Very soon we will be coming up to 200 years of photography. Everything about photography has changed remarkably in the past 175 years since Louis Daguerre went on to develop the daguerreotype process, the first publicly announced photographic process, which required only minutes of exposure in the camera and produced clear, finely detailed results. It was commercially introduced in 1839, a date generally accepted as the birth year of practical photography. In the mid-1820s, Nicéphore Niépce had managed to produce an image, but several days of exposure in the camera were required and the earliest results were very crude.
“When all else fails - read the instruction manual” is always some very good advice, and the answer to many photographic problems can be found in it. However, this does pre-suppose you have read it, or even know where to find it. And even more importantly, know where to find the salient items from all the functions of today’s digital cameras.
When you speak the word “digital” it means you have entered the world of the drop-down menu. How I curse it! They have taken simple rotary dial adjustments and made them difficult because you have to scroll down menus and then scroll across and so forth, looking at the LCD screen on the back of the camera.
Of course, it can get even more difficult, as when the instruction manual that comes with your new camera is on a CD. The CD covers over 100 pages, and of course, is quite useless when you are in the field without a PC or any electronic device that can read CD’s (so far this ability is not available on the ubiquitous smart-phone).
Now the camera manufacturers don’t think they are making it difficult for you. In fact, they think they have made it easier for you! Instead of working out the correct exposure for any shot, they have done the sums for you and all you have to do is select the mode you want, be that fireworks, rainy overcast day, or snowflakes. But you may have to go through the drop-down menu to select the mode of course.
But, a printed manual generally comes with the new camera. Do not lose it. It is akin to your bible. But you must read it first before traipsing outside with the menu for sunset beach selected. Look at that again - read it first.
A few years ago, one of the readers, Don Griffith, wrote to me with some very good advice, for a confused amateur who had written, “I have trawled through the instruction book and menus for both turning it on and also extending the viewing time of the menus but I’m damned if I can find anything about either items.” He had also written, “A question though, I know most of the time it is power economical to leave the LCD off but occasionally it is needed for viewing. Any suggestions?”
I reprint Don’s advice here. And as it was extremely sage advice, so I suggest you read it. “I have a D40 and probably the instruction manual for it is exactly the same as a previous writer. Very badly laid out and confusing - vague language and far too many cross references for someone making the transition up to a DSLR to make total sense of.
“To this end it is very worthwhile investing in a third party book on the camera if one wants to get the best out of it.
“I got one from my local ‘Amazon’ - the beauty of using Amazon being I was able to read parts of it before I bought it to make sure I was not buying yet another confusing instruction book. I bought the cheapest available out of a surprisingly large collection that was on offer - and it has been a complete revelation and consider it has totally paid for itself in the first three or four chapters.
“For example, I have had the camera for 12 months and in the first chapter or so I learnt basic things that I was previously unaware of - like how to use the exposure compensation/aperture button.
“No doubt there are owners of other makes of DSLR cameras with much the same problem - if so it is also worth them looking for a book for their camera as well.”
By the way, when children play with the camera, you can end up with the situation, for example, where nothing on the LCD makes any sense, no matter what you do. The answer for that problem is to return to the shop and look hopeless, and the bright young thing behind the counter will fix it in less than one minute. Unfortunately, you and I are no longer “bright young things”.
I have kept thousands of photographs I should have thrown away - however, they do have a value. They teach me what I did wrong, several times over!
Looking over many of the shots showed me that I took a lot of shots of almost exactly the same things. One wrong shot was repeated over and over again, as if I expected God to come and fix the photo for me. He didn’t.
There should be almost as much work in thinking about a photograph as there is in taking it. Great shots do not just ‘happen’, great shots are designed and planned for.
I was reminded of the tricks in shooting fireworks when we had the fireworks extravaganza a couple of weekends ago. I should have written this then, but better late than never. We (that’s you) will have plenty of opportunities over New Year (be that the Western New Year, Chinese New Year, Thai New Year or the Patagonian Petunia Festival). At all of these events the culmination is the letting off of fireworks.
How do you get eye-catching photographs? Even in camera clubs there are more dull photographs than eye-catchers. So what is the secret?
Amazingly, sometimes the commonest or simplest items can produce eye-catching photographs. No difficult shots, no special effects, no exotic lenses, just great shots by the simple technique of keeping one’s eyes open for good results.
The secret to all this is to remember repetitive shapes, contrasting shapes, contrasting colors and shadows. In other words, these types of images rely totally on vision and composition.
Remembering that the ‘rules’ of composition are merely there to be broken, very often a dramatic shot comes from trying something different.
The secret of great photography is not just in correct exposure and placement in the frame. You will get plenty of photographs that are perfectly exposed with the subject at the intersection of thirds, but dull. You need to remember contrast!
