Tag Archives: n00b

N00bism #3

Hello world! This the third post of the N00bism series. I hope that the previous articles made you think about your own approach to photography. As I have mentioned before, this series aims to discuss the common mistakes beginners, and to some extent, even experienced photographers fall into. These are the same issues that I have experienced and/or avoided and have observed in my constant interactions with photographers of different levels of expertise.

Without further ado, let me discuss “premature manual mode”.

I have already written an article about this macho manual mode, or M mode as most photographers call it. It’s ok if you shoot in “M mode only” but puhleeze, don’t brag about it. It’s not rocket science. You do not have to tell the world about it because those who actually know how to use it will find your bragging quite underwhelming or laughable.

Those of you who are just starting with this expensive hobby should avoid using M mode. Trust me. I have been there. Allow me to explain:

Firstly, you bought that very expensive camera for what? It’s expensive because it is intelligent enough to do most of the work for you. You are wasting your money if you do not put it to good use. It has full automatic mode for a reason. Even the most expensive of cameras have auto modes. Auto modes make your life easier so you can concentrate on things that matter.

For newbies, what matters most is making the shot. You can have the most perfectly exposed shot but if your composition sucks then your photo sucks. Period. Why burden yourself with the exposure when you can’t even get your horizon straight? Why fiddle with those buttons when your shot is so hopelessly cluttered? Why shoot in M when you do not even understand exposure in the first place?!!!

Do yourself a favour. Use that green square mode and learn about composition before anything else. If you can’t help touching those buttons then leave your multi-hundred dollar DSLR and use your mobile phone instead. Yes, even if the “image quality” is inferior. A clean, crisp, 36Mp crappy shot is still a crappy shot.

So when should you start using the M mode? If you think that a better exposure will improve a good shot. It follows that you know what a good shot is. It also follows that you know what exposure is. If you can’t get a good shot with your mobile phone, your DSLR won’t help either. Because a good shot does not depend on what camera you use. In fact, more complicated cameras would probably hinder you from making a good shot.

I won’t cover composition here. It’s not something that you learn by reading. Yes, there are pointers like rule of thirds. Google them.

I will skip to the topic of exposure because that’s all this crazy M mode does anyway. Sorry but I won’t even discuss the exposure triangle here. If you do not understand that concept then you should not even be thinking about M mode. There are millions of web articles that discuss it and I won’t bother repeating them.

How do you learn exposure? By understanding light. Understand that during high noon on a very clear day, you will have the greatest intensity of light that you would normally encounter. I said normally because you might want to shoot directly at the sun or capture an exploding atomic bomb. Anything else would just be varying intensities of lower magnitude. This high noon light is often called “sunny f16”. It simply means that the correct exposure for a subject under bright sunlight is f16, 1/ISO for a given ISO sensitivity. For example: f16, 1/100 at ISO 100. We usually “round off” the shutter speed to the nearest “whole stop”, which is 1/125 for the above example. An example of light with lower intensity is when your subject is hiding under a shade to avoid the harsh sunlight. In this instance, light intensity drops by at least 4 stops so your exposure would be f4, 1/125 at ISO 100. Sometimes I give it f2.8 just to be safe.

It’s not enough that you know the different light intensities. You should understand contrast as well. In the above example, if you want the subject in the shade to be properly exposed then everything outside that is lit by the sun will render as white. If you want to properly expose what’s outside then your subject will be barely visible under the shadows. In this example, no amount of screwing around with M mode will help you. The argumentative folks will probably say, yeah shoot at f8 then pull the highlights and push the shadows in Photoshop. Whatever.

You see that it’s not enough that you know shutter speed and aperture and ISO to warrant the use of M mode. Because if you do not undertand light you will end up screwing around with those knobs until your camera’s LCD tells you that you have lined up the exposure slider dead in the center. You are basically wasting your energy following what the camera is telling you. M mode has become the automatic mode for stupid people. M as in moron mode. Shoot in full auto instead.

So beginners, please learn to compose first before confusing your brain even more with M mode. And experts, there’s no need to brag about it especially if you are just lining up the sliders.


N00bism #2

Welcome to the second installment of the N00bism series. This time I will tackle probably one of the most highly debated aspect of digital photography. Note that I am very specific about “digital” here and you will see why in the next few blocks.

The topic I am about to discuss is the use of UV FILTERS.

