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December 18, 2012

Photography can be completely mystifying . . .

. . . to the average person when they first undertake to practice it; it certainly was for me. Fortunately, I developed an interest in it in an era where the process of learning it is relatively cost-free compared to the days when you had to actually buy film and pay to have it processed before finding out that you really suck at it. Had I started in the age of Kodachrome, I have absolutely no doubt that I would have taken up something far less expensive as a hobby, like yacht racing or polo.

But, thanks to the advent of digital photography, if you stick your finger in front of the lens or cut off a person's head in a shot you may never have a chance to take again, you can see the results instantly, make the necessary adjustments right there on the spot and call do-over. Long gone are the days when photography was limited to a few people with endless patience, perseverance, talent and money. Virtually anyone can now afford to experiment, fail and experiment again now that "film" is essentially free and disposable.

There is a downside to the near-complete democratization of photography, of course. It's called Instagram -- the web app all the kids are crazy about these days that allows you to upload and manipulate photos of teenagers making duck-faces, adding a warm sepia tone to give them some real, retro-artistic pizzazz.

Still, the fact that photography is vastly more accessible now than it's ever been is a thing to be embraced for the simple fact that it removes a financial barrier that would otherwise discourage talented people from taking it up as a pursuit. That's not to say that photography has become cheap, by any means. Once taken up, it can become an all-consuming obsession -- the newest DSLR body, that must-have lens, lighting rigs, flashes, a good tripod, etc. When you take up photography and plunk down several hundred dollars for a camera body and two-lens kit, you'll soon discover that even though it's useful for just about any kind of photography you might need it for, it's never enough.


But, the mistake most people make is in believing that you must have the latest, greatest equipment in order to take great pictures. And that just isn't so. Great photos can be taken with a relatively cheap point-and-shoot when used within the parameters around which it was designed. The only thing you get from more expensive DSLR cameras is a larger image sensor that allows for large, poster-sized prints and a set of features that give you the control needed to be more creative. But, the average shutter bug rarely prints anything larger than 8X10, and just about any modern point-and-shoot is capable of that.

The key to becoming a good photographer, though, is a willingness to get away from the fully-automated mode that most people tend to rely on and use the various priority modes available: Aperture priority (Av), Shutter priority (Tv), Sensitivity priority (Sv) and, in some cases, Shutter/Aperture (TAv). (The somewhat counter-intuitive "T" in Shutter priority mode stands for "time", and the "v" in all modes stands for "value". I'll get more in-depth in discussing these modes a little later in the post.)

One mistake beginning photographers tend to make in choosing a camera is in assuming that the higher the number of pixels, the better the camera. For several years, camera makers have chased after more megapixels as a selling point. And, to be sure, it's nice to have lots and lots of pixels available when making large prints. Having all that image resolution makes for nice detail. But, unless you're planning to exhibit massive, art-gallery sized prints, just about any DSLR body is capable of producing wonderfully detailed photos up to 8X10 -- certainly any camera produced today is capable of that and more.

But, the crucial factor in producing better images (aside from good technique and aesthetic sensibility, of course) rests in the size of the sensor and not he number of megapixels that have been crammed into it. That's why my 6.1 megapixel Pentax K100D Super produces smoother, more detailed photos than just about any 12 megapixel point-and-shoot camera. In fact, very first DSLR camera was a 5 megapixel Olympus E20n I bought used on eBay for $130 after I discovered that the 10 megapixel Nikon point-and-shoot just wasn't capable of reliably producing the kinds of images I was trying to shoot at the time (frozen-action drag racing shots).

While the Nikon offered a setting that allowed for frozen-action photos (an "Action" or "Sports" mode indicated by a depiction of a running human figure on the mode dial), it's shortcoming -- as is the case with most point-and-shoot cameras -- was in its slow reaction time, known as shutter lag. It's damn near impossible to capture a drag racer launching at the starting line when there's half a second between the time you press the shutter button and the time the shutter actually trips. By then, the car is typically well down the track and has settled back onto all four wheels after its initial wheel-stand, and there's no interesting detail like the wrinkled sidewalls on the rear tires that occurs when accelerating off the starting line, so you end up with nothing more than a picture of a car on a drag strip. And that's not too compelling.

With DSLR cameras, you have near-instantaneous shutter response so that the only real challenge is to accurately time the launch. That's not easy to do at first, but with some practice, you tend to develop a pretty good sense for it and can nail the shot just about every time. And this is where the Shutter priority (Tv) mode is useful, as that's the best way to ensure that you freeze the action. In Tv mode, you set the desired shutter speed (I usually go with 1/500th of a second or higher for drag racing) and the camera automatically adjusts the aperture setting and light sensitivity to get the proper exposure for the light conditions. A faster shutter speed will freeze faster action (and also help to eliminate the blur caused from camera-shake).

