Saturday, February 20, 2010

The one thing I've learned about photography that has made a difference

Remember how I took a photography class in the fall? Well, I didn't exactly master the art. If anything, I learned how very much there is to learn! But besides discovering the depth of my own ignorance, there IS one very important thing I learned that has made my pictures better, and that's how to use Aperture mode on my Nikon, instead of using the flash. This, in combination with the inexpensive purchase of a "plastic fantastic" 50 mm 1.8 lens, has made a big difference in my pictures.

How? Well, the flash risks washing your subject out and making it pale and insipid (to qualify: this is the on-camera flash, using the fully auto setting; flashes can be much more sophisticated and awesome). This has the effect of making even a well-composed photo look like a snapshot. How do you get the rich skin tones, the saturated colors of flowers, the interesting light? How do you not get the ugly hard shadow behind your subject? How do you manipulate depth of field, so your subject is in focus but the background is lovely and soft?

For example, a picture of my favorite subject with flash on fully auto, shot with the "kit lens" (came with camera), an 18-55 mm zoom:
Still a cute picture, but see how she's all washed out and has that hard shadow behind her, and the background is all in focus and boring?

And without flash, shot with the plastic fantastic at maximum aperture:
This would be a better comparison if the pose were identical, because the thing here is the top picture is a better expression on Clementine, but the bottom is a better photo. See the skin color, the softness, the richness? The key to good pictures, I guess, is to nail the technical aspects AND get the best expression/composition etc in one shot. Still working on that!!!

And here, a portrait of little serious Pie:

It's all about the combination of the Aperture mode and having a "fast" lens. This is NOT going to get highly technical, don't worry. I'm not capable of highly technical. Just a few things:

Instead of setting my camera on fully auto, I set it on Aperture mode, which means that I select the width that the lens opens to let in light, while the camera automatically adjusts everything else. So it's still partially auto and requires no quick brain calculations, of which I am not capable. These shots were taken indoors with window light. My "kit lens" wouldn't be able to handle that, but the plastic fantastic is a "fast" lens, and it can. What "fast" means in a lens actually isn't to do with the speed of the shutter, like it sounds. It means a lens that can open really wide and let light flood into your picture, so you don't need a flash. The 50 mm 1.8 for Nikon cost about $130, I think, and is sososososososo worth it. (A high-quality fast lens will be hundreds of dollars, but this is FINE for my purposes!)

So that's the main trick I've emerged with for getting better baby pictures of Clementine, and I do hope to continue to learn about photography. If I'd really been planning to blog about this today, I'd have set up a shoot to provide better examples, but this just came about as a result of looking at the difference in the above photos, and blessing my 50 mm lens. Mwah.

The other awesome thing about 1.8 aperture is that the bigger your aperture, the smaller your depth of field, so having the lens open to 1.8 is what gives you those soft-focus backgrounds that are so great in portraits and still-life pics. For example:
The awesome discs of light on the water behind Clementine at the pool. Would not happen on fully auto setting.

The blur of the background due to 1.8 aperture; the richness of the color, to using natural light.

To show you an imperfect example of flowers shot with and without flash, here are some from before my photo class, when I was struggling to understand my camera manual and figure out this aperture thing. Note the "aperture" photos are crap, out of focus, bad composition. But see how they're still more interesting than the fully auto photo, and the color is SO much better?

Dahlias taken on fully auto, with flash:

And messing around with "aperture" mode:

(The reason these are blurry is because they were taken with the kit lens, which wasn't fast enough for the available light; this was before I got my 50.)

This lovely picture with its gorgeous colors is all about Aperture mode and natural light:
(Thank you to Emily Whitman, author of the fabulous Radiant Darkness, for this adorable outfit of polka dots and stripes :-)

That's pretty much ALL that is in my photography bag of tricks. I'm completely unqualified to be giving photography advice, but sometimes I think novices can speak better to other novices, you know? Especially about something as confusingly mathematical as photography, which makes my brain swim.

