Sunday, September 26, 2010

Important Tips for your Photography

This author presumes that quite a few of the readers of this blog are interested in getting better at certain aspects of photography. While I have never claimed to be good at it, I am certainly much better at it than I was a few years ago. I have decided that, in lieu of a web site dedicated to teaching with a proper structure for that, I will maintain a tips post and update it as I see fit. You will find it linked in the recommended posts at the top of my blog.

Tip 1 – Calibrate Your Monitor

The odds are very good that you are not calibrating your monitor ... most people do not. But this leaves you at the mercy of the manufacturer as to how accurately you see colors in images. Especially poor from the factory is the white and black points, so you miss all the subtlety in tones. Seriously, consider it. See my detailed article on the subject here.

I use the Huey Pro, as it handles all your monitors and has very good software in my experience. My results were amazing.

Tip 2 – Please Use a Quality Panel for Processing

Now that you have decided to calibrate your monitor (I hope), consider getting yourself a decent monitor. The traditional gaming and general purpose panel is cheap and is based on TN technology. Crap. For photography, you need something with a very wide field of view and the ability to generate true 32-bit color or better. I use an NEC MVA panel, a Dell 24" 16:10 IPS panel, and a Dell 23" IPS panel and they all slaughter my TN panels. Apple makes the amazing cinema line of monitors that use the best technology -- S-IPS, but my 24" Dell uses H-IPS I believe and it is no slouch.

You can of course get other brands with cheaper S-IPS, E-IPS, PVA or MVA technology. All will be a massive cut above TN technology for editing, especially when calibrated. Here is one panel from Asus for an amazingly good price. There are many such deals on Amazon and there is little excuse to continue to use a monitor that cannot perform well against the test pages at

Tip 3 – Shooting Concerts

A lot of people like to shoot images at concerts. I find it very rewarding and I get to relive the concert any time I choose. But most people start by shooting in Auto mode and that makes a hash of most concerts. The shutter speeds are wrong, the ISO is usually wrong, and the exposure in general is wrong. This leads to burnt out highlights, blur, severe grain, or any combination of all three. I certainly had my share of these problems at first. But I’ve developed a technique that tends to work fairly well.

If your camera allows it, set the shutter speed to 1/100s in shutter-priority mode or manual mode. This is the starting point for shutter and you will change it as a last resort. 1/100s generally works well enough to freeze motion on stage while still allowing a lot of light into the image.

Make sure your aperture is wide open if you are shooting manual. You need the most light you can get.

Start with your ISO ar 400 or 800, and your compensation at –1ev (if in S-Prio, in manual you do not need to use compensation as it will only confuse matters.) Low ISO will show up as fairly dark images on the LCD, but this is much better than burnt or blurred images. A somewhat darker image can be lifted, while a too-bright or blurred image is fatally wounded. Remember that … blur is forever, burn out is forever, but grain and somewhat dark can be fixed.

To fix a slightly too dark image, lift its tones in an editor. I did this for an image of Andy Maize of the Skydiggers, this was shot at 800 ISO with an F70EXR in an excruciatingly dark venue – the rest of the images there were shot at 3200 ISO.


I also did it for this 500 ISO shot of Bruce Cockburn with the D300:


Obviously, the low ISO cuts out a lot of ambient (stage) light, so you will end up with the performer as the subject and little else in the image. But these were dark venues, so there was little to see anyway. Raising the ISO can raise the amount of light you get and reduce the amount of editing, but it also risks burn out and severe grain, so experiment with your camera at different venues to see how you like to shoot.

Here is a 3200 ISO shot at the same dark venue as the shot of Andy Maize above, This is Billy Bragg:

DSCF2454_billy[1] That’s really not too bad for a compact cam at 3200 ISO. And here is why … the subject was actually fairly well lit, and the extra light helped increase contrast and keep the Fuji noise reduction algorithms at bay. This matters a lot … shoot in low light and noise reduction smooths everything over … shoot at a concert and the subject tends to look decent even at higher ISOs. Use that to your advantage when you need to, but try to keep ISO low anyway.

When the stage is extremely well lit, you can shoot at 400 or 800 ISO and get superb crispness. This shot from the F70EXR at 800 ISO of Mama Mia! is a case in point:


Another example from a Rascal Flatts concert:

DSCF3324_rascals[1]The F80EXR or F300EXR should do just as well as they are terrific at 800 ISO. Many other cams are as well, although they do not have this reach. I doubt that the ZS series from Panasonic can cut it at 800 … but maybe. And this shot could probably be replicated at 400 ISO … at 1/50s perhaps. But more risk of blur ensues.

So go forth and enjoy concert shooting. But control your camera and learn how to tweak the exposures in post processing. It will make a *huge* difference for you.

Edit: In the comments, Adrian mentions that the #1 tip should be to turn your flash off. Yes, definitely. Your flash is only useful if you are standing within 10 feet or so of the stage, and even then it does not add enough light to be worth burning down your battery. What it does though is light up the crowd near you, showing their hair etc, and thus destroying what might have been a good shot. You want the heads in front of you to be black silhouettes … keep the flash off! Thanks Adrian.

Tip 4 – Read!

I apologize if this tip is somehow patronizing, but the majority of people do not read enough about their hobby from what I have read (the irony of that statement is not lost on me :-)

There are experts out there who have put together superb treatments of one or more topics and you should absolutely take their knowledge and blend it with your own. If you read only one book, I suggest it be John Shaw’s Field Guide to Nature Photography. I find that book an excellent introduction to the basics … especially where metering and exposure are concerned.

Read my more thorough treatment of my favorite books here.


Adrian said...

Good tips.

I've tried shooting at concerts a few times with varying success, The biggest tip I think should always be:

Turn your flash off!

I'm always amazed at how many camera flashes you can see.

Kim Letkeman said...

Adrian, thanks and very good tip. I'll add it.