Jeremy Coates

In early October 2010, I was fortunate enough to be able to go up to Manchester and try my hand at conference photography as part of the PHP North West 2010 conference. What started as some throw-away comments on Twitter with my friends turned into a fun and rewarding part of the weekend, and certainly proved to be an interesting bit of learning. In this blog post, I’m sharing what I learned and what I would do differently next time.

The Kit

I took along my Nikon D300s, and used just the two lenses: the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G DX for the Friday social in the pub, and the Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8 in the conference hall for the talks on Saturday. I shot hand-held on the Friday, and mostly on a tripod on the Saturday. I didn’t use the camera’s built-in flash, nor an external flash of any kind. I shot auto-focus using the 35mm lens, and manual focus with the 80-200mm lens.

I picked the 35mm lens because a pub isn’t the place for a tripod, and at f/1.8 the lens allowed me to shoot in very dark conditions. I did consider the 24mm f/2.8, but I’m really not a fan of portraits taken with wider lenses, and the 50mm f/1.4D has a waifer-thin depth of field when shot wide open. The 35mm seemed a good compromise, and I’d definitely choose it again for a similar situation.

The 80-200mm lens is a personal favourite of mine, and has become my main lens since I picked up a second-hand copy on eBay. It costs a fraction of the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR and VR II lenses, but optically it’s close enough to those lenses to be worth it for a hobbyist like me. VR doesn’t interest me, as it’s no help when shooting something (or someone) that is moving. It is a heavy lens, but by god you sure look the part toting the damn thing around all day 🙂

And I have to say that it probably helped a lot. I’m sure quite a few people thought I was an official photographer, and therefore didn’t mind my presence so much throughout the day.

Lesson 1: Shoot Auto-focus Every Time

PHPNW10 Friday Social

Conference halls are ridiculously dark. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that they’re so dark, it’s no wonder attendees come out at the end of the day feeling tired from the eye strain involved. I knew this from previous years at the conference, but it still surprised me just how much of a problem light was to be throughout the day. I’d hoped that taking some moderately fast glass and a camera that was happy at ISO1600 would do the trick. It turned out that wasn’t the entire battle.

On the Saturday, I was shooting using manual focus, because my particular copy of the 80-200mm has a broken selector switch (which is how I could afford it in the first place). In the darkness of the conference hall, even using LiveView on the back of the D300s, it was simply too dark to focus accurately by hand. Bad focus cost me more shots than any other single technical fault throughout the day. (If you want to see how I fare with manual focus in reasonable light, see this shot of an RAF helicopter in flight as an example of what I can normally achieve).

Next time I ever try my hand at this, I’m going auto-focus all the way. That’s what I did in the pub for the Friday night social, and a much higher percentage of shots turned out okay.

Lesson 2: Eliminate Motion Blur By Careful Positioning

Marco Tabini

Even shooting at ISO1600 (I can’t afford a D3s, which would be the ultimate solution to this problem … anyone want to buy me one?) and with a cracking f/2.8 lens, it was so dark that there were real problems with motion blur throughout the day. Despite shooting hundreds of photos, I only managed about 10 or so acceptable shots of the speakers – at several of those were taken at the end of the day when the house lights were up.

The problem wasn’t just the darkness; in the morning, the place I’d picked for my tripod was part of the problem. Speakers in general like the wander around, and I’d managed to pick the spot where the speakers were moving left to right and forwards and backwards all at once. The only time they stood still, they were hidden by the lecturn.

In the afternoon, I moved over to the other side of the hall, which helped enormously. Now, whenever a speaker stood at the lecturn, I had a clear line of sight. But a D3s would still have been a better solution 😉

Lesson 3: Sight Lines Require You To Move

Marcus Deglos

My regular style of photography is urban and landscapes. It was interesting how the Manchester Conference Centre threw up very similar challenges with sight lines throughout the day.

