Pragmatic Photography 101: avoiding blurry photos

If you’ve been reading a lot of the “How to learn photography” guides out there, you’ll know that they tend to be pretty overwhelming.  I found it easier to keep things simple, and to focus on the things that would get me one small step further in getting usable photos now.  Here’s my first to pointers for absolute beginners:

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This photo is blurry because of “Concept 2” below, the shutter speed was way too slow.

Blurry Images:

When I first started taking photos with an point and shoot, I used to hate getting blurry images.  It drove me crazy that I couldn’t quite figure out why. If your image is out of focus, there’s pretty much no way to salvage it.

What two concepts make your photos burry?

Concept 1: Getting the camera’s lens to actually focus on the right object in the photo.

[Recommendation]: Single area focus mode & focus and recompose

I still don’t know what all the different focus modes do on my cameras, and that’s because I’ve rarely deviated from single area focus.  Basically this mode is one where the camera focuses on the focus point typically in the middle of the camera and that’s it.  For more entry level cameras, this method tends to be the most accurate as well.

At this point you might be asking yourself, “what if I want that thing to be in focus, but I don’t want it to be in the center of my shot?”  Well thats where focus and recompose comes in.  You typically “acquire” focus by pointing your camera something and pressing the shutter speed half-way down (if you push all the way down and the camera takes a photo, you’ve gone too far).  Then, while keeping the button pressed half way down, you can adjust where your camera is pointed to compose your shot before actually pushing the shutter button all the way down.  There’s a lot of confusing material out there, but this guy at Gmax does a good job of explaining focus and recompose on youtube.

[Assignment] : Take 3 shots where in each shot you are focusing on one of three different objects in the photo.  In shot 1, focus on something in the foreground (closest to the camera).  In shot 2, focus on the object in the middle, while in shot 3 focus on the object in the background (furthest from the camera).

Once you’ve mastered still objects, test how fast your reflexes are by trying to shoot something that is moving.  Find a crowded pedestrian street and focus on people as they walk toward you or cross in front of you.

Now for the fun part.  As fast as you can, go pull up these photos on your computer screen so you can see how you did.  What do you notice?  Are some photos in focus, which ones did you miss on?

 

 

[Additional Resources]

Concept 2: Making sure you photos aren’t blurred because your shutter speed is too slow

[Recommendation]:  Set your camera in shutter priority / and learn how shutter speed relates to movement and blurry shots

I realize this is technically part of exposure , but it is a common cause of blurry photos which is how a complete beginner is thinking about things, “Why are my shots all blurry?”  They don’t immediately connect blurriness with shutter speed.

So what is shutter speed?  A shutter is the object that blocks light from hitting your camera’s sensor, and to take a picture, the shutter moves out of the way for a set amount of time.  If it moves out of the way for a long time, lots of light will get it (photo would be lighter).  If it moves out of the way for a very short time, very little light will get in (photo would be darker).  So what does this have to do with blur?

Well, if your shutter speed is slow or open for a long time, then your still image will be ruined because the subject of the photo had time to move while the camera was still capturing the photo.  You would need a much faster shutter speed to capture a fast moving object without the blur.

[Assignment ]: First, figure out how to set your camera to Shutter priority mode.  This is a mode where you are going to be able to directly control the shutter speed, as opposed to your camera doing everything for you.  In shot 1, take a picture of something that is moving quickly (a car, jogger, etc), with a very slow shutter speed ( 1/25th, 1/50th).  In shot 2, do the same thing with a faster shutter speed like 1/125th , 1/250th, 1/500th.

When you check your photos on your computer, you should see the faster shutter speed photos are sharper!

[Additional Resources]

 

Photography 101: Common pitfalls of starting out

I know it comes naturally to some people, but learning to shoot photography was one of the most difficult skills I’ve ever tackled.  It probably took me 3 years of shooting terrible photos and reading blogs and watching youtube videos, and I’m still not able to consistently produce great images.

In order to help other people through this process at a faster pace, I thought I’d lay out some of the tips I wished i’d figured out much sooner.  Below is a list of pitfalls to be aware of , along with a suggested path for learning photography.

Olympus OMD-EM5 with lenses
This is the camera that pushed me over the edge and got me into photography on a much more serious level. Also includes the 12-60 kit lens, the 12-40 2.8, the 40-150mm zoom, the 45mm 1.8, 75mm 1.8, and the 25mm 1.8

What Camera to buy

How can I possibly know what camera to buy if I don’t know anything about photography or what type of photography I will do?

Use what you have!  Because of the complex nature of the catch-22 below, you’ll have a lot of learning to do before you’re even in a position to take advantage of a better / more expensive camera.  Might as well learn the concepts as much as you can before you invest.  If you don’t, you’ll end up spending money on gear you end up hating or not using.

