A Note on Content

The purpose of this blog is twofold: (1) to advertise my services as a photographer, and (2) to provide useful information to people who want to take better pictures, particularly when it comes to photographing children.

Although I have not organized the blog posts in any particular order, I have tried to start with basic information and build from there, so those wanting to learn more about photography and visiting the site for the first time may want to start with the oldest posts first.

If you have questions or comments about the blog, please feel free to leave a comment or to email me directly. I hope the photos and other information presented here help you appreciate the art of children's photography, and inspire you to take great photographs of your own.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Two-Dollar Diffuser

Several months ago I wrote a post on reflectors and diffusers and explained how cheaply one can be made. For example, my diffuser cost maybe $2.00 and was constructed from a junk store screen and cheap plastic.

Anyway, I thought I'd post two recent examples. Dads make great "clouds" by the way, and can usually be enlisted to hold the diffuser, at which time I usually start to refer to them as "Cloud," "Mister Cloud," or "Daddy Cloud," as in "Hey, Mr. Cloud: a little to the left."

Both photos here wouldn't have succeeded without a diffuser--and a Mr. Cloud.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sepia Prints

What is it about sepia prints? Lately, I've found myself more and more drawn to them for portrait work: more so than traditional black and whites.

Why? That's what I've been pondering. My wife suggested--and I'm inclined to agree--that it has something to do with the warmer tones. So, sepia captures all the great tones and textures of traditional black and white, but the final image is warmer, which seems to suit portraits particularly well.

The only drawback, to my mind, is that many developers used darkroom techniques to create sepia prints in the early days of photography, and so sepia has that "old" connotation. As a result, when used in contemporary photography it can seem a bit gimmicky.

Oh well, I like them anyway. Do you? The good news is that, while a sepia print used to take a lot of time, effort, and specific chemicals in the dark room, one can create sepia prints today with a few clicks of the mouse and a few minor tone/texture adjustments.

So, give it a try! (There's always the back button if you don't like the results.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Clean Backgrounds

Backgrounds illustrate both the challenges and opportunities of natural light portrait photography.

In a studio, backgrounds--just like lighting--can be carefully controlled. Outside, however, you have to take the world as you find it: a world that includes cars, telephone wires, and the like--an unending stream of potential image clutter.

So, taking effective portraits out-of-doors means finding good, uncluttered backgrounds (like this one, no? it's a bunch of marsh grass), and employing a few tricks of the trade as well, like using a long telephoto lens and careful placement of the subject to create "bokeh" or a blurred background effect.

It's a challenge, to be sure, but when it works right no sterile studio backdrop can hold a candle to it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Let 'em be Dorky

So, here are my four, delightful children, going through the ritual of posing for the annual holiday greeting card photo. Card worthy, eh?

Here's the point. With few exceptions, kids don't like to pose, particularly if they are asked to do so repeatedly. Furthermore, as I'm sure you've experienced, the more you ask them to pose, the worse those poses typically become. One simply solution? Let them dork it up now and then. They want to do it, and, in my experience, it helps relax and loosen them up for the next series of shots.

Besides, all those goof-ball shots make for great blackmail material later ...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Photography as Story Telling

I am always excited to find new photographers whose work I admire. Stumbled across this one recently: the Indonesian photographer Rarinda Prakarsa, who has an fantastic grasp of lighting, composition, and story telling through photography.

I believe his work is heavily manipulated digitally, but done so with a real feeling for the image and subject matter.

I can't find a stand alone website, but the following link should bring up a wide sampling of his work: http://photo.net/photos/rarindra. Gorgeous stuff.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Fine Line

Do you like this picture? I do, but there’s one problem: it’s a lie. A little white lie, but a lie nonetheless. See the red leaves at bottom right? I put them there. Moved them only about five feet, but I still moved them, thereby “creating” a photograph more than “capturing” one.

It reminds me of a photograph taken by a famous Utah photographer that I saw not long ago in the Salt Lake City International Airport: a classic landscape photo, taken on American Fork Creek, a stream that I know and love having spent most of my formative years playing in and around it. The picture shows the dark, sinuous lines of the creek in the background with the branch of a maple tree, covered in brilliant, bright red leaves, arching out over the river. So, what’s the problem? Well, maples don’t grow that close to Utah’s streams, which experience a high, scouring runoff in the spring. As a result, I’m quite sure that the photographer (who shall remain nameless) ripped that entire branch off a nearby maple, and then “posed” it by the side of the river. For shame!

Same goes for portrait photographs. One extreme (we’ll call it “uber-manipulation”) is exemplified by many commercial photographs of women, as illustrated by the brilliant short film by the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty available at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U. If you haven’t watched it, you should. Unfortunately, thanks to Photoshop, most portrait photography today is rife with that kind of manipulation.

At the other extreme are the minor touch-ups that, in this digital age, follow each and every portrait session. I suppose many people think portrait photography is cool and glamorous. Well, I spend hours—literally hours—after each session, wiping stuff off faces. It may not be as gross as doing it by hand, but I’m still wiping off boogers, dandruff, jam, cookie crumbs, bruises, scratches, spider veins, moles, acne … you name it. I’m just doing it digitally. Ah, the glamorous life of the portrait photographer! Boogers at 2:00 a.m.

Here’s the question: does manipulation matter? I think it does, though I also think that image manipulation falls on a scale from extreme to slight, and that some kind of fair balance lies in the middle.

