Sunday, October 9, 2011

Let's Focus a Little

It's about time I wrote a new blog post! The cool thing is my life was made easier by a wonderful question from a wonderful Facebook fan regarding focusing, specifically on the topic of back-button and continuous or predictive AF. The manual focusing bit toward the bottom of this post is something I've added on my own.

Back-Button Focusing
Back-button focusing can be quite a useful feature to use and is generally found on the majority of DSLR models from almost any manufacturer. The person who asked me about this feature is specifically using an Olympus E-5, so I'll be able to reference some page numbers in the manual --specifically pages 105-106-- but for the rest of you, simply do some digging and I'm sure you'll find it in your respective booklets. In addition, back-button focusing on the E-5 is controlled via the Auto Exposure Lock/Auto Focus Lock (AEL/AFL) button on the upper-mid backside of the camera, so again refer to your specific manual to determine what button is assigned to back-button focusing on your system.

In a nutshell, back-button focusing allows you to use that little button on the back of your camera to lock focus or exposure. But of course the question is why would it be advantageous to perform such a task using the AEL/AFL button versus the shutter button. I mean one can just as easily half-press the shutter button to lock focus and exposure, then you can compose the scene, and finally full-press to take the shot. Well allow me to use an example to explain why.

A commonly used scenario is a photographer shooting a model for some portraits. Everything is fine and dandy if the model is more or less dead center in the frame. Pressing the shutter button will likely result in a sharp picture of the model with a fairly accurate exposure. But often, asymmetrical compositions are more pleasing to the eye so the model tends to be pushed off center. In such a case, the camera might not focus on the model but instead on the background, thus leading to a potentially out of focus and unhappy model.

Enter the back-button focus option... well almost. First off, many DSLRs have several select-able options on how to behave when the shutter button is half-pressed, fully depressed, or when the back-button is used. On page 105 on the E-5's manual, there is a nifty table describing each mode. For example, if your camera is set to single auto-focus (S-AF) and you're setup to use mode 2, then when you half-press the shutter the focus is locked but the exposure isn't, and when you fully press the shutter the exposure is only then calculated and locked; if you use the back-button in this case, then only the exposure is locked, but not the focus. It's not that this very complicated, but there are certainly quite a few setup options to choose from. By the way, check the menu on your Oly camera to change these settings; off the top of my head (since my cam is currently setup for product shots and I'm lazy to go get it), these settings are hiding somewhere in the "gears" icon area and it's either the A or B section (AF/MF or BUTTON/DIAL, respectively).

Let's return to our model example and now that we know about modes, we'll stick to S-AF but in mode 3; to clarify, half-pressing the shutter button will only lock the exposure, full-pressing doesn't do anything, and pressing the back-button (that is the AEL/AFL button) the focus is locked. So let's run through this:
  1. Since the distance between the model and the photographer generally won't change much for a few poses and shots, we first point the camera on our subject and we'll press that back-button*. This locks the focus but not the exposure.
  2. Now, as the focus is locked to the plane the model is in, we can put him/her off center and start shooting.
  3. Every time we half-press the shutter the exposure will be calculated and locked, and upon fully pressing the shutter button the photo will be taken.
Cool hey? So an advantage we're seeing here is that the use of the back-button can make it easier to compose our shots. In mode 2 (as described above) and without using the back-button, one would have lock focus on the model (half-press) then frame the scene while will half-pressing the shutter button, then fully pressing when done... repeat. This takes extra time and if you had a good composition for one shot, you might not be able to exactly go back to that same framing due to all the extra motion required. In addition, since the focus has been locked once, taking shots becomes blazing fast as the lens does not to be refocused for each shot (even if the focus would be in exactly the same spot shot to shot).

In the resources section below I've linked to an article on Canon's website that discusses the many uses of back-button focusing. I strongly recommend reading it as it should provide you with a few more ideas and benefits to employing this method. And for those of your curious, the second link takes you to the PDF version of the Olympus E-5 manual, so even if you don't use the system, you can at least get a good idea of what I'm talking about here.

* Ok, another thing to complicate this. On most cameras, like the Oly E-5, the back-button has a memory option. If the option is set to ON then pressing the AEL/AFL button will keep the focus or exposure locked until the button is pressed again. If the option is set to OFF then the focus or exposure is only locked for as long as you hold down the button. The latter option can be useful in some cases, but as I've mentioned, check out that article from Canon on the topic.

Continuous or Predictive Focusing
Many DSLRs also have the capability to focus continually, depending again on how one's camera has been setup. On the Oly the option for continuous auto-focus is C-AF and in most modes starts working when you half-press the shutter button. So let's say you are shooting at a car race and you see a vehicle rushing at you (well hopefully not completely at you, as that could end poorly). Using C-AF you lock focus on the car by half-pressing the shutter button and as you keep half-pressing the camera continually adjusts the focus of the lens as the car, or whatever other subject in motion, rushes by. To take a photo of course, you simply fully press the shutter button. The back-button can also be used, but you might have to adjust the settings. The idea here is that you should... should have a perfect focus lock on the subject at all times, thus when you take the shot you should... should get that sharp image.

In all honesty, I think I've only used this feature on my camera for fun, merely to try it out. Those shooting action or sports subjects will likely find more use for it, but in most other cases S-AF or manual focus will do the trick. Nonetheless, go for it, try out the feature and see if works for you.

Manual Focusing
Lastly, I wanted to quickly touch upon manual focusing. I can't help but find myself using this method of focusing more and more often these days. Keep in mind, I generally shoot landscapes and things up close, so being a tad slower than the auto-focus system is ok in my case. But if you haven't given manual focusing a chance, I must suggest that you give it a try now and again.

For one, it can really speed up shooting, whether in good or bad lighting, as one of the slowest operations for almost all cameras is focusing. In manual focus mode the camera trusts that you've locked onto whatever you want and simply calculates the exposure before actually taking the photo. Calculating the exposure is extremely fast and virtually unnoticeable for us humans. When I've shot some macro images, I find that I can be much more proficient at selecting where I want the focus to be than trusting the machine to do it, and I've also realized a benefit when framing the scene. And I have to admit I get a little nostalgic about it; kind of feels nice to have more control than the silicon beast. Hopefully you'll find manual focusing as refreshing and frankly, useful, as I have.

That is it for now! L8r!

Web Resources

Friday, September 16, 2011

Time-lapse of Mammatus Clouds - Part 2

Well this blog post is certainly overdue so I'll get right to it!

First off, I never intended to create a time-lapse movie of the thunderstorm that passed by on that warm mid-summer evening. Instead, I just wanted to take a few snapshots of the mammatus clouds which often form on the trailing edge of such storms. But after taking a few pictures it dawned on me that scene would make for an interesting time-lapse movie. The bad part about this situation was that the system was moving quite quickly and by the time I would have lugged out my tripod, placed my camera on it and started shooting, a fairly large portion of this storm would have moved beyond my humble line of sight in my backyard. So to heck with it I figured and I ended up hand-holding the camera for several minutes and ended up with four seconds worth of footage, a total of 120 frames --frames were two seconds apart.

