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Friday, November 27, 2009

What Camera Do I Buy as a Gift?

The most common question asked of photography professionals is also the most annoying because there really isn't any correct answer. The question comes in a few different forms: "What is the best camera?" or "What camera should I buy?" or worse, "What camera should I buy for my _______?" Enter father, mother, brother, spouse or significant other in the blank.

A professional shooter knows that the best camera is the one that you have with you when you need to take the picture. However that answer will only alienate the dear friend or relative who is seriously looking to you for advice, plus cement your reputation as a smart aleck, joker or wisenheimer. I've have learned that the solution is to play detective and ask some questions before making a recommendation.

Will the user have any interest in learning the camera's operation? My father had me purchase a Canon PowerShot as a gift for my mother on her 80th Birthday. I dutifully researched the models and purchased a camera and small snapshot printer within the price range he indicated. My mother has never used the camera and it's my fault, kinda-sorta, I never realized that my Dad actually wanted the new camera for himself. My Mother has no interest at all in taking photos. This taught me that before you buy someone a camera you should ask if they would actually use a camera if they had one.

Another question I've learned to ask is: "What type of photos will this person be taking?" In other words, will Uncle Bob be shooting family snaps at social events and vacations or does he dream of being the next Ansel Adams or Richard Avedon? (The answer to the latter is to tell Uncle Bob to go and pick out a camera for himself while you buy him a necktie.)

Now that you're even more confused about which camera to buy I will simplify it for you: It doesn't matter! Every compact digital or advanced DSLR produces technically remarkable photographs. Chalk it up to globalization or advanced corporate espionage but the differences in cameras among the major brands are small and each manufacturer makes models to fit every price point. So as far as I'm concerned the most important question is, "What is your budget?" Which is a bit more polite than, "How much cash have you got?"

So you've decided on the budget and you're going shopping, the most confusing feature you'll encounter is Megapixels.

The biggest selling point that camera manufacturers use is the number of megapixels that their unit offers. It is a fallacy is that the more megapixels the better. Big megapixel numbers surely sound impressive, especially if you don't know what a megapixel is.

A megapixel is 1,000,000 pixels. To understand what a pixel is look at photo in a newspaper. Notice that the photo is made up of lots of little dots. In the old days of film photography we would have to convert the photograph to dots, they are called halftones. Today with digital photography the image from the camera is already in dot form, those dots are called pixels.

Television is where pixels came to being. Your standard television set has 425 pixels/dots top to bottom. If you are lucky enough to have a new HD television you have 1020 pixels top to bottom. In photography we measure pixels by how many are in an inch or how many there are in an image.

Most computer screens are set to 72 pixels/inch. A 1-megapixel file will fill your high-def screen and a 10-megapixel camera will give you a file large enough to fill the Diamond Vision screen at new Yankee Stadium.

If the only thing you do with your photos is print 4x6 photos for your album and load your images to Facebook you don't need a massive DSLR like a Canon 5D or Nikon D100, a Kodak Easy-Share will do you fine. And the beauty of these smaller cameras is that you'll always have it with you when you need it!

Now that you understand that massive megapixel capture is irrelevant unless you're making poster size prints or billboard you can settle on some other important things like what color camera you want. Yes, cameras are no longer just silver or black they come in colors!

Another important feature is the size of the screen at the back of the camera. The larger the screen the easier it will be to review the image, especially if you need glasses to read. In fact, if you need reading glasses you need to have your glasses on when you shoot. No way around that.

Here's the deal, photography is fun, if you're not having fun and capturing fun memories with your camera then something is wrong. Perhaps your money would be better spent on therapy and medication or an extended vacation. But then you won't have those vacation photos to share!

One final bit of camera buying advice; if you're young daughter is a big Ashton Kutcher fan and talks about him in those humorous Nikon television commercials then a Canon or Olympus just won't cut it. Buy her the Nikon she wants and be a hero.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Holiday Photo Advice

When Rod Stewart sang “Every Picture Tells A Story” he was lying. While an accepted fact that every picture should tell a story we all know that few actually accomplish it.

Holidays are about stories. Stories are the way civilizations pass the reasons behind its traditions to future generations and photos are the way we pass our personal stories to future generations. So when you take photos this holiday season keep in mind your responsibility to your descendants. (And all you thought you were doing was grabbing a few snapshots.)

Telling your story pictorially is not hard if you stick to a few simple rules.