Let me tell you right now that this is probably the biggest scam in the history of photography. Every sales person would sell an unsuspecting buyer a UV filter together with the entry level DSLR and kit lens. Sometimes they would even make them feel that they just made the greatest bargain by giving them a free UV filter after they sold the last remaining stock of last year’s entry level DSLR model.

Well actually, let me take that back. This is not the scam. The scam is when a buyer is forced to feel that they need the most expensive UV filter to pair with their very expensive lens. Let’s see: you already spent thousands of dollars on that lens so why ruin the image quality by screwing a cheap UV filter?! Doesn’t make any sense, no? So you buy each of your holy trinity of lenses the best UV filter you can find. Now THAT makes a lot of sense.

Or does it?

Back in those days when the word photographer actually meant something — back when people shot with film — a UV filter was part of the arsenal. Film is sensitive to UV light and that actually made the photos look cold and hazy without them. Photographers used UV filters because they do help make the photos look clearer. Not so with digital photography. Digtal cameras are corrected against UV light. Yes, your DSLR has a built-in UV filter. You do not need another UV filter.

But wait, UV filters are meant to protect your lenses!

Ok, so now you know that it’s useless as the accessory it was meant for so let’s discuss this positive side effect of doubling as a lens protector. Does it really protect your lens?

Let’s put this in proper context. What kind of protection do you expect from it? Protection against impact? Please consider the fact that a UV filter is just a very thin piece of glass bound by some metal screw mount attachment. Even a very light knock will scratch or break it because it is what it is: a very thin piece of glass. A serious knock will break the glass AND bend the metal mounting and ruin the thread of your lens’es screw mount. You’d be lucky if you can still unscrew the broken filter from your lens without further ruining your lens. It’s not really much of a protection, no? Use your lens cap and/or hood if you want real protection.

So how does the front element of your lens compare to a UV lens in terms of toughness? Firstly, it is so much thicker so it won’t break that easily. Glass is actually a very tough material. To cut through glass, you need the world’s toughest natural substance: a diamond! In the very unfortunate circumstance that you do break the front element, a UV filter would have not been able to save it either. If you do break the front element, expect that something in your lens’es internals would be broken as well due to the force of impact. The point is, don’t be stupid.

How about minor scratches? Front elements are quite tough buggers. You would think that lens manufacturers would consider fortifying this most exposed part of the lens, yes? And even if you do scratch it, you would have to scratch it very very badly before the effects would even start to show in your photos. I’m serious. If you don’t believe me, then check THIS

What about dust? Doh?! Just clean your lens with a cloth. If dust gets on your lens then surely a UV filter will get dusty too so what’s the deal? Even dust INSIDE your lens won’t affect your photos. I have a few old manual lenses with dusts in them but they still make very good shots.

Allow me to summarize those points: a UV filter does not provide enough protection. Your lens is way tougher than any UV filter. Minor lens blemishes do not affect image quality.

So enough with what a UV filter does NOT do. What does a UV filter do really? Unfortunately, nothing but negative 😦

Firstly, it causes flare. Some have lesser effects than others but when subjected to point light sources, UV filters will cause flare in images. This is especially true when shooting at night with light sources coming from different directions.

Secondly, with UV filters glued to your lens, you can’t attach other filters (that do matter) without causing image degradation. Stack a CPL and/or an ND filter in there and you will have bad vignette.

Thirdly, you are just supporting the scammers by buying expensive UV filters.

And that’s it folks! So now you have another method of detecting n00bs — they are the ones with UV filters on their lenses.

Stop Shooting Flowers

Ok, this post would probably hit some sensitive nerves but whatever. Anyway, I’m just voicing out my opinion based on observation and experience so it’s up to you whether to take it seriously or not.

If you want to develop real photography skills, stop shooting flowers.

That’s not say that flower shots are bad. In fact some of them are really good. Actually, it is very easy to get good flower shots. Anyone can do it that is why they are usually the shots n00bs make during their formative years.

Set your camera to auto mode and get as close to the flower as what your lens allows and trip the shutter. That’s all it takes to photograph a flower. No need for composition really. A flower dead center in the frame will still look nice. All you need to worry about is getting the focus right. Easy.

So if you really want to learn photography, stop shooting flowers. Your shots will suck but that will force you to learn how to improve them.

