How To Choose an SLR Camera System

Many people are coming to dSLRs from various sources and the question of what SLR system and camera to buy is a major and distressing one for many people.
Due to the constant downward price pressure on dSLR cameras, more and more people are seeing the advantages of an SLR and moving up from compact digital cameras and from film cameras. For such people the question of which brand, and thus system, should they buy always comes up. If you already have some SLR lenses then the decision may be made for you, though this depends on the value of the lenses to you and how much you are willing to spend. If someone is coming to dSLR’s free of any existing investment in 
lenses, then it is a very tough decision. The reality is that any of 
the systems will let you do pretty much any type of photography at all. The differences come in terms of features or options that make life a little easier.

Know Yourself
So this is my advice about making a decision:



1.    Build a realistic list of the types of photography you want to do. 
Prioritize.
2.    Be realistic about your budget.
3.    Make a realistic estimate of your likelihood of upgrading to 
higher end cameras (may eliminate brands with only one or two models).

Now have a look at the type of work you want to do and look for areas 
that would benefit from certain camera features. So, for example, an interest in sport may point you to one of the cameras specifically designed for high capture rates (if you have the money). Interest in macro could point you to cameras with live preview on a tiltable LCD. Astrophotography would point you to a camera with excellent long exposure low noise levels, etc. Also the need for specialist 
accessories may point you in certain directions. It is not uncommon for people to get into SLRs right from the start with specific specializations in mind. My first SLR was bought for me to hook up to the telescopes I was making. I was 14 at the time.

The Importance of Handling
Then you need to go to a camera store and handle the cameras. Nikons and Canons have different user interfaces and feel different to use, for example. I don’t believe you can say one handles better than the other, just 
that some will suit some people more than others. Don’t forget the other brands too. Olympus does, in my opinion, make great cameras and is worth a look. So do the others. This personal aspect is critical to buying into a system you will like. All brands tend to do things in their own way, whether this is dials or buttons, target hand size, viewfinder organization or the placement of common controls.

Lenses
The lens choices you make are, in many ways, more important than the body, as you will likely use them over several body generations. All the manufacturers have some not so great lenses and some that sing. 
You need to look at the forums for this sort of information. Canon cops some flak from its users about some of its lenses but less 
about its bodies. Nikon seems to be the other way around.

Most lower end cameras can be bought in a kit with one or two lenses or as a body alone. The kit lenses are often designed to a price, though there are exceptions. So depending on your intentions, it can make sense to get the body and the specific lenses you want. A kit lens that you soon stop using because you don’t like the image quality or slow maximum aperture is no bargain.

There are still reasons today to consider single focal length lenses over zooms, even though zoom lens design has come so far. A wider maximum aperture, lighter weight, smaller size and better optical quality can all favor the single focal length. On the other hand zooms are amazingly convenient, may reduce the number of lenses you need and can be of brilliant quality. If you are going the zoom route I recommend buying them with some overlap in focal lengths. This will reduce how often you need to change lenses. So rather than a 24-70 and a 70-200, for example, I would consider a 24-105 and a 70-300. That over lap can save a lot of frustration and missed grab shots.

Another lens issue is manufacturer brand compared to third-party lenses. This is tricky. In some brands, Leica for example, the coatings of all its lenses within a range are matched so that there should be little if any subtle color variation as you change lenses. Other manufacturers may not do this, or only with certain lenses. So mixing lenses could add another, admittedly small, variable to your shots. However usually it is so small compared to the variation in light color or white balance setting. That said, there are as many stunning third party lenses as there are original manufacturer lemons, maybe more. So after you have identified the likely lens focal lengths you need you should check the forums and reviews for lens opinions. One unusual thing you can learn from checking the forums is how variable a lens or manufacturer is in quality. If you find there is huge variation in the opinion about a certain manufacturer’s 90mm macro lens, for example, it may suggest that they have quality control issues for consistency, and so you may want to look elsewhere.

Features
Here’s a quick summary of the issues around some of the ‘in’ camera features at the moment and my take on them:


  • Dust removal systems – a great idea. Perhaps not essential but a great convenience. It takes some of the worry out of changing lenses on a windy day. After all, you bought an SLR so you could change lenses, right?
  • In lens anti-shake – the traditional way of doing it. Works well but only with the lens that has it

  • In body anti-shake – works and will work with all your lenses, perhaps saving you money

  • Live preview – extremely useful for certain types of photography, such as photo microscopy, some macro, uncomfortable position photography, such as ground level, etc. Mostly overrated in my view, except 
in those specific situations. You buy an SLR to use the lovely, bright and crisp optical viewfinder, after all.



How important anti-shake is to you depends so much on the photography you do. What it does is allow you to extend handheld photography into fringe areas where you really should be using a tripod. Of course, sometimes you can’t use a tripod, so it is a real plus but only if 
you do a lot of work in these fringe areas, such as low light, using 
long telephoto lenses, handheld macro, etc. For many photographers 
all it does is compensate for sloppy technique. For others people it really 
extends their photographic possibilities.

Body choice
Remember, you may get all the features you could ever want in a 
camera body that is too heavy to conveniently carry around. For 
example when I was over at Arles last year there was a professional photographer in the group I hung out 
with a lot with a Canon 5D and Canon’s high end lenses (L series). I 
gave her my 400D to play with (a smaller, lighter camera) and she decided she really needed to buy one for walk around type photography when she was finding her 5D just too heavy. My strategy has been that when I was still shooting with film cameras I shot with high-end models. With digitals I 
have stayed lower down the model tree because of the rapid pace of 
developments. But I’ve invested in good lenses, as these will go from 
body to body. With the pace of dSLR developments at present you should follow the same rule as with all computer equipment, never buy it for what you may do with it in future, especially if this is going to cost you much more money. You may be better off to buy a cheaper model now that will do all you immediately want. Then when you are actually ready to do that wow thing, which may take you longer to get to
than you expected, then buy what you need if you cann
ot make what you already have do it. By then it will probably be cheaper and better anyway.

