Tricks of the Trade

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halloween witch

I’ve been doing a bit of non-photography reading around process lately and not surprisingly some of what I have read can apply to photography. In my research on process improvement, I came upon a quote that said: “Don’t waste time learning the “tricks of the trade”. Instead learn the trade.” This is a great piece of advice for photographers no matter where you are on the path to learning photography.

When I first picked up a camera with the intent to learn photography, I studied the exposure triangle and used manual mode for the longest time. It was only when I fully understood  how aperture, shutter speed and ISO were related that I moved to using Aperture Priority and Exposure Compensation. These days new photographers start out on Program or Automatic Mode or even Aperture Mode and they come to fully understand exposure only later. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, I do see the advantages of starting out learning the trade as it were, rather than the tricks of the trade. Light is the raw material with which photographers use to make photographs. If you understand its properties and how to manipulate it at a fundamental level using your camera, you will make more meaningful photographs much more quickly. That’s the paradox of taking time to do the hard work to learn this craft. Sometimes the longer route is actually the shortest way to get there. Here are some other suggestions that might be useful for you.

Buying New Gear
Temptation lurks ever present for us photographers as camera manufacturers continually upgrade gear in an attempt to dominate the market. The fact is you don’t need to buy new gear to make good photographs. If you like to create HDR images, you were perfectly able to create your images before they added that feature on to the latest cameras. The more technology takes away from our thought and hands on process, the more distant we are from this being a craft in the truest sense of the word. Leica might be one manufacturer who understand this. In a recent announcement Leica will create a new camera with just three settings: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. And no LCD screen at the back. You don’t need to buy this camera though to buy into the notion of less technical distraction and more mindful presence when making photographs; just go out and make pictures with what you have.

Using Presets and Actions
Presets and actions can be a great way to learn post-processing techniques. I am just not convinced that they are a good place to start and they are certainly not a good place to stop in terms of learning this craft. Photoshop actions can be challenging to learn and to create on your own but instead of spending money on buying them from other photographers, spend money on a Lightroom or Photoshop course. You will learn about the power of Lightroom and Photoshop beyond just presets and actions and it will help you work more effectively with the software. If you do have presets and actions, take a closer look at them and try to figure out how they work. Explore what will happen if you change the position of the sliders or if you turn off one of the layers. There is no substitute for a eureka moment when it comes to learning.

Learn to Evaluate Your Work
This is one I struggle with myself because it is human nature to be our own worst critic. All the great photographers I have become acquainted with through their work and writings have an acute sense of what is a good image. It is not something they outsource to others to decide and certainly not on social media. We need to learn how to evaluate our own work, to be able to look at a set of images and decide which are the strongest ones to include in a story, series or portfolio. We must be able to articulate why we choose one image over another for inclusion. Certainly we can get input from others especially as we learn the editing process but do not be tempted to rely on the opinions of others to know and understand the value of your work.

Building Your Portfolio
Group workshops are a great way to meet other photographers who share your interests. Many photographers also use them as a way to add to their portfolios and from an economic point of view it makes sense. Someone makes all the arrangements for you, hires models, shows you how to light and might even set it up for you. It is an excellent way to learn but in my opinion, it is not the way to add to your portfolio. I’ve seen similar images made at the same time by different photographers. They show up on their websites and are submitted to magazines and competitions and it is difficult to take that work seriously because it doesn’t feel real. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on a tour, look for interesting things to photograph close to home or head out on the road on your own. Here’s a series from my friend Eric Kruszewski who spent 14 days traveling across America. It was a change from living and traveling abroad traveling to 26 countries over five years. Today Eric is an editorial photographer whose work is represented by National Geographic Creative. He didn’t get there through any tricks but by being one of the hardest working photographers I know.

At the Bangkok Photo School, we are committed to teaching the trade. Our November class is now full but you can add your name to the wait list here. If you’d like to know when new classes are announced, sign up for our newsletter. You can also email us with your enquiries or suggestions.

Going Small – by Jack Kurtz

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A picture made with my E-P5 and the Olympus 12mm f2 lens at a clinic for Burmese refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand. I held the camera over my head and used the tilting LCD screen to compose the photo and relied on the in body image stabilization to help me with the relatively slow shutter speed of 1/20th of a second.
A picture made with my E-P5 and the Olympus 12mm f2 lens at a clinic for Burmese refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand. I held the camera over my head and used the tilting LCD screen to compose the photo and relied on the in body image stabilization to help me with the relatively slow shutter speed of 1/20th of a second.

