Monday, October 17, 2011

On Becoming a Better Photographer - Part 5

Generate Maximum Bang for the Buck - The most cost effective things you can do to improve your images are:

Use a Decent Tripod - More images defects are a result of shake than poor equipment. Cost $25 and up.

Calibrate Your Monitor - A hardware calibration system (Datacolor or X-Rite) will make your imaging better in quality, more consistent and more easily reproduced. Cost $100 and up.

Use a Secure, Comfortable Camera Strap - This one might sound dumb or obvious but it’s one of the best investments a photographer can make. A poor strap will dig into your neck or shoulder and you’ll be more likely to want to leave your camera behind. Cost $10 and up.

Keep it Clean - Again, it might sound obvious but a clean sensor and lens are easy and inexpensive. A light thumbprint on your lens will reduce resolving power, contrast and apparent sharpness. Dust on your sensor will create large artifacts. Lens caps, shades and sensor cleaners all help. Lens tissue and cleaner is cheap insurance. Learn the right way to clean your sensor and NEVER use anything but products designed for that purpose. (For example lens cleaning fluid and lens tissue will damage your sensor.) Cost $5.00 and up.

Last, remember that content is more important than technical quality. Great images can be made on inexpensive equipment. Small prints can have great impact if done well. Larger prints can have even more impact but only when done well. A poor large print will only show up defects. The camera you have with you is better than the one you don’t. There are no rules. Look at as much work as you can from a wide range of image makers. Read. Become friends with Google. Find great blogs. Practice. Take lots of pictures. Share - Your pictures don’t do any good in a drawer.

Friday, October 14, 2011

And now for something completely different but electrifying...

While some of us are investing heavily in green photography, others are making a serious investment in alternative transportation. Meet my friend Ted Dillard and his R5e motorcycle project. Starting with an old but great handling restored ‘71 Yamaha frame, he has built, from the ground up, an impressive electric motorcycle powered by some serous lithium ion batteries. While it would take a motorcycle dynamometer to determine the exact amount of power this thing makes, trust me, it is seriously fast. The frame configuration and “clip on” handlebars are of the classic cafe racer style with a hunched over riding position that’s too low for my old neck, but fun. The wiring is so complex that it took an electrical engineer’s assistance to figure out. Suffice to say it has enough voltage to fry wiring that’s as thick as a Bic pen. Everything is purpose fabricated for this bike, from the electric motor mount (which has to align perfectly with the rear sprockets - no easy task) and the new “fuel tank” which, of course holds no fuel but adds cooling to the system, to the numerous recharging connections that look something like an octopus on steroids. With a top speed of over 100mph, and going 0-60 in 4 seconds, it's an electric vehicle that will change a lot of minds about electric transportation.  Ted is looking for for some help- sponsorship, advertising, donations... If you’re interested in furthering the future of personal transportation, or just helping to create some seriously fun future motorcycles, check Ted out on his Website:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On Becoming a Better Photographer - Part 4

Where Does That leave YOU?

If you’re a professional, chances are you already know exactly what you need. If you don’t own it you know where to rent it. You’ve already done the cost-benefit analysis and understand just how much you can afford. You understand what technical demands are in your specialty for optical distortion correction, speed, versatility, weather proofing, etc.

But if you’re an advanced amateur or trying to move from novice to advanced, or if you’re transitioning from amateur or student to professional it might not be as clear to you what you need. Here are a few guidelines:

Invest in the System - Not the Camera - Camera bodies are just the beginning of your photography system. The lenses and accessories can often be many times the cost of the basic body. It makes sense to buy into the best system you can afford. Upgrading a body is relatively modest in cost. Replacing your lenses for another brand will be costly and painful. At present, there are three systems that are truly comprehensive: Canon, Nikon and Sony in alphabetical order. All are excellent and each has its advantages. You can’t (IMHO) go wrong with any of them. If you’re limited in budget, start off with a lower end body but buy better glass. (Adapters are available that can let you use other lenses on your body but not always as conveniently.)

Invest in Portability, Not Megapixels - If you’re looking for a great camera to have with you, (and the one you have with you ALWAYS takes better pictures than the one you don’t) choose size, weight and portability over megapixels. Any of the top end point and shoots will take decent images - especially if you’re not going to enlarge them too much. However, if a little better quality and versatility is needed, smaller DSLRs like the Canon Rebel series are a great alternative - especially with a small zoom lens. They’re light enough to carry just about anywhere and high enough in quality to enlarge to sizes you’d have a hard time finding room for in your home.

To be continued in part 5

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On Becoming a Better Photographer - PART 3

What are the instances in which technical quality becomes more important?

The answer depends on what you mean by technical quality. Few would argue that good color management, for instance, is unnecessary. Most photographers would see a significant increase in quality just by using a well calibrated monitor - the first step in color management. Print quality is another fundamental area but one that’s far harder to quantify. What’s the difference between a great print and an okay print? It’s like many other things - you know it when you see it but it’s very hard to define. Let’s just say that experience in looking at fine prints helps one know the difference. In general, a fine print has a balanced, “real” quality comprising a wide range of tones, sharp details, information in both shadows and highlights (not just black and white) rich blacks, clean highlights, accurate or at least “realistic” colors, a sense of “balance,” correct contrast and saturation… the list goes on. It also has no significant obvious defects such as scratches, excessive spots or other artifacts such as stains. (Though I can think of exceptions to just about every one of these criteria.)

