What camera should I buy?

RockyShore_iphone-0044“I want to take better pictures.  What camera should I buy? ”  Corinne and I get this question a lot.  In most debates over what camera is better, we have little experience and as a result have little to contribute to this discussion.  However, we believe that for new photographers, this is the wrong question.

Let’s be very clear!  Every modern digital camera has the ability to take stunning photographs.  Every camera has its strengths and weaknesses and at a professional level there are some cameras better suited to certain types of photography (e.g., landscape versus wildlife photography).  However, for new photographers, the make of camera matters very little.

So when we are asked, “what camera should I buy?”  we turn the question around and ask “what camera are you using today?”  Frequently, they will hold up their mobile phone, a point-and-shoot camera, or entry-level digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR). We then ask what they think is wrong with their current camera?  Generally, we get a mumbled response that they aren’t getting the photographs they want and they believe the limitation is the camera.

Recently, in response I (Shawn) have been pulling out my mobile phone and showing a series of pictures.  I get the typical response of “aren’t they lovely” and “I can see what you can do with a really good camera”.  With the prey secure in my trap, I point out that all of the photographs they just looked at were taken with my mobile phone.

It’s only after that demonstration that I can address the real question, which is “what should I be doing to take better pictures? ”  Frequently, I ask if they have looked at their camera manual, watched any YouTube videos, or taken any general photography classes?  For most folks, self-learning from a manual or by trial-and-error is difficult.  So, we suggest they take some instruction, either from a professional photographer in the area of photography they like, at a local community college, or from an online class.

 

Dinghy_iphone-0052

Sometimes the problem is not with the camera that they use, but with fundamentals of setting up their shots.  When photographing people, consider locations where the light is not harsh (e.g., under a shady tree) or where the shadows on their features are minimized.   Eliminating or reducing the sky may prevent the subjects from becoming too underexposed in relation to the surroundings.  For landscapes, a little effort to review the composition can make a huge difference.  Moving to a better vantage point or stepping forward to “crop out” the distracting clutter may help.  Compositions that include some interesting foreground components (e.g., wildflowers, beach driftwood, etc.) as well as the attractive vista can be more visually appealing.

In short, education and practice are the path to better photographs.

And after our conversation with the budding photographer, we frequently get the follow-up question, “Is Canon better than Nikon?” <Sigh>

[All images in this post were taken with an iPhone 6 in the Pacific Rim National Park, BC]

Finding the Right Spot

Jedidiah sunburst-3391

We take a lot of photographs in the remote areas of the Washington State and British Columbia.  We travel to a lot of these places on our boat, Salish Lady.  Our boating/photography trips usually involve challenges of selecting a general location, getting there by boat, finding a safe place to anchor, and then launching the dinghy to get to shore.

I think all serious landscape photographers know that getting just the right light is the most important factor in achieving a STUNNING photograph.  However, without some kind of interest in the composition, even the absolute best light and color can’t move a beautiful photograph into the STUNNING category.

Working in the wilderness of Inside Passage makes it doubly hard.  The environment here is beautiful and overwhelming.  Almost every place you stand feels like it should be the “spot”.  But it is also a very complex environment and our eyes do an incredibly good job at distilling the environment for us.  In a photograph, complexity can get in the way of creating the STUNNING image.

Finding the right spot to take the photograph becomes an obsession.  We spend hours and hours trekking across the shore, up hills, and wandering around on small islands.  Don’t get me wrong; we really enjoy this exploration and would do it even if we never had any intention of taking a photograph.  However, finding a spot with just the right “stuff” drives this process.

So how do we decide on the right spot? All the usual rules of composition apply, but the trick we have found that seems to trump everything is simplicity.  We drive to create a simple image, without distractions, but still something to capture the viewers’ emotions.  We like to allow the simplicity combined with the colors tell the story.  When we are really successful, the image tells a story and hints at the broader beauty of the area.  A goal we strive for but rarely achieve.

So when faced with an overwhelmingly beautiful vista, look for the simple composition.  Have faith that from a simple image the story will be clear.

