Digital photography in retrospect
I have taken photographs for many years, and
finally “graduated” from film Nikons and medium
format Hasselblads to today’s digital. This
momentous change in direction was about eight
years ago, and although I miss the darkroom, the
“instant” gratification seems to suit everyone,
I had done the conversion rather slowly,
initially scanning my photos and storing the
electronic form of the photo image in the
computer, to be manipulated further if needed.
This rather long-winded procedure meant that I
was converting a negative into a positive print,
then scanning into a digital image. Two steps,
each capable of losing definition.
I then began having my negatives turned into
CDs, rather than printing the images and
scanning them. This way I could import the
images in digital form directly into my computer
via ACDsee and then do the final crop, fix
lop-sided horizons, etc., through Adobe
Undoubtedly there will be those folk who are
very computer savvy who would say I should have
used this or that software, but I am not a
computer geek, I am purely someone who uses a
computer. My editors need images at 300 dpi
(stands for dots per inch, they tell me) and
that is what I supply.
Of course, by still using my film Nikon to
capture the images, I was left in the situation
whereby I did not know definitely that I had a
usable image until the film was developed. I was
also at the mercy of the boy who changed the
photochemicals in the autoprocessor. Crispness
in the final image could easily be compromised
at that stage.
So I finally entered the digital era, choosing a
camera with electronics from an electronics
manufacturer and the lens from a lens
manufacturer. This has, I believe, given me the
best of both worlds. If you are going the
electro-trickery route, use a manufacturer who
knows and understands all the subtleties of LCDs
and pixels and all of that stuff which I don’t
really want to know, but why then get that
manufacturer to make optical glass lenses?
Surely a recognized lens manufacturer would be
better? The end result was my purchasing a
camera made by Panasonic with a lens from Leica.
Both of these firms being accepted as in the top
of their respective leagues.
Having used the camera for a few years now, I
feel I am in a better position to look
critically at its performance. Whilst it has
several buttons on the body of the camera and
one master dial, it still needs much fiddling
around in its menu system. Granted, the five
drop-down menus seem to cover everything a
photographer might want, but I still find it
fiddly, pushing buttons to go from one menu
screen to another, just to change some aspect.
Having said that, after an afternoon of button
pushing and scrolling down the various menus, I
now have a camera that automatically takes a
bracket of three images, and I dictated the half
a stop difference either side of the selected
exposure setting. I also set the viewfinder up
with a grid system, giving me the intersection
of thirds as well as indicating verticals and
horizons. All good clever photographic settings,
but ones that could have been done with rotary
dials. I also worry that one day I might lose
the Operating Instructions manual, all 135 pages
of it, and be forced to push buttons aimlessly
forever, while hoping I stumble across the
settings I want!
Now the experienced digital user will probably
say that all I have to do is practice a little
more, so that the menu selection becomes easy.
Perhaps so, but I am still struggling with the
remote on the TV, such is the level of digital
technology skills possessed by this writer.
However, despite all that, I am loving the
‘instant’ gratification with the ability to
instantly review the picture just taken, and the
ability to delete images within the camera, and
the sheer range of functions makes the Panasonic
Lumix FZ50 the digital camera for me.
Of course this is now superseded, but I am
happy, as are my editors. I see no need to
Making a small fortune from your camera
There is only one totally accepted way of making a small fortune out of
professional photography – and that is to start with a large one.
However, even amateur photographers can make some money with their cameras,
but they have to understand the marketplace first. It is no good trying to
sell a beautifully exposed photo of hydroponic tomatoes growing in magic
broth to a magazine called the Homing Pigeon monthly.
My advice to the weekend snapper is to research the market and only after
this see what is wanted, against what you have, or intend to photograph.
Research is not too difficult or onerous, it is just a case of looking at
magazines in the shops (forget the Homing Pigeons monthly, they’re not
buying this month). After that, look at advertisements in newspapers as well
as magazines, and you will soon get an idea of what the marketplace is
interested in. All that research needs to be done before you even think
about the hardware (cameras) you are going to need.
