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Sunday, 15 February 2015


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Case in point: my first session with Mamiya RB67. The thing is too clunky to be shot in portrait orientation, so instead it has a rotating film back which allows the photog to take vertical shots without rotating the whole camera. I knew about this, theoretically, but this knowledge didn't stop me from churning happily through two rolls of film, taking portraits in horizontal mode - which resulted in a lot of artsy cut-right-above-the-brow pictures. Plus several accidental multiexposures - because winding film and cocking shutter are separate operations on RB67, and you have to be conscious whether or not you did it.
You might think I learned my lesson, but no - some years later I switched to another camera with rotating back (the mighty Fuji GX680), and I did exactly the same thing, two rolls of very hip horizontal portraits, with sitters brow nicely cut on all of them.
I got away with it this time though, because the sitter was this insanely beautiful girl, a real Hollywood superstar material if I ever saw one. There is no limit to what you can get away in a portrait provided your subject is beautiful enough.

May I disagree with your thesis that mastering one's camera is "... the most effective, quickest, easiest way for the most people to improve their photography."?

Of course it's undeniable that becoming comfortably adept with your camera can only improve your results. And serious practice/review cycles are essential. But the fact is that today's cameras, unlike cameras of yore, require nearly no skill of their owners to achieve focus and proper exposures. Further, the vast majority of today's digital cameras' functionality remains unneeded and/or unwanted to little substantial detriment to one's photos.

My recommendation for "The #1 Way to Improve Your Photography" would be to first discover just what the hell is "wrong" with your photography to begin with. Why aren't your images engaging? Why are you disappointed with their communication? Developing the skills to recognize and deploy the visual elements that make images "work" toward your intentions is Job #1 in my book. Much harder for most people, especially those with no visual training. It's really a lifelong path for everyone. But it's far more rewarding than practicing with your camera, both as a maker and a viewer of all types of images (photosm drawings, paintings, etc.).

I get to respond to two posts in one.

In response to the coffee post. I kept trying different coffees and not being impressed enough to think it worth the price. Your post put me on to the Clever coffee dripper. I ordered one and it came Weds. All i can say is thank you. My Costco Costa Rican coffee tastes like heaven. So you have raised the enjoyment level of one reader by a factor of three.

To the 'know your camera' post......yes. I had Micro 4/3 Lumices and liked them a lot. I bought the E-M5 when it came out and, like a lot of people, liked it but never bonded with it. I was frustrated by Olympus' awful menu system, I watched Kirk Tuck go through the same thing and felt vindicated. Then he tried again and so did I. I got a book about the E-M5 and set it up the exact way I wanted it, buttons and menus. I got a second body, used, and set it up. It has been a year now and all of the controls feel natural and I like the camera so much that I am not tempted by newer cameras, even the E-m5 MK II.

It is worth the effort.

Quick word on the coffee thing, I've tried both burr and propellor grinders. In my case no difference in the result. And I thought there was going to be a music post in here somewhere?

Excellent advice, Mike. Back when I owned a Leica M4, I got to the point where I could set the aperture, shutter speed, and focus--all from the hip and with barely a glance at the camera itself. I would not have known or believed it was possible until I saw a Leica pro do it (quite well, by the way).

The only additional tip I would offer is to practice with a purpose: For example, if speed is of the essence, how quickly can you turn on your camera, raise it to your eye, and shoot? If you like to shoot in tricky lighting situations, which exposure mode is most reliable? If depth-of-field (or lack of it) is key, which AF mode and lens are most reliable? The better you can predict how your camera will react in any given situation, the more comfortable and confident you'll feel.

I like to let my camera do most of the technical work – focus, exposure and such. I can do those myself but I’d rather concentrate on the picture. And the electronics are sooooo fast. I set ISO and aperture to give the technology a nudge in the right direction. And I have studied enough to work even the buttons I never use. Just in case.

I recently replaced my walking-around-keep-it-in-the-car small camera with the newest version from the same manufacturer. A month into our relationship I realized that I didn’t know how to manually focus the stupid thing. Idiot.

In fact, getting to be good with your camera is done the same way that one gets to Carnegie Hall --- practice, practice, practice.

Being inherently perverse and uncoooperative, I was shooting with two dissimilar cameras at the roller derby bout last night. A second D700 would have been very heavy, would have been overkill for what I used the second body for (40mm-e, so I could get the things that happened too close for the 70-200 or 120-400) -- and my budget doesn't run to two D700s. But there are certainly tradeoffs in doing things like that, I'm sure I fumbled my way through some things that should have been faster.

