Monday, June 14, 2010

Hold the camera at arm’s length so it is easy to see.

This is the third in a series on the biggest myths in photography.

Number 8...

"Hold the camera at arm’s length so it is easy to see."

I am not sure where this came from, but for some reason or another people, decided that they could see the image better on a little screen than could looking through a viewfinder. Camera manufactures quickly saw that they could save some money by eliminating viewfinders all together on lower priced camera. Today we find ourselves back to the same place where we were 100 years ago with the need to throw a dark cloth over the back of the camera to see the image for framing.

LCD screens are very difficult to see in bright light and often impossible to see on a sunny day with sunglasses.

Since the beginning of photography, photographers have known that holding the camera steady is the secret to sharp pictures. Without the ability to brace the camera against your face, holding the camera steady becomes very difficult.

People often ask me questions about what camera to buy. The first thing I always tell them is to get a camera with a viewfinder. Ideally it would be a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) but an electronic viewfinder is a good second choice. Even a simple optical “window” viewfinder is an improvement over an LCD screen. The LCD screens on the back of the camera are wonderful for reviewing your photos or for some unusual situations, but 99% of the time you should push the camera up to your face to steady it, and to be able to see exactly what you are getting in all kinds of light situations.
The proper way to hold a camera is illustrated above.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My pictures are just for fun. I don’t care what happens to them in a year, much less fifty years.

This is a second in a series of 10 posts about the biggest myths in photography.

Number 9. My pictures are just for fun. I don’t care what happens to them in a year, much less fifty years.

Part of my business is restoring old photographs. A common comment I hear is, “I wish my parents (aunt, grandparents, fill in the blank) had taken better care of these pictures. I guess they didn’t know they would be important.”

The best known photographer of the twentieth century was Ansel Adams. He was also a musician. He considered making a photograph the equivalent of writing a song – the composition. (Funny how the same word applies to both music and photography.) The print and its display is then the performance. Both were equally important. His photographs now sell for tens of thousands of dollars largely because he put care and technique into making his photographs.

We may not be Ansel Adams, but we can value photographs for what they are and take care in the making and keeping of them.

The digital age introduces its own challenges of storage and long term use. The important thing to consider is that someday people will be looking at your photos, or not, if you deleted them or lost them when your hard drive crashed, and trying to understand how you lived and what was important to you. Chances are the only record your great grandchildren will have of you is an old photograph or two. I know that because that is the only record I have of some of my great-grandparents.

Almost daily somebody will ask me what will happen to all the photos that are never even downloaded from the camera much less printed in some sort of permanent form. The answer is “nothing.” They will be gone in a few years.

Were they important? Possibly. Only the future will tell us what we should have saved and could have been discarded.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

If I take enough pictures, some of them are bound to be good.

This is a first in a series of 10 posts about the biggest myths in photography.

Number 10 - If I take enough pictures, some of them are bound to be good.

This is related to the old saying about given enough monkeys, time, and typewriters, they would eventually write all the works of Shakespeare. Maybe. But it would take a LOT of time and they would go through a lot of typewriters.

Photography is a learned skill. It is not hard, but like any other skill such as woodworking, playing a musical instrument, or public speaking, it is not automatic, and therefore requires a little bit of training. Professional instruction is not necessary, but would certainly go a long way.

If I decided to build a table, I could go out and buy a saw, some wood, and start randomly cutting wood and gluing pieces together. Given enough time I might end up with something that looks like table. But I would save a lot of time and trees if I did a little research on the details of table making. It is the same with photography. A little care and knowledge goes a long way.

The Eastman Kodak Company has been struggling with this conundrum since they brought out the first Kodak in 1888. How do you convince people that anybody can take pictures and still provide enough training that they may actually make some good photos? Generally they have errored on the side of telling people how easy it is, and billions of people have wasted billions of dollars on lousy pictures in the past 120 years.

