In Focus: Maintain Stability (part 2)

commentarylogoLast time we discussed some of the theory behind hand-holding a camera – the increased chances of shake at slower speeds and a rule of thumb for lower limit of shutter speed vs. focal length of the lens (50mm at 1/50th, 200mm at 1/200th etc), and also how raising the ISO will lead to a faster shutter and sharper images in low light. This week we’ll continue to keep things steady and look at the mainstay of camera stability.

The first thing that springs to mind when we think of holding a camera steady is the tripod.  When we first get a camera, a tripod is often the very next piece of equipment we get, if not at the time of camera purchase.  While that inexpensive add-on to the deal is appealing, it is worth resisting.  Find out how you are going to use your camera first.  With modern digital cameras and their low-light capabilities, a tripod is unnecessary.  If after some experience you find yourself gravitating towards, for example, long exposure, macro or landscape photography, a good quality tripod becomes a must-have to keep those images sharp.

The array of different tripods is great, and it can be confusing to determine which is best for your needs.  What to consider?

Stability is most important and seems like a no-brainer as this is the prime characteristic that all tripods are designed to provide, but while you are in store, just compare that cheap afterthought model with one of the higher quality options and you will see that between the spidery legs and plastic head, stability is exactly what the budget version seems to lack.  A rule of thumb I’ve heard for tripod purchase is that because stability is influenced most by mass, a tripod with head should be at least twice the weight of the camera.  This does however seem a little excessive to me as you can always add mass by hanging your bag off it – many good tripods have a fixture for this very purpose.  But do erect a few in-store and compare them for stability.  A load rating of about 8 – 10kg is good for most photographic applications.

Another important characteristic is weight.  Consider carefully how you will be using the tripod.  Will you be part of your kit as you travel?  Will you use it on infrequent occasions?  Good quality alloy tripods tend to be heavier, but if weight is a prime concern, carbon fiber, though much more expensive, could ease your burden considerably.

With most quality tripods, the head is a separate purchase, and like the leg assembly, there are a wide variety of options.  The most popular general-purpose heads are of the ball type – a ball in socket design.  These are small, sturdy, light and offer a wide range of movement.  The load rating for the head should be about the same as that for the legs.

As I mentioned earlier, don’t pick up that cheap tripod with the camera, if you get at least a little serious with your photography you will regret it eventually.  Take your time and see where you interests lead you and if necessary invest in a quality piece of equipment.  Cameras may come and go, but a wise tripod acquisition will last you a long, long time.  Don’t skimp on it.

Next time we’ll round off this series with a look at some other ways to maintain stability.

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In Focus: Maintain Stability (part 1)

commentarylogoDo you need a steadier hand?  Do you want to explore low light photography, slower shutter speeds or a sharpness-critical style like landscape photography?  What should you do?  Have a cup of coffee and a cigarette before shooting?  Perhaps so, but there are several other things you can do to help get sharper shots and that’s what we’ll look at over the next couple of weeks.

A shaky camera (or more to the point, a shaky hand) has been the bane of photographers since the beginning of the art.  To minimize camera shake, you need to be aware of both the shutter speed and the limitations of your ability to hold the camera steady.

A general rule of thumb is that you can safely hold a camera steady at a shutter speed equal to the focal length of the lens you are using.  So for example, if you are using a 50mm lens, you should (assuming you are trying to hold the camera as motionless as possible) be able to shoot comfortably at 1/50 sec without too much fear of introducing blur from camera shake.  Likewise with a longer 200mm lens, a faster 1/200 sec is a safe lower limit.  The situation here is somewhat analogous to holding a stick.  It’s easy to hold one end of a toothpick and keep the other end steady, but much more difficult to do the same with a broom handle.  With regards to a camera and lens, this isn’t so much due to the physical length of the lens, but the distance to the subject.  With a longer lens the subject is further away for a similar size in the viewfinder – a tiny movement of the camera here translates into a large movement at distance over there.  Keep in mind that this formula is only a rough guide for hand-held shooting and it will vary between individuals – some might need that cup of coffee or a little attention to results to see where your comfortable limit lies.

So what happens if the shutter speed goes lower?  What if we want to shoot our pals in the bar on Saturday night and the camera is telling us the shutter will be at a perilously slow 1/8 sec?  If you’re shooting film, you’re out of luck.  But if you’re taking advantage of digital’s convenience, just bump up the ISO.  The ISO value is the measure of the film or digital sensor’s sensitivity to light – the higher the number, the more sensitive to light so the camera needs a faster shutter speed for the same exposure.  Just dial it up until the shutter speed reaches a comfortable level.  Something to keep in mind when increasing ISO is that more ‘noise’ gets introduced into your image.   New DSLRs and high end point and shoot cameras have very good high ISO capabilities so it’s not a huge issue, but with older or cheaper digital cameras it is something to be wary of.

Another important thing to consider is that blurring from camera shake at shutter time is a function of probability.  That is, as you slow the shutter down, blur in the image is more likely to occur.  Using a 85mm lens at a shutter speed of 1/8000 sec, blur is vanishingly unlikely – you will get a sharp image 100% of the time.  With the same lens at say, 1/10 sec, the likelihood that you will introduce some blur is quite high.  You can however increase your chances of nailing a sharp image at slower speeds by shooting several frames, though no matter how many you shoot it is next to impossible to hold a camera steady for a 1 second exposure.

