Category Archives: Photography Fundamentals

Thom Hogan’s Nikon Complete Guides

Late summer 2001, I swapped my beloved Nikon F5 film camera for a Nikon D1x. While I had been dabbling in digital using a Nikon Coolpix 990 compact digital camera, the D1x was my first digital SLR. I had been keeping up with the Nikon DSLR developments through Thom Hogan’s website, and decided it was time to make the switch.

Of course, the fundamentals of using a camera (aperture, shutter speed, focusing, etc.) were the same between film and digital. But digital brought so many other tools and techniques to learn (white balance, instant review, histograms, blinking highlight warnings, etc.), I decided to take a workshop with Thom so I could start to master using a DSLR. It was a wise choice, as I came away from that workshop with a good working knowledge of my new camera.

Well, Thom didn’t stop with workshops. Since the earliest days of Nikon DSLRs, Thom has written a series of incomparable users manuals, which he justly calls ”Complete Guides”. I download the fully searchable PDF e-books, then read them (and refer to them) on my iPad. They thoroughly explain every button, switch, wheel, and menu item in unsurpassed detail. If that’s all they did, they would be worth the read.

But they do much more. Thom suggests specific settings, and recommends against others, based on his long-time real-world use of the cameras. But, again, he does even more than that. For each recommendation, Thom discusses how and why those settings will affect your photography. These discussions allow you to understand what each function or setting does, why it does it, and how you can best use it. If you own a Nikon DSLR, whether FX or DX, I cannot recommend Thom’s guides highly enough.

  • Even though I’ve been shooting with a pair of Nikon D810′s for over a year (and with a fairly similar D800E before that), I’ve been looking forward to his D810 book all along. Well, it’s now here. Even if you’re an experienced Nikon owner, if you own a D810 (or any other Nikon DSLR), you owe it to yourself to buy and read Thom’s Guides.

    ThomHoganNikonD810ManualCover

    Here’s a link to his D810/D810A Guide: http://www.dslrbodies.com/books/bythom-complete-guides-/nikon-d810-guide.html. Any of his guides can be accessed with the link to his home page: http://www.bythom.com/.

    ©2015 Tom Vadnais Photography

  • Digital Camera Sensor Resolution and Print Sizes

    After a presentation to the 4th annual Western North Carolina Foto Fest in Montreat, NC, in September 2013, a couple participants asked me to post my two slides showing the resolutions of digital camera sensors, and effect of resolution on print sizes.

    The first slide is reproduced here:

    Typical Image Sizes in Pixels

    Typical Image Sizes in Pixels

    As you can see, a 1.0 megapixel (mp) camera has more resolution than the old NTSC television and more than most PC displays used to have. You might be surprised that a 3.0 mp sensor has more resolution than HDTV! Even more shocking, perhaps, is that the incredible iPad with Retina display has a resolution of 2048×1536 pixels—-exactly what you could capture with a 3.0 mp camera.

    So what in the world do we need a 12 mp or 24 mp, or goodness knows, a 36 mp sensor for? That’s where the second slide comes in:

    Print Sizes at 240 dpi

    Print Sizes at 240 dpi

    This chart shows the native print sizes you can make at 240 dpi from the various digital camera sensor resolutions. (Note: I’m not suggesting that you always print at 240 dpi, but that resolution was chosen as a constant to make a comparison. Selecting the appropriate print resolution is a topic unto itself.) Continue reading

    Is It Equipment, Photographer, or Both?

    It all started innocently enough when a friend e-mailed our group of photography friends asking if he should get a Nikon D600 or D800, and why. Since most of our group happens to shoot Nikon, it was a sensible thing to ask.

    For my personal work, I currently use a D800E, and briefly owned a D600 (which is a fantastic camera, but since it’s so close in size to the D800E, I stuck with just the D800E), so I replied with what I saw were the pros and cons of each. Of course, one of the main differences is the greater resolution of the D800, and I mentioned that higher resolution might allow him to create more detailed images, depending on what he was most interested in photographing. But one of the working pros in our group (who currently shoots Canon, but I understand is in therapy for it—-just kidding) took umbrage and said it was the photographer, not the gear, and we were concentrating on all the wrong things.

