Tag Archives: equipment

10 Tips for Better Landscape Photography

Landscape photography is one of my most favorite subjects.  From the beaches and coastlines of Big Sur, California to the lighthouses of the Northeast, landscapes make up our world.  Everyone looks at them but few can capture the magnitude. Here are some tips to help you improve your landscape work and get the most out of your time

  1. 1. Wake up before the sun comes up.  It sucks, I don’t know anyone that likes to wake up early but that’s when you get those great shots.  The fog is still in the valley, nobody else with half a brain is awake, and the world is at peace.  The lighting at sunrise is spectacular, you can actually watch the sunlight move across the ground and expose colors that you never see in midday.
  2. 2. Equipment; don’t think that all your landscape work needs to be done with a wide angle lens.  I frequently use a 70-200 with great results.  A good wide angle zoom lens is a great choice.  18-200 is an awesome range.  You can play with composition and observe all sorts of different options.
  3. 3. Panoramas are becoming more and more common these days.  This is one thing where it’s ok to join the pack and do the same as everyone else.  Photoshop has an incredible panorama tool, use it.  The days of 8×10 are gone, don’t worry about what the dimensions of your image are.  It’s your photograph, show that entire mountain range with the ocean leading out the side.  Your eyes see it, show it in your photography.
  4. 4. Go where nobody else goes.  As I drive up and down the California coast I always see signs that say “no trespassing” and that’s a good rule to follow.  However, go up to someone’s house and ask if you can walk on their land and take some pictures.  Just explain what you want to do and offer to email something to them when you get back home.  I’ve never been told to go away and have never been denied admission after I ask.  Just remember, some of the people that have beautiful views are rich and powerful, so when John Travolta answers the door don’t become a stupid goofy groupie.
  5. 5. Get on the ground.  The true mark of a good photographer is that we’re not afraid to get dirty.  Get down on your stomach and try some shots with a different perspective.  Or get high up on something, climb a tree, hang off the side of a mountain.  Find a new way to approach your subject.  Think of the Golden Gate Bridge; millions of pictures are take of it each year, but how many people take the extra 10 mins to climb down to the shore and get the water’s edge in the foreground?
  6. 6. Take pictures of cloudy skies.  It always happens, I’ve got a great picture with no clouds in the sky, and I’m not local to the area so I can’t go back and reshoot another day.  Well, it’s cheating, but if you have a big collection of just cloudy sky pictures you can Photoshop in some clouds and make that dull sky come alive again.
  7. 7. Travel alone without your assistant.  For me this is the best way to inspire myself.  When I travel alone my mind is 100% on photography.  I don’t get distracted and I don’t have to keep someone else company.  If I have someone else in the car there is lots of useless babble and then you have to worry about if they are hungry and they always have to find a bathroom at the wrong moment.  Also, they won’t want to sit for an hour waiting for the light to get perfect.  You will compromise your quality to make your partner happy.  Keep your quality and inspiration at the top, leave them at home.
  8. 8. Take several different exposures of the same image. This is called bracketing, and while most people reading this know all about it few do it anymore.  Most cameras today have an auto bracketing setting.  I use mine all the time. I’ll often take 5 or 7 different exposures of the image.  90% of the time I use just the normal regularly exposed image, but if I decide I want to have greater highlights or shadows all the information is there in a different picture.  This also leads to the HDR world, which I’m not going to even go near in this article, but HDR is here to stay and multiple exposures are a necessity for it.
  9. 9. Pay the extra money to get into parks and travel on scenic roads.  For example the 17 mile drive at pebble beach, California.  It’s $9 to drive along this road and I almost didn’t go the first time I was there.  Well, I’m glad I paid the money, it’s one of the most scenic places along the California coast and if I never paid the toll I would have missed out on some of the greatest pictures on that whole trip.  The same goes for state and national parks.
  10. 10. Finally, be prepared; bring food and water with you in the car.  If you are hungry then your creativity will suffer.  Make sure you have a full tank of gas.  Nothing will screw with your brain more than running near the E and looking for a gas station instead of a great landscape.
  11. 11. Ok, one more.  Find your sunset image way before sunset.  I start looking for my sunset place about 3 hours before the sun sets.  It sounds like a long time but remember, you might have to hike a half-mile to get that unique vantage point, or it might take you an hour just to find a good location.  Once I find my location I can sit and wait and relax.  I get on my iPhone and start looking for hotels in my area so as soon as the sun is down and it’s dark I can just drive strait there and relax for the rest of the night before I have to wake up at that horrid time before daylight, ha ha ha.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Buying Used Photography Equipment

How to safely buy used photo equipment.

