Thursday, January 13, 2011

Vivian Maier - Street Photographer

If you do nothing else today, watch this video and visit the associated web sites that tell the story of Vivian Maier. This is the most inspiring article on photography I have seen in a long time. Go full screen.

John Maloof's site -

Chicago Magazine article

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Learning to Focus - Part 3


You must own a tripod! That 3 legged support structure is one of the oldest tools known to mankind. They hold pots over a fire, were used in sacrificial ceremonies and support machine guns in war time.

Now, tripods provide portable stability and sharper images for a variety of photographic techniques. Long exposure pictures taken in low light that would blur if the camera moved can be sharp and vibrant with the stable support of a tripod. A telephoto lens will amplify any camera movement and easily blur your picture. A tripod, and, in fact, any stable surface, can help keep those pictures in focus.

Note: Nikon recommends that you turn off Vibration Reduction (VR) when using a tripod. VR starts a gyroscope when you hold the shutter release down halfway that helps stabilize a hand held camera, but can induce movement and vibration when the camera is supported on a tripod, especially when using a telephoto lens.

Heavy lenses come with their own tripod mounting bracket to correctly balance the weight.

Tripods come in a variety of sizes, strength and quality as do the camera mount heads. What you need depends on your camera and application and is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that heavier cameras require stronger (and more expensive) tripods. Here is a nice informational article on Wikipedia.

But there are tips to improve the performance of any tripod. First, check the bottom of your camera. Most have the standard size (1/4 inch, 20 threads per inch) screw socket, ready to attach to a standard tripod. Camera mounted? Let's go.

Keep your tripod short. Shorter is more stable. I do not extend the legs any longer then I need to. And I only raise the center pole as a last resort!

Add weight. Since a heavier support is more stable, you can improve the performance of your inexpensive tripod by hanging weight from the center. Some tripods include a hook at the bottom of the center pole. I carry a bungie cord for this purpose and use my camera bag as the weight. Tying the tripod to a secure point embedded in the ground is even better but less portable. This is a big help for long exposures.

A little weight can help stablize a lighter tripod.

If it is windy, I will stand upwind with my coat open like a flasher trying to protect the camera from moving. Every little bit helps.

Small tripods for small cameras are useful too. Gorilla Pod makes a popular flexible leg tripod that will wrap around a pipe or chair back.

This size Gorilla pod is perfect for my Flip camera.

Some people make their own tripods. You can see a wide variety at

I find that an unintended advantage to using a tripod is that it slows me down. Moving and framing takes more effort and I find myself spending extra time thinking through the shot.

You might want to add a mono pod to your collection. They add stability, are easy to carry and can be used in places where tripods would be awkward or forbidden. Even using a mono pod, I look to support it against something solid, such as a railing. Place the base firmly against your foot or even inside your shoe. And, again, shorter is more stable. Only extend it as far as you need to.

The idea is you can improve the sharpness of your photographs simply by creating a positive stable platform for the camera, whether it be on a $1000 tripod or the top of a fence post.

More focus to come...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Learning to Focus - Part 2

Camera Movement

Another seemingly obvious bit of advice is to not move the camera while taking the picture.
The small size and live view LCD screens on point and shoot cameras make it a challenge to hold those cameras steady. While electronic innovations such as Image Stabilization (to be covered later) are extremely helpful and work well, moving the camera can and will reduce the sharpness of your pictures. Take positive control and keep that camera still.

Shutter speed can overcome camera movement and will be covered in another post.

Composing the picture on the LCD screen on the back of the camera seems like a great idea. But holding the camera out at arm's length is an unstable posture. And then you push on the top of the camera to take the shot. Gravity, mass, balance and inertia are all working against your efforts to keep that camera still and capture a sharp picture.

I moved the camera before this 8 second shot had finished.

One solution is to use the view finder, if you have one. Placing the view finder to your eye adds a point of contact and helps steady the camera. If your camera does not have a view finder, well, I suggest you look for one on your next camera.

Otherwise, steady your arms by leaning against anything, put your elbows on a table, or your shoulder against a wall. Keep your arms close to your body.

Pushing the shutter release is the next problem. Tiny cameras held at arm's length will move as you take the picture. Remember (from part 1) to push the release halfway and wait for autofocus to do its' thing. This is when Image Stabilization works too. Now you only need a tiny bit more pressure to take that shot.
DSLRs have more heft and are easier to hold steady, that is unless you have been shooting all day, then it feels like a lead weight. I recommend using live view only when you need it, like to shoot over the heads of a crowd using that fancy swing out and swivel LCD screen. Otherwise, use the view finder to get that extra contact point. Keep your arms close to your side. Lean against something, especially when using slow shutter speeds. Prop the camera itself against the wall too for an additional contact point. One foot forward is more stable then side by side. The more stable you hold the camera, the slower the shutter speed you can get away with and the lower the ISO you can use.

Even your breathing can create camera movement. That is what makes the biathlon an Olympic sport. The athletes control their breathing to steady their aim. Photography is not yet an Olympic event but to get every ounce of sharpness, think about your breathing while shooting. Just before taking the picture, take an easy breath, let half out, hold it and snap the shot.

The message here is to think about how to steady your camera with every shot. It is something you can control. Do not rely totally on Image Stabilization, auto focus, high ISO and a fast shutter speed, not if you are aiming for the sharpest picture you can get.

