Photography brain-dump

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“People always ask me if I have any words of advice for young people”
William H. Burroughs

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
The Great Oz

Here it is: the sum content of the tricks and short-cuts I’ve learnt in the past couple of years about taking halfway decent photographs. It’s no substitute for genuine talent,  but as Woody Allen said “90% of life is just showing up”, and in the same vein 90% of genuine talent can be faked. And frankly, if you’re willing to take advice on child-raising from Burroughs, then what follows will seem fairly sane by comparison.

General pointers

“How do I take good photographs?”

A friend asked me this on a climb not long ago. I asked him where his camera was, and he replied that it was in his pack. I asked him where mine was, and he pointed to where it was hanging off my shoulder strap. Lifting the camera to my face, I took a shot of him quizzically pointing at me, with the mountains arrayed in the background. It was a good photograph. Why didn’t he get an equally good shot?

If you’re not taking photos, then you’ll have a hard time taking good photos.

If you’re faking genuine talent, then you need to take a lot of photos. In “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he suggests that 10,000 hours of practice is needed for a genius-level of mastery in any field. And while you won’t be Ansel Adams, I do know that if you take 10,000 photographs then you’ll learn a few things. Thankfully this is a largely costless exercise in the era of digital photography. (Incidentally, the standard file-numbering system for a digital camera starts at 1 and rolls over at 9999 – since getting my Nikon a couple of years ago, I think I’ve rolled over about four times. It’s a good way to keep track).

“Yield” (good photos as a percent of total taken) in photography is ridiculously low. The best photographers, from what I’ve heard, would be delighted if they got 2 good shots for every roll of 36 taken. More often, it was one or less. I think my yield is between 0.25% and 1%. On a good weekend in the mountains, I’ll take maybe 500-800 shots and the best four or five turn up in the blog. The nice thing is that nobody knows this – for all you know (until now), I took five shots and they all worked out great. There’s no objective difference between a great shot that was taken on its own, and a great shot that was one of a hundred taken of the same scene.

Volume like this requires that your camera is on-hand all the time. If you’re digging your camera out of your pack all the time, then you just won’t shoot enough. Here’s my only genuinely original contribution to the field:

DSCF1345

The aluminium bullring costs nearly nothing, and both saves wear on your shoulder strap as well as making it much easier to clip and unclip the camera (especially in cold weather with gloves – which is why I use a full-size krab). At a pinch, I find I can even take photos without unclipping the camera. The camera itself hangs down a little under my arm, which I feel might protect it. But it does take the occasional bash, and it may break in a bad fall – but ask yourself if you want a pristine camera that has never taken a good shot, or a broken one that has taken thousands…?

Gear & settings

I use a Nikon D80 with a Nikkor 18-200mn VR lens. I have a cheap infra-red remote, a $7 tripod (because it’s light, and dispensable – I’ve belayed off one, and I broke another one up to use as snow pegs during a storm). But my pride and joy is my polarising filter. There’s a reason everything looks cooler when you have sunglasses on. It’s the difference between this:

DSC_7854

which is nice, and this:

DSC_7853

which is nicer. Same shot, same exact settings, but a 90 degree twist of the filter makes a whole new photograph. Trees look alive, water looks crystal clear and blue-sky on snow looks amazing. Get one, and before each shot, do the Twist.

I shoot in P (Program) mode all the time. Mainly because Ken Rockwell says I should, and it’s dead easy. Real photographers know all about f-stops and apertures, which awes me.

My D80 is set to Ken’s recommendations, although I tend to keep ISO fixed at 200. The other major departure is that I shoot on the Cloudy white-balance setting as a matter of course – only in bright sunlight do I switch to Sunny. I like the warmth that the cloudy setting gives. As he mentions, the exposure meter on the D80 is suspect, so this is the one setting that I fiddle with on a shot-by-shot basis. I shoot jpeg in 3872×2592 format – because RAW is just too big given the volume of shots and relatively small amount of post-processing I do.

Framing & Composition
I read about an experiment a few years ago where they measured how the movements of an artist’s eyes, when viewing a painting or photograph, differed to the movements of an average subject’s. They found that the average subject honed in on the central focus of the scene and stayed there, whereas the artist looked at every part of the image with almost equal intensity. Quantitative differences like that intrigue me, because if you can find out how talented people differ, then you can copy what they do and start to fake talent.

So I try to look at the whole scene through the viewfinder. Simple things like getting a straight horizon, some symmetry, checking that pylons aren’t sticking up in odd places. Take a shot with the subject in the center, another with it off center. I look at the corners and the edges a lot, and try to imagine them as a frame in themselves. I take multiple shots of the same scene with very tiny movements in position – it’s remarkable how just a few degrees to the right or left can totally change a photograph. As far as possible though, I want to frame the entire shot in-camera, rather than having to adjust things on the computer later.

If you’re faking talent, and you want to nail a scene, then half a dozen shots usually does it.

