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Bringing it All Together: Digital Master Class

By Tamia Nelson

February 2, 2010

Yes, the column header is presumptuous. I can't really lay claim to having mastered the art of digital photography. But I have learned a lot in the last few years, and if I can help others avoid some of the mistakes I've made since I became a digital girl, so much the better. Last month I tried to address the needs of paddlers who are new to the digital game. This time around, I'll be looking at the problems that bedevil old hands. One thing is certain: I'll have plenty of material to choose from. Mastering any art is a never‑ending challenge, and photography is no exception. It doesn't matter how skilled you are. There's always…

Room for Improvement

Of course, digital cameras have lowered the bar. At least they make point‑and‑shoot photography very easy. Too easy, perhaps. Once you fall into the habit of letting your camera make all the decisions for you, it's hard to take control again. But you can — and if you'd like to progress beyond the snapshot stage, you'll have to. Happily, it's not Mission Impossible. Good photography is mostly a matter of attention to detail. You can't help seeing what you're shooting whenever you take a picture (unless you close your eyes before pressing the shutter), but it takes disciplined effort to observe your subject. Seeing is one thing. Observing another. And the distinction, to echo Sherlock Holmes, is clear. Or at least it ought to be. Sight is a function of the eye and visual cortex alone. Observation engages the intellect.

OK. If that's true, what's the recipe for mastering the art of photography? Maybe the best model is provided by the methodology of scientific inquiry. First, form a hypothesis: If I do this and that, you say to yourself, choosing (for the sake of illustration) a particular combination of shutter speed and aperture, this result will follow. (Maybe you want to make a flower in the foreground stand out in sharp relief against the forest backdrop.) Now test your hypothesis. Set shutter speed and aperture and shoot your picture. Is the result what you expected? It is? Good. You've confirmed your hypothesis. And you've learned something, into the bargain. But what if things don't work out as expected? You've still learned something. Modify your hypothesis in light of your experience and try again.

Questions are a critical part of this process. Hypotheses don't create themselves. They arise in response to questions. (How can I make one particular flower in the forest stand out so as to draw the eye of everyone who sees the photo?) But you're not limited to the questions that you ask yourself. One way to speed your progress up the learning curve is to ask other photographers how they've coped with recurring problems or achieved a particular effect. And that's what I'll be doing for the rest of this column: posing questions that have come my way from readers in the last year, and then doing my best to answer them.

So here goes…


When I review my photos, it seems to me that they're all much of a muchness. Each one looks pretty much like the one before it — and the one after it. In other words, they're kind of bland. What can I do to make every picture unique?

Let me ask you some questions: Do you always shoot from the same position, standing on shore or sitting in your boat? Is your subject always in the center of the shot? Do you always try to keep the sun over your right shoulder? If so, you've identified the problem. There are times and places when it pays to be predictable — riding a bike in city traffic, for instance — but photography isn't one of them. Good photos test the eye and challenge the mind. They confront us with the unexpected, or they show familiar subjects in a new light. So get down low and shoot up. Or climb up high and shoot down. Crop your photos tight, either by zooming in or by limiting depth of field. Move in close to things you usually see from afar. Step back from subjects that seem to call for close‑ups. Look for unusual textures, unfamiliar patterns, and unexpected contrasts. In short, surprise yourself. Then you can't help but surprise others.

More, Please!


My camera lets me choose between shooting JPEG or RAW images. I've read that the pros all shoot RAW. Should I do the same?

It depends. While it's true that many pros (and serious amateurs) prefer to work with RAW images, this is by no means universal. Mostly, the choice comes down to what kind of photography you do and what software you use for post‑processing and editing. RAW files are uncompressed. That means they eat up a lot more space in your camera's memory card than high‑resolution JPEG images. And they take longer to save, as well — an important consideration when you're trying to capture fast‑moving action. The RAW file holds extra information, though, and that's what attracts the pros. But there's a catch. RAW files are truly raw data. In fact, there's no single, universal "RAW" format. Each manufacturer is free to invent his own, and most do. They've all got one thing in common, however: They need extensive post‑processing to show to best advantage. So if you opt to shoot RAW, you'll need to make doubly sure that your editing software is compatible with your camera's proprietary RAW format.

