What everyone should know about cameras

Well we had some great classes this month and I want to thank all of you who attended. It’s great to see so many new photographers interested in spending a couple of hours learning the basics of their cameras. And thanks to all of you who sent emails with questions. I hope I answered them all to your satisfaction.

In January, I am planning on running a series of basic photographic courses for groups at their locations across the GTA. These private courses are available to anyone who gets five or more students together.BTW these private courses also qualify for special pricing discounts so don’t hesitate to ask for more information by emailing me at peterwestphoto@gmail.com. In addition, I am running two public courses here in Oakville.

I’m doing “Taking Way Better Pictures” on Tuesday, January 12 here in Oakville. This is the best course I’ve ever created for people new to digital photography. It doesn’t matter which camera you own as these principles apply to all makes and models. And, I promise that you will be taking radically better images after taking this course.

On Tuesday, January 19 I’m teaching my very popular Travel Photography course just in time for your next big trip. This is the same workshop I was teaching a local night school for the last couple of seasons. Learn how to protect your equipment from theft and other dangers. Learn what equipment to take and what equipment to leave at home. At the same time I’ll show you how to shoot award-winning images while you’re holidaying in some of the world’s most exotic vacation spots. And remember, it doesn’t matter what make or model of camera you have. What matters is that you want to take exception images with the equipment you’ve got now.

But best of all, when you sign up for one of my courses there are no sales clerks or sales pressure to buy, buy, buy. I just want you to have more fun with your digital photographic equipment.

So here’s a treat: This is a link to the Gizmoto website where today’s blog is called “What everyone should know about cameras.” This is a great introduction to digital photography. It’s got some of the same information that I teach but we go so much further in our time together.

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Photo classes for Christmas

Quite a few of my students have asked for gift certificates for photography classes in 2010. Thanks to everyone and I promise you that after your class, you’ll be taking radically better images. I promise. There are still some certificates left (at 2009 prices) so if you’re interested, please email me at peterwestphoto@gmail.com. But even if you don’t take a course from me don’t be fooled by some of the tactics of a few of the “big” photo schools. A few of them are little better than photographic puppy mills that focus on quantity rather than quality.

So how do you tell the difference? It’s easy. If they won’t tell you who your teacher is going to be, then save your money and run for the door. If you can’t check out your teacher’s credentials (so you can check their website and see if they’re an exception and inspirational instructor and an accomplished photographer) then you’re like to get stuck in some storeroom sitting by a garbage can while the 25 or more of you end up being taught by a teenaged store salesperson who wants to sell you more stuff.

Here’s a tip: If the second slide in the presentation is all about extras you can buy (like more memory cards or camera bags and stuff) don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Advanced flash with Joe McNally

Taking a course with Joe McNally is on my wishlist for 2010. If you don’t know Joe, you don’t know flash 🙂 You see Joe is one of the best photographers currently working today. His mastery of flash is top notch. So how good is he? Well he’s one of the top photographers shooting for National Geographic and it doesn’t get better than that. The shot on the right is of Joe working in a studio and I grabbed it off of Scott Kelby’s Photoshop Insider’s Blog (even if you’re not using Photoshop you must be a regular visitor to this site). Joe uses Nikon equipment but his sage words apply to every brand of camera and flash.

Here’s a sample of what Joe teaches. This video is from the Nikon USA website and in it Joe shows us how to set-up a scene using a model. Once he gets the light right (and notice how much time this takes) he introduces a gelled flash. Now there’s nothing hard about what Joe is doing. Anybody who can trip an external flash from their camera can do this type of photography easily. Strange thing is many photographers, including many working pros, have never been taught how to do this.

Fortunately this is the same stuff I teach right here in the GTA and it’s essentially the same  one-day workshop that I can bring to your city. I am setting up some workshop dates for the new year using models and speedlights just like Joe. Send me an email at peterwestphoto@gmail.com for more information. You’ll love the results.

BTW Joe’s work reminds me of the workshop I took with David Tejada in Buffalo earlier this year. Same wonderful professional instruction and same wonderful photographic results. Here’s one of my shots from the Small Strobes – Big Results workshop.

How to shoot wildlife in winter

Let’s face it, not all of us own 200-400mm zooms that the wildlife photographers use. We also don’t have all day to stake out a deer run or some place where we know an owl is holding up. So how do we amateur wildlife photographers get some great animal shots in winter?