When might higher cost equipment/technical solutions be necessary? (This is not a comprehensive list but rather a few instances.):
  • Technical Imaging - Medical, scientific and other forms of technical imaging may be worth whatever the cost might be. If the most subtle detail can help with a diagnosis, produce a more accurate map, or insure that a part will work better in an expensive machine then cost is hardly the issue.
  • Answering Important Questions - If a higher resolution sensor can help answer a meaningful question, for instance, “Is there a planet circling that star?” then it is likely to be worth whatever it costs.
  • Very Large Images Viewed Close Up - If your objective as a landscape photographer, for instance, is to capture the finest details in a scene and have them be clearly visible, sharp and with minimal distortion or artifacts when reproduced large, then a state of the art system might be justifiable.
  • Highly Cropped Images - The same as above…
  • Motion Analysis, Fast Action, Sports - Applications that are demanding of both high resolution and high frame rates (frames per second) almost always require more expensive equipment. Faster chips, bigger buffers, speedy image processing are all necessary and not cheap.
  • General Professional Imaging - When your images require reliability in all conditions system quality becomes paramount. Redundancy, versatility, a comprehensive range of accessories, mechanical build quality, weather proofing, great optical qualities, high enough resolution for most everything you might encounter are all expensive but necessary criteria. Your equipment may need to sit for extended periods of time in the 130-degree trunk of your car; be tossed about by luggage handlers or subjected to freezing temperatures in arctic or lab conditions; when you might need to have access to replacements quickly and easily no matter where you are; when capturing the right image might be critical to success or failure; in these instances, among others, cost trade offs become less important. But always keep in mind that someone has to be willing to pay you sufficiently to justify the purchase of such equipment. (Renting can be an excellent alternative.)
  • Art Reproduction - Quality art reproduction doesn’t come easily. It requires versatile lighting, high resolution, and superlative color management. The ability to control lighting ratios top to bottom and left to right, for instance, is critical to creating the kind of shadows that help define the 3D, “reach out and touch it” feel of oil and acrylic painting reproductions. High resolution scanning or capture may be necessary to preserve detail or create a very large print.
  • “Future Unknown” Archives - No one knows what the future holds and, in some instances, it might be deemed worthwhile to capture as much information about an object or phenomenon as possible. Might the critical original vanish in an earthquake or fire? Might it deteriorate over time? Might it disappear in a fraction of a second? In such cases, maximum technical quality and resolution might be necessary to capture and preserve such things. It would be hard, for instance, to make a detailed life size image of a whale if it’s species became endangered or disappeared. The same can be said of temporary phenomenon such as the creation of sub-atomic particles. 
To be continued in PART 4

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Becoming a Better Photographer - PART 2

For most of what you do what’s most important? First, the majority of DSLRs and many point & shoot cameras are more than adequate from a technical perspective. An 8-megapixel DSLR is a good starting point. More pixels do not always equate to better quality! In fact, the output from a “clean” 8 megapixel sensor will always be better than the output from a poor quality, noisy 16-megapixel sensor, all things being equal. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for higher resolution. Relatively affordable options are available these days at up to the mid-twenty-megapixel range and soon higher. The Canon 5d MkII is an excellent example. The Nikon and Sony full-frame ranges are as well. But remember, in this territory, lens resolution is  the limiting factor - not sensor resolution. The sensors in most high-end DSLRs already exceed the resolution and sharpness capabilities of most of their lenses!

On the other hand, I wouldn’t rely on the quality of a Holga, Diana or iPhone camera for most images unless their particular quality attributes meet your aesthetic or creative goals. They’re certainly not sufficient for most professional or commercial work. They can, however, produce some magical images, especially when reproduced online or at small sizes. Is the trade off in technical quality an obstacle for you? Only you can tell.

Monday, October 3, 2011

On Becoming a Better Photographer - PART 1

I recently wrote on our facebook page an anecdote about an “ultimate quality” camera system based on a 6x9cm view camera body with a 50+ megapixel back on a micro-adjustable precision ball head using state of the art large format digital lenses optimized for medium-format sensors that set the photographer back about the cost of a new top of the line Lexus Hybrid. This photographer is well known in the photo community, he’s a famous online blogger and always in search of the technical best. His images are technically superb. They also tend to be boring, lacking in meaning and devoid of emotional content. In other words they’re “perfect” but “sterile.” I am not sure I understand the value in spending in the high five digits to achieve this kind of perfection for one’s own photographs - professional or otherwise. Certainly, in this economic climate, it’s a poor investment decision with little prospect of any kind of reasonable payoff.

On the other hand, I have seen and printed a wide variety of technologically unsophisticated images from Holga and Diana toy cameras (less than $25.00 on EBay) and from some point and shoot digital cameras and iPhones that were full of meaning, life and important content. For my own personal work content trumps technical quality (assuming at least a minimum professional quality baseline) whenever a trade off is necessary (and isn’t it always?).

Please understand that I am NOT talking about the reproduction and printing work I do for others, a case in which our use of a $200k scanner; state of the art printing equipment, inks and papers; and other forms of digital image capture and reproduction are a necessity. I am never cavalier about client quality. I AM talking about the images people make for their own art, art for sale and most forms of commercial photography. In these realms, it is important to note that most images never exceed some output average between 5x7 and 40x60 inches in print size - and in these sizes quality is achievable at relatively modest cost.
To be continued in Part 2