NOTES FROM A BIG ISLAND

This page may seem a bit presumptuous of me and obvious, especially to those versed with photography, however I have noted some basic photographic procedures and hints aimed specifically at those who are new to DSLR photography. These are not intended to be guidelines or tutorials as such and are by no means conclusive, merely some of my preferences and methods established during practice and experimentation with my camera and software. Everyone works differently and although these are some of the things I generally adhere to, I've learnt that there are no quick fixes to most things photographic, so one needs to be flexible to achieve a particular outcome. It seems to me that a lot of beginners get involved early with using all the whizz-bang software filters and effects prior to understanding the basic skills of photography. A decent camera is a hefty investment so you may as well get the best out of it. My advice, for what it's worth is to first get to know your camera well and what it's capable of, learn the art of composition, the effect of lighting intensity and direction, timing, mood, storytelling and many other things that are essential for good images. There are some excellent books out there to help you along - and don't be afraid to practice and experiment as much as possible. ©wdphotografics 2007-2015. All rights reserved.

PLANNING TO SHOOT IMAGES
Plan what you want to shoot and how to go about it. Consider composition, the effect of light and the settings to use. Also establish if a tripod is required for a steady shot. Select a shooting mode appropriate for the situation. If unsure about this, your camera manual will be helpful. Pre-programmed modes are useful if you are not yet familiar with your camera, but using them means relinquishing control over a particular situation which can inhibit creativity. When you are more comfortable with the multitude of settings, your intuition will play a major role in achieving the results you wish to attain. I often take several shots of the same subject from different angles, distances and directions, rarely deleting images on the spot and always reviewing shots in-camera, adjusting and taking more if required. After all, digital film is cheap.

COMPOSITION
In any composition, consideration should be given as to what needs to be included within the frame. Such aspects are background, foreground, colours (or tones if mono is used), lines, forms, textures and the relationships between them. Cropping images during editing can often lead to better composition by cutting out irrelevant elements and distracting things adjacent to edges. Strength and direction of light are often important aspects when composing because they directly effect the mood of an image and help create a three dimensional illusion in an otherwise flat medium. Proper placement of the main object(s) of visual focus within the frame to obtain balance and interest is usually desirable - however, a main object or objects are not always necessary if the intention is otherwise, for example if the whole frame is filled with a pattern or where a flat representation is the issue. The 'Rule of Thirds' is one of my pet hates in photography. It's important to understand when composing and/or cropping an image, but once the concept is grasped and one is familiar with visual structure within the frame, the rule of thirds can become an unnecessary restriction which can lead to formulaic, predictable looking images. Freeing up the frame also offers greater possibilities for abstract and symmetrical work. The R O T is not always that significant and is often a visual comfort thing which can become a meaningless ploy, automatically done. A point or points of visual interest or focus can be anywhere - or not, yet the result can still be effective. Sure, learn the 'rules' of photography, know them backwards, then break them, experiment and help realise your creative potential. Try and avoid getting bogged down with rules. If unsure about them, try articulating what you find pleasing about various compositions of others and your own, but being too analytical can spoil the fun of photography. Composition is a subjective thing although there are certain universal parameters worth observing. Each subject and situation should present its own compositional requirements which can be effected by lighting, mood, atmosphere, emotion and a whole host of other aspects depending on what it is you want to portray, how you want to do it and how you want to make the result appear. When you shoot an image, having in mind what it is you want to achieve is important - there are no rules for that, just your imagination and expectations. Composition can be a complex thing but what happens before the shutter button is pressed is the most important part. I think the best advice I can relate to those who are flummoxed by the rules of composition is - bear them in mind but give yourself the freedom of not being tied to them. Practice and experiment often, familiarising yourself with different situations, both simple and complex. For a composition to be successful it must contain visual interest and how that is achieved is entirely up to you. It involves more than merely capturing what is in front of the camera.