So, where does that line between “manipulation” and “minor correction and/or enhancement” lie? I don’t know, though I’d offer at least a few factors to consider in making that judgment call:

(1) Does it distract? Far too many image enhancements—particularly in portrait photography—are done awkwardly, leaving a result that detracts from, rather than enhances, the subject. Two areas particularly ripe for abuse? Eyes and skin. Gotta love those children’s portraits with the funked out eyes. I like the pose, but why did you make my son/daughter look like a demon child from the underworld? With skin, the trouble is overworking it until it looks like plastic. Plastic looks good on a Barbie (perhaps), but on my five year old? I think not.

(2) Does it damage? With nature photography, I have real problems with anything that destroys the subject the photographer wants to capture, like the “natural light” photographer out of Moab who, a few years ago, left permanent burn marks on Delicate Arch. This is a tougher factor to apply in portraiture, though I think it covers stuff like making women impossibly thin/perfect.

(3) Does it distort? Again, “distortion” may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think in portraiture, we want to capture our “best selves.” So, I see removing that bit of acne as okay, but the minute my self-portrait starts to look more like Tom Cruise, well, maybe I’ve crossed that line, tempting though it may be … (On the other hand, I do have muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger, so that’s legit!)

That all probably raises more questions than answers, but it’s something to think about.

(By the way, I took this photograph on the same trip, with no manipulation whatsoever, so there may be something to be said for “keeping it real.”)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Moon Photos

Playing around with an interesting night sky and long exposures the other night. These are color exposures, and I haven't tweaked the lighting at all.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Follow the Light

If my last post encouraged budding photographers to learn to "control and manipulate" light, this one encourages them to "follow" it. What I mean is that, sometimes, light needs no control or manipulation, and a good photographer will recognize that moment and take advantage of it.

Consider the two photographs of baby Christian here. The "eyes" have it, no? If these photographs succeed at all they do so on account of the light reflected in those big baby eyes, and I did nothing to modify, manipulate, or enhance that light in any way. To the contrary, I didn't plan on taking a photograph until I noticed how sunlight reflected off a vinyl fence and through the windows was throwing huge highlights into Christian's eyes. A few shutter clicks later and there you have it: like taking candy from a baby ... hah!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Reflectors and Diffusers

One can't excel at photography without learning to control and manipulate light. To do so, a photographer can employ a wide range of tools, but I'd like to focus on two that are particularly important when it comes to natural light portraiture: reflectors and diffusers.

I'm sure you've seen those white circles professional photographers like to use when shooting outdoors. Well, those little (and not so little) white circles come in two principal types: (1) diffusers, which scatter the harsh rays of the sun, covering the subject in a softer, more diffuse light; and (2) reflectors, typically employed in shady locations or with a backlit subject and used to reflect additional light onto the subject. Fair enough, and one can read about those tools endlessly on various photo blogs and "how to" sites and buy them and try them out and "look professional," but here's the point I want to make: the world is full of reflectors and diffusers, most of them free (or cheap) and readily available.

Best diffuser: clouds.
Best reflector: water.

But that's only the beginning! ANYTHING that reflects can be a reflector, and ANYTHING that diffuses (scatters light) can be a diffuser. Consider for a moment your hand: does it reflect light? You better believe it does. Try holding it close to something small (say, a flower) and notice what happens to the light on the flower. Does that mean one's hands are make for a good portrait reflector? Not at all (far too small), but for that flower close-up? Maybe so.

White objects of any kind make wonderful reflectors: white walls, white cars, white drapes, white snow--anything--but so does literally anything bright or smooth: stone walls, the sides of building, parked cars, you name it. So, keep an eye out for those natural reflectors, and be sure to position yourself and your subject to take advantage of them.

Same goes for diffusers. Can't afford an expensive professional diffuser? Well, I made a diffuser for about $2.50 with an old screen from the local junk store (Deseret Industries). I bought the screen for $1.00 (maybe 3 feet x 5 feet) punched out the screen, and attached a double layer of clear polyethylene pastic in its place. Voila! A diffuser that works every bit as good as an expensive circle thingy. (I've seen similar low-tech diffusers used in professional fashion shoots.) I use another to cover windows: it's a cheap set of sheer white drapes I bought at Walmart for next-to-nothing. (I also bought a few stick on velcro buttons so I can easily attach it to any odd curtain rod.) What difference does it make to the final image that I used a cheap set of Walmart drapes instead of a professional diffuser? None. Nada. No difference at all.

But even if you don't have on hand a cheap set of Walmart drapes, realize that the light is there for the taking: it's a tool you can use if you pay attention and understand what's going on.

So, go forth and conquer. Lights, camera, action!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Making Color Count


Paying closer attention to color is a great way to add extra "oomph!" to your photos. So, at the risk of evoking bad memories from junior high art class, I wanted to talk briefly about color and how to use it as a creative tool.

At the top, you'll see the familiar color wheel. (Not quite sure why this version chose to add the funky shape in the middle, though, if I had to guess, it looks like it's designed to serve as a reminder that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, and they combine to form the secondary colors of orange, green, and purple.) Considering the various colors in relation to one another, you'll find the "complementary" colors at opposite points on the wheel: for example, red and green, purple and yellow, orange and blue. Nature produces bold complements in spades: think red holly berries and green holly leaves, a field of dandelions and violets, california poppies against a blue, blue sky, or, as in the second photo, a bright red blanket flower against a background of green grass. That picture pops because the colors complement each other.

Now, here's a wrinkle: which colors are "complements" depends on the color wheel you use. So, for example, on an RGB color wheel--the color wheel used in ink jet printing, computer screens, and Photoshop--the complement of blue is yellow, green is magenta, and red is cyan. Fun stuff, eh?