Speaking of swimming (aha! the transition! Remember learning paragraph transitions in high school writing composition?), we took Clementine to the pool again yesterday, and oh, the adorable!!! SO. MUCH. FUN. I mentioned the awesome pool last time, but hadn't brought a camera. Here is jim taking Clementine on her new infant inner tube through the river:
That's the whirlpool in the middle; the river has a powerful current that sweeps you along--so fun. And there's a big curly slide that we didn't go on, but here's Clementine sitting in it, with her little yellow bathing suit :-)
And with mama and papa:

We went to brunch afterwards; I think that will be a tradition--such a nice day! Pool + pancakes :-)



Bets said...

I love everything about this post. :-) It is definitely inspiring me to stop falling back on the flash ALL the time with my year old boy.

Myrna Foster said...

Thanks for all of your photography insight. I need better equipment.

Clementine is growing up. She is so adorable.

Joshua said...

I also need to thank you for your original photography post mentioning the "plastic fantastic" back in September. I think it's part of the reason I've gotten so interested in photography in recent months. (The post, that is, not the lens -- though a fast lens helps enormously in almost any kind of indoor light.) So, thanks!

debsfreckles said...

Okay - did you put in for an order for a baby that looks like an elf/fairy or did that just happen because you wrote such great fairy books? SHE IS SO CUTE! And I am NOT just saying that because I want to be your friend.

Alexandra Saperstein said...

(Be sure to put up her photo soon peeking out from under the yellow blanket! )Little Miss Clementine Pie is exploding past all previous beauty and sweetness records. Wait til you see the little jumper I have waiting for shoot awaits. And lastly, on a separate note, don't forget about the 2000 push up rule.
Three bites = 6,000 push ups
see you tomorrow at the ice derby! (I'm sharpening my skate blades right now).!

Unknown said...

Great observations about photography! You've really learned things. I'm taking my second photography course in college now and it's hard getting back to it because I've forgotten a lot. It's fun and frustrating, especially because I'm making my own prints and developing the print on my own. I'm also limited to black and white because of the lab's facilities, unfortunately. Black and white photography shouldn't be a limitation, but I have a hard time imagining photos in b/w when I see it all in color!

You just taught me the advantages of the aperture setting on my digital camera btw haha.

Leah said...

you are great!

my father recently sent me a new lens to play with and I've been procrastinating (I knew I'd have to take the camera off AUTO to reap the benefits of this new lens) and then I read your post and realized he sent me this exact lens!!! Booyah!

I already have been playing around and I now LOVE it. "plastic fantastic" what a great name. I am no longer afraid of the new lens thank to you!

Jamie Ridler said...

All that cuteness and photography tips too! You rock!

It's awesome to see you and your so happy!

tone almhjell said...

Oh, Clementine is so absolutely beautiful <3. Is she talking and babbling a lot. This morning, I'm positive Magnus called me Edna.

Fletcher of the Day said...

Check you out miss Photography! When you are ready...start saving for the 1.4. It's not too expensive, at about $250ish...but FABULOUS! And it's a sight cheaper than going to the 1.2, which is over $1000.00.

I'm glad to hear your are shooting in Ap priority. I prefer Manual, myself, but it's finding your zone. Great photos..great depth of field...and great to throw out the flash! LOVE IT!

Kisses to all..


David T. Macknet said...

Yep - makes all the difference in the world.

I kept harping on my niece about shooting with flash ... and now that she's doing a degree in graphic design, she's barred from using it. Makes me So HAPPY!

2 more things you might be interested in trying:

Figure out how steady you are and set the setting to TV (I'd guess about 60ms should be about right, or 100, but I stick with 40 because I've got image stabilization built into the lens). That will let the camera figure out as deep a field as it can, while you're still holding steady. I use that for when I actually am interested in the background, but need to shoot rather quickly.

Shoot in raw. It makes a huge difference, if only because you can balance out the white by picking something white (or gray) and telling the software, "this was white." Makes an immense difference.

Lacy said...

Did you eat something especially fun while Clementine was being knit in-utero? Because that hair is awe-inspiring! When I have children I want them all to have that crazy rooster/mohawk hair. So cute!!

Anonymous said...

I've been there! I love Mount Scott!

Adorable bathing suit and pics!

Very interesting photography tips, thanks for sharing!

Hmm, I seem to hav used a lot of exclaimation marks... this sentence has other punctuation to make up for it. :-)


Catalina said...

she looks really as a so sparking beautiful fairy! some ifluenced her? ;)