More focus to come...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Learning to Focus - Part 1

Tack sharp focus, Unsharp mask, out-of-focus, bokeh, Gaussian blur, motion blur, shallow focus, depth of field, soft focus. These are all terms used to define the quality of the sharpness of a picture. And they are all good keywords to have in the beginning of this post.

Photographers may artistically use the full range, from exact focus to completely blurred, often in a single picture. As you will see, there is quite a bit to think about and my intention is to explore and document the various techniques used to achieve that desired focus on a consistent basis. As always, this blog is primarily for my own education. And I hope you benefit as well.

In focus or out of focus, it's your choice.

I will start this multi-part journey simply. Folks show me their pictures and I enjoy looking at them. So many are unintentionally out of focus, often due to the simple misunderstanding of how modern cameras use auto focus.

Push the shutter release halfway down and hold it there before taking the picture. This activates the auto focus and auto exposure functions and allows the camera time to adjust to a generally good picture.

This seemed obvious to me, until I met someone that did not realize that this is how cameras work. There was instant and dramatic improvement in their pictures when I pointed this out. This instruction is probably on the first page of the first chapter of your camera manual, but many people do not realize its' importance. Many folks are used to Instamatic cameras with fixed lenses. That shutter release has only one function, to release the shutter. When they buy their first point and shoot camera, they assume it works in a similar manner.

There is more to this halfway shutter release that we will use in a variety of focusing techniques. It also performs other functions. If you are viewing a picture or have the menu up on the LCD screen, it resets the camera in preparation to take a picture. It turns on telemetry in the view finder or an information window so you can check a variety of settings. It is the most used function on digital cameras and crucial for getting the most out of auto focus.

More to come...

Monday, December 13, 2010

What camera should I buy? Part 2

Let's assume that you will buy a new camera. If you are going to create serious art, sell your services for weddings and portraits or even make it a serious hobby, an SLR (probably a digital) will best suit your needs. They allow you the most creative options with large image sensors, interchangible lenses, filters and attachments.

On the other hand, if you are looking to document your life, want ease of use and the best quality a point and shoot camera can deliver, consider the Canon G12, the Nikon P7000 or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5.
These top of the line point and shoot cameras are what many professional photographers carry when they are not working. They take excellent pictures and allow full manual control. The specs are slightly different for each camera, but they have Image Stabilization, 5x to 7x zoom, HD video, hot shoes and are as good as a point and shoot gets in low light. Lenses are not interchangible, eliminating that concern making them much easier to carry.

I do not own any of these cameras but one is on my wish list. The links take you to Amazon where you can read many user reviews and associated comments yourself.

You will see many cheaper point and shoot cameras.  When you evaluate their features and quality, these are the cameras that they should be compared to.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What camera should I buy?

It seems everyone wants a better camera and I am often asked for advice on what camera they should buy. Considering the sheer number and variety of camera types, I tend to respond with a series of questions. Will you be creating serious art or casually documenting your family vacations and how much money can you spend are usually the first few. Several more questions follow before I suggest some internet searching.

But I have recently added a question to that list that I often ask myself whenever I get the urge to purchase the latest technically advanced offering. Am I getting the most out of the camera I own? Do I understand everything my camera can do? Am I taking advantage of those features I have? Am I getting excellent pictures and, if not, is it the camera's fault or mine?

Be honest. Will I use the new features? Can I afford the accessories, the additional lenses, the tax and the shipping and insurance? Will I auto-magically get better pictures?

To me, photography is about composition and exposure. All cameras help with exposure but they have their limits. You will often get a better picture if you take some level of manual control over the exposure settings. Your present camera will most likely allow you to do that. Composition is entirely up to you and has little to do with the camera. And again, you want the ability to take control over the automatic functions, like focusing for example, as you compose the photograph. More zoom is nice, but you can move closer too. You will need these skills with the new camera as well.

Taken with a Nikon D80, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 0.6 seconds.Taken from about 60 feet away in a fairly dark grove of eucalyptus trees. The D80 is not known for low light performance. Cropped and tweaked in Photoshop.

So, study your camera first. Read the manual. Understand every mode and how to push your camera's limits. Two things will happen, you will confirm what you really need in a new camera and better yet, you will instantly take better pictures.

Get more out of your camera by experimenting. Professional photographers would save the last frame on their film to experiment with settings. Do that any time you have your camera in hand (and after you get the important shots you went out to take).

If you truly need a better camera for an event, rent what you are considering buying and test it out. You just might find that your present camera is not so bad. I find the claims a bit exaggerated on all the cameras I've rented. Then search the forums for the opinions of others.

Maybe take that money and upgrade your computer or software. Take classes. Study composition, color and Photoshop. Invest in a new lens. A quality lens on a mediocre camera will take better pictures then a terrible lens on a good camera.

Once you are getting everything you can out of your present camera, a new one can take you to the next level. Check out this article by Scott Bourne to help your search. But first, consider these thoughts. They might make more difference to your photography then a new camera body.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz #19

It's Monday, but a week late on this answer. I'll take a break from the quiz and write some deep thoughts on photography for your reading pleasure and my own education. Scroll on down.

We vacationed in Northern California last summer to fullfill Lori's fishing needs. I captured some nice shots and read Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World". I took a series of pictures of a small river and forest that I think will make a really nice panorama.

Lassen Volcanic National Park was mostly closed due to heavy snow. It is home to a potentially active volcano seen here reflected in Manzanita Lake. It is a short hike to take this picture. The park is another example of the many dramatic natural landscapes found in the United States. Slightly out-of-the-way, this area sees less tourist traffic and can make for a relaxing yet facinating vacation.