Photography 101

Today’s Globe and Mail has a good article on how to shoot wilderness images. Written by an amateur photographer, the article is worth the time to read….but, there are a few points that need discussion.

First thing is photographing polar bears isn’t easy. Remember the bear is white. The snow is white. If it’s a clear day the sun is bright. And because digital photography is so affected by a technical term called white balance, most of what you shoot is going to come out looking blue. The photo that the editors used to illustrate the article comes from a professional photography site called (These stock photo sites have put a lot of good photographers out of business with their always-available, royalty-free images.) and sure enough the image has a blue cast.

Now in a “tips” section in the article, the first tip is read your manual. I agree only if your manual has a “quick tips” section. Most amateur photographers aren’t interested in all the technical stuff and just want good shots. Reading the manual is okay but most manuals are way too confusing. I suggest read the quick tips section and then go play with your camera for a couple of weeks prior to any big trip.

If you can, take a one-day workshop on shooting or travel photography. If you live in southern Ontario email me about courses I run for amateur photographers.

Tip two talks about shooting RAW. That’s great advice if (A) you know the difference between RAW and JPG images; (B) you have the software to open and edit RAW images; and (C) you are willing to take the time after the trip to work on all the images (all RAW images need editing).

Having said that I use both formats. I shoot RAW when I want images that I can edit in Photoshop (or Lightroom 3 or NX2) and make perfect. I shoot JPG went I want the camera to do all the thinking for me and I can shoot tons of images for showing online. Neither format is best for all things. RAW images can take much longer to record in smaller point and shoot cameras (many of which won’t shoot RAW at all).

Tip three about switching lenses is a good one. When I travel super light I carry a versatile 18-200 mm zoom (wide to telephoto) that covers most of my outdoor shooting needs and a 35mm f/1.8 lens for shooting available light shots or street photography. When I’m out shooting in a serious manner I also bring a 12-24 super-wide zoom, a 105 macro lens and a second camera body plus an expensive carbon-fibre tripod. Now we’re talking a serious amount of camera equipment that weighs a ton by the end of the day. Pack in two flashes and associated hardware and cables and now you’re going to need help.

Tip four talks about changing exposure. Your camera on “Auto” won’t cooperate but it will on “Program” mode or “Aperture” or “Shutter” Mode. If there’s one thing you should learn to do and that’s learn how to change the exposure of your camera. To do this, go take a photography workshop on digital photography. This is the first step toward becoming a much better photographer.

Tip five about don’t panic doesn’t go far enough. I don’t worry at all about water splashing on the camera but I do worry about it becoming submerged. A little rain or splash is tolerable but dropping the camera into the lake or worse, the ocean, is going to kill most cameras. Put a strap on your camera and wear it around your neck….always.

Reduce shake is the next step toward better images. Nobody but advanced amateurs and pros use tripods but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to reduce camera shake by leaning against a lamp post or using a fence or wall to help steady your shot. Using a higher ISO when shooting with long lenses (which accentuate camera movement) is a good idea if your camera can shoot high ISO without introducing too much noise in the image.

Research the wildlife. Yes this is good but it’s faster and more effective to hire a pro. Many pros offer one-day shooting workshops in your city or at your destination. The woman who wrote the Globe and Mail article got a lot of great help from the pros on her tour. I’ve conducted photo shoots and been a participant and I highly recommend them. If you want to get better faster then join a local camera club. Clubs often have one-day shooting workshops.

Be critical and delete shots. No. Don’t do this. Buy extra memory cards (4 and 8 gig cards hold a lot of RAW or even more JPG images. I can fill a 4-gig card in less than a day’s shooting while on vacation).

Don’t burn. The suggestion here is to watch for sunburn while you’re out shooting. And watch for exhaustion from carrying too much equipment and frost bite from shooting in cold weather and hypothermia and breaking a limb. In other words, be prepared.

Finally suggestion 10 is “It’s not all about the camera.” Couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen excellent shots taken with a cellphone camera and rotten shots taken with $40,000 digital large-format camera. My wife went to San Francisco with her mum, sister and our niece and took our FujiFilm F-30 tiny point and shoot. This ageing camera takes 6 meg JPG images and the shots she came back with are excellent photos.

She’s taking the images and making a photo book.

It’s not the camera folks.


NIK gets better and better

Want to learn a lot about photography in a hurry? Then click on over to NIK Software’s Learn tab and start watching the videos. The gang at NIK has figured out how to produce and deliver really worthwhile online webinars.

Sure the content is largely about their software products but there’s lots in the webinar for everyone.

Having said that I recommend all their products and I’ve got them all and use them all the time.

If you’re going to pick one start with Color Efex Pro 3 which is a wonderful collection of filters).

Silver Efex Pro 3 (which is coming out next month and I’ve already placed my order) is an upgrade from Silver Efex Pro 2 which produces stunning digital black and white photos just like I used to make in the wet darkroom at the daily newspaper where I was one of the staff photographers.

