Look! There goes a ‘real’ photographer! Any pro shooter, or even a serious amateur, can be recognized with their photographer’s jacket pockets stuffed with lenses. Fish eye, wide angle, “normal”, long, and extra-long.
Ever wondered why the pros all walk around with all these lenses and three cameras slung around their necks? Is this a kind of photographic masochism, or is there a good reason for this? There is!
The reason is called “quality”. Pro shooters have to return to their editor or client with a professional image, giving the best interpretation of the subject and finally be pin sharp in its definition. Something you can’t get with a point and shoot camera or an image from your phone-cam.
To illustrate this situation I thought I should give you some ideas on three of the lenses to use, for what and why. Now if you own a 28-105 mm zoom or whatever, don’t despair, just adapt your thinking to use the zoom at the wide angle when I mention wide angle lenses and the other end of the scale when I mention telephoto lenses.
The three principal lenses are Wide, Standard and Long, and for the purposes of this article I am not including “extreme” examples. Consider Wide to be around 24-28 mm, Standard around 50 mm and Long around 100-150 mm. So you can see, the average zoom lens will cover these focal lengths.
Let’s begin with Wide lenses. These are the lenses for 99.9 percent of landscapes. You get a wide angle of coverage, you get great depth of field and as an added bonus you get blue skies! Even in Bangkok. The reason is that you have a wide angle of sky “squashed” into 12 megapixels, so the colour is denser than it would appear to the naked eye. I have always said that photography is the art of telling lies with a camera.
The Wide lens is also the one you should use in low light situations, such as twilight, as most Wide lenses have larger apertures which let more light in to the camera. This means that you can get readings like 1/30 second at f 2.8, at which you can hand hold. With the average Long lens (or zoom in the tele position) it would be 1/4 second at f 5.6 a shutter speed you cannot hand hold.
The Standard lens is actually one of the most neglected lenses in your camera bag. This is the focal length that most closely approximates what the human eye sees. Use this lens and you get the most “life-like” image that people can immediately relate to. No strange distortions in the foreground or on the edges either. For example, if you want to photograph food, pull out the trusty Standard lens. Stand on a chair and you get what the diner sees.
The Standard lens is also very good for getting either full length portraits or waist up pictures. Again, it is the lack of optical distortion which is important, and you can also use aperture settings around f 4 to blur the background.
So to the Long lenses. The focal length of around 100 mm would be more accurately called a “short” telephoto, but this is a common focal length and one that many of the zooms can cover. This is the lens you use to do all portrait shots. This lens will give you flattering views, without enlargement of the nose, and slightly compresses the image. When combined with a wide aperture of say around f 4 to f 5.6 this blurs the background enough to produce an uncluttered image.
The ability to compress the final image makes the Long lens the ideal one to show traffic jams or parades. Use a high viewpoint and look down the road when a parade is coming and you will get an image that appears to show that the road is just crammed with floats, one almost on top of another. Or better still try Sukhumvit Road from the overhead bridges.
Finally, it is important to remember that Long lenses are not a substitute for walking in close, especially at night, when the flash burst does not carry all that far.
Last week I mentioned that I came across a case full of filters which I had presumed lost. The treasure trove included Neutral Density filters (ND1-4), red and green filters for Black and White work, Graduated sepia, “speed” filters, multiple image filters, cross stars, tobacco filters, 81B ‘warming’ filters and blue cooling filters. Even a cable release for time exposures and more.
I have to admit I stumbled across an alloy box the other day, which I hadn’t seen (or missed) for many years. It was one of those items you lug all over the world because, at one time, the contents were important, or were thought to be.
How can you make your photographs stand out from everyone else’s? It’s not all that difficult, but you have to start to cultivate what I call the photographic eye.
As one gets older, physical activity is important - just getting out of the house or condo can be an enjoyment in itself. This is where photography is so good if you are one of the seniors in our community. Giving yourself a small photo project and you go out and illustrate it can be very rewarding.
