Sunday, July 10, 2016

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Practice! It's an old joke, but it still makes me chuckle. And it applies to photography. "How can I get a shot like that"? Practice.

If you are serious about photography, than you already know that practice is essential. This means getting out there and shooting as often as possible. But it goes further than that. I believe you sometimes have to "stay in" and practice.

This is not new advice, but on those days you don't get out to shoot (too hot, too rainy, too tired, waiting for the Fedex guy), you can still get some quality practice time in. And I don't mean getting creative with abstract and setting up a little studio (food dye and water droplets, macro shots of a lugnut, oil and paint, you know what I mean). This is pretty cool stuff and can be fun, but I am talking about something more mundane and downright tedious. I am talking about running controlled tests on your equipment and shooting technique.

As an example, I really wanted to know which aperture on my camera and lens was the sharpest. You always hear about the sweet spot, but I wanted to find out for myself. So I set up the tripod and used spot focus on one specific object. As I adjusted the aperture, I maintained the exposure by first adjusting shutter speed and then again by adjusting the ISO. In other words, I had two shots at f8 to compare to two shots at f11 or f16, controlling for either ISO or shutter speed. Guess what I discovered? f8 reigns superior for spot on sharpness. But where it holds the sharpness, it loses depth of field, which under certain conditions may be a reason to compromise a little sharpness and go with, say f16. Here's a couple shots as examples. In the first one, the butterfly's wings and body are on the same plane and a great depth of field was unnecessary. I used f8 for this one to get the sharpest possible image. On the other hand in the second one, the spider's large body would not be entirely in focus if I had not used f16.

Here's another example. We are told to turn off image stabilization (IS) whenever the camera is on a tripod. Despite this common advice, it is still debated especially as IS technology advances. It's also been questioned whether IS really makes a difference when handholding a camera. So I wanted to test it for myself. I also wanted to test out my camera's auto-focusing technology for this experiment. So I compared all the auto-focus settings, and compared IS on to IS off (camera on tripod and camera off tripod). First of all, if you are handholding your camera, turn ON the IS! It really works! Even at fast shutter speeds like 1/500. Second, having IS off with the camera on a tripod improves sharpness ever so slightly. But, if you are like me and sometimes forget to turn it off when you set up your camera on the tripod, it will likely not be a deal breaker for your images. Good to know. The first image below was created using a 2-sec exposure with camera on tripod. I doubt anyone could really tell if IS was on or off. For the second image, handholding (on a monopod) a camera with telephoto lens to shoot a small moving subject requires IS and  precise spot focus on that butterfly's head.

I've done several other experiments and I won't bore you with the details. But here's what it has done for me. I have greater command over my camera and lenses when I am out in the field and don't have the convenience of figuring out which settings or equipment to use. I need to be ready and have the right set up for that decisive moment. I now go into the field armed with the knowledge that lens A will work better than lens B for a particular situation, I know the distance to set the focal point when shooting a landscape, I know when to stop down the aperture to gain more depth of field, I know the slowest shutter speed acceptable when handholding the telephoto lens, etc. Further, I know where to find all my camera's functions without having to hunt them down in the menu. Here's one where I changed the white balance on the fly while photographing this upside-down jellyfish to get the blue effect.

One last thing about these experiments. The experiment is not over until you run the results, which is to say you have to download all the images and examine them. If it is sharpness you are testing, you need to look at each image at 100%. In one experiment, I may have up to 50 images. How do I keep track of them? While much of the data are stored in each image, I use an additional means to remember, a voice recorder. I turn it on and leave it running. Simple.

You may not want to do all the experiments I have done, but I encourage you to spend some time getting to know your camera. Fumble with your camera at home, not when you have a great photo opportunity in front of you. Test out any new equipment before using it in the field. This includes tripods, ballheads, filters, extension tubes, lenses, all of it! Don't be intimidated by your camera, know it like the back of your hand. And be ready for "that shot" with the skills you have practiced. Here's one last image, shot while I sat in my canoe on Biscayne Bay.