least the camera’s perception of it, to achieve this. But it still counts.

Brands. Oh pul-eeze! Are we still doing this stupid, childish bickering about product names? My quick test of Canon vs. Nikon with two different camera types showed the Nikon superior. If you want I can do another test with the same two cameras and get the opposite results: I just have to change the evaluation criteria. One of the things I have learned over five decades is that every company, regardless of what they make, has its mixture of successes and failures. Much of the evaluation criteria is purely subjective; does it work the way you want/expect it to? Yes you will see a difference in lens quality, sensor rendition, and perhaps even exposure accuracy (read the manual and you can probably make up for that), but it’s pretty rare to come across a camera these days that’s absolute junk. At least among the reputable brands; there are some low-dollar point-and-shoots out there that I wouldn’t trust to function at all, much less return a decent shot.

Zoom vs. Prime. Why is there even any discussion about “which one is better?” That is a question asked by those just starting out, and that’s the only time it is valid. For me the zoom is more suited to my shooting because I keep having to change focal lengths along the way, usually with more speed than twisting a lens on and off will allow. But I realize I’m giving up potential sharpness in doing so. Also being able to change position for framing/compostion isn’t always possible in the places where I shoot. But that’s me. It can be argued that the zoom lens is better to start with because it gives a person a chance to try out many different focal lengths in one unit. As they get better at photography in general they may see the benefit of using a fixed-length lens (and which fixed length, come to that). Just don’t decry one or the other. You may state a particular lens within a type is better than another of the same type or the average of the category because this can be true. Otherwise you’re saying pick-up trucks are better than economy cars because they are meant to do a completely different job.

In short it’s all about the way you shoot and the type of photography you do. Not what I do or what Jack does. When you’re just starting you probably don’t know how you will shoot or what type of photography you’ll do, so you’re allowed to be ignorant. But you’re not allowed to be stupid: you can read immense amounts on-line about photography. How do you sort out what to read? Poke around with the search engines for what interests you, what answers your questions about photography, and what you think you’ll do with it. You’ll find some references to cameras which you can then look up for further information. Now here’s the big advice: download and read the instruction manual before you buy it! You’ll be amazed at how helpful that can be not only in finalizing a choice of equipment but in advancing your general knowledge of photography as well; the manuals contain not only info on which control does what, but also about under what circumstances they should be used.

Lens accessories: filters, diopters, extenders, and other items. Well there is a vast array of this equipment and I can only speak to general terms. Cameras and computer software now have built-in ‘filters’ for post-processing, but it’s just not the same. You can do quite a few after-the-shot tricks, but if the data isn’t (or is) there to begin with that’s another problem. In film photography we were up against negatives that were too ‘thick’ (dark) or too ‘thin’ (light) and all of the solutions (sometimes literally; Farmer’s Reducer) to these problems were less than perfect.

UV filters, always ‘suspect’ even in the days of film, do little more than protect the front of your lens. Without expensive equipment and testing you will never know if you’ve got something blocking invisible ultraviolet or just a chunk of glass; the sensors don’t really pick it up.

CPL filters manage to cut down some glare and slightly increase contrast. Of the two I’d pick the CPL as the better investment because getting rid of that glare is one of the things you can’t do later.

There is also a plethora of coloured, half-toned, neutral density, and ‘warming’ filters. Best to leave these off your initial shopping list: a good camera has a wide range of exposure and white balance settings which will handle most situations, and you can alter over-all colour in post-processing.

Diopters get sold under all sorts of descriptions like “close-up filters”. You’ll know them by their ratings: +1, +2, +4, et cetera. They screw on the front and make it possible to get really close to your subject. Although there’s some advantage to them, there are some disadvantages too. Before you go dumping money into diopters try and see how close your camera can focus on its own. Many of them have macro settings which will do a very good job of it. Oh and there’s a decided advantage in using a long focal length lens in macro mode as it keeps you from getting physically close to the subject and thus getting in the way of the light falling on it. Maybe you won’t even want to do close-up photography, or not do it often enough to invest heavily in it.

Extension tubes and lens reversing rings are two more ways to get up close for cameras with interchangeable lenses. The reversing rings are again not being called by their correct name these days, but the description is the same: screws on the front of the lens and allows you to turn it around and fasten it to the camera backwards. Extension tubes merely move the lens forward, altering the focusing distance. Neither uses any optics so will not introduce any kind of distortion from glass (which diopters may) but the tubes will decrease light noticeably and thus effect exposure. Reversing rings will eliminate the lens-camera information connection necessitating manual exposure and focus, as will the tubes. These can only be used with cameras that have interchangeable lenses, so probably are not going to be on your list of “must haves”.