But here's the point: regardless of the source of the color wheel or exact location of Color A and Color B on whatever wheel one chooses to use, complementary colors work: in painting, in advertising, and, yes, in photography.

To illustrate, take look at the final photo. Here the complements are subtle and soft: a slate blue dress (and blue eyes) with a faint yellow wall/drape in the background, and yet that bit of complementary color gives the photo a balanced and refined feel, at least to my mind.

So, give color some thought. Often there isn't much a photographer can do about color, particularly if one is photographing children outside and on-the-fly. But even if you lack the ability, as in a studio setting, to pick the perfect background, often a little foresight can help make color work for you. So, for example, consider putting the little girl in the pretty pink dress in an orchard in early spring, where the fresh green of the orchard grass will act as a perfect complement. Little boy blue? Maybe stand him in front of a row of sunflowers. Get the idea? Think. Color. Create.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In Praise of the Snapshot

I've discovered a certain tension in portrait photography between control and spontaneity. At the one extreme, a studio gives one ultimate control over every aspect of the photograph (except, of course, your subject); at the other extreme is the casual snapshot, which offers variation in everything: lighting, movement, backgrounds, colors, etc. etc. Little control available there: just point the camera and fire away. Success is equal parts instinct, equipment, and dumb luck.

As I suspect is clear from my various blog posts and photographs, my personal taste leans more to casual and informal settings, even as I sometimes find myself wishing for more control.

I guess what I'm saying is this: I love taking snapshots, grabbing those "moments" posed or casually posed ("psst! hey Mary!!"), the infinite variety of expressions and emotions that play across a child's face.

I suppose that desire is captured in this quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson: "Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again."

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Last Word on Lenses

Okay, so we talked about focal length and f-stops, so you know everything there is to know about lenses, right? Not quite.

While those are the primary features of lenses, I need to explain why a 50mm f1.8 lens sells can sell for under $100 at B&H Photo while a 50mm f1.4 lens sells for $400, and an 50mm f1.2L goes for an eye-popping $1350. (You can see these for yourself at the following link: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/bnh/controller/home?O=search&A=search&Q=&sb=bs,upper(ds)&sq=asc&sortDrop=Brand:+A+to+Z&ac=&bsi=&bhs=t&shs=&ci=274&at=Brand_Canon&at=Lens+Type_Standard&basicSubmit=Submit.) As we discussed, engineering for those extra f-stop values likely accounts for some of the difference in cost, but not all of it. What explains the rest is build quality. Simply put: some lenses are engineered and built for consumers (read: occasional, light use, demand a low price), while others are engineered and built for professionals (heavy use under a variety of conditions, image quality at any cost).

So, for example, a professional lens will almost certainly be built out of metal and the finest optical glass available, while many consumer grade lenses incorporate a lot of plastic into the body and sometimes into the lens itself. Drop one of those 50mm f1.8 lenses and it's probably done. Gone. Finished. (Some pros call them "disposable" lenses for that reason and use them only as an emergency back up.) Drop that 50mm f1.2L on a rock, and, while you probably will have a heart attack, except for a few scratches, the lens itself may be just fine. So, choosing a lens is all about trade-offs. Generally--if you're serious about anything beyond scrapbook photos, you want the best lens you can afford, and you'll typically find the best values in fixed focal lengths (50mm 100mm etc.), but you have to decide what's most important to you. If in doubt, many professional stores will let you take a lens out and given it a trial run for, say, a weekend. For those here in Utah, I believe Pictureline in Salt Lake will let you do that.

One final note: photo retailers sell lenses made in the USA and also "gray market" lenses made elsewhere, which retail for less money. The trick to keep in mind here is that a gray market lens may not have a USA-backed warranty, meaning that if you have problems with the lens, you are out of luck. While a reputable dealer like B&H will make that clear, some less reputable dealers will not. So, I would recommend paying a little extra for a USA manufactured lens or making sure that a gray market lens has a warranty (for example, a "North America" warranty) that can be used in the U.S. If the seller doesn't specify what warranty applies, that should be a warning flag to you.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

If at first you don't succeed ...

So, I've been wanting to try some "feet" photos to showcase the new babe at our house, and, well, here's a recent failed effort. Of course, I mean "failed" only in an artistic sense. The photo--of all four of our children--makes me and my wife laugh: particularly the little diapered bum and chicken legs on the far right, and it'll make great scrapbook material. Even so, it doesn't work artistically because I used the wrong focal length, wrong angle, wrong composition, and a distracting bed spread (did I miss anything?).

Ah well. The point is this: I had fun trying, and--as with most things in life--the failures often prove more instructive than the successes. So, consider this an invitation to screw up: go ahead, play around, make mistakes, do dumb stuff, and above all, try new things. That's the beauty of digital photography. At best, you get a wall hanger; at worst, you just push the "delete" button and try, try again.

Here's a better effort, at least to my mind:

Happy shooting!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

F-Stop 'N Go

At long last, the promised post on “f-stops,” but first: a quick multiple-choice quiz to see whether another technical post like this one is really necessary.

f-stop means:

(a) a term used to describe a situation when one is tempted to say a very bad word but doesn’t;

(b) a traffic maneuver typical of Utah drivers in which the driver does not bring the vehicle to a complete stop at a stop sign, but rather slows down a little and then rolls right on through (as in “that f-dude executed a perfect f-stop.”);

(c) the ratio of the focal length of a lens or lens system to the effective diameter of its aperture;

(d) a measure of the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow.