    The ensuing flurry of e-mails has been a really interesting discussion, with no right or wrong, and no definitive answer. But the topic of the importance of good equipment is certainly worth thinking about for yourself. Continue reading

    Comfort Zones & Proper Equipment – Part Two

    (Note: Part One is just below this post.)

    When we left off, I discovered I didn’t have the right lenses nor the right techniques for capturing birds and critters. But that’s not the end of the story. Hence, Part Two.

    As I briefly mentioned in Part One, I also quickly discovered a geared tripod head can be next to worthless for moving subjects. My usual head is an Arca-Swiss C1 Cube, which I absolutely love. Its extreme precision results from its fine-tooth gears that separately control up-and-down (pitch) and side-to-side (roll) motions.

    Here’s the beauty of a geared head. Let’s say something’s perfectly aligned from edge to edge in the viewfinder, but is a tad low. Rotating the proper knob will raise the front of the lens without affecting the side to side tilt at all.

    Sunrise at Anhinga Trail

    By contrast, loosening the tension on a ball head allows it to move freely in any direction, and may reposition the camera in a way you don’t want. To add insult to injury, many ball heads shift by even the tiniest amount when they are locked back down. You finally get the image perfectly aligned in the viewfinder, but then it moves when you lock the ball head down. Frustrating.

    What makes the geared head so perfect for stationary subjects makes it completely worthless for moving subjects (glaciers excluded). By the time you crank the adjustment knobs to capture that bird taking off, it has migrated to another state. But you can precisely frame where it was! Continue reading

    Comfort Zones & Proper Equipment – Part One

    Thanks to Bill Lea, in February I visited Everglades National Park for the first time as one of the co-leaders of the NANPA Regional Event there. This is the first of two posts about what I learned during that trip.

    Before I saw Bill’s photographs for his forthcoming book, I hadn’t thought too seriously about shooting in the Everglades, despite how relatively close the Park is to Atlanta. It seemed like a flat, grassy, swampy area, where the big attractions are birds and critters. I don’t typically shoot birds and critters, nor flat, grassy, swampy areas. It didn’t sound like much of a destination for a landscape and travel photographer. Boy, was I ever wrong.

    Fortunately, for several days before the Event, Bill gave us an extensive (and photographically rewarding) tour of the Park, based on his five years of photographing there. I would never have figured out nor enjoyed the Everglades as quickly without Bill’s expert guidance. I found birds and critters fun and challenging to shoot (especially with my equipment), and found the landscape remarkably variable and beautifully photogenic. Now I can’t wait to go back.

    As an aside, living with Atlanta traffic, I misunderstood the concept of traveling to a park to shoot birds. During any given rush hour here, you could see so many birds shot within such a short time that it gets old pretty quick. But I get it now.

    Believe it or not, just like in many other parks, there are signs denoting elevations in the Everglades. Unlike my experiences in some of the Western parks, however, it wasn’t any harder to breathe even at the highest elevations. I felt pretty much the same at the Elevation 4 Feet sign as I had earlier at the Elevation 3 Feet sign. Guess I’ve stayed in pretty good shape.

    My first morning in the Park started with a sunrise shoot over Florida Bay at Flamingo. So far so good. I’m in my comfort zone with my lenses, geared tripod head, focusing cloth, remote release, and the rest of my usual landscape kit.

    Sunrise at Flamingo

    Sun’s fully up now, so landscape photography is done. It’s off to nearby Eco Pond to shoot birds. Hey, these bloody things move! What’s up with that? And they’re relatively small. And relatively far away. And just as soon as I compose my shot, it’s either changed or gone. There goes my comfort zone. Continue reading

    Using a Focusing Cloth

    At a workshop in Redwood National and State Parks back in 2003, Jack Dykinga gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received for getting better images in the field: Use a focusing cloth. It was simple, had been around just about as long as photography itself, yet was rarely used by anyone but large format shooters. I adopted it back then for use with my DSLR, and have been using it ever since. For me, it has become as essential as my tripod and cable release.