You can also use shutter priority to create other effects in action shots. For example, if you're pretty good at panning (following the subject and locking focus on it), you can capture the sense of action by having the subject in sharp focus while the background exhibits motion blur. That, to me at least, is considerably more challenging than simply freezing the action. Other photographers have much better panning technique than I have, but with some practice, I've been able to achieve it on occasion.

Now, if you're mostly interested in still photography, you can use the Aperture priority mode to create effects to help you isolate the subject from the background, or alternatively capture the entire scene in sharp focus by manipulating the size of the lens's aperture -- or the size of the opening through which light passes to the sensor. Aperture priority photography can be confusing at first as the settings would seem to be the exact opposite of what you'd expect; the higher the number on the aperture setting (commonly referred to as f-stops), the smaller the aperture.

For example, my favorite lens at the moment is my Pentax SMC FA 50mm f/1.4 auto-focus prime lens. The "f/1.4" indicates the maximum aperture setting for the lens is 1.4 -- meaning that the aperture is wide-open. Alternatively, the minimum aperture setting f/22 -- which is the smallest possible opening the aperture can be set to. The purpose of manipulating the aperture is to control the amount of light that passes through the lens to the camera's image sensor.

Also, by manipulating the camera's aperture setting, you can control the depth of field in your images. That's just photography jargon for the size of the area in the image that is in focus as opposed to the area that is blurred -- often referred to as the focal plane. The key thing to remember in that regard is that the wider the aperture setting (i.e., the lower the f-stop number), the shallower the depth of field. For example, a shot of a flower taken with an aperture value of f/1.4 will have have the flower itself (or a small area of it) in sharp focus while the rest is blurred and extremely soft. On the other hand, if you photograph a flower with a higher aperture value, more of the total area of the image will be in focus and the entire image will be more detailed. Landscapes typically have greater depth of field than portraits and closeups.

That can be useful for a number of reasons -- for instance, it can be used to isolate a subject from a cluttered or bland background, or alternatively, to lend a sort of dreamy quality to the shot. Some photographers refer to that dreamy quality of a blurred background as "bokeh" while others consider the term pretentious twaddle and refer to it simply as "blurred background". I actually like the term, myself, because I'm pretentious and I like the notion of having a word to describe the aesthetic quality of the blur. It's a quality that makes some lenses preferable to others as some lenses render a clunky or "busy" kind of blur while others lend a more smooth, creamy-looking appearance to the background.

When shooting in Aperture priority mode (again, Av), you choose the aperture value -- in the case of the lens I'm currently using most frequently, anywhere from f/1.4 to f/22 -- and the camera will adjust the shutter speed and the light sensitivity to ensure proper exposure. As you've no doubt begun to put together by now, the three different values (Aperture, Shutter and Sensitivity) are all interlinked in producing proper exposures. Essentially, they are all means by which you control the amount of light that passes through to the image sensor.

The final common priority mode available on DSLR cameras (and some point-and-shoots) is Sensitivity, which as the nomenclature suggests, determines the light sensitivity of the image sensor. The value of the sensitivity is referred to as the ISO setting; the lower the ISO setting, the lower the light sensitivity. On a clear, bright, sunny day you typically want to shoot at a low ISO setting to avoid overexposing the image: ISO 100, or so. Though, you may want to bump it up just a bit in order to allow the camera to adjust the shutter speed higher in order to capture and freeze objects in motion.

Higher ISO settings, however, will allow you to capture images in low-light and nighttime conditions without using flash. But, while the ability to capture images in extremely low light is awfully handy at times (especially if you're like me and hate using flash unless it's absolutely necessary), it does have its drawbacks. As is the case in film photography, using a higher sensitivity setting has a tendency to obscure detail in images with digital noise -- the functional equivalent of "graininess" in highly sensitive film. Unfortunately, though, where film grain can often lend a nice effect to photographs, digital noise tends to be a lot less aesthetically pleasing.

On the other hand, you can bump up the camera's ISO setting in low light situations so as to ensure that the camera gets the proper exposure while the camera adjusts its shutter speed high enough to avoid the blur caused by camera shake -- a very common problem in photos shot hand-held in low light. Unless you're using a camera with a good shake-reduction system, it's difficult to take sharp photos with a shutter speed of less than 1/50th of a second. That may sound like a very short amount of time, but unless you have rock-steady hands or use a tripod, trying to capture a sharp image with a any slower a shutter value will likely result in blurred and/or streaked images as a result of almost imperceptible movement in your hands upon triggering the shutter button. That's just how it is.

The great thing about the pace of innovation in digital photography is that you can get a used DSLR with all of the above capabilities (some better than others, obviously) for a song. The Pentax K100D Super I mentioned above cost me a paltry $100 -- albeit in very used condition. While it's not exactly a world-beater in low-light conditions, in good light it produces some absolutely wonderful images. The same can be said of my current favorite, the Pentax K20D, which I got in beautiful condition for a whopping $250. Not too shabby for a camera that listed at over $1300 when it was released just a few years ago.

