Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Difference Between Amateur & Pro

Everyone is a photographer these days. Don’t believe me? Take a look around. Everywhere you go there is someone taking a photo either with a "real" camera or their cell phone. Take a look online and see the sheer abundance of photos out there. Whether they are on a photographer’s own web site or on social media sites like Facebook or Instagram, there is no shortage of photographs out there.
Spending some time on Facebook started me thinking about this fact. And the fact is that while there is no shortage of photos online, really high quality professional photographs are amongst a small percentage of them. I find it so frustrating to sift through my cluttered newsfeed to find those awe inspiring photographs that get me excited about photography and motivate me to get out there and shoot. I’m not saying there aren’t a lot of those quality photographs online, just that they are pretty well outnumbered by the poor/mediocre photographs.

Many photographers, both old and new, feel like the abundance of photos lessens their value both dollar wise and visually. But I don’t believe that to be entirely true. Monetarily yes, the pro market has been greatly affected by this over saturation. But that is a subject all its own. As far as a photo’s visual worth though, I believe that professional quality images are appreciated more now than ever before and by a wider range of audience. There are so many mundane photos out there that when a truly exceptional one is displayed it can be appreciated on a deeper level by more people than ever before. There are so many people that now take photos themselves thanks to cell phone technology and because of this people that normally would have no photographic experience now do. Many of these casual shooters have now tried to capture similar photo themselves and failed, and thus now have a better appreciation of how difficult it can be to capture a truly outstanding image. Of course, some of those people may think the image is exceptional because of the photographer had used a better camera, which may or may not be true. But that perception has always been around. Some things don’t change.

So what is the difference between professional and amateur? The obvious and literal difference is that a pro gets paid for his work and by standard definition, they make more than half their income via photography. That puts me at the semi-professional category I guess, but I hate that term. I prefer the term part time pro, as semi pro sounds like the images may only be semi high quality. That is not the case most part time pros. But just because you don’t make money from your photography, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to capture anything less than professional quality photographs. Especially since your interest in photography is at such a level that you somehow found this blog post. This post is not about becoming a paid professional photographer, but rather to inspire you to raise the quality of your photographs to a more professional level.

Here are some tips to help you achieve awe inspiring, professional quality photographs:

 Learn About Photography
Amateurs rely on their camera’s auto setting sand hope for the best. Pros choose which setting to use with purpose, even when they do choose to use an automatic mode. Learn as much about photography as possible. Learn about exposure, composition, depth of field, and all the basics. Then you will be able to choose your settings with purpose to render predictable and consistent results. Books, magazines, forums, blogs, and other online resources feature an abundance of learning opportunities.

 Left: Macro photography requires a special set of skills. Once learned, images like this are possible. This is true of all aspects & genres of photography. Luckily, the knowledge is readily available for those willing to learn.

Work Your Subject
Amateurs take a photo and move on. Pros explore a subject fully before moving on. If you find a special subject, spend some time with it to capture the best possible photograph, or even a series of photos. Shoot from different angles, try different lenses and camera settings. Try different compositions. Most pros "work" their subject in the field and capture many different images of the same subject. Most amateurs take that one snapshot from the spot they first spotted the subject and then move on. For example, amateurs often shoot a single snapshot of a flower from a standing perspective above the flower instead of getting down on its level and working the subject for best composition and background. Or they will just shoot a sunset from the side of the road with no thought to composition and a foreground subject, and then move on. Which leads me to the next tip:

Above: I shot many variations of these petunias. This was a favorite from the series captured using my Lensbaby lens for the unusual bokeh.

Not move on, but move around the scene or subject. Amateurs take a photo wherever they come upon it. Pros knows that the location you noticed your subject from may not be the best spot to photograph from. Next time you see a photographic subject, feel free to take that initial snapshot but then move. Don’t move on, but move to another vantage point. Not only to work your subject as in the tip above, but also to change perspective and point of view. Sometimes that involves just moving a few feet, and sometimes it involves getting in a vehicle and moving a few miles.

 Left: Here I chose a low angle to photograph this beautiful convovulus flower. Because this flower in a plant box, I was also able to move the box around to render the most pleasing background.

Share Only Your Best
Amateurs post their best, their worst, and everything in between. Pros share only their best. It has been said over the years that the main difference between pros and amateurs is editing. And while that may be an over simplistic statement, it is definitely a strong contributing factor.. Misfocused, improperly exposed, poorly lit and composed photographs have no place in an artist’s portfolio. Also avoid posting too many variations of an image, with only small differences between them. It just weakens the strongest image in the series by boring your viewer. Post only your very best.

 Right: This image of petunias is a favorite of mine from this year. There were a few other similar variations, but this one was the best quality and most pleasing to me.

Use Professional / High Quality Gear
Pros typically use more advanced cameras loaded with professional features. Amateurs tend to use compacts, cell phones, or simpler DSLRs. But not all pros use heavy professional cameras, some chose to use lighter consumer / enthusiast level cameras and some even shoot with cell phones. It has been said that any camera a professional chooses to shoot with is a professional camera. It’s true, to a degree. But it can’t be denied that a camera that offers advanced features can make capturing great images easier just by offering the user more options.
Start with whatever camera you already have and go from there. Build up your skills a bit and then decide what features you would like in your next camera. If you have no camera, I recommend getting on with interchangeable lenses, either a DSLR or one of those neat little mirrorless models like I now use.
Above: This image of leaves amongst a background of out of focus highlights glinting off ice covered branches was only possible by using a high quality telephoto lens with a wide aperture. This image would not have been possible to capture using a cell phone due the special bokeh that this lens rendered.