I’ve used Canon cameras for as long as I’ve been a photographer. The first camera I used was a Canon FT-QL, a tank of a camera. The QL stood for “quick load,” a Canon innovation that made it easier to load a new roll of film into the camera. We got that FT-QL at the PX in Bangkok in 1967 or so.

Even then, Canon and Nikon were the big two of the camera companies. The others, Minolta, Olympus, Ricoh, Yashica, etc were playing catch up to the CanNik juggernaut. Leica was always in a league of its own.

Through the years I’ve flirted with other systems.

My "new" camera system. Two Olympus E-P5 bodies and Olympus lenses: 12mm f2, 25mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8. Also a small Olympus flash.
My “new” camera system. Two Olympus E-P5 bodies (with the VF-4 viewfinder) and Olympus lenses: 12mm f2, 25mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8. Also a small Olympus flash.

In the 1980s, one paper I worked at issued me Olympus OM bodies and lenses. The lenses were excellent and the bodies nice and small, but I stayed with Canon for my personal gear. In the late 1980s, another paper I worked for issued me Nikon gear, FM2 bodies and a selection of Nikon lenses. They were okay but (and this might be heresy to Nikon fans) they didn’t offer me anything the Canons didn’t, so I stayed with Canon. (Although I have to admit the Nikon FM2/FE2 are arguably the best looking 35mm SLRs ever made. Nikon nailed the aesthetics of those.) While the Olympus gear was substantially lighter than my Canon gear, the Nikon gear weighed about the same.

At the Wat Saket temple fair in Bangkok, I would have had to use a tripod if I made this picture with my Canons. The shutter speed was 1.6 seconds at f8, ISO400. I was sitting on the ground, camera braced on my knees hoping the image stabilization would help. It did.
At the Wat Saket temple fair in Bangkok, I would have had to use a tripod if I made this picture with my Canons. The shutter speed was 1.6 seconds at f8, ISO400. I was sitting on the ground, camera braced on my knees hoping the image stabilization would help. It did.

When the digital tsunami swamped the photo world I made the decision to stay with Canon. Digital cameras and lenses are so expensive and complex that the switching systems is not done on a whim (unless you’re exceptionally well heeled or enjoy the support of a camera company).

When I make the decision to switch cameras it’s a big deal. Maybe not in terms of global politics or curing Ebola but certainly in terms of my personal work.

The E-P5 is a great camera for covering politics. It's small and fast. Covering a Red Shirt political rally in Thailand, a Red Shirt leader walked through the crowd, made with my 12mm f2 lens (roughly a 24mm in full frame).
The E-P5 is a great camera for covering politics. It’s small and fast. Covering a Red Shirt political rally in Thailand, a Red Shirt leader walked through the crowd, made with my 12mm f2 lens (roughly a 24mm in full frame).

I’ve been plagued by back problems the last few months and it’s just not practical for me to carry the ridiculously heavy 5D Mark III bodies, four lenses, flashes and various doodads. I’ve been very happy with the image quality and reliability of the Canon gear, this is a decision based purely on health and weight (my health, the cameras’ weight).

I’ve been using Micro 4:3 cameras since 2010 and I’ve written about small cameras several times. But my back problems forced me to take a hard look at what I was doing and the gear I was carrying.

Let’s do the math (the weight of the gear is taken from the manufacturers’ specifications pages):

5D Mark III body: 860 grams (x2) = 1,720 grams
24mm f1.4 lens: 650 grams
50mm f1.2 lens: 545 grams
100mm f2 lens: 460 grams
200mm f2.8 lens: 765 grams
580EX2 flash (with batteries): 475 grams
430EX2 flash (with batteries): 430 grams
ST-E2 flash controller: 100 grams

Total of Canon gear: 5,145 grams (5.1 kilos = 11.3 pounds)

Olympus E-P5 body (with VF4): 420 grams (x2) = 840 grams (less than the weight of one 5D Mark III body)
12mm f2 lens (roughly a 24mm lens): 130 grams
25mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 50mm lens): 135 grams
45mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 90mm lens): 116 grams
75mm f1.8 lens (roughly a 150mm lens): 305 grams
FL300R flash: 100grams

Total of Olympus gear: 1,626 grams (1.6 kilos = 3.6 pounds)

(I don’t have to carry a separate flash controller for the E-P5 because it’s built into the body. I also have only one flash for the E-P5.)

The Olympus gear I carry weighs about 1/3 what the Canon gear weighs. That’s a lot. The Olympus lenses are excellent and almost unbelievably tiny. The 75mm f1.8, in particular, is outstanding. I think it’s as good as Canon’s 135mm f2 or 200mm f2.8.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the weight of the camera gear is only a portion of what I carry. There are also notebooks, ponchos, light meter, and misc bits of stuff. The weight on that extra stuff hasn’t changed, so I am probably still carrying more than I should.)