That being said, here are a few features of a camera that really helped me learn these concepts more easily:

  • Live view – you want your camera screen to update in real time as you change your exposure to show you what your image will look like. For the iphone generation, I know it sounds shocking to learn that not all cameras do this, but they don’t
  • Manual Dials – so many new cameras have manual controls, but you have to go digging through pages and pages of a menu system to find them.  Having access to dials on the camera so you can physically control settings is a real advantage.
  • Simple Menu System – in the section below, you’ll see a huge barrier is actually learning how your camera works, and some cameras make this near impossible with their menu systems (Sony and Olympus were extremely confusing to me)
  • Popular camera – you can solve a lot of these problems by buying a popular camera that has a lot of third party guides and content about it.  Something like the Panasonic G85 , where creators like DSLR video shooter have created super accessible tutorials like this one.
Panasonic Lumix GX1
Prior to the OMD EM5 above I had this Lumix. It was clear to me at this point that I wanted a mirrorless camera.

How does my camera work vs how does photography work?

Once you get past the trap of “What camera to buy”, then learning photography come down to two major categories of challenges; figuring out how your camera works and learning basic photography concepts.

So many of the roadblocks I encountered while learning where a function of doing both at the same time, and not treating them like distinct topics.  If I could do it all over again, I’d learn the photography concept from a theoretical perspective, then figure out how to apply that theory using the manual and features of my camera.

Step by step progression for learning a photography concept:

  1. Learn the theory
  2. Learn which features of your camera control that theory
  3. Do an assignment which requires you to demonstrate the theory and the controls in real life.

For example, if you wanted to learn about exposure, you should read about the exposure triangle, then you should read about shutter priority / aperture priority / and manual exposure for your camera.  Then I’d do an exercise that forced me to expose for the highlights and the shadows of a scene with each different method.  As you apply your knowledge of the theory and your camera to the real world, you’ll start to learn what you like and don’t like about shooting.

Mac OSX apps I use for photography and videography

Im always looking for useful / practical / time saving apps that can help directly with media production or can simply enhance the general OSX experience.  Here are some of the apps I’ve found useful over the years and why.

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PhotoMechanic

I finally snapped one day while importing photos in Lightroom, because it was taking FOREVER.  You may think its overkill, but if you’re culling a lot of photos and trying to find the keepers ,this app pays for itself many times over.  I currently import my photos into a RAW folder, then use PhotoMechanic to do my selects, and I move them to a SELECTS folder which I think import into Lightroom.

File Loupe

This was a real surprise, as I didn’t know I needed a media viewer.  File Loupe loads lots of photos and videos super quickly, so I end up using it quite a bit when I’m moving files around, or even importing from SD cards. I was once looking for some photos in my massive archive, and I dropped 70,000 photos and was able to scroll through them quickly and get to the ones I needed.

Chrome Remote Desktop

I use a Mac mini as a media server, so I often need to get access from my laptop.  I know that the Mac osx has a screen sharing / file sharing function but Chrome was so easy to setup and worked without much effort remotely.

DaisyDisk

If you have tons of media files, and you’re always running out of disk space, this app helps you find the biggest culprits.  Its a great visual way to see whats taking up space on your hard drive.

PhotoSweeper

This is another great media utility, and I’ve used it for de-duping massive amounts of photos.  I had old archives that I never really organized, and some how they ended up with lots of duplicates.  This app gives you extremely precise control over how to prioritize which duplicate to keep, and does a thorough job of checking for real duplicates, not just meta-data duplicates.

FCPX

I wasn’t a fan of Adobe’s subscription services, and Final Cut Pro was also a lot faster for me to learn than Premiere.  I paid for it once, and its been great.  Seems to be well optimized for us on a Mac, and I’ve never had any speed or crashing issues.

Lightroom

After Apple’s Aperture shut down, there weren’t too many great choices.  Lightroom is slow and cumbersome, so I use other apps like Photo Mechanic, but I still do all my editing in Lightroom.  I bought the last non-subscription version, and paid for it once rather than paying monthly.  I probably won’t switch until they make the application significantly faster, can’t imagine paying monthly for such a painful experience.

CarbonCopy Cloner

My current back-up system involves using portable hard drives to keep backups of my laptop, and then I eventually archive everything to a big hard drive enclosure on my Mac mini.  I’ve had some issues in the past with RAID setups, so I just use the enclosures in JBOD and use CarbonCopy Cloner to backup one drive to a mirror in the same enclosure.  You can set it up to do things on a schedule, and its pretty fast because it does incremental updates rather than re-copying everything each time.

Backblaze

To back-up my backup system, I have backblaze back-up 4TB of data.  It was relatively quick to get it all backed up (1 week).  I previously used Crashplan, but switched when they shut down the consumer side of things.  I don’t do my media work professionally, so this seemed to be the best consumer option.

Google Photos

This is my last tier of backup.  ITs free, and makes photos supremely searchable and findable.  If I ever lost everything else, at least I know I have low res versions of photos on google photos for safe keeping.