    It helps me compose and focus, both physically and mentally. With it, I can easily see anything on my LCD, regardless of the ambient light. It helps keep wind, sprinkles, and even flying bugs out of my eyes while I’m shooting, helping me concentrate on my subject. With it, it’s much easier for me to check the corners and edges of my frame, and to look for merges throughout the image. It even allows me to use the Depth of Field preview function, regardless of how dark the image becomes when I push the button!

    It’s become so important to me, that I bring a spare when I travel in case something happens to the first one in the field. And as a final bonus, many of my shooting buddies have encouraged me to use it all the time—even when I’m not shooting. They say it’s a fantastic fashion accessory that looks great over me.

    My original focusing cloth, also known as a dark cloth, was a 36″x48″ Toyo-View focusing cloth that I got from B&H. After using it for a few years, I wanted something waterproof, breathable, darker, and more versatile. Besides, B&H no longer carried the Toyo-View cloth. After six months of testing various combinations of fabrics and Velcro placements, I now use my own Tom Vadnais Photography 36″x48″ waterproof focusing cloth. It’s an improved design that’s handmade right here in the USA, and is available only from me. Please e-mail me at tom@tomvadnais.com if you’re interested in ordering one directly (US$84 + US$5 shipping and handling to a US address). It’s black on the inside, to give you a dark area to shoot from, and white on the outside to reflect heat. There are strips of Velcro on both sides of one end that cinch the cloth around your lens, making it fast and easy to attach and remove when changing lenses in the field.

    Focusing Cloth in the Field

    After wrapping one end around your lens, the rest of the cloth simply drapes over your camera, your head and shoulders, and partially down your back. This eliminates most of the stray light around you, allowing you to see much better through your viewfinder. You can’t believe how much easier it is to concentrate on your composition and focusing when surrounded by relative darkness. It also allows you to see everything on your LCD, even in the brightest sunlight.

    As you can see from the photograph below, it can also help you blend in with any ghosts you may encounter when out shooting.

    Focusing Cloth and Ghost

    Now, do you have to spend US$84 on a commercially available waterproof dark cloth with Velcro. Of course you do—-if it’s one from me! Not really. A US$5 black bath towel from a discount store works just fine. You can drape the towel over your lens, camera, and head, as my friend Sue is doing during a workshop in the Smokies. (Her towel is dark blue, but is still effective. In general, though, you want a black cloth or towel, so you don’t have any visual color contamination while you’re shooting under it.)

    Sue with Dark Towel

    Like any other new tool in photography, using a dark cloth takes a little getting used to at first. Think back to when you first used a tripod, remote release, or any filters. But almost right away, you’ll likely find the benefits so outweigh any learning curve that you’ll adopt it full time. I did.

    Why I Use Manual Exposure Mode

    Choice of exposure mode always seems to generate a spirited discussion among photographers. Here’s my 2¢ about it. Actually, it’s a long post (probably more like 4 or 5¢), so you might want to grab your favorite beverage before settling down in the warm glow of your monitor.

    If you’re serious about your photography, you’ll need to use Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual exposure mode. Neither a fully Automatic mode nor any of the “Scene” modes found on many DSLRs allows you to override what the camera chooses for you.

    A camera’s meter is designed to determine the exposure that renders the scene as a mid-tone. But the actual scene may require a darker or lighter exposure than that.

    As with any other element of your photography, the correct exposure for a particular image is the one that shows the scene as you intended. This might be, and often is, different from what the camera meter indicates.

    Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Program are known as automatic modes because the camera automatically sets the aperture, shutter speed, or both, respectively, based on the camera’s meter reading. In Manual mode, you set both the aperture and shutter speed, using the camera’s meter as a starting point.

    You can successfully use any of these modes (why else would they be there?), but it’s worth finding one or more you are most comfortable with. I exclusively use Manual mode. I find it the easiest and most consistent for the kinds of photography I do. But I hope this discussion helps you choose the one that works best for you.