E-P5 with VF-4 and 25mm f1.8 next to the 5D Mark III and 50mm f1.2 L.
E-P5 with VF-4 and 25mm f1.8 next to the 5D Mark III and 50mm f1.2 L.

I’m not going to sugar coat this and say both systems are equal. That is not the case. My Canon lenses are the very fast, very expensive and very heavy L series lenses. They are some of the best lenses made. The short Olympus lenses are about 1 stop slower (my Canon 24 is f1.4, my Olympus 12 is f2, my Canon 50 is f1.2, the Olympus 25 is f1.8) but the longer lenses are the same speed or faster (the Canon 100 is f2, the Olympus 45 is f1.8 and the Canon 200 is f2.8 while the Olympus 75 is f1.8).

The Olympus gear is Micro 4:3, or a 2X crop compared to full frame. This is great from the weight and portability perspective, less good from the ISO, depth of field perspective.

Larger sensors have better high ISO characteristics because the photosites on the sensor are bigger. This gets into engineering, physics, math and a lot of stuff I don’t understand. But across camera lines, larger sensors have better high ISO characteristics. Canon full frame is better than Canon APS sized sensors and Nikon full frame is better than either Nikon APS or Nikon 1 Series cameras (which have a postage stamp sized sensor).

But, and this is important to remember, I think that for many people high ISO is over rated. That’s not to say it’s not important, it is. However, I use ISO100 a lot more often than I use ISO1600. I seldom go over ISO3200 and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worked at ISOs higher than 6400.

I’m old. When I started photographing in color back in the early 1980s, ISO160 was considered a high ISO. Seriously. High Speed Ektachrome was the fastest available color transparency film. It was an E6 film and could be pushed one or two stops. It was bad at its base ISO of 160. It was dreadful pushed. “Normal” speed film then was Kodachrome 64 (ISO64) or Kodachrome 25 (ISO25) or Ektachrome 64 (ISO 64). Now, most digital cameras don’t even go down to ISO 64 and I don’t know of any that go down to ISO 25.

Our high ISO black and white film was either Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP-5, base ISO of 400, pushed to 1600 and developed in a witches’ brew of homemade chemicals. Photographers then didn’t sit around talking about which sensor was better. We traded secrets for push processing film. (This is predating Kodak’s T-Max 3200.)

Buddhist monks at a mass merit making ceremony in central Bangkok. Made with the 45mm lens (roughly a 90mm in full frame terms).
Buddhist monks at a mass merit making ceremony in central Bangkok. Made with the 45mm lens (roughly a 90mm in full frame terms).

(This was early in my color photography days. Color films got a lot better at high ISO pretty quickly, but even at the end of my color film photography days “high” ISO meant 800 pushed to 1600, so we’re much better off now than we were then.)

Clean high ISO is important to me but the high ISO of modern digital cameras is amazing. I have no problem going to 1600 with the E-P5 and 3200 is usable with noise reduction in Lightroom. The 5D Mark III has about a 1 to 1.5 stop advantage at high ISO, I just don’t routinely need those super high ISOs. High ISO of modern cameras, including the E-P5 and Olympus bodies, just blows away anything we could coax out of film back in the day.

It’s important to know what kind of photography you do. If I did a lot of sports or worked at high ISO a lot this would be a bigger deal to me.

Finally, Olympus’ in body image stabilization is excellent and makes up for some of the high ISO deficit. I can handhold the Olympus cameras at shutter speeds that would either force me into using a tripod or higher ISO on the Canons.

The other big difference is depth of field control. I really like working with my Canon lenses at f1.4 or 1.2 or 2, “wide open” or close to it. The shallow depth of field and large sensor create a great look that I can’t equal with the Olympus, which has a smaller sensor.

Because of the math, f1.8 on the Olympus 25mm has about the same depth of field as the Canon 50mm has at f3.5. F3.5 might be a wide f stop for some photographers, especially zoom users, but for me it’s the middle of the pack. I still work at f1.8 or f2, I’ve just had to get used to not having the same super thin depth of field I had with the Canons.

The glass is half full take on this is that I have more photos in focus. As good as the autofocus is on the 5D Mark III (and it is very good), working at 1.2 or f1.4 means missed focus by only a few inches can throw your picture unusably out of focus. There’s a greater fudge factor with M4:3 because it has more depth of field at the same f stop.

Those are some of the tangible issues with using Micro 4:3. There’s also the intangibles. When I use the Canons people the people I photograph react differently to me. They are stiffer, more formal. When I use the Olympus, probably because it’s so much smaller and less intimidating, people don’t take me as seriously, which I prefer.