If you can afford the entire collection (sold at a big discount when you buy it all), you’ll have software solutions which you will use on after every photo shoot.

One new package is HDR Efex Pro. I used to think that creating high dynamic range images was complicated. With NIK’s HDR Efex Pro it’s really simple. I’d call it one-button processing (which you can do) but there are so many other controls that makes it sound too basic as it’s one of the most sophisticated pieces of software in my arsenal.

But best of all, regardless of which package you buy, NIK has online support and teaching which is almost as good as what I do in classes 🙂

How to use flash and learn photography

When I taught photography for Henry’s School of Imaging (which I recommend now that they’ve had made some organizational changes) we used to teaching everything about photography but the courses were aimed at beginners.

Today emerging pros or advanced amateurs may have a difficult time finding a decent one-day photography course on advanced subjects.

Here in southern Ontario I highly recommend my friend Michael Willems whose site is a must read. Michael also teaches at Henry’s and he runs his own advanced courses.

I took a workshop with David Tejada when he came to Buffalo, New York, last year. Highly recommended. (That’s one of my shots from David’s workshop.)

But what if you can’t get away or you don’t have the cash for a workshop? I can highly recommend Friday Photo School run by Will Crockett.

I like Will. He grows on you 🙂 But best of all, he knows his stuff and he knows how to teach it. And even better, his teaching is simple enough for beginners to follow (especially if they have a basic understanding of how their camera works) but advanced enough for emerging pros to learn from Will.

I especially liked the free workshop at his site about flash and another on the difference between JPGs and RAW files (I learned something new about JPGs watching Will. If you shoot in JPG mode and get say a 9 meg file and open it up in RAW the file will open up to 30 megs in size. Okay how about if you shoot RAW first and then process it and make a JPG. Guess what? It produces a 9 meg JPG file.

But is there a quality difference between the two files? You got to watch Will at Friday Photo School to find out :). The answer may surprise you

Best of 2010

We can thank Jim Goldstein of JMG-Galleries for this comprehensive list of photographers’ top 10 images of 2010.

Not to be harsh here but most of these galleries are composed of snapshots. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots (and some of them are really interesting) but I lean more toward photographers who are shooting art and using the medium of photography as a means to express themselves. For example, some of the photographers on the top 10 list are obviously unschooled when it comes to “photography” but are still creating interesting, even compelling, images. Some of the black and white and portrait work is well worth the time to scan the list.

I think if I see one more overly manipulated candy-coloured landscape I’ll scream. (If you want to see how to create stunning lanscape images using one or two colours only go to Jim’s site. Fabulous images.

Is it photography?

Among other Twitter feeds (including my own: peterwest) I follow #photography. As I work at my home office I keep TweetDeck running on a second monitor and occasionally, for fun or to break the tedium of being a one-man show, I look at what’s passing by.

Today, one of the people I follow (Alice’s Blog) suggested readers look at Alex Stoddard’s work.

Stunning images. Brave. Even groundbreaking especially when you consider that Alex is 17.

These images are enough to discourage some from ever picking up the camera again. They’re that good.

But, is it photography? Yes yes I know Alex is using the photographic medium but his images are so heavily photo edited that I am challenged to view them in the same way I’d view Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams‘ work.

Alex produced these images following a “365 project”. He says on his site that when he started off he “hadn’t a clue how to operate my camera outside of ‘Auto’ mode.”

If you like Alex’s work checkout Rosie Hardy. Amazing.

And is it photography? Who cares! The images speak for themselves 🙂  …loudly and clearly.

In the beginning…

Let’s start a new beginner’s series on photography.

Let’s begin by talking about the camera itself.

All cameras, from the very first primitive box cameras built in France in the early 1800s to today’s most sophisticated and complex digital single lens reflexes have one thing in common: They are all essentially just light-tight boxes.

Some cameras you can still buy today don’t even have a lens but rather use a pin-hole.


Back in the old days I owned a lovely Leica M-4 camera which had only three controls: shutter speed, lens aperture and focus. It was a very expensive camera used by photojournalists to shoot amazing black and white images (Think of the movie “My Year of Living Dangerously.”

This camera did not have a light meter. You had to use an external light meter. Because nothing was automatic, every shot (pretty much) was in focus, properly exposed and properly composed.

Those were the good ole days 🙂

Photo of the year 2011

Yup it’s not five days into 2011 and already we may have the photo of the year!

The photo is in newspapers around the world and shows the killer of a Filipino councilman in the act of shooting him dead as the councillor was taking a photo of his family on New Year’s Eve in Caloocan City.

Sad as this event was it’s not likely to be only one of its kind. As cameras are now everywhere and carried by everyone who has a smart phone, we’re going to see a lot more amateur photojournalism in 2011.