Cloud Photography Part 4: Conclusions

Finally, the epic conclusion to my cloud photography experiment.  In part 1 I laid out the details of the experiment in which I would pretend I was a photographer who had to live entirely in the cloud.  Part 2 described the particular challenges of using a cloud based operating system for handling RAW files.  In part 3 I discussed the various web-based photo editing software available today.

The world of cloud computing is moving fast.  After I wrote part 1, Apple announced iCloud and Google began selling ChromeOS laptops.  The argument could be made that cloud storage is pointless since hard drives have become so cheap, but cheap digital storage goes both ways.  If it’s cheap for you to buy one 1TB hard drive, how cheap do you think it is (per hard drive) for Google to buy 10,000 of them?  The biggest argument against cloud computing is the requirement that we hand over our trust to external entities (Google, Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, etc).  The risks of remote storage are real and Dropbox users like myself were recently given a strong reminder of that fact.  Dropbox had a small coding bug with the unfortunate effect that any password would work to log onto any account.  Whoops.  As always, the forces of security and convenience are battling each other.  Do I really need access to my entire digital life from anywhere?  Maybe not.

The cloud, it turns out, is best in moderation.  Placing all of your data in the cloud and relying on web-based tools to process that data can be just as restrictive as working 100% locally.  I ran into one difficulty after another trying to remain cloud-only.  For now, I’d say I’m fully committed to working on my desktop computer with Lightroom.  If you do want to try living in the cloud, here are some things I’d recommend to make things as painless as possible:

  • Work with JPEGs.  Work out what camera settings you like and learn to live with them.  Set the contrast and sharpening low to give you more latitude when editing the JPEGs later.
  • Do as much editing, deleting, and processing as you can before uploading your photos to the cloud.  Google+ has the best photo gallery I’ve seen yet, but it still sucks at quickly going through a lot of photos and deleting the uglies.
  • Watch the terms of service.  This depends on how Serious with a capital “S” you are about your photos, but be careful not to give your rights away as soon as you upload photos to the cloud.
Next, I’ll go through just how much cloud is in my photographic life now.
  • Editing, processing, and exporting is done on my desktop using Lightroom with RAW files.
  • RAW files and full-size JPEGs are backed up locally and to an online backup service not optimized for photos or sharing
  • Large web-sized JPEGs are uploaded to Picasa for personal use, to flickr for sharing, or to this blog for whatever it is I do here.
  • This gives me access to the backups from anywhere and a nice collection of shareable photos that can be embedded in forums, blogs, or wherever with ease.
Ok, how’d the photos turn out?  Below are my favorite 10.  The results were acceptable, but as I said I’m not a convert.  Maybe in 5 years I’ll try again.  Or maybe I won’t have a choice…
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Encouraging Exhaustive Exploration

Do you ever feel like every single one of your photographs has been done before and done better?  This feeling usually comes about once you get past the beginner stage and start looking at lots of work by other photographers.  It feels bad, but it’s a good thing because it will push you towards creating better, more unique work.

I recently visited Victoria, BC and my hotel was near the Parliament Buildings.  This was fortunate because I was able to take pictures there at all different times of day and from lots of different angles.  It’s easy especially on vacation to simply take the first shot that appeals to you and call it a day.  Zoom lenses are particularly good at enabling this kind of behavior.  The Parliament Buildings are beautiful and I wanted to make sure I didn’t settle on a  couple of boring pictures from obvious viewpoints taken at noon.

I don’t know about you, but my brain often works against me so I have to trick it into doing what’s best for me.  Some of the ways I forced myself to explore my photographic options were:

  • Use a prime lens – the only prime I had with me was a 50mm, which is equivalent to a 75mm when mounted on my DSLR and 75mm is far from ideal for capturing architecture.  However, bad is good when you’re trying to spark creativity.
  • Use film and digital – I didn’t get any film shots here, but I carried a film camera around with me.  The point here is to get out of your comfort zone and try something new.
  • Pay attention to the light – it’s always changing and the way you use the light can make or break your shot.
  • Pay attention to the people – some people want their vacation photos to be completely devoid of other people, but that desire can lead to boring pictures.  People can add emotion and a sense of scale.  If you want an idealized view of a location, there are postcards available in the giftshop.  If the location is crowded, show us the crowd.  Take a picture of the dad balancing precariously over a ledge to get a shot of his kids.  Take a picture of the bully photographer who just has to set up their tripod right in front of you.  Don’t rule anything out.
  • Walk, don’t drive – there’s not always a choice on this, but walking always results in better pictures

I’ve included some of my favorite shots of the Parliament buildings below.  Some are fairly standard, but I think I got a decent variety of angles and times of day.