For me, I shoot with all the cameras that come in for review because 
I won’t take one to review unless I get it for a month and so and can thus do real shooting with it. Too many of the reviewers get it, open the 
box, play with it in the office, take a few snapshots and maybe a 
test target and that is it. I can tell because I often know whom the 
camera has come from before me and can see how it has been used. In extended shooting with all the cameras, I find that I fairly quickly settle into working with them and get great shots. This may not be true if you have little time with the camera. They all work a 
bit differently and some cameras, especially at the low end, make 
some things, like changing ISO settings, harder than they should but then their target purchasers probably won’t change them off auto ISO anyway. Others grow on you. For example when I was testing the Leica Digilux 3 I found it to be very clunky when I first got it. But over six weeks of shooting it really grew on me and I ended up loving it.

And Then
Just as I have come to believe is true of everything involving people, there is no absolute right or wrong camera or system. All have their strengths and flaws or annoyances. All systems will have their quirks and all with have their OMG wow factors.

Your camera gear is only a tool for getting the shots you want.  

A Lunch with Nikon

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a press event held by Nikon here in Australia. It was a most interesting and surprising afternoon.
The event was based around allowing members of the local photography press to get an initial hands-on with the new D3 and the D300, as well as the recently new Coolpix models.

Until we get hold of final production press evaluation copies of these cameras (probably late October, locally), all I can say is that both seem to be very impressive cameras. The D3 is, of course, Nikon’s first full frame digital. But Nikon have been very smart. You can setup the camera so that when you mount a full-frame capable lens the camera will use the whole sensor but when you mount a DX lens, the camera will only use the part of the sensor that is appropriate. You can choose for this to happen automatically or you can set it to be always one way or the other. You get a lower resolution file with DX lenses, but this is a nice touch. The D3 seems solid (as you would expect) and the controls fall to hand quite nicely. The large LCD on the back is excellent to work with, as is the bright viewfinder. The D300 is similarly impressive and looks to continue the success of the D200. Because these were not production models we could not shoot with them and take away the files. But example images we examined there, taken with the D3 at 3200ISO, show remarkably low image noise and excellent sharpness, plus smooth tonality. Needless to say, I am looking forward to shooting with both cameras.

Nikon D3 dSLR

What was very interesting was what was discussed. The D300 is not replacing the D200, but rather both will be part of the range. Sales of the D200 have outstripped supply and continues to do so, even after the D300 announcement. This, I suspect, even surprised Nikon. Basically, the feeling is that the D200 is such a solid performer (which it is) that there will be ongoing demand for this camera for some time. With the D3, Nikon sees this as their sports photography camera. The comment was made that their studio camera has not been seen, yet, in the context that the D3 competes with Canon’s 1D Mark III and not with the 1Ds Mark III. It is obvious when you look at the specs. This suggests to me that there is another announcement coming, as I had the distinct impression that Nikon intends to compete with Canon at ALL levels and, in fact, beyond. This fits with another comment of major product announcements happening within the next six months. Of course major could mean Coolpix models, so we will have to wait and see. An example of how they will compete beyond where Canon goes is encapsulated in cameras like the D40. While Canon’s range starts at the excellent 400D at 10MP, the D40 goes down further into the territory occupied by Pentax, etc, at 6MP, and is still in the sales lineup even with the arrival of the D40x. And Nikon couples it with a kit lens featuring ED glass, making it a strong contender in the image quality stakes.

Nikon D300 dSLR

They were also quoting recent industry figures, which shows that globally, in the first six months of 2007, Nikon outsold Canon in the dSLR market, with 1.42 million cameras vs 1.3 million for Canon. These sales figures represent a 112% sales increase for Nikon over the same period in 2006, compared to a 30% increase for Canon. These figures, if correct, suggest that Nikon has managed a massive effort to pull Canon back from their dominance of the market last year (and I would say for a fair number of years). In Australia, where it is less than 12 months since Nikon came in directly compared to being represented by a distributor, Nikon has doubled its market share. Globally, Nikon claims a 40% market share in dSLRs. It is less than this in Australia.

Nikon is throwing a lot of money into R&D, with a major increase planned for 2008. The sensor in the D3 is a Nikon developed device, not a third party one, and this seems to be at least part of their R&D effort. Coupled with this will be a major increase in marketing efforts to reinforce two key things: that Nikon has great things to offer in the dSLR market; and that Nikon offers great and very cost effective compact cameras that are competitive with any manufacturer on price whilst maintaining great quality. Nikon is also putting a major effort into its lens technology. They are very proud of the advances in their vibration reduction line and have made real efforts to make the kit lenses that come with their consumer dSLRs much better quality.

I came away from the afternoon with the strong impression that Canon’s easy dominance of recent years has gone and that we are in for a period of very strong competition, especially in the dSLR market. Nikon seemed to have slipped away there for a while. It became apparent a change was afoot with the success of the D200, a really lovely camera. This has been followed up with the D80, an effect successor to the D70s, and the D40x, which I am testing at present. The new D3 and D300 look to further this turn around. This is, I think, good for all of us photographers, whether a Canon user, like myself, or a Nikon user. Solid competition will make for faster developments and ongoing price pressure, making great cameras more readily available to a wider market.

Now, of course, the real losers in all this could be the smaller dSLR makers. Canon is big enough to weather the threat, put in the R&D dollars (Yen) and come back with ground breaking products, as we have seen them do many times, basically defining the pace of the technological change (with some exceptions). But how will Olympus, Pentax, Sony and Samsung cope, along with Panasonic and Leica? If the market is heading towards roughly 80% of the dSLR market spit between Nikon and Canon, that only leaves 20% to be fought over by the others. The relative ranking of these in the marketplace certainly varies significantly from country to country. Will they have the depth of pockets to do the R&D to keep moving forwards? Or will they be successful in carving out special niche segments for themselves? Or will some of the strategic partnerships need to go further? In many ways this market situation reminds me of the state of play in the days before digital camera. Sure, the names of the minor players were different but there was still a heavy dominance by Nikon and Canon. The difference is the complexity of camera development today. Whilst there is still the same requirement for optical and mechanical innovation, we have added requirements in computer processing, software and electronic sensor innovation, plus ongoing battery issues, displays and memory developments. This has made the job of designing cameras even harder and more complex. Sure the small player can buy this development in from outside, but then differentiation becomes much harder.

