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SNAP SHOTS   by Harry Flashman

 

Update January 30, 2016

Picture Taking for Dummies

My 11 year old daughter asked me to show her how to use my camera. I agreed, but did nothing. Children’s enthusiasm does wax and wane, so hence my tardiness. The desire may have gone by the next week. However, now on the third week and getting exasperated mutterings from daughter I decided to acquiesce.
Teaching children anything can be a difficult task, but my “almost” teenager is now old enough to understand concepts and physics in particular. Why physics? Because cameras all obey some very simple physical laws, no matter how many pixels are stored inside.
Despite all the image stabilization trickery, the first lesson is merely on handling the camera to avoid camera shake. Using supporting tricks by leaning on a pole or setting the camera on a table top.
The second lesson is focusing for a sharp picture. Now I know 99 percent of digital cameras have Auto-Focus (AF), but it is amazing just how many weekend photographers get ‘soft’ pictures. This is generally when taking photographs of couples, where the focusing eye is looking between the heads and focusing on some point in the far distance. The differences and the ways to correct any problems can be demonstrated at the time, and the child becomes proficient at managing the factors.
Light and lens is a good way to start showing the novice that the camera is really just a container trapping the external light. The larger the aperture, the more light gets in. That is relatively easy for young minds to grasp, but the reverse numbering of the f stops is a bit of a hurdle.
Shutter speed is also an easy one, with the longer the shutter stays open, the more light gets in.
Now the temptation is to leave it there and just go play with the mode controls, but I believe that by giving the child a solid grounding in the basics, makes for a better understanding of “painting with light” as photography is often called.
By handling the two variables of aperture and time individually, you can demonstrate the different results – thank goodness for the instant gratification that today’s digital cameras will give you. I also found that by using aperture priority when playing with shutter speed and shutter priority when playing with aperture it made it such that the novice was only required to understand one variable at a time, by letting the camera do the rest.
It was only after that grounding in the basics did I get her to look at the modes, and Little Miss could see what the different modes were actually doing. To stop a railway train use a fast shutter speed. To give me as much detail as possible, then a slow shutter speed will work best.
If the day is overcast, then open up the aperture to let more light in. If photographing on the beach with bright light everywhere, then cut down the light entering the camera by closing the aperture. Remember again that the aperture numbers are the reverse of what you would intuitively expect. F4 is a large aperture, while f 16 is a smaller aperture.
And whilst I know that modern digital cameras can always give you an image especially when in ‘Auto’, I am trying to get my daughter to look beyond the camera being in charge, to the photographer being in charge.
It is important for your child to understand that good photographs are ‘made’, they just don’t happen. To sparkle up their shots, look for points of interest to include in the viewfinder. Then work out how to really use that point of interest in the shot. This may require shifting position, but is worthwhile.
Finally, there is the vexed question around ‘selfies’. Narcissism is not an admirable feature in our society. I will let my daughter take her own without me!


Update January 23, 2016

How ‘mega’ do you want your pixels?

Did you get a new camera for Xmas, New Year or your birthday? Or did you get a newer smartphone? You know, one of those phones that does everything other than iron your shirts.
But can they really do everything? I saw a young photographer last weekend, trying to take shots of moving action, with a camera phone, and being disappointed.
Now whilst I know that camera phone technology has improved over the years, the end result is always a compromise. Is it a camera you can get phone calls on, or a phone that takes pictures? It is like the microwave oven that has a clock built in. Do you buy it to tell you the time in the kitchen, or to defrost food? (Please do not write in with the correct answers, there are no prizes for obvious questions!)
It actually stands to reason that if it needs a boxful of electronics, with an expensive piece of glass mounted on the front of it to get great photos, then you are not going to get the same quality from a camera phone. No, I use my camera to take photographs only, and use my mobile phone to ring Chiang Mai, not to photograph the Chiang Mai moat.
One of the problems when comparing cameras with cameras (forgetting camera phones for the minute) is people tend to read the magic number called megapixels and conclude that it is the deciding parameter between brilliant, good and not so good. 24 megapixels is better than 12 which in turn better is than 4.
Whilst the above is partly true, it really does depend upon what you want to do with the end result. Are you going to be blowing it up to the size of a barn door, or will it be an 8R (10x8) at most? If you have been hired to produce photographs for billboards, then look at a camera with megapixels coming out its strap swivels. For everything else, anything from six to 10 MP is more than adequate.
So what should you be looking for when buying a camera these (electronic) days? To start with, a fast autofocus. Instant zip-zip, not “pause for a second while I get myself ready and then zip”.
I also recommend inbuilt image stabilization. So many photographs are spoiled by camera movement producing ‘soft’ images, which can be overcome with image stabilization electronics. And as a further small advantage, these types of systems are particularly good for the senior citizen photographer.
You should also look at the shutter speeds the camera is capable of. 1/2000th of a second should stop a railway train (in Thailand, not in Japan) and be sufficient for 99 percent of action photography. It is also advantageous if any proposed camera has a time exposure setting so you can take photographs at night, including fireworks.
The other factor of importance is the Aperture, commonly called the f stop. The lens should be able to open up to at least f 4, and close down to at least f 16. This is to give you control over depth of field in your picture taking.
Just about every camera (other than a phone camera) has several modes for you to play with, or to help you. An ‘Auto’ mode for the days you are feeling lazy, or too rushed to start selecting shutter speed and apertures, is totally necessary for the weekend photographer. A for ‘Auto’ is fine for at least 60 percent of weekend photographs. It is only when we start getting into the remaining 40 percent that we need extra capabilities.
However, unless you are very aware photographically, a mode setting that selects the optimal shutter speed and aperture for the action photograph is a good feature to have in your new camera. Most cameras these days also have many other modes, and although I still believe you should know ‘why’ you open up by a couple of f stops when the subject is back-lit, which is what the ‘back-light’ mode does for you, that isn’t really necessary. I’m just being old-fashioned, I suppose.
And my normal camera? 12 MP, 1/2000th shutter speed and f 2.8.