I could easily go on about other differences, but these are the ones that I think are most important. I hope this blog post inspires you to elevate your photography to professional level quality. If you have any you would like to share, feel free to do so. Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Drama In The City

Everyone that follows me on my blog or Flickr account knows that this year I have been using my new Olympus OMD EM5 (see "New Year New Gear".) There are so many reasons to love this little camera and one of my favorite features are the art filters, especially the Dramatic Art Tone and Pinhole filters. I especially enjoy using these filters in combination with my electronic viewfinder/LCD and viewing the effect in real time at the point of actual capture. What I mean by that is that I set my camera to the art filter that I want to use at the time of capture rather than capturing a straight image and then adding the effect later during post processing. It’s not that there is anything wrong with that technique, but this summer I experimented with JPEG shooting and discovered by setting the camera to the art filter that I intended to use at the time of capture, I could compose the image with the effect viewable in the viewfinder (or LCD) and compose the image with the effect being taken into account at point of capture.

On my last trip to New York City, I wanted to use that technique. On my previous trip, I captured all the images in the RAW format and captured all straight images. During RAW processing, I discovered that the Dramatic Tone art filter was my favorite effect for my city images. It was rather time consuming to add the effect during post processing, requiring me to apply the effect and then judge whether it worked or not before putting in the cue for batch processing later on. When shooting numbers of images in the hundreds or even thousands, this can be a time consuming affair.

So on this trip, I decided to do things a little differently. While I had originally intended to shoot all JPEG on this trip to save on postprocesing time, I could not do that if I wanted to use the Dramatic Tone art filters because I also wanted a straight version of every image captured and did not want to spend extra time shooting two of everything. So enter another favorite shooting format of mine, RAW + JPEG. I set my camera to the Dramatic Tone art filter picture mode and off I went into a world of Drama In The City.

Viewing the scenes in real time with the filter effect already in place was an amazing experience. Imagine peeking into an alternative universe’s view of a familiar city. Olympus’ Dramatic Tone art filter renders images with a slight HDR effect, dark strong dark lines, and dramatic skies. What an unusual sight! I went wild, viewing so many familiar subjects in such an unfamiliar way was a fresh experience. And being able to view the effect in real time helped me to compose the images in a most effective manner. My favorite part? With the effect already applied to my JPEG files, they were all ready to be used straight out of camera without any postprocessing needed. Very cool.

It was so much easier and more effective to shoot the images this way. I also loved how the success of my Dramatic Tone captures were less random since the effect was an integral part of the images. All these images were completely conceptualized and visualized at the time of actual capture. I am very into that.

Don’t have an Olympus camera? Get one! It’s the only way to have access to their range of art filter effects. Ok, so you love your camera. Well, while you may not have a Dramatic Tone art filter, chances are your camera has some other effects that you can play with. You may even be able to use live view or your camera’s electronic viewfinder if it has one. But really I do recommend Olympus’ lineup of cameras, especially the OMD lineup. I have been loving mine.

Tips For Using Art Filters On The OMD EM5

With other Olympus cameras, technique may vary. Consult your camera manual for further assistance or clarification of terms.

There are 2 ways to set the art filters on the EM5:

1 Via the Super Control Panel.

This is the option with the most manual control and the one that I use most often. You have free access to change all settings including white balance, aperture, shutter speed, focus point and pretty much any other setting you may want to change. All can be done quickly and easily.

2. Via the mode dial atop the camera.

This is the quickest option. As is, it will switch your camera to program mode and change all your previously chosen settings (such as white balance.) I am not too particularly fond of this option but sometimes it works ok. There is actually a way to change those settings manually after the fact, and that can be done using your camera’s 4 way arrow pad. That procedure is a bit more complicated, especially since all buttons are customizable and your settings may be different than mine. Again, consult your manual for more details on this technique and experiment.

Shoot in RAW+JPEG

This is really the best option if you are going to require a straight version of the image. You could shoot 2 versions, one with the art filter and one without. But the subject or light could move and/or you may lose focus between captures. I was shooting mostly JPEG during the summer, and did in fact shoot two of many of the images I captured. Some worked out, some didn’t. And for some images, I just decided to commit to the art and shoot only a filtered version of the image.

Shoot With The Art Filter Effect On

As I already explained in this post, shooting with the art filter effect on will help you to make the most effective compositions.

Try Filter Bracketing

You can set the camera to make a series of images with different art filter effects applied to a series of JPEG images. This works well if you have few favorite filters but don’t want to spend the time to check them all out at the time of capture but don’t want to have to deal with applying the effects to RAW images one at a time. Unfortunately, a straight image is not one of the choices. You will still need to shoot RAW+JPEG and process the RAW image if you need a straight image (or shoot a straight JPEG image before or after you’re done capturing the art versions.)

