Category Archives: Inspiration

The First 100

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Welcome to my 100th post!

To be honest, I didn’t expect to get this far with blogging. I have attempted to start writing in several other sites before but I never really got motivated to move forward with them. I am a computer geek by profession and I spend most of my day in front of a computer managing Linux servers scattered all over the world. In my spare time I customise Linux distributions for my own workstation needs. I’m not really sure what kept me writing this time around. It’s probably because I decided to cover photography instead of the usual computer-related topics.

I’m relatively new to photography. I formally started back in April of 2009. I still remember my first photoshoot session. Me and a friend started driving at 4AM to get to our destination before sunrise. It was then that I learned that to capture a good shot you will have to make some sacrifices, like sleep for example. I remember shooting every weekend for several months from 5-9AM and going home with a thousand frames with no keepers. I didn’t really understand photography back then. I mean, I still don’t understand most of it now but back then I was practically clueless. The most important thing that happened for me was getting hooked in this hobby and I have been shooting ever since.

At this point I would like to thank the beginners in photography for asking those (sometimes silly) questions in forums. They were my sources of ideas for articles. A special thanks as well to those who keep on spreading nonsense — you inspire me to write some more.

Some of you might notice that a few of my articles are quite controversial. The most popular ones were those that attempted to debunk the myth of full frame superiority namely:

1. https://dtmateojr.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/megapixel-hallucinations/
2. https://dtmateojr.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/debunking-the-myth-of-full-frame-superiority/
3. https://dtmateojr.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/debunking-the-myth-of-full-frame-superiority-part-2/

I feel that it is my duty to educate those who are new to photography. The biggest problem at the moment is that photography has become a contest of who has got the largest camera and fastest lens. Beginners feel inadequate just because they don’t own a full frame or a prime lens. It’s not just gear but starters are also made to feel incapable just because they are shooting in auto mode or in JPEG. Armchair photographers have set up artificial walls that prevent beginners from enjoying and moving forward with photography: Your small camera isn’t good enough; Learn to shoot in manual mode; You will not get far with only a kit lens. No wonder only a very few of them continue with their hobby. This kind of bullshit has to stop.

I have chosen NOT to write about topics that everyone will just agree with. If everyone will just agree with me then what’s the point in writing? You might as well go to any forum and drink the kool aid. Instead, I write about the advantages of smaller cameras, your cheap kit lens, why you might want to shoot in JPEG or why you should learn to shoot instead of dealing with a lot of nonsense.

There are times when I feel like writing something highly technical but in a simplified way. My background is in Physics and I understand that not everyone is comfortable with numbers. The topics that I covered were not the usual stuff that everyone knows but instead I discussed the most commonly misunderstood concepts that most people think they already know by heart such as resolution and exposure.

I would also like to apologise to those who felt uncomfortable with the tone of my articles. Rest assured that they were not aimed at you unless you were one of the idiots in forums who called me stupid for using physics and math to prove that you are a moron for believing and spreading that bullshit. You know who you are and it feels good to be vindicated. Thanks for the free publicity.

If you got this far, thanks for reading. I can’t wait to write some more. I actually have a list of topics in the queue already. I’ll talk about the camera that I recently won in the Olympus Asia-Oceania Grand Prix photo contest in my next post so stay tuned.

🙂

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Go Find Your Own Spot

These were the words I would never forget. It was one of those photography meetups where people show (brag) their good shots. There was this particular star trails shot along a railway that really grabbed my interest. I kindly asked the photographer where it was. His reply was a very cold “I’m not telling. Go find your own spot.” I was only a beginner back then; barely two months of doing serious photography. There was no way I could have done a better shot than this very experienced guy. I learned my lesson very early. I swore I would never do the same thing to other togs.

Why are some photographers very protective of their new-found locations? I never really bothered asking them. I just think they are insecure.

Let’s suppose that every photographer would share every good spot. Does that mean every shot would look the same? Far from it! The location is only one part of the equation. A photographer has to SEE. Even if a photographer copies the shot of another photographer there are still way too many factors that would affect the image. That’s why we never trust the weatherman because there is no way we can predict what it’s gonna be like when we arrived at our destination.