The above raises some big questions for Nikon that only time will tell. Can Nikon ramp up their manufacturing to meet the growth in demand and market share, especially as they are keeping several of the older dSLR models in the lineup rather than replacing them, as might be expected? Or will they continue to suffer from supply issues on popular models, as they did with the D200? Did supply issues hold Nikon back from an even better performance? Will the surge in market share be sustainable? Did Nikon’s growth come at the cost of Canon or of the smaller brands? Will the old Nikon lens mount continue to serve them well or will it create issues for their lens designers? How will the competition respond, and that is not just Canon but also Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Leica, Panasonic and Samsung? Will Nikon be able to adequately communicate its emphasis on image quality over absolute resolution to the buying public? Will Nikon be able to adequately handle such a growing list of dSLR models, from a support, ma
rketing and production perspective?

Only time will tell, but we sure live in inte
resting times.

The Essentials of Web Sites for Photographers, Artists and Designers

Having the website is an essential part of life for creative professionals and serious amateurs, but it can be full of traps.
So you have decided that you need a website. What is the best approach and how to do it in an optimal way?

When you enter a web site’s domain name into your web browser, such as www.dimagemaker.com, this domain name is resolved to an actual IP address, or if you like, the exact address of the computer which contains, or hosts, the website. The hosting computer is known as a server and it contains the files that are fed to your web browser as you explore the site. This is how things work with a simple, plain or static html site.

More complex sites, such as DIMi, actually have program code that creates the web pages that you see by accessing a database of content and, on the fly, generating the web page that is sent to your browser. Such sites are called dynamic web sites or may be referred to as using a content management system.

Many people are attracted to existing services, like Flickr, to host their photos. Such services can be free or very inexpensive and have the benefit of getting your images on a website that is already very well visited. The down side is that you have no real, individual web presence and whilst this solution is great for amateurs, generally gives a poor impression for professionals.

To have your own, individual website is a much better solution for professionals, yet it is not as straightforward as it may seem. Many companies advertise inexpensive web hosting with a free domain name and easy to use templates to get your site up quickly. There are many traps in this approach.

A website’s domain name should be thought of as the same as your business or corporate name and is as valuable as a logo, if not more so. Many companies that offer free domains with your web hosting lock up your domain and can make it very hard or impossible to get control of the domain if you wish to move your site elsewhere. Read the small print. It is my belief that you should always either register your domain name yourself with a high level registrant company or get a hosting company to do it for you who will provide you with the full control panel access and password so that you can relocate the website anytime you like. For example, the hosting company run by the same people that bring you DIMi, AIYF Hosting, if we register a domain name we use Network Solutions as the registrant and provide the owner with the details of how to log into the control panel systems on Network Solutions and we provide the domain password so that you can do what you want with the domain. I consider this essential, as otherwise you are at the mercy of someone else. I know of one major site, for example, that was using the free domain that came with the hosting. The hosting company screwed up and did not renew the domain name when it should. Someone in China grabbed it and was demanding US$10,000 to hand it back. Bad things can happen when you entrust someone else with control over something as essential and core to a business as its domain name.

The domain name does several things. It makes your website portable from hosting company to hosting company. By changing the Domain Name Server (DNS) settings you can point your website at any web hosting company you like. This means that moving your website to a different host is a matter of setting up the account, uploading the files (see later) and then changing the DNS settings. Allowing time for this to circulate through the Internet, your site will be visible in the new location in anything from a few hours to a day. Secondly, the domain name also makes your email accounts portable. Rather than using the email address provided by your Internet Service Provider, which can lock you into staying with them, you can use one or more email addresses tied to your domain. This also looks far more professional than a Hotmail or Gmail account. There are many domain name registrants, from the big players to the tiny.

Domain management control panel

Once you have your domain name, the next issue is somewhere to host your web site. You can host it yourself on a local machine, but then the capacity of your web site to handle traffic is limited by the speed of your Internet connection. There are a bewildering array of companies on the web who will host web sites, from the huge firm to the tiny, boutique hosting firm, such as AIYF Hosting, and a whole range in between. You will also find a huge range in the price being asked. As far as I am concerned, these are the key issues that should be looked at in making a choice:

*    Price, let’s be honest, it really does matter
*    Amount of storage space allocated to the hosting account
*    Amount of bandwidth allocated to the hosting account per month
*    Features offered on the server
*    Actual service response to problems, since there will always be some, even if minor
*    Server technology
*    Server and interconnect reliability and backup

The price you pay can vary massively. The most expensive place to host a web site is usually your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which gets your computers at home or the office connected to the Internet. Next will come the major players in a given market. Then come a huge number of smaller players, down to the very tiny firm. Sometimes paying more gets you more reliability, features or capacity, but not always.

The amount of storage space offered in the account limits how much data you can have on your web site. This can vary from the very small 5 or 10MB plans offered by many ISPs to the positively massive. Massive can often be cheaper than small. Whilst a typical photographer’s website will usually fit happily in the 10 to 50MB size range, there can be many features that you may add that can quickly raise the amount of space you need, such as using gallery software systems to display lots of images.

Bandwidth is a measure of how many MB of files are transferred in and out of your website per month. Again what you are offered can vary massively. Since most websites get very little traffic in practice (though we would like to think otherwise), it is usually not that much of an issue. But if you pickup an award or some such and your traffic levels soar, you can have the situation where your website gets blocked once you exceed your bandwidth allocation unless you pay more money. Given that adequate hosting plans are readily available with plenty of bandwidth there is no reason to be caught short.

Server features and their technology is a huge area for discussion. For a start you generally have the choice of Linux or Windows servers. For most creatives, Linux hosting provides all you will want. Windows hosting is more useful for business users who need specific software compatibility, such as Access databases, various Microsoft business features, like meeting appointment synchronization, etc. Linux offers robust, reliable hosting using open source software and access to a huge range of possible add-on software. It is probably true to say that Linux hosts the vast majority of websites, since there are far more very small websites than huge, corporate ones. In fact many of the huge corporate sites are also hosted on Linux, or one of the Unix versions, such as Solaris.