SHUTTER SPEED AND BLURRED IMAGES
Theoretically, sharp images can be obtained by using fast exposure times, but practically, that is not always the case. If low lighting prevails, a short exposure time may require a large aperture and a high ISO setting. Image quality and depth of field may be reduced as a consequence, so obtaining a sharp image could be compromised. In such lighting situations where flash is not an option, a longer exposure time, low ISO setting and use of a solid tripod are a good combination for best results. Cameras and lenses with image stabilisation (vibration reduction) are especially useful where a tripod is not available because they allow for longer handheld exposures before the effects of blur kick in.

DIGITAL NOISE
With film cameras this was known as ‘grain’. I went through a phase of using high speed b+w film and did certain things during the darkroom print developing process to get grain - the more the merrier as it was fashionable at the time. Now noise has become the bugbear of many photographers. There are various ways to avoid it during processing/editing, but it is best to try and minimize it initially in the camera because it's impossible to completely eradicate once present. Observing the following simple procedures should assist in eliminating most visible noise.
  • shoot in RAW mode and convert to 16 bit tiff files for all editing
  • make sure there is plenty of light to illuminate the subject or scene
  • long exposures in dim light can generate noise but more recent dslr cameras allow for high ISO values so noise in dimly lit situations is not such a problem
  • use the lowest ISO setting possible - overriding your camera’s auto ISO setting can often be a good idea but a tripod may be required in those situations
  • where there is a lot of contrast of light and shaded areas in a subject, try different exposure value settings (EV) to establish which one gives good rendition of both light and shaded areas - an alternative is the use of high quality ND filters or graduated filters to cut down the contrast
  • using a tripod and taking several different exposures of the same subject, then layer blending them in Photoshop can also yield good results by choosing the best exposed parts of each image
After transferring your shots to the computer and converting the RAW data, do as little processing as possible that generates noise. Changing colours of things and monotone conversions can whip up a storm noise-wise, so care should be taken to prevent this alteration of pixels if a smooth outcome is desired. Usually, the more that is done of a general nature to an image during processing, the worse the degradation can get, so experimentation and practice is required to find out what suits you and the situation best - and that can differ from image to image. HDR work can produce lots of noise also, but that's another story.

BASIC CAMERA GEAR
DSLR CAMERAS
These vary greatly in price depending on their sophistication, but an entry level DSLR model is more than adequate for producing excellent results. DSLR cameras have a big advantage over digital compact cameras because of advanced image sensors which can give sharper images with less noise. Interchangeability of lenses is also possible, just as with SLR film cameras. Selecting a model based solely on features and specifications is probably unwise and can be very confusing - there is plenty of information available on selection criteria, including reviews so I won't add to that aspect, except to mention to try various brands and price ranges, but most important of all, purchase a quality product that suits your requirements and one you feel comfortable handling. There is a vast difference between camera weights and sizes, so try them out for ease of use prior to purchase.

LENSES
If it's the macro world, portraits, wide angled vistas or close-up telephoto shots of sports and wildlife or anything in between, there is a lens that will suit your purpose. High quality lenses can be very expensive whereas kit lenses that are often bundled with camera deals are generally of lesser quality. Although adequate, most cheap lenses do not perform as well as their dear cousins. One gets what one pays for and that is particularly so with photographic gear. If planning on doing different types of photography, then several lenses may be required. An 18-200mm or similar range zoom lens is a convenient everyday lens and a good all rounder for many tasks although it may have limitations in specific instances. Advice from a reputed camera store is invaluable and a good start if one is unsure of what to acquire. Second-hand lenses should be looked upon warily and possibly avoided due to glass misalignment and other problems which may not be immediately apparent. Never leave your lenses or camera in a hot car because much damage can be done.

