Book Review: “READ THIS IF YOU WANT TO TAKE GREAT PHOTOGRAPHS.”

On Wikipedia, a hobby is described as “a regular activity that is done for enjoyment, typically during one’s leisure time”. I find this definition pretty paradoxical: whilst the ‘regular’ part implies a certain degree of systematic frequency, the ‘leisure time’ reveals the reality, probably common to most of us, that free time is hard to come by! Within this context, I have to apologise for the lack of regularity from my part in keeping this blog up to date! Unfortunately, the “leisure time” luxury is increasingly harder to come by these days!

Now – enough about the hobby part… Today’s post is a review of the short book “Read this if you want to take great photographs“, by Henry Carroll. I picked this book up some weeks ago whilst on work duties in London, from the Natural History Museum. I managed to read through the book in my off-duty hours, which were, admittedly, more readily available without family and home-related activity that occupy most of my non-work time in Malta!

Regardless of your situation, this book is not demanding in terms of time – it is a fairly quick read even for the busiest amongst us. Whilst the page count goes up to 128, in truth it only consists of 60 text pages, as half of the book is images that demonstrate what is being explained in the text.

I found this style highly effective: as they say, a picture’s worth a thousand words, yet it only takes one page! Moreover, photos are, (obviously), at the heart of photography, so it is unsurprising that a photography-related book would be loaded with photos. I always find myself learning the most when I’m exposed to well-thought out photography critique, and this book doesn’t come short in this regard.

In terms of target audience, this book is perfect for those who wish to learn about photography but do not have the luxury of time, (here we go again), to enroll in educational courses or watch lengthy tutorial videos. If you’re a beginner, you can expect to quickly get up to speed with the basics of both the art and the science of photography.

There are five chapters in the book, each dealing with specific aspects in the world of photography, namely: composition; exposure; light; lenses and seeing. Each chapter deals with a number of related topics, with each topic occupying just one page accompanied by a photo demonstrating the topic in question. I found that the photos were, in most occasions, a good choice by the author. There were a couple of images, however, where I felt the image chosen would probably be better appreciated by a more mature photographer, as opposed to the beginner audience seemingly being targeted.

In my view, you should thus get this book if you are just starting out in photography and don’t have the time or inclination for something more time consuming. The book can also be useful for those seeking improvements in technique or composition. The ‘layman terms’ approach adopted by the author makes this an accessible book, well deserving of its title.

The book can indeed help you take great photographs, particularly if you follow the author’s recurrent reminder to “go out and practise”.

 

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My Photos in Commercials and Articles…

This will be a brief post – So, I just discovered how to search in Google by using an image, rather than text. You simply have to drag an image file onto the Search bar if you’re using Google Chrome or Firefox, and Google will find instances where that image was used on other websites.

I wanted to try out this search method to find un-credited displays of my work on other websites. For this test, I used an image I had entered in a www.visitmalta.com competition, and voila, I found multiple instances of use, unbeknownst to me. The original image can be seen here on my Facebook page, my website and on the VisitMalta photo library page, www.viewingmalta.com. On this last page, you can verify that the website gives me due credit for the picture.

Google found links to the following websites making use of my image:

http://blog.malta-vacanze.it/oroscopo-di-malta-larcipelago-segno-per-segno/ 

It seems this is a bona fide use of the image, although photo credits would have been appreciated. I’m guessing it’s a bona fide use as the blog seems to be the property of visitmalta.com, who were originally behind the competition I referred to above.

The second instance was on the Facebook page(s) for “March Meeting 2016 Malta”. An example is shown below:

https://www.facebook.com/mm2016malta/photos/pb.1454997224754647.-2207520000.1448574006./1634524850135216/?type=3&theater

Here, I think the authors obtained the image from visitmalta.com, as they are listed as partners. Nonetheless, I feel that a proper photo credit was in order here.

I do not expect any fee to be paid for such use as the image in question was transferred to visitmalta.com for marketing purposes, however I feel that photographers should be given due credit whenever the author is known, as were these cases. It doesn’t cost the websites using these images anything to include some text giving due credit, rather, it would be professional from their end to do so. Unfortunately, it seems such practices are uncommon!

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The Benefits of Cropped-Sensor Cameras

In my last post I discussed the benefits offered by “full-frame cameras”, defined therein as “… cameras that have sensors that are equivalent in size (dimensions) to 35mm film”. Today’s post will focus on the other side of the coin, that is, advantages of cameras with sensors that are smaller than 35mm film. These are collectively known as “cropped-sensor” cameras, and the higher the crop-ratio, the smaller the sensor becomes.

In this post, my predominant focus is on DSLRs with an “APS-C” sized sensor, which corresponds to a crop ratio of between 1.5 and 1.6, implying that a full-frame sensor would be around 1.5 to 1.6 times larger in surface area when compared to the cropped sensor. Here again, the “APS-C” nomeclature harks back to the time of film, whereby the APS-C format was a film-size that was roughly 25mm by 16mm in dimensions. Before we proceed, it needs to be clarified that there are even smaller sensors around, such as those found in cameraphones and compact cameras, but I won’t be going into the merits of such smaller sensors as of yet. Nonetheless, most points listed below can be extrapolated, to some extent, to  cameras with such smaller sensors as well.

So – let’s get down to business. What are the benefits of smaller sensors over full-frame sensors? This post explores three primary benefits, namely (a) cost considerations, (b) weight considerations, and (c) reach. Here’s how.