Back on the Water

SalishLady_BohoBay

We are back on our boat Salish Lady for another year of cruising in the Pacific Northwest (and BC southwest).  This year is a little different because I (Shawn) have semi-retired from some of my business concerns and hope to be fully retired by the end of the year.  Although I still have some business responsibilities, this is the first time in many years where I can set my own agenda every day.

Spending time on our boat has helped with the transition because there are always maintenance tasks to be completed.  She can be a demanding lady at times.  Boat projects are a nice distraction because they are discrete tasks that can be planned and completed in a few days.  It is always nice to progress through a “To Do” list relatively quickly.

I was very fatigued because the last few years have been extremely stressful. The downtime I have had in the last month to rest and recover has been rejuvenating.

I am now starting to turn my focus to writing and photography, two hobbies that have had the potential to be much more than just hobbies.  In previous years, we had a pretty good stream of articles and photographs that were published in boating magazines, but that activity waned as I had more demands on my time and energy due to my businesses.

Currently, Corinne and I are working on two different book projects.  As I start to put more energy into them, my days have become increasingly busy and it won’t be long before I will whine about never having enough time.  We also plan to put together more of our images with the “she saw/he saw” theme that we initiated last winter.  We post many of these on our Z Frontier Photography Facebook page  (https://www.facebook.com/zfrontierphoto).

All-in-all it has been a nice transition to a new focus for my time and energy and I am enjoying the chance to work on some creative endeavors.

Landscape Photography at a Grueling Pace

Bandon Beach Color Sunset-00350

 

We just completed a 10-day photography trip. We covered about 2,500 miles between Las Vegas, Nevada and La Conner, Washington; we shot 15 locations, hit all but 3 sunrises and 1 sunset and covered over 10,000 feet of elevation. We shot mountains, beaches, forests and bridges and lighthouses. In short, we had a blast and completely exhausted ourselves.

Landscape photography is unlike any other endeavor. It requires knowledge of photography, hiking, survival and planning skills. It is not unusual to find us out hiking in the pre-dawn darkness to do a sunrise shoot and hiking back in the dark after a sunset shoot. It requires good reliable equipment and through understanding of how to use that equipment so you can find the buttons to adjust the settings. That is before you even consider the knowledge associated with the camera menus and the features and uses of lenses and filters.  It also requires a certain flexibility about signage at parks and waysides. Just what does “open dusk to dawn”really mean? You need to know when to park outside the gates of public places, and which gates will be left open.

Perhaps the most important skill/attribute is stamina. We shot almost every morning. This meant we were out of bed, dressed and heading to the location around 4:30 AM and waiting for the sun around 5:30 AM. It also meant that we didn’t hit the sack until around 11:00 PM after returning from a sunset on a beach and having to clean all the salt spray off the camera gear. We drove around 200 to 300 miles most days. A lot of that driving was on mountain highways. When we arrived at a desired location we hiked in during daylight hours to scope out shoot locations for both sunset and sunrise.

I can’t think of any other activity that has so much activity built into a single day. Although it was exhausting, it really is living to the max!

If you would like to see more of the images from our trip, please visit http://www.zfrontierphoto.com and click on the Gallery button, then look in the collection of “NEW” images.

 

 

Night Photography

Captured image of Pixel Stick using a Canon 5D Mark III, using a EF24 - 105 mm len, at ISO 100, f/11, 33 sec exposure
Captured image of Pixel Stick using a Canon 5D Mark III, using a EF24 – 105 mm len, at ISO 100, f/11, 33 sec exposure

We have recently found ourselves doing quite a bit of night photography.  During a recent trip to Death Valley, we seemed to concentrate on shooting stars, wagons and dunes at night.  Last night, we were out with a photography club “light painting”.  It must be getting warmer.  Corinne really enjoys photographing at night.  I enjoy shooting as long as I am not cold.

As an exercise, shooting at night forces you to become very familiar with your camera setting.  More importantly, you become pretty familiar with what those setting actually do!  Experimenting with F-stop, ISO and shutter speed give direct feedback in low-light shooting.  Adding “long exposure noise reduction” also has a significant impact on the process of taking photographs at night.  It gets especially fun when your eyes no longer predict what the camera sees.