Now if you viewed the video, you might have noticed that it seems quite steady; in other words not much shaky cam going on. Unfortunately that's not due to my incredible ability to stay completely still, but in fact good'ol Adobe After Effects and its stabilizer plug-in. It takes a brief minute or two to "run" the filter and voila, steady playback as if one had used a tripod. Honestly, although I really love that plug-in I would still prefer to use a tripod. For one, the filter would not need to be run which would save a little time and two, even though the video looks quite smooth, I'm certain there would be some minor improvement over the filtered version (looking carefully you can see just a little jittery movement once in a while).

And by now you are probably thinking that the pans in the video were also produced with After Effects. Well you'd be completely wrong! Just kidding. Yes, no big surprises there. Unlike the stabilization filter, I personally wouldn't for a second not consider using digital panning. I not only enjoy how smooth the result is, but also how the motion can be accelerated and decelerated into the pan, along with having the ability to create much more complex motion paths through the scene (that is to say, not just a linear route from point A to B but rather a twisting curve).

If you feel like experimenting with this type of pan, I can recommend a few things before you begin. As with the production of almost any type of movie, plan out what you will be shooting. Let's take for example a time-lapse of a ship harbor with a busy port in the foreground. Once you're at the location frame your scene and consider carefully the motion that may be pleasing. Perhaps you might start up close to capture the action of people docking a ship, then pan upwards and towards a large crane, finally panning to the right and zooming out to reveal the whole scene. Keeping your shot or framing wide will capture a great deal of action at once and resolution is generally not a concern as even an entry-level DSLR will provide more than enough pixels to roam around in, even if you choose not to increase the stills size to 100% during the editing.

In addition, I thought I'd make clear that I'm not against panning with a tripod or even something more sophisticated. I'm a huge fan of digital technologies, but there's just that something you can feel when you detect a hint of human behind the scenes (even if it's a stepper motor controller panning the camera, just feels more "real" in some ways; that unsteadiness in the footage that rears up briefly). Anyway, whichever method you choose I hope you have fun with it and come up with some great material.

I do have another episode in the planning stages on the topic of creating panoramas. I hope to get around to it soon and I have a fantastic idea for presenting it, but you'll have to wait and see what that is! No hints this time! ;) So off I run... I go to bed so late some days that I think I can get away with saying it's very early at 10:30pm. Yikes! L8r!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Time-lapse of Mammatus Clouds

Well I finally uploaded a new video to my YouTube Channel! A quick thunderstorm passed over Calgary and just after it was gone and the rain subsided, I grabbed my Oly E-P2 and snapped away at the sunset lit mammatus cloud formations at the trailing edge of the storm. Old habits die hard and once again it's quite late, so I'll be writing up a second part to this post detailing how I created this video. Enjoy the quick show! L8r!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Time-lapse Movie Using an iPhone

That time-lapse episode I produced sure clicked something to the "on" position in my head because I can hardly stop thinking about it. Recently I've been tinkering with my iPhone and checking out apps that can accomplish this task; more specifically those that have an intervalometer feature. I also like free stuff and came across two programs, both created by JOBY, called Gorillacam and Frame X Frame.

After playing around with both apps I find myself much more attracted to Gorillacam even if it has been replaced by the newer Frame X Frame. For me the reason is simple, because Gorillacam saves full sized images while Frame X Frame only saves them as puny 512px x 384px files. The iPhone (3GS in my case) may not have a spectacular camera, but using its 3MP images I can create 720P HD videos. Yeay! The quality using those tiny pics was so lacking in my opinion, that I didn't even bother posting that test movie created using Frame By Frame. Boo! :(

Essentially, both apps are more or less identical but I believe there are more sharing options in Frame X Frame versus Gorillacam (like uploading to YouTube, Facebook, etc.). Personally, I like to have flexibility with my work and as such I'd rather have access to the full sized images. As you can see in the video, there's a slow upwards pan done with Premiere which wouldn't have been possible using the smaller files... that is unless I were to resize them which could degrade the video quality or created a movie with dimensions even smaller than those pics. Yuck. But for those individuals who aren't necessarily going for quality but something quick and fun with little hassle, Frame X Frame would suffice I guess.

So my choice will remain Gorillacam and I'm glad the company hasn't taken it down from the iTunes App Store. The interface seems to act a little odd during screen or page transitions, but if it wasn't for my iPhone's depleting battery power, all thousand frames of this movie would have been shot perfectly. Speaking of which, when I tried using Frame X Frame to shoot the time lapse series (saving as images and not directly into a movie file) the app crashed before it reached 300 frames. Not cool if you're shooting time-lapse movies.

I think I'll certainly be creating more time-lapse movies using my iPhone and I'll be more adventurous when selecting the locale. The movie you see below was shot through two glass window panes, hence the slight lack of detail and sharpness, and the view... well that's just looking out towards my backyard, so indeed nothing that spectacular. Although I always find the way the clouds move, evaporate, and appear from seemingly out of clear blue sky quite neat. As for my next Photography with Imre episode, I'm still not too sure what topic I'll be selecting, but there are a few viewer requests I haven't done yet so it's not like I have no choices (but feel free to make a suggestion!). L8r!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Part 2: Time-lapse Photography - Photography with Imre - Episode 36

I couldn't be happier with how the time-lapse episode turned out. There's a lot of information in this show and I also have a few new and expanded details to add in this post. Don't forget to check out the Web Resources section below as well, because there are some really cool and awe inspiring time-lapse flicks to watch, amongst other cool sites to explore on the topic.

In my video I talked a little about intervalometers and the ability to purchase "devices" that can be hooked up to the camera. More specifically, these are essentially "smart" remote cable releases that can be setup to take shots at particular time intervals. Some manufacturers make their own and there are a variety of third party ones available too; click here to see what's on Amazon for example. Since I haven't used any of these, I cannot recommend any models so be sure to do your own research on them.

Many DSLRs can also be tethered to a computer and controlled via software. Again, some manufacturers have an intervalometer feature in their programs, while in other cases you can purchase third party packages. There is a also a third option for the code savvy DIY-ers out there, which is to download a software development toolkit (SDK) from the manufacturer (if available) and program one yourself. I recently downloaded the Olympus SDK and if time permits, I'll be trying my hand at it.

Choosing a Time Interval
The time interval chosen will essentially set the pace for the time-lapse movie. In addition, depending on how long you planned your movie to be, the time interval might also determine how long a period is required to shoot the series of photographs. For example, if one chooses a slow pace for the movie with time intervals spanning two seconds and a movie length of 10 seconds, then at 30 frames per second (fps) one will need a total of 300 frames, so the time-lapse series will take a mere 10 minutes to shoot. On the other hand, let's say you want a time-lapse movie of the sun crossing the sky from rise to set in 10 seconds playback time. Well already you know that'll take a half of a full day to shoot, but let's do the math. Assuming that on this particular day the sun is "up" for 12 hours, here's what we need to know:
  • We already know that a 10 second long movie played back at 30 fps requires 300 frames
  • In 12 hours there 720 minutes (12 * 60 = 720)
  • We can divide the number of minutes by frames to get time interval needed for this shoot. Thus, 720 / 300 = 2.4 minutes between shoots or 144 seconds (or 2 minutes and 24 seconds); that's 25 photos in an hour
One hopes that if you're shooting something this long you can leave the camera safely alone to do it's work, otherwise you might be in for a busy day! Anyway... I'm sure you get the idea in regard to working out how many frames you need; quite simple math really.