Let’s start with an obvious difference. Cost. As a general rule, you can reliably expect to pay far higher prices for cameras with a full-frame sensor when compared to a crop-sensor camera. Given that money doesn’t grow on trees, this is a score in favour of crop-sensor cameras, of course. And it doesn’t start and stop exclusively with the camera bodies, as cost considerations also come into play when it comes to compatible lenses. For instance, whilst Canon cameras come in both flavours, full-frame and crop, not all (DSLR) lenses made by Canon would fit on its full-frame cameras. Indeed, lenses that fit on full-frame cameras are designated as being “EF” cameras, whilst those made exclusively for crop-sensors are designated as being “EF-S” lenses. As you might guess, EF-S lenses tend to be cheaper than their EF counterparts. This exacerbates the cost issue of buying full-frame bodies, since you can only use EF lenses on these bodies, as the cheaper EF-S lenses would either malfunction or return an unusable image if attached to a full-frame body. By way of example, Canon’s current entry-level full-frame camera (EOS 6D) costs nearly as much as Canon’s flagship crop-sensor camera (EOS 7D Mark II). However, when you add a general purpose zoom lens with an f/2.8 maximum aperture,  the cost of buying full-frame exceeds the cost of crop (e.g. EF 24-70 f/2.8 II  @ €1,700; EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 @ €680). (Costs increase considerably if you opt for a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which offers similar performance specs to the 7D Mark II on many fronts, as opposed to the EOS 6D which is found lacking on several aspects when compared to the 7D II). The same argument applies to other brands, such as Nikon, for instance (vide debate of FX vs DX lenses).

A second advantage offered by cropped-sensor cameras is in terms of size and weight. You can also, generally, expect a size and weight advantage when using a cropped-sensor camera, as the smaller sensor allows for tighter (read, smaller) designs. Smallness implies lower weight and better comfort for the user. It might not seem apparent at first, but lower weight hanging from your camera strap or in your hands will be an obvious advantage when out shooting for a long period of time. For instance, a wedding gig could see you out shooting for anything between five to eight hours straight, and the extra weight of full-frame cameras and their (typically larger, and heavier) lenses will have you tire out quicker for sure. A tired photographer is generally less creative and less amenable, so in a way, (and yes I might be overextending here), you can also link cropped-sensor cameras to more efficient and effective photography in the long run! Joking aside, do consider weight and size if you intend to be out shooting regularly. I have to admit that, despite loving my new(ish) 5D Mark III, I did tire out far more quickly when using it on holiday last August. And to be quite honest, I don’t think the photos I achieved would have been significantly worse, quality-wise, if I had shot them with my (lighter) 70D. So there you have it, advantage (b) is out of the way too.

This brings us to (c) “reach”. This is the third advantage offered by a cropped-sensor body: it ‘extends’ the reach of your lenses to an equivalent higher focal length, with the ratio of extension equating to, (you guessed it), the crop ratio! For instance, whilst a 50mm lens on a full-frame setup would, unsurprisingly, render an image that is equivalent to the 50mm field-of-view, using this same lens on a cropped-sensor (1.6x) body would return an image with a field-of-view equivalent to an 80mm lens (50mm multiplied by 1.6). This is typically seen as an advantage of cropped-sensor bodies, as it ‘extends’ the (telephoto) usefulness of your lenses. It is an especially prized feature of cropped bodies amongst birders and sport photographers, since in such situations reach is paramount. This happens due to the fact that a crop sensor only sees the central portion of a (full-frame) lens’ image circle (that is, the projected image from the lens). In effective terms, seeing only this central portion is akin to having “zoomed in” on the central part of the full-frame image which one would have obtained using the same lens on a full-frame body.

Of course, it’s not always greener on the other side, and there are of course downsides to crop-sensor photography. Image quality, depth of field (and quality of bokeh), noise performance, etc are all issues mentioned in my earlier, full-frame advantages post. These full-frame advantages play to the weaknesses of cropped-sensor cameras, and indeed are the kind of advantages that justify extra costs, added neck strain (read, weight issues) and lower reach at the telephoto end.

Regardless, there is a role to play for cropped-sensor bodies and that is typically associated with the strengths of these three key advantages. In a nutshell, crop cameras tend to offer the best compromise between price and quality, and are due most of the credit of popularising DSLR photography amongst the masses. It is unsurprising that, for many, a cropped-sensor body would be the first DSLR ever bought, and for many of those, it would also be the last.

 

 

 

 

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The Full Frame Advantage

As some of you might have read from my Facebook page, I recently carried out some changes to my camera bag. Apart from changes to my lenses lineup*, a major change was the acquisition of a full-frame Canon DSLR, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. This camera has now become my go-to camera of choice, replacing the Canon EOS 70D (APS-C) camera I used previously. Why? Simple really, you could call it the ‘full-frame advantage’, and that’s the subject of today’s post.

First off – let’s clarify terminology. Full-frame DSLR cameras are all those cameras that have sensors that are equivalent in size (dimensions) to 35mm film: that is, approximately 36mm by 24mm. On the other hand,  APS-C sized sensors are smaller in size, with the full-frame sensor being typically 1.5 to 1.6 times larger than the APS-C sensor. This is called the ‘crop factor’, and in simple terms it refers to the ratio between the full-frame sensor’s dimensions when compared to the APS-C sensor. Therefore, a Canon APS-C sensor with a 1.6 Crop Factor would be 1.6 times smaller than its full-frame brother. In fact, APS-C sensors on a Canon are approximately 23mm x 15mm, whilst those on Nikon models are slightly larger, given the smaller Crop Factor of 1.5. Do note that, nowadays, you can also find full-frame digital cameras that are mirrorless (such as the Sony A7R II), so this post is not exclusive to DSLR cameras but to all cameras featuring a full-frame sensor.

“OK, it’s a bigger sensor – so what…”, you might say. Here’s what: size does matter (please excuse any innuendo there). In particular, it provides a couple of advantages to your photography, as follows.

Please note, I will spare you the technical detail and focus on simple terminology, as is my style. For more detailed (read scientific) explanations, I will post a couple of links at the end which you could follow later.

1. Image Quality

The full-frame advantage, here, is improved image quality, particularly increased sharpness, better colour reproduction and lower noise. This all ties down to the size of the pixels, which are generally larger due to the bigger surface area of the sensor itself.

To explain this in simple terms, imagine the sensor as being an array of buckets all lined up next to each other to cover the entire area of the sensor. Assume you have to cover both an APS-C and a full-frame sensor with exactly 200 buckets each. What you’ll soon realise is that you can use bigger buckets on the full-frame sensor due to the physically larger sensor size. Or, put the other way round, the buckets on the APS-C sensor would have to be smaller than those on the full-frame sensor, as otherwise they wouldn’t fit. Replace “buckets” with “pixels” and you would have cracked the first advantage of full-frame.

Bigger pixels on full-frame sensors, just like bigger buckets, capture more image information from the light rays falling on it. This translates into improved sharpness, better colour accuracy and lower noise. Ergo, better image quality.

Note: The above argument applies for two sensors with the same amount of pixels, for instance 20 Megapixels (MP). If one had to compare a full-frame sensor of 12 MP with a crop-sensor of 18 MP, one might find that the advantages mentioned might not be across the board. For instance, the image might appear sharper on the 18 MP crop sensor, but it could also be noisier at the same ISO setting when compared to the full-frame image.

2. Focal Lengths: WYSIWYG

When it comes to focal lengths, the WYSIWYG rule applies with full-frame sensors (What You See Is What You Get). Let’s assume you are using a 50mm prime lens on both a full-frame and a crop-frame camera. Whilst the lens will output the same “image circle” on both sensors, only the full-frame sensor is big enough to translate that image circle into an image with an EFFECTIVE focal length (EFL) of 50mm. The smaller sensor would not be large enough to capture all the image circle output by the lens, and would thus result in an image composed only of the central part of the image circle. This translates into an image that seems to be a result of ‘zooming in’ on the original 50mm image. In fact, lenses on a crop-sensor camera produce images with a different EFL than that stated on the lens, for instance, a 50mm prime on an APS-C sensor would result in an image with an EFL of 75 – 80mm (depending on crop-factor). This translates into more simplicity for full-frame cameras, whereas with crop-sensor cameras you need to compute the EFL for each lens you wish to acquire to fully determine  its usefulness.

This also links to a third advantage: Depth of Field.

3. Depth of Field

Consider the two photos below.

Depth of Field

I shot the photo on the left using my 5D Mark III (Full-Frame) using a 24-105 lens set at approximately 80mm and f/4.0. The image on the right was shot using my 70D (APS-C) using a 50mm lens also set at f/4.0. Although the images are composed in such a way to look as identical as possible, one can immediately notice the more substantial blurring on the 5D image, coming from a shallower depth of field. (Notice, for instance, how the heart shapes on the furthermost pot are barely recognisable in the 5D image, whilst clear enough to be made out on the 70D photo).

The reason behind this is tied to the principle of effective focal lengths explored in (2) above. Basically, on the crop-body (70D), the 50mm was providing me with an angle of view similar to an effective focal length of 80mm, however the depth of field it provided me was that of a 50mm lens. Given the same aperture, (f/4.0 in this case), depth of field will become shallower as you increase focal length. Therefore, a shallower depth of field would be available to you if you shoot at 80mm f/4.0 than if you shoot using a 50mm at f/4.0, (regardless of sensor size).

As a result of this, full-frame sensors offer you shallower depth of field (hence better blurring of background) over crop-sensor bodies when comparing like-with-like image situations (e.g. shooting mug shots with a blurry background). Although remember, the extent of background blurring is NOT the result of sensor size exclusively; other factors are also at play (e.g. aperture, physical distance to subject, focal length, lens quality).

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So there you have it: three key advantages of full-frame cameras over crop-sensor bodies. These advantages give full-frame shooters an edge in several aspects, but it’s not all rosy on this side of the camp! There are always two-sides to a coin and that second side will be the subject of my next blog.

*Recently I sold my Canon EOS 600D, its kit lens the EF-S 18-55 IS II; as well as the EF-S 10-18 STM and the EF 50 f/1.4. These were replaced by the EF 24-105L f/4, the EF 17-40L f/4 and the EF 50 F/1.8 STM.

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The Art of Photography (Part 3)

I’ve been meaning to write this third post in the series for quite some time now, but my other commitments have kept me quite busy lately. Apologies about that – I do hope you weren’t waiting on me to proceed before trying out what we covered in Part 1 and Part 2 earlier. This third post will NOT focus on what rules to follow – rather, it will tell you when to break them! So, all you rebels out there, brace yourselves – this post is for you!

The “rules” covered in Parts 1 and 2 were not, strictly speaking, hard and fast rules but ‘guidelines’ or accepted practices in photography. Indeed, there are no such rules in photography. However, as we covered earlier, it is generally considered beneficial to create images that ‘comply’ with these guidelines. For instance, winning images in artistic competitions generally comply with the ‘rule of thirds’, use leading lines and feature an effective placement of “negative space” in the image. Moreover, winning photographers mind the background (and associated distractions) as much as they do the subject itself. So – within this context – when would disregarding these guidelines be an effective approach? That is the subject of this post.

Scenario 1: Symmetry

In some photographs, composing the image using the rule of thirds would in fact result in an image that is less effective than it would have been if composed “symmetrically”. The most typical, albeit not exclusive, example is a shot of a landscape reflected on a lake. Placing the horizon in the middle of the image creates a symmetric photo whereby the top part (the actual landscape) would be mirrored in the lake in an effective manner. Ditto for landscapes with rivers or the sea shown in them, where the river or sea equally create clearly visible mirror images.

This effect is not exclusive to photos where a lake, river or sea is present. The “mirror” effect can be obtained coincidentally, by design (e.g. architecture photography) or a mix of both. In my example below, there was an element of both: the architecture of the bus-stop was symmetrical by design, but the coincidental positioning of these two ladies created an added sense of ‘symmetry’ since they were sitting at (almost) opposite ends of the bus-stop. This created a double-symmetry effect which I like really much. In this image, the rule of thirds would never have resulted in an image with as much visual contrast.

IMG_2623e

Consider also the below example, showing four coloured benches at Qbajjar, in Gozo. Given the presence of symmetry by design in the layout of the footpaths and the benches, I used a symmetrical composition to accentuate the subtle differences (in colour) even further. After all, in a symmetrical image, it is these subtle differences that become the subject. Above, one would compare the different adverts, for instance, to the left and to the right. Similarly, one could compare the clothing worn. In the example below, the comparison turns to the benches themselves, and the coloured paint used. Thus, an effective use of symmetry can generate discussion, and that’s always a positive thing with photography!

IMG_0053E

Scenario 2: Thematic Considerations

Once again, the rule of thirds will bear the brunt of this ‘alternative’ scenario. I made a veiled reference to thematic considerations in my earlier posts, but here I will go into more detail. Sometimes, for theme-related purposes, you would do better avoiding the rule of thirds altogether. Let us recall the example mentioned in Part 1: suppose your brief is to create a portrait defining the trait of ‘assertiveness’ or domination. You would want your subject to be imposing, powerful, dominant or ‘unavoidable’ in the image you create, right? Now suppose you place the subject on a third, and you leave enough negative space to the left or right of the subject to ‘encourage’ roaming around the image. What would that result in? Right – it would mean the subject is not holding the viewer’s attention. It would also mean you would have likely failed your brief! In such a scenario, a central placement of the subject would “force” the viewer to focus on the subject. In other words, you are telling the subject to NOT look away. This goes counter to the idea of using the rule of thirds to encourage the viewer to ‘take it all in’.

For a practical example of this scenario, I will now point you to some advertising material used by Nike and the Canadian Paralympic Committee some years ago. These ad-campaign ‘invited’ persons to stop and stare at physically disabled persons –  but not because of their disability: rather, they wanted to emphasise the persons’ ability in their respective sport or field. Moreover, the emphasis was that there was nothing else to focus on but the person in the image. Hence, central placement of the subject was used in all examples below. Try and look away when confronted with these images:

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By capturing AND retaining the viewer’s attention, the advertiser’s message would have a higher likelihood to get across. And just as above, if it gets the person to consider the message, than you are communicating. And if your photo communicates, then it’s doing a pretty good job in my book!

Scenario 3: Creativity!!

The third ‘scenario’ practically covers everything else! Therefore, another “correct” answer to our opening question: “when NOT to use the rules” would be: whenever YOU want to! Sometimes, these rules stifle our creativity and by purposely opting NOT to follow them, you might find yourself being more creative! Of course, some images might turn out useless, but you might find that one-off image that stays with you, notwithstanding the amount of “rules” it breaks! For instance, I particularly like an image I had taken in my early days, of an old man walking in front of me, from left to right. The “rule” would be to place the man on a third, and leave negative space on the right (direction of travel), right? That would have yielded an acceptable result, albeit a boring one. What did I do? I composed the image in such a way to show the man heading out of the image, by placing him on the far right of the image. This changed the mood of the image completely, and sent a different message about the situation. It is as if the old man couldn’t be bothered, and just walked away, leaving it all behind. The message, given this compositional approach, seems more compelling and likely to evoke discussion than if it was just another ‘rule-abiding’ image of an old man walking from left to right,… right?

533642_10152346794435107_469095842_nSo to conclude, let’s recap, as is usual practice.

Or let’s not. Let’s break this rule too! If you want a recap, scroll up! That’s why I use bold text. Now, will you be bold and break the rules too?

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The Art of Photography (Part 2)

Welcome to the second in the series of posts dealing with the more “artsy” side to photography. In my last post (here), we introduced an important compositional guideline referred to as “the rule of thirds”. This post will introduce three more “rules” or guidelines aimed at improving the quality of your photos.

Once more, a general proviso applies: all “rules” stated here are indeed just generally accepted “best practices”, and therefore not something you HAVE to conform with. Use them if you feel they improve your shots, but be aware that ultimately it all depends on what you like, before anything else. (Unless of course you’re in a competition, in which case, DO take note of these rules as judges typically penalise those that break them!)

Lines or things going through people’s heads: Whenever you’re taking a photo of one or more persons, be aware of the background against which your subject is posing. Most times we come across photos with lines, trees, poles, signs and all sorts of other things seemingly ’emerging’ out of people’s heads. Whilst you and your subject might not mind looking like a deer with antlers, bear in mind that in artistic photography circles, you would drop points, so to speak. Therefore, be aware of what  you make your subject pose against, and if there are lines or objects seemingly going through or jutting out of the subject’s head, tell them to move around, or do so yourself.

Consider the before and after photos of Giulia, my daughter, presented below:

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Why? Simple really, you want attention to be on your subject, not on background distractions. Since lines draw the viewer’s attention, a line going through your subject’s head (such as a horizon) would typically detract from the quality of the image. Ditto when it comes to other objects.

“Negative Space”: Whilst not technically a rule, you should also be aware of the concept of negative space when composing your shot. Negative space is described as being that area (or space) in an image that is not your subject, that is, it would lie around and between your main subject. This is not a trivial notion. If you were following carefully, my first post dealt with “the rule of thirds” and one of the suggestions was to place the subject on a third intersection point. In addition to the benefits described in the first post, such placement generally also ‘creates’ a large area of negative space to the left or right of the subject. For instance, check the images below:

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Why? By being aware of the negative space around your subject, you can improve your composition making it more “natural” or logical. The rule is to allow space where the subject needs it: therefore, be guided by where the subject is headed to, looking at or what it is facing. This improves the connection between the viewer of the image and the subject being presented, as it allows for more visual imagination.

 Leading Lines: Once again, this is not really a ‘rule’ per se, but a compositional guideline that says that lines in an image help direct the eye through the image. Leading lines are a very effective tool to show perspective and to draw ‘depth’ in an otherwise flat object: after all, remember that the photograph is two-dimensional (2D)!

Ideally, such “leading lines” should direct to your main subject, but the lines are sometimes the subject in themselves! It is also common practice to start off leading lines from a corner in the photo, as opposed to entering into the frame from the middle of the photograph. One final tip – in societies where one reads from left-to-right, lines typically start off from the left-corners (top/bottom/both), but in those where people read from right-to-left, the opposite is true!

Now, consider the images below, can you spot the “lines” I used to draw the viewer’s attention throughout the image?

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Why? Using lines in a photograph is all about making the viewer ‘know’ what you want them to see in the image. The lines typically act as ‘pointers’ in the image, guiding the viewer through the the image and helping put your photographic message across.

That is all for Part 2, three more tips for you to consider when composing a shot. So let’s recap:

1. Avoid lines or objects coming from behind persons’ heads.

2. Use negative space creatively, taking into account direction of travel or line of sight.

3. Use leading lines to direct the viewers’ attention through the image or to your main subject.

Thanks for sticking by and come again for Part 3 in the coming days!

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The Art of Photography (Part 1)

It’s been a while since I last wrote a piece and I’ve realised I might have been overly focused on technical posts so far. If you remember well, I had started this blog making reference to the fact that photography consists of both technique and art (vide this post). So to compensate, I will start off a series of posts that discusses the ‘artistic’ side of taking photos. After all, it’s one thing knowing how to fiddle with all the knobs and settings, but it’s another altogether knowing how to produce a result that is pleasing to the eye and considered ‘artsy’.

Now, before you accuse me of anything – a proviso is in order. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, (whoever they may be) – and I have to say I agree. What I find beautiful might be an inch away from being rubbish to you, and vice versa. However, there are some “rules” in the world of art that are worth sharing and taking a note of. Then, whether you make use of such “rules” or not depends on your preferences and photographic style.

A second proviso is the fact that the so called “rules” are indeed NOT rules, rather, guidelines or accepted best practices. Do not feel like ALL your photos should conform to any of these rules, heck, do not feel like ANY of your photos MUST do so. However, I reiterate what I stated above – it is generally accepted, in artistic circles, that photos displaying ‘adherence’ to such rules are better received than those that aren’t.

So, provisos over, here’s the long and short of it: (1) know about the rules, (2) know when to use them, and (3) know when you have to break them! And there you have it, a three part series seems to be developing as I type…

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Know about the rules…

There are many so-called “rules” in photography, but none other more famously touted as “the rule of thirds”. So what’s this all about? In a nutshell, the rule states that points of interest in a picture, (read, what you want to emphasise), should fall on the intersection points of four imaginary lines drawn as a grid over the photo; with two equally spaced vertical lines and two equally spaced horizontal lines making up the grid. Each partition (vertical / horizontal) should contain one-third of the whole image, hence the rule of thirds.

The imaginary lines should divide the image up into nine segments as follows:

 

IMG_6130_WITHGRID

The semi-transparent black lines are the lines that make up the “imaginary” rule of thirds grid. Notice how I composed the shot in such a way to place the fly’s eye and the golden bubble at the top-left third intersection point.

In most cameras, you can activate an on-screen grid that is based on this rule to help you compose your photos. If you never knew why you needed that grid, then now you know!

Should you use this rule? I would recommend doing so – particularly with some subjects such as portraits, landscapes or photos of animals. Using this guideline to compose your shots helps you create photos that, generally, better place the subject within the context of the surroundings. Without regard to this compositional guideline, people tend to ‘naturally’ gravitate towards placing the subject bang in the middle of the photo. Whilst this is common, it is not considered artistic as it tends not to facilitate the viewer’s “roaming” around the photo. When the subject is central, viewers are almost being “asked” to look at the centre and nowhere else, whilst placing the subject slightly to one side (by placing the emphasis on a third-intersection point) tends to invite viewers to look at the rest of the image more readily. Try it out and see for yourself!

Some tips associated with the rule… Generally in portraits and images where eyes are visible, it is common to place eyes on a third intersection point. However this should not be regarded as a hard and fast rule – there are moments where a centrally placed face is an effective tool to “capture and hold” one’s attention, for example, if you want to portray an air of assertiveness stemming from the character. The central positioning would send a message to the viewer saying “do not look elsewhere”, very much in line with the message of assertiveness being attempted.

In landscapes, the rule of thirds is used to assist composition on more than one front. First off, it is common practice to place foreground interest on a third intersection point (generally bottom right or bottom left). Secondly, the horizon is generally placed on one of the horizontal lines making up the grid – central positioning of the horizon (dividing the image in equal parts) is not considered artistic in most cases (although, as ever, there are exceptions). For a practical example, consider the image below:

BenchHere, I placed the bench on the bottom-right intersection point (imagine the lines), and the horizon is placed on the bottom horizontal. (I used the bottom horizontal here since there is more interest upward of the horizon, as opposed to below it. This gives more space in the image to more interesting stuff, that is, the sky itself).

By using the rule of thirds, I wanted to create an image whereby the viewer feels compelled to sit on the bench and take in the view of a beautiful sunset sky. This was achieved by placing the principal point of interest, the foreground bench, at the bottom right. Starting off from there, the viewer’s eyes are directed out towards the sunset on a right-to-left direction.

Note: Always note the direction of “travel” in your images and place subjects accordingly – for instance, in this image, the bench would have looked awkward on the left hand side, if presented at the same angle, as it would theoretically be looking OUT of the picture. On the other hand, given the bench is on the RIGHT here, if you sit on it, you’d be looking INTO the picture. Hence the placement of the bench on the bottom-right third. 

So let’s recap, to close off this first post in the series.

1. Visually (or using the grid in-camera) divide the scene in front of you into nine-segments using two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines.

2. Line up key subject aspects on third intersection points (e.g. foreground interest, person’s eye, the heads in a couple’s shot, etc).

3. Horizons should be on the top or bottom third, depending on where the most interesting aspects are.

I hope this has been helpful and interesting to read. I will do my best to keep this series going, possibly even beyond a three-part series… There are, of course, other “rules” to present but that will be another time.

Now go and try this out!

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What camera do you recommend?