My advice to anyone starting off is to look for magazines and brochures that
cover travel. Look at the stock photos of palm trees leaning out over the
water from a tropical beach. Seen one, seen them all, but you should try and
get some shots like that for your own portfolio.
Next in the travel pic grab bag are ceremonies. The vegetarian ceremonies
that include demented people sticking rods through their cheek and tongues
will always have a market somewhere – and they have these ceremonies in
Thailand, so you are miles ahead of your brother photographers in Europe,
who only get castles and woods in winter.
In fact, the tropical lifestyle will always be a ready market for good
photographs. Note that I said “good”; snapshots are very rarely “good”
The saffron clothed monks remain ideal subjects, especially as you can get
one on the corner of your street any morning. Just don’t intrude. A long
lens is best for those sorts of pictures. Of course, the temples themselves
offer the photographer endless subjects to photograph. But try to get a
different viewpoint of a very well photographed subject.
All the images mentioned above must also have another common feature. They
must be well exposed and sharp as a tack. Art directors or photo-editors may
need to enlarge the image, by 100 percent or even more. You must be 100
percent sure that the subject of the photograph is in focus. Near enough is
not good enough! If you are shooting medium format, you can generally expect
to get sharp pictures, but the lenses on modern 35 mm equivalent are more
That brings me to the next ‘must have’ piece of equipment – a good heavy
tripod. You will always get sharper pictures with the camera locked onto a
strong tripod. The el cheapo light aluminium things are quite useless for
the job you will want of them. I have used a Manfrotto for 30 years and it
is still good, despite the scratches that they get from plane holds, rail
travel and going twice around the world. Get a good one and don’t try and
cheat yourself with the bottom of the market ones.
Similarly, while chasing sharpness, you must have some good lenses,
otherwise your work is compromised before you begin. I am not going to join
the debate about after-market lenses. Some of them, I am sure, are excellent
– but not all of them.
Last week I mentioned zoom lenses versus prime lenses after the suggestion
from pro photographer Peter Brock in Northern Thailand. Peter advocates
prime lenses and to avoid zooms. The purist in me agrees, but again I think
much will depend upon the subject being shot, and where it will end up.
In my previous life I used 6x6 Hasselblad and had the complete system. (My
transparencies were always met with smiles, but I found I could dupe 35 mm
transparencies up to 6x6 and still get the same smiles.)
To sell a photo it must tell the story it is illustrating, and it must be
sharp. Good luck with the homing pigeons!
The stimulus for this week’s column came from an
American pro photographer suggesting I bring to
the readers’ notice the differences between the
lenses available for your DSLR.
Did you know that pro photographers do not use
one zoom lens, even if it could cover 18-800
with one flick. Pro photographers will have many
lenses, but prime lenses to almost cover that
One of the questions professional photographers
often get asked is, “What lens would you use to
shoot a (insert the subject)?” However, the lens
a pro selects depends upon many factors, and the
subject being shot is only one of the important
If that sounds confusing, do not worry, it will
become more clear as you read on. You see, you
can get a shot of your pet subject using any old
bit of glass on the front end of your camera. In
some instances, you can almost get the identical
looking shot of the subject with a 28 mm lens, a
50 mm or a 135 mm. By now you are saying, why
have all these different lenses if the shots
look all the same? The essential word here was
“almost” the same. There will be tell-tale
differences and it is these differences that
make or break your photographs. By using the
differences you can manipulate the shot to
produce the effects you want.
Right then, let’s get down to some examples. You
are on a tropical beach, Bang Saray will do, and
you want the blue skies over the sea type of
picture. Unfortunately, the sky is only pale
blue. What to do? The lens to use to increase
the blue color of the sky is the widest angle
lens you have got in the bag. How does this
work? Simple, you are taking an enormous area of
sky with the wide angle and compressing it into
the small 35 mm equivalent in digital terms.