After basic hosting, there are many other features you may need. On Linux, MySQL usually handles database needs and most hosting will provide access to this. You’ll see why this is important later. You will have a control panel that provides control over your hosting and allows you to setup email accounts, mailing lists, database control, etc. There are a number
of different control panel systems around, from the proprietary to the open source. My advic
e is to avoid hosting that does not give you direct, personal control. These control panels are not really complex to get to know and provide you with huge opportunities to configure your web hosting and to add features. It is really worth exploring just what features these offer you. For example, most will be able to provide you with detailed web traffic statistics for your website. This information is invaluable. It will not only tell you how many people are visiting your site each month but also where they come from, how they got to your site, what countries they are from, the browsers they use and how long they stayed, how many went to your site after you sent out that newsletter last week, plus much more.

Website control panel

Most such hosting accounts give you the ability to setup multiple email addresses. Remember, an email address linked to your domain not only publicises your domain name whenever you email but also looks far more professional than a Hotmail or Gmail account, and is less likely to be blocked by spam blocking software (Hotmail and GMail are major sources of spam, so many people tend to block them).

Additional features are many and varied. A system I love that is on many Linux hosts is Fantastico. This is an interface that makes it very easy to install and keep up to date various add-ons to your website, such as photo galleries, forums, newsletters, blogs and wikis, to name just a few. These are open source software systems that can be downloaded and installed manually by anyone, but becomes so much easier through Fantastico. Examples of their use across the DIMi family of sites include the forums and gallery on Experimental Digital Photography, the gallery (different than on EDP) on my personal photography and art gallery site Cosshall.com, the blog on Digital ImageMaker World or the integrated blog and calendar on my photography workshop site The Digital ImageMaker. These can all be customized in various ways (we’ll cover this in future articles) and all can form just part of your site, as they do on these examples. Most of these systems make use of one or more MySQL databases to store the information used to configure the pages as they are being created to be viewed. Such approaches create a dynamic website. All these can be customized or modified fairly readily.

Fantastico

Once you have decided on a host and have the userid and password, you must design your site. You can take the route of using one of the server add-on software systems to provide your entire site, such as using a blog or gallery as your whole website. This is quick and pretty easy. Alternatively, some web hosts will provide templates that you simply ‘fill in’ from a web browser. This can also be quick by can be quite limiting in terms of achieving a unique look. The third approach is to use a program like Frontpage or Dreamweaver (much better) to design the site or at least some of it. This gives you total control but is complex.

You can hire someone else to do the website or do it yourself. Like taking a great photography, everyone seems to think they can design a good website. There is so much to learn to do this effectively that I do not recommend it unless you are serious about wanting to develop such skills. Be prepared that you will need to redesign your first website as soon as your appreciation of website design develops a bit. It is hard to underestimate just how much needs to be learned to do a web design effectively. Should it be static or dynamic? Do I use table or layer (DIV) approaches? Do I design and slice in Photoshop? Frontpage or Dreamweaver? What size browser window do I design for? How do I handle browser variation? What filesize budget should I do my page design to? The list goes on and on. We have all seen examples of websites that should have been designed by someone else. This said, I know many photographers and digital artists who have done a good job of designing their web sites. Even if you get someone else to do the design for you, be sure to take control of the hosting and domain name decisions and keep all the relevant passwords, etc.

My recommendation, if you decide to design the site yourself, is that you bite the bullet from the start and use the industry standard program, Dreamweaver. Whilst it can be more complex to get you head around than some of the others, it has all the power you will ever need, produces good code and there is lots of good support for it. I suppose we should mention Flash. You see a lot of Flash sites that are far from appropriate. They make the site slow and really add nothing at all to the site. I prefer a minimalist approach, whatever you use on the site should only be there if it servers a defined and valuable function.

No matter whether you design the site or someone else, you should always make sure that you have a backup of the entire site on your local computer. The best of web hosting companies will have problems from time to time. Servers fail, software updates have bugs and strange things happen on a full moon. What measures a good hosting company is not how things go when everything is right but how things are handled when they go wrong. What you want is a company that is open and communicative, that will be honest when they are experiencing problems and that has support staff that will go the extra mile to get you a good outcome. I have been using two primary hosting companies, one to host my customers’ sites and one to host DIMi. I had been using the one where I hosted DIMi for many years, and whilst there had been a few periods of issues, it had mostly gone well. Then three weeks ago they decided to migrate those with old hosting accounts across to a new system. Assurances that this would happen with minimal disruption turned out to be false. DIMi was offline for three days, an eternity on the Internet and then had limited functionality for a further two weeks. This was completely unacceptable. So I setup a new hosting account with my other host, uploaded all the files, tested it and then changed the DNS settings to point to the new host. Within a day people where now seeing the DIMi from the new host and everything was working perfectly. My old hosting company only responded to some week old issues on the day I pulled by site and went elsewhere.

Remember that a web site is more than just the files, since it is worthless if no one can see these pages. So the hosting company needs to not only provide reliable servers, but also a reliable and high capacity connection to the Internet. In practice, to do this many hosting companies make use of higher-level, wholesale hosting companies with large data centers to look after the actual servers and provide their connections to the Internet. Look for one that has redundant connections, backup power and air-conditioning systems and more.

This article may make it seem that setting up a website is complex, and in some ways it is. But it is better to be aware of what is involved up front. I’ve ended up rescuing so many small businesses that have failed to understand what was involved before starting out and have wasted money on inappropriate choices. With understanding, the process is not beyond any creative person. As in all things, you need to be completely honest with yourself over issues such as whether you have the time, willingness and dedication to gain the skills to design the site yourself for example. Know th
yself.

More on In-camera vs Post-camera Photography

As a followup to my article on the HP professional photography blog, I explore some of the reasons why people might want to explore both ends of this spectrum of practice.
The in-camera vs post-camera photography article produced a lot of interest. Naturally, there is a lot more to say about something like this.

I fall between the two extremes, doing many things in-camera and not being afraid to do a lot on the computer. So lets explore some of the issues.

Most of the things that you can do to an image in Photoshop cause the loss or throwing away of image information. Apply a contrast-enhancing curve, adjust levels, tweak color saturation or dodge and burn and you can loose information from the original data captured by the sensor (or film and scanner combination). That is why many of us only shoot in RAW mode, capturing a greater number of bits per pixel so that after we have done all the manipulation there is still at least 8 bits per channel of data left so that the prints display no banding or similar artifacts. Given that most cameras in RAW mode do not capture a full 16-bits per channel but only 11 or 12-bits, there is a limit to how far you can push the processing before data loss becomes visible. I see this particularly is some of my night infrared work, where the data from the camera only occupies a small section of the histogram and when it is spread more fully you can see the lack of tonal graduations.