JPEG, on the other hand, is an industry‑wide compression standard. And JPEG images are often good to go right out of the box, so to speak — although experienced photographers will typically do some post‑processing, if only to tweak tonality, saturation, and contrast. (These tweaks are the digital equivalent of the darkroom slight‑of‑hand often practiced by film photographers in the past.) In any event, JPEG is the default standard for the Web. If you're shooting primarily for a website or blog, therefore, it's all you'll need. It's not limited to the Internet, either. JPEG images can also yield lovely prints.

The bottom line? Use RAW for control, JPEG for convenience. And the choice is up to you. By way of illustration, here are two pairs of photos, each pair depicting the same subject, first as a JPEG and then RAW:

Trillium Woods

The River in Spring

The top pair of photos is of white trilliums along a portage trail. The bottom pair shows The River in early spring. In each case, you're seeing the images just as they came from the camera, with no post‑processing whatsoever (other than the minimum necessary to make the RAW images Web‑friendly, that is). And, yes, in both examples, all settings — ISO, shutter speed, and aperture — were identical.

What do you think? I'd say it was no contest. The JPEG images are acceptable as‑is, though they'd certainly be improved by some easy tweaks. But the RAW images? They're not quite ready for prime time, are they? It's back to the digital darkroom for them.

Please don't think I'm trashing RAW. I'm not. Nor am I recommending JPEG as the one‑size‑fits‑all solution. I shoot both, but like many other wildlife and nature photographers, I prefer high‑resolution JPEGs most of the time. My memory cards will hold more images that way, and I don't have to wait as long between shots. This means I can shoot more pictures faster when I work with JPEG. I like that.

More, Please!


I really like "flow‑motion" photos of moving water — blurry images that somehow capture the essence of movement. How do you shoot that kind of picture? Or is it some sort of digital trickery?

Nope. It's not trickery. Photographers were crafting blurry shots of moving water long before Photoshop made its first appearance on the scene. Of course, you can use almost any image‑editing software to do the job, but it's not necessary. All you need for "flow‑motion" images is a fast‑moving stream and a slow shutter speed. How slow? Well, speeds between one second and 1/30th of a second should give you what you're looking for under most daylight conditions, though you might want to experiment with even slower shutter speeds in dim light. The photo below is a case in point. It was shot on a gray, overcast day, at a shutter speed of four seconds — just what was needed to highlight the bubble vortex in the little eddy.


A word of warning: Slow shutter speeds magnify even the slightest vibration. So use a tripod and a remote shutter release if you have them. And don't forget to take lighting into account. If there's an abundance of light in a scene — even if it's nothing more than the "white horses" in a rapids, dancing brightly on an otherwise overcast day — the slow shutter speed you'll need to blur the moving water will likely overexpose the shot. Use a polarizing or neutral‑density filter to compensate.

More, Please!


I like to shoot reflections in water, but very few of my shots turn out the way I'd hoped. Any ideas?

You're not alone. I've had my share of disappointments, too. Quiet bays and mountain ponds often mirror the world around them, but capturing the reflected images isn't always easy. Some tips: Be sure you focus on the plane of the reflection. Bracket the picture by overexposing by +0.5EV or even +1.0EV. Limit depth of field. And be expecially careful if you use a polarizing filter — total polarization will work against you, extinguishing the very reflection you're hoping to capture.

More, Please!


I've been seeing a lot more black‑and‑white photos lately. I like the look of them, and I want to try working in black and white myself, but I don't know how to start. Can you help?

I'll try. I also like black‑and‑white photos, especially of subjects with strong contrasts, striking patterns, and intriguing textures. And many digital cameras allow you to select a "B/W" mode. Having said that, however, I prefer shooting in color and then converting the resulting images to black and white during post‑processing. This lets me have the best of both worlds.

More, Please!

The Marsh in Monochrome


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.

More, Please!


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.

More, Please!



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.

More, Please!


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.

Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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