Let me suggest a starting point:

Do still life photography in the comfort of your house. Use natural light. Positioning your subject next to a large window will give you that nice soft light. You can use white paper as reflectors. In short, you will learn how light interacts with your subject and proper exposure. Don’t just shoot a solitary object. Use multiple objects and arrange them so you will learn the basics of composition. Use different focal lengths. To get a noise-free shot, you probably would need to use a tripod so you can shoot at low ISO and avoid blur caused by camera shake. Later on you can incorporate the use of strobes or flash.

This still life study will prepare you for landscape photography. Why am I not suggesting landscape as a starting point? Because you do not have control of the light. To have a better chance of getting good light means being on location at least 30 minutes before and after sunrise or sunset. Any other time means ugly cold light. Being in the right location at the right time does not guarantee good light though so it is still a hit or miss situation. If you are persistent, mother nature might reward your efforts. Such is the joy of landscape photography.

You may want to do portraiture next. Portraiture has different challenges although it is very similar to still life photography. The biggest hurdle is that your subject can now complain. Everyone wants to look good on camera even if it they have a face that only their mother can love. It means you will need to master the art of photo retouching. You will have to pixel peep like never before. Your friends may ask you to shoot their special events once you start getting the hang of it. Now that is a challenge.

Another area of photography that you may want to try is wildlife. Here you have a subject interacting with its natural environment. Avoid cliche shots of birds because that will bring you back to the same level as flower shots…only difference is that you now require a lens that’s ten times more heavy and more expensive.

Do macro photography when you get bored. It’s no different to flower shots. Just more tedious. The results can be jaw-dropping amazing though. I enjoy looking at macro shots but I’m not really that interested in doing them.

Street photography and photojournalism can quickly become craptography if you do not have the compositional skills. It requires a lot of skill but more importantly, an even greater amount of luck. Things must happen in front of you and you have to be there to capture it. Depending on where you are, extraordinary events may not happen at all. You are better off taking photos of your drunk friends. Now that I have mentioned drunk, street photography is also dangerous in the wrong locations. Be ready to deal with people who are paranoid. Persistence will pay off. The world’s most memorable photos are, afterall, products of photojournalism.

Avoid sports photography when you are just starting. It encourages bad habits. It’s slightly more rewarding than street photography because you can almost guarantee that there is some action happening where you are. If there is a brawl then you get to do photojournalism as well. There is minimal thinking involved in sports photography. It’s more of a hand-eye coordination thing like playing video games. Reaction time is very important. It also relies on how long your lenses are and how fast your camera can flip the shutter curtain. Of course, you would need to anticipate the action but sports photographers just fire a salvo of shots hoping that something magical happens. Highway patrols do the same with their radar guns. I am not making fun of them. I’m just telling the truth. The fact that sports photographers can manage to capture incredible shots is a testament to their persistence. They know that their keeper rate is lower than Joe Blow’s grade in college calculus but they still do it anyway. And that’s dedication. Sports photography is not for everyone especially if you can’t afford the five-figure equipment.

Again, if you want to improve your photography, stop shooting flowers.

My Most Expensive Photograph: a Reflection

It is when you least expect them that surprises present themselves and that makes them more, for the lack of a better word, surprising.

Around September last year (2010), somebody actually purchased a license to use my photograph. It was not much. Just slightly lower than Gursky’s shot that sold for $4.3 million USD. Because of that photo I have managed to pay in full the house I bought in the CBD and I now have enough money in the bank to allow me to live comfortably without having to work. Surprise!!! No, I did not. Although I did sell a photo for a measly $64 AUD.

The amount it sold for is less important than the lesson I learned from that photograph and I would like to dedicate this post into reflecting upon that reflection. That statement would probably make more sense if I’ve shown you the actual photo so here it is:

Now you know why it didn’t quite reach the level of Gursky’s shot (but I bet one of my kidneys his won’t make it to Flickr Explore LOL!!!).