While we are considering the data that the camera captures, it is worth remembering also that the actual spatial resolution of the camera can put a real limit of you. I think all of us would like a higher resolution digital camera. When you crop, you are throwing away pixels and resampling in Photoshop or even programs like Genuine Fractals can only go so far in giving you enough pixels to print the size you want. Of course one way around this is tiling, taking multiple overlapping images like you would to create a panorama and stitching them together in Photoshop or one of the dedicated stitching programs. Here is a clear use for post processing.

Given the above, it makes a lot of sense to do what you can at the capture stage to maximize the amount of actual data that the sensor has to capture. Therefore, things like getting the exposure as high as possible without clipping to minimize sensor noise, makes a lot of sense. So does the use of certain filters, such as a polarizing filter to trim those burnt out highlights (allowing you to push the rest of the image higher up the exposure range without clipping) and boost color saturation at the taking stage. Another useful tool is the graduated neutral density filter to pull in a very bright sky. This is all to the point of maximizing the amount of data that the sensor can capture, rather than real special effects. Give the sensor the most information (in the areas you want) and you have much more to work with later, if you want to.

If you follow the above, when you get the images into Photoshop, you will have the maximum possible information to work with. This gives you the maximum amount of choice. I suspect we have all been caught with having a great image that you just can’t push as far as you might like because, due to lack of information, it starts to fall apart when you push. I know I have and it is so very frustrating. If fact you want to cry because you have uncertain whether you can get it again. This is where practice, knowing your gear and taking care at the shooting stage can minimize your grief later.

The histogram display that most digital cameras can display after you have taken a shot (and some before) is a wonderful tool that I believe most photographers under utilize. In fact it is such an important tool that this all by itself is a good enough reason to go digital. I recommend that you spend some time getting very familiar with exactly how this works with your camera(s). I would go so far as the suggest the following exercise:
Setup your camera on a tripod with a scene typical of the sort of work you commonly do, in terms of brightness range, etc.

  • Take a shot and get the histogram display up
  • Later download your images to the computer but do not delete them off the camera
  • Now bring up your test image in your image editing program of choice
  • Also bring the same image up on the camera LCD
  • Display histograms in both and compare
  • Carefully examine your image on the computer and assess any problems

The reason I suggest this exercise is that all cameras do some internal processing in producing their LCD displays, including the histogram. Since most of your evaluation of your images will probably take place on your computer screen, you need to assess whether the image and histogram you get on the camera display is identical to your computer display or, if they differ, in what ways. This allows you to train your eye so that you can better use your camera display to assess images in the field. Look for things like the on-camera display not showing highlight or shadow clipping in the same way as the computer, issues with the way the channel histogram is displayed (if it does) or if the camera just displays an average luminosity histogram (rather than the individual channels) how this relates to the actual channels.

The more you know about all the above the more you can rely, in the field, on the camera histogram. In many situations, of course, bracketing is a great idea as a form of insurance and it can also give you the option of HDR (high dynamic range) work later, if you wish and the image warrants the work.

Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
Sadly, I can only push this image, which I love, so far because of inadequate exposure when I took it.

Now up to this point we’ve been discussing the ‘basic’ manipulations of an image, adjusting exposure, contrast and localized adjustments. When it comes to the massive manipulations of an image, of which Photoshop (and similar) are very capable, the same quality of input criteria applies, perhaps even more so. When you are doing massive adjustments to an image, perhaps blending layers of the same or different images, applying wild filters effects, etc the quality of the resulting image, in terms of continuous tonal and color graduations, still depends on the component image quality. The old computer adage is ‘garbage in, garbage out’ and this certainly applies to images.

As to the ‘we’ll fix it in post’ approach, to steal a term from the motion picture industry, the same criteria applies. Yes, you can fix an amazing number of things in Photoshop later. But you can only do it if you have enough data to work with. Plus you have to allow for the time involved. If you produce one off fine art images, perhaps it does not matter if you send several days on the computer fixing it, finessing it and adjusting it to perfection. If you are shooting hundreds of event images there is no way you want to do much at all.

There are also real boundaries on what you can fix in postproduction. These boundaries will differ from person to person, based on their Photoshop skills and on their understanding of what they are trying to duplicate. For example, many people could simulate the radial blurring that a Lensbaby (see my review here and its use in infrared here) produces. This requires a duplicated later, radial blur and then a soft layer mask. However, the Lensbaby does other things on camera. There is a redistribution of highlight and shadow levels, there are the depth of field effects and other optical effects caused by the lenses used (these differ between the original Lensbaby and the better optics in Lensbaby 2.0 and 3G), plus others I h
ave not covered. All of this leaves me preferring to use a Lensbaby in some
situations. Another thing that is in favor of in-camera is the direct ability to interact with the effect and the subject. This can allow you to adjust your shooting position for a certain superposition of elements, lighting, etc that you can only really tell from seeing the effect.

All that said, there are many times when I do things in post. I may have been out with only limited gear and come across something that really needs gear I left at home. It is then that I will do what I can to capture an image or images and then fix it later in Photoshop. Of course there are also my large image composites where I combine 10s’ (occasionally 100’s) of images to make a scene that does not exist. And sometimes I’ll want to really hammer the hell out of an image ad see where it takes me.

There is a place for both in camera and post camera work. The wise photographer does it all in a way to maximize the quality of the result they get, whatever that may mean for their own photography.

Right, Wrong Thinking and Its Impact on Photography

There are thought patterns or ways of thinking that are liberating and others that are limiting. This is true in all of life, but it also applies to our photography.
The Western World is dominated by absolutism, by a belief in absolute truths, absolute morality and absolutes, like right and wrong. You even get politicians who get away with statements like, ‘You are either with us or against us’, leaving no room for alternatives. It is arguable as to whether these ways of thinking have ever served mankind well, but there is a real issue with these ways of thinking when it comes to photography and art.

