Always Carry Your Camera

I was on a mission to buy something from the store and to get home as quickly as possible. Nothing else was on my mind.

Then, I passed a construction site. There was a flurry of activity – diggers and cranes on the move. Nothing special and I didn’t take too much notice. But, then I caught sight of a couple of workmen – they were wearing bright yellow jackets and red hard hats – moving some rubble by hand. They looked cold, wet and engrossed in their work. The backdrop to all this was a large and partially constructed building.

Being a photographer – I was impressed by the opportunity.

I was impressed by the colours of the workmen’s attire and the contrast with the damp weather and the greyness of the partly built structure. It would have made an interesting photograph. It would only have taken me a few seconds to capture it and the light was reasonably good so I would not have needed either a tripod or flashgun.

But, I didn’t have my camera with me and I lost the shot.

I have a number of cameras, one of which is a Canon A60 – a camera that is small and fits neatly into my pocket. I remember telling someone that they should always carry a camera, even on short errands. I failed to do so and lost an opportunity.

Magnificent Portrait Photographs

What creates an outstanding portrait photograph? That is a difficult question and not many top photographers will be ready to divulge their secret. Experts have listed a few important guidelines for the beginners who would like to make a career in the field of portrait photography.

In order to produce outstanding portraits, the first thing to do is to make your basics very strong. There are basic techniques of photography. Create a mastery over these techniques, one at a time, and you are heading towards your goal; i.e. becoming a good portrait photographer. How far does the presence of a studio, equipments, and the technical resources help? Yes, these are helpful, but their absence will not completely mar the new artist’s efforts.
Copying the style of top portrait photographers. In any other setting, this would have been unacceptable. Nevertheless, here you can take inspiration from the excellent portraits of photographers. Watch the basic techniques that they have utilized and then build on this foundation a style of yours.

A good understanding of what a portrait is will be very important. Portrait is a likeness of a person, with particular emphasis on the face of the subject. A good portrait sees through the external face of the subject as to what story it tells. This is known as depicting the subject’s character on the portrait. A good rapport with the person to be filmed will allow the portrait photographer to have a sound understanding of his character and thus ably reproduce likeness in the picture.

Portrait photography is thus not a mechanical task. It involves skill and a clear understanding of human nature. It is just like breaking into a topic with friends. Raise a few topics for discussion between you and the subject. There will surely be one topic in which both of you have an interest. The idea is to break ice between you and the subject. An affinity to subject makes him more relaxed and thus prepares him for a more natural pose.

Start right away as soon as this relaxed mood is brought about. Shoot a multitude of pics. This is no rule but presents you with more choice. Your subject need not be formally dressed (except when the setting needs to depict strength and authority). In fact, casual dressing creates a more natural photograph for portraits. To say ‘cheese’ is not customary while taking a portrait photograph. Many good photographs with no smiling faces have their own mysterious charm.

To summarized, there are no set rules in the field of portrait photography. Being sensitive to the subject and the environment, keeping the basics intact and developing ones own style; these are three steps to becoming a top portrait photographer.

Make Production Look a Lot Slicker

Portable Dollies

One way to make your production look like Martin Scorsese was on location is to hire Martin Scorsese. But if you had that kind of money you wouldn’t be reading this. Instead, consider using a portable dolly with track. They don’t take up much more space than a tripod, they weigh less than ten kilos and the cameraman can easily use one without assistance.

The most common models are the Digidolly, the Wally Dolly and the Hollywood Microdolly. The first two are made in Australia and the third is made, as the name implies, in the U.S. Different cameramen have their preferences and you can call us to discuss the merits of each. The Digidolly is becoming the most popular. Below are a few details on all three models.

Digidolly

Australian-made lightweight portable track and dolly system that can be set up on location within minutes. The dolly takes a tripod and it also has a low-level Hi-hat mount. The Digidolly comes with 3.6 metres of aluminium track and its construction allows for smooth movement.

Hollywood Microdolly

The US-made Microdolly kit weighs only 4.5 kg and fits into a soft case only 86 cm long. The dolly takes a tripod and comes with four metres of track. The kit can be set up within minutes and can handle up to 45 kg of camera gear.