Contrast in photographic composition is an effective means of directing the viewer’s attention to the subject of interest. When I speak of contrast, I am referring to both tonal contrast, as in black-and-white photography, and color contrast as it relates to color photography.
In B&W photography, contrast is the difference in subject tones from white-to-gray-to-black or from the lightest tone to the darkest tone. In color photography different colors create the contrast.
Tonal contrast is generally expressed as high contrast which has extreme black and whites, or low contrast which has nothing but graduated greys.
Now you can wander around all day looking for a girl in a white swimsuit on a white sandy beach, or you can manipulate a photograph to produce that image. If you have an advanced digital camera, you can program it to record black and white only and then go from there, but if not, no fear, your software will allow you to do this post camera. First convert the color shot to grey scale, then play with the brightness and contrast, and you will very quickly produce a high contrast shot.
Now high contrast should not be confused with high key. A high key black and white shot is one where the photo shows mostly light tones. Conversely, a low key shot is one that has mainly dark tones. Low key and high key pictures convey mood and atmosphere. Low key suggests seriousness and mystery and is wonderful for Halloween photographs. However, high key creates a feeling of delicacy and lightness. A portrait of a blonde in white against a white background is an example of high key.
High contrast gives very black blacks and very white whites, and usually with nothing in between. Low contrast, on the other hand, still has blacks and whites, but everything is predominantly grey, giving a flat scene which still has tones, but in which highlights and shadows have very little difference in densities. In other words, all tones within the scene are very similar in appearance. However, remember that if you are shooting in automatic mode, the camera will be set to deliver 18 percent grey, and not black.
Now to contrast in color. This is where an artist’s color wheel comes in handy. By picking colors from opposite sides on the wheel, you immediately have stunning contrasts. Blue and yellow is a classic example. Another is bright red against a luminescent green background.
Cold colors (bluish) and warm colors (reddish) almost always contrast. Cold colors recede, while warm colors advance. Light colors contrast against dark ones, and a bold color offsets a weak color.
Color contrast is an effective compositional element in color photography, just as tone is in black-and-white photography. Colors with opposite characteristics contrast strongly when placed together. Each color accentuates the qualities of the other and makes the color images stand out dramatically. Color contrast is enhanced when you create the contrast of detail against mass. An example is a single, bright, red flower in a clear, glass vase photographed against a bright, green background.
The photograph used this week is an example of very high color contrast, so much so that only two colors matter. This was designed to be a photograph that hits you between the eyes.
Remember Bob Dylan’s ode to change? The last verse went:
“The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
In the photographic world, this is just so true. We all began with a Kodak Box Brownie camera, we were delighted with the ability of this equipment to record scenes, and even people (as long as you didn’t get too close). From there, most of us went to folding cameras like the Voigtlander Bessa (am I bringing back memories now?) and from there to an SLR like the Canon AE1 + Program.
For the keen amateurs there would be a number of SLRs from various manufacturers, until you settled on one and built up a system from there. I have one friend with the complete range of Pentax lenses as well as a couple of camera bodies. But the “first one now will later be last” as we have seen. The change from film to digital, then the change from DSLR to Bridge cameras and now the advent of the camera phone and the “art” of “selfies”.
Some time ago, I wrote about a DVD I had been given, saying “Being a Nikon produced video lesson, there was a very strong message to use Nikon equipment, and I will admit to using Nikon myself until I was seduced by the ease and simplicity of the Panasonic Lumix.” That prompted an email from Don Griffith who wrote, “I bought a little Panasonic Lumix TZ7 myself - the only thing it has not got that is really important to me is RAW. It has quickly become indispensable-and the picture quality is generally excellent.
“Would recommend any serious photographer to buy a super-compact, if they can afford it - beats lugging all the Nikon/Canon gear around every time you step out of the door - and missing some critical opportunities because you have decided to give your shoulder a rest and have left it all at home. Never waste money on the official case - it is an advert to get it stolen, as often it advertises what is inside - buy a similar cheaper case at a bargain store about one eighth of the cost - just as good - in some cases better, as rigid instead of soft, offering some protection if dropped. Don Griffith.”
I bought the ‘bridge’ Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ50 and not the TZ7. The FZ50 does have the RAW files capability which Don Griffith is looking for. I also bought the camera because I didn’t want to walk around lugging lenses any more either, and the DMC FZ50 has a Leica zoom covering 35 mm to 410 mm and with optical image stabilization, you can even hand-hold through the zoom.
Another photographer who agreed with my choice was Alan Puzey who wrote in with his own experiences of the FZ50. And he was another tired of lens lugging. He wrote, “I no longer wanted to carry around a case of equipment with additional lenses, flashes, etc., and so SLRs were out. Of this sort of alternative the Lumix looked just what I needed - and has proved to be so.