Use The Computer

While part of my reason for loving the art filters is being able to spend less time doing computer postwork, there is no real reason to avoid it. Sometimes the filter effects can be a bit too strong, in which case you may want to combine it with a straight version of the same image. Take advantage of your image editing program’s layers, blending modes, and masking features to blend the images to taste.

See more from this series of images here:

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Great JPEG Experiment of Summer 2014

AKA Shooting Without A Safety Net
Here is one of the images that started this whole JPEG experiment in the first place. I used my camera’s pinhole art filter which enhances select tones and adds a vignette to the image. I also notice that the filter increases contrast and appears to even add a touch of sharpness to the image. While I may have been able to create this effect during postwork, or just can choose the filter during RAW processing, I find it more satisfying to do it in camera. Seeing the effect of the camera’s filter in my electronic viewfinder helps me to compose the most pleasing image with the effect clearly shown . No guessing where that vignette will be or how colors will be effected, it’s all there in front of me in real time. If you don’t have an EVF, many cameras offer live view on the LCD and you can see how your chosen camera settings will effect the image.

I’m no stranger to the JPEG format. Like most photographers, my first digital images were captured in the Jpeg format. It is the easiest capture format to work with. And if you correctly adjust your camera settings during capture, a Jpeg image can be hard to differentiate from a regularly processed Raw file. But this post is not about which format is better. There’s a lot of posts online on that subject, including my own past blog post "RAW, JPEG, or TIFF?"
Rather, I would like to share my own JPEG adventure this summer. As loyal readers of my blog already know, I purchased a new camera this year. As a result, my photography has been a bit more experimental this year as I try to get used to how my new camera captures images. Not just physically, with its different layout, but how this new sensor renders color and dynamic range.

While I have often used JPEG for my concert and wrestling photography, I would usually choose to capture my nature imagery in the RAW file format. So, as a starting point when using my new camera my first images were captured in RAW. After downloading these images and attempting to process the RAW files, I got an unpleasant surprise. I already knew that I would need to use a new program for my RAW processing as the newer ORF (Olympus’ RAW file format) files could not be processed in my rather old version of Photoshop Elements. Rather than updating the program or purchasing another, I decided to use Olympus’ own software, Olympus Viewer 3. Three advantages of the program are: 1. it’s free. 2. You can apply Olympus Art Filters to the RAW images 3. Because it’s the manufacturer’s own software, it was developed to provide the kind of quality images that the camera was designed to capture. But like many camera manufacturers’ RAW processing software, it is a bit on the slow side. That was the surprise.

Although past experience with their previous versions of this software were similar, I had hoped that this newer version would be faster. I tried a few other RAW processing programs, but liked the Olympus results best even though the other programs proved to be faster. Perhaps with more tweaking I may have found settings that would have rendered more pleasing results, but I was more interested in getting to know my new camera this year than learning about new software.

Feeling a bit annoyed about the RAW editing situation with my new camera, I decided to try capturing my shots in the RAW + JPEG setting, which saves both RAW and JPEG files for every capture. I noticed that a lot of the images I was capturing with the new camera didn’t need much enhancement during computer postwork so I figured I could just capture both file formats at once and only process the RAW files of the images that needed additional exposure or color corrections. Shooting this way is a favorite way of many photographers. It will eat up space on your memory cards, but memory is cheap so it’s not usually a huge issue. It did become an issue for me on a recent trip to NYC, but that is a post for another time.

So during spring and early summer, I shot RAW+JPEG for almost everything. It worked well for the most part, but because I spent so much time experimenting with different settings during RAW processing, I was ending up with far too many images to sort down later during the second part of my editing process (see my past posts: "Go With The (Work)Flow" and "Raw To Fully Cooked: How I Develop My Raw ImageFiles.") There were so many of them and it started to become tedious. I was starting to feel like the drudgery of it all was crushing my love of photography. I wanted to be outside taking photos, not sitting inside sorting and editing those photos. Surely there had to be an easier way.

While outside on a lovely summer day, I decided that I would play around with my camera’s art filter settings. My Olympus OMD EM5 has settings which applies a variety of artistic effects to your images. If shooting RAW+JPEG, the effect is applied to the JPEG only. The RAW file will have default settings that will render a more natural image (contrast will be set at 0, color saturation at Natural.) Any of the art filter effects can be applied to the RAW image during postprocessing, but the JPEG images will be as captured so you can not apply the art filter effects to those JPEG images nor reverse them if the image was captured with an art filter applied. For this reason, a RAW+JPEG capture makes sense when using those art filters. And while that can be a good thing, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just better to make an artistic decision on the spot and stick with it rather than being stuck with way too many versions of the same image to sort through later on when deciding which images you want to share online or print.

So I got an idea, why not just try dropping the "safety net" of RAW, and just capture the image in the JPEG format. This was a big step on my part, this meant committing to my settings. If I wanted a "straight" version of a particular scene, I was going to have to take another photo and risk that the light, focus, or bokeh may not be as pleasing and thus may end up not being useable. That would mean I would be stuck with only the arty effect version and if I later changed mind it would be too late.

