Apollo 13

Sometimes I feel like an Apollo 13 engineer. Everything is going wrong – but you use ingenuity (and duct tape) to make it work again.

Yesterday afternoon, suddenly:

  • My Mac has unrecoverable disk errors
  • My external drive, where my photos live, spontaneously lost all of 2020!

Fortunately:

I make backups.

…and as it happens I had made a backup that very morning. So after a quick restore, all is well again.

And now I need to find a day where I do not need the Mac, so that I can reformat the drive and start over…

“Mastering Your Camera”, 4th Edition

Of my seven books, the one you should read first if you are a beginner or intermediate user, is “Mastering Your Camera”. It starts from zero, and will make you a competent photographer technically, and it also starts you off in terms of composition and subject selection.

The FOURTH Edition of this e-book has just been released. It contains many corrections, some clarifications, a few new flowcharts and tables, and general updates. As before, it is a PDF that you can use on any device, and you can also print a copy for personal use. The new edition’s ISBN is 978-0-9950800-8-9.

And if you do not have it yet, I have some great news: for one week only, it is available for just C$4.95. After that week, the price will revert to the usual $19.95.

Check it out here: www.michaelwillemsphoto.com/ebooks.html

Photos and History

Photos are the way we time-travel. And more and more people, fortunately, are discovering it. I do a lot of restoration and the subsequent printing and cropping.

Here I am doing the latter, cropping a just-printed photo, just now in the store:

Restoring old photos may involve a lot more than you perhaps imagine.

There’s the obvious (but not always easy) improving of contrast, colour, white balance, saturation, sharpness, shadow areas, and so on. And the time-consuming but very effective removal of specks, scratches, tears, fingerprints, and so on. It can easily take an hour per photo and involve literally hundreds of imperfections that one by one get removed.

But there’s also local adjustments. For example, often a photo is much better if the sky is slightly less white and more blue. And if we think the sky was actually blue at the time, we will bring some of that back.

Faces have often shifted colour, or lost colour, too – they need to be brought back to real skin tones, which is a tricky but essential local adjustment.

Then there’s removal of items. I remember a bride whose favourite picture was one of her and her new husband – but the photographer had taken it with the couple standing very close to a giant “STOP – NO ENTRY” sign. That was not what she wanted, for obvious reasons, so I removed it. And there was the Muslim bride photographed close to a prominent “Jesus Saves” sign – also removed!

Perspective fixes are also very important. Often, when a picture was taken the camera was pointed upward or downward. When this is distracting or when it leads to unacceptable distortion, I fix that too.

But there’s also artistic insight. What shadow would look best in this area of the image? What colour would work best here? And when we replace an area that is missing from a print, we often need to interpret what the person would have had in that part of the picture. Especially when it involved a photo made in, say, 1844, this means research.

And research comes in in other areas, too. For example, in this picture I spent a lot of time researching the exact colour of the copper roof in 1961. Copper changes colour constantly over the years, so it was important to get it right.

Uniforms too—which I see quite a lot of in the photos that people bring to me in Ottawa—need to be right, and it can be a challenge to find out exactly what this regiment’s daily uniform or or that police outfit’s mess dress uniform looked like in a given year in the past.

We use a variety of tools, from software like Photoshop and Lightroom, and specialized software that carries out math operations, to physically retouching with carefully chosen inks. For most restorations a combination fo at least a few of these is required for best results.

But in spite of all the work required, bringing a worn photo back to good quality is one of the most satisfying things I do. Because it really is a form of time travel: as I work, I imagine myself taking the picture, however many years ago it was. And the owner’s reaction, when they see the restored photo, is a reward in itself.

Look!

In a portrait, if you have eyes you probably should look – but it does not necessarily have to be at the camera, in every picture.

Like in this self portrait I made this morning:

Bonus question for my Flash students: what lights am I using here? There’s three.

Self portrait today

And today, another photo in my series of COVID-19 self portraits. Here it is, this morning:

Covid Day 9: The Photographer, 31 Mar 2020

So how did I make this photo? Here’s how.

I used a camera on a tripod and two small flashes (speedlights) on light stands. One flash had a grid on it, one had a small Honlphoto softbox, like this:

Oops, that’s 1/8” grid.

  • The flashes each have a Pocketwizard connected, as does the camera.
  • Camera settings are 100 ISO, f/8, 1/200 sec, in manual mode.
  • Flashes also in manual mode, 1/4 power.
  • The camera is using the 10 second timer.