There are a number of YouTube videos and blogs that will tell you the keys to night photography.  From a photographic perspective, we take a lot of test shots before we actually try to make our “keeper” shot.

However, we think the most important consideration for night photography is dressing for the conditions.  Even in very warm environments, like the desert, it can get cold at night.  Having warm cloths, gloves, a hat can really make a difference in your comfort.  We also like to pack small chairs with us on our night photography trips.  You will be taking long exposures sometimes these are hours in length.  Having a comfortable place to relax can really improve the experience.  Snacks and drinks also contribute to a nice evening.

Hoping for just the right amount of clouds

Sand Dune Sunset

Landscape photography is most interesting at sunrise and sunset.  Photographers talk about the golden hour, the 30 to 40 minutes before the sun dawns over the horizon and again just as the sun is setting and for the next 30 to 40 minutes.  When the sun is low, there is wonderful light.  At this time of day, the red rocks of the southwest seem to glow from within.  Landscapes seem to come alive.  However, the rocks and trees and bodies of water are usually only a part of the picture.  The sky is also an important component of image.  After a beautiful sunny day, you would expect that photographers would find ideal conditions for some early evening photography.   However, clear skies do not necessarily produce the most pleasing images.  Instead, photographers hope for some clouds, but not so many that they cloak the horizon.  A clear horizon and a scattered set of clouds can be extremely beneficial.   The clouds provide a surface that can reflect the first or last rays of light.  Under the right conditions, the sky can seem to light on fire.  The color in the sky can bring beautiful drama to photographs.

After a mostly clear day spent walking the dunes at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah, we set up for some sunset pictures of the dunes.  In the late afternoon, a fairly thick layer of clouds developed.  We set up to photograph some dunes in the east, hoping there would be a break in the clouds and the last rays of sunlight would generate a beautiful glow to the hills of sand.   The time of the sunset came and we didn’t get the effect that we were expected, but turning around and surveying the hills to the west, we discovered that the clouds had lifted a little from the horizon and we were going to be treated to a little evening color.

The picture above was captured with a Canon 5D Mark III, with a Canon EF 24 – 105 lens at a focal length of 40 mm with a 2 sec exposure and the aperture set at f/16.

Getting Motivated

This winter, we have been making a more concerted effort to get out for some photography day-trips.  We realized that we needed a project to focus our efforts.  To that end, we assigned ourselves a project to create a photo book about hiking the Spring Mountains, with particular focus on Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area, which is a 30 minute drive from Las Vegas.  I don’t know if the book will ever come to fruition, but it has been a good motivator to get us out hiking.

Finding the motivation to get out for some photography on the weekends can be a little difficult.  We have always enjoyed hiking on the weekends.  It helps clear our brains and the fresh air and exercise feel great.  However, the extra challenge of planning some photography and getting out early for sunrise (or staying out late for sunset) can be a bit of a psychological and logistical hurdle.  By the time we finish a five day work week at our “paying” jobs, we often find it difficult to scrape up the energy and brain-power to concentrate on our creative hobby.  Weekends can also mean accomplishing a few of the chores that don’t get done during the week.  A big part of the challenge is thinking up new places to hike that have attractive photo opportunities.  Selecting a long-term project, like the Red Rock Book, creates focus for our hiking and photography, so it takes a lot less mental energy to get us out there with the cameras.

We recently changed the knapsacks that we use to carry our photography gear.  We switched to Mindshift Rotational-180 Horizon backpacks.  Most of the gear that we need for a day trip is all packed in the bags.  We can literally grab our packs and a couple of bottles of water and go.  Of course it still requires that we charge the batteries and make sure that we have memory cards ready and in the cameras.   However, we make a habit of doing that after we return from each day of photography.

Having a specific set of photographic goals and photo kit that is ready to grab-and-go helps us to overcoming the psychological and logistical hurdles.  We have found that we have a better attitude about getting out to capture great images.