Wally Dolly

Australian-made lightweight (8 kg) track and dolly kit. The dolly takes a tripod and comes with three metres of aluminium track. The kit can be set up within minutes.

Dolly Shots

So you’ve got the dolly, what’ll it do for you? Use it for presenter links to add nice, smooth movement that takes it several notches above a handheld shot. Use it for interviews to give your interview a different, more interesting look. Use it for exteriors and interiors of buildings and homes. Use it to shoot performances. The list goes on and if used well the impact can be strong and you will have raised the production value of your shoot dramatically for an extra 40 quid and for only a little more time.

Portable Jibs

Like portable dollies, portable jibs can be used by a cameraman without an assistant. They need weights so taking them on a job abroad and incurring hefty excess baggage costs makes them impractical for that purpose but if you’re using a standard crew van they’re easily managed. We carry two models. If you’ve used them a few times, you can set them up within five minutes.

Digital Image Files

DPI – Dots Per Inch

The most common question I get on this topic is, “My client / boss / nephew has asked me to send an image at a size of 300 dpi. What does that mean”?

The answer: Not much.

You see, DPI stands for Dots Per Inch. It’s a useful measure of image resolution (in other words, how much information is resolved in the picture). But if you don’t know the image size in inches (or feet, miles, centimetres, millimitres, or some other measure of size), then the amount of dots per inch doesn’t mean much.

Using DPI to measure size is like using km/h to measure distance: “How far is it from here to the beach?”
“Oh, about 60 miles per hour”. For this to make sense the answer would need to be “about 10 minutes at 60 miles per hour”.

Likewise, the size of an image needs to be expressed as, say, “six by six inches at 300dpi”.

Different resolutions are used for different purposes. The most common are 72 or 75 dpi for screen viewing (Web use or PowerPoint presentations) and 300 dpi for printing.

OK, so to give an example – 1 inch by 1 inch, 300 dpi image would be 300 pixels by 300 pixels in size. A 2 by 2 inch image at 300 dpi would be 600 by 600 pixels in size. Here’s where megapixels and megabytes come into it. Mega!

Megapixels

The term megapixels is usually used to describe the output size of digital camera images. For example, the Canon Ixus 50 produces images which are 2592 x 1944 pixels in size. Multiply these numbers together and you get 5,038,848 – just over 5 million. Hence this is described as a “5 megapixel” camera.

The last byte

On a couple of occasions, I’ve sent an image of a certain size to someone and they’ve said, “that’s no good, we need a 10 megabyte file”. Now, this I’m sure they were well-intentioned but they were also a little misguided.

The size in bytes (or megabytes – millions of bytes) represents how much storage the image takes up on your computer. This depends on all sorts of things, mainly the bit depth of the image and the file format – for example TIFF or JPEG.

So what should I do?

To avoid confusion, when specifying the file size you need, use pixels.

How do you work out how many pixels you need? Well, that’s why I started this discussion with DPI. Work out the largest size you’re going to want to reproduce the image, in inches; and the resolution – for example 72 dpi for or 300dpi for most print applications. Then just multiply the size in inches by the DPI figure you came up with.

Example: I want to reproduce the image A4 size in a printed magazine. A4 is 210mm x 297mm, or about 8.3 x 11.7 inches. The magazine needs artwork at 300dpi, so:

8.3 x 300 = 2490 and 11.7 x 300 = 3510 so I need an image sized about 2490 x 3510 pixels (about 8.7 megapixels)

By the way: 1 inch = 2.54 centimetres. Did you know you can also do conversions on google?

Digital Camera Aperture Settings

Apertures come in different sizes – all classified as ‘f’ numbers. Each number lets in double the amount of light as
the previous one. The standard is between f/1.8 and f/16. The smaller the aperture, the less light that will be let in.
So an f/16 lens will let in half the amount of light as an f/8 lens. The aperture works in conjunction with the shutter as well when it comes to the amount of light let in. The speed at which the shutter opens and shuts is also a factor that determines the amount of light. When it comes to fast-paced action, a fast shutter speed is essential to capture the motion. For a landscape or a posed photograph a slower shutter speed is fine.