But I’m the experimental type, so I accepted that fact. With rare exception, I have been spending the rest of the summer in JPEG capture mode. I shot RAW for a few sessions because I needed to work quickly and wanted to make sure I could more easily change color balance or fix exposure later if necessary, or maybe even add art filter effects to a few special images. And one other time I captured RAW when I was short on time, and wanted to capture the image so that the JPEGs had an art filter effect applied, but then I could later batch process the RAW files to also have the straight versions on file. I have really been enjoying the freedom that capturing in JPEG has given me. I have been spending less of my time fixing images in the computer, and more time outside taking them. And that’s how I like it!

If you are a heavy volume shooter, why not give JPEG a chance? Here are a few tips to help you capture high quality JPEG images:

Here I wanted to enhance the warm tones in

the scene. Again, because of my camera’s

EVF (electronic viewfinder) I was able to see

the effects of my white balance changes in real

 time. In this scene, the yellow flower was in

 the shade composed against a background

that was in full sunlight. Normally I would

have chosen a white balance of 6000K. 
But because I wanted to enhance the
warmth I chose a WB of 7000K.
Captured as a JPEG, all color is as
captured in camera.

 Lock In Your White Balance

White balance takes on greater importance when capturing in JPEG mode. This is truer for some cameras than others. Past experience has proven that some cameras’ JPEGs are much more flexible in postprocessing than others. My Olympus 5000UZ digicam’s JPEGs have very little flexibility for postprocessing. There is very little room for error as the images will quickly loose detail and show digital artifacts. My previous dslr, an Olympus E1, can handle color corrections better but can only take small changes in exposure fixes before artifacts start appearing. My Olympus EM5 however renders JPEGs with more flexibility. I have been pleasantly surprised by this fact many times.

But nonetheless, it is still always better to get the white balance set correctly during the time of capture when shooting in JPEG mode. I have a lot of experience shooting so setting correct white balance in normal lighting conditions is not usually a problem. If it becomes a problem, I can always choose to switch to capture RAW or RAW+JPEG. Sometimes I like the way scene looks with different white balances, so I may decide to a shoot another series of the same subject with a different white balance. If I find myself dong that too much, I again will switch to a RAW capture setting. But the whole point of shooting in JPEG for me was to cut down on excess variations of images and save myself processing time, I have been finding myself committing to some of my artistic decisions and not shooting as many "safe" shots as I may have done at the beginning of the spring season.

Because I’m experienced, I often choose to manually choose white balance. Auto white balance can work in some situations, but it is too often confused by a subject's color and can pick the wrong color balance. This is true regardless of camera manufacturer – no matter how much they try to improve it. If shooting JPEGs, it is better to choose one of the white balance presents or for more experienced users, to manually enter a white balance number. A neat feature that many cameras have is a white balance bracketing feature. Like exposure bracketing, the camera will shoot a series of images with different white balance settings as specified by the photographer. Read your camera’s manual to find out how to correctly set white balance in your camera.

Lock In Your Exposure

This scene was easy to expose. Because of past

experience, I knew I would need to overexpose

 the image 1/3 to 2/3 more than an average meter

 setting. Because of my camera’s EVF, I could

see the exposure changes in real time and lock

in my camera settings quickly. As you may

 have guessed, I am a big fan of using my EVF

and live view. Especially when shooting JPEG.

Like white balance, exposure also gains greater importance. RAW files offer more flexibility in correcting exposure errors. So when shooting JPEG, make sure you get the exposure correct at the time of capture. Shooting JPEG these past couple of months has actually improved my photography as I now pay more attention to my exposure and white balance settings. It’s not that was a sloppy and careless shooter before, far from it. But sometimes just getting the exposure close enough was good enough because I knew I could take it the rest of the way in RAW processing. Now I am trying even harder to get it right in camera, and I have found that many of my newest images need absolutely no enhancements of any kind after capture. It is not only a time saver, but a necessity if you are capturing images in the JPEG format and want the highest quality images possible.

Picture settings and in camera special effects

can be real time savers. Again I chose my camera’s

pinhole art filter to render the intense color and

vignette. I captured this image in the RAW+JPEG

setting, with the picture mode set to art filter 6
(pinhole) so that I could view the effect in my
viewfinder in real time. This helped me compose this
image with the final effect in place. I used the RAW
file to develop a straight version, but I do prefer
this version and love it so much that I had a
print made of it.
Lock In Your Picture Settings

Use your camera’s highest quality JPEG setting, the one that offers the least compression ratio. Using higher compression rates will fit more images onto a card, but the image data will be compressed resulting in loss of detail and an increase of digital artifacts. It is very important to choose the lowest compression rate for the highest quality images.

As far as any other picture settings, that is a matter of personal taste and what gear you are using. For most photo situations, I like "middle of the road" type settings: Contrast 0, Sharpness 0, and Saturation/Picture Mode: Natural.

