Time to study…

Here I am, “stuck” at home, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf has closed down much of the state, allowing life-sustaining businesses to continue, but little else. So what is one to do when there’s little work to handle from home? Suddenly there’s time for all the stuff I didn’t have time to do before (or more realistically put off because it’s not “fun”). But here’s a great opportunity to actually study photography and the images being created by others to learn how to improve my own. No one becomes a great photographer overnight. This is an art form. And with any art form, study and a lot of practice will go a long way toward improving your skills.

Thanks to technology, we are continuously bombarded with images: social media, television, magazines, books… photos are everywhere! And they’re easy to take: phones and cameras are likewise everywhere. It’s easy to think that you can quickly make money just by purchasing the latest, greatest camera. Not so fast.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You’re not going to become the next Rembrandt just because you bought a brush and some paints. Likewise, you won’t become the next Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange because you have the latest, greatest camera and gear. Take the time to learn your equipment: get off of auto, experiment with focus points, use your equipment in different locations, under different lighting conditions, etc. Practice, experiment, look at your results, and take note of the settings you used, both for the images you like and those you don’t.

Lego Triceratops. Photographed with Nikon D500 camera and Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 lens: ISO 200, 1/13 sec, f/2.8, 80 mm.

I gave myself a project of photographing various Lego animals and sets over the winter. I set the camera on a tripod and experimented with different aperture settings. I changed my focal length, sometimes including the entire subject and sometimes zooming in very close. But always experimenting with aperture and focal points. Then I downloaded the images to my computer and took a closer look at the results. Reducing the depth of field worked in some situations and not so much in others. Sometimes there was a big piece of dust I hadn’t noticed before. I learned to slow down and take a better look at the scene before the next set-up.

What are Others Doing?

Study the work of others, as well. Find people taking pictures of similar AND different subjects and look at what they’re producing. What do you like of theirs? How did they compose the image? What time of day is it? Can you get a sense of the settings they used? (Photography magazines often include exposure settings in the caption information.) Where were they standing? How would you have approached the scene differently?

Feedback

Get feedback on your work. Seek out those who will encourage you and suggest other ways of seeing. I don’t find harsh criticism useful – people who seem to enjoy putting down the work of others. But I appreciate suggestions on cropping, perspective, time of day, timing, and exposure settings. Most of all, keep shooting, experimenting, and reviewing your results!

Find me on Facebook and Instagram and share what you’re doing.

The Magic Moment

Preparation

Nothing beats being prepared when you’re out with your camera. Knowing your equipment and what settings to use go a long way to not missing the moment when it happens. Take the time to use your equipment, experiment with different settings, and really look at the results BEFORE you go on that once-in-a-lifetime trip. Few things are worse than realizing your shutter speed was too slow or the aperture was too shallow and your subject is blurry.

Review Image Data (EXIF Information)

When you’re browsing through your images, look at the EXIF data (EXIF stands for Exchangeable Image File and refers to all the settings recorded by your camera when you click the shutter button). This includes date/time captured, aperture, shutter, ISO, if the flash fired, white balance, metering mode, focal length, etc. Review this information from photos you like as well as ones you don’t. If you were on Auto, did the camera choose appropriate settings? And if not, what would you change? Did you change a setting or two? I LOVE that my camera captures all this data so I don’t need to remember it all.

Where is the EXIF Data?

On Windows, right-click on the image, choose “Properties” (usually at the bottom), then click the “Details” tab and scroll down to see all of the information. On a Mac, preview the image, then choose “Tools” along the top menu, “Show Inspector,” and click on the “Exif” tab.

With a Little Bit of Luck

When you’re ready with your camera, and you’re in the right place, sometimes it’s just luck that you’re also there at the right time. I like to call this “The Magic Moment.” Sometimes you can predict that it’s coming, but sometimes you can’t. Such is the case with the following image. I worked at Awbury Arboretum in Philadelphia as an environmental educator for many years and brought my camera to work with me on a daily basis. As I arrived one morning, the light was just right and I grabbed my camera to capture the scene. It’s been one of my absolute favorites ever since.

Woodland Halo
EXIF data: aperture: f/4, shutter: 1/135 sec, ISO: 80, focal length:17 mm, metering: center-weighted average.

If I had been much earlier or later, I would have missed the light entirely. And I never saw quite the same scene before or since.

This image is almost 19 years old (at the time of posting), taken on January 31, 2001! This was my first digital camera, a Sony Mavica CD1000, 2.1 megapixels, and images were recorded onto mini cds (185 MB capacity). Each one could hold about 150 images. We’ve come such a long way since then: today you can find cameras recording 50 megapixels and media cards that can hold 512 GB, with larger cards coming.

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