The thing with urban and landscape photography is that (in general) you can’t move things out of the way to make a shot seem less cluttered. You’re much better off either moving yourself to find a different angle, photoshopping things out (not for me, but I can understand people who do), or learning how to incorporate the clutter into the shot.

In the morning, feeling very nervous (I seldom shoot people, especially people trying to put on a performance less than 20 feet away), I tried to find a different angle … but I didn’t move much. I ended up with the motion blur problems mentioned earlier, and sight line problems with the lectern when each speaker stopped moving. Part of the problem was definitely being tied to the tripod; moving it around mid-talk would surely have been extremely distracting to speaker and audience alike. And part of it was confidence: I wasn’t an official photographer for the event, just an attendee who perhaps was pushing his luck as far as possible!

By the end of the day, I was feeling more comfortable, and happily moving around to pick out my shots. Because I was feeling more confident in myself, I feel that the afternoon’s shots were the better portraits.

Lesson 4: You’re Shooting With Fast Glass, So Use It

Marcus Deglos & David Zuelke

Like a lot of photographers, my collection of f/2.8 lenses wasn’t bought so that I could take photos in darkened lecture halls; I use them for shallow depth of field shots. I like the fact that I’m free to pick out a subject from a scene, to place the emphasis where I artistically think it’s strongest or most interesting. Within the laws of physics, fast glass gives me room to be creative. If only it automatically came with talent too!

Anyway, one of the benefits of fast glass is that you can shoot in darkened lecture halls, and the nice thing about depth of field is that the depth available doesn’t depend on the amount of light available, if you can shoot at all at f/2.8. You get the same depth of field in bright sunlight as you do in gloomy semi-darkness. So take full advantage of it.

Lesson 5: Don’t Forget The Audience

Conference Audience

Whenever you see conferences covered online, the photos tend to be of two types: everyone drinking at the bar, and of the speakers doing their thing in front of an audience. It isn’t often I see the audience photographed, and that’s a shame, because my favourite shots from this conference were those I took of the audience. I just wish more of those shots had turned out well enough to publish.

The thing with the audience is that there’s simply more to capture in your photos. A speaker up on stage is largely a solo portrait; if you’re lucky, you might get a good slide behind the speaker, but most of the time you’re picking your moment to hide the fire exit sign and other such things. But with the audience, there’s real depth to the shot. You’ve got people to pick out of a crowd, and because they’re normally arranged in rows, your fast glass will allow you to drop other people out of the shot with ease.

Bonus Lesson: Photography Helps You Focus

Whenever I go to a technical conference, I’m one of those delegates who breaks out the laptop and uses the time to work away on something that needs several hours of effort in a block … because it’s rare for me to get a block of time on any one thing these days with the nature of my job. I’m not saying that I don’t listen to the conference speakers, but my attention is certainly divided at best.

Not this time, and not just because the laptop stayed in the hotel room all day. Trying to find the right photos for each speaker meant being in the moment with them; it meant listening to them properly. It also meant not scrambling around for power half-way through the day (I used an iPad all day to be part of the conference conversation on Twitter, which didn’t get charged until I got home late the following day. Marvellous thing, the iPad is).

The end result was a great day for me, some faltering first steps at conference photography, and I actually learned quite a bit too by following the speakers more closely than in previous years.

Copyright (c) Stuart Herbert. Blog | Twitter | Facebook
Photography: Merthyr Road | Daily Desktop Wallpaper | 25×9 | Twitter.

4 comments »

I recently updated my Aperture workflow tutorial for Aperture v3, and posted the slides up on Slideshare.net:

It contains a detailed walkthrough of the steps that I follow every time I process photos to share on this blog and on Flickr. I hope you find it useful.

8 comments »

Aperture Workflow Tutorial

Posted by Stuart Herbert on June 23rd, 2007 in Photos, Technique.

After The Storm

View a larger version of this photo on Flickr, or on black.