Time of day
If I look at the photos which I like best, I generally find that most of them were taken in early morning or the evening. Guru Ken makes the same point, and also adds that the best colours only stick around for a minute or so. Again, if your camera is in your pack, or you only shoot one photo of a sunset, then what are the chances that you’re going to get a great shot?

In the mountains, I get up before dawn and start shooting right away. I know that the first shots will be fairly uninteresting, but it gives me an idea of where everything is, and you start to see how the light is going to play out. Then it usually gets better and better, until suddenly everything goes flat (usually around the time that the sun fully clears the horizon by 5 degrees or so). The same in the evening – where possible, I want to be camped a good hour before sunset, and start shooting.

HDR
HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography has been around for a long time. The best tutorial and examples I’ve found are here. I use Photomax to produce mine, and used the discount coupon in the aforementioned tutorial to buy it. If I’m absolutely honest, I find Ratcliff’s images a little overdone, but that’s personal preference. I rather prefer these.

The D80 has an exposure bracketing function, which allows 3 shots of different exposures. I should use a tripod more for these, but thankfully Photomax is quite forgiving; hand-held works out OK most of the time.

I can’t add much more over Ratcliff’s tutorial, except to make two observations. Firstly, I find I use HDR more when the weather is overcast or the light is bad. When the light is good, I don’t need to bother. Secondly, a badly composed scene doesn’t become good when you HDR it. If you put it through Photomax and the default settings just don’t work, then no amount of playing about with the settings will make it good. Move on.

Photoshop/Paint.net
If everything has worked out, then I don’t use any post-processing and photos go straight onto Flickr and the blog. But some shots may need a little extra love, often because I screwed something up. Personally, I find that Paint.net is easier for basic operations like resizing, cropping and straightening. As mentioned above, the D80 exposure meter is suspect, and so I tend to shoot slightly under-exposed on the basis that I can lighten a dark shot but overblown highlights are lost forever. Paint.net is good for this (it’s free, too).

Auto-levelling (in both Paint.net and Photoshop) can both save a photo and create interesting new effects. This shot of Kita-dake was taken with white balance set to Cloudy – my default, and seemed right at the time, but didn’t come out as I wanted:

DSC_1303

When auto-leveled, it becomes:

DSC_1303a

a huge improvement.

Sometimes it does interesting things – here’s a before-shot on the Yari galcier:

DSC_1628

and here’s the after-shot, which became almost posterised:

DSC_1628a

More recently, I’ve been experimenting with manually adjusting the curves in Photoshop (although the same goes for Paint.net):

1. Add a new Adjustment Layer (Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Curves – or click the half-shaded circle in the Layers window and select Curves).

PS1

2. Select each colour seperately (Red, then Green, then Blue) and push the curve into an S-shape.

PS2

I used this for the most recent shots on the blog (the light on Amagi was not great). The waterfall shot is HDR, but all the others are straight single-shots with the curves bumped a little. The shot above went from:

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to:

DSC_6230a

Not a huge difference, but just enough at the margin to really pick up the beautiful light that day. The further you push the curves, the more luminous the scene becomes:

DSC_5875

becomes:

DSC_5875a

(The contrast was also bumped a little for this one, but the bulk of the work was done through adjusting the curves).

Summary
That’s pretty much it. A few simple admonitions for young and old, to quote Burroughs again. I hope it’s maybe useful, or at least interesting. But of course, what it really comes down to is “go to beautiful places and press the shutter” – and I do admit that Japan makes it awfully easy..



20 Responses to “Photography brain-dump”

  1. Karl on October 25th, 2009 2:02 pm

    Stumbled upon your blog a couple weeks ago, and couldn’t stop reading and looking for 2 days until I’d at least skimmed through the whole thing. Since then, I’ve gone through it a few times, and stopped at favourite places and re-read them again. All great, great stuff.
    One thing I’ve already taken to heart are your tips on your photography brain-dump. However, being out during the cold part of the year, I’m wondering how you do with batteries? Do you have any problems with running out of battery power when you’re out in the cold of the winter? Or do you have tips and tricks to solve or avoid such problems?
    / Karl

  2. CJW on October 26th, 2009 10:04 am

    Hi Karl – I’m very glad that you like the blog! On batteries, the DSLRs don’t perform well at cold temperatures as you probably know. Down to minus 15 or so (centigrade) they lose some power, but it’s not a show-stopper, and I usually take two batteries with me to compensate. When it gets down to minus 20 and below, I’ve found that the only solution is to remove the battery and stick it either in my glove or in my jacket (where I usually have a hot patch going as well, which helps things along). The other thing I’ve done is to attach a thin nylon cord to the switch on the battery compartment to make it easier to open with thick gloves on. I have wondered if slapping a hot patch onto the camera body itself might help, but I’ve not yet had the presence of mind to pack an extra patch to experiment – something for this winter perhaps….

