Some of you may have heard of the term, but if you’re not into photography there’s a good chance you don’t know exactly what high dynamic range (HDR) photos are. Simply put, the goal of the HDR technique is to expand the dynamic range (difference between the light and dark areas) of the image so that it’s closer to what the human eye sees. Camera sensors, although constantly being improved upon, still can’t match the range between detail in light and dark areas as well as your eyeballs. If a scene has something in direct sunlight and something else in deep shadow, you’re going to lose detail in one or both areas when you rely on just one exposure.
To solve that problem, the premise of HDR is simple: take several exposures of the same scene, one for the darkest areas, one for the lightest areas, and one or more in between, and then combine them in post-processing so that all areas of the final image have detail and are not blocked out (shadows) or blown out (highlights). Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been a month since I started my photo-a-day project, known around the web as Project 365. So far it’s proving to be a great challenge and a great learning experience. I’ve built a lightbox, learned how to use (in the most basic way) an off-camera flash, and spent more time rigging shots than I would have ever thought possible. If one thing has been proven, it’s that I still have a lot to learn.
Trying new things and learning to see the world differently is a big part of what Project 365 is about. It’s certainly succeeded for me on the former; as I mentioned, one big new part of my skill set is now off-camera flash. I only have one so far, and no significant rigging to speak of, but even with my relatively simple setup I have learned a lot about how to perform certain types of shots that I never would have understood before. For example, On the Rocks demonstrates two of my favorite properties of using off-camera flash: a blacked-out background and frozen motion (without the harshness of on-camera flash). This is really, really basic stuff in the realm of lighting, but it’s valuable to know. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m embarking on a new photographic adventure: Project 365, a self-imposed assignment in which I will take at least one photo a day for an entire year.
The concept dates back several years, and I first heard about it last year, but it seems to really be picking up steam lately. By taking a photo every day, you’re forcing yourself to think creatively and think about composition and think about lighting — no matter where you are or what you’re doing. It has the added bonus of documenting your life over the year — you’ll be able to look back and see at least one clue as to what you did on any particular day. Everyone I’ve read about or talked to that has gotten involved in this has said how wonderful it was in developing their photographic skills.
Which makes perfect sense, really. Think about the things you normally identify yourself as really good at. I’m really good at playing piano; I’ve played for 20 years and while I don’t play every day anymore, I did play every day for nearly 12 of those years. I’m pretty good at designing web sites; I can’t say I design a new one every day, but every time I *do* design one I get better. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m coming up on one year of my foray into “real” photography (that is, putting some effort into my shots rather than just random point-and-shoot), and I wanted to share an experience I had that demonstrated the importance of spending quality time post-processing your photos. One of my pictures that got little attention at first started getting a lot more looks, comments, group invites, and awards once I knew what I was doing in post and spent some time tweaking it.
Until relatively recently, I hadn’t really done much post-processing work — I’d pull the shots off my memory card, maybe do a little tweaking to the exposure if I had under- or over-exposed, maybe crop a little, but that was about it. But as I’ve spent more time trying to learn about photography, both from the pros and from some talented friends, I realized in addition to developing “the eye” in the field, I needed to be developing my skills back at my desk, long after the shot. I have plenty of experience designing user interfaces for web sites, but little with enhancing photographs. Once I started putting some effort into post, some of my shots really started to pop much more than they used to. One great example of this is my mossy ravine photograph. Read the rest of this entry »
If there’s one technical aspect of photography that causes more confusion for beginners than any other, it’s probably aperture. I feel like I explain it a lot, and just this week a friend was asking about a lens purchase and the subject came up again; I thought it was about time to write a quick post on the subject.
The aperture affects how much light is able to reach the camera’s sensor. There’s a bladed diaphragm inside the lens that expands and contracts, depending on how you’re using the camera and what settings you’ve chosen, to allow more or less light in. The aperture is expressed as “f/2.8″ or “f/4″.
What do those numbers mean? The smaller the number, the larger the aperture (meaning more light gets in). That may seem confusing until you think of the expression as a fraction. 1/2.8 is greater than 1/4 is greater than 1/8. Lenses specifications are described in the maximum aperture the lens can achieve — e.g., the Nikon 50mm AF-S f/1.4 can “open up” to f/1.4, which is very wide. Minimum apertures are rarely a concern; that 50mm Nikon can “stop down” to f/16. Cheaper zoom lenses, like the kit lens that came with my Nikon D40, sometimes have variable minimum apertures. For example, my 18-55mm lens is rated as “f/3.5-5.6″. That means that at 18mm it can open up to f/3.5, and as you extend through the zoom range up to 55mm you eventually can’t open it any wider than f/5.6. Read the rest of this entry »
Now that I’ve gotten into photography a little bit, I tend to pay more attention to how other people use their cameras. There’s two things that I repeatedly see which drive me up the wall: pointless use of flash, and that dang beeping noise.
Let’s start with the beeping. On most cameras, this will occur either when the camera focuses or when you release the shutter — or both. In my opinion, this feature is pretty unnecessary for most people, because there are visual confirmations for both of these actions (and I do hope you’re looking at your camera when you use it!). The cacophony of beeps is just plain annoying when you’ve got several people all trying to focus and snap pictures all at the same time. It’s downright rude when you’re in a quiet setting — like some sort of performance, gallery, etc. People seem to be completely oblivious to the fact that their camera is making loud, rude noises while someone is performing a solo or whatever. There is a simple on-off setting for this…please, consider turning it off.