Photography is actually an ideal pastime for our seniors, because it is something that can be picked up and put down at will, it is not too physically demanding, and modern cameras can assist in the areas where age has taken some toll, such as some dimming of the vision. And as another plus, the end result is something that can give you great joy, be that award winning sunsets or just pictures of the grandchildren which you can proudly hang on the wall.
I will start this article assuming that the older reader is a very rank amateur. Probably a senior just contemplating photography. Now, to play golf you need golf clubs. To play photography you need a camera. What one should you get?
Get one with autofocus (AF). There are many reasons for this, but since sharp focus is necessary for a good final print, let today’s camera do it for you, as sharpness in vision is something that can become very problematical as you get older. As George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, said in 1888, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”
Most cameras today are AF ones, and work by moving the lens in and out electronically to focus on the subject in the middle of the viewfinder, just as if you were doing it yourself. They do this quickly and accurately and will usually give an audible ‘beep’, or a green light in the viewfinder to let you know the focus has been set. Do not be afraid to try the new advanced cameras, they make life easier, so just use them to your advantage. You only need very basic skills to take photographs today. Generally the AF function will produce sharper results than dimming vision!
A digital camera does away with film and any of the problems associated with it. Nothing could be simpler or more fool proof. And one of the best things about digital photography is the ability to immediately see if the shot is what you want. Trying to shoot from different angles and perspectives is also exercising the photographic eye.
Zoom lenses also save you having to go the distance. Is it just too much of a hassle these days to walk up to distant objects to get close-up details? Then a zoom lens will do it for you. With a zoom lens it is no problem at all to get a close-up, a wide angle and a distant shot from the same camera position. Maybe an autofocus digital compact camera with an inbuilt zoom lens is just the camera for you. Just push a button to make the zoom bring the subject closer or farther away. However, until you are proficient with the camera and how the different focal lengths affect the final shot, practicing your eye with the ‘standard’ 50 mm lens is good practice.
Today’s camera manufacturers have taken the fears out of flash too. Most new cameras have their own in-built flash which comes on when the light levels are too low, will set their own flash power and give you perfectly lit indoor night shots every time. You don’t have to put the camera down when the sun goes down!
So there you have it. There are cameras available now which can get you into photography! If you want to develop the ‘photographic eye’, then today’s cameras will help you. All you have to do is get the equipment to let you use and enjoy taking pictures. Look for suitable AF digital compacts with built in zoom, anti-shake technology and auto flash.
Pricewise you are looking at spending something around B. 10,000. There are plenty of choices in the marketplace. Something from the major brands such as Nikon, Canon, Olympus. A hint to the family around birthday should suffice.
Today’s young photographers have grown up with Auto-Focus (AF), so they will be unaware of the first AF cameras with ‘whizz’ ‘whizz’ ‘whizz’ as the camera tried to focus, especially in low light situations.
I always felt that I could focus manually faster than the AF could, and what was even more important, I knew what were the important items in the frame - the electronic “magic eye” did not.
Things have changed. Quite frankly, today’s AF is better than me. Now that I need glasses as well, I am unsure whether I have the focus ‘sweet spot’ correctly, whilst my AF does, with a comforting ‘beep’.
AF gone wrong.
However, since almost all new cameras are AF, the following tips will try and ensure that you do get the sharp results that you think you’re going to get from the important AF feature.
There are unfortunately many situations where the magic AF eye just cannot work properly. If there is no contrast in the scene, then the AF will not work. If you are trying to focus in a “low light” situation then the AF will “hunt” constantly looking for a bright area. When trying to shoot through glass or wire mesh the AF can become totally confused as well. No, while AF is now almost 100 percent universal, it is still not 100 percent foolproof.
The focusing area for the AF system is a small circle or square in the middle of the viewfinder, so if you are taking a picture of two people two meters away, the camera may just focus on some object that it can see between your two subjects. Very often trees. Those trees are two km away, so you get a shot with the background sharp and the two people in the foreground as soft fuzzy blobs.