The answer, of course, is “d,” and, if you selected any other answer, you’d better read on lest you disgrace yourself as a photographer … ;0)

Let’s make this easy: it really doesn’t matter what f-stop means from a technical standpoint. Really. Ratios be danged. We do need to understand, however, what f-stop values mean for a particular photograph.

And what do those values mean as a practical matter?

- The lower the f-stop value, the wider the aperture.
- The higher the f-stop value, the more narrow the aperture.
- A wide aperture = a narrow depth-of-field.
- A narrow aperture = a wide depth-of-field.
- A wide aperture allows faster shutter speeds.
- A narrow aperture requires slower (longer) shutter speeds.
- The lower the maximum f-stop value, the better the lens.

Let’s unpack each of those in turn. Recall from the “’M’ is for Manual’” post that f-stop measures the size of the aperture (or hole) through which light passes to expose a photograph. For some mathematical ratio yukitty-yuk reason we needn’t concern ourselves with, the smaller the f-stop value, the wider the aperture. So, for example, f2.8 means shooting “wide open” (that’s a big aperture, relatively speaking) while f32 is really “stopped down,” in other words, a really, really small hole.

Why do we care? For two reasons: first, the size of the aperture determines the depth of field. Narrow aperture = wide depth of field, and vice versa. Second, the size of the aperture also affects the shutter speeds we can get away with.

With that in mind, consider two photography “challenges” and how to address them using what we now know about f-stops and shutter speeds.

Situation #1: Late evening—the sun’s just gone down—and the kids are playing in the yard. You want to photograph them without using a nasty flash.

We know the light is low here, so we have to do everything possible (short of using that nasty flash) to get as much light as possible. So, first, look for a place in the yard with more light: where, for example, the glow from the sun still reflects from the sky into the yard and onto your subject. Second, set the film speed high (say, 800) or on automatic. Lastly, set the f-stop low to get a wide aperture and more light into the camera. What does that mean for depth-of-field? Well, it’s going to be shallow, but this is portrait photography so that’s a good thing: generally we only care if the subject remains in focus. What does it mean for shutter speed? Well, the wider we can get that aperture, the faster shutter speeds we can use to freeze motion.

Here’s where we start to see why lenses with a lower maximum f-stop value perform better (and, not coincidentally, often cost more). A cheap zoom lens, for example, may, depending on focal length, have a maximum aperture of 5.6, which isn’t all that wide. In low light, that means that the photographer has to use a slower shutter speed to compensate for the smaller aperture, and slower shutter speeds mean movement—blur—because the camera shutter is open longer and that records everything from the moving kid to your shaky hands. Result? Bad, blurry photo (or, you have to use flash, which is almost as bad).

Compare that photographer to my sister-in-law, Jenny, who took my advice and spent $80 to buy a 50mm fixed lens with a maximum aperture of f1.8--the lens used to take the low light, hand-held shot of my niece at the top of this post. That lens will take infinitely better pictures in that late evening or other low-light situations than a lens with a maximum aperture of f5.6 because it can capture a lot more light through that wider aperture and, as a result, allows her to get away with much faster shutter speeds.

Situation #2 – Early morning, Zion’s National Park, and you want to photograph the blooming cactus and the Great White Throne at the same time.

Here again: a low light situation, and one where we need a wide depth-of-field, as wide as we can get it so that both the cactus and the Great White Throne remain in focus. So, you stop down the camera by setting the lens at or close to its smallest possible aperture: say, f32. That creates an incredible depth of field, so everything’s cool, right? Not quite. With that itty bitty hole, how long do you think we have to leave open the shutter to get enough light to expose a photograph properly. A loooong time. And if we do so, what happens with movement: yep, records it. And what does that mean? Blur. So, now you know why any self respecting landscape photographer will have that camera mounted on a big, heavy tripod: to hold it still.

Check out this landscape by Scottish photographer Simon Butterworth: http://photo.net/photodb/photo?photo_id=8371957. Lovely, isn’t it? Under the “details” tab, you’ll see the following shorthand: Canon 1DS MKIII 16-35mm 16s f16, which, translated, means the photograph was taken with a Canon 1-DS Mark III camera, a 16-35mm lens (wide angle—remember?), with a shutter speed of 16 seconds, and an aperture setting of 16 (the “f” in “f16” is shorthand for f-stop).

Beyond knowing the settings the photographer used, it’s useful to think about why he chose those settings. He has a photo with water, a stone, a mountain, and the moon—all in one frame—so he needs a wide depth of field to keep everything in focus front to back: hence, he chose an f-stop of 16 (pretty small). What did that mean for his exposure time given the little amount of available light? A very looooong exposure time of, count ‘em, 16 seconds. (To put that in perspective, 99.9% of photographs are taken in exposures measured in hundredths of a second.) Could he have set his f-stop to 32 instead for an even greater depth of field? Sure, but that would’ve meant an even slower shutter speed, with greater risk of movement (even wind creates problems at long exposures) and more “noise” generated by his camera’s built in sensor. (He could get away with 16—as opposed to 32—here because he doesn’t have anything immediately in front of him that needs to remain in focus.)

See how a photographer has to make conscious decisions about f-stop settings and how the available light and desired final image affect those decisions?

That, my friends, is why we need to understand f-stops. Leave it up to the camera, and the camera will make compromises to get a proper exposure—compromises you may not like.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Photo Pricing

Alright gals--and I say "gals" deliberately, as I'm relatively certain women make 99% of the decisions when it comes to purchasing children's photography--let's talk about pricing.