But what isn't that simple to determine necessarily is to get the right look for the subject you're shooting. This is why I deliberately varied the time intervals during the city skyline time-lapse movie seen in the show. By doing so, the apparent speed things move at depending on the interval used became fairly visible. For example, at 15 second intervals the clouds drifted noticeably faster across the sky than at 5 or 2.5 seconds. But in my opinion, the subject alone doesn't solely dictate what time span(s) should be used between exposures, because one also has to consider the audience for the video and in many cases the creative aspect. Maybe a producer wants to use a quick time-lapse clip between action scenes in a short film to denote a hectic, frantic pace or feeling of excitement. On the other hand, a short time interval will result in smoother motion and could present a calming or peaceful effect; can also show more detail since things are moving so quickly in a scene. My ultimate suggestion here is to watch many time-lapse movies made by others and see what it invokes you in and then start shooting various subjects to see what you get and like.

Acceleration and Deceleration
I certainly haven't come across many time-lapse videos that use acceleration or deceleration, in other words, most I have seen use a constant time interval between each exposure throughout the whole movie. But nonetheless, when I have come upon it, the effect is quite cool.

Basically there are two major ways to achieve this, one easy, and the other being a bit more involved. The easy method is simply to shoot a time-lapse series with a constant interval and then speed up or slow down the resulting movie in a video editor. That's it. Or there's the more challenging method of varying the time intervals as time passes. Now a question does pop up. Does it make sense to bother varying the time intervals when you can do this without much fuss in an editor? Well perhaps some producers might feel that varying the time intervals keeps the movie "real", while others might believe that it's more cost/time effective to use software. Whatever the case, here's my view which you might find interesting.

If I were to accelerate a portion of a time-lapse movie then I would use a video editor. But for slowing things down to a crawl I would actually shorten the time intervals during shooting. Here's why. When you accelerate a video clip, the software basically drops frames in order to accomplish the effect. Another way of seeing this is that the visual difference between each consecutive frame becomes greater, thus motion will appear faster. If I was shooting a time-lapse series and making time intervals longer between each exposure to speed up the action, the end result will basically be identical because the difference between each consecutive image will be greater just as if the video were to be sped up using an editor. Essentially, I can save some time and effort by using the editor to get the same result.

On the other hand, if you've ever tried to slow down video using an editor, the motion generally becomes choppy or somewhat unnatural even with frame blending or other filters that are supposed to smooth out motion in such cases. This effect occurs because frames are reproduced multiple times in order to get that slow motion look. So to get natural and gradual decrease in speed, I would instead rely on reducing the time interval during the time-lapse shoot. This way, no frames would need to be doubled, tripled or whatever to get a reduction in speed.

The bad part about this is that it requires some planning before the shoot and potentially manual operation. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't know of any intervalometers that can gradually increase or decrease intervals --although for us programming folk, we could tether the cam to a computer and write software to accomplish such a thing. But anyway, this may not be as bad as it sounds and here's a few steps you can follow:
  • Consider how long you want the deceleration to last. Let's use 3 seconds as an example; at 30 fps that would equal 90 frames.
  • This effect usually looks better if it's more in-your-face than subtle, so hopefully the time intervals you're starting with are fairly long. To continue this example, I'll start with 15 second gaps.
  • The next thing to consider is the time interval you are ending with. Let's say... 1 second.
  • In this particular example, we're dropping 14 seconds off our time (15 - 1 = 14 easy). I take the total number of frames, 90 and divide it by 14 which equals 6.4 that I will simply round to 6 to make life easier.
  • What that means is that every 6 frames there will be a 1 second decrease in the time interval between shots. So the interval between frames 1-6 will be 15 seconds, 7-14 will be 14 sec., 15-22 will be 13 sec. ... and so on until you reach frame 90.
This might keep you a bit occupied for a while, but the end result should be a fairly gradual decrease in speed when the movie played back.

Tracking (Moving the Camera During Shooting)
In the show I briefly discussed tracking, a sidewards motion of the camera, and if you check the Web Resources section below you'll find plenty of links to professional and DIY time-lapse dollies and tracks (along with some pretty wicked videos that were created using them; some cinematography terminology links too). You'll probably notice that the videos tend to look more interesting if there are foreground elements fairly close to the camera, as those objects tend to create a stronger sense of depth and motion in the scene; perhaps keep that in mind if you're creating such footage. Maybe someday when I have more time I'll look into either building one of these units myself or getting one if it's not too expensive. And by the way, I'm not affiliated with any manufacturers mentioned here; their websites are posted for further research and information.

Putting it All Together
You might have noticed that I kept the part about putting a time-lapse movie together quite short in the video. If I was to present my version of how to do it, then I would be using Adobe After Effects or Premiere; those employing other packages would have to figure it out on their own anyway... which in my opinion is not very hard. With After Effects and Premiere, all you basically do is import the photos as an image sequence and then drag the clip to wherever you'd like it in the timeline. Then to add some pizazz to the footage one can start applying various other effects like color grading and vignetting or whatever else. Applying those effects are easy... it's using them wisely and creatively that can be more challenging.

I hope you have a lot of fun creating and watching your time-lapse movies. I certainly found a few surprises which I couldn't see when taking the shots, like those construction elevators running up and down the sides of skyscrapers being built and the motion of the crane on top of the building. I have no clue what to do for the next episode and not because I don't have any ideas, but too many! So perhaps I'll put it out to a vote on Facebook. L8r!

Web Resources - Great video on various filmmaking techniques

Monday, May 2, 2011

Part 2: Photo Copyright Protection Tips - Photography with Imre - Episode 35

Perhaps the episode on copyright protection tips isn't the most visual, but for those not familiar with the various ways to protect the copyright on your images displayed online, this show was a good primer. In this post I'll just be adding new material not in the video.

Before moving on and just like I pointed out in the show, I am not a lawyer or legal expert, so to be properly informed you should consult with a qualified intellectual property lawyer or legal expert in your area. Copyright laws usually differ depending on where you live, so keep that in mind as well.

Additional Thoughts about Digital Watermarking
In the video I simply stated that using a digital watermark on your photographs is basically your choice; indeed it is. But many of you still might not be sure which type of watermarking, if any, you should utilize or would be best for you. So here are some additional considerations you could take into account:

No watermark: If you are purest and like to show off your photos without any potentially distracting markings, then this is the choice for you. Obviously, the copyright of the image is still yours whether you have the notice there or not, and usually most people have text under the photo or on a legal page explicitly declaring the material is copyright and may not be reproduced without written permission. Those who might take your material without consent won't have much difficultly as there are no markings to remove, so I would recommend keeping the images at a fairly small size; this makes them more or less unsuitable for print reproduction at the least.