I am keeping the Canon gear for the time being, just in case I have to cover an event that’s a bad match for the Olympus kit (sports for example) but now when you see me on the street I’ll be working with the Olympus gear rather than the Canon gear.

Using the 12mm f2 at the Ganesh festival in Bangkok.
Using the 12mm f2 at the Ganesh festival in Bangkok.

Photo Tip: Learning to See – by Sabrina Henry

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Have you ever struggled with figuring out how to see like your camera does? There are two parts to that, one of which I mentioned in my last post where I briefly discussed the coverage of your camera viewfinder. The other part is learning to see with different lenses on your camera. Conventional wisdom says that a 50mm lens is as close to how we see with our eyes and that is main reason why that lens is so popular. Figuring out what will be in your frame using other lenses takes lots of experimentation and noting the results.

One tip I found useful came from my photography mentor who once gave me an old slide frame. In the days of film, he used to carry around a slide frame without the film in his wallet. When he saw something interesting, he would use the frame to help decide what to put in his picture. The final photograph would depend on what he wanted to say with the image.

For beginners, the slide frame is a good little tool to help understand what would be in your frame if you used a wide angle lens versus a telephoto lens. Maybe today it is just as easy to slap on your 28-300mm zoom lens and just go make pictures. While that is true, using the slide frame has the added advantage of slowing down and thinking about what you want to say with your photograph. Sometimes I walk around without my camera and use the slide frame to do just that. You can also concentrate on learning to see rather than making pictures.

Here are a couple of photographs that illustrate how the slide frame works. This first photograph demonstrates what you might see with a zoom lens. The focus is on the details of the Japanese lantern and there is no other information in the frame. You can see that there many other things I could have included but did not. The second photograph demonstrates using a wider angle where the entire lantern is in the frame. Here we see more of the context in which the details exist i.e the lantern is part of a Japanese garden and the garden is near the water.

Japanese lantern in the garden

Japanese lantern

These two photographs also demonstrate a technique used in visual storytelling where you, as the storyteller, include photographs that establish for your audience the context without using words or narration to announce it. Typically a wide angle shot is used as an establishing shot but a detailed shot can also be used to establish the main idea of your photo essay or story. Knowing what you want to say will inform which photograph you make.

Flash Way, Way Off Camera – by Jack Kurtz

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People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt's funeral.
People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt’s funeral. This photo was made with available light.

I recently photographed the first day of funeral rites for Apiwan Wiriyachai, a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Thai parliament. It’s always a good idea when you’re using a small flash to get the flash off the camera. Properly done off camera flash makes the light more interesting and more natural. That’s pretty much impossible with the small popup flashes that are on top of most cameras these days or when you’re working in a media pack.

Apiwan’s funeral was a big media event. There were probably 30 photographers gathered around the body photographing as people paid their respects. Most of them were using flash, almost all of them either the small popup flashes built into their cameras or large accessory flashes but all of them, every single one of them, had the flash on the camera.* Most had the flash pointed straight ahead but a few were “bouncing” their flashes off the ceiling. I was working exclusively with available light.

The room was lit by fluorescent tubes and combining fluorescent and flash creates all sorts of color balance issues. I’ve found it’s much easier to edit and do color correction if there’s only one light source in  the photo. The base exposure at ISO800 was around f1.8 at between 1/60th and 1/250th (depending on whether people were looking up or down) and Apiwan was covered in a shiny white shawl so I was comfortable working with available light.

A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer's camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.
A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer’s camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.

As I was working I could see that I was going to have a lot of unusable frames. Other photographers’ flashes were going off with machine gun like rapidity.

A couple of times the flash was just discrete enough that I could piggy back off of it.

The other photographer's flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn't completely overpower the photo.
The other photographer’s flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn’t completely overpower the photo. I burned down Apiwan’s white uniform a little in Lightroom.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.

It’s impossible to predict at the moment that you’re making pictures what effect other people’s flashes will have on your photos. There are a lot of variables.

With the exception of a couple of motion blur photos I made, I was working at f1.8 to f2.2, wide open, or close to it, all day. It doesn’t take as much flash to expose at f1.8 as it does f8. If the photographer whose flash I was piggy backing off was shooting at wider apertures (and putting out less flash) I ended up with an interesting picture. If he (they were all male) was working at f11 or blasting away with the flash, I ended up with a blown out frame.

Available light, I didn't capture any other flashes in this frame.
Available light, I didn’t capture any other flashes in this frame.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer's flash.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer’s flash. There is no detail in the white and any attempts to burn it down just turns it an ugly gray.