What you have to do is use the “hold-focus” (sometimes called “focus lock”) facility in your camera. To use this facility, compose the people the way you want them, but then turn the camera so that one person is now directly in the middle of the viewfinder, in the AF focus point. Gently push the shutter release half way down and the AF will “fix” on the subject. Generally you will get a “beep” or a green light in the viewfinder to let you know that the camera has fixed its focus. It will now hold that focus until you either fully depress the shutter release, or you take your finger off the button. So keeping your finger on the button, recompose the picture in the viewfinder and shoot. The people are now remaining in focus, and the background soft and fuzzy, instead of the other way round.
So what should you do in the other situations when the AF is in trouble? When all else fails, turn it off and focus manually! Sometimes, in the poor light it is possible to shine a torch on the subject, get the AF fixed on the subject and then turn off your torch and go from there. But this is only when you cannot turn the AF off!
Another focusing problem is when photographing a moving subject. When say, for example, you are attempting to shoot a subject coming rapidly towards you, the AF is unable to “keep up” with the constantly moving target. The answer here is to manually focus at the point where you want to get the subject to be photographed and then wait for the subject to reach that point. As it approaches the predetermined point, rip off four of five frames and you have it. A sharply focused action photograph.
Here’s another great tip from the photographic studios of the glamour and portrait photographers - when taking a portrait shot, focus on the eyes, nowhere else. Very, very carefully focus on the eyelid margins and you will have a super shot, no matter how shallow your depth of field may be. The eyes have it!
Finally, remember that AF is merely an electronic ‘aid’, you have to make sure it is helping you get better pictures. Look carefully at what the pre-view screen is showing you before tripping the shutter.
My first photography studio was painted white. Not externally, but internally. My next studio was painted black internally, and was a much better studio. Why? It all came back to the well-used phrase in photography “painting with light.”
Looking at the origins of the word “photography” it does indeed mean “painting with light’, but I would like you to think about the opposite - “painting with dark.”
In the initial stages of learning photography, the novice photographer is always looking for more light, but the biggest mistake is too much ‘light’, not too little.
With automatic flashes that pop up out of the camera, and others that come on as soon as the sensor decides it is getting too dark, it is difficult as a raw novice not to have shots that are very bright and absolutely bathed in light. Unfortunately, this is not the best way to show shape, form or evoke an air of mystery.
Undoubtedly the subject will now be well lit, but you have also removed shape and form from the photograph. You see, the way to convey shape is by showing the shadow the object casts. No shadow and it looks flat. Incorporate shadow and “Hey Presto!” you have invented 3D.
Shadow has another benefit - it gives an air of mystery to any picture. Dark shadows allow the viewer to imagine what is being hidden. Your photograph “hints” at something and the viewer’s mind does the rest from there.
Here is an exercise for this weekend. Let’s put some shadows into your photographs. Let’s do a portrait to incorporate shadow. And let’s do this indoors and without flash guns or any fancy equipment, and get a ‘professional’ look to the final print.
Find the largest window in your house or condominium and put a chair about one metre away from it. The chair should be parallel to the window, not facing it.
Place your sitter in the chair and position another chair facing the sitter. This one is yours, as you will take the photo sitting down. Reason? This way you keep the camera at the same level as your subject’s face and you will get a more pleasing portrait. If you photograph from a position below the subject you tend to give them “piggy” nostrils and it shortens the look of the nose. In a country where ‘big noses’ are considered desirable, this is not the effect wanted.
Now, make sure that your auto flash is turned off. This is important with point and shooters that can fire off as soon as light levels are lower than usual. Look through the viewfinder and position yourself so that the sitters face is almost filling the frame. Notice that the side of the face away from the window light source is now in shadow. If you have the ability to meter from the lit side of the face, then do so. But if not, just blast off a couple of frames on auto and let the camera do the worrying.
To change the brightness to darkness ratio is quite simple too. Use some black velvet close to the sitter’s face, on the side opposite the window. The black velvet absorbs the light that wraps around the face, emphasizing the shadow. Painting with ‘dark’ light!