 

In today’s economy every nickel counts, and just like everything else cameras and lenses cost way more than anyone wants to pay.  I’ve had good and bad experiences with buying used equipment.  However, if you do it correctly then you can save a bundle.

Used equipment is available from several sources; some examples are eBay, craigslist, store returns, pawnshops, and private sales.  There are others but these are what I will be covering. I’ll give you the goods a bads and recommendations on what to look out for.

The type of equipment you buy is a huge consideration.  Stay away from used “push-pull” zooms.  These usually get loose and wear out with age.  Outdated cameras are also not a bargain like they might seem.  For example, you can buy a Nikon d1 or d2 very cheap now.  The problem is that while they were good in their day, now they are not.  The older pro cameras are slow with writing to memory cards, use a lot of battery power and usually have much more noise than even today’s modern consumer level cameras.  They were great in their day, really awesome, but now they are just simply old technology.

Tripods are a mixed bag; if you can see it and try it before you buy then it might be a good deal.  Things to watch for are loose clamps, bent legs, center shafts that are warped, and cracks in the legs on carbon fiber models.  I would avoid eBay or any online store that does not offer a money back guarantee on anything, but especially tripods.

Big expensive professional lenses are a tough one.  Here’s an example for how to be safe.  Nikon has been selling a 70-200mm 2.8 lens for years.  They recently upgraded that lens and most pro photographers will buy the new upgrade even if their old lens was working fine.  That’s usually a safe bet.  If a lens has been upgraded then buying the old model gives you a good chance that the old owner just upgraded.  The best way to be sure is to buy the old model right after the newer model is introduced; that’s when the market is flooded with the older lenses.  Same is true for professional cameras.  When the D4 is introduced later this year (I hope) there will be many many D3’s going up for sale.

Filters are a pretty safe bet.  Unless the threads are damaged or there is a scratch on the glass then there’s nothing that can go wrong with it.  Avoid batteries at all costs!  That seems like common sense but I see used batteries online all the time.  Strobe units are another to avoid, just way too many electronic parts to go wrong.  Bags and soft cases are usually safe.  Avoid hard cases because the padding is usually already cut to fit the previous owner’s equipment.

Used underwater cases are a huge treasure! So many scuba diver try underwater photography and fail it’s ridiculous.  Ebay is full of underwater systems that are used very little and you can save thousands sometimes!  Just remember to test the case in a pool without your camera in it first to make sure it doesn’t leak.

So where to buy your stuff, what’s safe, who will screw you?  Those are the important questions.  I’ll address several companies I’ve purchased from.  I really have no specific complaints for any company—I think I’ve just had a lot of good luck, ha ha.

KEH.com is my favorite place to buy used cameras and lenses.  They are very very honest and their return policy is awesome.  Their descriptions are accurate and their grading is very strict.  I hardly ever buy their top condition grade because I think they are way too strict. I usually look for items in their BGN or bargain grade.  To me they look almost perfect.  As far as I can figure is that if there is a scuff or scratch on something then it’s bargain to them. If there is anything specific wrong like a ding in the filter ring they will note that in the item description.  Their service is super fast often shipping the same or next day and the people on the phone are very knowledgeable.  Unfortunately you will wait on the phone on hold for a while because they are so popular.  I think that’s my only complaint with them.  Their return policy is simple, if you don’t like what you buy for any reason you can send it back and get a refund!

Amazon.com has a section that they sell items people have returned.  These things aren’t really  “used” they are simply customer returns.  If you call and get the right person sometimes you can get the operator to look in the notes and find out why it was returned too.  Do not wait and “think about it” these items move very fast, so buy it fast.

Ebay is a risky place.  I’ve had mostly good luck but remember, these are usually regular people that think their item is in much better condition that it usually is.  You will often see descriptions such as “mint, perfect, like new, pristine”  these are simply sales words and really don’t help you any.  Look at the description and contact the seller with specific questions.  I always ask for a phone number from the seller so I can call him and talk to him about it.  If he doesn’t give it to me I move on to the next item, easy.

Craigslist is another source.  Unfortunately it seems that everyone selling on craigslist thinks their stuff is made out of gold.  I rarely find good deals on there.  The advantage of that site is you can physically put your hands on the item and examine it before you give out any cash.  You can also put a listing on there that you want to buy used camera equipment.  This gives you the ability to name your own price if you are a good negotiator.  The only problem with that is you will get tons of people calling you and annoying you with old junk film and point and shoot cameras.

Pawnshops are great. You can get a great price and still be able to examine the item before buying it.  In today’s economy people are pawning everything.  The shops are paying almost nothing these days and that gives them a lot of leeway in what they need to charge.  Don’t pay the first price they ask, haggle with them.  If you develop a relationship with a certain store they will often call you when they get something in that they think you will want to buy and give you a better price than a normal customer.

