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Notes and Comments - Tips and Recommendations


Some Photographic Tips

Bryce Canyon
My best photographic tip: In order to take great pictures, go to places where you can't help but take great pictures. Then work your way down from there... :)

Right. Like you need another expert on the Internet telling you what to do. Well, I'm not going to do that. These are some broad, general topics based on what I see in a lot of pictures.

General Tips

Learn how to use your camera. I'm actually serious about that. Even the most basic of today's digital cameras can do more than what even the most advanced cameras of 20 years ago were capable of. (Computers versus black magic analog-mechanical voodoory...) Real-time previews, hundreds of exposures per memory card, automatic white balance, plus hosts of other features.

Read your owner's manual. (Same goes for your car, but that's someone else's website.) You really don't even have to read it, just learn the basic operation and more advanced capabilities (like changing exposure values and special lighting conditions), and skim through all the tricks your camera can do. And keep a copy with your camera. There's nothing worse than getting a flashing exclamation point, and not knowing what the problem is. (Generally, anything flashing in your preview screen is a problem...)

Keep all your images in the best quality and largest size you can. You can always make a big image smaller, but it's impossible to make a small image big. The information just isn't there, and memory cards are cheap these days. I also always shoot Raw+JPEG. There are arguments that you really don't need the raw file, but I've been saved a few times when I needed that little bit of extra information. With fast processors and fast memory cards, it's much less painful than it was just a few years ago. Did I mention memory cards are cheap these days? (Note that more basic cameras don't allow you to save a raw file.)

Figure out how to manipulate the EV. One of the most important settings you should figure out how to manipulate, is how to adjust your Exposure Value (EV). If the part of the image you really want is in the shadows, and a light source is throwing off the exposure (for instance, a streetlight) you can fix the problem to a certain extent by adjusting the EV up or down. Since what you see on the preview screen is the image you're going to capture, make full use of being able to adjust the light levels.

The EV is a dial on more advanced cameras, it might be in the menus on more inexpensive ones. (On very basic cameras, it might not exist at all.)

Along the same lines, remember to use the ND (Neutral Density) filter on very bright days or in bright environments, like at the beach and on sand. It's the equivalent of putting on sunglasses, but doesn't affect or introduce any color.

Use HDR for difficult (stationary) shots. If your camera has the ability to bracket your exposures by a couple of stops, consider using HDR to overcome the lack of density of a digital camera sensor. All of my Canons would flash parts of the display where highlight burnouts would occur. I could take the picture, but there would be no color or detail in those areas. I could reduce the burnouts, but then lose detail in the darker areas of the image, like the shadows. HDR overcomes these problems by combining the different exposures. The bane of HDR is anything that moves. People, clouds, water...

Go do a shoot before a major event like a vacation. Make sure the camera works like you think it should (size, resolution, focusing, etc.) including setting the correct date and time. Format all the cards you intend to use in the camera. Charge all the batteries you intend to take and make sure they keep a charge. (You should have at least two batteries.)

Sync all the camera's times. If you plan to have more than one working camera (for instance, each person using their own camera, using the picture function on the camcorder, etc.), sync all your camera's clocks. When it's time to collate the images, you can then just sort on date and time, and all your images will come out in order. Also, never change the clock from your home time zone. Many times you won't know exactly when you've changed time zones, and most of the time you'll forget. :-)

Learn how to use a good photo editor. I use Photoshop, because that's what I know. You don't need to use an editor as complicated as Photoshop, but you do need to know the basics of how to resize, crop and possibly fix a picture after you're at home. (Chances are, an editor came with your camera that can do at least that much.) It's not rocket science, but it does make a huge difference in how your pictures look...
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Shooting at night

You really need a tripod. (You can read all about what I use in Imaging.) In crowded areas (like in theme parks), and you should be aware of where your tripod legs are. They don't have to be fully swung out. If you can keep the tripod legs spread to the width of your body, and keeping it close, you'll minimize a disaster between your tripod and fellow guest.

You can also use a monopod, but a monopod doesn't replace a tripod in the photography world. For starters, unless you can plant the monopod into the ground, you'll have to brace it against something. You can still move in every direction except up and down, and those 1/2 to 1 second exposures will come out blurry. The camera mount on a monopod usually doesn't tilt, so you have to get a tiltable head if you want the camera level as you brace the monopod against something.

On the other hand, a monopod is probably better than a tripod for video in a lot of circumstances, day or night. Video requires movement. I find I use my tripod much like a monopod when videotaping parades...

On the other hand (yes, I have three hands), I have successfully used hand rails, garbage cans, rock ledges, even putting the camera on the ground for long exposures. I must add that a good optical stabilization is amazing for what it does. I've had successful handheld shot up to 1/4 second.

Even with a rest or tripod of some sort, you don't want to press the shutter button for long exposures. As Charles Bronson said in The Magnificent Seven, "Squeeze, don't push." (Okay, so it's not an exact quote.) On a lightweight tripod, even this isn't enough.