Do you have any tips of your own for how to completely explore a photographic subject?  Any links to galleries where you’ve taken lots of different photos of the same subject are more than welcome.  If there’s enough participation, maybe I’ll even write a follow-up and share my favorite examples.

Eye Dominance

Free Eye and Snowflaked Lashes Creative Commons
Free Eye and Snowflaked Lashes, by D Sharon Pruitt

Most people know whether they are right handed or left handed, but do you know which of your eyes is dominant?  If you use the LCD screen on the back of your camera or if you rely on autofocus, then it may not matter that much.  However, if you use a viewfinder and especially if you are manual focusing then it is important to stack the odds in your favor and use your dominant eye for the task.  Most cameras (maybe all cameras?  Let me know if you know of an exception) are designed for right-handed, right-eyed people.  Rangefinders especially favor right-eyed people because the viewfinder is on the far left of the camera,  which means that right-eyed people will have no problem avoiding a squished nose, but left-eyed people won’t be so lucky.  Film SLR’s (digital or film) usually have the viewfinder near the center, but sometimes it’s offset to the left.  With no controls on the rear of the camera body, film SLR’s are probably the most neutral towards left or right eye dominance.  Digital SLR’s put the majority of buttons and switches on the right side of the LCD screen, so left-eyed people might accidentally push buttons with their nose but right-eyed people often smudge up the LCD screen with their noses.  It’s lose-lose when using a DSLR for those of us with larger noses.

Eye Am Feeling Silly
Eye Am Feeling Silly, by Cayusa

If you don’t know which of your eyes is dominant, WikiHow has an interesting test you can do to find out.  Click the link to get the step-by-step, but the basic idea is to look at a small object through a peep-hole you make with your hands and then close your eyes one at a time to figure out which eye the object is visible to.  I guess the test is supposed to work because you can’t see the object with both eyes at the same time, so you are subconsciously looking at the object with your preferred eye.

When I do the test, I consistently find that my right eye is dominant, but I know from experience that I often use my left eye when taking photographs.  I think it’s something I should pay a little more attention to, because I find myself switching between eyes.  I’m not sure if there is a connection between which eye is dominant and which eye has better vision.  For playing pool, you should use your dominant eye, but for manual focusing a camera, maybe whichever eye has better vision would be best.

Do you have a dominant eye, and which one is it?

Long Exposure Calculations

209 Seconds, by Bryan Davidson

A photograph shows a finite slice of time and it’s up to the photographer to choose how large that slice is.  A small slice can freeze time to show the details of a hummingbird’s wings or the sculptures created by a drop of water.  A large slice can show movement over a long time period compressed into a single frame.

Long exposures are challenging, but they can create images with tons of dramatic impact because they show the viewer something he or she can’t see in real life.  The problem is, most cameras, even DSLR’s don’t meter accurately in the dark and they will only give shutter speeds down to 30 seconds.  Luckily, you’re using a digital camera, so you can experiment for free!  So, simple, just set your camera to bulb mode (where the shutter is open for as long as the button is pressed), grab a stop watch and start experimenting, right?

Well, that could be very time consuming and frustrating.  Remember that an increase of 1 stop of light requires a doubling of exposure time.  That means if your 5 minute exposure is wrong, you may have to try 10 or 20 minutes to get it right.  On top of the exposure time itself, most cameras perform something called “dark frame subtraction” which helps lower noise on long exposures by taking an image with the shutter closed for a time equal to the previous exposure.  So you take a 5 minute exposure and then your camera takes another 5 minutes after that to become ready again.  You see how the time could add up fast?  There must be a better way.

Luckily, there is.  Again thanks to the wonders of digital photography, you can set the ISO speed to whatever you want, whenever you want.  Try this: crank up the ISO as high as it will go and then take some test shots at shorter exposure times.  You probably don’t use these higher ISO’s too much because the resulting pictures often look like crap.  My camera goes to ISO3200, but new cameras go to ISO12800 or higher.  Once you’ve honed in on the correct exposure, it’s time to do some math.  You want to aim for the lowest ISO possible because you’ll get more dynamic range and less noise.