A photographer who is extremely particular will adjust both the aperture as well as the shutter speed. A perfect balance between the two could very often bring about that one perfect picture. It needs a trained eye in order to judge perfectly exactly what the settings should be. What he would also take into account is the depth of field, that is, how much of the image remains in focus. In larger apertures, there is just a short range that is in focus, whereas smaller apertures have a much deeper range, going from the foreground close by to way back, deep into the background. It would all depend on the kind of shot to determine what the settings should be.

For those of us who do not have the inclination, the understanding or the patience, we can always resort to the automatic setting. It’s simple, the camera does all the work of adjusting for you and you get a good photograph. It might not be a work of art as might a photograph that a true professional photographer might have taken, but most cameras today give you a very acceptable quality.

Why do we need aperture settings at all? The simple, old cameras didn’t have any. If you choose a camera with aperture settings like a telephoto, wide-angle and maximum aperture features, you know that even in an automatic setting, you will get different kinds of pictures, not the same, flat look. It gives you the freedom to take any kind of shot, anywhere, in any light. Otherwise you might find yourself restricted to typical, posed cheesy pictures without too much character or depth.

Tools for Image Editing

The cropping tool can eliminate unwanted areas, emphasize the main interest and arrange the centers of interest in a more pleasing location. Most photos are taken too far away to show good impact so the cropping tool can help save these images from being mundane and less effective.

The image adjustment tools of contrast and brightness can correct over or underexposure, skin density, true black levels (when needed) and bright but detailed highlights. Unless you hit the correct exposure right on the head, these tools will be necessary to make a pleasing print. Most software feature a screen of boxes with various changes in brightness and contrast in your image from which to choose. These visual selections are a good start towards what is needed to make the picture right. Several tries may be necessary to find the right level of adjustment.

A similar set of boxes contain samples of color changes. Not all light is perfectly balanced in the camera. Faces can look bluish in cloudy weather, your white tablecloth can come out yellow and a reflection from a colored surface can do weird things to the real color in your picture. Generally, only slight changes will be needed since most digital cameras automatically adjust for color balance to some degree.

When one of your pictures would be a great shot if weren’t for one item in the picture that ruins the whole thing and cropping can’t solve the problem, then bring out the cloning tool. Sometimes called a rubber stamp, this tool can copy one area of the image to another area of the same picture very easily. To become adept using this tool requires a little practice, but the amazing and wonderful results are worth the extra trouble. The many uses of the clone tool include: extending a background for better centering of the main interest, removing an unwanted item from the image, raising or lowering an item or person in the picture, retouching skin blemishes and cleaning up dusty areas.

Solving unusual problems in a picture is when the paint bucket tool comes to the rescue. An otherwise perfect scenic that lacks a blue sky can easily be fixed with the paint bucket tool. Just mask the sky with the magic mask, choose the lightest and darkest blue you would like your sky to be, and click on the blend paint tool for a perfect blue sky. Solid colors are even easier to replace with this tool. Even patterns can be painted on masked items in any color. Every tool I have mentioned in this article can be adjusted as to power and transparency. I recommend starting with a medium or low power with a feathered brush while you gain proficiency with these tools. You’d be surprised at the professional looking results. You’d better go out and buy the frame now, just to be ready.

Comparing Digital and Film

What a study in contrasts! The one photographer shooting in rapid succession with his digital camera while the other photographer only pressing the shutter at the right time – definitely anticipating the photograph due to a limited resource, film. Perhaps I was observing something deeper. Would the skill of anticipating a photograph be lost by photographers who have a large memory card and who just keep the shutter on successive exposures? At the same time is the film shooter missing out on the ability to make his photograph a little better by having multiple exposures of the same subject?

First, there is no right way or wrong way to take photographs at an event like this. I actually liked the motivation of the film photographer as he wanted to send some photographs of the event to the director with the digital camera. What I do want to say is digital photography shouldn’t take the ‘thinking’ and anticipation out of photography. When you are using your digital camera, keep the following in mind.