So let’s look at how these ways of thinking impact on our photography and/or art. Core to absolutism is the idea of right and wrong, that there is a correct way to do something and an incorrect way. At its extreme, it means that even if you get to a good result, if the way you used to get there is wrong, then it invalidates a good result. Also inherent in this way of thinking is that there can be an authority that determines what is right and wrong. Who is that authority, how do they decide what is right and wrong and will they change their minds at some point? This allows the creation of rules. Photographs and art can then be criticized on the basis of these rules, allowing some photographers/artists to be marginalized on the basis of violating these rules.

This same thinking allows people to justify excluding whole areas of photography or art as not being right, not being real. Hence digital photography is different to ‘real’ photography, digital manipulation is not ok, digital art can be excluded from an art show, etc. A number of recent exchanges on some of the online photography lists illustrate this. One of these was over my review of the Lensbaby 3G, which had some people arguing that it was a huge waste of money and that it SHOULD be done in Photoshop, others arguing it was a good tool and SHOULD be done in camera. The other was a discussion (sometimes violent) over whether the winner of a Landscape Photography competition was a photograph, given that it was a composite of two images (a strong sky had been dropped in). Both discussions were strongly phrased in terms of right and wrong.

A big problem with right/wrong thinking is that it can stop you from improving as a photographer. Say that somehow you have gained the dubious belief that to be ‘right’, a landscape photograph must be sharp from far to near. With that belief, how hard would it be to convince yourself to try some shallow depth of field photography. You may even just tend to delete or throw out images of yours that do not meet up to this criteria, without ever really looking at them to see if any of the ‘work’.

The alternative to absolutism is relativism. Let’s replace the words right and wrong with works or doesn’t work, given a criteria or aim you have. So, in the case of the Lensbaby discussion, it is very reasonable to say it does or does not work for me. Same with the landscape image. If the aim is to produce a strong landscape photograph and combining two images achieves this, then it can be said to work. However if the aim is to produce a strong documentary landscape image, then combining two images shot at different times does not work. Now, there would be some who would argue the word photograph implies documentary in this context. That is not something I would not agree with. I would argue that in a medium where manipulation is so inherent to the medium, as it is in photography, that such a rule smacks of just drawing an arbitrary line in the sand. Another core part of relativism is that the best you can say is that something works or does not work for you. Anything beyond that is arrogant.

A works/doesn’t work approach has huge benefit in terms of your growth as a photographer or artist. Say you try an approach, medium or piece of gear and it does not work for you, in that you can’t get the results out of it you hoped. By removing the value judgment of it being good or bad, you leave open the possibility of retrying it at some point in the future, when your knowledge, experience or change in aesthetics may allow you to then get a working result. It also allows you to concentrate in assessing an image on how it works, again for you. This lets you focus on how the image speaks to you, what emotions it raises and how you read it. This can be a key to helping you get deeper into interpreting photography/art and in assessing your own work. Because you are not assessing from some arbitrary good/bad rules, it allows you to access deeper levels of the work. We all know that sometimes you have to break the rules of composition, etc to make an image work. If you simply follow the rules, you’ll never do this. It also means when you are asked what you think of someone else’s work, you will not be tempted to respond from arbitrary absolutes, but from your personal response to the work. By concentrating on your personal response, and perhaps also listening to other people’s personal response, you can learn a lot about what to include in an image to get the result you want.

The other thing is that as soon as you start talking about using a technique, say, for an extended time because it works, you must also be open to something that ‘works better’. This leads you to an approach that I find immensely growth encouraging of ‘I’ll keep doing this till I find something that works better’. One of the things I love about photography is that there are such a huge, perhaps even infinite, range of approaches, subject matter, ways of executing a shot, etc that you will never run out. Seeking for something that works better is much more logical tha seeking something that is more right.

Now I can imagine the howls of protest to this article. Absolutist ideas run very deep, indeed they are almost foundational to our society. Absolutism also runs rampant in our (a)vocation, photography. Rules of composition, ‘rules’ of what makes a great landscape image, rules of how to use a camera and what things you need to know before you can be considered a ‘real’ photographer. You may not be able to, or even want to change them more widely, but I do recommend that you have a good, hard look at your own thinking about photography and/or art and see if any of the absolutist ideas you have are holding your work back. I think you just may be surprised.

The above scratches the surface of right/wrong compared to works/doesn’t work thinking. I really encourage you to have a look at your own thinking.

The Landscape Within and Without: Similarities between landscape photography and fractals

Using his extensive experience with both landscape photography and fractal image creation, Wayne examines the parallels and draws some interesting conclusions.
For over 35 years I have taken landscape photographs. For over 20 years I have explored fractal landscapes. Whilst on the surface they appear to be so totally different, I do not believe this to be the case.

Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Landscape photography is a long, well established part of the photographic tradition. It involves the exploration of the physical world with camera in hand and mind, looking either for the interesting, unusual, beautiful or strange and the photographing of it, or the finding of something that can be turned into one of these using in-camera and/or post production techniques. The landscape exists outside of the photograph, and offers the possibility of many photographers shooting the same scene. All these images will differ to a greater or lesser degree, due to the huge number of variables that exist both in the natural world, sun position, air clarity, season, etc, and the huge number of variables inherent to the photographic process. So a photographer finds a location in the physical world, makes photographic decisions of things like field of view, depth of field, focus point, shutter speed, filters, etc, and creates an image that is their interpretation of what they have found.

Fractal image making involves using a mathematical equation that may also include parameters than can be varied to change the results, and an algorithm that is used to iterate the equation and, in the process, create an image. Whilst the images can look like a landscape sometimes, this is not essential. However, fractal practitioners often talk of a mathematical landscape that they explore. Certainly these equations and algorithms have a universal reality. Providing you work with the same equation and parameters, you will get the same output, if the algorithm you use is effectively the same. Fractal artists cover a wide range from those who write their own program code to those who use other people’s code, whether commercial, shareware or free. Some will explore at random until they find something that appeals, others with methodically explore as parameters are varied and others can previsualize the result of the equation and parameters. The image is rendered and this may or may not be post processed in some way.