Here’s my shot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

I bet you a thousand bucks that you won’t find a shot that looks like it. Compare it with Ken Duncan’s shot from the same location:

http://www.kenduncan.com/gallery/open-edition-prints/jefferey-st-wharf-sydney-skyline-sunset-nx5567-oe-detail

His obviously looks way better than mine. He captured the same scene when the sky showed a magnificent array of colours. My shot had a different stormy mood.

It’s not just the weather. Choice of equipment matters a lot as well. Ken Duncan most likely used a 6×17 panoramic camera loaded with Velvia 50 film and a 90mm lens. I, on the other hand, used my cheap Olympus E-P1 and equally cheap and mediocre 17mm/2.8 lens. I just stitched multiple shots to arrive at my panoramic image. That’s why my shot looks wider. Our exposures would have been very different as well. Ken would have set his to about f64 which means that at ISO 50 the exposure time would be long enough to smoothen the water and produced some cloud movement. I can’t stop down my lens smaller than f8 without significantly sacrificing image quality due to diffraction. The E-P1’s native ISO of 200 would have also made my exposure time a lot quicker than his. Of course, if you are really anal, you can check the EXIF data of a shot you like and bring exactly the same set of equipment and use the same settings. But then what does that make you?

As you can see, it’s not just the location. How you react to the situation when you get there matters too. I have my own favourite locations but because of the ever-changing weather patterns, my photos look different because of how I approach the same subject. Sometimes the tide isn’t low enough that I would get rock pools. There are times when they are so low that I would get sand ripples. If the tide is high then I can do long exposure techniques to get some movement in the water. Of course there are those times when non-photographers are there and they become part of the shot.

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(These two shots were about three years apart.)

And then there’s imagination. A photographer does not have to show what’s real. Reality, most of the time, is just plain boring. What was shot and the final image could be very different from each other.

It’s not just about the shot. Sharing locations is also a very good learning process. If another photographer manages to produce a better shot than I did then that image becomes a learning tool for me. Why did I not see that angle?! That’s a clever perspective! I didn’t think it would look good in monochrome as well. That same spot actually looks better during sunset! And so on… If the other photographer’s shot looks completely uninspired then I didn’t really lose anything, right?

On a slightly different experience, I remember being at Luna Park in Sydney while I was just there strolling with my point-and-shoot camera. I haven’t even started doing real photography back then. I saw this puddle of water where there was a very nice reflection of Luna Park. That was a very memorable moment for me because a “pro” blatantly copied what I was doing. Years after, I managed to sell a few copies of that image. Not sure where the pro went with his. You can read about that experience here.

Don’t be afraid to share your favourite locations with other photographers. In fact, you might want to invite them to shoot with you next time you visit those spots. It’s all about your own vision and that’s something that nobody else can duplicate.

Happy shooting (and sharing)!

So You Want To Capture Nice Photos

Well who doesn’t want to capture nice photos? Afterall, that’s the main reason why you purchased that new DSLR, right? You had to upgrade from your crappy point-and-shoot to an expensive camera hoping that you can capture professional-looking shots. So you post to “photography” forums humbly introducing yourself as a newbie and asking the question, “how do I learn to make fantastic photographs?”

The newbie is then bombarded by different answers by forum “experts”. The most common replies are worth mentioning:

1. Learn how to shoot in manual mode.
2. Learn about the exposure triangle (with a special mention of the book “Understanding Exposure” by Bryan Peterson).
3. Shoot using only prime lenses. Throw away your kit zoom because they will only make you lazy.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. No wonder why only a few n00bs survive their first year. Those who do survive continue collecting lenses, buying new cameras while making crappy photos.

Crappy photos are not caused by imperfect exposure, or by shooting in full auto mode or by cheap kit lenses. Crappy photos are caused by not knowing where to aim your camera. Plain and simple. It’s common sense…and that’s why forum “experts” ignore it.

A perfectly exposed shot made by an expensive fast prime lens is still crap if you do not know where to aim your camera. Sorry but that is how it is. It’s not your gear. It’s not the technical foo. It’s where you aim it.

