Professional photographer for a day

A funny thing happened last weekend. I got to pretend to be a professional photographer and did a photo shoot. Ok it wasn’t highly paid (actually it wasn’t paid at all so technically I wasn’t professional!), but it was an interesting experience nonetheless.

I had only just got my new camera (the Nikon D7000 for those interested) so this was my first chance to really play with it and as it happened my girlfriend needed some shots taken of t-shirts and things that her company were selling. Luckily her sister (who is ridiculously photogenic) was also in town and agreed to be a model.

Now to tell the truth I don’t think I’m a great people photographer, I tend to concentrate more on places and things, but I must say the new camera really made a world of difference to the kind of shots I can get of people. It took me a little while to get used to ordering my model around but by the end of the shoot I was almost convincing myself that I was acting like a pro.

It was only after I got the photos onto my laptop (which I had forgotten to take with me) to view at a decent size that I realised my fatal mistake. I had spent all of my time focused on the model, getting the framing and lighting right. Lots of things except the one I should have been focusing on, the t-shirts that were the whole point of the shoot! The goal was to show off the designs on the shirts and in a lit the designs were obscured either because of the angle of the picture or because the shirts were too rumpled.

Well you live and learn. It was an interesting experience and you can see some of the results on flickr. Thankfully many did come out well enough to be useful and it was kind of nice to play with photography in an entirely different setting to that that I’m used to.

Do I need a new camera?

It’s been about a year since I last went through this. The result of my last plea for help was a number of recommendations and I ended up buying the excellent Canon Powershot S90. It really is a great point and shoot and I think pretty much exactly what I needed at the time to help me learn a little more about photography. I always figured it would be good test to be able to play with and figure out whether I eventually needed to move onto something more. I guess the main thing that disappoints me a little about the S90 is its slow speed, it can only take about a shot a second in RAW. I often could do with something faster. Also while its low-light performance is better than anything I’ve ever used before it still isn’t as good as I’d like. I could certainly do with a longer optical zoom but that’d have to be combined with something that used faster shutter speeds I guess.

So I’m starting to get a little itch again, fueled by people talking about cameras across twitter all this morning and planning a honeymoon visiting an active volcano in Hawaii. So I’m starting to wonder if its time to look for something more, but I confess I don’t know whether a DSLR is really for me yet. I don’t know enough about lenses to really know what I’d be looking at right now and I’m pretty concerned that I’d just never actually carry a DSLR around enough to make it worthwhile. Micro 4:3 seems like a smaller yet still more powerful option but again I don’t really know what I’m looking at. What actually are the benefits of these over my point and shoot?

So I am asking my good friends of the internet to once again help me out. Should I look for something new or stick with what I have for now? Are there any good books that it might be worth reading to learn more about photography or is a learn-by-doing approach as I’ve been using for now the best way?

Shooting fireworks on New Year’s Eve

There are many blog posts on the subject of how to best set up your camera to shoot fireworks but I was so surprised at just how well it worked out for me that I thought I’d add mine to the pile. Also I wanted to make sure I remembered what I did right and wrong here for next time I try. You’re going to need three things really:

  1. A camera that is up to the job. Perhaps surprisingly you don’t need a full SLR for this, but you do need something that will let you manually adjust the aperture, ISO and exposure times. Shooting in RAW is vastly preferably. I was using a Canon Powershot S90.
  2. A basic tripod. Exposure times will need to be long so you won’t be able to manually hold it steady and you’re shooting upwards so not much other than a tripod will do the job.
  3. Lots of luck. How much really depends on the fireworks display. The longer it is the more time you’ll have to refine your timing and aim. In my case our display was at home one with just 4 fireworks going off, ridiculously I managed to get the setup pretty much right first time.

The basic setup is straightforward. You want a small aperture, apparently somewhere in the range of f/8 to f/16 is golden, my camera limits at f/8 though so that is what I used. You want a fairly low ISO value too, I shot at 100. In an ideal world you’ll want a camera where you can manually hold the shutter open for however long it takes the firework to fire off. I didn’t have that though so instead I just manually set an exposure of 10 seconds which I figured was a long enough to capture a full rocket. Then set up on the tripod, point in the direction you think the firework will go and hope. Remember that fireworks go quite far and your camera will probably capture a decent area of the sky so chances are you’ll get it in frame, whether it is way off to one side is pretty much luck the first time though.

