Taking stock – and dumping a lot of it.

Everyone should, in my opinion, at some stage, spend some time going through old photos they had taken when they started out taking photographs. Not so much because they might be brilliant works of art – it’s possible, though, I strongly suspect, unlikely – but rather, to learn how far they have come. And if they haven’t come very far, to perhaps ask themselves the question as to whether they lack any talent whatsoever. After all, to claim to enjoy photography, I cannot comprehend why anyone would not want to learn anything new, and few, I believe, are born true geniuses, able to turn their hand, eyes, and brain to a new disciple, and master it to such a degree as to be unable to find any way to improve themselves.

This exercise in self-awareness I undertook recently. I chose a considerable number of photographs, though not a vast number compared to those taken during the pursuing of a full time career. The period I chose covered about 5 years, taken using a Nikon E995 camera (I suppose this would class as a bridge camera) and a Nikon D70. More specifically, it encompassed journeys taken around London, France, Singapore and Bali, along with a few other places in the UK besides.

And what a load of c*** most of them were.

Some might have just done that thing where you just select everything and delete it all, but that doesn’t really achieve anything other than to clear a bit of disk space. Despite what others might want me to do, for reasons that aren’t relevant here, that wasn’t the entire object. Rather, it’s about what I can learn, and what I can help others learn, if they so wish to do so.

One of the immediate things that came to light is that I appeared to have had little understanding of the effects of shutter speed, aperture and ISO, that trinity of settings that are so essential to controlling a camera. Oops. Add to that the effects of light.

When you shoot your camera on automatic settings, you are very much at the mercy of whatever your camera decides are the ‘best’ settings to use. This doesn’t necessarily equate to what you would choose to use if you were in control. If you’re happy to leave it to pot luck, to increase the risk of accidently blurred photographs (as opposed to deliberately), noisy photographs, overly dark or bright photographs, and other mishaps, skip to the next blog entry, when I talk about lighting.

Still here? Good. My first piece of advice is this: learn how aperture, shutter speed and ISO affect the photography both in terms of what they mean and how they interact, but also what they mean in terms of your subject, background, and yourself.

Let’s talk about ISO briefly. The higher value your ISO is, the noisier the photograph is, but the trade off is that your camera reacts to light faster. Why would you want to have this? Well, if it’s dark, it might let you achieve the shutter speed that you desire. Why can’t you just have a darker photograph and boost it in Photoshop? The answer is that the more detail you can capture up front, the better. But remember that you shouldn’t just leave it set to it’s maximum value, as you’ll be getting noisier photos than you need to in every shot. With film you used to be stuck with the same value for the entire film. With digital, you can vary it with every shot. Here’s a question: will your image change, even slightly, while taking the photograph? If not, you can lower the ISO to it’s native setting (the setting that is the value for which the camera is intended to produce the most detail), mount the camera on a tripod, use a remote control, and use whatever shutter speed will get you the best exposure.

But let’s look at shutter speed. Let’s think about what is actually going on here with the scene. Let’s say that you’re photographing a picture of a river, or waterfall. You’ve got to realise that it’s not a static image. The water moves. The grass, if there is any, moves. The trees might move if there’s trees in the wind. You’ve got to factor that it.  Or maybe it’s a person. That person might appear still, but in truth, assuming they’re a living, breathing, awake individual, they’re moving. That said, a person trying to keep can be photographed with slower shutter speed than someone running, or moving their hands frantically.

Now we’ll also take away that tripod. Or say you’re on a moving platform such as a boat, or a car. You’ve got to factor in your own motion.  Even if you’re trying to keep still, there’s a limit to how motionless you can be, and the further you zoom that camera lens, the more the slightest shake affects the image taken. Even with vibration reduction / image stabilization, there’s only so much you can do.

Shooting from a stationary position, at a motionless subject, you might manage about 1/50th of a second at around 50mm. Maybe slower – some people have incredibly stable hands – or the reverse is true. Introduce Vibration Reduction, you might also get some slower shutter speeds. There are also tricks you can employ to make the camera more stable – like making use of a wall, for example. Use a longer focal length, you’ll need a faster shutter speed.  Got a person. A moving subject, a running person, a car, a jet? You could be looking at up to a 1000th of a second, depending on which of them you’re shooting. Bottom line, is that having Aperture Priority mode will only help you if you understand what the shutter speed is telling you. Especially if it’s telling you 1/30th second to photograph moving people. Ahem.

And with that, let’s talk about the aperture, and when I refer to numbers. I refer to full frame Aperture, as opposed to those you find on a compact camera, which are typically smaller values. The basic principle holds true though, People are often photographed at anything you want to – depending on what depth of field (how blurry it will be in front and behind the point of focus) you want. Generally aim for the eyes. The smaller the number but of the F number (e.g. F/2.8), the less is in focus. The bigger the F number (e.g. F/16), the more is in focus, subject to diffraction, which, you guessed it, makes things blurry again.  You can use a shallow depth of field to create more separation between your subject and your background. You would use a deeper depth of field to have more in focus, such as in a photograph of a landscape. So if you’re expecting everything to be gloriously in focus but are shooting at F/2.8, expect to be disappointed. On a good lens, F/11 or F16 (perhaps) is better. Yep, took me a while to learn that too.

And next, I’ll tackle lighting.

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