There’s a couple of simple answers: First go to the zoo or a bird sanctuary or butterfly conservatory. And, if you’ve got a fast lens and a monopod (most public places will not allow you to use a tripod) take those with you.

Want something more outdoorsy? Set up a bird feeder in your own backyard. Remember this is a four-month commitment in feeding the birds but depending on the type of feeder and the type of bird seed you can get some really great bird shoots right out your own backdoor. Highly recommend a tripod and a lens around 200mm or more and a remote shutter release.

Finally there are photographers who take people out to shoot birds and animals in the great outdoors. Here in Ontario, an outdoor photographer and instructor, Raymond Barlow offers workshops that you might want to check out. Now I don’t know Raymond and can’t personally recommend him but his bird images are GREAT. If I could get a shot like that taking a workshop with Raymond, I’d be a very happy photographer. BTW I hope Amanda Reed doesn’t mind but the image of the owl is one of hers taken from Raymond’s blogsite. Wow is this a great shot or what! I love it and I hope Ms Reed does too and that she’s got it proudly displayed in her home.

So why, you might ask would I, a professional with 40 years of experience (I started as a child), want to take a workshop with another photographer? I do it all the time. This past year I took one three-day shooting workshop with Ethan Meleg and and a one-day with David Tejada plus attended a half a dozen teaching sessions with some of the world’s best shooters here in Toronto and down in Buffalo, N.Y. I learned more in three days shooting landscapes with Ethan than I knew 🙂 I mean anybody can walk out the backdoor and shoot a landscape of their yard. It likely won’t be any good but it’s a landscape. Ethan showed me how to shoot really great fall landscapes (tripod, manual focus, split-grad filters, patience….patience).

Don’t let winter get you down. Your camera will survive the cold and so will you 🙂

Oh happy day

My copy of Outdoor Photography Canada magazine just arrived in the mail. Look guys if you’re only going to subscribe to one great photo magazine this is it!

Really! Why? Because the images are (for the most part) shot right here in your own backyard by (for the most part) Canadian professional photographers. Roy Ramsay, the publisher and his wife, were with us on the Algonquin Fall Leaves shoot we took with Ethan Meleg who is IMHO one of Canada’s best outdoor landscape photographer. Listen guys I’ve been shooting professionally for 40 years and this guy taught me some techniques that took my outdoor photography up a couple of notches. Nice.

Anyway this is a professionally written and produced magazine. The images are top quality as is the reproduction. The writers are great and the information really useful. Plus these photographers tell you where they shot their image and usually  include information on how it was done. Neat. These guys are also in the photo workshop business just like me but they’re the sort of competition I love as they provide a great product (the workshop) that ends up with great results for the students (images you’ll be proud to show others).

So here’s the deal: If you want a great Christmas present a two-year subscription will cost you $34.50 (for 8 issues). Get the subscription by sending a cheque to Sunlight Media Inc., 34A Avondale Blvd. PO Box 83026, Brampton. Ontario, L6T 5N3 and go buy a Christmas card for the lucky recipient and make a handwritten note that they are getting this subscription. I know I’d be thrilled to receive this gift card.

Creative Light available in Canada

Normally I really hate getting advertisements in my email but today I make an exception for the good folks at Creative Light. These guys sell professional quality softboxes, reflectors, umbrellas, stands and other stuff. If you don’t know what a softbox is head on over to their site and watch their inspiration videos.  There’s no secret to getting these kind of images yourself. You need some training 🙂 – funnily enough I can provide that – and you need some decent equipment. That’s where Creative Lighting comes in. cl-brochure-2009_2

Kindermann Canada Inc. is handling Creative Lighting and several other hard-to-find lines of photographic equipment. (Checkout the Rodenstock line of lenses if you want to go into complete “sticker shock” over the price of these classic large format lenses which can cost more than your DSLR with lens included.)

Which camera for Christmas?

So if you’re off to your local camera store to purchase a camera for Christmas, which one do you buy?

This is a tough decision but can be made easier if you know what kind of pictures you want to take.