I recently saw an article about this in an 1892 photography journal. The writer was lamenting that people were expecting miracles in their photos without making any effort to become better photographers. In the digital age the incremental cost has gone way down, the quantity of pictures taken has gone way up, but the quality of photos hasn’t changed. If anything they have gotten worse.

Having spent 23 years in the photofinishing business, I have seen plenty of pictures that could have been a lot better with only minor changes. Most of the people wanted better pictures but apparently not bad enough to try to learn.

Next week Myth # 9.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Give Photographs Some Respect

My mother often comments about how serious I was as a child. I think I just took some things seriously that others regarded as less than serious, things like photos and music. I always took music very seriously, and I always saw the value of photographs.

I got my first camera in the fourth grade I knew right away that I was documenting my childhood and that the photographs would be important in fifty or sixty years. I knew this because I knew how important the fifty year-old photos of my parents and grandparents were.

Since then I have made somewhere around a million photographs. Tens of thousands of them are in my file cabinets either as negatives, slides, prints, or digital files on CDs. The best ones are in the form of books. Some of them are just documentation while others are very significant, but all of them are important for one reason or another.

I have always been concerned that many people haven’t given much respect to photographs. I have made quite a bit of money restoring old photographs, most of which only needed restoration because they were mistreated.

In the digital age, it seems that more and more photographs are considered to be free and therefore have no value. There are already anthropologists who fear that we will lose the records of generations because their photos were deleted or lost when the hard-drive crashed.

Personally I think that the best photographs will be preserved. But a quick glance at Facebook indicates that most people are not interested in making photographs that are aesthetically or technically pleasing.

With modern camera, making wonderful photographs has never been easier, but with ease comes sloppiness. My desire is that people would think, even for just a few seconds about how they could make their pictures better, and then learn some basics about how the camera works. Then the world would look a whole lot better, and future generations would have a better idea of what we cared about, and about how things looked back in 2010.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Somewhere around 1980, I did what I called my “Ultimate Film Test.” Actually it was more than film. I took about 8 or 10 camera and lens combinations, in different formats, and bought a dozen or so rolls each of a half a dozen different types of film. I set up a little still life in my backyard consisting of some flowers, a lawn chair, bird bath and so forth. I then photographed the same scene with every possible exposure and film combination with each camera.

The next step was to make identical 8x10 prints from every exposure, carefully labeling each of the hundreds of prints as to the camera, lens, film type, and exposure. By sorting the prints in different ways, I could easily see what difference changing the exposure made, the differences in film types, and the differences in cameras and formats.

By using this extensive testing method, I no longer had to rely on other people’s untested opinions, or hearsay. Since at the time I was working with a lot with professional photographers, I could easily bring out clearly documented photographs to show results from the film or camera in question. Very few photographers have ever gone to the trouble and expense to test their equipment and film choices in any significant way.

I began repeating this test about every ten years as film and technology changed. It was then possible to clearly show what changes, usually improvements, had taken places with film emulsions, lenses, etc. by comparing older prints with the newer ones. One of the biggest variables was the processing, but since I owned a photo lab, this was a constant.

Now in the digital age, it is even more important to test our equipment and techniques. Film, of course, is no longer a factor, but digital technology is changing all the time. The only way to know for sure if a 12-meg camera that costs $1500, set to ISO 1600, will give better results than a 7-meg camera that costs $500 set at ISO 100, is to test them side by side with the same subject and then make identical prints. Instead of film changes we now have a choice of RAW, TIFF, the various versions of JPEG, and so forth. Which works best, and how much difference is there? If we haven’t tested them and can show documented results, we don’t really know. Plus it might be different next year.

These principles are true in many other areas as well; except in some fields the testing can be very difficult or the results often hard to interpret.

I am also a musician. Testing various types of strings on different guitars, using different amplifiers, cords, picks, and so forth, and actually recording each and carefully analyzing the results is certainly possible, but probably beyond what most musicians are willing to do. Instead we find something we like and stick with it, or we are constantly trying all sorts of variations and never knowing what changed the results.

Most businesses follow this latter model. We either stick with what works, or just keep trying things until, hopefully, we find something that does work.