Visible watermarks: If you've seen any of my photos, you'll see this is the variety of watermark I use. Specifically, I keep the copyright symbol, my name and address of my YouTube channel in one of the corners of the image at a readable but not very intrusive size. Although I don't want my material used without my permission, I take the approach that I'd rather not hide my shots behind what could be a very distracting message. In addition, my name and web address does promote me and my work, so you could consider putting your own web addy or company name on the photo. The only thing to keep in mind about this is that if you are sharing your pictures on various websites, some guidelines may prohibit you from using them, but I've personally found this to be fairly rare.

And as seen in the video, if you're more concerned about your work being stolen, you could use a larger water that is faded across the image. This certainly hides more of your work, but it's also considerable more difficult to remove without damaging the photo.

Hidden watermarks: These sneaky methods of incorporating your mark could be used if you feel such a measure is necessary to protect your work, and allows you to use methods to prove the images are indeed yours. There are a few software companies that create such software and there are a couple of DIY methods too. I personally have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, I can't find anything "wrong" with doing this and it could be advantageous in various cases to prove the image(s) is/are yours. On the other hand, if someone in some far off country steals your photos then you're more or less out of luck unless you have lots of cash to burn just to take down a pic or two (even other methods can't really help in those cases). But I have a feeling that larger stock photo companies might employ this method; these organizations generally not only have the money, but several offices in various countries making it easier to handle such problems.

A Little More on Photo Sharing Websites
There's not a lot more I want to add in this section, but it's worth mentioning that not all of us want to be so strict with our photos. If you're open to sharing under some circumstances, some sites like Flickr allow you to change the copyright status on your photos. Notably, you can select a Creative Commons license, and you can read more about it by clicking that link (or in the Web Resources section below).

For some photographers, a major benefit to allowing others to reproduce and use their work is to gain exposure (no pun intended). Keep in mind, there are literally hundreds of millions of photos on the World Wide Web and many of those pictures are can be quite alike. So imagine this. A major advertising firm comes along and sees your photo, but notices the strict copyright. They see another photographer's image that basically looks the same but there is a less restrictive license on it; one that would allow them legal and easy use of the picture. The firm selects the other photographer's shot, gives him/her credit and that photographer just might see a little increase in business. It's something I'm personally considering because it's not like my shots are making much money unfortunately and more exposure (no pun intended again) would be nice. Hmm...

Copyright Protection Methods if Building Your Own Website
If you've decided to take the approach of displaying and even selling your photos on your own website, here are a few of my thoughts on that matter:

  • As mentioned in the video, you can still employ the tactics of adding watermarks if you wish and even embed your copyright info into the files. Also consider keeping the original image files off of the website unless there's a good reason to have them online and keep the previews around 1MP in size (about 1,000 pixels wide or high, whichever is greater).
  • Often times a copyright note, separate from the one on the image, is displayed under or somewhere near the photo. I also recommend adding a copyright notice on a legal page for example.
  • Although not foolproof, you could disable right-clicking via JavaScript, or there are some clever ways of using CSS and placing images on the background. But always keep in mind that if you can see an image, graphic, photo, or almost anything else on a website, there are ways of saving/copying that material.
  • Again, not foolproof, but the gallery could be created in Flash. This does bring up some issues though such as the potential difficultly/cost involved in creating one and compatibility with some mobile phones.

And that more or less sums it up. In the next few days I'll be working hard on the time-lapse post. L8r!

Web Resources

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Time-lapse Photography - Photography with Imre - Episode 36

Well the highly anticipated time-lapse episode is done and ready to be enjoyed! This show turned out awesome and I'm glad I put up with the crappy weather to do the time-lapse movie of city skyline for this program; it worked perfectly as an example. One day when I have more time and the weather is more cooperative, I'll go back to the hillside and do a proper one with a nice slow pan and likely using a two second interval. So do enjoy the show and now I have to write two blog posts as I haven't finished the copyright one yet! L8r!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Photo Copyright Protection Tips - Photography with Imre - Episode 35

I was so excited after reading a viewer's message suggesting an episode on how photographers can protect their shots online; such an awesome topic! Awesome enough that I put off that poor time lapse show I've been meaning to do now for ages!

Keep your eyes peeled on the supplemental blog post as I'll have more information, especially about some precautions one can take when you build your own website, versus using a photo sharing one like Flickr. Enjoy and L8r!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Been a Little Quiet Lately... Running this Biz of Photography

A little too quiet if ya ask me! :P But I've decided to quickly pop up in the form of a blog post --although I have a feeling most of you are waiting eagerly for a new Photography with Imre episode. Soon! I really do want to get'er done! ... I've been watching too many spaghetti westerns lately.

So what has been keeping me so busy (other than old western flicks and playing Bioshock 2 for hours on end)? A couple of years ago I used to have a website dedicated solely to my photography. It was a really simple HTML site with prints of my shots for sale using PayPal's shopping cart. But at the time I was up to my eyeballs in university classes and a regular day job, so when it came time to renew the domain, I just let it be.

But with all the fun I've been having with my YouTube videos and a decent amount of traffic making it worth my while to do more with this venture, I recently redesigned my personal website by gearing it towards the videos and music I produce. In addition, I thought it would be nice to start selling my prints again, so for the past few of weeks I've been developing my own shopping cart system using PHP (I would've used ASP.NET but decent hosts can be pricey). Just before starting to write this blog post did I finally finish it, along with a lot of other things one might not at first consider. If you too are thinking about starting something like this, you might find this walk-through of what I did interesting. But as usual, here's the legal spiel: although I'm fairly well educated and have experience in the realm of business, I'm not a lawyer or legal expert, so you should consult a qualified individual for advice applicable to your region and specialty. Ok posse, let's giddy up...

The Online Store
I don't want to spend too much time here, but it's worth mentioning a few points to consider if you're thinking of selling your prints online. Now I happen to be a programmer so I could create the online store I wanted, but whether you program one yourself or get an off-the-shelf solution, there are a few universal things that come to mind:
  • The store should be easy to use and navigate for customers - There's nothing worse for a shopper to deal with than a buggy system or one with a difficult learning curve; not good for the reputation either.
  • The store should be easy for you to use - Not only will your customers be the ones utilizing your store, but so will you. Prints and descriptions don't upload themselves. Complicated or poorly designed systems might be wasting your time and in most cases, you'd rather be selling than learning such a system.
  • Flexibility and customization - Again, I created my store so it fits perfectly into my site design, but some might have agreements that prevent you from changing certain aspects of it, while others might simply be too challenging to easily integrate for most. Branding is an important facet of business, so I'd recommend selecting a store that you can customize to blend into your site. In regard to flexibility, many off-the-shelf solutions generally have far more features than you'll need, so hopefully you can find one where you can remove and ignore undesirable elements.
When I designed my store, some key points I wanted was...
  • The ability to use any type of product not just prints. I might consider selling my wood carvings someday, so by designing more openly, my store can accommodate almost any kind of product.
  • A simple search bar allowing for customers to filter for a specific category of product, by name in ascending or descending order and the ability to show a certain number of results per page.
  • The ability for customers to easily modify or remove products from the shopping cart.
  • A summary page before sending the transaction through to PayPal for processing; this gives people a chance to review their order just to be certain everything is the way they want it to be.
  • A verification checkbox to force customers to read and agree with the terms of my online store. This is a nice way to prevent some incidents where a person was too lazy to bother reading what the policies are before ordering.
  • Hit tracking for pages and specific products. This can be helpful to see trends and determine which prints are worth discontinuing and which ones should be promoted more, etc.
  • A simple administrative area where I can view, add, edit and delete the products in the store.
I wouldn't say this was very difficult to program by any means; it certainly took more of my brain power to design and develope the iPhone game I released a while ago. But doing something like this is still a serious commitment of time and energy, even if you're going to integrate an existing solution. And for those of you seeking suggestions for online stores... I hate to say this but I actually don't have a clue what's out there. As a geeky programmer, I actually enjoy the challenge of building my own stuff, so I haven't really looked. Use the power of Google my amigos.

