Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The tiny bit of knowledge I have about photography is all here

Over the last couple of years, my photography has changed, and improved: I spent some time recently looking through folders of photographs from before 2012, and deleted about three quarters of them, in some cases cringing with embarrassment that I ever thought such photographs were worth keeping, let alone sharing.

Back then, I would say that my “eye” for a photo was pretty much as it is now, it’s just that I became overly reliant on gimmicks and complicated trickery in post production. A particularly bad patch was 2008/2009: they were culled quite vigorously.

Well, no more gimmicks, and I feel my photographs are better for it. So, after having gone through such a phase and emerged from the other side feeling far happier with my photography, here are a few tips I would like to share:

The dark lord of gimmick-photography: High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is bad. Don’t use it, unless you have a very good reason to, and even then, keep the processing of it to the bare minimum to retain a sense of reality. Having said that, there are always exceptions, and I love the hyper-real look of HDR for things such as my favourite Waterloo graffiti tunnel.. But on the whole, HDR is not something I waste my time with anymore.

This is "good HDR", for me.
Following on from the point about HDR, I would stress: don’t be afraid of the dark! HDR of course is a technique which evens out multiple exposures to create a “perfect” exposure. But when the resulting image loses all sense of contrast, what’s the point? Having a photograph with areas of deep shadow is nothing to be afraid of; we don’t always need to see what was lurking in them.

Shadows are good.

Darkness is good.

Don’t waste money on pointless gear. And that goes doubly if it’s cheap gear: I bought myself a very cheap LED lighting unit which attached to the end of the lens. My thinking was that it would give me a bit more light for macro photography. And I suppose it did, in the most basic sense. It’s just that the unit was cheap and nasty with a dodgy battery connection that meant the light would flicker, and the less said about the colour balance issues the better (the LEDs gave a chilly white light which rendered any scene quite unpleasant to look at).

So my point is, if you really want a piece of photography kit, at least buy something of high quality. I no longer want a lighting unit, but if I did, I would now have the sense to buy something that I knew would do what I wanted, and not break after three uses: I am a very thrifty person by nature, but do see now that the adage about “buy cheap, buy twice” is very true: unsurprisingly, the £40 Manfrotto tripod I purchased is a lot more sturdy and durable than the £6 one..

This is one kind of photography where a tripod isn't optional.

On the subject of tripods, I see people using them in circumstances that really don’t seem to justify the hassle. You need to use a tripod when you are going to be using a shutter speed too slow to hold the camera handheld. If that doesn’t apply, then question whether you need to bother with the tripod at all: slow speed shots of waves on the beach at first light, yes; simple landscape shot at midday, unlikely.

Prime lenses are great. No, really, they are. Yes, digital SLRs come with an 18-55mm lens, and you might think, yeah, sure, that’ll do. And it will do, for taking holiday snaps. However, prime lenses (ie: lenses that are a fixed focal length) are better: they are usually faster (bigger aperture, to capture more light), give greater artistic control over the depth of field, produce a much sharper image, and lastly: the fixed focal length makes you really think about the position you take a photograph from, and how you compose it. Try it: stick a fixed 100mm lens on a camera, head out, and see what kind of shots you come back with.

Having said that, all lenses have their time and place. Somebody recently poured scorn on my use of an 8mm fisheye; I’ll admit that when I first bought that lens I was a bit too eager to use it for everything and anything and took some really bad photos (which have now been deleted), but as with everything, it has its place, and such a lens produces images which would be simply be unattainable with anything else. So there is no right or wrong lens for a particular subject, only what you think will produce the kind of result you want.

(Similarly with camera brand: if you don’t have a Canon or Nikon, that doesn’t mean you can’t take good photographs..)

Cameras come in brands other than Canon or Nikon.
Again on post-processing, keep it minimal. If you’re having to do a lot of post-processing, you’re not taking the photographs right in the first place.

There are exceptions to that. For example, I’ll happily underexpose a photograph to ensure a sharp, blur-free image, knowing full well I can adjust the curves later to lighten the image. I’ll also happily tweak the contrast, to deepen shadows, and lighten other areas. And if you’re going for a particular “look”, then of course you’ll be post-processing, as I did recently with my recentbleach-bypass experiment. However, on the whole, the only editing I do to most of my photographs is some light noise reduction, and minor tweaks to curves and contrast. Anything more, and anything particularly wacky, ruins perfectly good photographs: natural is best.

RAW or JPEG? I’m afraid to say I don’t really know the intricacies of RAW, and don’t really feel the need to learn. I’m not sure anybody should feel bad about saying that, and any photographer who looks down on somebody for not using RAW probably has issues far beyond what file format they deem worthy..

Lastly, don’t forget to print your photographs. I’m serious: if you take photographs you’re proud of, print those things! Get them on the wall! Give them as gifts! I can also recommend ProAm Printing as probably the best printer in the UK: the prices are far lower than anything you’ll find on the high street or with Tesco etc, and the quality is far higher. They provide an excellent service and really care about what they’re doing. And no, I’m not getting paid to promote them, just passing on my tip for an excellent printer.

Anyway. That’s about all I can think of for now. And I understand that most of these are technical points, but technical points are a lot easier to convey succinctly in words: how to actually take a photograph, what to point your camera at and how to compose an image, are even more subjective than what is an acceptable level of post-processing etc. However, if you’ve ever seen a photograph on this blog that made you think, “hey, I really like that”, then that’s great, and also be heartened that it was probably a lot easier to take than you might think. Like all things, just keep it simple.