Compressing all that sky increases the depth of
the color and makes it more blue than it really
Another example, you have just bought a car and
want to send a photo of it to your relatives at
home. You want it to appear as imposing as
possible. What to do? Leave the wide angle lens
on and get down low and close to the car. Look
through the viewfinder and the car suddenly
looms large and powerful above you. The closer
you get, the more it looms above you. Click! It
is in the bag of pixels and on its way to
impress the relatives.
This distortion with wide angle lenses is the
reason you should not use one for portraits.
Unless you want the nose looming large and
I was going to ignore ‘selfies’ taken with
camera phones, but since I see these pictures
being taken every day, I will mention them.
Camera phones generally have wide angle lenses
to get depth of field, but now add in the
distortion of the subject close to the camera
phone and you have that swollen arm coming out
of the photograph. Hideous result. Don’t do it!
What about a nice close up of your favorite
painting you bought? Another “genuine”
Sunflowers by Van Gogh. Will you use a close-up
lens or the wide angle setting on the zoom lens?
No, you should use the telephoto long lens and
stand back. If you go in close with the wide
angle you will get distortions at the edges and
strange shadows across the canvas because you
physically get in the way of the light. With the
long lens there is less distortion and the light
will fall evenly across the picture.
Mind you, there are times when the subject being
shot does dictate the lens you would use. Let me
assure you that when photographing man-eating
lions I would use the longest lens in the world.
A close up lens to photograph its dental work
would not be my idea of fun!
So there you are, think about the effect you
want, rather than just the subject matter when
deciding what lens to choose. And finally look
through the lens to ensure that you are getting
what you want.
Thank you Peter Brock in Chiang Mai.
Inexpensive ways to
improve your photos
Flashman close up.
There comes a time in every semi-serious photographers life that
is manifest by dissatisfaction with one’s images. Unfortunately,
there is a collective thought in the photographic community that
to improve your shots you should move up to expensive camera
bodies, extra lenses, 12 zillion pixels and then select “Best
Pic Shots” on the Auto mode button. However, there is no camera
made with an uploaded software package to ensure “best pics”
every time. “Best Pic” are under your command, not in the “Auto”
setting on your camera.
An example of where the “Auto” setting can be at odds with what
the photographer wanted was brought home some time ago when a
gentleman wrote it with the following letter.
A question for you regarding some disappointment. I recently was
a guest at a beautiful wedding, the reception was quite well lit
so I thought rather than use a flash and have everybody look
like ghosts I would turn the flash off.
What I had not taken into consideration was that the shutter
speed would be slower without the flash. Most of the photos were
blurred, either by me shaking, or the people I was photographing
moving during the shot.
At least I am assuming that was the cause of the bad shots, what
is your opinion Harry?
Your assumption was spot on. The clever brain (or electronic
smarts) inside the camera knows that a certain Exposure Value
(EV) is required to produce correctly exposed shots. That EV has
two variables, but which are related directly to each other, and
they are the size of the aperture and shutter speed.
Now even though you felt the venue was well lit, and I do often
tell people to turn off the flash to stop the rabbit in the
headlamps look, that venue’s ambient lighting was not enough to
get to the EV required without some extreme values in aperture
and shutter speed.
I will presume that you had the camera on full ‘auto’ and not on
Aperture Priority, but the result would have been around the
same. The electronic brain knows you can’t hand-hold at much
slower than 1/30th second so will try to use that shutter speed
and open up the aperture to whatever is needed to get the
correct EV. That’s the theory.
However, when the camera runs out of aperture setting, then all
that is left for the camera brain to do is to adjust is the
shutter speed even further and its little electronic brain gives
the camera an even slower shutter speed, at which you cannot
hand-hold. Blurred shots are the result.”
So the first simple way to improve your shots, is to still turn
off the flash in low light situations, but use a tripod to keep
the camera still. I carry a very small fold-up tripod which can
sit on a table, on the floor, or anywhere you can accommodate
its three legs. Be careful when you depress the shutter button
that you don’t move the camera on the tripod, or the tripod
itself, or you have defeated the purpose in having a tripod.