Next week we’ll look at some other ways to get a sharper image.

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Challenge Winner: Pil Gam Sung

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Weekly Winner: Glenn Sundeen

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In Focus: No Camera? Think Again

commentarylogoOne of the key components of improving your ability in the photographic realm is practice.  Practice seeing opportunities, seeing shapes, patterns, plays of color, and compositions.  Unfortunately, our ability to exercise photography is often limited, as we don’t always have our ‘serious’ camera with us.  During weekdays at work, for example, or going out for dinner, or even just walking down to the convenience store for ramyeon, we usually don’t have a camera with us… or do we?

Most mobile phones and hand-held devices have a built-in camera these days.  To be sure, in terms of technical image quality they fall far short of that ‘serious’ camera.  Most exhibit too much image ‘noise’, are all but useless in low light and are severely limited in, or totally devoid of control over things like exposure and depth of field.  It is because of these drawbacks that most people, once they acquire a ‘serious’ camera, eschew that crummy little token to device functionality as inferior.  And rightly so from the standpoint of technical quality and control.  But in terms of the more important abstract elements of an image – composition or the capture of color, pattern and shape play – they are no different than any other camera.  Indeed, they share exactly the same limitation: your ability to see the opportunity.

When we are out with that ‘serious’ camera, it’s often for a purpose and we tend to assume some degree of responsibility to take great (or at least good) images.  But an image is never great because of a camera; an image is great because of the mind and eye driving that camera.  And just like behind the wheel of a car, the more you drive the better you get.  With an attentive mind, your ability to read the road, the conditions and potential problems improves with the miles.  Likewise, you can vastly increase your mileage behind a lens by using the tools at your disposal and one advantage the small ‘token’ camera has is that we tend not to take it seriously – we are free to take pictures that don’t matter.

But if the pictures don’t matter, if the apparent limitations render our images poor from a certain point of view, what’s the point?  It is that mileage we are after.  Or to be more precise, mileage coupled with an attentive and critical mind.  Furthermore, we can take those limitations and use them to hone and strengthen our photographic eye.

Can’t control exposure? Saddled with one (usually short) apparent focal length?  No ability to exploit depth of field or make pretty bokeh? Stuck with seemingly random (and usually too slow) ‘shutter’ speeds?  It may seem a bit like running into a headwind, but these are blessings in disguise for the development of you photographic skill.  Your ability to spot opportunities that lie within these limitations, along with your composition and choice of point of view, absolutely has to be more acute.  Do it often, do it with consideration and attention, and you will surprise yourself at the quality of the images you can extract from your phone, and every time you pick up that so-called ‘serious’ camera, the wind will be at your back.

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Challenge Winners: Dirk Schlottmann and Brijesh Bolar

Nice work Dirk and Brijesh.

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In Focus: Back to the Basics

commentarylogoCameras these days are smart.  Very smart.  Actually, cameras have been getting smarter for a long time now.  It was back in the 1960s when cameras first sported the ability to measure light, removing the need for the photographer to have to use a separate light meter, and fifty years on, this is trivial for any modern camera.  Light can be measured at single or multiple points in the frame with an extremely high degree of accuracy – the modern photography enthusiast has been relieved of the necessity to be mindful of the thing at the core of photography.

This is all very convenient and photography is faster and more accurate than ever from a technical point of view.  There is no doubt though, that we have become spoiled and it is a sad fact that many of the people that put these marvels of modern engineering and technology to use don’t understand what the camera is actually doing, and something like ‘manual mode’ can assume the proportions of a giant scary monster.

We all start off fearful of taking responsibility for our images and this is not surprising.  Almost everyone these days begins his or her journey through photography with a small ‘point and shoot’ digital with which almost no meaningful user-control is possible.  When we graduate to higher levels of photographic technology (acquire a DSLR, for example), we take this fear with us and are often very reluctant to get out of the coddled comfort zone that encompasses the various ‘program modes’ on that new camera.

If you are one of those for whom the manual modes are unfathomable territory (and there’s no shame in it, every photographer was once), take a step into the unknown.  Once you click out of the program modes, you are clicking into the essence of photography, for no matter how simple or advanced your camera is, there is only one thing that really matters, one thing that is at the heart of all cameras, the prime function for which all the surrounding bells and whistles are but incidental – shutter speed and aperture value.  Hang on, that’s two things.  But those two things do come together to give us that one thing: exposure.

Understanding exposure – the relationship between the aperture and the shutter – will enable you to be much more creative with your images.  Now you can intentionally create those effects you sometimes get by accident and wish you could duplicate.

Did you ever take a portrait and wonder how the subject was nice and sharp, yet the background was beautifully blurred? Open up the aperture and raise the shutter speed.  How about at night when you got some wonderful long-rayed stars on point light sources? Close the aperture and slow the shutter down.

Appreciating the intimate relationship between the shutter and aperture will do much more to further your photography than any amount of poring over that manual trying to memorize all those quirky functions the modern camera has.  I really recommend you knuckle down and make the effort.  Indeed, once you get a real handle on exposure, everything else becomes much easier to get your head around.  Get out there and give your creativity a fair go.

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