  1. Memorize or write down the correct exposure you found while experimenting (i.e. ISO3200 f/8 10 seconds)
  2. Divide the ISO value by 2 and multiply the exposure time by 2 until you get to the desired ISO (preferably 100 or 200).  For the example above, this equals ISO100 f/8 320 seconds (5 minutes 20 seconds).
  3. Set your camera to “bulb” mode (should be marked with a ‘B’, but if you can’t find it, check the manual) and set the ISO and aperture to the results from step 2.
  4. Using a remote shutter release and a stopwatch, keep the shutter open for the amount of time you calculated.
  5. Wait for what seems like forever until the dark frame subtraction is done.
  6. Print!  (Haha, who prints pictures anymore, what is this 1931?  Post to facebook.)

If the time you compute in step 2 is just too long, you can also open up the aperture by 1 stop instead of doubling the exposure time for one jump down of ISO.  Remember that a smaller f-stop means a larger aperture (more light).  The list of whole f-stops is: 1.0, 1.4, 2.0, 2.8, 4.0, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22, 32.  Keep in mind that you’ll get the sharpest results out of your lens by setting the f-stop about 2 stops above the minimum (i.e. for an f/3.5 lens, f/8 – f/11 will be sharpest).  You can experiment during the day to get to know where your lens performs the best.

I hope this tip helps save you some time next time you’re out doing some night photography.  Don’t forget to pack an extra battery because the cold temperature and the longer exposures will both eat away at your battery life.  If anyone has any other long exposure tips to add, feel free to leave a comment.

Fotography is Phun!

Circle of Fun
Circle of Fun, by Bryan Davidson

As Photokina approaches and we all start drooling over new cameras, don’t forget that you can enjoy your hobby just as much with the gear you already own.  If not, then why is this still your hobby?  I have two cameras that can consistently remind me of this: the Minolta Talkman and the Lomo Fisheye.

The Talkman is a 35mm point-n-shoot with a fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens and “autofocus”.  Even though I’m a big fan of Minolta, I feel like they’re lying when they put a big “AF” on the front of the Talkman.  I’m 99% sure it’s fixed focus.  Not having the ability to manual focus is not the same as autofocus.  There is, however, a voice that tells you to “check distance” sometimes, but it seems pretty random and the only out of focus shots I’ve ever gotten are with subjects too close to the camera.  But none of this matters because the camera TALKS!  It says useful things like “too dark, use flash”, or “load film”.  Ok, the talking is a gimmick and a product of misguided marketing, but it’s why the camera is fun.  A sample:

The Happy Couple
The Happy Couple, by Bryan Davidson

I’ve already written about the Lomo Fisheye camera before, so I’ll just share a recent shot I took of the monorail in Seattle.  The fisheye is fun to use and the fact that you have to wait for the film to be developed to see the results only makes it more fun.  Every time I take a picture with it, I get the feeling the shot won’t turn out, so every successful image is a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately, the fisheye doesn’t talk.

Monorail
Monorail, by Bryan Davidson

Get out there and take some pictures with the camera you already have!  That doesn’t mean you have to stop drooling, though…

There is No Magic Pill

Sidewalk Flowers
Sidewalk Flowers, by Bryan Davidson

I read an interesting post the other day about some tips to improve your photography.  What struck me about the tips is that they were good, but they aren’t the kinds of tips that are usually found floating all over the web.  When I commented on that, the author, J Brian Haferkamp, said that most photography advice is like the amazing diet pills you see advertised everywhere when the best advice is the less sexy “get out and exercise.”  I love that analogy.  What are some other “diet pill” types of advice that you’ve seen for new photographers?  I’ve seen lots:

  • Pretty much any article about equipment falls into this category
  • Buy a nifty-fifty!  I agree that using primes can improve your photography, but you better combine that with some of Haferkamp’s advice if you want to reap the benefits
  • HDR!
  • Photoshop actions
  • Textures (I’ve seen them done well, but most of the time… Ugh)
  • Most Photoshop tutorials (especially replacing the sky… oooh, selective coloring deserves to be called out too… Ugh)

One cliché that gets mentioned almost constantly is “it’s the photographer, not the camera” (ITPNTC).  If that quells some of your equipment anxiety, great, but it’s getting a little worn out.  If that’s true, then why do iPhone and Holga photographers feel the need to bash you over the head with what camera they used?  Sure, a good photographer can do good work with any camera, but whenever ITPNTC is put out there, there’s never any accompanying advice.  Ok, great, my photography depends more on me than my camera… now what?  Haferkamp’s advice about finding good light, taking lots of shots of the same thing, moving around, etc. will make you a better photographer.  Endlessly spitting out meaningless clichés like ITPNTC might make people feel good, but it won’t improve their photography.  Work hard at becoming a better photographer first and then you’ll be able to pick up any camera and create art with it.