Your camera is expensive because it is smart. In most cases it will nail the correct exposure. Those “experts” who pretend to know how to shoot in manual mode are most likely just fiddling with the exposure sliders, following what the camera is telling them. They are no better than monkeys doing exactly what the zoo keeper is telling them what to do. Years of research have been done by real experts so that your camera can figure out the correct settings in just about any situation you throw at it.

Yes, a fast prime lens is nice to have. It will guarantee that every shot you take is very sharp and crappy. There is nothing worse than a very crisp and sharp but crappy shot. It spells rich but dumb.

Having said those harsh words, let me give you a solid advice: learn where to aim your camera. Learn proper composition. A good way to start is to google for the following topics in composition:

1. rule of thirds
2. lead-in lines
3. patterns, repetition, rhythm
4. light and shadow

You do not even need to use your DSLR to learn how to compose. Your mobile phone camera is more than good enough. I would even go further to say that your phone camera is the best way to learn composition because it only has one button. No other technical foolishness will distract you from the task at hand. You basically learn to POINT and shoot.

Let me give you a very important tip in composition:

Before you even attempt to take a photo of something, consider WHY you even wanted to take a photo of that something. Surely there must be something in it that attracted you to it. Something that made you make a second look. Concentrate on that something. If you can’t find that something then don’t shoot. It means that the idea is not clear in your mind and that will reflect in your shot as well. If you force it, your shot will only look cluttered.

For example, if you happen to visit the Sydney Opera House then you can’t help but notice that the thing that attracts you most to the structure is it’s unusual shape. Your task is to find a way to make that shape stand out. You don’t just aim at it and shoot. Consider what might be in the background or foreground that could potentially merge with the structure and ruin the shot. A typical n00b shot would include their friend or family member in the foreground. Now why is this bad? Because that will divert the attention to the human figure instead of the Opera House. I’m not saying you should not include family members in your travel photos but do not expect fantastic shots with them in the frame either. If you do happen to capture nice shots with your friends it will be a portrait shot of them but not a shot of the Opera House.

Let’s move further. Grand it may be, you don’t just shoot the Opera House and expect a masterpiece. The Opera House dead center in the frame is boring. That’s what every tourist does. To shoot the Opera House, you have to forget that it’s the Opera House. Let me explain:

When composing a shot, you have to spot your main subject and then forget about the subject. What I’m saying is, forget that it’s the Opera House. It’s just a bunch of “curvy triangles”. Now you want to make those curvy triangles stand out inside a rectangular frame. Position it in such a way that the viewer will not stray away from the rectangular frame. Consider which side or corner of the frame you want the viewer to start looking and where you want them to end. You want them to end at the Opera House. It means there should be no other lines or shapes or colours that would divert them away from those curvy triangles.

Here is an example of the use of rhythm, repetition and contrast:


When capturing this shot, you will have to forget that these are rock formations (the famous Three Sisters). In this composition, I used the pointy shapes as if they are “stepping stones” that will force the viewer to “hop” from the lower left hand corner of the frame going into the frame. What makes this composition even better is that the constant “rhythm” of the “hopping” movement is suddenly interrupted by the shorter rock formation. The viewer has nowhere else to go but to go back. But then going back, the natural slope of these “stepping stones” forces the viewer to move forward into the frame again following the same hopping pattern. The viewer is “trapped” inside the frame. Another thing that made this shot effective is the contrast of warm light hitting the mountains and the cold colours of the background valley. This makes the mountains pop out of the frame. It’s a very simple shot. There are no distractions.

So again, composition is about breaking down everything into lines, shapes, colours and contrast and then neatly organizing them inside the frame. Those are not rock formations, they are pointy triangles. That’s not afternoon sunlight, that’s orange. That’s not rain in the valley, that’s blue.

To end this post, let me repeat the most important thing about photography: Knowing where to aim your camera is what makes good photographs. It’s not your camera or perfect exposure or fast lenses. It’s all about composition.

Landscape Photography Appreciation #1

I have decided to create another series of posts that deal specifically with landscape photography. I hope that this will make others be aware and appreciate what goes into creating landscape shots.

Among the different types of photography, I find landscapes to be the most interesting, fun and, in some cases, very frustrating. I have been in this hobby for about four years now and I think I have some ideas as to what makes landscape photography tick. I will attempt to describe my own experiences, compare it with other types such as portraiture or sport and generally point out why you should try it if you haven’t yet.

