Five ways to better for photos for $0

I tell my students my three secrets of better photography.

  1. Get closer. I mean way closer. Most of us shoot from too far back from our subject. Zooming in when shooting portraits results in a pleasing look. But whether you zoom in or step in closer to your subject the number one advantage is you automatically crop out clutter and distracting objects that can crop up in the background;
  2. Shoot at eye-level. We all shoot our kids from a height of five feet and up making the kids look like little in munckins. Whether it’s kids or animals, get down (or up) to eye level;
  3. Once you’ve got a shot you’re proud of, get it printed bigger than 8″X10″, frame it and put it up on your wall. Your family and friends will smoother you with compliments.

But there are more ways to instantly improve your photography. Here’s a link to a web site called Light Stalking that offers five more suggestions.

World Press Photo 2010

An Italian photographer, Pietro Masturzo, has been chosen by an international jury as the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2009. It’s a simple image that won. The picture shows women shouting from a rooftop in Tehran protesting the contested presidential elections.

And, for the first time in history, the jury made special mention of a frame grab from a You Tube video. The image was of Neda Agha-Soltan taken as she lay dying  in the street after being shot likely by an Iranian paramilitary. The haunting image of Neda has been seen by millions.

What the heck are plug-in filters?

As regular readers know, I LOVE my NIK Software products. I’ve got their sharpener, noise reduction, black and white convertor, color changer and effects software and I used them all the time. BTW to be fair to NIK here’s what they call their software 🙂  —  Sharpener Pro 3.0; Dfine 2.0; Silver Efex Pro; Viveza 2; and Color Efex Pro 3.0. These software packages are sold individually or you can get the entire collection (at a reduced cost). They work in conjunction with photo editing programs such as Photoshop (and Elements); Lightroom 2, Apple’s Aperture and Color Efex Pro 3.0 also works with Nikon’s really wonderful Capture NX 2. All of these editing programs work on JPG images (where the image parameters are set in the camera and you can’t changed them much) or RAW images where almost nothing is set and everything is changeable in software editing).

So what do I use and why?

For my commercial work I use Lightroom 2. I’ve got a big job on Saturday night shooting a formal dinner and gathering of about 100 people. I’ll likely shoot 500 to 800 images. Lightroom 2 is the only way to handle this volume of work easily. Now if I’ve got really serious photo editing issues (like removing scars or former lovers) I’ll use Photoshop (which honestly: I’m still learning but with manual in hand, it’s pretty easy for most of what I do to an image). If I’m working on my own landscapes I’m using NX2 which is by far the superior RAW editor for Nikon NEF images.

When it comes to plug-in filters I’ll probably run my 100 or so best picks through Dfine to reduce noise (noise in the digital world looks like old fashion film grain) and Sharpener to make the RAW images look as sharp as JPGs. The depending on the images I may run a few through Colour Efex Pro 3.0 filters. I love the golden glow filter for party shots but you must be careful not to over do it.

Once I get my 100 edited images finished, I’ll post them as high-resolution JPGs to my gallery so my client can have a look at them and pick what they want.

So you might ask: Why go to all that trouble? Why not shoot JPGs and be done with it?

IF, AND IT’S A BIG IF, I knew for certain that the white balance was perfect and the exposures right on the button I could shoot JPGs and all I’d have to do is just crop them to eliminate extraneous bits and pieces and I’d be done. If these weren’t important images, I’d be tempted and might just do that and save a bunch of time. But here’s what you can do with your RAW images. First of all my D-300 and D-90 are capable of taking RAW images with virtually no delay for processing as I’m not likely to shooting in continuous (sport-type) mode. Also, once I’ve got my RAW images loaded into any of my editing packages all of them will allow me to produce a batch of JPGs right away. So if I have a need for speed I can go this route.

But what if the white balance (the colour cast being emitted by the lights in the room) isn’t pure white and I am getting a slight yellow or green tinge. Well if I’ve shot JPGs I’m up the creek because they can’t be changed. Also, if I miss my exposure (and I’m likely going to be shooting with the flash all night) RAW will give me a four-stop ability to make changes. JPG – well, not so much.

But let’s get back to plug-ins. They work a whole lot better on RAW images because you can make so many changes without hurting the image quality.

One of the better websites for plug-in filters is a company called Totally Rad. They’ve just brought a $99 package of filters for Lightroom 2 which if I get my hands on a copy I’ll do a review. But in the meantime, you can do your own review. Totally Rad has an online preset page. You pick one of the photos they have as examples and then go down the list and apply the various filters in the package. Totally Rad filters are used by many of the world’s best wedding shooters.

I’m adding this note on Alien Skin which has a 20% off to help the Haiti Earthquake victims. I own a copy of Boken and it’s great fun.

Shoot twilight shots just like the pros

It can be frustrating. I’m talking about trying to capture images of the same quality as those shot by the pros. Images that appear in the best sporting and travel magazines are universally excellent. Here’s an example from Canoe & Kayak Magazine. The images and the explanation of how they were shot come from the excellent Strobist blogsite. Notice the images shot at sunset. They’re great. So why can’t you or I get the same image? Well we can but let’s look at how these shots were taken for the magazine. (I’m not going to show the images here as I don’t have permission to use these commercial shots but you can just go over to the Strobist site and see them for yourself.)

Notice the image of the crew (note: Crew! Not just us with our speedlight popped up on our Canon Rebel) and the softbox and the big monoblock flash head held up on a stand. BTW this image was shot with an iPhone!!!!!!.

So do we need all this equipment? No, but it helps. And, when it comes to a pro-level magazine shoot, it’s absolutely essential.

So how can you get shots of people at twilight?

The simple answer is you use your flash. But if you use your pop-up speedlight, you’ll get a “flash” picture with no twilight in the background and harsh bright light on your subject. If you’re using a point and shoot, try using the night-portrait setting. It’s amazing what you can do with the pre-set modes on many smaller cameras. A tripod might be very helpful to avoid the dreaded camera shake that causes blurry images.

If you’ve got a higher end point and shoot or a DSLR  you can experiment with the “slow sync” flash mode. This mode will allow you to set your camera exposure to capture the background light (Again a tripod maybe essential to avoid camera shake. Light levels that are too low will cause the camera to shoot long time exposures that will make handholding the camera really tough.) while the flash can be set to put just enough light on your subject so that you can get a shot that will look a lot like the one in the magazines. If you’ve got a flash you can control wirelessly that you can put on a stand or duct tape to a nearby tree branch (or have someone hold it for you) you can shoot an image that has side lighting just like the pros.

Watch your curves

There are some great online photography tutorials out in cyberspace. I chanced up a terrific video by San Diego photographer Brian Auer who talks about how to work with curves and histograms when you’re editing your images. While Brian is using Photoshop, the information applies to any of the more advanced photo editing software that allows you to work with RAW images. (Note: curves and histograms work with JPG images but RAW format gives you so much more latitude.)

Brian’s video tutorial is for beginners and it’s excellent information. Not only does he show you what not to do, he explains why. Cool. I haven’t seen too many tutorials that offer this type of explanation. The website is called Epic Edits: A resource and community for photography enthusiasts.

Later this year we’ll be offering workshops on various software packages such as Lightroom 2 and Adobe Photoshop (and probably Photoshop Elements which at around $100 is a pretty good value for what you get). And, of course, we be offering these workshops at our new Toronto teaching location in the Kodiak Gallery in Toronto’s historic Distillery District.