If you’re a newcomer to digital photography, you might want to consider a point-and-shoot camera. Almost any point and shoot that costs $200 or more will take absolutely wonderful images. They’re very small in size and will fit in a purse or pocket. Most have built-in zoom lenses that allow you to take wide-angle to telephoto images. This is a good thing. They store the images on a memory card and most cameras can hold hundreds of images that you download to your computer (using a supplied cable and simple software) for viewing and printing. One major downside to these cameras is you use the LCD screen to frame your shot which can be tough in bright sunlight. I always have one with me when I travel.

There’s a higher-end point-and-shoot camera (some people refer to this camera as a “pro-sumer” camera) which has a much bigger zoom lens (but still doesn’t allow changing lenses) and other more professional controls. These cameras won’t fit into a pocket but the enhanced controls may make it worthwhile to carry. These cameras cost $500 and up. Often they have a visual viewfinder which you choose over the LCD screen. (A good feature.)

Finally there are the digital single-lens reflex cameras. Any DSLR from the humble Canon Rebel or Nikon D40 (at around $500) to the high-end pro DSLRs like the Nikon D3 or Canon 1D (if we have to ask the price we can’t afford these guys) will take professional quality images right out of the box. The difference between the pro models and amateur cameras comes down to what’s on the mode dial. On amateur cameras there are pre-set modes (portrait, landscape, macro, sports, day/night, and others) which help newcomers get great shots without having much camera knowledge. The pro models only have aperture and shutter priority, program and manual modes (which do everything and more as compared to the pre-sets). While some of these cameras have a mode called live-view (it allows you to use the LCD screen to frame your subject) all it does is turn your expensive DSLR into a really expensive point and shoot. I never use live-view as the viewfinder in DSLRs work so much better.

The DSLR (and some prosumer cameras) can take an external flash which (when understood) takes your photography up a couple of notches.

When it comes to what to recommend let me say I shoot Nikon and have since the early 1970s. They’ve worked well for me and I like the way they feel in my hands. That’s important. If the camera doesn’t feel right when you pick it up try another model. Any of the Nikon DSLRs are terrific. I have a D-300 (around $1500) and a D-90 ($1000) and if I could find a D40 at a distress price I’d grab one (because they’re light as heck and can take most of my lenses). I have a FujiFilm S6500 prosumer camera which at 6 megapixels isn’t the most modern of models but it takes great shots and I carry it when I’m using the camera like a visual sketchpad. I’ve also got a 6-megapixel FujiFilm F-31d which is a legendary (bright colors and very little noise in the image) that fits into a shirt pocket and goes with me anytime I want to leave the big stuff at home.

If I was buying a new camera today I’d look at the Canon G11 (lots of pros carry this big point and shoot in their camera bags. Get the newer G11 which has less megapixels for a cleaner image) or the new Panasonic GF-1 (and I’d buy the zoom lens for all-around shooting and the fast tiny 20mm f/1.7 lens. You have to compose your image on the LCD screen but that’s a small price to pay for this very capable camera that’s ideal for travellers (as it’s small, capable and very cool). In point and shoots, I like Canon’s S90.

Regardless of which camera you buy please add the small cost of a course to help you learn your camera. A good teacher can save you weeks of aggregation.

And here’s a tip: One Canada-wide retailer offers a one-hour get-to-know-your-camera course which I haven’t heard great things about from people who signed up. Some of the other courses out there are little more than extended sales pitches where you’re pushed to buy extra memory cards and faster lenses. Stay away from these courses. And while I offer great courses on getting to know your camera (ask me for info at peterwestphoto@gmail.com) I understand not everyone lives within driving distance of the Toronto area, so how do you know if your camera course is going to be any good?

The best way is to ask for the instructor’s name and their website and then go check them out. If the course administrators won’t tell you who is teaching the course then you’re likely going to get a sales clerk who will read the words on a slideshow presented in a dark storage room that will go for several hours. Protect yourself! Find out if your instructor is a working pro and if they’ve had any experience teaching photography.

BTW camera clubs often have professionals like me come in to do talks at their club and that’s one of the ways I get many of my students who, based on what they saw and heard at the club, want more of the same from me 🙂 There are lots of great instructors out there so regardless of where you spend your hard-earned dollars don’t get tricked and end up settling for second best.

And remember: Anytime you have a question feel free to email me at peterwestphoto@gmail.com and I’ll get back to you usually within 24 hours as your question is important to me. I want you out there shooting radically better images than every before.