The next way to get that elusive “Best Pic” is to remember and
adhere to, the Rule of Thirds.
Simply, all this means is to make sure the subject is one third
in from either edge of the viewfinder. Just by placing your
subject off-center immediately drags your shot out of the
“ordinary” basket. The technocrats call this the “Rule of
Thirds”, but just try putting the subjects off-center. While
still on the Rule of Thirds, don’t have the horizon slap bang in
the center of the picture either. Put it one third from the top
or one third from the bottom. As a rough rule of thumb, if the
sky is interesting put more of it in the picture, but if it is
featureless blue or grey include less of it. Simple!
The next item to be aware of is to always make the subject the
“Hero”. You do this by walking several meters closer and making
the subject fill the frame. This way the subject automatically
becomes the reason for the photo. The “Hero”.
Try it. It works!
The camera is only an extension of your mind
Thomas Carlyle – photo taken 1867.
There are many photographers in the past that I admire. They all
have one thing in common. They knew what they are looking at,
and believed they knew what the final result should be. And
guess what, none of them used a digital camera.
Look at the photograph this week of the eminent historian Thomas
Carlyle. That was taken in 1867 (149 years ago) and is ranked as
one of the most powerful portraits in the history of
photography, and yet was taken with totally primitive equipment.
Megapixels hadn’t even been invented.
Look again - technically it is imperfect. There is blurring of
the image, and when you realize that the shutter was open for
probably around three minutes, then you can see why. The sitter
could not possibly remain motionless for that period of time.
But it has the power to mesmerize you. How?
The dynamics of this shot come from the very first principles of
photography - painting with light. It is not the subject that
makes the shot - it is the way you light the subject, and this
is the prime example, taken 149 years ago. The light is falling
on the sitter almost from the side and slightly above. One eye
is partially lit and the other in shadow. The hair and beard
show up strongly. The photo is totally confrontational.
Analyze further. If the face had been front lit, and both eyes,
the nose and the mouth were all clearly visible then there would
be no air of mystery. The dark areas of the photograph have made
you look further into it. You begin to imagine what the features
were like. You also begin to imagine what the person was like.
You have just experienced the “perfect” portrait.
The shot was taken by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 1879) a
British lady who, in her late forties, took up the new fangled
notion of photography. This was not the age of the point and
shoot simplicity we enjoy today. This was the age of making your
own photographic plates by painting a mixture of chemicals all
over it - chemicals you mixed yourself - exposing the plate in a
wooden box camera and then fixing the negative in more chemicals
and finally making a print.
It was the 29th of January 1864 when Mrs. Cameron finally
produced her first usable print. She had made the exposure at 1
p.m. and in her diary recorded the fact that by 8 p.m. she had
made and framed the final print. (And you think you are doing it
tough if the ‘review’ function takes more than one millisecond
to show you the result!)
Julia Margaret Cameron made close up portraits 30x40 cm.
However, she would not have managed to photograph so many of the
notables of the era had it not been for her next door neighbor,
the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson. After Tennyson saw his
own portrait he persuaded his eminent friends to sit for her as
well. Most of these portraits were different from the Thomas
Carlyle photograph in that they were taken in profile. Mrs.
Cameron felt that the innate intelligence could be more easily
seen in the profile and this may have been the result of the
influence of the quasi-science of Phrenology, whereby your
cranial bumps showed your true talents, which was all the rage
at that time!
Julia Margaret Cameron has contributed to photography by showing
that it is the eye of the photographer that dictates the
photograph, not the “smartness” of the equipment. She also
showed a personal determination to succeed which should be an
example to the young photographers of today.
So you can stop reading the photographic magazines to see if you
should buy the latest offerings with 1000 megapixels complete
with one millionth of a second shutter speed and dedicated flash
power for up to three kilometers and just go out and take
photographs with what you have got. Look at what is in front of
you and “make” your own photographs “work” for you. Thus endeth
the inspirational lesson. Thank you Mrs. Cameron.