Have a Plan!
This is a really important area of running any business, not just an online store, and also helps with developing content such as a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page and legal agreements between you and your customers. There are lots of things to consider here and depending on what your preferences are this list might get a whole lot bigger:
  • Will you offer a warranty? If so, how will you handle such issues? What does your warranty cover? For how long? What might cause the warranty to be voided?
  • Will you offer customers the chance to return goods? If so, under what conditions? Any time limits? Can customers get a refund or exchange of goods? How will you handle tough customers or ones that have damaged goods?
  • If you sell a product, you'll likely need to get it to your customers, so remember shipping. What shipping methods will you use (e.g. postal service, couriers like FedEx)? What does it cost to ship your product? How about two products or more? What happens if your product is damaged by the shipping firm; how will you handle such issues?
  • It's also important to consider how you'll track orders that you've gotten. It's nice to know if you're making a profit or if that new marketing campaign is worthwhile.
In an online store, you're not really there to converse with your customers and answer any questions or concerns they might have. This is where the FAQ page comes into play. If you take a look at mine, you'll see I've covered several things like why I've made prints available in only certain sizes, about my copyright, suggestions on frames, shipping, discounts, etc. In addition, a link to my contact page is clearly visible so that people can get in touch with me if they have questions or concerns not answered on the FAQ page.

The Terms of Sale
In this day and age, legal agreements are all around us and no longer does it take a handshake or physical signature to be bound to one. Just by surfing most websites, you implicitly agree to how that organization may use your information and what liabilities they can be held accountable for if things go awry (usually very little!). As mentioned above, I placed a checkbox on my shopping cart page that must be selected in order for the transaction to continue. I've never liked the approach of being shady with legal terms; I'd rather put them right out there for everyone to see and as far as I'm concerned this can help avoid problems down the road. So when customers on my store are ready to move on, they must check the box and it is my hope that they have actually bothered to read the terms, as well as understand and agree to them. In the case that a customer didn't bother to do so and an issue arises, it's very likely I would have the upper hand in a legal case... hopefully though, that will never happen.

Not to sound overly protective or anything, but I'd like to add that the content I wrote on my website is copyright and shouldn't be copied... not necessarily because it would be such a terrible thing, but rather for these reasons:
  1. I wrote that material myself and although I believe it's perfectly legal, it's better to have a qualified lawyer write this kind of content.
  2. If you write such material yourself (even if a lawyer does it for you), I firmly believe you'll have a much better feel and understanding of your own business. In other words, you can tailor make content that perfectly fits your website and/or company policies.
  3. I also think that it's a great learning experience in regard to understanding how much can be involved with something so seemingly simple.
By no means is this an exhaustive post. Running a business is no small feat. I've certainly learned a lot about this as I've owned a company since 1995 and have two master's degrees in the field (MBA and Master of Project Management)... but I still have a lot to learn as it is! Anyway, at the least I hope you have found some use out of this post and I wish you good luck if you venture out on your own. And yes, soon I will be done the time lapse episode! L8r!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Part 2: Mandolin Bridge Adjustment - A Note with Imre

I just spent a little time contemplating what additional material I could include in this post, but I realized there is't a whole lot. After all, it's not very complicated to adjust the position of the bridge and I'm quite satisfied with how my video turned out, so I'll do a quick summary along with a note about string height. And before moving on I want to mention a couple of things. First, I'm not a luthier (instrument builder) so the material below is based mostly on my research and second, if you don't feel comfortable adjusting things on your instrument then I recommend you seek out a professional who can do this. Also, do be careful if you choose to undertake this operation, because there is a chance you could damage the mandolin, especially the finish.

I'm a fan of numbered lists, so here's what I did to adjust the bridge on my mandolin, which, in case you're wondering, is an Epiphone MM-50:
  1. Determine if you need to replace your strings. If they sound alright then by all means leave them on. In my case, I restrung my mandolin as the strings were quite old and sounded a bit dull. As mentioned in the video, if you need to restring then allow time for the new ones to adjust by playing rigorously for about an hour or letting the instrument sit for a few hours.
  2. Loosen all of the strings to a point where the bridge can be moved around easily enough that it won't scratch the finish and yet stays put when not nudged.
  3. At this point, you can not only shift the position of the whole bridge, but also the strings on the saddle (generally, the saddle is the raised portion on the bridge the strings run across; the bridge is the part touching the top of the instrument. But there are some mandolins where the bridge basically plays both roles and I've seen this simply referred to as the bridge). As you saw in the video, I positioned each pair of strings into the middle of their respective sections (except for the bass pair as they kept slipping back into their original grooves).
  4. Then I looked down the neck of my mandolin from the head to the tailpiece. This allowed me to quite easily see if the bridge and strings were roughly centered in comparison to the fret board. Plus, this is also a nice way to determine if the spacing between the strings are even or not (each string in a pair and distance between string pairs).
  5. If the notes you're fretting get sharper (higher in pitch) then you need to shift the bridge down towards the tailpiece and if the notes get flatter (lower in pitch) then shift the bridge towards the head. Because thicker strings need to be a little longer to provide the correct intonation, you might very likely need to lower the bass side of the bridge.
  6. Since it's difficult to know where exactly the bridge needs to be, you'll probably have to tune up, loosen the strings and shift the bridge a few times, but in the end I have a feeling you'll love the "new" sound. Now I would like to add that you might know what the scale length of your mandolin is, but based on my experience, that value might not be exactly right. For instance, the treble side of my bridge is about 13 7/8" and the bass end is about 14 1/8", but according what I've seen, Gibson/Epiphone mandolins have a scale length of 14" (er... I've also seen references to 13 7/8" though).
Now as you're adjusting the position of the bridge, you might also want to check the action and set that to a comfortable/appropriate level is needed (I left mine as is; was at a good height in my opinion). On most mandolin bridges there are two screws that can be turned on each end of the bridge, so when you're strings are loosened up, give them a spin if desired.

That concludes this post. For those wondering where the photography is, fear not! The next episode will be on the topic of time lapse and is due for late next week or so. L8r!

