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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.

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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.

Some Thoughts on HDR

When I started doing serious photography around mid of 2009, HDR was kind of the latest craze. My reaction when I first saw HDR images was one of amazement. I never expected photographs to be so vibrant and detailed. HDR images looked surreal I just had to try making one myself.

Looking back, I have now understood why I was bewitched by those out-of-this-world photographs. There were several reasons I can think of:

1. I have never seen fine art photographs. Paintings, yes but never photographs. I blame my art subjects because they never discussed photography as an art form.

2. I was used to taking snapshots with film cameras. I did own several point-and-shoot digital cameras but they were there just to record personal experiences.

3. I have never attempted to retouch my photos. I thought that if my photos sucked then maybe I just don’t know how to capture them.

4. I didn’t understand the art of photography. I did not understand light and exposure. I didn’t think about composition.

I thank HDR for making me appreciate fine art photography. Without it, I probably would have continued being just a casual shooter.

Fast forward to the present, I can say that I have been exposed to all sorts of fine art photographs and have learned to appreciate most of them. I now have a bit of understanding on the role of light, even its absence, in creating pleasing photographs. I still struggle with composition and sometimes it is quite frustrating when I come back from a photoshoot with barely any keepers.

So what has this got to do with HDR?

I have realized that the best photographs are the simple ones. The lesser the clutter, the better they are. Most of the time.

So again, what has this got to do with HDR?

A photograph, ideally, must have a single subject. Everything in the frame must contribute to that single message. I once read in a book that before you click the shutter, SIMPLIFY first. You know that a photograph is finished when there is nothing more that you can remove from the frame.

Here lies the problem with a lot of HDR images: they show details all over the frame even in the shadow areas. The argument behind these HDR images is that the photographer wanted to recreate the dynamic range of human vision; there are details everywhere. No blown highlights, no black shadows. (Taken to the extreme, the resulting image becomes flat and lacks contrast. To counter this massive drop in overall contrast, some photographers mindlessly increase local contrast to create details. The result of which is the haloing effect.)

This, I believe, is a result of failing to understand how humans SEE. Humans have very narrow field of focus. If you stretch your arms out and spread your fingers, you could not focus on both your thumb and pinky. Your eyes actually roam around very quickly, gathering details along the way and the brain assembles all the separate data into a cohesive whole. There is no confusion.

Compare this to a frame of photograph where the eye is focused only on a relatively small area. If there are details all throughout the frame, the brain gets confused because the entire view is now crammed into such a small space. By presenting details in both highlights and shadow areas, the brain could no longer concentrate on one subject. This makes the photograph overly complicated and cluttered.

Basic rules of composition, if you believe that there is such a thing, tell you to arrange the elements in a frame in such a way that the main subject becomes the center of attention. Every other element in that frame must not contest the significance of the main subject. The brightest area of the frame catches the eye first so usually this is where you position your subject. By unnecessarily showing details in the shadow areas, you force the viewer to divert his attention away from the subject.

Another example is the basic composition technique of using frames: e.g. a tree in the foreground that frames a house which is the main subject. This “frame” is supposed to force the viewer to concentrate on the house. Improper use of HDR will show details on the tree thus diverting the eye from the house.

HDR is not a bad technique. Sometimes, it is even necessary. It is the improper use of HDR that makes weak photographs. I’m not referring to cartoonish HDRs (they are a completely different level of bad photos) but even “realistic” HDRs can be harmful to your art. Just be careful.

How NOT to Look Like a Terrorist

There had been several incidents where an innocent photographer is confronted by police for taking photos in public places. The police are just doing what they are told to do: stop any potential terrorist activities.

So to avoid becoming the next suspect follow these very simple rules:

1. Never use a tripod. That’s a dead give away. Terrorists use tripods to mame law enforcers.

2. Never use a DSLR in public places. If you are a poser or a gear whore and could not help bringing your D3X and 70-200/2.8 lens during a simple holiday trip, make sure that …

3…. you never use the viewfinder. Hold your camera with outstretched arms and compose your shot using the LCD like any ordinary terrorist, I mean, tourist. I know it’s difficult to do it with gigantic lenses but *your* image is everything.

4. Like any other list of rules, the last one always tells you to break them, so break the rules but don’t blame me. So there!