Download the Aperture Workflow tutorial (PDF; 3.1M)

When it comes to digital photography, everyone always puts so much emphasis on the workflow – the tasks that are done, and the order that they are done in. There is no OneTrueWorkflow(tm) that suits everyone. Workflows are very definitely horses for courses. You have to find your own way of doing things that suits the way you do photography, the amount of time available to you, and the results you want.

After six months now of using Aperture, the way I use Aperture has settled down into a fairly consistent pattern. Using the simple but effective ScreenSteps, I’ve put together a short tutorial with screenshots showing what I did in Aperture to create the final image and publish it on Flickr. If you’ve just moved to Aperture from iPhoto or Photoshop Elements (or from Picasa et al on Windows), I hope it gives you a way to start using Aperture that you can adapt over time to make your own. I’m not a professional photographer, but I don’t buy into the idea that Aperture is just for professional photographers either!
Please leave below any tips or comments about workflow in Aperture. I’m always keen to learn how I can improve on what I’m doing, especially if it saves time or results in a better final image!

2 comments »

Weaning Off Of Automatic Mode

Posted by Stuart Herbert on March 18th, 2007 in Technique.

They say that buses come in threes, and this month I’ve had three friends asking me how to take the first steps away from their cameras’ automatic mode (commonly called Program Mode on Nikon cameras) and start taking photos like “real” photographers. It seems like the perfect topic to start a new series of posts about photographic technique, so here goes 🙂

First off, just a disclaimer before I go any further. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m something that I’m not 🙂 I’m very definitely an amateur photographer. I’ve had no formal training, and I’m certainly not qualified to teach photography. If you want to know how things “should be done”, so to speak, then enroll on a course. I’m sure that there’ll be plenty of suitable night courses in your area, and, of course, there is always Amateur Photographer’s home study course. Or, you could pick up a good book by a real expert. I always recommend Michael Langford’s Basic Photography. What I’m talking about here in these Technique posts are how I work with the camera, and what works for me.

If you’re okay with that, then read on!

What Is Automatic Mode?

A camera’s automatic mode is exactly what it sounds like: you point the camera at what you want to photograph, and the camera makes all the other decisions for you. Most compact digital cameras only have an automatic mode. Larger digital SLRs all come with automatic modes, as well as the ability for you to take more control should you wish. SLRs have built in databases of many thousands of photographic scenes, and it’s often said that SLRs can make better decisions than many photographers.

Using automatic mode is point-and-shoot photography. And there’s nothing wrong with it. Don’t think for a minute that you’re not a “real photographer” just because you currently use automatic mode. I don’t even know what a “real photographer” is, or why anyone would want to be one. If you’re taking photos on automatic mode, and you’re happy with the results, then be happy.

What Does Automatic Mode Do?

There are two key decisions that automatic mode makes for you:

  • It controls the size of the iris (photographers call this the aperture) in the camera lens. The iris controls the amount of light that the camera sees, and has the side effect of controlling the angle that the light hits your camera’s sensor.
  • It also controls how long (in time) that the camera sees the light from the lens. There is a blackout screen inside the camera called the shutter. When the shutter is open, your camera sees light. The longer the shutter is open, the longer your camera sees the light.

A well-exposed shot is a combination of balancing the aperture size against the shutter speed. As the aperture size gets smaller, the camera needs to see more light (the shutter needs to be open longer) in order to get enough light to create a photograph. Equally, the longer the shutter is open, the smaller the aperture needs to be to prevent too much light ruining the photograph. It’s a balancing act between the two.

A lot of the art in photography comes from taking control of one (or both) of these key decisions from the camera, and putting that control into your own hands.

Other Modes On Your Camera

Traditionally, SLR cameras have come with a total of four different camera modes:

  • Automatic mode – where the camera controls both shutter speed and aperture size.
  • Aperture priority mode – where you control the aperture size, and the camera controls the shutter speed.
  • Shutter priority mode – where you control the shutter speed, and the camera controls the aperture size.
  • Manual mode – where you make all the decisions, and all the mistakes 🙂

So-called “consumer” level SLRs also often come with additional automatic modes for landscape, portraits, sports, night photography, and so on. My camera of choice – the Nikon D200 – does not include these modes, and I won’t mention them any further here.