Each camera, photographer, and subject is different so you may decide on different settings. Some people like all those settings set to negative numbers such as: contrast –2 sharpness –2. To me, that produces too soft of an image. But that is the entire point, to capture a soft image that can later be manipulated into an image with more contrast and sharpness later. Some feel it renders a more beautiful look than shooting it that way in the first place. But I feel that if I need to do all that work later to enhance this soft JPEG image, then I might as well just shoot in RAW. My goal is to capture an image in camera that is as close to the finished image as possible. I’ll even occasionally set the contrast at a plus (or negative) setting if the scene warrants it, and will also increase or decrease color saturation as necessary. Some hot colors, like a bright red, need to be toned down a bit if any texture of the object (usually a flower petal in my case) to show through.
As far as the sharpness settings, I leave that at 0 and just add sharpness later on a per use basis after resizing for printing or display on the internet. Adding sharpness can introduce digital artifacts to the image, degrading image quality. This is not usually a problem if you are going to print at the files native resolution, but if you are going to upsize for printing or downsize for the web, it can be a problem. Some say setting the sharpness to a negative number and then adding sharpness later is the way to go, but it’s not a setting that I choose as I am happy with the images I have been producing at the 0 setting.

Another favorite in camera effect is my
Olympus OMD EM5’s dramatic tone art filter.
A unique effect that is hard to duplicate in
post processing, it is fun to play with. I found it
worked especially well for some of my recent
New York City photos. I did NOT shoot
this in JPEG. Because I felt the need to work fast,
 I opted to capture the image in RAW and added
the effect later during RAW processing in Olympus’
Viewer 3 software. But this image could have
just as easily been captured in JPEG, or
RAW+JPEG to save time on post processing.
Lock In Your Camera’s Special Features
Many cameras have special features and effects. Read your camera’s manual to find out what your camera uniquely has to offer you. I use an Olympus OMD EM5. Among the unique features it has, I particularly enjoy its art filters. After all, that was what got me shooting JPEG this summer.

Sometimes the effects can be gimmicky, especially when overused. But when used purposefully and with restraint, it can be a way to capture a stunning and artsy image in camera. The pinhole art filter has become a favorite of mine because it does in camera what I typically create in postwork which is to darken the edges and enhance color. It doesn’t always work, sometimes the darkening is too obvious or distracting or the image ends up being too contrasty. But when it does work, it is quite a wonderful thing. And no postwork required.

A special feature many cameras have is live view. In my case I have both an LCD live view on the back of my camera, and an electronic viewfinder. I have my camera set so that the display will change with changes in settings to the exposure for a what you see is what you get view. I also have the option of viewing a live histogram which can aid in exposure. Live view and my EVF are two more features that have helped with my JPEG experiments this summer. While it’s very possible to set exposure without the benefit of live view, it sure does make it faster and easier. Plus when using art filters, I can preview the effect in the viewfinder which helps me to visualize the finished image and choose the best composition.

Read your camera manual and experiment with some new effects and techniques to help you capture hiqh quality JPEGs.

Lock In Your Flexibility

Remember, you’re not locked into using a single file format. There’s no reason you can’t switch between Raw, JPEG, or RAW+JPEG. Most cameras make it easy to change file capture settings, either via a single button or via a menu.
I loved my summer JPEG experiment. Will I be shooting JPEG exclusively from now on? No, I won’t. When I need to work fast or I am working in a situation where I feel I may need to make many adjustments to that session’s photos, I will choose either RAW or RAW+JPEG. Yes, JPEGs can be great, but RAW still offers the greatest flexibility. And with autumn just around the corner, I am already making plans to go back to RAW+JPEG shooting again so that I can experiment with seeing which settings work best with my new camera and the autumn color palette. Perhaps I will experiment with new techniques and learn something new. And if I do, you can count on seeing a blog post about it. And if this post has inspired you to try capturing in the JPEG format, feel free to share your experiences in the comment section.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Rediscovering Your Kit Lens

This bench scene makes for a perfect kit lens subject.
Ah, the kit lens. It’s probably the most underrated lens in your gear bag. Most photographers get this lens as part of a kit along with the camera body. The quality of a kit lens can vary greatly from standard consumer quality to professional grade quality, often depending upon the level of camera body purchased. A s a general rule, pro rated bodies come packaged with a pro, or near pro, quality lens. If you are buying a consumer or enthusiast level body, the lens may be more of a standard level of quality. Perhaps even plasticy.

Often, photographers move on from that lens and start to add other lenses to their aresnal. The kit lens ends up getting pushed aside for the more recently purchased lenses. I know personally for myself that this has been the case over the years. As a fan of telephoto views and shallow focus imagery, I often find myself reaching for my longer telephoto zooms or my lensbaby.

But if I can only bring one lens with me, most often It will be my kit lens. It is the most basic lens in my bag, and I know that with it I can capture almost any subject I will encounter on a typical outing. At only 14-54mm (28-108mm in 35mm equivalent) I obviously won’t be capturing any extreme closeups of small and distant song birds. But if I need to capture images of people, general scenics, and even near macro quality close up of small but close subjects – my kit lens is quite capable of getting the job done.

Last year I spent quite a lot of time working with my extension tube that had recently purchased. As my most recently purchased lens accessory, it had become my most used accessory. I can use it with most of my lenses, but like to use it most with my 40-150mm lens. It’s a great pairing. But the widest aperture of that lens is 4.5 and it goes down to 5.6 as its widest opening at the telephoto end of the zoom range. Plus I lose a stop of light by using the extension tube. As a handheld shooter this can sometimes be a problem as the shutter speeds required for proper exposure are below what I can safely handhold the camera and still capture sharp images.