Fractal by Wayne J. Cosshall

From the above brief introductions to the two fields you can see that both have a core thing in common, the ‘landscape’ has an objective reality, which means that a number of people can image the ‘landscape’ and at least the potential exists for them to create identical images, even if the actual likelihood of an identical result is low. Dig deeper and there is more in common. In both cases we harvest the ‘landscape’, looking for something about the scene that we like, respond to or can work with. Another parallel is that at the ‘capture’ stage we have many options to create a personalized interpretation. Lastly we can leave the resulting image as is, do minimal modifications or we can extensively rework the result, perhaps combining it with other images. Possibly it is because of these parallels that I am drawn to both.

In his first paper on the subject, Mandelbrot made much of the fractal nature of the landscape. In my recent explorations of macro photography of rocks and crystals there have been any moments when I have been struck by the landscape look of what I was seeing, greatly magnified, in the viewfinder.

Art by Wayne J. Cosshall

Now where does this realization lead us? Well, it suggests to me that approaches that work in one may, when suitably translated, work in the other. That this may also hold for theoretical frameworks and art theories is another intriguing possibility. It also, for me, has a nice symmetry. Many books on fractals start out with describing how fractal geometries crop up in the real world, from coastlines to mountain ranges. Isn’t it appealing to realize that perhaps when we do landscape photography that we are doing fractal imaging? I know I am intrigued.

More on this later.

Foto Tips – How do I decide what to shoot

Mark Alberhasky discusses one to the deepest questions acing most photographers.
During a recent workshop, I was approached by a participant who was feeling overwhelmed by the experience.

“How do I decide what to shoot?”

We happened to be in a crowded urban market, in the rain, and the conditions were intimidating for an inexperienced shooter.  Her frustration obvious, I had to quickly consider how she could approach the situation so she could take control and establish a comfort level from which to move forward.

This is not an uncommon scenario.  Photography is a challenging medium in which to create work because it requires simultaneous decision making on both objective (equipment technology) and subjective (artistic interpretation) levels.  I suspect that when most of us try to think in both directions at the same time, we are prone to feeling
overwhelmed.

So, the simple answer is stop, take a deep cleansing breath, solve technical issues first, and then move on to artistic interpretive challenges.  By focusing on one task, and then the next, you make a complex problem simpler by turning it into a series of smaller
decisions that seem easier.  Not a bad approach to life whenever you’re stressed out.

What is the most basic question facing the digital photographer about where to start?

Answer:  Is the camera “sensitive” enough to light to make an image in this shooting environment?  If not, you can’t take a picture, so end of story.   In other words, is the ISO set high enough for dim lighting conditions, or low enough for bright conditions (to take
advantage of the better quality achieved with low ISO values)?  Unless you’re using auto-ISO (which I don’t recommend because I want you to understand and have mastery of this creative choice), setting the ISO you need / prefer should be the first thing you do, followed by confirming an appropriate white balance for the scene.  Once this is out of the way (a decision you should be considering at the start of every scene you shoot), you can progress to shutter speed / aperture / auto mode choices relevant to the subject.  Having dealt with the technical hurdles, one is now free to concentrate on subjective (artistic) interpretation of the subject.  This is actually the much more challenging aspect of photography, and we soon arrived at this point after establishing her camera settings.

Deciding what to photograph is a lifelong quest.  Even the world’s greatest shooters face this challenge each time they pick up a camera, though their sense of subject selection has been honed by experience. Once again, if you allow yourself to try and take in everything going on around you, you can easily be visually overwhelmed and waste a lot of time wandering aimlessly.  As a starting point I suggest a two step process.  First, do nothing.  Stand back, completely still, and simply observe your surroundings for several minutes.  In our case it was getting a feel for the rhythm of the street, the type of action happening around us.  (In a static landscape awareness of your surroundings might be studying textures, colors, or the pattern of light illuminating the scene).  Second, try to conceptualize a theme for which there are easily identifiable subjects.  We were in the rain, so I asked her to consider how that made the scene unique, i.e. made surfaces wet (reflective), brought out special accessories (umbrellas), accelerated the pace of people trying to escape the weather ( a sense of hectic pace).  Any of these themes, individually or in combination could provide concepts that narrow down subject choices to a manageable few.  Armed with a “visual filter” you then begin working the scene like a hunter, no longer distracted by feelings of anxiety, but a photographer with a mission, in control.

Another style of selecting subject matter is to sense when unusual action is happening, or is about to happen.  Such a subject often makes compelling images.  We heard music and then saw we had walked into a festival of oriental dancers in costume.  I indicated that this was a great photo-op, but that we needed to be close to concentrate on them, right at the front of the crowd.  She was immediately apprehensive, “I could never just walk up in front of all these people.”  My response was, “Sure you can.  A camera is a license.  If you didn’t have it the people would object, but with it, they understand you are not just an observer, but someone trying to make images.  The more seriously they see you pursue your subject, the more leeway the will give you, provided you respect their space as well. In fact, with a few “Excuse me’s” we can move right to the very front, crouch and get great shots without being in anyone’s way.”  We did, and had the opportunity to make good work.  My advice then was simple. “There is great action going on here.  Pick something that appeals to you, and don’t stop shooting it until the subject disappears.  Change focal length, change shutter speed, change aperture, change compositions, change positions for different angles.”  I think she really got the message and make great progress that day.

I happen to love special light, the kind of illumination that only happens every now and then.  The kind that can take ordinary surroundings or objects and render them unique or mysterious.  The kind that stands out so sharply from the surrounding conditions, that it commands your attention.  I often find this kind of light defined at the interface of darkness and brightness.  Depending on the direction of the light source, this can cause backlighting, side lighting, a spot light effect, etc.  It can be found almost anytime of day if you look in the right places.  It can be especially magical when found at the beginning or end of a storm, when the conditions let bright sunlight in, to contrast with the darker or flat conditions. The problem with this kind of light is that it can be such a powerful inspiration that chasing it becomes addictive, and chase it you must because by its nature it is a fleeting phenomenon.