Anyway, let’s satisfy the measurebators first so they can skip the rest of this post. I used a Canon Powershot A590 IS in full auto mode without a tripod. Of course the flash fired and that’s evident on the lower right portion of the frame. So, nope, nothing interesting in here for you guys. You can see the rest of the EXIF info here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dtmateojr/3462807514/meta/in/photostream/

Back then, I was in stage 2 in the evolutionary ladder of an amateur photographer. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, please read my older post on this very important topic of evolution (you didn’t read it?!!!). To those of you who read that post (a thank you is in order) you should have realized by now that I wasn’t kidding at all 😉

This is quite a long story so please bear with me. If I remember correctly it was my second time driving all the way from Brisbane to Sydney. That’s approximately 1000 kilometers that took me 13 hours including lunch, dinner and wee breaks and about 1.5 tanks of fuel for the rented 2.5 liter Toyota Camry. We decided to visit Luna Park in North Sydney after the rain stopped. We wanted to take the fun rides but there was an important event, which I could not remember, so it was closed for mere mortals. We decided to just roam around and enjoy the night. It was our first time to visit the location anyway. This part of North Sydney is a very good vantage point to take photos of the Harbour Bridge (this I learned much later). I saw several photographers with huge cameras and tripods with dangling “cables” (shutter release). I remember this particular bloke who was standing on the same spot for several minutes. With all that expensive-looking gear I thought he must be a pro. I didn’t know jack about photography back then so everyone with a DSLR was a pro to me. Anyway as I was strolling, the reflection on the puddle of rain caught my eyes. I immediately took my camera and aimed at it. I framed it in such a way that the face of that entrance gate would seem to be staring at me from under the concrete. I was unknowingly teaching myself how to compose a shot! I must have done something right because that bloke who was just staying on one spot with all that expensive gear started doing exactly the same thing. Well actually it kinda annoyed me because he started setting up his tripod and was blocking my view. The copycat was preventing me from taking more shots! Anyway, he was the pro so I quietly walked away. He must have been very happy that this foreigner (me) finally left. Well I hope he got a nice shot of the puddle. Not! We went back to the hotel and, if I’m not mistaken, had dinner at my favorite Thai restaurant (that restaurant closed down after about a year later).

I did not immediately look at the photo. Typical of most n00bs, it stayed in the camera for quite some time. I stored it in my hard drive but never touched it until much later when I was already playing with that thing called Photoshop that my good friend sold to me for $100 (he switched to a Mac and the software was for Windows — lucky me). I’ve always thought that photos should be kept as pristine as possible. Photoshop = evil. SOOC = good. I don’t remember exactly why I started retouching my shots. You probably noticed that I bumped the saturation a bit too much in that photo. I must have thought that the shot didn’t quite turn out the way I saw the reflection or most likely because n00bs tend to push the sliders all the way to 11. In retrospect, I’m blaming auto white balance here.

Fast forward a year later. I went back to the same spot and behold: a rain puddle of almost the same shape was there again. Whoever was assigned to fix that concrete obviously wasn’t doing his job. Lucky me 🙂 Here’s the “enlightened” shot:

A bit conservative in terms of processing. The composition is much tighter with less distraction. I used a Canon G10 here, a much improved point-and-shoot camera. ISO 400, 1/8s at f3.2. I must have zoomed in thus forcing the lens to change the aperture from f2.8 to that weird f number. Flash did not fire this time 🙂 Of course I used a (wobbly) tripod.

I would like to think that I have grown as a photographer over that period when I took the old photo and the new one. If I go back to that spot again, assuming that they still haven’t fixed that concrete, I would be very interested to know if there is anything different I would find in there. I probably won’t. Which is kinda sad knowing that I have spent so much time learning how to shoot and not just writing about photography. With the more expensive toys I have right now, I expect my photos to be so much better. On the other hand, it feels good that even as a n00b I was able to capture a photo that’s good enough to attract a buyer. It’s quite amusing that the photo is now worth more than the camera that took it (digital rot guarantees that your old digital camera is next to worthless after just a few years). That old photograph won’t win me any awards but I humbly think that even pros will have a not-so-easy time improving it considerably. I am no pro but certainly no longer a beginner. If the second shot is any indication, I doubt if I can make the first one miles better.

Just to wrap it up, I would like to point out a few very important lessons. Firstly, it’s not the camera that makes a photograph. Equipment hardly matters at all. Secondly, photography is something that you can only learn by doing. Spend less time measurebating and lurking in forums. (Promise you will go out and shoot after reading this post). Thirdly, take some time to reflect on your self. Evaluate your weaknesses and try to improve on the areas that you feel most uncomfortable with. Be honest and take praises as a challenge to do better instead of resting on your laurels.

How about my “audience”? Do you have a story to tell? I’d be interested in reading them. Please do share.

Until then, keep shooting.