The second item of photography etiquette on today’s agenda is the use of flash. Most people buy their point-and-shoot cameras and then never take it off the Auto Flash function. This works fine for many situations, but cameras are still kind of stupid about when to use flash. I remember watching diving at the Beijing Olympics a couple months ago, for example, and the Water Cube announcers repeatedly asked spectators not to use flash. Yet, every single time someone went off the diving board, hundreds of flash bulbs popped from the stands. Read the rest of this entry »
One marketing ploy that most consumers have almost universally bought into is that the more megapixels a digital camera has, the better it is. This is one of the biggest misconceptions in the entire consumer electronics industry, possibly second only to the belief that a $140 Monster cable will make your audio signal sound better than a $12 cable (or a coat hanger). The first thing out of someone’s mouth when you show them a new camera is often “How many megapixels is it?” More megapixels not only don’t make for a better camera than one with less MP, but it may actually make it worse. Before anyone starts shopping for cameras this holiday season, I want to make sure everyone’s aware of the Megapixel Myth.
A huge factor in the quality of digital photos is the quality and size of the digital sensor inside the camera and how much light it is able to absorb. You’ve all seen grainy, noisy digital photos, especially in darker shots — that’s the sign of a sensor struggling to take in enough light to expose the photo. The sensor is a rectangular device that is divided into a pixel grid — if you have a 4 MP camera, then you’ve got about 4 million individual photo-sensitive cells on that sensor. If you then cram 8 MP onto that same sensor, with the same physical dimensions, then more of the surface is divisions, or “walls”, than light-gathering pixels. Think of it like an ice cube tray. If you have a tray that normally has 20 cubes, and then subdivide it so it can handle 40 smaller cubes, your total volume of water drops because of the extra space that the divider walls take up.
Sensors in the typical compact consumer camera can only get so big and still fit in the case. So all other things being equal — same physical sensor size, same sensitivity, etc — a lower megapixel camera will perform better in low-light situations where every possible photon of light must be absorbed. DSLR cameras have much larger sensor sizes, and so have much larger photo-sensitive cells. This is one reason why a DSLR will always outperform a point-and-shoot that has the same MP rating — the photo cells are bigger, they can absorb more light, which means less noise in low-light situations and faster shutter speeds across the board.
Now of course as technology improves, sensors get better and better at absorbing light from small photo cells, so a lower MP camera is not automatically better or more sensitive to light. But the important point here is that higher MP does not mean you’re going to get a better image.
I bought myself a little present tonight: a Nikon D40 digital SLR. When I began my research for a DSLR, I started out gunning for the Olympus E510, but while it was overall quite good and had lots of features it lacked refinement in the image processing department and there’s not nearly as many (affordable) lenses available as a Nikon/Canon. As I was told time and time again, when you buy an SLR you’re not just buying that camera, you’re buying into the brand’s SLR system.
So I started looking at Nikons and Canons, and it came down to the Nikon D40, Nikon D40x, or the Canon Digital Rebel XTi. I knew about the new Nikon D60 (which replaces the D40x), but it didn’t have anything I wanted over the others. So I read and read and read reviews and comparisons and pontifications by professional photographers, and I settled on the 6 megapixel Nikon D40 over my other two finalists (which were both 10MP) because with a lower megapixel rating it’s A) less expensive; B) more sensitive to light because fewer pixels are covering the same size sensor; and C) Megapixels don’t matter unless you’re making prints, and with 6MP I can still make ridiculous sizes like 24″ prints or something.
It was so tempting to go for the ones with more megapixels, but after reading stuff like this from real photographers, lauding the D40 and dispelling the megapixel myth, I realized I needed to get out of the point-and-shoot “more megapixels!” marketing mentality and focus on the other stuff that really matters.
That Ken Rockwell guy I just linked to, for example, has dozens of ridiculously expensive cameras and still uses his D40 more than anything — because it shoots with fantastic quality in almost all situations, is lightweight, and it very easy to use. I found that the Nikon D-series in general has some of the best in-camera image processing, comes with a fantastic kit lens to begin with and has very affordable quality consumer-grade lenses (the Canons tend to be more expensive for good lenses, it seems). I’ll be the first to admit I am totally new to SLR photography, but that’s what I based my decisions on. So I feel like I made a smart choice, and even though I was initially wooed by all the features ticked by the Olympus (LCD live view, image stabilization, etc), I’m glad I did my research so I was able to hone in on what’s really important. Saved me some money too.
The D40 is really small for a DSLR and feels great in my hands. Except for the Olympus E410, I think it is *the* smallest DSLR you can get. It just feels great, and there’s so much stuff to learn. Coming from an older-than-dirt Canon Digital Elph 2.1 MP point-and-shoot that tended to take dark, dingy pictures (hey, it was more than 7 years old…it had its day), I can’t wait until I’m some level of competent with my new D40. I believe I’m actually going to enjoy taking photos again!
Here’s a few of my first shots…all indoors and nothing particularly exciting, because it’s dark and raining outside, but I really wanted to try it out. I still have a lot to learn. Click on the photo to advance or hover over the caption area to see the thumbnails. Click the “Link” text for a larger version (in a popup).