An Essential Tool

If you take your photography seriously, you need to avoid one thing in particular: running out of battery power just when you need it. (Have you noticed, batteries never fail at a convenient time?)

The solution is simple. Buy a battery tester, and use it before you go and shoot.

A battery tester, which sells for about $7–10 in your hardware store, is a meter with a “battery” mode. That mode does not just measure voltage; instead, it measures voltage under load.

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You recognize it by its mention of batteries (like “AA”, as in this example).

Before every shoot, measure your batteries, and if in any doubt, replace them. That takes away one big drawback of battery-powered equipment.

  • Where do you use rechargeables? A: In gear that you use intensively and often: namely, in your flashes.
  • Where do you use Alkalines? A: In equipment that uses little current and that lasts many months between battery changes. Namely, in your PocketWizards and similar radio triggers.

One more note: if you use rechargeable batteries, make sure that you use an appropriate meter. NiMH batteries have a lower voltage than Alkaline batteries, so you cannot measure NiMH batteries with a meter intended for Alkalines (or vice versa).

 

Sizzling Sweet Summer Season Soon, See?

I don’t know what it is about the summer that brings out the alliterations in me. Sensational Sunshine? Horrible heat, high humidity? 

Of course it is only February, but tomorrow here promises to be 10ºC. That reminds us that there will eventually be a summer again. Better still: tomorrow I can drive my Chevy Camaro ZL1, the White Angel, to my workshop in Kitchener.

“Kitchener”, incidentally, reminds me that the story of war is written by the winners. Lord Kitchener invented concentration camps in the boer war of the early 20th century. So you might expect him to be remembered as a war criminal. Instead, he has a city named after him, and Wikipedia describes him as “The Earl Kitchener KG KP GCB OM GCSI GCMG GCIE PC.” Yes, you heard that right: “KG KP GCB OM GCSI GCMG GCIE PC”. The more letters, the more respect. History is written by the winners.

It didn’t help him: he was killed, together with 600 others, when his ship hit a mine.

Back to today, a century later. Summer brings out the best in photography in me, too. Namely, light. In particular, flash mixed with ambient light. And that is what I am teaching tomorrow.

The last leaves I saw were these:

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Now, I wait for them to re-appear. When that happens, and when the weather gets better, we once again engage in outdoors photography. Flash. We get enthused again, about photography and about life in general.

I encourage you to grab your camera, check out your lenses and flashes, then build some new skills to use this season.

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Try something you have never done. Street photography, if you are a model shooter. Or models, if you are a food photographer. Do some crazy post work (see above, in Lightroom). Learn Lightroom! And so on. Learn flash. Learn good composition. There is so much to learn, there are so many types of photography: start with this blog, why don’t you. Read back, or read random posts. Use the SEARCH field above.

But above all, have fun.  If photography isn’t fun, or isn’t fun anymore, you will not be your best.  So tomorrow in Kitchener will be fun for the 20-25 students I will have in the class. I’ll think of ways!

And that is what I am going to do right now. Prepare to teach:

  • Flash technical basics
  • On-camera flash
  • Off-camera flash, and how to do it
  • Modifiers
  • Multiple flashes
  • Small flashes or studio flashes?

Lots to learn. Lots of fun. And learning new skills is fun. I will teach some mroe here soon, so stay tuned.

 

It’s coming. Be ready.

Hold on tight and be ready. Those are words that can instil fear. Something is about to happen, and you somehow need to understand it and be ready for it, “or else”. It happens to everyone in life, and it happens in every industry, but its effects are particularly dramatic in an industry where technology plays such a central role as in photography. Things change, and they change dramatically.

An example everyone knows is Kodak, which went from being the premier company in photography to essentially disappearing in the course of just a few years. Oh, they saw “digital” coming all right, that wasn’t the issue; they saw it coming like a thundering express train while they stood there right in the middle of the track, not moving, sheepishly staring at the disaster that was about to befall them. Paralyzed, they stood there until, well, until… splash.