FILTERS
There are many types of filters available, the most common being UV, polarisers and neutral density (graduated and non-graduated). Although not necessary, filters can be utilised to good effect. Again, high quality comes at a price, so for best results go for quality. UV filters are very effective because they not only absorb ultraviolet rays which often make outdoor photographs hazy and indistinct, but they also serve as a permanent lens protector. With film photography, a polarizer was the only filter I used with colour shots and some great effects were achieved, especially if there was a bright blue sky with some white clouds present. Black and white film offered different opportunities and the use of a yellow, red or orange filter could create some dramatically contrasting skies on a sunny day. Digital photography presents us with a whole new range of things to do with filters. I haven't had much success with polarisers or graduated filters and prefer to keep the pixels intact as much as possible in the original image and only use a good quality UV filter to cut out haze and improve clarity. Polarisers, coloured and grad filters alter the image in such a way that their effects cannot be reversed if they are later deemed to be undesirable - but that can be easily overcome by also taking an unfiltered shot of the subject.

TRIPODS
The choices are three-legged, monopod and miniature varieties. All are useful to have depending on the shooting situation. For vibration-free, sharp photographic output, a solid three-legged tripod is essential and is particularly useful for landscape, nature and macro work. The best tripod heads cost an arm and a leg, but they are a worthwhile addition to any kit, a ball type head being very versatile. Cheap tripods are usually flimsy and inadequate, having an irreplaceable head that can be clumsy to operate. Monopods have their uses, but by their nature are prone to movement problems and are really only a stop-gap method in the anti-blur campaign. Small tripods, especially those with flexible legs need to be of adequate size to properly support a hefty DSLR camera - some are prone to being easily toppled over, so avoid them. I never use my tripod for architectural and street photography because it is too cumbersome.

BATTERIES + GRIP HANDLES
Carrying a spare battery pack is a good idea especially if you are going on an extended shoot. A battery grip handle that contains two battery packs is a worthwhile addition to your kit. Don't buy off-brand battery grip handles because they can be problematic - likewise, avoid generic battery packs as they are not reliable and can die at anytime. Grips will give you a better way of holding your camera and allow for vertical shots to be more easily done. A wrist strap attachment is a good addition also, especially if a Battery grip handle is used.

MEMORY CARDS
Memory cards come in a variety of speeds and capacities. For reliability only use well known brands and avoid buying them from a certain major online auction website. Even though they may look like the real deal, it's most likely they are forgeries and will not work properly after a while - in which case you could lose all your shots. Download your shots  from the card to your computer as soon as possible and format the card in-camera before re-use.

SENSOR CLEANING BRUSH + DUST REMOVAL
If you notice blobs on your photos, they are most probably due to dust particles that have become attached to your camera sensor. A good sensor cleaning brush is a necessity for getting rid of them. Some cameras boast automatic sensor cleaning at start-up, but persistent blobs need manual attention. Sensor cleaning brushes come with detailed instructions and care needs to be taken so as not to damage the delicate sensor panel. Avoid shooting in dusty places and find a place away from wind when changing lenses. Always point your camera body downwards when removing and replacing lenses - that helps to avoid dust settling by gravity on the camera sensor. If you don't feel confident cleaning the sensor yourself then take it to a reputable camera shop to have it done. It will only take a few minutes and probably won't cost anything if your camera is still under warranty.

CAMERA BAG/BACKPACK
A purpose made bag is the best and safest way of protecting and carrying your valuable equipment. It may be required to house one or two camera bodies and several lenses, filters, spare batteries, memory cards, an image storage/viewer, a small torch, lens-cleaning items, a cleaning blower and brush and other sundry useful gadgets, so don’t underestimate the size of bag or the amount of gear required. Comfort and ease of use are prime considerations in selecting a suitable bag/backpack. Normal everyday backpacks are quite inadequate because suitable padding and protection is non-existent. If I know what I'm going to shoot on a particular day, I just carry my camera with the appropriate lens attached, leaving the rest of the gear at base.