Reenter the kit lens. Now I admit, my 14-54mm kit lens is no shabby lens. It came packaged with the Olympus E-1, which was released as a professional camera. The lens is F2.8-3.5, a relatively wide aperture for a standard kit lens. It is solidly built with a metal lens mount and quality glass. It also has near macro level close focusing capabilities. Many kit lenses only have a maximum aperture of F3.5-5.6 and may not be able to focus as close as my kit lens can.

One day last year, as I was photographing flowers it got a little dark out as the clouds rolled in. The light was so dim that my favorite EX25 and 40-150mm lens combo was not able to do the job. The lighting was too dim to achieve a fast enough shutter speed for handholding and the viewfinder was too dark to focus. I decided to try something different. At first I pulled out my Lensbaby, and the results were nice as expected. But the Lensbaby 2.0 is no high grade optic, and is not known for capturing fine detail. That’s when I decided to play with my kit lens again.

Now, at that point my 14-54mm kit lens was far from retired. As the only lens in my bag with focal lengths lower than 40mm at that time, it was my go to lens for concerts, wrestling, and wider views. Really it’s just about perfect for any standard subject I might shoot. But I rarely use it for my portraits of single flowers, and most definitely not for capturing images of flowers with limited depth of field effects and interesting bokeh. Until recently that is.

On that day when the clouds rolled in and I decided to break out the kit lens and see what I could capture it, my eyes were opened to the potentials of using the kit lens for some of my flower portraits. I was pleasantly surprised at the results and now try to make use of it when doing my flower work. It won’t replace my telephotos and EX25 as my favorite setup for flower photography, but after seeing it’s potential I will now include it in my flower shooting repertoire.

So what about your own kit lens? When was the last time you used it? Not only used it, but actually took advantage of its unique qualities and got creative with it?

Some things to try are:

Get Close
Many kit standard zooms (in the 14-50mm range, not telephoto versions) have capabilities for close focusing. Check your lens’s specs to find out how close you can focus with yours. You may be surprised to find out it can focus quite close, it may even perhaps have a macro setting.

Long before that overcast day I speak about in this post, I discovered my kit lens could render beautiful bokeh if used "correctly." Correctly in this scene which I wished to render the softest bokeh possible, I chose the longest focal lenght available to me, used a wide aperture, and got as close to the spring blossom as possible. My kit lens may not be my lens of choice in this situation, but when it’s the only lens with you that’s when familiarity with your tools pays off.

Use The Entire Focal Range
If you are like the typical photographer, you may find yourself using a few of the focal lengths but you don’t make use of the entire focal range available to you. For example I use to use the wide and tele ends of my lens most often (even though image quality is typically best in the middle ranges, true of pretty much all lenses.) I favor the wide angle for my landscapes and the longer end for my flower and nature closeups. After taking those photos as you usually might, experiment with the other focal lengths that your lens has to offer you.
I usually start off at the widest or most telephoto settings available on my lens and zoom from there. Don't just leave your lens parked on one end or another, spin that zoom ring!

Zoom With Your Feet
Zooming with your feet, moving to frame the composition rather than relying on zooming, is a really great seeing exercise for photographers. Pick a single focal length, and get closer or back off from your subject to make the composition. This is the opposite advice from my previous tip. How does this help you rediscover your kit lens when your kit lens is a zoom lens? It helps you to learn how spatial relationships & focal lengths work in combination with eachother.

A combination of zooming with my feet and zooming on my lens enabled me to capture this composition with the lights of another ride perfectly positioned in the background in relationship to the carousel.

Experiment With Focal Lengths & Apertures

Try using different apertures and focal length combos to learn how they impact depth of field. I usually like shallow depth of field for my florals, so I often choose to shoot wide open and work close to my subjects. When I shoot some of my wide view landscapes, I generally like more depth of field to keep everything sharp. Because I have experimented with different focal lengths and apertures at home, I am able to choose which combination works best quickly when out in the field.

Though my 40-150mm was not purchased as part of a kit, it is one of Olympus’s telephoto kit lenses and it was used for this photo. Knowledge of what effect focal length & aperture combinations would render enabled me to effiently choose the right lens and settings for this scene. Past experience and familiarity with your equipment pays off.

Use Your Kit Lens In Situations You May Usually Not
Just as I had discovered a new use for my kit lens for my flower photography on that cloudy day, you too can discover a new use for your kit lens by simply using it in situations that you may not usually have chosen it normally.
For a subject like this, I would normally chose my 40-150mm and shoot with a reasonable distance between subject and camera. But this time I chose my 14-54mm and shot as close as possible.

Read Your Lens’s Manual
Read your lens’s manual to discover hidden features, such as macro settings for example, and standard features of the lens. Also included are lens specs including such important information as a lens’s closest focusing distance which is important to photographers that like to work close to their subjects.

I hope this blog post encourages you to rediscover your own kit lens! You can also use any of these exercises & tips to rediscover any of the lenses in your current kit.