The general consensus has it that the reason was that they really didn’t understand what industry they were in. They thought of themselves as a chemicals company. They employed lots of PhD chemists, and got chemistry prizes and awards and patents. Chemistry experts, that’s what they were. Except, of course, they were not. They were an imaging company, and if they had realized that they would’ve switched simply from chemicals-based imaging to transistor-based imaging. They would not have been hit by that train.

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Glass plate, celluloid, or phototransistors: who cares?

Today that pace of change is still happening in the photography field. The pace of change is enormous. You learned on an SLR with film; now you need to know how to use a digital SLR. You shot at 100 ISO; now you happily shoot at 6,400 ISO. Yes – but wait. Maybe we will switch to mirrorless cameras next year. Or to 3-D cameras. Or to cameras that allow you to focus after the fact. You are a photographer, but perhaps in ten years you will think of yourself as an image – based storyteller.  Or something entirely different. Maybe  instead of a photographer, you will consider yourself a computer image manipulation expert. Or maybe you’ll become a videographer.

The point is: be ready for constant change. If you have not experience the following changes yet, chances are that you will:

  • Photoshop to Lightroom.
  • Low ISO to High ISO.
  • Crop frame to Full Frame.
  • Mirror to Mirrorless.
  • PC to Mac (or, for that matter, Mac to PC).
  • Disk storage to hybrid storage.
  • Hybrid storage to solid state storage.
  • Local storage to cloud storage.
  • Stand-alone photography to photography integrated into web, social media, cloud, etc.
  • Stand-alone hardware to “the Internet of Things”.
  • No GPS to built-in GPS everywhere.
  • CF to SD; SD to Micro SD.
  • USB to USB 2 to USB 3 speeds.
  • USB connector to Mini USB to Micro USB.
  • Proprietary to universal formats (even Sony is stepping away from proprietary to industry standard, who could have imagined!)

Now, those are just a very few predictable changes—so you can get ready and prepare for those, and you should. Plenty of help available (I, um, know an experienced educator and photographer who, um, wrote a series of books and teaches, um, a whole lot of courses (more coming soon!). And there’s Internet resources, like this blog.

But there are also—and here, unusually, I will give Mr Donald Rumsfeld credit—such things as “unknown unknowns”. The changes above flow naturally out of known trends, but many changes do not; they are the result of unexpected events. Black Swans. No-one in Hammurabi’s Court could have predicted Quickbooks Accounting software. No-one in 1217 could have predicted electric drones (“Look! It’s a miracle! I see a buzzing angel”). No-one in 1736 could have predicted DNA-based crime analysis. And so on. These are the things that will make you feel old. And I know that you do not want to feel old.

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So my advice to you is this: take courses, do seminars. Join photo clubs. Read up on the Internet. Read books on photography. Read blogs, like this one. Listen to blogs, like TWIP (This Week in Photo). And see yourself as a maker of imagery in the broadest sense. It is silly to waste any brain-energy on questions like “Canon or Nikon?”—especially when perhaps 20 years from now you will all be using Apple i-See (or iSight) cameras. Do not fossilize.

Do not look from the tools to the end product, as Kodak did (“we know chemistry, so we will make chemical photography stuff”). Instead, look from the end product back to the tools (“we want to make beautiful images, so we will use whatever technology is most suited for that today”). That’s how you stay honest and fresh. 

 

Don’t Give Up.

A student recently sent me this picture, saying that unfortunately, she could not use it as homework because of the low quality:

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It was a small (700 pixels height) picture. Blurred, low contrast, and inaccurate colour. So she has a point: not great, though an excellent moment.

But wait. If I put that picture into Lightroom (just drag it onto a grid view), I can use the “Develop” module to fix exposure, white balance, sharpness, highlights, blacks, contrast, and not to forget clarity (presence). Would that help?

It certainly would:

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Much better, and now suddenly it is a useable picture.