Photo disks are all the rage these days. So, for example, you pay $200-300 to a photographer and you get an hour long photo session (maybe more depending on the number of subjects) and then you get a batch of proofs and a disk with all the proofs that you can use however you see fit: send them to Costco, email them to friends and family, blow them up to poster size. Whatever you like. Good stuff, right?

I have my doubts, honestly, and here's why: think about the incentives there. You pay the photographer regardless of the quality of the final images. Don't like them? Tough. And what about that quality? The photographer's incentive is to do the bare minimum to keep you happy. In other words, because the photographer gets paid no matter what, he/she has every incentive to minimize (1) the amount of time devoted the session, and (2) the amount of time spent post-processing in Photoshop or some other program. In some sense, the more time a photographer spends getting you your images, the less money that photographer makes in relative terms. The photographer needs to be good--good enough to generate positive word of mouth and repeat business--but not too good.

In my personal and professional life, situations with skewed incentives like that (a benefit by one party comes at the expense of the other) rarely lead to an outcome in which both parties are satisfied. Rather, the best solutions occur when interests are aligned: if I win, you win.

What does that mean in terms of photography and photo pricing? Well, maybe the interests should be aligned there too.

If you're just paying for a photographer's time, where's the artistry? You're just paying them to record stuff--compensating them for time and equipment rather than the artistry and expertise they bring to the session.

If, on the other hand, you view photography as art (as I think we should), then you should only purchase what you want to purchase--the perfect moment, the classic expression, the work of art. That's the idea behind my pricing scheme: keep the sitting fee to an absolute minimum, and the consumer pays only for the images they love and want to keep for ever. In that scenario, my goal is clear: if I want to sell photos, I better produce the best possible images, no matter how much time it takes me to get them. The better the images, the more photos I'll sell. Bad images? Bad business.

But I repeat: photo disks appear to be all the rage, and if that's what consumer's want, well, that's what they'll get, even if it means so-so images.

Any thoughts?

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Bit More on Focal Length: Understanding "Crop Factor"

I know, I know, "crop factor" sounds like the title of a really bad horror or sci fi flick (maybe a sequel to "Children of the Corn"), but it affects focal length with digital SLR cameras so I'd be remiss if I didn't throw in a note of explanation.

Here's the deal: most lenses out there (for Canon, Nikon, or other systems) are designed to work with 35 mm film. In other words, they project an image onto the film that is equal to the size of that particular film. The trouble is that most digital sensors--except those used in high-end digital SLRs with what are called "full frame" sensors--are smaller than 35 mm, meaning that the sensor cannot record the entire 35 mm-sized image and effectively "crops" (or cuts off) the outside edges.

This has two implications for the photographer: first, it creates some disconnect between what you see through the viewfinder (a full 35 mm frame) and the final image; and, second, it has the same effect as using a lens with greater focal length. Recall that, during our discussion of focal length, we talked about how higher focal lengths (200 mm, 300mm, 400mm, etc.) had the effect of magnifying the image and, in the process, narrowing the field of view. While crop factor doesn't magnify the image (remember: the lens still projects the same image; only the sensor has changed), it does narrow the field of view. To understand what this means in terms of the field of view, photographers use a "crop factor" or, alternatively, "focal length multiplier."

Arrrggh ... I can hear the groans already, but bear with me. An illustration should help clarify things a bit. The standard crop factor (or focal length multiplier) for the Canon system is 1.6, which means that my effective focal length is 1.6 times whatever is written on the barrel of the lens. So, for example, when I take a 20-35mm wide angle film lens and put it on my digital SLR, I have to multiply those focal lengths by 1.6 to understand what it does to my field of view. So, 20 x 1.6 = 32 and 35 x 1.6 = 56, and, just like that, I have an effective 32-56mm lens, which means that the lens is no longer really a "wide angle" lens when used on a digital camera. Still a perfectly good lens, mind you; it just doesn't offer a true wide angle perspective.

To address this problem, Canon has designed a series of EF-S lenses that work only with their digital SLR cameras and do offer a true wide angle perspective. Please note, however, that you still have to apply a crop factor to these lenses to get the 35 mm equivalent. So, for example, the 10-22mm EF-S lens is roughly the equivalent of a 16-32 mm film lens, meaning that the wide angle (anything greater than 35 mm) is restored. Another advantage of EF-S lenses is that they can use less glass than their film equivalents, so they are in general smaller and lighter. Still, Canon's EF lenses remain their standard series, and probably always will, so I personally don't plan to invest any money in EF-S lenses.
In any event, having a crop factor isn't always a bad thing. While it constrains the wide angle end of thing, it actually helps on the telephoto side, particularly with fixed focal length (prime) lenses, so my 100mm lens acts more like a 160 mm lens.

Pefectly clear? I thought so. If it isn't, take comfort in this: if you put your camera on "live view," what you see is what you get. In other words, while it's helpful to understand focal length and conversion factors and what it means for your final image, you can learn composition and take great photographs even without understanding this stuff. Trial and error will get you there as well, just a little more sloooooowly.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What’s Focal Length and Why Should I Care?

Long, long ago (it seems) I promised one or more posts addressing two critical features of any lens: focal length and maximum aperture. Let’s tackle focal length first. You can find a definition of “focal length” on any number of websites, but far too many of those sites succumb to the usual temptation and the explanation drowns in a bunch of complicated illustrations and technical gobbledygook.