Even with all these sources I still buy a lot of my equipment brand new. Just go by the old philosophy of Buyer Beware and use common sense and you should be fine.

 

Camera Stabilization

No matter how good of a photographer you are, if you can’t hold the camera steady your images will turn out like crap.  Image stabilization is one of the most important aspects of photography.  If you have a great picture opportunity make the most of it and be sure you will be holding that camera steady.

This article will explore a lot of different tools that you can use to hold your camera steady and reduce the dreaded camera shake. I will also give my opinions on brands.  So here is my disclaimer: I do not have any corporate sponsors, I pay retail for all my equipment and I give ya the good and bad opinions for brands of things I try.

First, lets examine the best ways you can hold your camera to be steady on your own without extra mechanical aids.  Really, who wants to carry extra crap if you don’t have to, right?  The basic rule for years has been anything slower than 1/60th of a second you can’t hand hold.  That rule still applies and you also have to remember that it was designed for use with a 50mm lens.  A more accurate rule is that you can’t hand hold anything lower than the “length of your lens”.  For example 200mm you need 1/200th, 600mm you need 1/600th.  There will always be people out there that have big egos and like to compete about who can hand hold 1 second exposures, but they are usually young and have a lot less years on their body than I do, ha ha.

There are a few techniques you can use to help hold steady.  The way you hold your camera is a big consideration.  Keep your elbows in and hold the camera to your face to help stabilize it.  Also, hold your breath as you press the shutter.  Leaning against something like a tree or a building can help you a lot as well, or sitting.  If you are in a car, that car window is a great support for your camera.

After you are done with your best ability of your body there are many mechanical aids out there that will make your life easier.  Some are bigger and bulkier than others; basically you sacrifice comfort for greater stability.

Tripods.  Tripods are the best means of stabilization.  Basically the bigger, stronger, heavier they are the more stable they will be.  I started out many years ago using a Slik aluminum tripod.  I still have it and my kids use it all the time.  It is actually nice and steady and lightweight.  The head is useless but the kids are just happy to have something big and professional looking, ha ha.  Slik still makes tripods and I haven’t tried one out, but I’d say they are worth a look since they have always been low cost.  Plus if they are still in business they must be doing something right after all these years.

Today I use Gitzo carbon fiber tripods.  I honestly can’t say anything bad about them except for the price, ouch.  But they open and close easily, they are strong and the quality is worth the price.  I do have one Benro tripod.  It is the travel one that folds up backwards to make it very small and compact.  Unfortunately I really can’t say much good about it except for the small size.  The included ball head does not let me feel comfortable with a professional camera and medium size lens.  I’m afraid it will fall off or wobble around.  The biggest complaint I have with it is the legs do not stay locked.  Now, let me explain; often when I’m walking through the woods I use the tripod to help me steady myself.  I extend one leg and use it like a walking stick or support when I’m climbing over a log or large rock.  With the Benro tripod it will almost always collapse inside itself.  I have never had it collapse when I’m using it with a camera thank goodness, but it is a big complaint I have.  Upon examination I discovered that they use a very fine thread pattern to tighten and loosen the twist clamps for the leg.  I think the fine thread is the problem because obviously it doesn’t allow you to tighten it enough.   Also, for some weird reason they do not use the “righty tightly , lefty loosen” method to tighten and loosen the legs; it’s backwards.   So enough bashing them, just buy the gitzo version and you’ll be happier.

Now, if you can’t afford the best tripod out there you can add some stability to the one you have.  Firstly, try not to extend the tripod out all the way.  The shorter it is the more stable it will be for you.  Try not to extend the center column either, that will take away some of your stability.  If you do have to have all the legs extended, hang something heavy from your center column.  This will help it stay down and make it a bit stronger.

Ball heads are the next important part of a tripod.  I personally haven’t found one that I’m overjoyed about.  I suggest that you go out and try a few at your local store if possible.  Look for a heavy one that has big knobs which you don’t have to turn much to tighten or loosen for adjustments.  If you are using at larger lens like a 300mm 2.8 or larger then you need to use a gimbal head.  Wimberley makes an awesome one.  There are a lot of knock off versions of their older model.  Some are good, some are not.  Their newer model is spectacular and I figure if you spend thousands on that big lens then spend another $500 and get a real Wimberley head.  They are a small company and it feels good to support them.  Plus they have the best customer service that I have ever delt with from any camera equipment manufacturer. Period!  Call them, I’d love to be sponsored by them, I think they really deserve our money.