  3. Karl on October 26th, 2009 9:33 pm

    Yep, I’ve also noticed a severe loss of battery power on my compact camera in the winter. My solution for that is exactly the same as yours, bring an extra battery and keep it in warm my pocket.
    I still haven’t dared to bring my DSLR (which happens to be the same as yours and the lens too), as I’ve been afraid I might break it. Looking at your pic’s, though, I realize that the camera might be as good as it like, but if it only stays at home, it’s not going to produce any pictures, good or bad. So, time to bring it along on the winter tours too.
    Looking at your pictures, it definitely inspires and motivates me to do so. If I can only get one picture as good as yours, it’ll be worth it.
    Cord to the battery compartment… Might just try that one instead of freezing my fingers off and loosing the battery into deep snow.
    / Karl

  4. Jonas on November 11th, 2009 9:14 am

    Hi Chris

    I’ve been following your blog via the feed for some months now – it’s one of the few Japan-blogs I keep coming back to. I’m absolutely impressed by both your writing and photography. The combination of the stories and to some extent unrelated photos makes for a really good mood. I have never done any serious hiking myself, but your stories always make me want to put on some boots and get out of Tokyo.

    I’m trying to become a better photographer myself, so thank you for these hints. Since I admire your skills quite a bit, it is very comforting to hear about your simple techniques! Now I’ve just got to go out and make that file numbering overflow :)

  5. CJW on November 23rd, 2009 6:41 am

    Hi Jonas – sorry it’s taken me a while to reply, but I’m very happy you like the blog, and happier still that it’s made you want to get out of the city and explore! Volume is definitely the key to getting better as a photographer (at least at first) – keep shooting, critiquing, deleting and taking more!

  6. Red Yeti on March 2nd, 2010 11:11 pm

    Great page Chris. I’ve been saving your postings up for way too long now (for some reason I’ve hardly read any blogs, let alone written, since coming back from that long walk last summer).

    The section on Framing & Composition really chimed with me.

    It’s something that I was better at doing when I used film (like so many people I’m sure!) but I then continued to do so when my first digital camera could only hold 55 or so images on a card (there were bigger cards – I was just too cheap to buy them! ;)

    Each shot “counted” more so I’d spend more time really looking at them before I pressed the shutter.

    I’ve been consciously aware that I’ve lost that knack by virtue of being able to take so many images.

    Trying to recapture it recently hasn’t worked so well – the knack was mostly subconscious. But this has reminded me properly of what I was doing. Thanks very much!

    I love Ansel Adams for the fact that so much of what set his images apart was the development style he created. It’s something I refer to when people start to talk about how developing a photo is somehow “cheating” (as if there’s a rulebook?). So many people have the odd impression that professionally shot images are just as the camera recorded them.

    As for “faking talent”… you? Nope.

  7. David Wasserman on March 9th, 2010 12:56 am

    Chris, great website/blog

    being quite a debutant in the photo area, all your tips are more than welcome.

    I find interesting the fact that what you find worthwhile in auto-leveling is the contrary for me. That pic with the summit through the clouds looks way better in its “natural light” than the overall-lost-in-white one. We do all have different tastes I guess.

    However that editing on the Yari glacier is awesome. That strip of light is wonderful.

    And it’s true, only a couple of pictures turn out interesting in a film. I happen to shoot with b&w film so it’s quite a disappointment everytime I get them from the lab, but it makes the interesting ones worth it.

    Stimulated by your blog, I just went to look for old pictures I had of the Honsawa onsen in the Yatugatake 30 years ago…Can’t believe I actually found them, and god was I young on them!

    Thank you again and keep up with the excellent work!

  8. Martin Rye on June 11th, 2010 9:32 pm

    Helpful stuff Chris. Recently I started shooting back in JPG. I tried RAW. Cant be bothered with all the processing. Like the curve stuff. I will play with that. Thanks.

  9. Hamilton Shields on June 15th, 2010 7:13 am

    I’ve always admired your photos and thought I’d ask a question on which I am totally a novice. I’m wanting to buy a camera to take on my hikes, but am not sure where to start. I’d like something light and for the time being, won’t be doing much editing besides cropping/ resizing.

    Is there anything between point-click and DSLR? Or do you think there is a point-click that will get the job done for a non-technician?

    Appreciate any advice, and thanks for the inspiration.

  10. Maz on August 15th, 2010 6:30 pm

    Chris, your blog really is special – it’s not just the amazing photography, or the places you are able to get to, but your prose is rather good too. I’ve been blogging for only 2 months so it’s early days for me but this is something for me to look at and try to take points from. I certainly don’t want to be carrying an SLR but having just purchased a Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ10 which has enough user input to help me learn, and is also lightweight (218g, with a 90g case and a spare battery for long trips, 40g). As I progress in my photography skills, perhaps I’ll start taking an SLR on some trips…

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  14. jim on December 5th, 2011 2:43 am

    I like best the natural looking photos, the one of the camera, the after one of Kita and the before of Yari.

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    Just chanced on it while looking for more info on Kitadake today.
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