Web Resources

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mandolin Bridge Adjustment - A Note with Imre

For whatever reason, this video was probably the slowest to upload on YouTube! Not a huge file either... must be a lazy Internet connection. Anyway, do check out the video if you're interested in reducing the amount of sharpness or flatness you might be getting while fretting notes on your mandolin. I'm glad I got off my butt, put new strings on her and played with the bridge position until it became essentially perfect. I'll write more in a few days as I should be off to bed now! L8r!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Part 2: The Histogram - Photography with Imre - Episode 34

I managed to produce the histogram episode quite quickly and overall it turned out well. I'm not going to elaborate much here other than to discuss clipping a little more, along with presenting a method you can use to help train yourself in analyzing the histogram on your camera; especially useful for those of you new to this.

A Second Take on Clipping
Now that I look back at my script, the segment on clipping could have been put more simply or at least in a different manner. First of all, if the dynamic range of a scene you are taking a picture of is greater than what the imaging sensor of the camera can handle, then the image can have clipping in the shadows, highlights or both regions. Unlike our eyes that can see a much broader range of tones, for a given exposure the camera can only capture a portion of that and this is why some dark areas of certain scenes turn out pure black on the photo and bright areas turn pure white. What is crucial to understand is that clipped areas are completely void of detail. Taking a standard three channel (red, green, blue) image file, all three channels either have 0 (zero) or 255 as their values (so R0, G0, B0 or R255, G255, B255). As long as one color channel has a different value (like R0, G1, B0), then some image information exists, which means there is a possibility to recover a bit of detail (often though, lightening very dark areas results in noise appearing and bright areas that are darkened can look somewhat unusual and washed out).

Depending on the model of camera you have, you may be able to view a histogram in real-time (e.g. live view) or after the shot has been taken during playback or review mode. Signals (light in this case) below the signal-to-noise ratio of the sensor are clipped to black (in other words, there aren't enough photons filling up the photosite(s) to register above the noise level of the electronics) and if photosites on the sensor are saturated with photons then we see blown highlights (think of a bucket overflowing with water; you might try to put more water in, but the amount of water is "clipped" to whatever the bucket can hold).

Many image editing programs also provide histograms. Clipping in most image editors refers to pixels with all color channels having either no data (all zeros) or being at full intensity (255). There's a really good definition given in the help file for Adobe Camera Raw; I love their use of "overbright" and "overdark"... gives me ideas for some horror story... "the Overdark Lord was greater than evil itself." :P

I'd also like to clarify the use of file formats in this context. For example, if you take a picture and your camera is set to save the image as both an 8 bit JPEG file and a 14 bit Raw file, the tonal range of both file formats will be identical. Now you're probably thinking that's incorrect, but think about it this way. First of all, just because the camera is using a different file format does not mean it's using a different sensor. Unless you have a funky camera, only one sensor is used to capture the image and that sensor has a certain dynamic range (usually around five or six stops). Period. So the darkest and lightest points of either a JPEG or Raw file are essentially the same (I say "essentially" because JPEG files are processed by the camera, so for various reasons, like what the contrast setting is, the tonal range might be a little different).

But why is it then that you can "pull" more image detail from a Raw file? I'll use this analogy. You have two perfectly identical loafs of bread; exactly the same size! One loaf is cut into ten slices, while the other is cut into 50 slices (and no funny business, the cuts don't waste material so your loaf doesn't change in size just because you have more slices). Now if you look at the two loafs of bread, they are still the same size --same tonal range-- but one has more detail because it was sliced into 50 pieces. Taking this back to actual images, an 8 bit file provides you with 256 (0-255) brightness levels to work with, wheres a 12 bit Raw file has 4096 levels and a 14 bit one has a whopping 16,384 levels. Because you have more data to massage, you have the ability to lighten up seemingly black areas or darken seemingly white zones, thus "pulling" out those wonderful previously hidden details. There is more great info on this if you check out the last link in the Web resources section.

Anyway, I hope that clarifies the clipping segment of the video, especially where I said, "an 8 bit per channel image can clip more easily, so-to-speak, than a 16 bit per channel image." Now you can see it means you have more data to play with in a 16 bit image versus an 8 bit one... my bad homies, didn't mean to be shiznitting with the down low.

A Little Self Training
Ok. In the video I said I'd write about a method you can use to help train yourself in understanding what the histogram on your camera is trying to tell you. On my own cameras, I've consistently noticed that if the image seemingly appears properly exposed on the camera's display, they are actually underexposed when I view them on my computer monitor. Those images appearing a bit overexposed on the cam's screen are generally exposed properly. This is why using the histogram can be helpful, but for novice shooters it might be hard to relate what a well exposed histogram looks like. In addition, since virtually every photograph has a unique histogram, it takes a little bit of experience to gain that intuition about which one looks about right. So if you think you need a little help in this area, then feel free to follow the simple steps below:

  1. Get out there and take some photos, but be methodical. First, if possible use a tripod as you'll need identical shots. Second, use the bracketing feature of your camera to take three shots varying the exposure by 0.7 (so you'll have one shot at -0.7, 0.0 and +0.7). If your camera only does half-stops, then use that and if by chance your cam does not have a bracketing feature, then adjust manually via EV compensation. At this point, ignore the histogram; all we want are three photos of a scene. Take a bunch of shots of various locations, some darker, some lighter... whatever.
  2. Download the shots into your computer, but DO NOT delete the photos off the memory card.
  3. Now open up a file on the computer and also display the same photo on your camera with the histogram feature.
  4. And you're probably getting the idea now, but keep doing the same thing for each shot, each time comparing what the image on the computer monitor looks like in comparison with the one on the camera with it's histogram.
By comparing what the photos looks like on the two devices, you'll start to get a feel for what histograms look like for well-exposed shots, along with those that didn't turn out.

As a final note I want to add that it appears I've placed a great deal of emphasis on histograms, but keep in mind that you don't always need to use them and depending on what you're shooting they might not be that useful. In addition, it's not like the exposure has to be absolutely perfect or else the photo is junk. I personally don't necessarily believe there is such a thing as a perfect exposure to begin with, as our personal tastes or creativity will alter that definition and there's a fair amount of leverage to correct some issues in editors. Nonetheless, with some time and practice, I'm sure most of you budding photogs will start to see the benefits to histograms and when they're worthy of employing.

If all goes to plan, stay tuned for the next episode on time lapse photography. Happy shooting! L8r!

Web Resources

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Histogram - Photography with Imre - Episode 34

Well I managed to get this episode done fairly quickly in about 15 hours start to finish. Plus, I think it turned out to be a great primer for those who are not familiar with histograms. Supplemental post to follow in the next few days as usual!

Um... yea I know I said I'd do time lapse photography next, but well... ok I have no excuse! I'll try to make that the next show! L8r!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Shooting Birds in Flight

I got a message from a subscriber of my YouTube channel today about taking photos of birds in flight. This individual expressed problems of getting a fast enough shutter speed, especially due to how cloud cover often blankets the location this person is from and reduces light intensity, which has resulted in some blurry shots. Hopefully my advice to follow will be of some assistance and those blurry shots will turn into some detailed and stunning captures of those featured creatures gliding gracefully through the air. To make this a more complete post about this topic, I've added more detail about shooting birds in general. Please keep in mind too that these suggestions and techniques are what I tend to use and as such they may not work for everyone in every case. So always feel free to experiment.