That's a really good, really obvious and by me, far too often overlooked point. I use different cameras for different purposes and I regularly find that when I take one out I am having to stop and think about aspects of the controls. Neew resolution. Play with one of them every day and keep alternating them

"Actually it was meant for people who aren't coffee fanatics."

I'm no coffee person, yet I found the article enlightening and engaging. But no, it won't turn me into a coffee person, let alone a fanatic.

Ah yes, pay attention!

A couple of days ago, I was photographing a feeding frenzy at our bird feeders, portrait orientation, when I though to use a video to capture all the frenetic motion.

Nice videos, if I lean over or put the monitor on its side. {;^(>

I am not a golfer, but I was watching or reading an interview with Greg Norman while bored one day.

The question: Greg, how did you become so good at golf? and what advise can you give others?

Greg Norman: Hit 1,000 golf balls a day.

Absolutely the advice that the professional or expert photographer not only needs, but if they are any good and want to be better, is what they are doing everyday.

Thanks for two great tips, Mike and marcin--practice diligently, and find beautiful subjects. For me it's the light--hard to screw up when the light is beautiful (as long as you get the exposure close).

What a great disciplinarian film was: No instant review, and mistakes cost time and money. You really had to learn your camera.

I'm glad cameras are digital now, really, but, reading this list of stuff to practise makes my teeth ache for my OM-1 MD (bought in 1974?5?). Or my subsequent Nikon FM, or Leica M4-2. Load film, adjust ASA (not on the Leica, of course), focus, adjust aperture and/or shutter speed as necessary, click. Repeat the last three steps if desired. End of story.

Evidently, I'm getting old.

One piece of advice that would matter to a beginner's photography? Use a prime lens whenever possible.
Familiarity with one's camera is important. It inspires confidence, improves reactivity and minimizes critical exposure and focus errors. However, there is more to photography than operating a camera and learning how to "see" is the key to visual authorship. A prime lens of a focal length that resonates with you can be a great teacher.

Thanks for the coffee post. It encouraged me to get a decent quality burr grinder to replace the blade grinder, which wasn't even being used because just got lazy and bought pre-ground. But I can say that living in a coffee-mad city like Wellington does mean that we get very fresh roasts from any of several local companies. I for one don't mind the non-photo posts. I skip the jazz ones and read the ones I care about. You are simply one of my interesting friends, and i don't expect you to be a carbon copy of me. :-)

I concur. Digital cameras can be astonishingly complex,offering a dazzling array of choices well beyond aperture, shutter speed, and film selection. Further, it's possible to invoke some exotic function without knowing you have done it.

And it doesn't have to be something arcane to cause confusion. Recently, I tried to take a shot, and it appeared very dark on the screen. The reason? I had inadvertently rotated the exposure compensation wheel while pulling the camera from the bag.

Elite soldiers go through an exercise in which they field-strip and reassemble their weapons in the dark because not knowing how to deal with a malfunction could prove deadly.

Not knowing how to make sure your camera is properly configured for your needs could prove deadly to your images or even possibly your career.

It's true that the practising of camera moves is beneficially, but it is still no substitute for actually going out there and getting up close and personal with your photography. The camera that I am most comfortable with is a Linhof Technikardan, not the most intuitive of set ups, but like Mike says if you use it enough it becomes second nature. Just bought an M, OK, lets start again after an absence of 40 years.

Congrats on using the phrase `improv(e|ing) your photography' without making me barf. More than can be said for some other sites. Funnily enough, after a year becoming increasingly dischuffed with AWB, I just got around to finding where they put the WB controls on my NEX-7 a couple of weeks ago and it's made a bit of a difference already.

My coffee's already pretty good thanks :)

"Note that you do not need to know all of these and you don't need to master everything. Rather, as you go through, you'll decide which functions you'll use and which ones you're going to ignore."

Couldn't agree more. I've had my trusty X100 for years, and I always know the aperture setting by feel and can adjust it if needed without looking at the camera, and I know exactly what will be in frame and out of frame before I even lift it to my eye. However, it occurred to me the other day that I have absolutely no idea how to take a video with it. Simply a function I've never used and never needed to use. That's what my iPhone is for. :)

"Learn your camera..." No one's going to argue with that, in principle. Of course if, like me, the camera you use most is an Olympus EM5 (mk1, as I suppose we must now say) this is going to be no small task. The firmware's a labrynth - but sooner or later (probably much later) you'll get to grips with it.

What I've never got to grips with is the fact that once you've setup the VF there's never any guarantee that next time you raise the camera to your eye you'll be seeing what you expected to see. Oops, where's the histogram gone? Oops, why's the focus box gone back to oversize? Oops, why have I now got a level indicator cluttering things up (usually instead of a histogram)?