I was astounded though that the first shot I got was pretty much perfectly framed. I started the exposure on a 3 second timer triggered just after the fuse was lit. This meant the exposure started shortly before the rocket went off. In retrospect it might have been easier to just do a longer exposure, the timer adds an additional variable into the guesswork that is really unnecessary. Still I managed to capture the launch of the rocket and the initial explosion. A longer shot might have captured more of the explosion but then I’m pretty satisfied with what I got. This is after some additional processing (this is where shooting in RAW becomes really important):

Although with no processing at all the shot showed off the firework pretty well I found that when I turned up the fill light something surprising happened. I had been shooting through trees and when the firework went off all the trees got illuminated faintly with the red glow which the camera was able to pick up. It wasn’t just the trees though, rockets let off a lot of smoke as they fly and that too had been illuminated giving the final picture something that almost looked like an aurora. Frankly I’m continually surprised at how much light even my non-SLR camera is picking up and how much Lightroom can make use of it.

The next firework we let off was a Roman candle. These shoot for long bursts so maybe it would have been better to turn down the exposure length some but I wasn’t playing with any settings while I was shooting so my shots got multiple launches and explosions in a single exposure but this still got me a fantastic result. Again pushing up the fill light revealed the trees, looking even more ghostly this time:

The second Roman candle that went off I managed to capture twice. As well as triggering off a 3 second timer I had also set to take 3 consecutive shots. In this case that paid off with two different views of the same firework however for the others it mostly got in the way as it would keep shooting long after the firework was spent and we were waiting to set off the next. It didn’t help that with long exposures my camera has a serious delay between the end of one shot and starting the next making it pretty unlikely the second exposure will be worth much.

Slightly disappointingly I only got a glimpse of the second rocket we set off. For some reason its fuse took longer to burn and so my first shot just caught the streak of its launch but ended before it exploded and due to the delay between shots the second exposure saw nothing. Still technically I managed to capture all four fireworks that we launched and I ended up with four pretty good pictures which for a first attempt I am pretty proud of.

I was at a small personal display which both meant that there were very few chances to get things right and that I didn’t really have any time to look at the result of one shot to adjust my technique for the next. However on the up side there was just a single firework going off at a time, I could watch the fuse being lit and time my shot accordingly and the others were happy to wait between fireworks while my camera stopped taking shots. Considering that at the start I didn’t expect to really get anything I’m really happy with the results. Not sure when I’ll get the chance to try this again but even if I don’t hopefully some others will get some ideas from this.

Time for a new Camera

I’ve never been terribly impressed with my current digital camera. It’s an Olympus FE-280 that I bought on the spur of the moment in Boston a few years ago when my previous camera decided it didn’t want to stay charged any longer. Feature-wise the Olympus probably has almost everything I want, but its menu system is so convoluted that I can never find how to enable the things I’m after in a reasonable amount of time. In the past few years it has slowly developed some bad pixels (both on the view screen itself and on the CCD cell and now the battery charger is starting to flash ominously suggesting that the battery is about to go to a better place so I think it is about time to start looking for a replacement and this time I want to do some research.

Sadly I know probably just enough about taking photos to make me dangerous which means that I occasionally want to do things that probably warrant use of some expensive feature-packed camera. While I would love the power of something like a digital SLR the reality is I would barely make use of all its features and I need something smaller otherwise I will never carry it around with me. But here is a list of the features I am after, maybe someone has suggestions for cameras that have all of these and more?

  • An easy to use mode that does fast exposures
  • Good motion stabilization
  • A way to take a quick sequence of images with one press of the shutter
  • Maybe manual focusing to allow shooting through windows
  • Orientation detection, ideally actually orienting the image file but I guess just putting the EXIF orientation marker is a start
  • I’d sort of love to get RAW images to play around with in the occasion the camera hasn’t been clever enough to work out what I want

Update: So I guess everyone is recommending either one of the Lumix series or the Canon S90. The latter seems to provide more control over shooting at first glance but then the Panasonic site doesn’t offer the full instruction manual for the Lumix cameras, only basic instructions which makes figuring out exactly what you can do with them and how a little more tricky. The Lumix cameras do claim a faster fps in burst mode and all have more zoom than the S90’s relatively paltry 3.8x. I wonder how much use zoom is though when I’m not going to be using a tripod for shooting.