Let’s see if I can do any better here. “Focal length” pretty much means what you see when you look through a camera’s viewfinder using a particular lens. See, that’s not so bad, is it? Different lenses give the photographer a different view and that difference is explained by the lens’ focal length. Most lenses these days are “zoom” lenses, meaning that you can adjust the focal length. The other kind of lens has a fixed focal length (i.e., one that can’t be adjusted) and those lenses are sometimes called “prime” lenses.

The view you see can generally be classed as (1) “normal”—in other words, it gives a perspective similar to what the human eye would see—(2) “wide angle,” or wider than the human eye would see; or (3) “telephoto,” a magnified perspective that means the lens captures a narrower field of view than the human eye would capture at that distance. I’m afraid those terms get a little loosey goosey, though, and you’ll often find disagreement as to whether a particular field of view is normal, wide angle, or telephoto. Generally speaking, however, I think anything wider than 35 mm is “wide angle,” anything between 35-70mm is “normal,” and anything narrower than 70mm is “telephoto.”

So, how do you know what category your lens falls into? Well, if you take out any camera—even a point and shoot camera—you’ll see a bunch of numbers written on the lens. For present purposes, all we need to worry about is the numbers that end with “mm,” for millimeters. Don’t ask me why they measure focal length in millimeters. I really don’t care, and neither should you. What’s important for you, the photographer, are the numbers that precede the “mm.”

So, for example, I’m looking at a squat, fat lens attached to my camera and it says, “CANON ZOOM LENS EF 20-35mm.” What interests me is the “20-35mm” part. That tells me this is a wide angle lens.

But here’s the kicker: you really don’t need to look at the numbers to know it’s wide angle. All you have to do is attach the lens and look through the view finder. I do, and what do I see? Lots of stuff. That’s what wide angle lenses do: they show lots of stuff. And that’s why landscape photographers love them, because a wide angle lens captures a field of view wide enough to capture the sky, the clouds, the mountain peak, and the little cluster of wildflowers at your feet. Voila!

At the other extreme are the telephoto lenses. These lenses, usually measured in big “mm’s” like 200, 300, 400, or even 500—magnify stuff like mini telescopes. They also narrow the field of view, isolating subjects against, frequently, a blurred background. (The background blurs because the lens captures such a narrow slice of the background relative to the subject in the foreground.) That’s why telephoto lenses are the tool of choice for wildlife, sports, and fashion photographers. They need to capture images at a distance, and they want to eliminate elements that distract from their subject, be it a wood duck, a wide receiver, or a hot babe in a string bikini.

So, what does all this mean for the portrait photographer? Principally, two things: first, the choice of focal length determines the kind of portraits you’ll capture. Many portraits are taken with telephoto lenses of one kind or another. Why? Because telephoto lenses crop out a lot of stuff: narrowing the field of view and focusing the composition on a single subject. With a telephoto lens, the subject—a face, a foot, a family—typically fills the frame, as in the following:
But that doesn’t mean you can’t take a perfectly good portrait with a wide angle lens, only that a wide angle lens will necessarily include a lot of the subject’s surroundings. So, I want a portrait of a kid with a skateboard in front of a graffiti-covered wall. What do I use? Well, probably a wide angle lens because I want to capture the kid and his surroundings. Here's a recent example, not involving skateboards:

The second important point about focal length for the portrait photographer is this: it’s hard to engineer a good lens at the wide angle or telephoto extremes, so, as a general rule, the wider the angle or the greater the telephoto, the more expensive the lens. It’s also harder to engineer a quality zoom lens—since the elements have to change shape to accommodate the different focal lengths—so higher quality zoom lenses cost a lot of cold, hard cash.

To illustrate, consider a few lenses from the Canon line. B&H Photo sells the 100mm macro (a superb lens, by the way), for $490. An optically inferior 400mm, on the other hand, will set you back $1190; and the 500mm, $6000. The huge, white, zoom lenses you see at professional sporting events? Try upwards of $10,000.

In case all this only serves to muddy the waters, here are a few summary take home messages:

(1) Nearly every DSLR (non-point-and-shoot) camera sold these days comes with a zoom lens attached. Zoom lenses are convenient because they allow the photographer to change focal length (and thereby perspective) without moving closer or farther from the subject. But remember the point about technology: it’s hard to do right, and doing it right costs a lot of money. So, that 70-300mm zoom that came with your camera likely is … for lack of a better word … crap. Don’t get me wrong: a crappy lens may be perfect for taking family snapshots for the scrapbook, but if you’re serious about making quality images, it ain’t happenin’ with that kit lens.

(2) Use a wide angle lens to add context or scale to an image; use a telephoto lens to isolate the subject and compress the perspective.

(3) Use a telephoto lens if you want or need to stand far away from a subject, like a grizzly bear or toddler deprived of her usual nap and afternoon snack.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lens, Baby!

Building on the “M is for Manual” post from a week or so ago, we can now talk sensibly about lenses.

If you own a digital SLR camera (like a Canon Rebel or a Nikon D80), chances are it came from the manufacturer as part of a kit, with a “free” neck strap, a few other doodads, and some kind of zoom lens attached to the front. And here’s the bad news: chances are that that kit lens is an el-cheapo of dubious quality. Let’s put it this way, if the enormous lens you see a professional sports photographer lugging around is a Ferrari, the kit lens on your new SLR is almost certainly a Yugo or a Ford Pinto.