SHOOTING RAW
Since getting a DSLR camera, I have only shot raw images - prior to that it was JPEG's. After reading about the advantages and disadvantages of those options, I realised that I had not been getting the best quality from my edited photographs. When unloaded from camera to computer, RAW files must be converted to another file type like TIFF or JPEG. If your camera is capable of shooting in RAW mode (all DSLRs are), then doing so will enable you to obtain the maximum quality images possible. RAW files are not really images - they are data files that consist of camera settings and sensor information markers (the markers contain all the information required to decode the image data). Although your in-camera setting choices such as colour mode, contrast, saturation and sharpening have been made, with RAW format, those settings are not applied even though the image will appear in your conversion software with such settings. They may be altered prior to conversion in such a way as to appear like the new settings were made in-camera. Not having camera settings applied permanently is a strong feature and advantage of using RAW files. Processing a RAW file takes more time and commitment - conversion to TIFF files (recommended) requires more storage capacity, but if it is quality your require, then this is definitely the way to proceed. Unfortunately, choosing JPEG conversion permanently sets the image markers and does not allow for proper modifications to be done later - some image data is lost. JPEG files are characterized by 'lossy' image compression which cause editing and subsequent re-editing problems. These are often seen as 'noise' and 'artefacts'. On the other hand, conversion to TIFF files allows for high quality image modifications to be made during post processing - and re-editing later is not problematic. By choosing RAW mode, there can be much more control over the final image appearance if the appropriate decisions are made, because you will be making those decisions, not your camera. Shooting RAW allows all recorded image data to be stored in that format. Should you ever want to change how an image looks, then the original data can be conveniently accessed via your conversion software. See also 'THE BENEFITS OF SHOOTING RAW' in MUSINGS.

DIGITAL DARKROOM WORKFLOW
Workflow is a fairly basic concept and if organised well it can lead to better productivity. I always shoot RAW images with my dslr camera, saving copies of the original raw data files in duplicate on separate hard discs. After transferring them to computer and viewing them in conversion software, I initially pre-sharpen those I wish to work on (this conditions them for editing), maybe do some general editing while still in the conversion application, then convert the results to 16 bit tiff files. These are then opened in Photoshop and further editing/enhancing done as required, again saving/archiving in duplicate. I've lost images before, hence the reason for duplicating them. At this stage, printing can be done if required. The only time I use jpeg files is to convert tiffs for uploading to the internet and these jpegs are not edited or saved as they can easily be reproduced again. I never re-edit jpg files because information is lost and becomes visually apparent in the resulting images.

CAMERA MENU SETUP
IMAGE QUALITY
Choose RAW image quality to obtain maximum flexibility and control during post editing by providing data that can be visually modified during the conversion process.

ISO SENSITIVITY
Select the lowest ISO possible and also choose 'automatic override'. The lowest ISO allows for the best quality outcome, producing 'noiseless' images if the light, shutter speed and aperture are suitable. Automatic override will adjust the ISO upwards if it determines that those variables are not adequate.

WHITE BALANCE
Automatic white balance generally does a good job but if not suitable when viewed on the computer with RAW conversion software, then it can be adjusted.

EXPOSURE DELAY MODE
If you are shooting handheld and your camera has this setting, it is a worthwhile one to switch to 'ON' unless you are shooting action. It allows a 0.4 second delay of the shutter release after the button is pressed fully down. This not only reduces the effect of camera shake but also helps reduce the effect of internal vibration of the reflex mirror movement. The mirror is locked in its raised position before the shutter blades open and any vibration is allowed to dissipate during that short time. It takes a bit of getting used to hearing the click slightly delayed, but is a very effective method to avoid blur.

There are many settings which come into play and each camera is slightly different.  It is important to become familiar with such settings to achieve the best results.

MONITOR CALIBRATION
This is an often neglected aspect of digital photography. The purpose of monitor calibration is to measure and adjust a monitor's colour response and establish a relationship to a known standard colour space. Default monitor settings or settings done manually will not conform to this colour standard. Calibration is done with a colorimeter of which there are several brands and models available. To achieve colour consistency between an image viewed on a monitor and that of a print made of the image, a colour profile needs to be made which is used by editing software as a working colour space. That is the task of the colorimeter. Because monitor colours and luminance drift over time, colorimeter calibration should be done on a regular basis to maintain consistency - monthly is recommended.