Lens extenders traditionally go behind the lens and change the focal length by factors of 1.5, 2.0, or 3.0X, hence effectively turning a 50mm lens into a 75mm for example. They do have optics, can introduce distortion, and will cut down on light. There are others which screw on the front and can be used with any camera that takes a screw-on filter. These are not as useful, in my opinion. Some are meant to give you a wider view, others more telephoto. They will vignette the image in some cases (such as on wider lenses) and can introduce distortion. They have the advantage of being inexpensive (and sometimes cheap) and fitting any camera that has screw threads on the front as well as maintaining the lens-camera data connection (although it may not work correctly). Worth it? In my opinion, no. Shoot first with what you’ve got and then see if you really want wider or longer lens capacity – then buy the appropriate lens. If you’ve bought a ‘bridge’ camera you already have a wide-tele zoom and one of these isn’t going to offer much advantage and may not even work right. The behind-the-lens type for DSLRs is a better option, but I notice not a popular one. This is a bit odd I think because I can’t help but notice the range of lenses being offered too often looks like the people designing the cameras have never shot with one, if you know what I mean. If you don’t … well the explanation takes too long.

Infrared. Here we arrive at photographica esoterica maxima. Camera manufacturers purposefully block out near-infrared from the sensors because our eyes don’t see it and thus if they didn’t – we would. In other words we’d be looking at messed up photos where the near-IR light has intruded and been presented as visible. But it’s interesting to look outside the spectrum we normally see in, so sometimes we may want to do this. It is not easy. The best way is to get a camera modified so the sensor isn’t blocked from IR. Even after that there is a lot involved, including very long exposures and post-processing adjustments. There are “IR filters” sold all over which allege they can give you the experience without the hassle. No, they just exchange one hassle for a different one: they still require long exposure and a lot of post-processing to get an image and that image is not going to look like those wonderful IR shots done by people with the right equipment and experience. I bought one of these filters to play with and am getting some acceptable, albeit quite unexpected, results after just a few dozen attempts. On the whole I wouldn’t recommend them.

Colour vs. B&W. My recommendation is to always shoot in colour. Oh I know B&W is a art form in itself and have used it myself to great effect on many occasions. So why always shoot in colour? Because you can’t go home again. If you have the colour data in the image you can take it out. If it’s not there putting it in is, well not impossible but nearly so. You can turn colour down a bit too, for that faded look. Or take it right out. And crank up the contrast to lithography levels if you want. Whereas if the picture would look great in colour, but you shot it in B&W, you’re stuck.

Flash. I used to do a lot of flash photography because film had limited speed. 400 was pushing it (Tri-X actually worked better at its original 320). Cameras couldn’t see in the dark (Canon’s f0.95 lens is still the ‘fastest’ ever made). Tripods were needed below 1/50 second even if you were really steady – no built-in compensation. So I shot flash bulbs and electronic flash whenever lighting was too low for ‘natural’ shots. It tends to be harsh and contrasty. Today’s cameras can ‘hold themselves steady’ and quite slow speeds (I’ve never tested the limit) and have ISO 6400 built-in at the push of a few buttons. Do you need flash? Maybe. There are a lot of times when the scene has its own harsh shadows and fill-in flash will save the day. There may even be times when you want the special effects that can only be created with flash (or multiple ones). For the most part the built-in flash of the modern camera will handle the job, especially once you learn how to set it for fill-in, red-eye reduction, et cetera. Buying an accessory flash can come later, if at all.

Tripod. Well I have one and I use it. It’s cheap and old and I just glued the rubber feet back on. It’s a Hakuba. No, I never heard of it either. Not sure how many decades ago I bought it. Originally one of many, I kept this one because it wasn’t the worst of ’em. Some recommendation, eh? Do you need a tripod? If you do low-light or long exposure shots, yes. If you don’t know yet, no. If you’re just trying things out – get a used one for cheap and see if it fits your needs. In fact that’s good advice for any piece of equipment; when you see what the shortcomings of it are vis-a-vis your photography you’ll know just what to look for next time. And if there are no shortcomings you’ve come out ahead.

In summation, I have a Nikon P610 ‘bridge’ type camera with an absurd zoom range and a Canon T100 DSLR which gives me huge lens options (including using old film SLR glass). The Nikon rarely lets me down at getting the photo I want, and that in itself is saying something. The Canon on the other hand is a lot of fun to play around with, and frankly its controls are more sensibly laid out. For someone who has exceeded the abilities of a point-and-shoot digital I’d recommend a ‘bridge’ type camera as a next step, because you may not need to take another. I definitely would not recommend jumping in with both feet by buying a really expensive mirrorless DSLR because frankly I think you’ll be both frustrated and disappointed, as well as a good deal poorer.

 

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