You should also slightly angle the sitter’s chair so that one shoulder is closer to the camera and get the subject to turn their head to face the camera again. Try angling in both directions so you will get a choice of shots.
Another variation to try is to place a thin voile net over the window, or draw any transparent curtains. This will soften the light and is particularly effective when taking shots of women. Again go through the variations.
For a portrait study such as this it is worth taking many shots. Remember that you are not doing 20 identical shots - make variations in pose, lighting and exposure. There are also facial expressions to change - laughing, smiling, serious or sad. It is very easy to end up with 20 different shots. And as an added bonus, you will have some with an air of mystery. Try it this weekend.
Now that ‘selfies’ seem to be the most important photographs that anyone can take, have you noticed that straight after the posted selfie comes pix of what the person ate? Even pie and peas.
Another reason for photographing food is a restaurant’s web site with many of the more switched on restaurateurs posting photographs of their food on FB as well!
Unfortunately, while these people may be great cooks, many are not great photographers. And if your photo of pies looks unappetizing and in a strange shade of green, then you will not have people knocking the doors down to try them.
Actually, food photographers are some of the highest paid professionals, because it is one of the more difficult areas of photography. For example, 20 years ago I could command 30,000 baht a day photographing food. There are even people called ‘food stylists’ who prepare the food to make it ‘look’ appetizing, as the taste does not matter in a photograph.
I was given the job to photograph 10 ice cream cones for a restaurant chain. They wanted all 10 of them standing up, all different flavors and looking attractive. This was not easy.
First off, how do you get 10 ice cream cones to stand upright with no obvious support. The answer was wooden skewers through the back of the cone going into a block of polystyrene covered with black velvet material.
Next you have to check the lighting flash heads and focus, using polystyrene balls on top of the cones, as ice cream melts too quickly. After you get all that set up properly you have to be ready to scoop up the ice creams and place them on the cones without any drips. You need three people to do this as ice cream under studio lighting melts in under 30 seconds.
Having taken one shot, if you are lucky everything will be fine. The reality is that you will need to take the shot several times to get everything correct, all the cones exactly parallel to each other, and no drips on the black velvet. That one shot will take you one day, so you can see why food photography is so expensive.
Have you ever tried photographing champagne? There’s never enough bubbles to make it look sparkling. To get over this, drop some sugar into the glass. Only a few grains are enough to give the almost still glass of champers that “just opened” fizz look to it. For a catalogue shot you also have to bring the light in from the back of the glass, as well as from the front. This takes two flash heads, or at least one head and a reflector.
While still on wines, if you try and shoot a bottle of red wine, it comes out thick dark maroon or even black. Restaurateurs who have tried photographing their wines will agree. So what does the pro shooter do? Well he has a couple of courses of action. First is to dilute the red wine by about 50 percent and secondly place a silver foil reflector on the back of the bottle. So what happens to the half bottle of red that was removed to dilute the wine? The photographer has it with dinner.
This is one area where there are more fraudulent practices than any other. Cold food can be made to look hot by sprinkling chips of dry ice to give “steam” coming off the dish. Not palatable, but it looks OK. Cooking oil gets brushed on slices of the cold meat so that they look moist and succulent.
That is just for starters. In the commercial photography studio, the dedicated food photographer would erect a “light tent” of white polystyrene and bounce electronic flash inside. Brightness is necessary to stop the food looking grey and dull. Lighting is just so important. If you do not have bright sparkly light then potatoes will look grey, and even the china plates look drab and dirty.
And for the chap in FB with the green pies, stop taking the photos under fluorescent light, but take your pies outside and shoot them under sunlight. They will then look as good as they should taste!
One item required by all pro photographers is a large roll of black velvet. This initially ‘strange’ item has many uses, including what I like to call “low budget special effects” photography and is the subject this week.
I met a young chap who has a keen interest in photography and had a lens on his DSLR, the like of which I had never seen before. It was made of brass and the focusing was done using a knurled knob which was the pinion to a rack built underneath the lens body. It screamed the 1800’s and Josef Petzval.