When faced with the need (or want) to acquire a new camera, we often revert to friends and family for advice on the matter. Being known amongst my friends as a photography enthusiast, I am often asked the titular question of this blog: “what camera do you recommend?” More often than not, this is accompanied by a series of questions about this or that camera, such as: “Is Model X from Brand Y good?” or “Is this Model Y better than Model Z?” And so on and so forth. This blog is addressed to those amongst you who are in this predicament at present. I hope I help you make up your mind accordingly!

My response is generally never a straightforward “Yes” or “No”, or a recommendation on one specific model. I think that kind of answer would be a disservice to the person asking in the first place. Why? Simple really – I do not believe that there is a specific camera model or brand that I would recommend all the time to all the people. Moreover, there’s hardly ever a clear-cut winner in any Model vs Model competition of camera options.

So, you ask, what is my response? My answer is generally composed of a number of sub-elements, including (1) the prospective buyer’s photography skills and/or desire to learn; (2) present and future budget; (3) preferred style/type of shooting; and, perhaps most importantly, (4) personal preferences. Here’s how these factors come into play.

1 – Prospective Buyer’s Photography Skills and/or Desire to Learn

The relationship here is ‘higher skill and/or higher desire to learn’ implies ‘more complex’ camera options to be considered, and vice versa. Perhaps this may sound obvious, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes I’m confronted with persons desiring to acquire a Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) who have very limited (or no knowledge) of photography and equally no desire to learn anything about it. To such persons, I generally advice against procuring a DSLR camera for one simple reason: DSLRs are typically more complex to operate than traditional ‘point-and-shoot’ cameras. Limiting the use of an SLR to a ‘point-and-shoot’ role would be akin to buying a Ferrari and driving it at 40 km/h everywhere. In other words, it is an inefficient use of your money.

On the contrary, when it comes highly skilled photographers, or persons who desire to further their knowledge of the subject, I highly recommend procuring DSLR cameras or other ‘complex’ cameras, such as mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, advanced compacts or possibly bridge cameras (in that order). These camera types offer the most versatility and functions to the user, and will thus allow you to ‘grow’ into them better than restricted ‘point-and-shoot’ cameras, (which typically have a very limited set of features and manual controls).

2 – Present and Future Budget

Your budget, both present and future, should play a critical role in the decision you make. Typically, the more complex the system you go for, the more costly the buying option will be, including any future associated costs. I often stress this latter point: cost is not only purchase price, but purchase price + accessories + maintenance. Therefore, present and future costs should be taken into account.

For instance, acquiring an entry level SLR with a basic 18-55mm kit lens could appear to be a more affordable option than buying an advanced compact camera, at least on paper. As an example, a Nikon D3100 typically costs less than say a Canon G1X II (advanced compact). However, with an SLR camera there are generally higher associated costs when it comes to sensor cleaning sessions, new lenses, bags/pouches, filters, batteries, etc. And these are not, strictly speaking, unnecessary luxuries – SLR cameras do require better care, maintenance and investments than most other types of cameras, so always factor in such care and maintenance costs in your budget-related decisions.

Let’s look at the facts: the advanced compact mentioned above features an effective focal length range of 24mm to 120mm straight-out-of-the-box and costs around €630, whilst the entry level SLR with the typical 18-55mm kit lens would cost around €400. Whilst the €230 difference here would seem to suggest that the Nikon is the best option, one needs to factor into the equation the “bang” you’re getting for your buck. If one had to try and ‘equalise’ the specifications offered by both cameras, the Nikon would have some serious catching up to do to match the lens specifications offered in the Canon body, since the Canon offers a lens that is both wider (24mm vs 27mm equivalent focal length) as well as more zoomed in (120mm vs 82.5mm). Moreover, the Canon lens has wider maximum apertures throughout the zoom range, allowing you to shoot at faster shutter speeds when light levels drop. These two reasons alone could justify spending a bit more on the advanced compact as opposed to the Nikon, as with the Nikon option, you would need to invest in additional gear sooner than you would have with the Canon compact. Thus, the Nikon could turn out costlier in the long run.

Thus, my recommendation is to always consider which package gives you most bang for your buck, especially taking into account the effective focal lengths you would have at your disposal, the widest maximum apertures, and noise performance to be expected.

3 – Preferred Style / Type of Shooting

How and what you shoot should always be taken into account when deciding on what camera to buy. For instance, if you only want to shoot pictures of you and your friends whilst out and about having drinks or at the beach, then buying an SLR or very expensive camera could be a futile exercise. For such situations, you would be more than adequately covered with a simple ‘point-and-shoot’ camera that you can carry around in your pocket or handbag. Heck, even smartphones can fill that gap nowadays, so always factor the “typical use case” in your decision so as not to end up with a camera that you keep leaving behind you after procuring it.

On the other hand, if you’re after more serious or specialised photography, for instance, landscapes or macro shots, then you should look elsewhere and consider investing into something more specialised. For instance, SLR cameras with dedicated macro lenses are still regarded among the best options available for specialist macro work. When it comes to landscapes, there are more options available to you, but the wider the view you want to acquire, the more limited the options you end up with. Once again, SLRs tend to dominate here, particularly given the larger availability of wider-view lenses. Nonetheless, you can still obtain superb results with any other kind of camera, such as advanced compact cameras and mirrorless systems. (The latter’s importance is constantly growing in the camera-sales market).

For serious portraiture, the need to have at your disposition a camera that can communicate with different lighting setups and take on different lenses depending on the type of shot you’re after implies one thing: you need to invest in serious gear. Generally, this implies either an SLR or a mirrorless system. Lesser cameras would struggle to give you the quality you should aim for, performing at an inadequate level when it comes to sharpness, depth of field and noise performance.

For sports and high-speed photography, you’re once again looking at serious gear (SLRs), although serious inroads where made here when it comes to mirrorless and advanced compact cameras. What you should factor in here is the system’s focusing speed and accuracy, its ability to handle high-ISOs and the number of shots per second it can take at maximum resolution. These features are critical to acquire action-stopping shots at any light-level, be it day, night or indoor.