A few days ago, my wife and I were house sitting for friends of ours in San Diego, a couple of blocks from the beach.  I know, life is full of sacrifices, but we felt we had to help our friends in their time of need.  We were being a bit lazy during our stay, and I wasn’t shooting much.  This often upsets my wife, who constantly wants to see me happy making images!  But the “What do I shoot” happens to us all, and a subject just hadn’t grabbed me.  Lets go to the zoo, she suggested. Almost all the animals were asleep, it was comical.  Inspiration was nowhere in sight, and the camera bag felt heavier and heavier.  As my spirit sagged, we happened to traverse an aviary, because the zoo path went through.  As the elevated walkway wound down through trees, there sat inspiration.  A colorful and interesting bird.  I’ve never been a bird watcher or photographed them, but the vantage point and unusual specie won me over.  The result is picture 1.  I was intrigued and actually went back to the zoo a second time just to shoot more birds. See shot 2, which just so happened to fall into the “light defined at the interface between darkness and brightness” category, since the sunlight falling on the bird just caught his breast and head in profile, providing dramatic lighting.

Mark Alberhasky photography

Mark Alberhasky photography

Mark Alberhasky photography

I’m apologize that this foto tip grew into what could be a whole chapter, but the thought process is so central to what photographers “do”, I think it makes useful reading.  On the other hand you could print this and line a bird cage with it, since in the end, this tip is “for the birds”!

Mark

Follow-up to Competition Terms and Conditions

An email has prompted a follow-up about the competition that triggered the original piece.
As a follow-up to my piece on competition terms and conditions, I have some news about the competition that triggered my writing of the article. I received an email from them this morning saying that since many photographers had complained about their ‘unintended’ terms and conditions granting themselves full rights over all entered images, they had changed these terms. They now only claim perpetual rights over the winning images and only for the purposes of promoting the magazine and competition. This is much more reasonable, as given the nature of the Internet, one can never be sure where something will be mirrored or stored and where it will be seen.

Now I have no idea whether my previous piece had contributed to their change of mind, but it is good to see that they have responded to criticism and made sensible changes to the terms and conditions. So, for those that are interested, it is a travel photography competition, run by City Magazine (http://www.city-magazine.com/photocontest/#). One thing I would add, since they have not yet announced what the actual prizes are, is that I would not enter until you are in a position to judge if the prizes on offer warrant the rights that they are asking for.

Beware of a Competition’s Terms and Conditions

The latest competition email I received prompted me to comment on competition terms in general.
If you are like me, you receive a number of emails a month announcing photographic competitions of some sort. The latest one was from a New York travel magazine.

And it looks like an interesting competition until you read the small print, and discover that just by entering the competition you are giving effectively complete ownership of your images to the magazine. Now what really saddens me is that this little detail was hidden in the full conditions rather than mentioned up front on the main competition page.

Any legitimate photo competition is not used to collect images for free. Rather the rights of the photographer is always recognised and that the minimum usage rights are requested consistent with the purpose of the competition.

You need to read the small print.

The Old and The New

A workshop led me to consider the mixing of the old and the new in photography. This is one of the things I really love about photography, there are no rules really and you are free to mix processes and techniques to get what.
Yesterday I spent a very enjoyable day doing a workshop in making Salt prints, the original print technology developed by Henry Fox Talbot and first published in 1840 and was the major photographic print process through till about 1860 or so. Salt printing is, these days, referred to as one of the alternative photographic processes.

The workshop was run by Ellie Young, a local expert in alternative processes and a gallery owner and workshop leader (and organizer) of note and a strong and vocal proponent of the old photographic processes. Ellie’s web site for her Gold Street Studios lists her workshops , and you can view some of her work on the Alternative Photography website . Ellie knows here stuff extremely well and is a great workshop instructor. If you are in Australia I would highly recommend one of her workshops.

Salt print by Wayne J. Cosshall
The first print of the day was a photogram, here a leaf and a feather

The salt process involves coating pure cotton rag fine art paper with a salt solution and then a silver solution. The image is contact printed from a negative either in the sun or under UV lamps. Exposure times aren’t that long, we were getting correct print exposure in about 10 minutes in the sun and twelve to fifteen minutes under the UV lamps. The print is then washed in water for some time and then fixed and washed again.

Salt print by Wayne J. Cosshall
The one failure of the day was my second print, which due to fogging really didn’t work

Now for the negative you can use a large format chemical negative or a digital negative. In my case Ellie printed my images for me onto Agfa Copyjet film using her Epson printer (this is one area where dye inks seem to work better than pigment ones, according to Ellie’s vast experience). For the workshop she print a few of my digital infrared images and one of my fractal images produced from the software I have been developing. You can see the results illustrating this article. You can also use the process for photograms, as I did with my first print.

Salt print by Wayne J. Cosshall
The next one did work

Salt print by Wayne J. Cosshall
A change in the salt solution by add bichromate, raised the contrast and changed the color

So this is what I love, we had images taken with both a newish digital camera (converted for IR by maxmax.com) and a purely digital image rendered from software, printed to a negative digitally, and then printed onto lovely papers using the oldest (or second oldest, depending on how you judge it) photographic process.

Assuming they are washed and fixed properly, we know that Salt prints will last at least 165 years, since the earliest Salt prints are still around and looking good. No accelerated fading tests, no controversy over testing methods, they really exist. And I was very surprised at just how easy the process is. Coat the paper, dry it, coat with the second solution, dry it, contact print it by the sun if you want, then wash in paper, put in a photographic fixer for about eight minutes, wash it again thoroughly and it is done. You can optionally gold tone it at one of two points in the process to either change the color of the prints or to just increase the longevity further.

Salt print by Wayne J. Cosshall
More variation with a different paper

The color and depth of the prints can vary substantially depending on the paper, coating process, additives to the chemicals used, exposure and processing, so there is a huge amount of possible variation. This is both a strength and weakness. It is a strength because no two prints are ever exactly the same, so each in unique. The disadvantage can be in printing editions where you do want them very close.

In the space of a day I had gone from doing some prints with the latest HP Z3100 inkjet printer to printing with the oldest photographic printing process. As a bonus, I had taken some shots I am very happy with on the way to the workshop. You gotta love it.

Salt print by Wayne J. Cosshall

Salt print by Wayne J. Cosshall
One of my fractal images printed using the oldest photographic print process

Infrared photography by Wayne J. Cosshall
A shot I took on the way to the workshop with my IR converted Canon 350D