1) Before you shoot know your equipment.

Don’t let that new camera sit in the box until everyone is already on his or her second course at dinner (or after you’ve had that second glass of Uncle Robert’s homemade wine). Take it out of the box right now. Unwrap all the memory cards, software discs, and wires, charging cables, manuals, guides, doodads and gizmos packaged with the camera. Find the Instruction Manual and if you’re lucky, the Quick Start sheet.

Next compare what is in the box with what is listed in the Instruction Manual or Quick Start sheet. This will accomplish two things, first it will allow you to familiarize yourself with all the camera’s parts and, just as important, see if anything is missing. Do not throw anything away!

Now charge the battery.

While the battery is charging read Instruction Manual to learn how to operate the controls, especially the On/Off switch and Shutter button. Don’t bother to look at the camera for the moment, there are plenty of pictures and illustrations in the manual, let the battery charge. Later you’re going to read the manual again with the camera in front of you, after the battery is fully charged. Did I mention to charge the battery enough times?

When reading the manual the second time around, with the camera in your hands, play with all the buttons and shoot a few worthless pictures then delete them.

In the history of photography cameras have never been more sophisticated yet simple to use. By reading the manual cold then going back to it again with the camera in your hands you’re effectively studying its operation and re-enforcing your memory. If you take this advice, when you have an operational question in the future you’ll pick up the manual to find that you already know the answer.

2) Have enough memory on hand (or film if you’re still doing that).

There’s nothing worse than having a magical moment appear in front of you and seeing that dreaded MEMORY CARD FULL prompt on the LCD screen.

Download your memory card’s contents to your computer! Buy extra cards. And never delete individual photos from the card to free up space. You might accidentally erase the entire card.

I don’t recommend permanently storing all your photos on cards since they are small (especially SD cards) and easy to misplace. Also dropping a card on a hard surface or exposure to the elements, especially magnetic fields, can damage them and make the pictures unreadable.

3) Tell your story.

A good story has three parts: a beginning, middle, and an ending. So shoot lots and lots and lots of photos. While its true that a seasoned professional photographer can tell a story with one really great photo you’re not under that kind of pressure. You can shoot everything. In a future blog entry I’ll give you some ideas as to what to do with all those photos.

Maybe your story starts with packing the car for the road trip to Grandma’s or dressing the kids.
If you’re going on a road trip don’t forget to take photos of the signs along the way. If you’re driving stop first or let your passenger grab the picture. I spent many years traveling by motorcycle and my favorite pictures (and best reminders of where I was) are of my motorcycle in front of a sign.

The author on a car trip to Las Vegas This is me on a car trip through the California high desert.

Breakfast Bears The sign at restaurant in Vermont where we stopped for breakfast.

Shoot the turkey going into the oven or even start your story with shopping for the turkey, especially if you’ve gone to a turkey farm and picked out a live turkey. Opening a bottle of Champagne makes a good photograph. Relatives greeting at the door also makes a great image. Pay particular attention to older friends and relatives, one day you might wish you had a photo of someone that is no longer around.

Mix it up. Take generational photos. Your oldest relative holding the youngest child. If you have photos from past holidays and the same people are together arrange them in a similar pose. Make that same photo every year.

Baby in Grandma's arms This is Gabe in Grandma's arms

When taking photos of people eating give them a chance to swallow their food. Stand up or on a step stool or chair when shooting across the table to minimize the table clutter in the foreground. Have people get close to each other, wrap their arms and get their cheeks together (both sets). If using a flash, arrange everyone in the same plane as people close to the camera will appear lighter than folks in the background. Learn and use the red-eye prevention setting and warn everyone to keep their eyes open and smile while the flash fires multiple times.

Move in close, either with your zoom or by taking a step closer. Fill the frame.

Take pictures while saying goodbye no matter how late it is or how tired you are. Pictures of children who have fallen asleep on the spot always look angelic (as opposed to the shot of Uncle Robert who’s passed out after the third glass of his own homemade wine).

Thanks to the digital photography revolution we no longer need to worry about the cost of each image and with rechargeable batteries we don’t have to worry about buying extra batteries. However if you’re really shooting lots and lots and lots of images, then having an extra rechargeable battery and a charger is a nice idea.

Shoot photos unmercifully now and delete the one with Mildred’s eyes closed later, ON THE COMPUTER, AFTER DOWNLOADING!

Thanks for reading my first blog entry and I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving!