I wanted to write an article to help summarize some of the good photography practices for a long time. It is a learning experience for me and I would like to capture and share some of the stuff I learned so far. I hope this helps you to take your skills to the next level and capture even better images in the years to come. OK, let's start (you can skip most of it if you wish and head down to the GENERAL ADVICE paragraph).
Many photographers, including myself get obsessed with the equipment at first. I think many people commonly believe that if one has the best gear, then they can get the most beautiful photographs. It is not entirely true. While having the best equipment surely helps, without good subject and composition, great light, and decent post processing it will not help anyone to produce outstanding results. I have seen a lot of images in photography magazines that won awards and honorable mentions, and were taken with mediocre camera gear. People just happen to capture beautiful light or an interesting subject in an unusual way.
Having said this I will start with composition. This is something I still struggle with at times. I have seen a lot of good images on flickr.com that could have been great if the composition was better. Often times I myself, because of lack of preparation and time spent on figuring out a good point of view for my subject, fail to capture it in the best way, even with great gear and light conditions. Composing your subject in a unique way takes time and practice. I think it first starts in your "mind's eye" and then you materialize it through available gear, light, and positioning yourself. For instance, an ultra-wide angle lens tends to exaggerate the subjects in the foreground, while shrinking the background ones considerably. So, it I have a good foreground object in my picture, I would get closer to it, find its features that can be emphasized, and watch for the lines it creates in my frame. In case of a long zoom lens, say 150-300mm range, these lenses tend to compress and somewhat enlarge the background, make it nice and blurry, and really make my subject pop from the background. Therefore, with these lenses I would want to make sure that my object of interest is clearly defined in the frame, and kind of stands out from the rest of it. Composition is also very important with people photography. I am guilty of just posing the people in front of me with little instruction and attention to detail. What I need is to take time, and look at my subject closely, define a good pose, and keep an eye for anything distracting from trees growing out of their heads to the way hair falls on their faces.
I want to stress it again that composing a subject, while well defining its favorite features and arranging all the other elements in the scene to work together is the critical skill to learn in any type of photography. This is the skill that can not be duplicated in Photoshop, and will differentiate your style from the others.
Next important element to master is the light. Most of the time we do not create our light, but use what is available. Therefore, it is very important to learn the light, about its direction, intensity, color temperature, and quality. Whatever photography you do, try to identify the best light for your needs, and study the conditions that create it. For example, if I photograph a model and there is a nice soft light coming from above in the afternoon. I am using just natural light, and positioned the bride in the shade. Now, I want to watch the direction of the light falling onto her face, and have her eye sockets filled out with this light to bring the color of the eyes out, and eliminate the "raccoon eyes" effect (dark eye sockets with unexpressive eyes). To do that, I would ask the model to look somewhat toward to light, while keeping one cheek in the shadow to create more contrast, and to look up a little, toward the light. This would flood her eye sockets with beautifully dissipated daylight and make her eyes "pop" out of the image.
Another example is the sunset/sunrise photography. I know that the best colors happen around that time, so I study the light. I noticed that warm sunset light highlights the wet ocean rocks with a warm golden glow, 10-15 minutes before the sun sets. So, I look for those rocks to give me that texture and golden detail. Then, I know that the best color show happens right after the sunset, for example. This is why instead of packing my gear and leaving, I stick around, and use longed shutter speeds to capture the color display in the sky. Then, I definitely need a tripod, a cable release or timer use in camera, and filter holder for my GND filters to balance the sky. See, I use this equipment to suit my needs and "mind's eye" thinking. This is how you know what equipment you will need most, based on the kind of stuff you are trying to capture. Anyway, there can be so much written about the light, but the main thing is to learn to see it, and to take advantage of the light in what your "mind's eye" is trying to capture.
Say you composed a subject well, the light is great, now what? Now, you need some equipment to capture it, right? :) So, our next thing to master is all this gibberish about the camera settings, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, lenses, filter, etc. - the fun and expensive stuff. You can minimize your out of pocket damage by knowing what it is you shoot, and, therefore, kind of equipment you need. Next, select a few products that are out there and read reviews to see which one offers the best value for your needs. For instance, you can waste a lot of money trying out different GND filters, with various stops and edge hardness, and brands, and holders. Instead, find out ahead of time that Cokin P size holder will add vignetting on ultra-wide lenses used with a full frame sensor camera; 2 stops GND is really not enough to hold down sunset sky; plastic filters scratch easily, so use a dedicated filter holder, and do not put them together in one pouch or they might scratch; do not buy cheapie wireless flash triggers if you plan to shoot for serious clients - they will misfire very often and everyone will be disappointed for wasting their time, etc.
Learn all that your camera and gear can do ahead of time - it is like training before the game happens. There is tons of books out there, and don't forget the equipment manuals :). Once you know how the pieces of camera gear you have work, experiment to use them to your advantage. When on location - experiment first, shoot later. Change the aperture, shutter speed, focal length, add a speed light, etc., but find what works and be ready when the time comes to capture that precious moment.
Next, but not least is the post processing techniques. First of all, there is a number of great software tools out there to support your creative needs. Adobe Lightroom can be very helpful in managing the workflow, but lacks advanced editing tools. Adobe Photoshot Element is a good starter program, but lacks some of the critical tools like selective layer masking and such. Adobe Photoshop is one of the best ones, and is pretty much industry standard. Learn the basics of it, and your pictures will be improved tremendously. I have the $300 more Extended version at work and rarely use the 3D features for photos. So, personally, I would not spend that extra money, unless there was a solid reason to do so. Also, do not forget the plug-ins for Photoshop that are out there, and can add creative effects in seconds. Save yourself time by recording your own macros. Photomatix Pro is a great HDR software package, and is relatively inexpensive - $100. AutopanoPro is a good tool for stitching up multiple photos in a panorama. Anyhow, do your research, save the money and get the software you need to showcase your work. One interesting note - I was reading the Q&A section in a PP magazine (I think), and one guy was asking the question about post processing. He was saying - is it really necessary? Doesn't anyone do it like they did in the old days, just shoot and print what you got? The answer was that even in the old days great photographs were created using dark room techniques and manipulations. So they did it then, and we are doing it now, just using way more convenient tools :)
OK, I have a feeling that I can write this for a while, so let me wrap it up with just some bits and pieces of GENERAL ADVICE (from my subjective pov):
Gear to use -
•Canon, Nikon, & Sony offer a great variety of cameras and lenses. Remember, you are not buying just a camera, but buying into a system. From this perspective, generally Canon and Nikon have the most products available to support their systems. I am a Canon guy, although have a lot of respect for the Nikon gear (I still own a Nikon N-80 film camera). I shoot a lot of landscapes, so my camera of choice is a full frame Canon 5D mark2. I own a Canon 40D as well, and it just does not cut it for me compared to the 5D Mark 2 in terms of detail, noise, and color. However, it is an excellent sports shooter, where 5D Mark 2 is in the dust for the most part;
•Get the best lenses you can get for the money. Consider relatively inexpensive prime lenses for your favorite focal lengths - they are "cheap", light, and offer great image quality. When possible, get a lens with image stabilization, especially if it is a long zoom;
•Purchase the best Circular polarizer you can afford - it will be used a lot;
•Tripod is something you will use a lot in landscape, so get a good one. It needs to be tall enough 55"+, light enough, and easy to use. I use a Manfrotto 190 CX3 with a Gitzo ball head (cheaper one), and I am very happy I paid for that carbon fiber, as I carry it a lot. Also, consider its folded size to see if it can go into a carry-on bag. That way there is no need to check in any suitcases when you fly;
•Buy a decent ball head for the tripod, do not waste your time with the ones made for video - too many knobs to adjust. It should run about $150-250;
•Select a good cable release. The cheaper, $30 ones are good value, but can become flaky (electrical connection quality is poor), and do not offer a timer for time lapse photography. I resented Canon's $160 one and settled for a $90 third party (Promaster, robertscamera.com/photo/dslrs/accessories/remote-controls...
, which works great so far.