“I love the lens quality and the positioning of controls around the camera. Very logical and easy to use. When I have to revert to the ‘on-screen’ menus, they are pretty good. I didn’t at first like the feel of holding this camera, but now I have got used to it, it’s no problem at all and now feels ‘normal’.
“I only use the ISO 100 setting; the sensor is not the best available and all speeds higher than this bring quality down. ISO 800 and 1600 I wouldn’t touch with the proverbial barge pole!
Cheers, Alan Puzey.”
And is there a downside? Yes there is. It would be nice to have a wide angle capability, but so far the adapters are not good by all reports and the built in camera flash is woeful. You can’t have everything!
To be honest, I think that ‘smartphone’ photography is reaching down into the bottom of the barrel. Creativity, which is why I take photographs, has not really been possible with the so-called ‘smartphones’. As a record shot showing a photo of someone somewhere they are probably excellent. However, seeing media photographers pointing their phones at a car during its press release makes me cringe. The prime function of these phones is still to allow you to speak to people in far away places. Full stop!
Replacing one’s camera is almost as difficult as upgrading your car. However, cameras are much cheaper than cars!
A couple of weeks back I received a very nice letter from one of the readers, and it was very pleasing to read that someone does actually read the column. The letter was as follows:
Dear Mr Flashman,
Firstly, I would like to say how much I enjoy your weekly articles in the Pattaya Mail. Please keep up the good work!
Secondly, I am writing to you in the hope that you can give me some advice and guidance.
I currently have two cameras. One is a Sony DSLR A300 (with two lenses). One being a Sony SAL 55200 (55-200 mm lens) and the other a Sony 3.5-5.6/18-70 mm lens. This camera is a few years old now and I tend not to use it that much as it is quite heavy & bulky to carry around. For the last couple of years I have tended to favor my other camera which is a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ20 with Leica lens. A compact camera that takes quite good pictures and is easy to carry around.
However, I am thinking to trade both these in and upgrade to a Nikon D5200.
So firstly, what do you think of my decision? Secondly, could you recommend a retail outlet in Thailand that could accommodate my request? If you have an idea of trade-in values that would also be helpful. I suspect that somewhere in Bangkok would be my best option although I live in Pattaya.
Thank you for taking the time to read my mail and any alternative ideas and options that you may have would be much appreciated.
So what should I be advising Barry? The first piece of information I really needed, unfortunately Barry didn’t include with his email. Just what does he want to photograph? Action? Landscapes? People? Glamor? Macro?
Looking at his DSLR Sony he has lenses covering 18 mm through to 200 mm. This is limiting his options. Definitely not the camera to use for shooting tigers! The other end of the scale at 18 mm isn’t bad, but this is also not the camera to use for dramatic landscapes.
Like many photographers, Barry has become tired of lugging the DSLR around and backed up the Sony with the Panasonic Lumix DMC FZ 20, one of the early Bridge-cameras with the non-removable Leica lens. With a range of 35-410 the Lumix gives an enormous range and is much lighter to carry.
For me, I would forget the DSLR with interchangeable lenses and the attendant weight problems. With today’s compacts/bridge cameras, the image quality is perfectly adequate, unless you want enlargements the size of a barn door.
I agree that trading in both of his current cameras for something newer makes sense. But I don’t agree that the Nikon D5200 should be the next step as this is back to weight and bulk.
A Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 would be my choice, and has received very favorable reviews. For example, the verdict from E-Photozine:
The Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 is one of the cheapest 4K video recording devices available, and offers an array of impressive video features. However, if you don’t want to record 4K video, and just want a camera capable of taking excellent photos, with a good zoom lens, then the Panasonic Lumix FZ1000 certainly delivers here as well. With a relatively large 1 inch 20 megapixel sensor, a bright Leica 16x optical zoom lens with f/2.8-4.0 aperture, and full manual controls, the camera is capable of producing excellent image quality. Build quality is very good and the camera has a lot in common with the Panasonic Lumix GH4, the top of the range Micro Four Thirds camera from Panasonic. There are numerous external controls and buttons, as well as full manual controls, but you can also use the camera in auto mode, or one of the scene modes and still get great shots, as well as high quality video.
Trade the two cameras on a Lumix FZ1000 at one of the camera stores in MBK Bangkok would be my advice. (And yes, I use a Lumix as my camera of choice these days too.)
There is much similarity these days between mobile phones and digital cameras. I was reminded of this the other day when my daughter managed to drown her (reputedly waterproof) phone. Cameras also do not swim well either, unless it is an expensive Nikonos. Neither piece of modern technology does well in the dropped stakes either.