Camera manufacturers know a couple of things: (1) first, even a savvy consumer will likely ignore the quality of the lens and focus his or her attention on the camera itself, in the process becoming enamored with fairly meaningless metrics like the number of megapixels (“Geez, Lorna, with a bazillion megapixels, we could outshoot Ansel Adams!”); (2) second, they can sell a kit at a premium because the camera is “ready to go,” and make a nice profit by including the cheapest possible lens.

Experienced photographers, on the other hand, know a dark secret: the camera is only one part, and often a modest part, of the total investment necessary to take good pictures. The real money—the real investment—is often in the lenses.

This was particularly true in the days of film cameras, where the quality of the lens and the quality of the film determined the quality of the final image, and the camera had little or nothing to do with it.

In the digital age, the image sensors built into cameras play a much more important role. Nevertheless, the lens—not the camera—remains the single most important factor in determining the quality of the final image. Put a crappy lens on a great camera, and you’re going to get a crappy image. Put a great lens on a crappy camera, and you may be surprised at just how good the resulting image looks.

So, what do you need to know about lenses? Not much really, but you do need to understand the two most important features of any lens: FOCAL LENGTH and MAXIMUM APERTURE. Future posts will address each of these in turn and hopefully point you towards (a) what lens will give you the “look” you want, and (b) what lenses offer the best quality and value.

(“Lensbaby” is actually a company that manufactures selective focus lenses that make for some sweet effects. See http://lensbaby.com/. I don’t own one, but they look like fun.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tell a Story

I've said it before, but it bears repeating:  good photos do more than just show, they tell.  To my mind, an interesting photo, just like an interesting painting or poem, should have layers of interest and meaning.  A good photo needs depth.  It should pull the viewer in and hold his or her interest.    

To illustrate what I mean, I've attached a few photos from a recent trip to my in-laws cabin near Scofield, Utah.  One might debate the quality of the images, but I hope each one contains at least a snippet of a story.  Take the one of my youngest niece, for example, sitting on the four wheeler with her father.  Any doubt that there's a story there? 

If you enjoy this documentary style of photography (often referred to loosely as "photo journalism"), then you should invest in a relatively long telephoto lens.  The lens used in these photographs is a Canon 70-200 mm zoom, which, when used on a digital camera like mine, captures a view more on the order of 100-300 mm (we'll talk the mechanics of focal length later).  A long lens like that allows me to stand far away from my subjects while photographing them.  What that means in practice is that they often forget that I'm there, allowing me to capture people acting and interacting naturally.   

Monday, May 18, 2009

Natural Light

Okay, so I'm a big believer in using natural light for all kinds of photographs, including portraits.  Why?  Because that's the way we typically see the world.  Flashes and soft boxes and studio lighting have their place, to be sure, but I love the moods and features created by natural lighting.

The trouble is that natural light--that is, sunlight--is pretty harsh unless it's filtered or reflected in some way. In the East, where we lived for many years, clouds and the air itself--usually dense and heavy with humidity--act like an enormous filter, scattering the suns rays and creating soft even lighting for hours on end.  

Here in Utah the lighting's a bit tricky, particularly those stretches where the sky remains a cloudless expanse of bright blue for weeks on end.  Those "Utah days" pose a real challenge, particularly for portrait photographers, as the bright sun burns out highlights and creates harsh shadows, kids (and adults) squint their way through a photo session, and even if you put the subject in the shade, most photographs take on a kind a washed out, steel gray tint, as all that blue gets reflected and captured by the film or image sensor. 

So, what's one to do?  Well, figure out a way to soften all that harsh light and make it work for you. You can do that by taking photos early in the morning or during "the golden hour" just around sunset.  You can use filters to diffuse the sun (tough though, as the kids still squint), or reflecters to pull a bit of sunlight into a deep shadow.  You can wait for a cloudy day, or you can, as in the photo above, simply position the subject close to a window, where light is reflected from the outside and often diffused through a sheer, white drapes.  (Actually, this subject positioned herself, thank you.  Anyone know a one year old who will sit still?)

Whatever you do, however, and whatever your light source, the goal remains the same:  finding a soft, even light that that makes your images pop.  

Thursday, May 14, 2009

M is for "Manual"

A lot of you are lugging around digital SLRs of one kind or another (you know, big cameras with interchangeable lenses, like a Canon digital Rebel), but even those of you with smaller point and shoot cameras generally will have an “M” setting on your camera control dial, and here’s the thing:  I know it’s scary, but you really do need to learn how to use it.

I know, I know:  it’s so easy to put everything on automatic and let the camera do the work, and the “M” setting means funkiness and general confusion, but learning to use the “M” will pay rich rewards—I promise—and it’s really not all that hard.  In fact, there is probably no single thing you could do to improve your photography more than to learn to use the manual setting if you don’t already know how to do so.  Understand this, and suddenly a whole world of possibilities opens up.  So, it’s worth a little time and effort to figure out. 

With that, let’s take a bold leap into the technical side of photography.  Some people love it.  I am not one of those people, and you don’t have to be either.  For me, it’s a necessary evil, but—alas—necessary nonetheless.  You don’t need to grasp the physics, but you do need to understand the basics.    

Here’s the deal:  in both film and digital photography, basically three things determine how a photograph is exposed—in other words, how much light is recorded by the film or image sensor:  (1) the film speed (or ISO setting), (2) the shutter speed, and (3) the aperture. 

For purposes of understanding the “M” on your camera, let’s leave No. 1 (film speed) for another day, understanding that most digital cameras set the film speed automatically, but one can set that manually as well, and it affects how much light the camera can/will record and the quality of the final image.