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.

Understanding Your Lens (Part 2)

This is the second installment of the Understanding Your Lens series of tutorials. If you have not read the  first part I suggest that you go through it otherwise this lesson will be a bit tricky to comprehend.

Part one discussed the effects of varying focal lengths in terms of lens compression; how a wide angle lens seem to make  the background more distant while a telephoto lens brings the background closer. This is a very important concept in understanding this next topic which is crop factor.

Technically, crop factor is not a feature of the lens but of the camera sensor. You are probably familiar with the different digital sensor formats. We have the full frame sensor which has the same size as a 35mm film frame, the APS-C sensor which is approximately 2/3 the size of a full frame and the 4/3rds format which is 1/2 the full frame size.

Full frame cameras include the Nikon D700/D800 and the Canon 5D series and most high end versions from both manufacturers. Sony also has full frame cameras, the A800 and A900. APS-C sensor cameras are the most common. Examples are the Nikon D300/D7000/D5000, Canon 7D/60D/600D, Sony A77/A65/A55 and Pentax K5/K30/K7. Then we have the 4/3rds format like the Olympus E-5/E-P3/OM-D and the Panasonic G/GF series.

Different sensor sizes generally require different types of lenses. In the case of Nikon we have FX for full frame and DX for APS-C. With Canon, EF lenses are for full frame and EF-S are for APS-C. A full frame lens will work with an APS-C sensor but not the other way around (although there are still exceptions).

A common source of confusion is in what photographers call the lens zoom factor. You have probably heard of a normal 50mm full frame lens becoming a mid telephoto (75mm) when attached to an APS-C sensor camera or why you should get a 35mm lens instead if you want a “normal” lens because your camera uses a crop sensor or how a 200mm lens magically becomes a 300mm.

What exactly is this zoom factor?

Zoom is used incorrectly in this context. The lens actually remains the same. A 50mm is still a 50mm no matter which type of sensor it is attached to. What this means is that the effects of lens compression does NOT change. The perceived distance between the foreground and the background remains the same for the same focal length. There is no zoom at all.

Let’s use the same (crappy) shot that I took in part one. This is a full frame shot of Thomas the tank engine:

Image

If the same scene is captured by the same focal length at the same distance to subject by a crop sensor camera, this is how it will look like:

Image

At first sight, it seems that you have magically zoomed in. Well not really. Have a closer look at the perceived distance between Thomas and the house. It is exactly the same. The same amount of lens compression is taking place. The “zoom” is purely an illusion. A fake zoom produced by the smaller sensor’s tighter field of view. The “zoom” is a side effect of the cropped sensor.

So again, zoom factor is a misnomer.

A common follow up question is, so which one is better, a full frame or a crop sensor camera?

There are advantages to using a crop sensor camera:

1. Lenses are sharpest at the center and gradually become softer around the edges. Crop sensors utliize only the center of the lens thus producing generally sharper images compared to full frame cameras.

2. Lenses designed for crop sensors are smaller because they only have to cover a smaller image circle.

3. For the same field of view and aperture, crop sensor lenses/cameras have greater depth of field. This is a huge advantage for landscape, low light and macro photography where focus is very important. For example, while a full frame camera might require f5.6 at ISO 6400 to shoot a concert while keeping all the band members in focus, a micro 4/3rds camera can shoot the same scene at f2.8 ISO 1600 thus producing much cleaner images. In macro photography, full frame cameras will stop down to f16 or f22 but a micro 4/3rds can shoot at f8 or f11 respectively for the same depth of field therefore gaining two stops of light advantage.

Of course there are disadvantages for using crop sensor lenses as well. If shallow depth of field is your thing, full frame is the way to go. Full frame cameras also offer bigger, brighter view finders which to me is very very important. Bigger sensors generally produce cleaner images at the same resolution because of the larger sensel dot pitch.

So let me summarize everything:

1. There is no such thing as zoom factor. It does not exist. It is purely an illusion.

2. A 50mm lens is a 50mm lens no matter which camera it is attached to. The same lens compression is produced. The perceived distance between foreground and background remains the same.

3. Full frame and crop sensor cameras have their own advantages and disadvantages. What matters is whether you understand the implications and whether you can fully utilize those in your photography.