•Get a good lens cleaning microfiber cloth, it is indispensable. Before you wipe that expensive filter or lens, make sure the cloth and lens are free from any hard particles like sand, or you may scratch the thing as you work that cloth :);
•Filters - GND in particular come in different darkening power flavors 0.6 - 2 stops, 0.9 - 3 stops, 1.2 - 4 stops. Lee also sells 0.75 - 2.5 stops I think. They can be soft edge for smoother transition, and hard edge for well-defined horizons (ocean). Note, that on a longer focal lengths (150+), the soft edge effect is not well defined, so it is better to bracket or use a hard edge filter. I recommend using a Hi-tech filter if on the budget (sells for around 60 bucks), Lee or Singh-Ray if can afford it ($90 a piece). I use a 100mm wide Lee filter holder with their 77mm ultra wide angle adapter ring. I would stay away from Cokin because of the color cast; 10 ND stop filters - have not used them, but love the effect. Heard that Lee's produces a cooler/bluer color cast that is easier to correct than other brands that produce more of a brownish cast. Read my other in depth article on filters here - www.flickr.com/photos/9689670@N06/5475829356/
•Memory cards – buy a brand name, your hard work depends on this tiny card. I had one recently fail and lost all my pictures on it. Good thing it was not anything critical. It was made by Lexar too, so you never know. Also, I try to use a number of them for an event (like a wedding), then if one fails I did not lose EVERYTHING;
•Flashes - break the bank and get top of the line, because of its commander capabilities, if you plan to use radiopoppers as wireless triggers. Plus you get some extra power. Make sure to get a light modifier/diffuser, like Gary Fong's collapsible light sphere. Also, get a set of good re-chargeable batteries, not that 30min. charge stuff;
•Wireless flash/strobe triggers - pocket wizards and radiopoppers are the best, although new pocket wizards (mini and flex) have some interference issues with certain flashes. Both give you eTTL!;
•Strobes - Alienbees.com has a nice variety of all you need, including their new Vagabond mini portable power unit for a very reasonable price/performance ratio.
Some common sense info:
•Bring a flash light, because climbing those cliffs in the dark is a whole another scenario :);
•Inspect and clean your lens/filter before you shoot;
•Do not leave your camera body open (without a lens or battery door open) for a long time. Dust and moisture can get inside and not just give you the dots to clone out, but ruin the electronics inside. Try to stay away from changing lenses in windy/dusty conditions;
•Get an emergency ID tag on you (in case you are unconscious) and turn on your GPS that tracks your position and sends it automatically to someone's e-mail;
•Get rubber boots to cross wet areas;
•Shield the lens from the sun (lens hood or by hand) to eliminate loss of contrast. Shield camera's eyepiece (window to look through to take a picture) from the sun light behind you - the automatic exposure will be correct;
•Let your relatives/friends know where the spirit is taking you today :);
•Try not to look directly into the sun, it can damage the eye sight, or through the live view - it may damage the sensor;
•Get yourself a clear plastic shower cap to shield the camera from the rain and moisture;
•Do not showcase your equipment around - thieves may be watching and waiting till you leave to break in and steal;
•Get to locations early, and give yourself time to find a good spot, or pre-visualize the image;
•If you are shooting an event like a wedding, get backup for everything, you do not want to be caught with your pants down if a camera quits working;
•When camera is on a tripod, turn off the image stabilization on the lens, or the pictures will be blurry;
•Bracket exposures when possible (say take at least 3: -1 1/3 stop; 0; +1 1/3 stop) - more information to work with later;
•When calculating long exposure manually, use camera's meter and simple math. Bump up the ISO to where it works for say 30 sec. at f11. Then work your way down with the ISO to figure out the new exposure time. For instance, I started at ISO3200, 30 sec., f11. I will go down to ISO400, which is a 3 stop difference (3200 - 1600 - 800 - 400), so this means my shutter speed needs to be at least 4 minutes (30 - 60 - 120 - 240). One more thing - say it is a sunset, so the light is fading quickly. Because of that I would add a few more seconds to the final exposure number to compensate. It is a little gamble, I know.
•Stabilize tripod before letting go, or the wind may knock it down. Sand bags are a popular choice;
•Download an app on your phone that has sun location and sunset/sunrise times. I started using Sunrise Sunset Pro - pretty basic, only cost 2 bucks;
•When shooting with multiple cameras (in a wedding, for instance), sync the clocks on both cameras - will save you from a picture sorting headache later, because you will be able to sort everything by time, not file name;
•Look into getting an insurance for the equipment. If it stolen - you are covered. I know they offer insurance for people that shoot weddings all the time - it makes sense to have it, just in case things go wrong. Then you do not have to fly everybody back for the pictures :);
And above all - STAY SAFE, because it is not worth it. I do not want to get to Heaven, meet my wife, children, and family and have to explain to them "Yes I died falling off a cliff, but look I got a great picture while doing that!" :) I do not think it is going to work.
All the best, and good luck shooting!
PS - some of the great resources around:
www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/ dpreview.com/ www.fredmiranda.com/strobist.blogspot.com/2006/02/welcome-to-strobist.htmlwww.kelbytraining.com/photo.net/
places to buy gear:www.adorama.com/www.bhphotovideo.com/www.2filters.com/alienbees.com/