When you turn the dial to “M,” a few things will appear at the bottom or one one side of the view finder or LCD screen:  first, something that looks like a ruler that typically has an arrow in the middle and then regular increments to the right or left of that arrow (or above or below), with numbers usually indicating 1 and 2 (on the positive side) and -1 and -2 (on the negative side).  Somewhere next to that little ruler you'll see another arrow that tells you how what you see in the viewfinder will be exposed based on the current settings for aperture and shutter speed.  If it points right in the middle of the ruler, then, according to the camera's built in light meter--the image is properly exposed.  If the arrow points at the positive number 1, then we say the picture is "one stop" over exposed.  If it points at the negative 1, it's one stop underexposed, etc.  

When first learning to use the manual setting, it's best to tinker with aperture and shutter speed values until you get the little arrow right in the middle of the ruler.  Later, you may choose to deliberately over- or under-expose and image, but for starters, just put the arrow in the middle, and everything will be okay.  I promise. 

Now, none of this will make much sense unless you pull out your camera and look for yourself.  So, turn your camera on, turn the dial to “M,” and take a peek.  You’ll see all this fun and exciting stuff right there:  the little ruler, the little arrow, the positive and negative numbers, and also two values that show aperture and shutter speed, respectively.  (You may need to consult your camera manual at this point to figure out which is which, and to distinguish aperture (which may be identified as "f-stop") and shutter speed settings from other settings that may appear in the view finder.)

Whew!  Without worrying about the actual numbers for the moment, let’s think about what these two things do:  one—the shutter speed—determines how long the shutter is open and the other—the aperture (which is just a fancy word for “opening”) determines the size of the hole through which light enters the camera.  If you think about it, both of these affect how much light gets into the camera to expose either the film or the image sensor.  A big hole (aperture) = lots of light.  A little hole = little light.  A slow shutter speed means the shutter is open longer and more light gets in, while a fast shutter speed means he shutter is open for just a split second and less light gets in. 

To illustrate, let’s go back to the idea of a pinhole camera—that oatmeal box with the film taped to the inside and a little hole on the opposite side of the box.  Because the film is sensitive to light, the oatmeal box must be completely sealed off, completely dark inside.  Once the film is in place, the hole must be covered by a piece of cardboard or some similar cover so that no light gets in until the photographer is ready to expose the film.  The photographer points the oatmeal box at a subject, and then removes the cover to expose the film for some amount of time:  a second, or maybe two or three.  The longer the cover is removed, the more light gets in to expose the film, and the less time, the less light gets in.  Follow me so far?  That’s shutter speed, basically the amount of time that the shutter remains open, even if that “shutter” is just a piece of cardboard. 

The size of the hole also affects the amount of light that gets in.  A pencil-sized hole will let in a lot of light, even if the cover is removed only briefly. While a pin-sized hole will let in a lot less light, even if the cover remains off for some time.  That’s aperture—the size of the hole. 

Let’s say that the film our photographer is using requires a certain amount of light to be exposed properly at high noon on a sunny day.  Too much light, and the film will turn white when it gets developed (over-exposed); too little, and the film will remain black (under-exposed).  The photographer can get to that right amount of light with either (a) a small aperture and a slow shutter speed, or (b) a large aperture and a fast shutter speed.  The amount of light reaching the film is exactly the same, but—and here’s the reason any of this matters—shutter speed and the size of the aperture affect the final image in ways having nothing to do with the amount of light they let in. 

And that’s why “M” matters.  Because, under one set of circumstances, we may want, say, a fast shutter speed, and, in that case, we will likely have to compensate with a large aperture to get the right exposure.  Under another set of circumstances, we may want a small aperture, and, in that case, we will likely have to compensate with a slow shutter speed—again, to get the right exposure under that particular set of circumstances. 

Why might one want a fast shutter speed?  We’ll discuss that in more detail later, but the short answer is that a fast shutter speed freezes action—a desired effect when, say, photographing a kid at a soccer game.  A slow shutter speed, on the other hand, captures movement, as in those lovely, silky white waterfalls you see in landscape photos or in the following photo I took the othe other night using--you guessed it--the manual setting.   

To get enough light to get any kind of recognizable image, I had to leave the shutter open for about 20 seconds, meaning that all moving objects (here, the tail lights of a single car) appear as a blur or streak.  Why?  Because during that 20 seconds the car appeared a the extreme right hand side of the frame and then moved across and away from me.  The tail lights stop suddenly because that's when the shutter closed again, allowing no additional light to touch the image sensor.       

And what about aperture?  A small aperture creates a greater depth of field, meaning that more of an image will remain in focus front to back (as in a landscape photo with flowers in the front and a mountain far behind), while a large aperture creates a shallow depth of field, where only a narrow range of the picture remains in focus, as in many fashion photographs or children’s portraits where the person’s body or face remains in perfect focus while the background dissolves in a soft, pleasing blur.  Consider another recent photo:  

Again: classic use of the "M" setting to create a deliberate visual effect--here an extremely narrow depth of field that creates a soft, warm image and keeps the viewer's focus on the flower.

So, learning to use the “M” setting—and understanding shutter speeds and apertures in the process—gives one the ability to create all kinds of cool effects: stuff the camera can’t do (or at least can’t do well) on its own.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?  I hope not, but the take home message is this:  you can and will figure this stuff out, but you may have to push yourself a bit.  So, turn that dial to “M” and start shooting!  If your first efforts don’t turn out, no sweat, that’s why they invented the delete button.