One of the first steps to ensuring a nice sharp image is to get the scene/subject in focus. Birds swooshing through the air can make this somewhat more challenging, so here are a few suggestions I'll offer based on what the background is like.

Bird Against Clear Sky or Even Cloud Cover: The clear sky bit makes sense here; simply imagine a nice blue sky without any clouds. But by even cloud cover I mean a sky that is cloudy, but fairly evenly throughout; in other words there are no puffy or wispy clouds contrasting against a blue sky, but rather that dull light grey tone up everywhere you look.

In cases like this there are a couple of modes you can try to get a sharp lock on your feathered subject. The first mode is to employ the center focusing dot on your camera, aim at the bird and start clicking the shutter button. Overall this method has worked fairly well for me, but I've noticed some issues. It's hard enough as it is to track a flying creature, so I've often ended up with the center focus dot on the sky next to the critter. Since there's nothing much the camera can focus on, the lens starts hunting unsuccessfully and by that time the bird is long out of focus and out of frame.

Instead of using just that single dot, I've instead found myself selecting all targets (or area focusing mode) more often for birding. Since the background is simple and lacks contrast, the bird wonderfully stands out against the evenly toned sky. So even if its off center, one of the those many focus points will register the bird and the focus should lock. Some sources say this mode is somewhat slower than just using a single dot, but in my experience --specifically in this case-- I've found that point fairly moot (in cases where the subject and background are more complex, then indeed the system needs more time to focus... keeping in mind that time is generally very small, around one or two tenths of a second).

Busier Backgrounds: Things get more interesting when the background is busier. Take for example a bird flying against a scenic landscape (e.g. a forest, mountains) or city skyscrapers. In this case, area focusing mode may not be a great choice as the focus could very well be hit and miss... mostly miss. In such situations, I've either gone back to using the single center dot for focusing and tried my best to follow the subject or have used manual focusing. Manual focusing is tricky on the fly but if a bird is at rest, like on a street light post, it's a cinch to perform. So when the fellow takes flight, you are already have perfect focus. Now this is not with its downside though, because if the bird flies towards or away from you, it may go out of focus. Therefore, one has to hope the bird flies more or less parallel to your position. I recommend trying out a few of these techniques and I'm pretty certain you'll find one that you favor and works quite well.

Lens, Camera Mode and Settings
Shooting birds can essentially be called a sub-category of action photography, so many of the considerations you find there can be applied here.

Lens: It pretty much goes without saying, but with most photographs of this nature a long lens is required (unless you want tiny dark specks as birds). Thus, we're likely looking at a range of at least 300mm to 600mm or even larger if you have access to such equipment. A fast lens can be beneficial too, as less light loss will allow you to use faster shutter speeds in situations where, for example, cloud cover is blocking sunlight. On the other hand, shooting stopped-down a little, like around f/5.6, might yield slightly sharper images and a bit more depth of field (DOF), although that's not as critical; the distance most birds would be at means the DOF will be fairly large anyway. Even an aperture around f/8 will very likely provide a sufficiently blurred background, but as usual, take a few shots and adjust to your liking.

Shutter Speed and Mode: Not only would the person who asked the birding question like to get sharp photos, but so would most of us when shooting these airborne lifeforms. Therefore, to ensure a quick enough shutter speed, I strongly recommend shutter priority or manual mode. With shutter priority, you can force the camera to use a specific shutter speed and the machine will adjust the aperture and sensitivity (if set to auto) accordingly in order to get a good exposure. For focal lengths of around 300mm, 1/500 of a second should freeze the action, but of course use 1/1000 or even 1/2000 if you're noticing that blur is still occurring or if you're using a lens with a longer focal length (... err, just because you're using a longer focal length lens doesn't mean you have to use a faster shutter speed, but if you're hand holding, it can help prevent hand-shake effects for some photographers).

Now I also mentioned the use of manual mode, where you can force the camera to use whatever shutter speed and aperture you want. The advantage with this mode is that if you want the aperture to be something specific (e.g. you want f/5.6 because the lens is sharper in that range, or you want f/2.8 to ensure the lens stays wide open), then you can force the camera to entirely do your bidding.

Whichever of these two modes you choose, you'll likely have to play with the numbers to get the right exposure on the bird; not too dark (details lost or too noisy when processed to be lighter) nor to light (loss of contrast and details washed out). In addition, don't be afraid of pushing the sensitivity higher up if needed if you're finding the exposure is too dark. Many cameras, even some models a few years old, still produce good quality images up to 1,600 ISO and if you shoot in RAW, you'll have a fair amount of control at your fingertips to eliminate much of that noise (or you might already have software/plug-ins dedicated to noise reduction). Of course if you want to keep noise at a minimum, then try either a larger aperture or slower shutter speed setting first.

And before moving on, remember to use the high speed sequential shooting feature on your camera. Pressing the shutter button repeatedly while panning will make things more difficult than they need to be. This is also where traditional mirrored DSLRs still have a major advantage over the electronic viewfinder (EVF) types. Although the mirror slapping up momentarily blacks out the picture, you can still see the subject moving along quite clearly, whereas EVF cams generally show you the last photo taken for a split second.

Funny how manufacturers haven't caught onto the idea that if you're in sequential shooting mode on an EVF type camera, why the heck not just keep showing the image as normal to the photographer? I mean think about... seeing the last image taken for a split second is basically useless, as it's not enough time to give the photos a good examination for anything in particular and it's of little to no help in keeping up with the subject in motion (especially for more unpredictable movement). Personally, and I have a feeling most photographers would agree with me, as long as I can trust that the machine is capturing images while I'm pushing down the button (ok, show me a bloody red blinking dot in a non-intrusive spot), I don't need to see the screen blacking out or the last pic displayed momentarily; I'm more than happy to review the results afterwards. And if any of you manufacturers out there implement my idea, I'll gladly let you know where you can make my royalty payments to! :)

Tripod/Monopod vs. Hand Holding: Whether you choose to use a tripod/monopod or hand hold your camera plus lens is mostly up to you and is generally a personal choice. However, if you have a fairly long lens, it can become tiring to hold the thing for an hour or two, and panning along with the subject can be smoother (but perhaps not as flexible as hand holding).

Almost any type of tripod can be used but certain types might have better results. For example, less expensive tripods with the head build-in might not allow fine control over tension and might not have a quick release plate, thus making removal of the camera more cumbersome and slow (e.g. maybe a quick change in position is needed to capture another subject or a bird in an usual location). On the other hand, more flexible tripods that can be fitted with various types of heads may be more to your liking. Perhaps a ball head can give you the freedom you need to quickly pan around with a single tension control, or a three-axis (aka three-way) head is more to your fancy as you can constrain the panning to a single plane (e.g. horizontal, thus keeping bobbing to a minimum; could help keep a certain composition too, as you wouldn't pan to high or low).

A monopod may offer a more compact and lighter weight solution to help with panning and I've certainly found them great to use, especially for horizontal movement as you can simply rotate the thing left or right. But adjusting the camera's gaze vertically is a bit unusual, as it can place one in an uncomfortable position.