At the time I originally wrote this, I only had one kit lens. I have since purchased the Olympus 14-42 II R micro Zuiko lens for my Olympus OMD EM-5. It is a standard consumer F4.5-5.6 lens. Nice image quality but no bokeh master and definitely no match for the 14-54mm in that respect. But it does focus faster and is much smaller and lighter, so if I need to travel light and need a quick focusing standard lens it is the lens of choice at the moment. The 14-54 is far from in retirement though, and sees frequent use with my at home flower photography. The Olympus pro micro version 14-54mm (the kit lens for Olympus’ professional camera OMD EM1) would be a more suitable replacement for my old kit lens, but is out of my budget at this time.
While my 14-42mm may be no 14-54, it does a more than adequate job. A neat little kit lens! And for those that are not familiar with Olympus lenses, the 35mm equivilent of any Olympus lens mentioned is 2x. IE: 14-54mm would be 28-108mm on a full frame 35mm camera.

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Expanding Your Range

It’s official, you finally found your "style’! You have worked hard to find and develop that style. You shot more photos than you can count, read art & photography books, critiqued and evaluated your work, and now you finally feel like your work has a distinctive look. Congratulations! It’s not easy to develop style and if work has a distinctive look to it, you have achieved what many photographers aspire to but not all achieve.

One of the best benefits of having achieved a style is that you can rely on "formulas" that you have learned over the years. With style, you know exactly what lens and what setting that you should use for a sure fire hit. You easily put the composition together, instinctively you just know where to place the camera for a perfect point of view and where to place all the elements of a scene in the frame. To a casual observer watching, it would look like the capture of amazing photos is so easy. You just pick up the camera, hit your formula and make magical images.

Ok, so the formula doesn’t always work. And even when it does, it is not always such a great thing. Imagine always capturing a perfect image every single time. How boring would that be? Without experimentation there are very few bad shots. I discuss that fact in "It’s All About The good Shots." But without experimentation there also is no photographic growth. And without growth, photography becomes very boring.

I photograph many different subjects and I am flexible enough with my style that I can use different styles for different subjects. Most of my nature imagery is done in an "intimate landscape" type of style that uses telephoto lenses and shallow depth of field. For my floral images, I take it one step further and often go into a very painterly interpretive style. For my wrestling photography, I tend to prefer sharp stop motion images, with shutter speeds long enough to capture some ambient light but fast enough to freeze blur. With my rock’n’roll live performance photography, I like to use as much natural light as possible. I experiment with some motion blur and use of flash to fill in the shadows a bit or as the main light if the venue is too dark. And with any other subjects I shoot, such as cityscapes and people for example, I tap into my regular styles and formulas depending on the situation. These styles and formulas are inside my brain for me to tap into whenever I need to work fast and must be certain that I captured a great image.

But photography is no fun without experimentation. Hitting formulas and making the same type of image over and over can be boring. Especially, if like most photographers, you shoot the same subjects or type of subjects regularly.

Every year, before each season, I go through my favorite old images. I think about themes and collections that I want to build on and expand. I also think about what new techniques that I want to try and when time allows I experiment. Sometimes I find myself thinking that I should just stick to my usual style, the failed images are a bummer. My personal photographic weaknesses are deep focus and wide angle landscapes. I shoot handheld (see The Tripod Hater’s Tips For Sharper Handheld Images) and sometimes small apertures are off limits to me due to the longer shutter speeds required to use them. I also find that some scenes just end up looking too cluttered. I lean on wide apertures and shallow focus to make my main subjects pop off the page. Same thing with wide angle landscapes, I find it very challenging to compose a compelling image. Most photographers have some type of imagery or techniques and equipment that they find challenging. Don’t just accept it as fact and rely on your usual formulas. Step up to the challenge and expand your range!

Here are a few tips to get you thinking outside your formulas:

Experiment With Aperture

All serious photographers know about the effect that a chosen aperture can have upon a scene’s depth of field. Very few serious photographers would choose an aperture merely to change the exposure unless there was a particular need to. Wide apertures such as F2 have limited depth of field and small apertures like F16 have a deeper focus where most or all elements of a scene from near to far are in acceptable focus. I often go for large apertures and shallow depth of field, so when I try to expand my range, I use smaller apertures and experiment with deep focus. I have been adding deep focus techniques to my shooting repertoire for a couple of years now and I am finding that I am getting better at it. If you are unfamiliar with the effect that aperture has, try shooting a scene at every aperture to learn the effect that each one has. If you are already familiar with apertures and their effects, try choosing an aperture the opposite that you may normally choose. Like deep focus? Try shooting the same scenes using a wide aperture. Shallow depth of field lover? Break out of your formula and try shooting some of those scenes with deep focus.
F4.5 at 208mm focal length. Soft & dreamy focus as I normally like it.
F9 at 90mm. A slight departure from my norm, but a subject such as this required more DOF.

Experiment With Shutter Speeds

Your shutter speed not only affects the exposure but also how sharply motion is recorded. As a hand held shooter, I have a tendency to choose faster shutter speeds to avoid camera shake. But I still find the time to experiment with longer exposures. I love to shoot images zoomed during longer exposures like 1/15, and also like to experiment with panning techniques (moving the camera in the direction of a moving subject during a 1/30 or longer exposure depending on subject.) Sometimes I will even break out the tripod and experiment further, shooting long exposures of wind blown subjects. If you always capture tack sharp and motion free images, try expanding your range and experiment with longer shutter speeds and moving subjects. You may even choose take it one stop further and shoot a motion abstract where nothing in is focus. Why not?
I normally go for tack sharp action shots when doing my wrestling photography. But over the past couple of years, I have been experimenting more with longer exposures and camera movement.
See more here:

Experiment With Exposure

As a general rule, we should strive to capture an image that is correctly exposed. But what correct exposure is can actually depend on the subject matter, the lighting that is available, and a photographer’s personal preference. I have a tendency to be attracted to scenes that are more low key in nature. Even when I shoot a subject that is high key in nature, such as lightly colored flower against a bright background, I tend to underexpose the image just a touch to bring out the details in the petals. Experiment with exposure by regularly bracketing your shots, or deliberately over or underexposing an image just to see what effect it has.