4 – Personal Preferences

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the most important factor to take into account is your own preferences! It is essential to factor in the likelihood to use and enjoy the product being recommended to you! For instance, suppose I recommend Camera X to you given the elements outlined by points 1 to 3 above – what good would that be if you think Camera X looks hideous and you do not trust the brand? Whilst this may sound obvious, sometimes people tend to purchase products on the strength of recommendations alone, and then regret this afterwards once they realise they are not “compatible” with the recommended product. The lesson? Try out the products being recommended, visit the agent’s outlet and ask about the features you would use most often – are you comfortable with them? Are they easy to use? And so on, so forth.

Moreover, most choices often come down to this fourth and final factor, especially given the cut-throat competition that exists in the market today. You might go through points 1 to 3 and still end up with a list of, say, four cameras to choose from, each suitable enough to address your needs. It is through this fourth factor that your WANTS come in, and satisfying what you want is just as critical as satisfying what you need.

Finally, one last word of caution: unless YOU are convinced on a model, do not proceed. Camera gear is not cheap, and it’s always better to postpone a purchase, than regret one!

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Hope these four points help you in your future decisions!

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Lenses (Part 5) – Specialised Lenses & Tricks

NOTE: Apologies for the delay in publishing this fifth and last entry… thanks for your patience!!

This last entry in the “Lenses” series is comprised of two sections, one dealing with “specialised” lenses and another with some tricks that one can employ when using lenses.

Let’s start with specialisation: what are we to understand by this? Specialised lenses include those lenses that are primarily earmarked for use in one specific scenario. Amongst the most popular we find Macro Lenses, Tilt/Shift Lenses and Fish-eye lenses.

Macro Lenses: I have touched upon this variant of lenses in my preceding post, but I’ll explain in more detail here. Macro lenses are primarily oriented towards the capture of “close-up” photography. However, it needs to be clarified that generally, a lens is considered a macro lens if it has the ability to reproduce the subject at a 1:1 ratio (or higher) on the image sensor. Therefore, a 2cm butterfly would create an image on the sensor that is 2cm in size if taken with a 1:1 macro lens. This enables the photographer to create photos that show substantial amount of detail in the final image when compared with traditional lenses. Consider, for example, the image of the fly below. As you will surely notice, the lens used (a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 Macro Lens) enabled me to capture an image that is full of detail, including very small hairs on the fly’s thorax, for instance. This lens in particular has a minimum focusing distance (MFD) of 30cm and a reproduction ratio of 1:1. This means that the camera will be able to focus even on subjects just 3ocm away from the focal plane (where the sensor resides).

IMG_6130_DOIThe ratio can even be exceeded with more specialised macro lenses, such as the Canon MP-E 65mm which can reproduce an image that is up to 5x the actual size, or at a 5:1 ratio! On the other hand, there are lenses that purport to be “macro” lenses, which however only reproduce images at a smaller ratio, such as 1:2, 1:3 or 1:4. Be careful not to be misinformed when pursuing a macro lens. Having said that, given the availability of high-resolution sensors in cameras these days, you can easily crop into an 18MP image taken at 1:2 and produce similar results to the above image. There would probably still be enough detail left in the image to simulate an image taken at 1:1, but you would lose out in terms of maximum print size if you get to print the image at a later stage.

Tilt/Shift: Tilt/Shift lenses are also called “perspective correction” lenses, and their primary, albeit not exclusive, usage is in scenarios where the photographer wants to avoid having the effects of perspective interfering with the final photo. A common usage is in architecture photography, whereby normal lenses often result in photos that show “converging verticals”, or buildings that seem to be bending backwards or falling over. Check this image below I took in Maastricht without a tilt/shift lens.

598428_10153777191875107_1452090454_nYou will immediately notice how the church steeple seems to be bending backwards. This is what happens when we point the camera upwards to include all the tower – since the sensor is no longer parallel to the vertical lines in the steeple (or whatever subject you’re shooting), the result is an image where the verticals seem to converge and bend irregularly. This is where shifting comes into play. When using T/S lenses, one thing you can do is to “shift” the lens, which implies that the lens is moved independently of the camera sensor in such a way to alter the way that the light is directed through it. This alteration ends up projecting an image with correct perspective, and hence no converging verticals. The tilting function has to do with the “plane of focus” in front of the camera. The “plane of focus” runs parallel to the direction the lens is pointed, so that if a lens is pointing straight forward, there will be a “vertical” space in front of the lens that would be in sharpest focus. However, if the angle is tilted upwards, downwards or to one side, the plane of focus would similarly tilt at the same rate to retain this relationship. T/S Lenses allow you to carry out such tilting exclusively to the lens, without having to move the entire camera. This creates surreal effects in an image by projecting images whereby the change in depth of field is not in the usual manner (that is, front to back), but could be along a diagonal in the image, or horizontally across the image, for instance. Whilst both the effects of shift and tilt can be somewhat reproduced in post-processing, the effect would not be “cost-free”, making T/S lenses more desirable for such specialised shots.

Fish-Eye Lenses: This will be a shorter explanation – fish-eye lenses are extreme wide-angle lenses with very short focal lengths. They produce images that are heavily distorted. Such lenses enable wide panoramic shots from a single image given their wide angle of view, mitigating the need for stitching multiple images together. Of course, the resultant, heavily distorted images are an acquired taste, but these can generally be “cured” in post-processing too, turning the image into a more “normal” photo without the heavily distorted perspective.

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Some tricks now:

1. Zoom Blur: If your camera supports lenses with a rotating barrel (generally SLRs and ILCs), you can create “zoom blur” in an image by zooming in or out whilst taking an image. Ideally, the shutter speed needs to be sufficiently “slow” to capture this zoom blur, otherwise no effect will show up.

2. Free-lensing: Also when using SLRs, you can take a picture with the lens detached from the body. By shifting/tilting the lens a bit, you can re-create the effect of a tilt-shift camera, albeit without having any control on the electronic elements of the lens. Moreover, image quality might suffer and excessive light would inevitably enter into the camera. However, free-lensing can be adopted as a personal style and there are photographers out there who have mastered the art.