So that concludes my quick post on shooting birds in flight. There's certainly more information out there that could be applied, but I believe this is a good starting point for those interested in this subject matter. Good luck and happy shooting! L8r!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Check out the new look of my website!

Web design has never come that easily to me. It's unusual because I can certainly tell if a website looks professional and is well developed, but drawing something up that looks like some of those awesome sites out there... eeek!

Nonetheless, I think I did fairly well with the redesign of my personal website; feel free to comment and let me know (be nice! LOL):

The "old" version of the site was a little simpler looking and concentrated more on my IT skills (programming, Web application development, etc.), and although I'm not quitting that work I'd rather emphasize my "Photography with Imre" series and other creative projects. As time goes on I'll be adding more resources to the site (i.e. more links and more useful content of my own creation), so at some point the website will become a virtual entertainment and educational hub. Considering it took me two (very full) days to do this, I actually have high hopes on this venture!

Please feel free to make suggestions; anything can help! L8r!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Part 2: Intro to Action Photography - Photography with Imre - Episode 33

I already said it, but man did I have fun creating the action photography episode! Gigantic topic though but hopefully the show gave people a good idea of what it's about. Speaking of which...

The Subject is Key
... it is indeed all about the subject and I don't just mean you have to get the thing you're shooting in the frame. Since I hit up this subtopic quite thoroughly in the video I won't spend much time on it here, but I can't help emphasize it a little. Virtually everything such as the camera equipment you'll need for the shoot, the location you select, perhaps the time of day and camera settings will depend largely on the subject. In addition, some research might also improve the composition of the photographs. It's like the examples I provided in the video. Skateboarders doing tricks might look better with a wide angle lens, flash and a large depth of field (DOF) to capture cool moves, while certain motocross shots will be more impressive with the background motion blurred and a smaller DOF.

Preparation also fits into this realm. Since action photography can encompass many different types of subjects, consider creating a checklist so important details don't slip the mind (especially if you're shooting for money). Be mindful if shooting at various events where a permit or permission might be required to photograph. Although laws differ from place to place and I'm no legal expert so I recommend you ask someone qualified, generally speaking if you're on private property then you usually need some sort of permission. In some cases it's clearly allowed and nothing written is required, whereas I've read some articles stating that certain sporting stadiums only allow focal lengths below a certain value (e.g. 200mm or less) and in some cases you need to be a VIP with an ID tag dangling around your neck.

Setting the Shutter Speed and Camera Modes
In most action photography scenarios, the shutter speed is key to making the shot work. For example, if you need a very high shutter speed to completely freeze the action, then you'll likely be looking at something around 1/1000 of a second (I have visions of a speed boat race in my head with rooster tails flying out the back). If your camera is set to auto mode, the results will likely be unpredictable; simply said the camera will decide what shutter speed and aperture to use (I'll discuss sensitivity/ISO in a moment). So in some cases the action might be nicely frozen, but in others (perhaps due to lighting conditions) the detail might be blurred as the cam decides to slow the shutter in order to get the right exposure. Aperture priority may not be much help either (although it's worth mentioning that this mode might very well work for many cases, except in places where a very particular shutter speed is required or desired). Sure, you could open the lens as wide as it'll go, which would deliver more light to the sensor and help increase the shutter speed, but your DOF may be too small to your liking.

So this is where shutter priority and full manual mode come into play. Let's examine some of the pros and cons to these modes:

Shutter Priority - Pros
  • You can set the shutter speed to almost anywhere you want
  • Camera will decide on using the appropriate aperture to get the right exposure
Shutter Priority - Cons
  • Depending on the shutter speed set, the camera may not be able to produce a good exposure (e.g. aperture may not be adjustable to where needed; a shutter speed of 1/8000 may need the lens opened wider than it can go, thus underexposure results)
  • DOF might not be what you would like it to be as the camera manipulates the aperture
Manual Mode - Pros
  • You are the master; you can basically adjust any setting to wherever you want on the camera
  • Excellent for specialized cases such as fireworks
Manual Mode - Cons
  • To confirm exposure, either test shots must be taken or a light meter has to be used; one is a bit slow to setup and not everyone has a light meter
  • If sudden changes in lighting conditions occur, then the exposure settings need to be adjusted. Think of a cloudy sky and shooting that boat race. Everything might be ok when the sun is out, but when clouds obscure the sun, the drop in light intensity will likely result in an underexposed photo.
  • Might be tricky to setup if a novice
The choice between shutter priority and manual mode must be made by you. As much as I'd love to suggest something, the problem is that everything from the type of subject you're shooting, to lighting conditions and even personal preferences must be considered; there are simply too many factors. But with what I've presented and some further research and experimentation on your own, I have a feeling you'll start to get a feel for it (seriously, experiment lots!).

Now I'd like to discuss sensitivity as it plays a significant part in getting the correct exposure. As with some other settings on your camera, you can leave ISO at automatic or set it yourself. Leaving it at auto means that the camera will decide when the sensitivity needs changing. There are some trains of thought on this as with anything, so I'd recommend that you again experiment and discover how your camera behaves. Personally, I tend to set it myself, as I usually go for keeping the noise as low as possible. On the other hand, leaving it at auto may give you some extra flexibility. For example, if you're shooting in shutter priority mode, then the camera could set both the aperture and ISO to get the right exposure; this may overcome certain cases where an adjustment to aperture alone isn't enough (Think back to the example in the cons section of shutter priority. If the lens cannot be opened any wider then the ISO could be increased, perhaps making the sensor sensitive enough to light to get a good exposure at 1/8000 of a second).

It's in the Skills
Having the right equipment and being able to push some buttons on the camera are only small parts to being an effective action photographer. In my opinion, the ability to "feel" the shot is another significant issue. In other words, the skill of the photographer to nail the composition of the shot and be able to anticipate what would work in regard to factors such as lighting, background and time (i.e. getting the right moment(s) to capture the images), amongst other things is key. I'm the type of person to believe that some people have a natural ability to do this, while others can learn and hone their skills by practicing often. To at least provide something useful in this regard, I've created a list below with a few things that might help you get started:

  • Practice panning the camera so you can follow subjects in motion. And don't just pan, take shots during the motion to get used to pressing the shutter button while doing this.
  • Sometimes it's convenient to shoot handheld versus using a tripod or monopod. Practice holding and taking shots with a large lens to get the feel for it, but keep in mind the focal length reciprocal rule, which works as follows. Let's take a 600mm lens, which in fractional terms is 600/1 (600 "over" 1). So the reciprocal would be 1/600... so to get a potentially blur free shot, use a shutter speed of at least 1/600 of a second. Of course you might need a faster or slower shutter speed in some cases, but it's a quick guideline to go by.
  • Try unusual angles and not just those from a high or low perspective, but consider banking or tilting the camera. Often you can better fill a frame with the subject and create more interesting shots with the horizon off-kilter.
  • If the possibility exists, experiment using a flash; either on your camera or remotely triggered in various locations.
There would be so much more to write about, but I think I'll stop here and if anyone has questions or if I think of something useful, then I'll zero-in on that matter and create a new post.

The next episode will be on time lapse photography as that topic had quite a few requests. L8r!

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