No matter how careful I am, my photos don't come out exactly the way I'd like. My buddies say I'll have to photoshop them if I want them to look good. Is this true?
Yes and no. While there's no denying that Photoshop and other image‑editing software packages are now commonplace additions to the photographer's toolkit, they're not yet mandatory. Moreover, photoshopping — with or without a capital "P" — can never substitute for careful composition and proper exposure. Still, many (most?) pros use image‑editing software routinely in order to make their good shots even better, and so do a lot of amateurs. I'm no exception. If you're interested, you'll find more information at the link below.
I plan to take plenty of shots in low light. Will I have to use a flash?
Not necessarily. I almost never use one, preferring to rely on natural light whenever possible. Why? Because a flash can throw off the color balance in a shot, necessitating fiddly changes to your camera's default settings. (This is particularly annoying when you've already gone to the trouble of customizing those settings, creating a "personal default," if you will.) Off‑camera flash units aren't cheap, either, and most built‑in flashes are prey to a number of problems, including the dreaded "red‑eye," those eerie reflections that make your paddling buddies look like extras in a low‑budget remake of Night of the Living Dead. Your camera's red‑eye reduction setting can help here, of course, but you'll probably find that annoying reflections still crop up from time to time. Red‑eye is surprisingly hard to kill. Just like a zombie.
There's more. Any flash, no matter how powerful, has a limited effective range. If your subject is too close, it's likely to be vignetted: the corners of the picture will be blacked out. And if it's too far away, everything will be in the dark. This adds another layer of complexity to the already fussy business of framing a shot. The moral of the story? If you're determined to use a flash — and many good photographers do — study your camera's manual first. (Flash or no flash, this is always a good idea.) And then, if you're interested in digging deeper into the topic of artificial‑light photography, check out the lessons at The Strobist (see link below).
In the end, however, you may decide it's just too much trouble. If so, you can broaden your camera's low‑light capabilities by ratcheting up the sensitivity (or the ISO) to the highest possible setting. Be forewarned, though — this, too, has a downside. High sensitivity settings will generate "noise" (I think of it as pixel dust) in the darker regions of each image. There are two remaining alternatives: (1) Use a tripod and accept the blur caused by slower shutter speeds, or (2) rig a reflector to direct as much natural light onto your subject as possible. Both are fruitful areas for experimentation.
I want to shoot pictures of the moon when we go out for midnight paddles on the lake. Have you got any tips?
Yes. But first, a cautionary word: it's harder than it looks. The full moon is much brighter than you might think, and it's a tricky subject to capture. Your camera's meter can be thrown off by reflected light, leading to annoying exposure errors. And then, if you don't get both sensitivity and focal length just right, there's even worse to follow. The moon will either be little more than an anonymous dot in a vast skyscape, or it will appear as a brilliant, amorphous blob.
Is this the last of the bad news? Nope. If you want to shoot pictures from your boat, you'll find that a tripod is no help at all when you're afloat, even on Golden Pond. Which leaves you with just one tool to limit shake — use the highest possible sensitivity setting and hope for the best.
But there's some good news, too. The moon is often visible during the day. You just have to know where to look. (Planetarium software like the marvelous freeware program Stellarium will guide you to the right part of the sky on the right day.) And daylight moon shots can be downright breathtaking. Give it a try.
Whew! It seems like we've covered a lot of ground, doesn't it? But we've only scratched the surface. Discouraged? Don't be. There's really no mystery to…
Mastering the Art of Photography
It just takes interest and determination. And what's the recipe for success? Experiment. Take chances. Talk over your problems with other enthusiasts, study photos that catch your eye, and invite criticism of your own work. (Online forums are particularly good for this.) Strive for consistency. Consider entering contests, too, but beware of contest rules that require you to surrender your copyright interest in your images. You've worked hard to shoot good pictures, so guard the results the way you'd protect any other property.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, relax. Enjoy the challenge of becoming a good photographer. Competence comes with practice, and sooner or later, your own distinctive style will emerge. To help things along, set yourself assignments designed to focus your efforts on specific techniques or subjects. Here are some suggestions:
- Take only one lens on every shoot — and use a different lens each time
- Shoot from a different perspective (down low one day, up high the next)
- Photograph shadows
- Photograph reflections
- Look for contrasts
- Seek out striking textures and patterns
- Design shoots around themes: Motion, Quiet, Color, etc.
- Search out subjects that will make good studies in black and white
- Exploit techniques like bokeh (deliberately leaving areas of an image out of focus)…
And that's just a start. You'll find a longer list, with examples, in "Are You in the Photographic Doldrums?" Invent exercises for yourself, too. Ask questions. Formulate hypotheses. Test. Evaluate. Make new hypotheses. Retest. And so on. The process never ends, but each cycle takes your further along the road toward mastery. The joy is in the journey, not the destination. That's not so bad, is it?
Digital cameras liberate you from many of the constraints of film photography, and this makes the learning process a whole lot quicker (not to mention cheaper). Of course, few of us will ever rise to the heights of the profession. Ansel Adams' reputation is probably secure. But that's not to say we can't all master the rudiments of his art. What's the secret? Easy. Begin by reading your camera's manual thoroughly. Then shoot pictures every chance you get, and do your best to make each shot count. Take control. Experiment. And learn from your mistakes. Make the leap from seeing to observing. There's no better way to bring it all together.
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