Monday, November 1, 2010

you do not need expensive gear to make great photos !!!

I don't know how many times I've been told the same thing over and over again, when certain pessimists critique the shots that I've captured over the years.

"Great shot, BUT, I know if I had that type of camera I would be able to do it just like you."

Don't get me wrong, I'm far from mad when told this. It's almost a compliment. A compliment because deep down inside, I know they can't. This is not to say that these people do not have the potential to make awesome photos, I think it is more of a jealousy issue. Hey, I have to believe that many have the potential gift or I would not be writing a blog about teaching others to make great photos. From time to time, I've told these people that I can create replicas of my shots with a cardboard disposable camera from the pharmacy. Probably not the nicest thing to say, but sometimes I just can't hold back.

So, my friends, today I will try to put that old jab to rest. Yes, in my posts, the dollar amount of the gear used is typically way out of a recreational shooter's price range. I do understand, trust me. It hurts anytime I buy new equipment. Even the stuff that I feel should be inexpensive, never is. On the other hand, the pro gear does have specific advantages that point and shoot cameras do not. Without further ado, time to put the jabbers back in their corners. Pessimists world wide; you can make awesome photos with any camera!

The Situation

No, not the character from the horrifying reality show, but the situation that was presented to me on this fine day in Niagara Falls, the Canadian side of course. Why, you ask. As this was our (wifey and I) first trip to Niagara, we did lots of research. Hands down, research stated that you absolutely, 100%, without a doubt, must stay on the Canadian side. Boy, how true it was. There is big difference in everything, across the river. Views, hotels, restaurants, activities, nightlife, you name it, it's on the Canadian side. The bottom line is, I wanted to move there permanently, but the other half would not agree to that.

We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Fallsview hotel in Ontario, Canada. Since this week was a special getaway, we had one of the suites. It was the 7th floor, corner room, windows aimed directly at the falls. It was an amazing view. Room was huge, with a king sized bed, living room area, top notch furniture, jacuzzi and last but not least, a window IN the shower, facing the falls. Rather than simply moving to the fine country, I now wanted to move into the shower. Needless to say, many days I came out of the shower looking like a giant raisin. Not a pretty sight.

After planning our agenda for the week, I also had planned on some major shooting. Along with my regular gear, I had also packed two point and shoot cameras. The reason for this? These cameras are small and lightweight, no lugging around bags of gear while dealing with crowds and awkward shooting positions. The point and shoot that I was using was a Nikon Coolpix E7600, the older of the two small cameras. I chose this one for one reason. If it was damaged by the elements, I would suffer minimal punishment. I mention the elements due to the fact that there is a constant rain in Niagara. The rain isn't falling from the clouds, it's coming from the falls. Anyone that has been to Niagara knows what I'm talking about. From a distance, there is a constant mist floating around both sets of falls. The larger of the two is the Horseshoe Falls, on the Canadian side. As you approach the falls, this mist gets you wet, and not just a mist of wet. It's as if you are walking into a constant drizzle. There is no avoiding this if you are downwind. I mentioned before that my regular gear is on the slightly expensive side. If I had to sacrifice one body for a great shot, I was going with the oldest of our cameras. Sure my heavy gear is weather resistant, but I was not about to test it out if not necessary. Maybe I'm the pessimist.

Before heading out for this shoot, I had to quickly familiarize myself with this camera. I've never used it, and was not about to fire in full auto mode. That is one of the secrets to shooting pro level photos with a small point and shoot. Learn to shoot manually and it will make the world of difference. If you decide to shoot in auto, you are now letting the camera do all of the work. Creative control is lost and you are at the mercy of the camera's brain. So, learn how to control that equipment and reap the rewards.

It must have been day two of the vacation/assignment, and we were headed to Journey Behind the Falls, a tunnel that is approximately halfway down the horseshoe and spans about halfway around, behind the actual waterfall. An elevator takes you down and opens to this eerie, dark tunnel. I have to say, I was scared. Why? You have about 100 feet of rock above your head and water is dripping right through this manmade cavern. Water traveling from a raging river onto my head. Are you getting the hint? One powerhouse of nature and little manmade tunnel, leaking, recipe for disaster if you ask me. There are a few viewing stations along the way to the end of the hall. You actually are about ten feet behind the water, staring out from behind the monster. The viewing station is probably a 12'x12' opening. Amazing is an understatement. You don't actually see any daylight. You only see and hear the power of the water falling from overhead. I was not spending tons of time watching as I feared tons of rocks falling onto my head. So from there I headed to the outer viewing platform.

The outer platform is quite a sight. Again, you are approximately halfway down the falls, maybe a hundred feet and not far from the actual edge of the stream. Here, you are getting very wet. Luckily the tourists are given plastic poncho's to minimize how drenched you would actually get. I kept the camera under the hooded trashbag throughout most of this adventure. Now being outside, I was ready to capture the shot I was there for.