Note that the camera focuses with “Back button focus”. That way, I can pre-focus at the right distance, and the camera won’t retry when it takes the picture.

Easy when you know how!

———

Learn flash photography! This is one of the favourite subject I teach, now live online. See http://www.michaelwillemsphoto.com/school/ for details.

Watch Out

Someone recently asked me “how do I take good photos of my wristwatch?”

Good question. A lot of people have hobbies that they can practice while quarantined at home. And two of those are (a) nurturing a wristwatch collection, and (b) photography. So the combination of the two is a logical thing to engage in.

Here, for the record, is what I am wearing on my wrist today:

So how do you do it? As so often, there’s not one answer: there are a few. Here are some of my quick recommendations. I will give you technical tips for SLR as well as for cell phone cameras; a few composition tips; and a few words about post-production.

Technical: SLR

If you are using an SLR or other sophisticated camera, especially using flash, these are my technical recommendations.

  • Use a macro lens if you can, so you can get closer. But not too close, because that will give you limited depth of field and image distortion.
  • Use an aperture of at least f/8; when using a macro lens, start around f/16 if you can.
  • If you are not using flash, especially if using a macro lens, you must use a tripod.
  • Using available light? Make sure there is lots of good diffuse light, e.g. from a north-facing window (no direct sunlight).
  • Use an ISO value as high as you need: when using flash, 200-400 is fine; when not using flash, you may need to go up to as much as 1600 ISO or more if not using a tripod.
  • Using flashes: Use off-camera flash, modified by softboxes or umbrellas; or use an on-camera flash by bouncing it off a white ceiling/wall behind you. Use manual exposure mode. 1/125 sec.
  • if using a tripod, focus manually (using live view preview).

An example, lit with two flashes equipped with softboxes, both 45º above the watch:

Technical: Cell Phone

It is perfectly possible to use a hand-held cell phone, as long as you do the following:

  • Light, light, light! There’s no such thing as too much light. The brighter your room, the better your picture. Why? Because when it is bright, the resulting faster shutter speeds result in less motion blur, lower ISO results in higher quality, and smaller apertures result in more depth of field).
  • Avoid direct sunlight, though.
  • Shoot from a little distance away and crop later. This gives you easier focus with less error, and greater depth of field. If you are close, focus is unreliable and depth of field is usually too shallow.
  • But sometimes you will want to be close in order to get a blurred background; see the compositional tips below.
  • Focus on the watch, if necessary by tapping it on the phone screen to tell the phone “focus on this”
  • Hold the phone – and the watch! – very still while you do all this.

Compositional:

Composing a good picture is the most important thing you can do after the technical requirements are met. Some tips:

  • A good picture is a simple picture.
  • Did I mention: A good picture is a simple picture. “Simple” means everything in your photo is there to tell the story – or else it should not be in there. “Simplifying” is the most important difference between a snapshot and a “professional” photo. Crop off anything that should not be in the photo. You’ll see the difference!
  • Consider using the “rule of thirds” (look it up) – although watch photos can also have the subject in the centre. make it look good.
  • 10:09:31 is the prettiest time for a watch. All watch adverts have the watch set to this “aesthetically most pleasing” time. Just saying.
  • Turn the watch, turn yourself, reposition everything to minimize the refections in the crystal. Especially with watches without anti-reflective coating, this is important. Find a simple dark background, like a neutral dar wall, if the watch reflects it.
  • Have background objects help you “tell the story”. Your car, your suit, your hand.
  • Consider blurring out the background. You can do that without portrait mode, by being close to the watch, perhaps in slightly subdues light. (Yes, that flies in the face of the prior advice: yup, life is complicated and you have to decide what is more important for you!)

For example;

Post-processing

It is very important to post-process your image. This includes cropping and exposure, but also white balance (colour temperature), definition, and sharpness. Your phone can edit photos very nicely: especially recent iPhones do a truly excellent job.

but for a “pro” photo, dust removal is also needed. For this, use Adobe Lightroom or similar. See this post for more about this essential step: https://www.speedlighter.ca/2019/11/05/product-work/

Conclusion

It really is not difficult to make good photos of your watches, jewellery, or other small objects. Follow the tips below and go have some fun. I am looking forward to seeing your results!


Michael is an experienced photographer and educator, who teaches photography courses that are now available live, interactively, online. Check them out and learn more about Michael, his books, and his courses at www.michaelwillemsphoto.com