Update January 16, 2016

Items you must have!

This week’s column is dedicated to those of you that have just got a new camera. Especially if this is your first camera.
Cameras do need looking after, and today’s cameras, even in the consumer range, are no longer cheap. It is difficult to find any half-decent DSLR camera under 20,000 baht and even the better point and shooters are around 10,000 baht. Your camera represents a substantial investment – look after it.
The first items to get with the camera are a blower brush, a pack of microfiber cloths and some lens-cleaning fluid. These items are particularly important if your camera has a removable lens, as dirt and abrasive grime can enter the camera every time you unship the lens.
How many times have you got a small piece of grit in your eye? Often, I will wager. Small particles such as that can be very bad for the lens focussing and zooming mechanics too. When the camera is “open”, this is a potential threat. Always try to change lenses in a clean environment
DSLR and mirrorless camera owners who change lenses on a regular basis will find that, over time, blobs will appear in photos. That means you’ve got dust on your sensor, and it is time for a cleaning. You can do a simple “dry cleaning”. Warning! You will need a steady pair of hands.
Other threats to your camera are moisture and condensation and are the easiest ones to counter, but the dampness comes from more than just being caught out in the rain. Thailand is a hot and humid environment. How many times have you taken your camera outside and found you could not see through the viewfinder because it had steamed up? That is condensation. The best answer here is to keep small sachets of silica gel in your camera bag, or in the little “socks” you keep the lenses in. When the silica gel changes color you can pop them back in the micro-wave and rejuvenate them very easily. Many bottles of tablets come with perfect little sachets in the top of them too.
There will also be times when you get caught in the rain, or you may even want to get rain shots. The camera body is reasonably water proof, but you should carefully wipe the outside of the case dry afterwards, and especially blow air around the lens barrel and the lens mount.
After water, the next threat is being dropped. Most larger cameras come with a strap in the box, but they’re often cheaply made and function as little more than free advertising for camera makers. In more dangerous settings, they’re also a great way to advertise to thieves that you are carrying a Nikon or Canon. Get a good, sturdy after-market strap, and always use it.
The camera is not safe just because it is in a camera bag either. Many cheap camera bags do not have cushioning inside. Buy an expensive one. With camera bags, you get what you pay for!
Corrosion is one condition that can kill a camera, and all cameras these days have a battery, the source of corrosion when they leak. Check your batteries regularly, with rechargeable ones kept fully charged and when it seems that the battery loses its charge very quickly, it is time to get a new one.
While still on batteries, buy an extra one, so you will not be left in the situation where you have run out of power, while there’s a million dollar shot in front of you for the taking!
Even though many third-party batteries are just as good as the genuine article, you should be sure to check user reviews of the brand if you can. If you’re worried about buying a copy, buy in person at your local camera store so you can make sure it works and fits your camera before you take it home.
The final item I believe you should have to go with your new camera is a good tripod. A good tripod is not cheap. My very expensive Manfrotto is now over 30 years old and has been on shoots all over the world. The el cheapo won’t last till next Xmas.