The Shot

There were a few obstacles in my way of getting this shot. Number one, the mist. The mist was getting on the lens and as a result, I had to continuously dry off the front of the camera. No big deal. Annoying? Definitely. I was pleased that the camera was functioning without error, even though I know moisture had to be getting inside. I wanted to get this shoot over as soon as possible or my luck may run out. I would have been really upset if the gear crapped out on me before getting the shot. Obstacle number two was the tourists. I know, I know, you are all saying to yourself, "Michael, aren't you a toursist too?". True to some extent. I wrote earlier that this was vacation/assignment. Although I was there to have fun, I was also commissioned to get some specific shots. So I had every right to get annoyed by the tourists, I was working. Anyway, I had to get the right spot, the right angle, the right shot (without people constantly bumping into me). Once I had everything lined up to begin shooting, I held my place there firmly as others try to squeeze in.

As stated, the little guy was in full manual mode, as full as I could get it anyway. If there was a manual focus, I had no idea how to use that. The functions that I was concerned with are as follows and in no particular order; ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture.

For the most part, I like to shoot in very low ISOs. The quick explanation of ISO is, how sensitive the image sensor is to light. The more sensitive you make it (high ISO), the more noise (grain) will result in the final image. There are situations that the noise is favorable, but that is not for today's discussion. Sorry to disappoint. Anyway, This Nikon was able to get to a nice low ISO 50. Being that it was midday, I would have no trouble getting a decent exposure shooting this low.

Next, I wanted to find an appropriate aperture (f/stop). I dialed that in to a slightly wide f/4.8. Most shooters would hastily knock that aperture way down to f/11 or f/22, to guarantee no bokeh (shallow depth of field or blur). Instead, I took my time to decide this number. I knew that I may get some slight blur towards the far end of the falls and that was good. It was not like I was shooting at F/1.4, which would blur out lots of the frame. I wanted the sharpness to drop a bit in the back to give a dreamy feel to the scene. Going with this aperture also allows my shutter speed to be faster as compared to being stopped way down to the f/22 range.

Last exposure setting is the shutter speed. Having my ISO and aperture dialed in, I now had to balance the shutter speed to obtain proper exposure. As I mentioned, I wanted a higher shutter speed. The higher speed would freeze the movement of the falling water. I could have opted for slow shutter and had that water appear as if it were an icy mist, as seen in my earlier post  [click me]. I guess I just wasn't feeling that style on that afternoon. Or maybe I thought that if I tried, tourists would bump into the tripod, making the shot impossible. Whatever the case may have been, I wanted to freeze the shot with a fast shutter speed and I did this at 1/1250th of a second. Exposure was perfect.

Finally, I had to dial in the perfect focal length. I wanted to capture as much of the horseshoe as possible, without losing the sky or getting others in frame. Luckily, I was able to keep it pretty wide at 7.8mm. On this particular point and shoot camera, 7.8mm is the equivalent of 38mm on a 35mm film camera. I popped a few at this length and a few a little closer. Ultimately this shot was the winner.

Post Processing

This shot required minimal editing. Shocked?! Yes, I said it, minimal editing from a shot that came from a small point and shoot, pocket sized camera. I know, all of the doubters, from the beginning, were thinking, "great shot without his normal gear, but probably tons of post." Have some faith. I wouldn't have said it was possible shoot awesome shots with that type of gear if it were untrue.

I usually begin my corrections in Adobe Camera RAW, unfortunately, I did not know how to put that camera in RAW mode, if it even had it. No worries, I shot in jpeg, a crime, yes, but in this case it was unavoidable.

I opened directly in Photoshop and corrected in there. Again, not much needed. the only extras added were a bit of sharpening and some more global blur for a dreamlike feel. To accomplish the blur, I duplicated the layer, went to Filter, Blur, Gaussain Blur and opened that dialogue box. I want a light blur, so I drag the slider up to 15 pixels and choose OK. This will look unacceptable but fear not. Drag the opacity of that layer down to 25% and BAM!!! The money shot. I then flatten the layer save and call it a day.

To sum it all up

First and foremost, Niagara, Canadian side, AWESOMENESS!

Shooters worldwide, fear not that you do not have bankrolls of cake (cash) to buy the next best piece of gear on the market. If you have a camera and you can take control of its functions, than you are in good shape. Hey, on the flip side of that coin, if I threw my DSLR into auto mode, than I too could be a crappy photographer. It's all about controlling your gear and not letting it control you. Learn how the different settings effect the final image, experiment and read (this blog of course). Most of all, get out there and shoot.

Now, pessimists, still don't believe I can't make a great shot with a cardboard throwaway camera? I didn't think so.