Photography Tips: A good Starting Point

Having been a professional photographer much of my working life, I have seen technology change dramatically, especially with the invention of digital photography.  Digital cameras have gone from prohibitively expensive, even for the working professional, to cameras that can be considered “disposable,” they are now so inexpensive.  You can argue ad infinitum on which brand, model, or chip type is “best,” but in the final analysis, nearly all the new digital cameras are excellent for capturing an image for enjoyment by the average person.

What has not changed, from the beginning of photography until present, is the fact that the camera is only a BOX TO CAPTURE LIGHT.  What makes the difference between a good image and a poor one depends on these factors:  LIGHT, EMOTION, COMPOSITION, and THE LENS that the light passes through.

You’ll notice that of the four basic elements of a good photograph, only one of those is related to equipment, and it’s not the camera.  So, let’s discuss first the LENS.  You can have the most expensive camera out there, and believe me, there are a few that can still set you back many thousands of dollars, but if you bring the light (the image) through a cheap lens, one with poor glass, and many poorly engineered moving parts within to make the lens zoom, it matters not how many pixels your camera’s manufacturer brags about, you will get a poorly focused, inconsistently exposed, and disappointing image.  For example, I have a Canon 5D Mk II camera body, which is one of my studio cameras that has been a workhorse for me ever since it was introduced a few years back.  When Canon introduced the Rebel T2i camera, I bought one for my backpacking, since it is much lighter, and if I trash it on the trail, I won’t lose nearly as much sleep as if I destroyed my more expensive camera.  For an experiment, I took the lens that came with the Rebel and put it on my 5D and did some test shots.  Then, I took one of my favorite Canon lenses, which cost much more than the camera, and put it on the Rebel and did the same test exposures.  Results:  the $500 Rebel with the more expensive lens produced sharper, more vivid images that did the $3000 5D with the cheap lens.  No contest.  So, if you are serious enough to justify owning a SLR camera (one with interchangeable lenses that views through the lens), research your lenses more thoroughly than you do the camera when making the investment, and spend your money on the lens.

The only other thing I’ll say about cameras and lenses is that if you talk to 10 “professional” photographers and ask which is the best one to buy, you will get 10 different answers, usually based on what each one of them owns.  Go to a reputable camera store (not Best Buy, Walmart, or some other discount box store, but a camera store that has been in that business for years), and find a knowledgeable salesperson to demonstrate a number of different cameras for you.  With digital, you can actually take photos right there in the store and find one that you feel comfortable with (operator friendly).  The best camera for you will be the one you can use easily without having to fiddle with the controls when taking an image so that you miss the shot of that child making a wonderful face, or that elk blowing frost from his nostrils on the edge of a clearing on a cold morning.  Buy that one, get a great (not good, but great) lens, and go out and take a lot of pictures.

One more thing:  please don’t have the salesperson spend a lot of time getting to know you and demonstrating the equipment, only to go order the camera on the internet from B&H.  Bad form.  If you go armed with the internet prices, the store will meet those prices.  If they don’t, then you are justified to go to the internet for your purchase.  I know of no professional camera store that will not meet an internet price.  Just ask.

LIGHT:  the most important ingredient in taking a great image.  The best light for photography is a cloudy day.  Yes, I said cloudy.  Professional photographers spend hundreds of dollars on large umbrella-looking attachments for their studio lights that have large, opaque, white covers on them to diffuse the light so it looks soft and brings out detail while hiding sharp edges, such as lines on faces.  Clouds do the same thing to the sun.  Embrace a cloudy day and properly expose for the lower light levels, set your camera on “auto white balance” to compensate for the color temperature change, and see how much better your exposures will be outside.  Having spent years studying light and lighting for photography,  I could write an entire book (and some have) on lighting, so this is to say, go find out more about it and your pictures will get better.  And one more thing, try to not always take images with the sun at your back, as you have always been taught.  Use backlight from the sun (or other light source) to rim the outlines of your subject, and you will add drama to the scene.  Learn how to use your camera’s flash as a “fill light” when your subjects’ faces are in shadow from the sun being at their backs, and you will eliminate squinting and furrowing of brows because they are not looking directly back into the sun.  Here is a good “how-to”  basic article on this:

Practice, practice, practice.


The Old Ore Road


Today, it was time to ride!  I just didn’t expect it to be 90 degrees in this part of Big Bend National Park, out on the “Old Ore Road.”  This is one of the least-traveled, most secluded, and most often hottest parts of this huge desert environment.  In a new book, “Death in Big Bend,” several fatalities due to heat stroke are chronicled when unfortunate, and unprepared people, find themselves stranded on this 26-mile-long 4-wheel-drive dirt, rock and boulder-infested historic road.  It’s not unusual for temperatures to reach 90+ degrees in January and February out here, but today was a departure from recent trends this winter.  With that, I set out on a “shake-down” ride after a tune-up to my old Trek 7000 aluminum mountain bike, which included new shift-grips, new tubes and tires, and a new trip computer.  


After about 4 miles of technical sand, rock, and rutted off-camber climbs and descents, I turned around and headed back to Jodie and the waiting Jeep.  I had not figured in the 30-40 mph headwind that I would be fighting all the way back, and on a technical rock-infested climb, I stalled out.  Usually not a problem, but I had not switched out my pedals to my mountain bike pedals, which I had cannibalized onto my recumbent last fall, so my shoes did not release from the clips and I planted myself and bike into a thorny mesquite tree, complete with a lechugilla cactus at its base.  Nothing unusual out here, but it’s not only painful, but dangerous.  Lucky this time, I came away with only a small loss of blood, and a larger hurt pride.


The trip home included a stop at the Stillwell Ranch, where I found that Jasamine, the girl I met on the bicycle two days ago riding from Florida to California, had stopped there for 2 days and had a great time.  As the dust storm increased in direct proportion to the increasing speed of the wind, we rode the tailwind home, taking time to photograph a dust-filtered sunset over Santiago Peak.  Another —— day in Paradise!


Jasamine, Coast to Coast


Out on my bike this morning for my daily ride, I came upon a girl just leaning her bicycle against a highway sign.  Suspecting possible bike trouble, I stopped to offer help.  She was talking on the phone…bluetooth earbuds.  She politely signed off and greeted me.  Her name…Jasamine.  She informed me she was from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, cycling coast-to-coast from St. Augustine, Florida, to San Jose, California.  She works for a bike shop in Minneapolis, and had pedaled about 1700 miles so far.  Just had to spend a week in Austin to wait out the snow, and after two days in Marathon, was headed through Big Bend NP, then on to Terlingua, TX.  I told her she should stop at Stillwell’s Ranch, RV Park, and General Store for the night and catch the free concert of cowboy music put on by the Whitfords in the Hallie Stillwell Hall of Fame Museum every night until March.  She said she would head that way, and with that, she was off.  What a great adventure.