I could see the flashes going off around me and I knew from experience that I was going to have a difficult time editing. It’s impossible to predict when another photographer’s flash is going to help you and when it’s going to wreck your photo. I made a lot more frames than I normally would have because I was I trying to work around the photographers’ flashes.


* There’s a protocol when you’re working in a media scrum like this. Normally, a professional photographer would get the flash off the camera and either put it on a light stand or hold it out at arm’s length (or ask a nearby civilian to hold it for you). But you don’t have those options when you’re in a scrum. If I hold a flash in my hand and then stick my hand out to get the flash off camera I’m going to end up blocking another photographer’s view. The idea in a scrum is to make yourself as small as possible so you don’t block other photographers.

Man On Fire – by Jack Kurtz

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A man runs through the fire pit during the firewalking at Wat Yannawa.
A man runs through the fire pit during the firewalking at Wat Yannawa.

The Vegetarian Festival just ended in Thailand. The festival is celebrated in Chinese communities throughout Thailand. Bangkok generally gets dismissed as a Veg Fest destination but with hundreds of thousands of Thais of Chinese ancestry in Bangkok, it’s mostly a matter of knowing where to go to enjoy the Vegetarian Festival.

Wat Yannawa is a couple of blocks south of the Saphan Taksin BTS station (you can see the temple from the station) but most people go north on the river towards “old” Bangkok and bypass the temple.

The temple is a part of Bangkok’s history though. The Chao Phraya River used to be Thailand’s gateway to the world. The tall ships and 19th century steamers dropped anchor and unloaded their freight at piers along the river. Foreign embassies were along the riverfront. Chinese junks used to drop anchor near a pier at what is now Wat Yannawa. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants coming to Thailand made landfall at that pier. In some ways, it’s Thailand’s “Ellis Island.” Because of its role in the Chinese influx into Thailand it hosts one of the city’s better Vegetarian Festival ceremonies.

A man waits for the food distribution to start at Wat Yannawa.
A man waits for the food distribution to start at Wat Yannawa. Food distributions for poorer members of the community are a regular part of the observances of religious holidays in Thailand.

I’ve always consider myself pretty lucky when it comes to photographing religious and cultural events in Thailand. Whether it’s Buddhist events, like Vesak or Hindu events like the Ganesh Festival or Muslim holidays like Eid al Adha or any of the many cultural events here, I’ve always been able to cover them pretty much the way I want to.

I call it “luck” but that’s not really accurate. Even though I don’t plan it out, I try to pay attention to local customs and respect local traditions. And although I’m not a very patient person or one who’s good at “hanging out” and seeing what happens, sometimes that’s exactly what it takes.

I went to Wat Yannawa in search of Vegetarian Festival events. I had seen banners advertising the Vegetarian Festival on walls near the temple so I wandered down there not knowing what to expect. I got down there about 1.30PM and planned to just hang out. Because I wanted to photograph religious events I was dressed in white – white slacks and a white shirt (Buddhists traditionally wear white when they go to temples for religious ceremonies).

When I cover a religious or cultural event I dress appropriately.

I chose to wear white not because I wanted to camouflage myself or pass myself off as a Buddhist, which would have been dishonest and, with my cameras, pointless. People would have seen through the subterfuge in a second. Wearing white was about respect. I didn’t want to disrespect the people I was photographing.

A crowd was gathering for the food distribution and people were praying at shrines set up in the parking lots specifically for the Festival. I’ve been photographing Vegetarian Festival events all week in Bangkok, so I didn’t photograph very much at this time. I mostly watched.

I photographed a Vegetarian Festival procession on Yaowarat Rd in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown last week.
I photographed a Vegetarian Festival procession on Yaowarat Rd in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown last week.

In the middle of the afternoon a truck delivered a big load of charcoal and dropped it in the middle of a parking lot. I took that as a good sign because firewalking ceremonies are held on beds of burning charcoal. The prayer services ended and I was getting ready to go outside the temple to get a bite to eat when a couple invited me to join them at their table for the vegetarian banquet that was coming.

They didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak Thai, but we enjoyed a great meal of Thai-Chinese vegetarian dishes like stewed duck (with tofu playing the role of the duck), and pork (with tofu playing the role of the pork). It’s a good thing I like tofu because I ate a lot of it at the Vegetarian Festival banquet.

A fire tender keeps the coals hot.
A fire tender keeps the coals hot.

After dinner people gathered for another prayer service and procession. The procession circled the parking lot (which had been turned into a large shrine) three times, each time around the parking lot people stepped over a small pot of burning coals. A couple of tourists showed up halfway through the procession.