So, if you're on a budget and would like to have a nice DSLR as a starter camera, there are some wonderful bargains to be found that will enable you to learn without sending you deep into hock. If you don't quite trust eBay or any of the other auction sites, you can always keep an eye on your local Craigslist or online classifieds for deals on cameras that you can actually hold in your hands and examine before taking the plunge.

Fair warning: Once you've purchased a camera body and a kit lens, if you find that you're taking a shine to photography, you've only just begun spending your hard-earned cash. Suddenly, you'll find yourself coveting lenses, lenses and still more lenses. My first new DSLR purchase was the Pentax K-x two-lens kit with 18-55mm and 50-200mm zooms. It took about a week before I decided that I needed a longer zoom lens, at which point I went out and purchased a 70-300mm zoom in order to get better shots of birds on the wing.

And if you think camera bodies can be expensive, you'll want to be sure you're sitting down when you start pricing lenses, which often sell for multiple thousands of dollars. The good news, though, is that you don't really have to spend a lot of money to get a lens that produces good photos. The 70-300mm zoom I bought set me back a little over $200, tax-included, and I've managed to capture some wonderful, detailed images with it. The key is in knowing the lens's limitations and operating within them.

Also, the availability of cheap, high-quality glass is one of the reasons I decided to make my first new DSLR purchase a Pentax. While it's a very small fry in the imaging industry, Pentax carries the benefit of being compatible with every lens ever made to fit Pentax cameras, going back to its early film days. So there are literally millions of second-hand lenses on the market that can be had insanely cheap. And we're not talking about flimsy plastic junk, but high quality, well-constructed lenses with absolutely wonderful optics.

For example, you can buy an SMC (super multi-coated) Pentax 50mm f/2 prime lens on eBay for well under $50 at any time. And if you don't mind the lack of auto-focus and electronic aperture control contacts, you can use it to make some of the sharpest images you'll ever see with a wonderful, dreamy quality to the "bokeh". And, if you're like me, once you get a taste of using a nice prime lens (that is, a non-zoom, fixed focal-length lens), you'll fall in love.

If you should give photography a try and decide that you enjoy it enough to pursue it seriously, you'll soon learn that there's nothing quite like shooting with a good, high-quality prime lens. And the fact is, there's no better way to learn photography than using an old, manual-focus prime lens. You'll discover that it's better to get closer to the subject you're shooting than zooming in on it from a couple-hundred feet away, or more. As one photographer whose name I can't recall once put it, "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not standing close enough." And, as others have said, it's always best to "zoom with your feet."

As I mentioned above, there is a ridiculous amount of K-mount (Pentax) lenses available on the market to be had dirt cheap. Just a few weeks ago, I picked up four Sears-brand K-mount lenses (a 50mm f/2, a 135mm f/2.8, an 80-200mm f/4 manual zoom and a 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom) for a total of $50 -- including the camera. They're not the greatest lenses ever made, to be sure. But, they are capable of producing stellar images in practiced hands.

Of course, you'll want to bear in mind that I'm far from what anyone would call a great photographer. I've only been at it for a few years, starting in the spring of 2009 with a Canon Power Shot point-and-shoot I borrowed from my father to take photos at a drag strip in Sikeston, MO. But, in that short period of time, I've learned a great deal -- albeit nowhere near everything I need to know. And in that time, I've discovered how therapeutic it is to have an outlet that takes me away from all the crap I tend to dwell on when writing for my own blog, as well as the personal challenges that arise in day-to-day life.

In fact, I have an entire series of photos called "Front Porch Photography" that I started when I was taking care of my mother in her final days and wasn't able to stray more than a few hundred feet from the house in the event of an emergency, or to simply be on hand to give her meds to keep her comfortable. Having some kind of outlet to take my mind off the sadness was absolutely essential to my own mental health.

And, as the Chief Ewok has been keen to point out, conservatives have been terribly absent in the area of cultural pursuits for decades now, to the point where we have all but conceded that crucial part of the American scene to the left. Maybe photography isn't exactly what he's talking about; it's certainly less influential that movies, television and literature. Still, it is an avocation that contributes to the overall culture in a small but significant way, and it doesn't hurt to engage that culture wherever you can. I have established friendships with liberals who come to my blog because they appreciate my photography. And, while I'm hesitant to claim the mantle myself, others have referred to me as an artist -- which is truly flattering, and certainly can't hurt when it comes to being a conservative voice actively engaged in cultural pursuits.

Finally, I'd like to thank Ace and the cobs for giving me yet another opportunity to showcase my talents (for lack of a better term) on the single best conservative blog on the internet. And I hope I haven't irretrievably bored the 'Rons & 'Ettes with this well-nigh interminable post/tutorial. If any of you have found this useful in any way and would like to contact me for whatever reason, you can do so at one of the email addresses listed in the sidebar over at my blog, The Damn Dirty RINO.

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posted by Damn Dirty RINO at 07:03 PM

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