I understand that most people who visit my blog are after topics that discuss equipment so let me cover that first. What I like about landscape photography is that it does not require expensive gear to get fantastic shots. Even ordinary point and shoot cameras will get you there.

The photos below were captured by my Canon G10:


It does not matter if you have the cheapest small sensor m43 camera like my old E-P1 with 17mm/2.8 lens:


or E-P3 with 40-150 kit zoom:


Even inexpensive APS-C and kit lens are good enough such as the Nikon D60 and 55-200mm that I borrowed from my friend:


You want full frame? Then shoot with an old FILM camera:


Gear does not matter at all in landscape photography. Compare with sports or wildlife photography where you will need super telephoto lenses and cameras that shoot high FPS. Even portraiture calls for wide aperture telephotos that cost thousands of dollars. In landscape photography, any camera will do, even an iPhone can capture fantastic shots:


It’s all in your hands … and eyes. Gear has got nothing to do (figuratively speaking) with taking landscape photos. So go out there with whatever camera you have and start your own photography journey.

I’ll see you next time.

N00bism #4

This episode of the N00bism series is something that I have been wanting to write about for quite a long time. One of the reasons it took so long for it to materialize is that I really haven’t pushed my equipment hard enough to prove a point until recently.

This post covers the mindless obsession on camera gear, more specifically, IMAGE QUALITY. Forumites refer to this as IQ.

So what about IQ? There are lots of different criteria: sharpness, bokeh, CA and high ISO noise, just to name a few of the very common ones. The no-brainer solution to these “issues” is to buy more expensive equipment. Your photo isn’t sharp enough? Buy a more expensive lens. Is the bokeh not good enough? That 85/1.2 should solve your problem. Are you getting yucky CA in high contrast areas of your frame? Maybe you are not using that multi-thousand dollar prime lens. Are your snapshots at the club too noisy? The latest full frame camera from CaNikon is your answer. That’s it! Buy more expensive equipment. In photography, a solution that does not involve buying more gear is not good enough. And always remember, you get what you pay for, so says the gearhead. If I tell you that there are workarounds to your “problems”, you would probably just ignore me.

I could have ended this post right here except that I like to stir up things just a tiny bit. Maybe your dream gear is still way out of reach so allow me to offer a solution. It’s not the easiest but I can guarantee that it will solve your gear acquisition syndrome (GAS).

Let us concentrate on the most difficult among the problems I listed above — high ISO noise. Even if you get the most expensive camera money can buy, it would still produce very noisy shots in dim light at ISO 6400. Let me rephrase that: every camera manufactured today is noisy at ISO 1600 even in good light. If you don’t believe me, search for any camera in dpreviewor dxomark. What does that mean? If you are a gear whore, the game is over for you. You will have to wait a few more years before you can get your hands on that noiseless sensor. And since camera manufacturers are back at the megapixel wars more agressively than ever, that day may never come. You might as well sell all your gear.

For the rest of us mere mortals, I offer you a genuine solution:

Learn to photograph and do not worry about superficial image quality issues. If your shot is good enough then image quality issues are immaterial.

I have been to a gallery that featured Henri Cartier-Bresson’s masterpieces. Let me tell you that a good number of his shots are noisy and/or blurry. That photo of a man leaping over a puddle of water and that cyclist that was captured from the top of a stairway are far from being sharp. In fact they are blurry and noisy.

HCB is an expert though so what about us new amateurs? I will show you some of my shots that have image quality issues if only to proove that I do follow my own advice.


This was shot at ISO 6400, 30 seconds. That’s the maximum exposure I can get from my camera without using bulb mode. Yes, it is noisy but I honestly think it is more than good enough. Here’s another one shot using the same exposure settings:


But then you might say that it’s too dark to really see the noise. Well the reason it’s noisy is because it’s too dark. If there was enough light then I would not have shot at such high ISO. But I accept the challenge. In this next shot, I still used ISO 6400 AND pushed the shadows during post processing:


You can see how noisy the shot is. I consider this as already crossing the borderline of my patience. Why did I not use a lower ISO and use bulb mode? Because it will result in star trails. I did not want to shoot star trails. I wanted to shoot the Milky Way galaxy. Even star trail shots may require shooting at high ISO as well such as this one taken at ISO 3200:


High ISO shots are also used to freeze motion in dim light conditions. Here, I wanted to capture a sharp image of the man and at the same time avoid the waves from blurring the boat so I shot at ISO 3200 f5.6 to get just enough shutter speed.