Moving down the road we come to monopods.  Monopods are awesome if you only need to get a little bit of stabilization or if you need to be portable.  I often use a monopod on my 600mm with fantastic results.  The best way I’ve found is sitting with it extended a small amount to get the least amount of wobble with that big lens.  They are great tools where you are in a rush to get the shot or you just don’t want to carry that big bulky tripod all over the woods with you trying to find those bears.

Beanbags are wonderful for all sizes of lenses.  A beanbag can completely immobilize a camera on a car window, a rock ledge, almost anywhere.  The biggest complaint I hear about beanbags is that they are big and bulky and take up a lot of space, well that’s easy to fix.  I don’t own an actual beanbag, I have an empty zip lock bag and I fill it with dirt, sand, or whatever is laying around the area.  It works, it’s free, and it doesn’t take up any space in my bag.

Recently I’ve discovered a new product called a Steadepod.  It basically screws into your tripod socket on your camera, then a wire comes out of it and you step on the end of the wire.  Then you pull up and it adds tension and support.  I know you have no idea what I mean so check out their website www.steadepod.com they can explain it better than I can.  I haven’t tested it enough to say one way or another if I like it yet, but for $25 it’s worth a try I figure.

Nobody likes to carry a tripod and set it up and then carry it back to the car, it’s a pain in the ass.  Unfortunately it’s often a necessity until we can figure out how to make the assistant become frozen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using “Live View” in photography

Many many photographers consider live view to be something unnecessary. I however have found it to be quite a useful part of my camera.  some cameras make it easy to use and some make it a bit less convenient.

as i sat in glacier national park watching a bear through the viewfinder i thought to myself “there has to be a better way.” i’m sitting down, my camera is on the tripod and here i am twisting my neck upwards and sideways to stare through that viewfinder for an hour at a time.  i can tell you, i felt that sore neck for the next 2 days.  so live view to the rescue.
the next day i was sore and uncomfortable so sitting and staring just wasn’t going to be a fun option, so i decided to give live view a try.  well, short story, it was great.  you can sit back, mount your camera on a tripod and watch the screen much easier than twisting around looking through the small viewfinder.  it greatly prevented more neck pain and i think this comfort thing is a huge advantage.

i have found this to be a huge advantage when shooting from a tripod but not so much when you are hand holding.  one huge advantage is shooting from a car.  frequently i’m driving and i use the window as a rest for a large lens.  sitting in the driver’s seat with a 600mm resting on the window makes for some big bending and twisting on my part to get my eye to that viewfinder.  but with live view i can simply put the seat back a bit, turn to the side and have a much more comfortable position and i am able to stabilize the camera better as well.

landscapes and scenics are a place where live view really can shine well for you.  i shoot many panoramas and live view makes it easy for me to keep track of landmarks and reference points so it will be easier for me to put together back on the computer.  plus, a huge thing that most don’t know about is live view is essentially a mirror lock up.  when doing long exposures the camera can shake with the simple movement of your finger pressing the shutter, or the mirror moving.  the problem with using mirror lockup in the normal viewfinder is that once you lock the mirror you can’t see what you are trying to shoot.  well live view to the rescue: now we can see what we are shooting, we can refocus, adjust for things, and with a shutter release cable or a timer release you can practically eliminate camera shake.  one example i have is when i was shooting some newborn bald eagles.  the light was poor, they were far far away so i had to use a long lens and teleconverters.  with the low light some of my shots were 60th of a second.  even with a big tripod and a wimberly head using such a slow shutter speed and a 600mm with converters just never would have worked well through the viewfinder. the simple weight of my hand on the camera was noticable.  so here we are with live view, the mirror is locked, i use a cable release and i don’t have to twist my neck up.  i simply sit back, watch the screen and when the birds do something interesting i just push the button on the release.

many many people will say it’s great to be able to see what the image will look like on a bigger screen than the viewfinder.  well, yes, that’s also a great feature.  sometimes when looking through a viewfinder we get caught up on the main subject and forget the surroundings a little.  with live view you can play around with composition a bit more sometimes.  on some cameras  you can set the point where it will focus and you can move that point around easily while watching the whole scene.  this is particularly helpful in wildlife photography where the subject is often hidden partially in the woods.  now you are sure the subject is in focus, not the trees all around it.

some cameras are better than others at how the live view will work and the benefits and drawbacks of it. it does look like nikon is improving on their design now by having a dedicated live view button on the d300s. this is great because i can still use my fast 9fps with live view.  unfortunately my older d700 does not have that dedicated button so i’m stuck with one frame at a time, but i’m sure they will change that with updates on new bodies.  most importantly be familiar with your camera.  play around with it and learn now it works.  this is a whole new way of thinking about composition and body position and like anything else in life it takes a bit of getting used to. once you figure it out and get comfortable with it you will sleep sounder and won’t be eating aspirin for neck pain at the end of each