Rendezvous
Rendezvous, by Bryan Davidson

Be sure to read Haferkamp’s article and put his tips to practice.  It takes effort to get better at anything.  You’ll find that the rewards will come quickly and be well worth it.  While you’re photographing, if you aren’t annoying the people you’re with and confounding strangers, then you probably aren’t working hard enough.


Distractions

Only
Only, by Bryan Davidson

How often do you use the cloning tool in your image editing software?  If you work for The Economist, I’m guessing you probably won’t be using it much in the future…

While cloning is considered unethical in the world of journalism, it is incredibly common in other areas of photography.  Digital editing has made it simple to remove anything you might find distasteful in a photograph.  Telephone poles, trees, people, pimples, moles, cars, hands, and many more have been mercilessly replaced by a patch of grass or wall or skin.  Good photography often has a clear subject, but the pursuit of simplicity and the removal of distractions seems to be getting a little out of hand lately.  Tons of tutorials exist for cloning things out of photographs and a lot of tutorials even advocate replacing the entire sky!  Of course replacing the sky is usually done to add something interesting rather than remove a distraction, but the bitter aftertaste is the same.  Unfortunately, the internet probably will have to take the brunt of the blame for this one.  When images are shown mostly at postage stamp sizes, they must have a large, clear subject or they won’t even get noticed.  But what about images that you might want to hang on a wall?

To me, especially in a larger image, “distractions” can add interest.  If you are going to be looking at a photo on a wall every day for months or years, wouldn’t you prefer that the photo have something new to offer as time goes on?  Seemingly extraneous details can help fill in the story of a photograph and can reward repeated viewing.  Of course not every photograph benefits from too many extraneous details and there are some things that are truly a distraction.  Real life has distractions.  Seattle is teeming with cables used to power the electric buses.  These get in the way regularly when I’m trying to take photos here.  But sometimes, as in the picture above, they can add to the composition and make for a more powerful image.

Next time you’re out taking pictures and you get annoyed at some distraction that will ruin your photograph, try working with it.  Instead of telling yourself “I’ll fix it in post,” make the distraction a key element of your photo.  Little challenges like that can help you grow and produce more interesting images.  Not to mention you’ll save time on the computer so you can get out and photograph more.

Don’t Forget to Point Before You Shoot

My wife and I just returned from a vacation to San Francisco / Carmel / Monterey Bay and we learned that 66% of people cannot be trusted anywhere near a camera.  Lots of pros and even hobbyists sometimes worry that camera technology is getting too good and soon anyone will be able to take great pictures.  I now have first hand experience that there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

It’s not always practical to set up a tripod just to get a vacation snap of yourself and your significant other, so it’s not unusual to ask someone nearby to take your picture in front of some landmark.  The landmark in question this time was the Golden Gate Bridge.  We weren’t looking for someone to make fantastic art; we just wanted to capture a memory of the visit and prove to any naysayers that we did in fact cross the Golden Gate Bridge.  Little did we know that this would be such a difficult task.  We positioned ourselves with the bridge to our left and asked a kind looking stranger to take our picture.  She did, and this was the result:

Ok, the exposure is bad and that’s not her fault since it was set in auto mode.  It is her fault that the Golden Gate Bridge is missing from the picture.  We could have gotten our picture taken in front of an ugly rock wall anywhere so why would we not want the Golden Gate Bridge to be included in a picture taken of us at the Golden Gate Bridge Viewpoint?  We checked the picture, but were too embarrassed (and shocked) to ask her to retake it.  So we wandered away until we were out of her sight and asked a second person to take our picture (after popping up the flash).  The result?  This:

You have got to be kidding me.  Ok, again, our fault for standing in front of the reflective, ugly sign, but the bridge is literally just centimeters out of the frame.  Is this Twitter’s fault?  Can I blame iPhones or television?  This is the digital age, you can see exactly what the picture will look like right on the magic screen on the back of the camera.  Fine, time to find someone else…again.  This time I specifically asked to include the bridge in the photo.  The third time was the charm:

Finally!  I’m sure I have higher standards than most when asking somebody to take my picture, but I don’t think including the tourist attraction I’m standing directly in front of is asking too much.  I wish I knew if the crappy picture taking was caused by a lack of caring or a lack of skill.  I don’t know which is worse.  Maybe if I had handed them a camera with more megapixels…

Creativity and the Space Needle

Seattle Under Clouds
Seattle Under Clouds, by Me

I work a couple blocks from the Space Needle and everyone who visits Seattle (including myself, before I moved here) wants to see it so as you can imagine I have a lot of photos of the Space Needle.  In fact, everyone has a lot of photos of the Space Needle.  The challenge is taking a photo that hasn’t been done before.  The Space Needle is actually a good subject for exercising creativity because it’s visible from just about everywhere.  You can even see the it from the pointy building on the far right side of the picture above (Smith Tower).  This means that there are an infinite combination of foregrounds, backgrounds, and angles to include in your Space Needle picture.  If you search Flickr for pictures of the Space Needle, you can identify a few clichés fairly quickly.  However, the vast majority of the pictures are just a straightforward “point the camera at the Space Needle and shoot” kind of picture.  I created a Flickr gallery here that includes 18 pictures of the Space Needle that are unique in some way.  I had to go through over 25 pages of search results to find them.  I was looking for pictures that were creative, but also well executed technically.  I hope you enjoy looking through them.  I would also like to share some of my own pictures of the Space Needle that I feel meet those requirements.

Space Needle Tickets
Space Needle Tickets, by Me
Space Needle Reflected
Space Needle Reflected, by Me
Not so Tall
Not So Tall, by Me
Space Needle
Space Needle, by Me

Delete Your Photos!

This entry is for n00bs only.  Ok, anyone can read it, but it’s aimed at those of you who have just started to get interested in photography.  One of the reasons that there are so many grumpy photographers on the internet (trust me, there are lots) can be summarized visually using the following graph:

As you can see, most enthusiast photographers are working very hard with not very much to show for it.  That’s why many of them give up photography and change their hobby to pixel peeping.  Anyway, the purpose here is to get you, the reader, to the point where people will compliment your photos and maybe even give you a compliment such as “you’re a good photographer,” or the more dreaded, “ooh, you’re good, can you take pictures at the next family gathering?”

Doomed to be a Photographer
Doomed to be a Photographer, by Brian Auer

The reality is, it’s not that hard to be way better at photography than just about everyone else.  Getting there doesn’t require knowledge of f-stops, apertures, shutter speeds, dynamic range, or even tripods.  All it takes is editing.  Don’t show anybody your bad photos.  That’s it.  Even better, delete the bad ones.  It’s shocking to me how many people upload their entire memory cards to Flickr for all to see.  Don’t get me started on Facebook pictures.  It’s just as well that most Facebook pictures are crap, though, since Facebook keeps all the rights to anything you upload there.  If you can’t decide for yourself which photos are bad or good, get someone else’s opinion.

If, and only if, you are following the advice of the previous paragraph, then the next step to having better photos is to take more.  Again, only do this if you are consistently deleting your bad photos. Take lots of photos of the same thing, and make sure to try different angles and camera settings if you’re ready to get out of Auto mode.

Ok, now you’re probably 2/3 of the way up the curve I made up, good job!  We’re not going to go into any technical details today, so look elsewhere if you have reached the point that you’d like to learn what PASM means.  Or, if you use a Canon, PAvTvM.  Look it up.  To reach the “you can get here in 2-3 months” point on the curve, the last thing you must do is be deliberate.  What I mean is think about the photo you are taking and make sure everything in the photo is how you want it.  In other words, don’t just point and shoot.  Pay attention to the background, think about whether or not you want to use the flash, etc.  Basically, whatever you do, do it on purpose.

There are literally millions of books, blogs, or photography classes out there where you can learn as much as you’d like about any detail related to taking better pictures.  If you love photography, seek them out and learn from them.  If you have no interest in photography but simply want to have better pictures to share, then follow these steps.  You might find that photography’s a lot more fun when people think you know what you’re doing.  So remember:

  • Take more pictures
  • Delete more pictures
  • Be deliberate