Experiment With Color

Some people naturally see in black in white. Not literally, although for the color blind maybe so. But some people just know by looking at a scene how that scene will translate into a black & white image. It’s not magic or a rare skill, but something one can learn by doing and training oneself to be observant of tone and contrast. I admit, I am not currently one of those people. While I admire fine crafted black & white imagery, I don’t do enough of it myself. Color is just my thing. But black & white imagery is on my own personal list of photography techniques I want to work on. If you always shoot in color, maybe black & white imagery should also be on yours. The opposite is also true. If you regularly create black and white images, break free of your formula. Sometimes converting an image to black and white can be a crutch for some photographers, just like the shallow depth of focus techniques that I use can be. Try breaking out of your monochrome world, and step up to the challenge of composing an image filled with color.

Experiment With Color Tones / Casts

Photographers and artists are frequently drawn to certain colors and have a preference of warm or cool toned imagery. While the subject matter and lighting conditions should be the thing that dictates whether to record the image with a cool, warm, or neutral color balance, a photographer’s preference or interpretation of a scene can be an overruling factor. If you have a tendency to capture warm or cool toned imagery, you may want to experiment. The best way to do this is to shoot your images in the RAW file format and later experiment during post processing. Change the color temperature during RAW processing to view the effect that color balance has on your images. If you prefer to shoot JPEGs, you can experiment in camera by bracketing your color balance settings (shoot one at 5300 daylight, another at 6000 cloudy daylight setting, etc.) You can also opt to experiment with color in Photoshop or other image processing program

Here I used my camera’s (Olympus OMD EM5) pinhole setting to darken the edges a touch and enhance the blue tones in this image in camera. Captured in JPEG format with all work done in camera, a slight depart from my usual of shooting nature images only in the RAW format.

Read My Blog Post "Developing Your Style."

Any of the tips in that post meant to help you develop your style can also be used to expand your range as well.

Experiment With New Equipment

Lenses are a photographer’s paint brushes. Beyond just the focal lengths effects on your images, a lens’s bokeh and handling can also influence your style and help you expand your range. For me, my telephoto lenses and lensbaby made a huge impact on my style. And last year, the purchase of an extension tube had a serious impact on my compositions. Even on the images where I didn’t use the tube. Don’t buy new gear just to have the latest and greatest but rather buy new lenses and accessories to help you expand upon, or expand beyond, your current work.
Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment

Not every photograph you capture needs to fit in with your personal style and themes. Experiment and learn new techniques to expand your range. When it works out, you can build upon your new themes and adapt and grow your style. And if they don’t work out, you can choose just to file them and never share them. Not every photo you take needs to be shared online or as a print, sometimes you just take them to grow or to have a memory in a snapshot. Experiment and have fun with your photography.

Experiment With "Opposite Day."

Dedicate a day or a session’s shooting to doing things the opposite that you normally do. I already listed some of the things that you can try. Now try them for a whole day. No, don’t do this on a once in a lifetime trip or unrepeatable event. But rather do so during a more local and relaxed situation. It’s fun game to play, and you may find that some of these opposites work their way into your shooting repertoire.

Experiment With Post Processing

Not only for the computer effects, but more so to learn new processing techniques to better your images. Unlike my other tips, I am not recommending that you do the opposite of what you normally do. Although, you can do that as well if you wish. But rather I am thinking more of learning how to improve your current skill level. Experimenting with HDR (High Dynamic Range), sharpening for printing, color enhancements, and more can expand your skill range and make your images even better. I prefer not to do too much post processing to my images, I prefer to capture as much as I can in camera. But every once in a while, I like to break free of that habit and see if I can improve upon some of my already favorite images in the computer. This year I added a new collection to my portfolio, "Altered Vision" in which I use computer techniques to mimic film cross processing. Sometimes such effects can become dated or tacky, but sometimes they can be quite lovely.


Shoot Different Subjects

Always shoot landscapes in nature? Try shooting a cityscape. Always shoot still subjects? Try a moving subject like animals or humans. Always shoot during the day? Try capturing some night time views. Always shoot people? Try shooting a still life. Sure, you may be limited in what subjects are available to you. But take a look around and you will find that there are many things you could be shooting but that your don’t regularly make the effort to do so. Also, very often many more subjects can be just a short drive away. Get out there and find some new subject matter!

I hope these tips help you to expand your range and increase your enjoyment of photography. And if they have, or you have some other range expanding tips, please feel free to comment. Thanks for viewing and I hope you have been enjoying my blog.



Here I experimented with adding a texture effect during post processing. I don’t normally do stuff like this, but every once in awhile it’s good to break free and Expand Your Range!
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