Previous to my G7, I would have used the infra-red remote control that came with the camera. Canon cheaped out and discontinued that feature. So now, I set a shutter delay of 2 seconds, press the shutter release and let go. By the time two seconds have passed, any shake has stopped, and have gotten some pretty good results.
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Composition is everything

Okay, it's mostly everything. Sometimes, it's about capturing a moment, and moments can be fleeting. Learn how to frame a shot quickly. By the time you turn the camera on, play with the zoom and take the picture, the moment could be gone.

There are times I'll take a shot as the camera turns on just to capture something in an image, then do a better job at composing the picture if the fleeting moment still exists. For instance, when a big ol' bear decides to saunter down a nearby walkway. Of course, you should try not to become a video on YouTube of someone being mauled by the local wildlife. HAhahaha...

On the other hand, it might be worth waiting for clouds to move (in or out of frame), or witnessing the entire sunset over the mountains for interesting lighting changes.

Learn to use the entire frame. There's nothing more boring than someone's face in the middle of a picture with nothing in the background. (Unless you're specifically taking portraits or at family gatherings, which are by definition... Well, never mind.) They remind me of mug shots, only sometimes the people are smiling. Don't just look through the viewfinder or preview screen, but look at the real world itself to see what should (and sometimes shouldn't) be in frame.

You should also decide what the subject of the photo is. There might be more than one. If there is, you should give both equal weight, by making sure one isn't blocking the other. For instance, if you're at Mount Rushmore, do you really want your wife/husband/friend/whatever blocking out Jefferson and TR with Washington and Lincoln coming out of his ears? Well, maybe you do. But if that's not your aim, put the person off to the side or below. There are many times I'll actually want someone in the frame to give a sense of scale.
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Photographing Theme Parks

Much of this can be applied to any crowed place, but I'm talking about theme parks in general.

One of the biggest problem at most theme parks, other than the other guests, is how close everything is. The "streets" are really quite narrow, and generally you'll want a wide angle more than a telephoto. My G1X has a 28-112mm (35mm equiv) telephoto, and found I appreciate the wide-angle more than the dislike the lack of telephoto.

You should also be aware that the consequences of shooting wide means you might have to spend more time in post-processing correcting for perspective and barrel distortion in close quarter shooting of vertical lines, like buildings.

For goodness sake, think about the people around you. For instance, if you're on a dark ride or area, make sure your flash is off, and your preview screen isn't bothering the people behind you. If your camera doesn't have a viewfinder, you can keep the preview screen mostly closed or mostly covered so you won't annoy those who don't share your... enthusiasm. (I have a picture of some idiot taping a nighttime parade with an 8" tablet. Do you think she annoyed the people behind her? Of course she did.)

Be very careful about using tripods at night, since theme park guests aren't very observant about where they're going in the first place, especially children. Having someone knock over your camera and trip and fall at the same time won't be a good time for anyone.
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Photographing National Parks (and the West in general)

The National Park venues in the West are different from the ones in the East. Most of those in the East were created to preserve United States history. The minority are the geologic parks, the ones that preserve and protect an environment. (Great Smoky Mountain, Congaree Swamp, etc.) But most of the park venues can be shot with a wide to moderate zoom.

The opposite seems to be true in the West. There are a lot of historical sites, but it's the huge expanse of the big Western Parks that has a lot of the draw for me, and millions of other tourists. Glacier, Grand Teton/Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, they're all larger than you think. I'm not sure you can get away without having some sort of strong zoom range on a camera. In other words, a camera with a fixed prime lens will work, but it will limit your ability to capture the parks. As big as a mountain is, the big National Parks are enormous and can dwarf a mountain range. My 35mm range of 35mm to 210mm worked well. If you shoot a lot of wildlife, a longer lens might be desirable, but handholding such a lens becomes problematic. You will probably need a sturdy tripod as standard equipment.

My current camera only gives me half that range, so I may have to get a camera with a decent zoom as a companion the next time I go out West. I was able to live with the G12 zoom, so I'd probably be able to live with the G1X. (My camcorder has a 10x lens and has a 6MP still capture capability (and I've used it), but the image quality is inferior to my other cameras.)

Ruin your day
A poster in Grand Teton National Park.
Don't be stupid. Mother Nature will kill without a second thought, without remorse, and show no sympathy after it's done. Wet rocks are slippery, and falling into a river trying to get that shot (or posing your friends and family) and going over a 500 foot waterfall isn't unknown. Google it. Simply tripping or slipping next to a 1000 foot cliff won't end well for you or your camera. So before you even consider taking a shot, make sure you're in a safe position to do so.

Wildlife as a general rule (and I may or may not include people here) should be considered dangerous. Some are accustomed to people, but that doesn't mean you can go up to one and pet it. I've gotten some great shots of a lot of wildlife, but always from a safe spot, mostly inside the car.

Be careful driving through the parks. Wildlife, both human and otherwise can clog the roads. (If you ever see a gaggle of people pulled off to the side of the road, there's probably some wildlife present. These places are especially dangerous, since humans in these situations are especially stupid.) In places like Yellowstone, it's not uncommon to be stopped by Buffalo Jams, where a herd will just cross a road, cars be damned. (An author in a book on Minnesota described why hitting a moose with a car was so bad. You take out its legs, and a thousand pound mass comes at you through the windshield. Yep, it'll ruin your day...)

Finally, pay attention to your driving. You can't video tape and gawk and possibly have your full attention on the road.
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