Do you think that the noise is distracting or the part of the jetty touching the left frame unsharp?

Here’s another ISO 6400 shot. This was taken using a m4/3 sensor camera in JPEG format (RAW capture won’t offer much improvement here):


And finally, an extreme shot captured by my iPhone in very dim light:


Yes, the noise on that one is just plain ugly but I captured the moment. It took a few attempts for me to time the blinking disco lights with my iPhone. I was after the shadows created by the kids.

I’ll say it once again. If the photo was worth capturing, image quality issues become insignificant. If the viewers get distracted by the noise or the lack of sharpness then your photograph was not good enough. You should not have taken the shot in the first place.

Until next time.

Caffenol

Image

It’s been a long while since my last post. Let me assure you that I am still making photos. Almost everyday. Of course there’s my usual dawn shoot session every Saturday aside from my side trips during lunch breaks.

My photography has made a bit of a detour from the usual. I have come to realize that to be successful in landscape photography you need to be in various locations at the right time. Sadly, I don’t travel that much anymore. I used to roam around Australia for more than three years and that’s what got me started in this hobby. Now, I’m just confined in (beautiful) Brisvegas where it’s quite a challenge to create landscape photos. I have practically photographed every beach within a 120km radius from the CBD…and then some.

And so I decided to try something different. I want to do street photography, photojournalism, documentary type of thing. Well basically anything that I have not tried before.

The latest of these attempts was developing my own film which is the subject of this post. I’m lucky to have a friend at work who has done this for some time and he showed me how to develop my own film using ordinary household chemicals, namely coffee, vitamin C and washing soda in a process they call Caffenol.

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The whole process is quite easy. Using 350ml of tap water (about 20C) we mixed 6 teaspoons of instant coffee, 3 teaspoons of washing soda and half a teaspoon of vitamin C. We let it settle for a few minutes. Our film was already spooled inside a light tight Patterson developing tank. We poured the solution into the tank and waited for 7 minutes while agitating for 15 seconds every minute. We then poured out the solution from the tank and rinsed the film (still inside the tank) with tap water until the color of coffee was no longer visible. Next step was the fixer. We used an Ilford Rapid Fixer for black and white film. We poured it into the tank and let it do its job for 5 minutes, this time agitating for 10 seconds every minute. Then we rinsed again with tap water — more thoroughly this time. Rinsing was a lot easier since we could now safely take the spool of film out from the developing tank. We then wiped the excess water from film strip and let it dry for about 30 minutes.

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To be honest, I did not expect much from what we did. To my surprise the scans from my Epson V500 flatbed scanner came out quite good. By the way, the film I used here is a Fuji Superia 400. Those who are familiar with this film will know that this emulsion is meant to be processed in C-41 (color negative). Yes, caffenol will result in monochrome with a hint of sepia tone as can be seen from the photos above.

Here are more shots from the same 24-roll Fuji Superia 400 that I took during my lunch break:

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Not bad for a first attempt considering that I spent $15 for my black and white film to be commercially processed (no prints) — which turned out to be muddy. Caffenol is also very easy to do. There is no risk of getting scald by hot (almost boiling) water like those required for C-41 or E6 and you don’t have to be very exact with the developing temperature either. Aside from the fixer, the rest of the chemicals can be purchased from anywhere. Coffee need not be expensive. All you need is instant coffee and they say that the cheaper ones are better.

I can’t wait to do more of this. I just need to finish my roll of Kodak Gold 100 that I have just loaded into my Nikon FM3A. It will take me a while to do that. I tend to be very precise when shooting film. The snaps above were meant for the test roll because I did not expect anything from my first attempt at film developing anyway.

If you want to learn more about the process, please visit http://caffenol.org.

Until then.