Update January 9, 2016

Photography for children

Did someone give your child a camera this Xmas? It could be his or her passport to millions, as good photographers can demand very high fees. However, you have to start somewhere, and a simple point and shoot camera is a great starting point for a 10 year old.
One reason why photography today is good for children is they get instant gratification. No waiting at the chemist for photos. Today it is click and there it is!
First lesson - always use the camera strap. Children can drop things!
Second lesson - take several shots of the same subject, but vary the approach. Shoot in landscape format and portrait formats. Shoot from above, low down and central positions. If possible, with your camera, use different lenses or at different extremes of a zoom lens.
Backgrounds can make or break a photograph. Teach your children to look at the background as well as at the subject. Backgrounds do not add to a shot, but they have the ability to ruin a shot. How many photographs have you made with trees growing out of people’s heads?
Another problem which shows up with many new photographers is the horizon line being off at a drunken angle. Teach your children to look critically at the framing of the shot before squeezing the shutter button. And after, when reviewing the shot in the LCD, to take it again if the horizon is skewed.
Teach your children how to hold a camera with two hands and none of this one-handed approach while waving three fingers with the other and saying “Nung, song, sam”. Despite anti-shake technology, there is a limit!
For me, one of the first ‘rules’ for photography is to Move In Closer. Make the subject fill the frame. In other words, make the subject the obvious ‘hero’ and your child will get better photos.
Another factor to teach is that when illustrating a school outing, for example, they will need to show where they went, as well as their class mates who went on the trip. This is also a time to take plenty of shots, but not 100 shots all the same!
It is important for your child to understand that good photographs are ‘made’, they just don’t happen. To sparkle up their shots, look for points of interest to include in the viewfinder. Then work out how to really use that point of interest in the shot. This may require shifting position, but is worthwhile.
Placing the hero at the intersection of thirds can be a little hard for youngsters to understand, but even to show them to place the subject off-center can be enough.
Provided your child is a teenager, he or she is old enough to be taught the different ‘modes’ offered by almost all digital cameras these days. This includes ‘Portrait’, ‘Sports’, ‘Flash’ and ‘Fireworks’ and many others. Teach them that modes just take some of the mechanical/optical steps away from the photographer and uses the automatic functions in the camera instead. However, the modes do not signify the only way to take a sports photograph, for example. Blur can denote speed much more than 1/1000 of a second and stopping the motion.
Just as their teachers grade school homework, sit down with your budding photographer and discuss their images. Get them to understand which shots are good, and which are not so good, and why.
One of the most important items for new photographers is a small notebook and pencil. Teach your children to make notes as to the camera settings they are using for every shot. Then while going through the shots with them you can see areas where they can improve over the settings they used to take the shot. But with no notebook, both of you are flying blind.
Older children can be introduced to the basics of exposure values, using the Aperture Priority mode and the Shutter priority mode, and the concept of ISO ratings. They can then take shots moving between the three variables and have a very practical lesson in how these affect the final images.
Photography is a good hobby for children and teaches them to think and look critically at their own images.


Update January 1, 2016

Videography for amateurs

Did you get a video camera for Xmas? Or a DSLR that has a video function? Do you know how to use it?
Video is becoming more popular every day. Have a look in the window of a camera shop and you will find as many video cameras as there are still cameras. In addition, many still digital cameras have a video capability as do many camera phones, so there is probably just as much video work being done as still.
The main difference between still and video lies in that still photography freezes a moment in time, while video photography tells a moving picture story.
For the still photographer it is a case of looking at the background and then working out the best combination of shutter speed and aperture. For the video photographer it is a case of working out the story line and then how to shoot the various elements in the story.
One of the ways you can pick the first time video user is the fact that the camera operator spends much time taking shots of still subjects. Having not made the mental adjustment from still photography, many minutes are taken up with a video of his wife standing by the front door of the hotel. That was a ‘still’ shot. With video, you film your wife checking out at the cashier’s desk, picking up her bags and walking towards the exit. Then you rush outside and the next footage is her coming out of the hotel and hailing a taxi. You have just shot a living ‘story’.
So where can you go to ‘learn’ this new art? Just as still photographers have photographs in books and magazines to study, the video photographer has a very ready source of informative examples to scrutinize. This is called TV! Sit down in front of the goggle box and see how the pros do it. Even the dreadful Thai soap operas have good cinematic technique! So start to look critically at technique. Where was the camera, relative to the subject? Did they “zoom” in or was it one far shot and another close up to follow? How many times did the cameraman actually use the inbuilt zoom? You may be amazed to see how seldom!
Here are a few more “rules” which can help you produce better video. Firstly, no rule is absolute, but you should have a good reason to break it. Having said that, let’s look at a few basics.
You should shoot people in full or three-quarter profile to let the viewers see both eyes. The one eyed effect does not look good. Again, look at TV. When two people are talking, the camera shoots over the shoulder of person one to shoot the second person face-on to the camera. When the first person replies, the shot is taken the other way, over the shoulder of the second person. You can also take shots of the person who is listening to the other speak. These are called ‘noddies’, because the person will be nodding while listening to the other speaker.
When shooting people, place the subject’s eyes one-third down from the top of the frame no matter the type of shot. It is that old rule of thirds again. Dead central is boring!
Another shot to avoid is one with large distances between people. Again, look at the soaps on TV. The people are really standing much closer than they would in real life (in each other’s personal space in fact), but if you have them a meter or so apart, you lose ‘contact’ in the video.
Focusing. This is a common problem with still cameras with Auto-Focus (AF), and 99 percent of video cameras are AF too. The magic eye in the camera focuses on a spot in the middle of the screen. When you are filming a couple, if the magic dot is not on one of the people, they will end up out of focus and the background perfectly sharp.
Application of these simple aspects of video photography will give you (and those who watch your videos) a much better end product, and a much more satisfying one for yourself to produce.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Picture Taking for Dummies

How ‘mega’ do you want your pixels?

Items you must have!

Photography for children

Videography for amateurs