This is where dressing appropriately pays off. They were dressed in shorts and tee shirts. One of the attendants at the service asked them to stay at the edge of the ceremony while I was allowed to wander freely and photograph. While he was talking to them, he specifically pointed at their clothes. They stayed for about 10 minutes but left before the main event started.

A man runs through the fire pit at Wat Yannawa.
A man runs through the fire pit at Wat Yannawa.

The procession ended with a clash of cymbals and people moved over to the fire pit. A few men and women lined up at the end of the fire pit while men tending the fire stirred the coals and sprayed it with alcohol (to keep things toasty).

Then men and women ran through the coals. The whole time I photographed freely.

A man comes out of the smoke holding a statue above his head.
A man comes out of the smoke holding a statue above his head.

I tried to be as respectful as I could. Showing respect at an event like this is a complicated equation. I am there to photograph it but I don’t want to interfere or lessen the experience for the participants. At the same time, I need to make pictures that accurately capture the emotion and reality of what’s going on around me.

A firewalker goes into a trance before crossing the burning coals.
A firewalker goes into a trance before crossing the burning coals.

Showing respect means sometimes using lenses longer than I normally would – at this firewalking ceremony I mostly used my 50mm and 100mm lenses when I normally would have used my 24mm and 40mm lenses. It meant moving to a vantage point that was not as clean as I would have liked because the best vantage point would have obstructed the view of participants.

Covering events like this is frequently as much about overcoming obstacles as it is pushing the shutter button. It’s about dressing appropriately, being patient and working respectfully.

Do Megapixels Matter? – by Jack Kurtz

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This picture was made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16 megapixel camera. It was turned into a mural and hangs in BMW's North American headquarters. You don't need 30+ megapixels to do high end work.
This picture was made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16 megapixel camera. It was turned into a mural 5 feet wide and hangs in BMW’s North American headquarters.

The answer is yes, but the bigger question is “how many megapixels is enough?” That’s a much more complicated question to answer.

I’ve been working with digital cameras since 1997. The first event I covered with a digital camera was the 50th anniversary of the UFO crash in Roswell, NM. The camera I had then, the EOS DCS3,  was a loaner from Canon. It came with a whopping 260 megabytes of storage on a built in internal hard drive and shot 1.3 megapixel pictures that measured 1,268 horizontal x 1,012 vertical pixels. I had to hook the camera up to my laptop with a SCSI (pronounced “scuzzy”) connector because the storage was not removable from the camera.

Once you got past the cool factor (no need to process film or scan negatives) using it was a pretty miserable experience. Your exposures had to be perfect. Overexposed highlights had a god awful and uncorrectable magenta color cast. Blocked up shadows had so much digital noise (grain) even an ISO200 photo looked like it was made at ISO3200.

And then there was the file size. 1.3 megapixels: 1,268 horizontal x 1,012 vertical pixels. Most newspapers were printing color photos at 200 dots per inch. A medium sized photo that was eight inches wide needed to be about 1,600 pixels wide (200 X 8). We had to upsize most pictures just to get them to the resolution needed to run them at the size the newspaper wanted. Cropping meant more upsizing, which led to image degradation.

It’s the reason so many photographers then worked with both film and digital bodies. Film for most of our work, digital when we knew we had to turn it around right away.

When I was issued a Canon D30 (not to be confused with the 30D. I mean really, what was Canon thinking when they named their cameras?), with its 3 megapixel sensor I thought I was in heaven. Three megapixels meant we could actually do a little cropping and didn’t have to upsize every single photo.

The first digital camera I bought for myself (as opposed to using cameras issued to me) was the Canon D60 (not to be confused with the 60D). It weighed in at a whopping six megapixels (3152 x 2068 pixels) and was the first digital camera, that for me, came close to achieving what I could with film. The negative scanner I had at the time (for my film cameras), was a Nikon LS-2000 Super CoolScan. It output files that were 2700 pixels on the long dimension which was a little smaller than the files from the D60.

Canon, and other camera companies, kept upping the megapixel ante. The EOS 20D was an eight megapixel camera (3520×2344 pixels) and offered enough file size that we could comfortably crop pictures if we needed to.

The Canon EOS 5D was a 12 megapixel (4368 x 2912 pixels) and for me this was the first camera that caused me to ask – “how many megapixels is too many megapixels?”

One of the advantages of coming of photographic age in the days of color transparency film and early digital cameras was that you had to have strong technical skills, the ability to fill the frame when you shoot, properly expose the picture and working within the parameters of color balance and color temperature. The better your original exposure, the less work you had to do to the digital file and that almost always translated to a better picture in the newspaper.