I suppose the take-away is this. First, of course, that Lightroom is easy to use and powerful. Second, that even “bad” pictures can often be fixed later, especially when small sized, like for use on the web. We often inspect too closely: usually, even a bad picture today can easily beat any picture made from a negative in 1980.

From all this, a few things follow. Namely:

  • Do not delete bad pictures: you may find a use with them anyway, if not now, then maybe tomorrow, with new digital processing techniques.
  • If a picture is bad, try making it smaller. Imperfections are less noticeable in smaller size photos.
  • Try alternates. Black and white, for instance. Or shift colours. And so on: often, these things can bring out the quality in a photo.
  • Use parts. Crop off the bad part, or selectively sharpen the important parts.
  • Learn to use Lightroom (see yesterday’s post).
  • Above all: do not give up on a picture too soon.

The improvements I made to the above picture were from a small picture. Imagine what I could have done with the original sized picture: I am sure it would have been even better.

A bad picture of a great moment may still be worth it. But often, you can make that bad picture into at least an acceptable picture.

A fun exercise is this: go  through your old photos, those of five years ago, and see what the processing techniques since then can do with them. You will often be surprised.

Do consider coming to my Lightroom seminars in a few weeks. See the post immediately below this one.

 

Come Learn Lightroom—once and for all!

One of the most spectacular changes in photography over the past decade has been the emergence of Adobe Lightroom (officially called “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom”) as the tool for photo asset management, editing and production for everyone from beginners to pros.

Lightroom was conceived as an additional utility that would make “managing your photos” easier.  But it has become much more: rather than just a utility, it is now the centre of a professional workflow that can save 80% of the time you used to take before for the same job. A wedding that took me 8 days to finish in Photoshop now takes a day.

So what does Lightroom do more, or better, than Photoshop?

The question is a little misleading. They are different beasts, aimed at different tasks. Photoshop is for illustrators that need to spend an hour on one photo; Lightroom is for photographers who need to do 100 photos an hour. Nevertheless, they both overlap to some extent: both offer some asset management (using Bridge, in Photoshop’s case), editing, and some production.

Where Lightroom shines is in its practicality. Lightroom offers:

  • Non destructive editing. Your original photo is never touched.
  • The RAW conversion does not happen until the very end, when you export or print an image, so you can change your mind about any setting at all times.
  • Lightroom offers really, really solid asset management. Even if like me you manage a quarter of a million images, you can rank, rate, search, organize, sort, rename, and a gazillion other things to your hearts content.
  • Practicality. A typical shortcut in Lightroom is, let’s say, “D” for “Develop”. Not, as in most apps, “Ctrl-Alt-Shift-D”, or some such hard to remember combination.
  • Great editing tools for photographers. True, you cannot move a head from one torso to the next, but I consider those functions “illustrator functions”. For what photographers do it is excellent. Especially if you know “the tricks”.
  • It works your way – unlike most apps, where you have to work the app’s way.
  • Everything you do can be undone, or redone differently, so you never have to be afraid that you are setting things up incorrectly, for instance. You can always re-do it a different way.
  • Lightroom is an excellent production tool. Exporting, printing (straight from Lightroom to your paper profile; not via some intermediate file), making web sites: it’s all included, and it has the functions you need.

By now, with Lightroom 6, it is mature and works the way it should.

But you do need to learn it. And like with so much software, it’s the little “A-ha” things; the tips and tricks; the “I had no idea this worked that way” things that makes you a star.

Well, good news. I am teaching Lightroom on 26 February and March 4. In Brantford, Ontario (just 20 minutes west of Hamilton). Morning on both days is “File organization”; afternoon is “Editing”.  So you can take one or two, on either day. Limited to four students each time (plus myself =5).

You can book on meetup.com at https://www.meetup.com/Brantford-Photography-School/ (get a free account, join the group, and book); or you can contact me separately and book in person. But do it soon: as said, space is limited.

Also, stay tuned for other courses in Brantford and in Toronto in the next few months. Unshackle yourself and unleash your creativity!