The handling characteristics of this camera are simply atrocious. Tightly clustered, tiny, numb, stupidly located buttons. Now there are two other Olympus models to chose from. Who knows how they handle; you certainly can't trust ANY reviewers all of whom rely to a degree on the good offices of the manufacturers. Despite many reviews nothing alerted me to the dreadful ergonomics of this camera before I bought it.

There's really no excuse for the sort of incompetent execution of so many of these cameras - and not just cameras. But of course it's probably part of the strategy required to keep people replacing our amusingly named "consumer durables". Personally I've discovered that the results I get tend to depend much more on what I point the damned thing at than anything about its specifications.

The files are just great but the EM5 is a horrible device to use. What you have to learn is to live with it and accept a lot of missed shots because it's so badly executed. Probably like most other cameras (don't tell me that the Fujis are wunnerful.) Personally I'm off the "upgrade" treadmill for the forseeable future.

When I was about 22 I got an AE-1. I had no photographic experience. I read through that manual and not only did I learn about the camera. That little manual introduced me to the whole concept of film speed, shutter speed, aperture and their interelation to exposure, depth of field, subject motion, lens choice, and camera stability. It also had a section about rule of thirds. I learned everything technically necessary about photography that afternoon, then burned a couple rolls practicing the different things they described just to confirm for myself.
Admittedly, I skim or ignore the flash related stuff, but if the day comes to start needing to know that stuff, well I will just pull out the book for my latest camera (yes I still have it and know where it is) and start there.
I am still stunned when people will spend time and money learning the very things that were in that little manual.
As for the artistic side of the hobby, well, that takes more than an afternoon. That takes forever.

This post is good advice, but for newcomers or casual shooters, I wonder if a better first step is to get a feel for the relationship between f-stops, shutter speeds and ISOs. When I bought my first decent film camera in the 1980s, the camera itself wasn't difficult to figure out, but I took a class that forced us to shoot only in manual, and there was no better way to learn exposure techniques. I suspect that's still true today.

When I made the move to digital, I didn't have to learn the rules of exposure at the same time I was trying to figure out the camera itself, which was dauntingly complicated in comparison to my film cameras. My daughter, who of course would rather plunge into an icy river than take advice from her Dad, assumed she would learn it all on her own, quickly became overwhelmed, and admits she just sets the camera to auto. Which is a shame because she has a good eye for composition, and likes playing with the images in post. But the twin tasks of learning both photography and the camera itself present a higher bar for entry these days. So I'm thinking that keeping things simple, and shooting in manual for the first month or two might provide a base of understanding, after which the newcomer can delve more deeply into the complexities of digital cameras.

@Moose. Sideways videos used to be a pain in the neck but no more - just view them on an iPad, lock the screen and rotate.

Drat! I've got a Contax IIA, a Nikon FM2n and a Nikon D7000. I love 'em all. I suppose I should dump one of the film cameras and use just one film and one digital camera. But that would take a lot of the fun out it . I do agree, however, that one camera is better than two or more. Cuts down on the number of choices, don't ya know.

Fortunately, the two film cameras are simple to operate. So is the digital, come to think of it. I don't use all of the functions available but I am learning how to use them, just in case.

Training my eye, as others have observed, is a different matter. I'm still working on that...

Mike, you are describing the process of learning. There are no shortcuts.

Dear Mike, I just wanted to add a small thing to the Coffee Post, so I'll post it here.
If you want to actually TASTE good coffee, you can't avoid to mention this:

Italian Coffee Maker

Otherwise, the whole point is moot...

Well, I was gonna write something, but Kenneth Tanaka beat me to it. Anyway, after you have mastered the functions of your camera (which for most digital cameras would involve finding a way to permanently turn off most of the garbage and gizmos that come between you and the photo) the hard part begins: finding, thinking of, creating, and taking photos of the type Kenneth mentioned.

Some additional coffee advice from a former fanatic. I still love coffee but don't obsess over it anymore. I had a couple of bouts with ulcers and near-ulcers over the years, almost certainly brought on by life-stress combined with drinking too much coffee on an empty stomach. Being of Italian background, I decided to adopt something from my ancestors, which is to drink small cups for the taste, not for the caffeine jolt. Once you do that, it becomes repulsive to drink a liter of coffee, which is almost what a "small" will get you at some outlets. You're not supposed to drink that much coffee at one sitting. That's like swallowing a bottle of wine when you only needed a 4 oz glass to accompany a meal. This is just the usual North American excess in all things. It's not good for you.

Drink small cups and enjoy them. You don't drink coffee to replenish your electrolytes or to fight off dehydration, that's what water is for. Drink good coffee in reasonable quantities and just savour the taste.

I thought this was pretty good advice:


Cheers, N

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