    Fredo in Office

    By the way, this image has nothing to do with this article. But a picture of my best furry friend Fredo sure makes this a much more attractive post, doesn’t it? Continue reading

    It’s Okay to Crop – Sometimes

    I can hear several of my friends laughing even before reading the rest of this. After years of my staunch (they might say unreasonably stubborn) aversion to cropping, they’ve prodded me to realize that the camera’s default image shape doesn’t always result in the best image.

    It’s still my preference to get everything just the way I want it in the camera, especially with landscape images. But now, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of the occasional crop.

    Sometimes, you have to crop to fit certain requirements for a website, client, contest, or publication. (Heck, even my header image on this site is cropped from a full frame.) Other times, a judicious crop just suits the image better than the camera’s default shape does.

    Now this is not a license to “shoot loose, and crop later”! That’s lazy, sloppy, reduces the resolution of your images, and is bad practice.

    Here’s an example of when cropping worked better than the default image shape. When she was a little puppy, my BFFFF (Best Furry Friend Forever, Fredo) came by my office for a visit. Well she didn’t come by on her own; her Mom brought her over.

    Fredo Singing (full frame). Click on image to enlarge.

    She was sitting in one of the conference room chairs while I was taking pictures of her. She was being so tolerant, it was time to reward her with another treat. I loved the expression on her face in this picture as she anticipated the treat. It looked like she was singing.

    But as a rectangle, the photograph was cluttered and distracting. I knew a square crop would eliminate the distractions, focus the attention on Fredo, and makes it look more like she’s singing. I framed the image so there would be enough room around her so I could crop it square, yet still retain a sense of place by including recognizable portions of the chair and table. I also placed her to the left side in case the rectangular shape worked as well. It didn’t.

    Fredo Singing (square crop). Click on image to enlarge.

    One of my main influences for thinking in terms of the square image is my friend and mentor Charlie Waite. For most of his professional career, he made landscape images using a Hasselblad film camera, which yielded a square image. A square format image often tells a significantly different story than a rectangular one.

    What I’ve learned is that cropping an image to improve its composition doesn’t necessarily mean the image was not composed well when the shutter was clicked. Sometimes, it’s just what you need to tell your story in the best way.

    Maybe it’s just that a puppy taught an old dog new tricks.

     

    Photograph Where You Live

    As you know, it is essential to travel long distances, preferably to exotic locations, if you want to make interesting images.

    Wait, maybe that isn’t really so.

    No matter where you live, there are incredible shooting opportunities all around you. Continual shooting is one of the best ways for you to develop your photographic eye. (Reading photography resources and studying photographs and paintings by masters are two other important aides.)

    Roswell Road Bridge. Click on image to enlarge.

    This image was made less than two miles from my house. I had driven over this bridge thousands of times before without ever noticing anything special about it.

    One day, a friend and I decided to go out shooting, so we grabbed our cameras and tripods, and walked along a paved trail along the river. The path led under this all-too-familiar bridge. It was late afternoon, and the sun was starting to go down to the right in the image.

    Our intention was to go past the bridge to another spot along the river edge. We never made it. We spent the next hour or so shooting various compositions, including horizontal (landscape) and vertical (portrait) orientations.

    Then I turned around, and saw a totally different view. Sun was pouring through the drainage slot on the bridge, and illuminating a pile of rocks below. When I saw that light beam, I knew I was going to process it as a black & white image later.

    Roswell Bridge B&W. Click on image to enlarge.

    So in an hour, two miles from my house, under a bridge I had crossed thousands of times, I made two images that I liked. Funny thing is when I show them to people, and ask them to guess where there were made, I usually get somewhere in Spain or France as the reply. Of course, I always tell them they guessed right!

    Not really. To me, the real story is even more surprising.

    As examples of local things to shoot, my Five Mile Radius gallery has a number of images I’ve made within a five mile radius (as you might have guessed) of my house. I hope those images encourage you to get out with your camera and tripod, and explore where you live. Sort of like a traveling photographer who thinks your location is an exotic trip might do…