Why You Might Want To Move Away From Automatic Mode

Most of the people I know want to move away from automatic mode because they somehow feel that they are “cheating” by letting the camera make the decisions. Well, I’ve never yet met a camera that decided what it should shoot and when. A camera is a tool in the hands of a human photographer, simple as that. You’re already making many important decisions, even if you don’t realise it. If you’re getting photos that you like, then don’t worry about it. You’re not cheating.

The right reason to move away from automatic mode is to take more creative control over your photography.

Taking The First Step – Switching To Aperture-Priority Mode

When I first began taking photos, my friend Hugh had me start with aperture-priority mode. Although I personally shoot mostly in shutter-priority mode today, the majority of fellow amateur photographers that I’ve spoken to prefer aperture-priority mode.

By controlling the aperture size, you take control over the depth of field that can be seen in the final photograph. The depth of field is the term that photographers use to describe the area of your picture that is in focus. If you imagine that the item you’re focusing on is slap bang in the middle of the depth of field, then the depth of field extends in a straight line from there towards your camera, and also from there away from your camera. Items outside the depth of field appear blurred in the final photograph.

A larger aperture (such as F/2.8 – F/6.3) creates a smaller depth of field (photographers call this a shallow depth of field). The depth of field only extends a short distance either side of the area of your picture that is in focus (photographers call this area the focal point). This allows you to deliberately blur things like the background of a photograph, allowing the main subject to stand out a lot more than it would otherwise.

A smaller aperture (such as F/11 – F/22) creates a larger depth of field. The depth of field extends a longer distance in front of (and behind) the focal point of your picture. This allows your picture to include detail not just from the main subject, but also from whatever is around it too. Larger depths of field are particularly useful for landscape photographers looking to capture as much of the landscape as they can see.

As a rule of thumb, I find that an aperture size of F/5.6 creates a depth of field (very) roughly like what the human eye sees when looking at something up to 10 metres or so away, and F/11 creates a depth of field (very) roughly like what the human eye sees when looking at distance objects such as a wonderful landscape view.

Don’t Forget The Balancing Act!

In aperture-priority mode, the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed for you, using information from the built-in light meter to ensure that your photograph is correctly exposed. As you change the aperture, the camera changes the shutter speed.

If the shutter speed gets too low, then the photograph you take will be blurred. The blurring happens because we are holding the camera, and we can’t hold the camera absolutely still. One way to solve this problem is to always use a tripod. Even the best tripods are cumbersome, have to be carried about, and the whole rigmarole of setting up the tripod just to take one photo can kill the fun of amateur photography. Another option is to make sure that the shutter speed is always high enough for shooting hand-held.

As a rule of thumb, I never shoot hand-held at a speed of less than 1/80 – that’s one eightieth of a second. With lenses zoomed in more than 80mm, the minimum speed goes up accordingly – so, at 400mm zoom, I’m looking for a speed of 1/400. It’s not always sunny enough to get that sort of speed, which is where lenses with built-in image stabilisation start to become very useful!

At first, you’ll probably forget to check your shutter speed, and end up with quite a few blurred photos. Don’t worry about it! Keep practising, and it will stick in the end. Until it does, you have the advantage that you’re shooting digitally. Just imagine what it was like when I started photography shooting on chemical film. Digital makes it much easier to practice new techniques over and over until you’re comfortable with them.

Making The Move To Other Modes

As mentioned above, I shoot mostly in shutter-priority mode these days. I combine that with the Nikon D200’s extremely handy auto-ISO mode to get as many sharp images as I’m able to. In my next technique article, I’ll talk about my one and only wedding shoot that I did back in 2003, and why the next feature you need to master on your digital SLR is digital’s unique ability to change the ISO setting between each shot.

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