With the tremendous latitude of the 5D raw files and generous size of the files you could make a lot of mistakes and then fix them on the computer.

I was covering an event in Yuma, Arizona, for a wire service and after I transmitted my photos, the editor in Washington DC complimented a specific frame but said it was a little too loose. He asked what camera I was using and when I told him I had the 5D he told me to crop the picture by about 40% and send it again. When I hesitated he said something like, “come on, that’s a 12MP file. It can take it.” I would not have been able to crop that file if I had made it with my old three megapixel D30.

Canon has held steady at about 22 megapixels (5616 x 3744 pixels) for a few years now (both the 5D Mark II and 5D Mark III are basically 22MP cameras). But Nikon and Sony have stormed the megapixel gates with 36 megapixel cameras. Both cameras use sensors made by Sony.

Even smaller cameras, like APS format cameras and Micro 4:3 are raising their megapixel counts. Nikon’s APS cameras are about 24MP and Canon’s right around 20MP. Olympus and Panasonic Micro 4:3 cameras are 16 megapixels (4608 x 3456 pixels).

You have to ask yourself, do you need 36 megapixels? For most people I think the answer is no. There are real disadvantages to these megapixel behemoths.

The first one, and one that a lot of people don’t think about, is that all that resolution really stresses your lenses. It’s no coincidence that Zeiss and Sigma are both coming out with very high grade lenses that in most cases test better than the Canon or Nikon lenses (even the high end pro grade lenses from Canon and Nikon) they compete with. Older and inexpensive kit lenses are out resolved by the bodies they’re marketed with.

These pro level lenses are very expensive. Canon’s 24-70 f2.8 L zoom is about $2,100 (US). Canon’s 85mm f1.2 L prime lens, a legendary lens, is also about $2,100, which seems cheap compared to the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 which will you set back an astonishing $4,500.

The second drawback is storage. I can get about 270 full resolution 22MP files onto an eight gigabyte card. Doing the math, the 36MP Nikon and Sony files are about 36% bigger than the 5D Mark III 22MP files (give or take). The eight gig card in my 5D Mark III, that holds 270 images, will only hold about 190 images from a 36MP camera.

Now extend this throughout your workflow. How many files can you get on your two terabyte hard drive? Divide that by ⅓. If you plan to get by using one 2TB hard drive for your images for the year (what I am on track to use this year) you need to buy at least a 3TB drive.

How long does it take to import and edit your files in Lightroom? It’s going to take longer, in the case of importing files, a lot longer, to do the same work if you’re shooting 36MP files.

For me, the the 16 -22 megapixel files from the Olympus or Panasonic Micro 4:3 or current Canon cameras have emerged as the sweet spot. I think they’re a good choice, especially for photographers who know what they’re doing, what Thom Hogan, who recently wrote about this, would call an “optimal” photographer.

By that I mean photographers who would consider themselves intermediate level or higher. They understand the principles of filling the frame, they have the right selection of lenses and they use their equipment to its full potential. (Lens selection is not universal and depends on what you photograph. A sports or wildlife photographer needs long fast lenses, a street photographer needs lenses in 24mm to 100mm range, in full frame terms, and someone who photographs bugs and flowers needs macro lenses.)

It’s interesting that both Nikon and Canon have, for the time being, held their high end professional cameras (the D4S and 1D X) to under 20 megapixels. These are the cameras they sell to their most discerning customers.

A lot of this depends on what the final use of your photos is. If you’re photos are mostly going online, whether on a personal blog or Facebook, I can guarantee you that 36 megapixels is overkill. Heck, the 16MP of the Micro 4:3 cameras is overkill for those uses.

If you’re printing your photos, it depends on the size of your prints.

Sixteen megapixels can be printed to at least 15 inches on the long dimension (at 300 dots per inch – 4608 ÷ 300 = 15.36). With careful editing and resizing you can easily print 16 X 20, assuming you don’t crop too much.

American Frame, one of the many online print vendors, recommends a minimum print resolution of 130 dpi (minimum meaning the lowest recommended resolution, not the best resolution). At that resolution, a 16MP camera will allow you to make a 24″ X 36″ print. That’s a big print. A full resolution file from a 36MP camera at the same resolution can be printed to 30″ X 45″, which isn’t really that much bigger. A photo I made with my Olympus E-P5, a 16MP camera, was turned into a mural 5 feet wide (1.5 meters) and hangs in the BMW North America headquarters. They didn’t come back and ask for a bigger file (although I did send them the original raw file so their printer could upsize to their specifications).