  • Anticipate the photograph – wait for the right moment and snap the photograph. Don’t always rely on multiple exposures to get the shot you want. Often you only have one chance to take a great photograph. You ought to practice for this and not overly rely on technology.
  • Match the resolution with the result – if you know the use of the photographs, then perhaps all you will need is JPEG fine or JPEG super fine. This will take up between 2 – 4 MB of space and will get you results on paper of up to 11 x 14 inches. The film camera will allow you to enlarge the final result (with the quality of the light as the wild card) beyond 20×24 inches. While the digital camera will probably match the resolution with the result, you get the added safety factor with film. You can always enlarge the photograph later.
  • Keep work flow in mind – the film photographer is going to go to a lab and get his roll or two of film processed. If he’s smart about it, he’ll get the images scanned directly onto a CD at the time of processing. Once at home, he’ll look through a minimum of 72 images and possibly send 4-5 to the dance director. Conversely, the dance director will have hundreds of images to sort through. He may have a few that are nearly identical and the time spent to get the top 4-5 images will be considerably more than the film photographer.

Deal With Backlighting

You know the scenario: your friend is sitting in your conservatory with the windows behind her. You take the picture and she is darkened and silhouetted. The backlighting has fooled your camera and the wrong exposure (for your subject) has been selected.

The reason for this is all down to your camera. The meter in the camera calculates the correct exposure – or so you think. In fact, it calculates what it THINKS is the correct exposure, only in the example above (and any other situation with excessive backlighting) there is an abundance of light. The camera takes all the light information and averages it out. In this case, it will expose the scene less because it sees too much light.

However, your subject wants more exposure as she is not being lit in the same way. Her face is in low light or even in shadow. The camera doesn’t know this, of course.

The answer? Increase the exposure by a stop (or even two). This will increase the exposure for your subject to show face and body detail. The alternative approach is to take a meter reading not from the whole scene but from the subject alone.

Unsharp Mask Demystified

There are many techniques for sharpening a digital image, each with pros and cons. The following steps and ideas for using Unsharp Mask apply to Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Elements.

  • Radius: In general, if you have a low resolution image (fewer dpis) then you need a lower Radius – try setting it to 0.3; if you are working on a high resolution image, then you need a higher Radius. To avoid creating coloured halos around edges of things in your image, reduce your Radius. If you make the Radius too high, you may lose detail in light areas.
  • Threshold: For “busy” images, set this value to 0. As soon as you have large areas of a similar colour (e.g. blue sky), you should increase this setting to reduce introduction of noise in otherwise smooth areas.
  • Amount: This value will typically depend on the two settings discussed above. To reduce the constrast introduced by sharpening, try setting this value to its maximum (500%) and then find the smallest Radius at which sharpening is adequate (e.g. start at 0.1 and increase slowly). Be sure you view your image at 100% its actual size.

Taking Sharp Photos

  • Do what professionals do: Use a tripod or monopod, especially when the light gets low.
  • When using the tripod with the camera shutter speed at a slow setting, use a remote release or the self-timer–that way you don’t have to touch the camera at all.
  • But what about those times when you really can’t do that?
  • Then become a tripod by keeping your arms and elbows close to your sides to steady the camera. Lean on a wall if one is handy.
  • As you shoot, press the shutter–don’t poke it.
  • Make sure that the camera has confirmed that the auto focus has locked on your subject (otherwise the camera might actually take the picture after you think you took the picture).
  • Set the ISO to a higher number, such as 800 or 1000. You may get increased noise (which looks like grain), but the camera will fire at a higher shutter speed, and that promotes sharpness.
  • If your camera has selectable auto-exposure modes, shift to Shutter Priority mode and set a faster shutter speed.
  • When it gets too dark, use a flash. Flash exposure freezes camera shake and subject movement because the burst of light from a flash is so very fast.
  • Watch for the peak of action and carefully time your shot–this is especially useful when shooting sports. If someone is jumping, for example, catch the person at the instant when he or she has leaped the highest and is about to settle back down to earth.
  • Consider a new camera with image stabilization. This can be built into the lens or camera to compensate for camera movement during exposure that will make subjects blurry. It’s the ultimate remedy for a case of the jitters.