3. Inverted lens “macro”: Another trick is to turn your non-macro lens into a macro lens simply by putting your lens’ front element close to the sensor, with the mount becoming your “front element”. Again as with free-lensing, you’d be losing control over electronics but you’d be surprised just how effective a macro lens you can get simply by using this simple trick.

 

WORD OF CAUTION: Using tricks (2) and (3) can result in accidental drops of the lens or body, or both if you’re lucky… be careful! 😉

 

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Lenses (Part 4) – Other Properties

Aside of what we’ve covered so far in the first three posts of this series, there are also a number of other properties worth learning about. This post will introduce such properties to give you a more thorough grasp on the subject of “Lenses”. The properties we’ll cover are: focusing system; minimum focusing distance; aperture properties; and special features. There are surely elements that I’m overlooking but knowing about these aspects should definitely come in handy when it comes to deciding which lenses to opt for.

Let me start with a proviso though: most of the above properties relate to lenses used with Interchangeable Lens Cameras, that is, cameras where you can detach one lens and attach another. That doesn’t imply that the concepts/properties above are totally irrelevant to fixed-lens cameras, but some of the material could be.

Also, by way of a general introduction, such a lens can be described as being a “barrel” containing a number of glass components (the actual lenses) that are constructed inside the barrel either as singular elements or in groups.

1. Focusing system: The “focusing system” in a lens is what moves the different components (elements or groups) inside of the lens barrel in order to achieve focus. The system can be manual or automatic, and most lenses can be focused in both ways by switching from one mode to another. In exclusively manual focusing lenses, the photographer can achieve focus by manually moving these elements inside the lens, typically by rotating a ring on the lens barrel itself. In automatic focus systems, a motor inside the lens construction takes over these movements, aided by other elements inside the camera body that help the motors determine the extent of movements to carry out. Lenses with automatic focusing systems generally have the moniker “AF” in their lens name, although there are instances where this is omitted. Also related is the moniker “FTM” which refers to “Full-Time-Manual” focusing. Lenses with FTM capabilities allow you to focus manually even when the camera is auto-focusing mode. Other related aspects include different technologies behind the “motors” inside the lens, such as Canon’s USM or STM motors. Depending on the technology used, the speed and noise of focusing systems varies. Generally, the higher end the lens is, the faster and/or quieter the focusing system works. Cheaper lenses, on the other hand, are slower to focus automatically, and produce more noise whilst doing so.

2. Minimum Focusing Distance (MFD): In layman terms, the MFD is the minimum distance between the subject and the photographer to permit achieving focus. Suppose a lens’ MFD is 25cm, it means that you will not be able to achieve good focus on that lens if you are closer than 25cm from the subject. To be precise, the MFD relates to the distance between the subject and the “focal plane” of the camera: i.e. where the sensor/film lies. Generally, higher focal length lenses have a higher MFD, which means that with a telephoto lens you generally have to stand further back when compared to other lenses. There are exceptions of course, particularly if the lens has “macro” capabilities. Macro refers to lenses that have the ability to reproduce subjects at a scale of 1:1 on the sensor. At this ratio, it means that a subject that is 2cm in size would physically occupy 2cm on the sensor. Typically, such lenses have small MFDs too, contributing directly to their macro capabilities.

3. Aperture Properties: We have already touched upon this briefly in the preceding post, but it’s worth repeating. One key considerations to take into account when purchasing a lens is its maximum aperture, that is, the widest possible aperture that you can work with. The wider this is, the more light the lens can capture. Lenses with wide maximum apertures are called “fast lenses“, because they allow you to use faster shutter speeds at any given situation when compared to lenses with narrower maximum apertures.

Aside of the maximum aperture, however, other elements to consider include the number of “diaphragm blades” that comprise the aperture mechanism. Let’s first explain what is to be understood by this term. The diaphragm blades act as a form of “lid” with a variable size inside the lens – the larger the area of the lid, the less light is allowed to pass through the lens. On the other hand, the smaller the area of the lid, and the more light is allowed to pass. This is where the blades comes in. The “lid” is in fact composed of a number of opaque blades that move in or out, overlapping on adjacent blades. The further out the lids are, the wider the “uncovered” area remains and hence the more light would go through the lens. This means that the widest aperture is achieved when the lids, or diaphragm blades are fully withdrawn. On the other hand, the narrowest aperture is achieved when there is the greatest extent of overlap between blades. The animation below from wikipedia can help understand this concept.

Iris_DiaphragmWhere does this affect your purchasing decision? One word: “Bokeh”. It is generally a given that lenses with 9 diaphragm blades produce more pleasing (good looking) “bokeh” or background blur. This is because the “hole” that stays open is more circular in shape, thereby shaping the bokeh in a much smoother manner. On the other hand, lenses with 5-blades tend to produce a hole that is pentagonal in shape, and this leads to bokeh that is less pleasing to the eye. So, should you always opt for lenses with more diaphragm blades? The answer again builds on what I said in my earlier post – if your budget permits, you will probably appreciate the improvements this will give you. However, if you’re not prepared to shell out more money for better bokeh, that you’d be just as fine with lenses having less blades in their aperture construction. Just be aware of the inherent bokeh-related limitations and you’ll be fine!

4. Special Features: There are numerous other aspects that can influence your choice in buying lenses and this blog post will definitely not cover everything. Fortunately, there are several reliable websites out there that review lenses and provide you with a good overview of the lens’ characteristics. Some features you wish to consider are the lens’ ability to control or mitigate chromatic aberrations, flares/ghosting, and purple fringing; the lens’ weather proofing and durability; as well as the lens’ filter thread size. I won’t be expanding on these concepts at this stage, but it is advisable that you also take these aspects into consideration when deciding which way to go when purchasing a lens for your camera bag!

Hope this post was informative and thanks for reading until the end! 😉

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