What 36 megapixels does give you is wiggle room. If you’re photographing something that requires a 400mm or 500mm lens, for example, and all you have is a 300mm lens, the extra resolution of your 36MP camera means you can comfortably crop in to a view you would get with that longer lens. If you regularly find yourself in the position of having to significantly crop your images that drastically you should either buy a longer lens or refine your technique.

There are some people whose work requires the 36MP or higher cameras. They’re high end commercial photographers who work for the most discerning clients and have the cash flow to support those cameras.

Not everybody, not even all professional photographers fall into that category.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about using Micro 4:3 cameras and how we were moving past the one size fits all era of digital cameras, into a time of different digital formats for different purposes. The 36MP cameras from Nikon and Sony represent that trend. Those cameras, although they accept lenses designed for traditional dSLRs, really compete more with medium format cameras, like the Pentax 645D.  I’m comfortable with 22 megapixels from the 5D Mark III and 16 megapixels from the Micro 4:3 cameras.

Five Habits Behind Getting Good Photographs – by Sabrina Henry

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Habits are the foundation of our successes and our failures. That is why, as a photographer, it is important to develop good habits. When it comes to photography, there is such a thing as “a happy accident” but you cannot grow as a photographer if all your strongest images come as a result of things that are out of your control.

By looking at my mistakes, I’ve discovered five things I need to pay attention to that would have made the difference between a good photograph and an image that is not usable. The idea was to create a checklist of things I need to pay attention each time I am making pictures.

Shooting in Raw
I can count on one hand the number of times I have photographed only in JPG before I developed the habit of making sure my camera was set to shoot at a minimum in Raw or Raw and JPG. If you always shoot in Raw the chances of your camera being set to shoot in JPG are slim but it is better to be safe than sorry so I always check my settings. Raw files are the digital equivalent of a film negative. The files hold all the information you need to work with your images in post-production in order for you to get the final image you see in your head. JPG files do not keep all the information and while you can work with them to make changes, you simply will not have the creative flexibility you have working with Raw files.

One third of the exposure triangle, ISO can often be overlooked. It is easy to set it to Auto and to let the camera do the work for you. However the camera does not concern itself with the quality of your image and there may be instances where you need to control the ISO to control the noise in your pictures. If you are photographing at night and using a tripod, to improve image quality, you can adjust your ISO down instead of relying on Auto ISO. Whenever I head out, I check my ISO setting and usually reset it to the default ISO 200 or if photographing at night, the maximum ISO I would consider using e.g. 2400 or 3200 depending on the camera I’m using. On more sophisticated cameras, you can program your default settings and include ISO so that with the press of one button, you know what you have used for your ISO.

Metering Mode
I often use spot metering. On my Nikon D700 I have a function button I can use as I am shooting to switch quickly between matrix metering and spot metering. Not all cameras have function buttons that can be programmed in this way and if you have set your metering to spot metering and forget to change it back, you might wonder why your photographs are not properly exposed. You might miss that decisive moment before you realize you are on the wrong metering mode so always check your metering mode before heading out or use the programmable default settings to bring you back to your normal settings.

Shutter Speed
Unless I am looking for a shutter speed for creative purposes such as panning where I set the shutter speed depending on what moving object I wish to photograph or painting with my camera where I want a longer exposure, I photograph in Aperture Priority mode. (For more tricky exposure situations I do shoot manual and set my own aperture and shutter speed.) When I use Aperture Priority, the camera will decide on the shutter speed. However it cannot decide if the shutter speed is fast enough to keep the image sharp. The general rule is if you are shooting at a focal length of say 50mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/50 seconds to ensure your image will be sharp. If your focal length is 300mm, your minimum shutter speed is 1/300 sec. I have lost too many potentially good photographs because the shutter speed has been just a few fractions of a second too slow. All it takes is a quick check of the focal length you are using and keeping an eye on your shutter speed.

Corners and Edges
I’m not a purist by any stretch of the imagination but I like to “get it right in-camera” as much as I can. I do crop in post-production but I am very happy when I look at an image and see that I have everything within the frame that should be there. Not all camera viewfinders cover 100% of what is recorded when you press the shutter. If you check your camera specifications, you can find your camera’s coverage. For example, my Nikon D700 has 95% coverage and that means I will sometimes include things in the corners and along the edges of my image that I had not intended to include. The Nikon D4S on the other hand has 100% coverage and what you see is what will be recorded on your sensor. Even if your camera viewfinder has 100% coverage it is a good idea to pay attention to the corners and edges as your frame your images.

Making good photographs and developing good habits go hand in hand. Incorporate them into the way you make pictures so you don’t give them a second thought and you will be one step closer to consistently making better photographs.

Do you have any good habits you can add to the list? We’d love to hear them!