What makes a photographer?

Lake Washington

Originally uploaded by gregmeyer

Chris Brogan’s post yesterday on Nikon’s request for him to test a D300 spurred me to think more about being a “photographer”.

When I was a kid, I thought a photographer was someone with fancy equipment, who worked in a darkroom and made neat tricks with emulsion, burning and dodging, and smelled of funny chemicals. When I was a teenager, I thought photographers were artists who worked in large-format Polaroid cameras and got their subjects to take signature poses (Annie Leibovitz). When I was in college, I thought photography was about documentary (Mary Ellen Mark, Library of Congress, war correspondents).

As an adult I gave up on the idea of being a photographer for a while. If no one was going to pay me to take pictures for a living, I thought, why bother? I spent a long time not taking pictures (too bad), and then gradually made my way back into the hobby. Last year I bought a Nikon D5000 and love the advances that technology has made, the easy of use, and the ability to avoid stinky darkroom chemicals and still end up with great pictures.

Now, I’m entering a new phase. I carry a camera (iPhone) with me every day. I realize now that being a photographer is a state of mind. You can capture the world with a Nikon D300, like Chris did (and nice pictures too), or just see the world around you with an iPhone camera and you’ll get some interesting views as well. A picture may not be worth a thousand words, but it definitely tells a story, raises questions, and makes you think.

Composing a Sunset Photograph at the Beach: Tips and Tricks

Pacific Sunset with Random Guy

Originally uploaded by gregmeyer

What’s the recipe for a successful sunset photograph at the beach? Clearly one prerequisite is a clear sunset — not often found at the Oregon Coast — and another is a camera. But there the easy point and shoot ends. While I’ve sometimes gotten good results from the “automatic” point and shoot setting, this time I got much better results by focusing on aperture, composition, and repetition.

Setting the right aperture is key for allowing enough light to expose your photograph but not too much to wash out the color. You can find lots of opinions on the internet, but the one I liked suggested setting the F stop to F11 and maintaining a shutter speed that won’t cause hand-held blurring (let’s say faster than than 1/250). Using aperture priority mode (on my d5000, that’s the A mode) allows you to force the camera into automatic mode for the other parts of the exposure and still provides rich depth and color.

I also considered composition when I was thinking about a good sunset picture. Unless you use an ultra-wide angle lens or have a landscape feature (rocks, lighthouse, etc) to provide contrast and scale, it’s difficult to tell how far away the surf is crashing. It’s also incredibly boring just to look at waves and sun (we’ve all seen this picture, and probably taken lots of versions of it before). In this photo, a lone beach walker provided an excellent scale for the sun and waves. Using the small aperture also helped the subject to appear in shadow, increasing the drama of the composition.

The final suggestion I have for taking a good sunset photograph at the beach is repetition. Over the span of 30 minutes, I probably composed and shot 70 images — settling on 12 or 13 that I liked later — and didn’t worry whether or not I was getting the perfect shot. Fail early and often, and you have a better chance of succeeding (either by accident or by design).

I’m happy with the result, though I’ll be back out at the beach the next time I’m at the coast. Next time I think I’ll take a tripod, and work on the other parts of the exposure that I didn’t consider. I’ve also had many friends suggest shooting in RAW format to take advantage of the bracketing that can be harnessed after the fact. The purist in me hates the idea of manipulating the image later; the technologist in me thinks, “I ought to try that … next time.” First, I have to find the next sunset.

Taking Better Fireworks Pictures on July 4th

Fireworks Burst #7

Originally uploaded by gregmeyer

Strange as it seems to be, I had never before set out to take pictures of Fireworks before Friday night’s trip to Emerald Downs in Auburn. Armed with dSLR, Mini Tripod (Joby’s Gorillapod), and a dry, clear night, I was ready to take shots of the pyrotechnics.

And I paused. I realized that there was no easy way to take pictures of the action with the default view of the camera. Obviously, simply expecting a “scene” mode of “Fireworks” from the wizards at Nikon was a bit of a reach. But memories of high-school photography class weren’t helping me all that much.

I found what I needed on the web — a quick primer on ISO, shutter speed, and aperture as they pertain to night photography — and I was ready to go. The basics of fireworks photos, I learned, is dead simple. Crank down the aperture to some reasonable level (I chose F11 on advice from several blogs); slow down the shutter to allow for the possibility of light trails and extended exposure; set the ISO to allow for lower light sensitivity (I used approximately 100 ISO); and (here’s an interesting tidbit) set the white balance to daylight. Of course, a key component here is keeping the camera still during this long exposure.

Why set the white balance to daylight? I’m not certain, but guess that it is to trick the camera into seeing colors more like the human eye and less like an automatic camera sensor. The other suggestions are similar in effect, overriding the “automatic” mode to produce spectacular light show results.

So, to sum up: automatic camera modes are great, except when you don’t need them. For fireworks, crank down the aperture, slow down the shutter, and set the ISO to allow for less exposure during that long exposure. Even if you don’t have a shutter release and can’t seem to find the manual “bulb” setting for the shutter (I couldn’t find an option that worked without the remote infrared release), you should be able to get good results.

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