Living in a state of accord.

Adventures in Photography

It’s been ages since I posted anything about photography here, but I’ve been having fun learning how to take advantage of my camera more. I don’t take anywhere near as many photos as I should to really get good at it but I can see a gradual improvement which is good. I’m pleased to say that I’m quite confident shooting in AV mode now and despite never having enough time in post-processing, have a streamlined workflow that’s now reliably matching or bettering the automatic settings.

Here’s a few from my recent trip to Denmark that I was pretty happy with. To be fair, the setting pretty much photographed itself but since unusual thoughts like composure and framing actually entered my mind I think I deserve some credit.

Standing on the Dock of the Lake

Boats in the Lake

More Boats in the Lake

I can see a few ways I’d improve most of them, but I can look at these and really feel like I captured the beauty of the scene which is fantastic for me right now.

Canon Lens Recommendations

I've held off asking this here because there’s tons of generic lens advice on the internet and it’s too hard to describe what I’m looking for to get specific advice (because frankly I don’t really know). Anyway, I currently have two lenses – one a Canon EF 18-55mm IS 3.5-5.6 lens, it’s what I use almost exclusively. The other is a Tamron 55-200 f4-5.6 which I use when I need the extra zoom but largely ignore because it takes noticeably inferior shots. I also find that 55mm is just a bit too much zoom for a lot of the holiday shots I want to fire off quickly so I miss a lot if I have the bigger zoom lens on my camera.

I don’t really do well with inside shots at the moment – a faster lens (or some off-camera lighting and associated expertise) would be handy for that.

So my choice seems to be between:

  • get a better quality zoom of about the same range as the Tamron with image stabilizing so the zoom is a bit more useful, higher quality and particular a bit better in low light situations where the Tamron struggles.
  • get a lens somewhere in the middle – I saw a Cannon lens that went from 28mm-135mm somewhere which would fit the range of zoom I use really nicely and would be a handy all purpose lens.
  • get one of the “nifty fifty” type prime lenses, which tend to be nice and fast and work well for the general indoor with people doing stuff kind of shots.

Or possibly there’s something else I should be considering… There’s way too many options out there.

Good Mode or Bad Mode?

Back as far as Raskin’s The Humane Interface, and quite possibly before, modes in user interfaces have been frowned upon. Despite that, huge amounts of software ships with a simple mode and an advanced mode. The theory being that when users get started they use the simple mode which makes the simple tasks they want to do really straight forward. Later when they want to do more than the basics, they’ll be more familiar with the software and thus be able to handle the advanced mode.

The problem is, the user has become familiar with the simple mode so when they switch to advanced mode, they are rank beginners again and thus can’t handle the advanced mode. There’s simply no bridge to get them from the simple mode to the advanced mode. They’ve been set up to fail.

The problem is, it’s incredibly hard to convince people of how wrong this kind of thing is because the initial feedback is always so positive. The simple mode is way simpler and users can get stuff done that they couldn’t before. The problem lies just beyond that, there’s no way the user can use all the rest of the functionality. So you either need to make your advanced interface as simple as the simple one (eliminating the modes) or just get rid of the advanced functionality since it’s too hard to use anyway (or I suppose just not care about usability).

Fortunately, yesterday while wandering around Wisley Gardens taking photos of flowers I realized I was holding one of the most dramatic examples of modes and how it inhibits the learning curve. The Canon D40, like most DSLRs has a bunch of modes you can put it in:

  • Fully Automatic
  • Flower/Macro
  • Landscape
  • Portrait
  • Aperture Priority
  • Shutter Priority
  • Fully Manual

Somewhat surprisingly, this is a good thing. The camera, isn’t able to tell if you’re taking a picture of a flower and thus want a short focal length and vivid colours or if you’re taking a portrait shot and want a slightly deeper focal length and softer tones, so it gives you an easy way to tell it what you’re doing so it can take the best shot. These are “good modes” – they’re not so much modes as they are settings designed to help you out, but hidden in there is a bad mode.

See, the first few modes are the “beginner zone” and the last few are the “creative zone”. When you’re in the beginner zone you don’t have any control over the ISO, the aperture, the exposure or even if the flash is used beyond picking the mode you want. In the creative zone however, you’re suddenly expected to understand and manage all of those extra settings. This is a bad mode.

I very quickly realized that since I’m quite new to SLRs, if I tried to manage all those settings by myself, the shot would generally be pretty average. If I set it to flower mode though and used my SLR as a good old point and shoot it would take fantastic photos every time (my lousy framing and lack of a macro lens not withstanding).

It was extremely tempting to go running around the garden in beginner mode being able to quickly and easily take pictures and getting great results but I knew if I did that I’d be stuck in beginner mode forever. At some point I have to go running around taking lousy photos just so I can learn what all those settings do and take full advantage of my camera. Once I master them all though, I’ll be able to get the shot I want in so many more situations and have so many more types of shot suddenly available to use for artistic expression.

So how could the camera make things better? Well, just enabling the options in beginner mode would be a good start. Set them all for me automatically but let me override them if I want to learn. That way I can play with aperture, and just aperture, to learn how it works and by looking at the settings the camera picks to work with my aperture, even learn how it interacts with the other settings. The camera does in fact provide some presets to help when shooting portraits, landscapes or flowers even in the creative zone so maybe I could use them as a stepping stone. Of course, they aren’t on a big dial on top of the camera so I can’t remember how to get to them… It’s certainly not an easy problem to solve, but it is quite clearly a problem. Since almost everyone has used a camera before, usually a point and shoot, it should also be a pretty good example to show why modes can hold you back – they’ve used a camera quite a lot, but still haven’t learnt anything about all those exotic settings. Maybe then we can start solving the usability problems instead of just trying to sweep them under the carpet. After all, the results are really worth it.

Freedom In Photography

As part of planning our wedding next year, the lovely Janet and I have begun looking into photographers. It seems that at least some photographers apply the same dodgy lock-in practices as software companies do by holding onto the copyright of the pictures they take at your wedding and forcing you to go back to them for reprints.

Apart from the fact that I'm somewhat uncomfortable with anyone owning the photographic memories of our wedding, the terms and conditions from one particular photographer are just ridiculous. This particular photographer will quite happily provide you with a DVD of all the photos they take in high resolution – you just have to wait two and a half years after your wedding and pay an extra $750. I'm not sure what happens if he happens to be hit by a bus in those two years or if for some other reason he goes out of business.  As we left our meeting with this photographer I felt quite uneasy about this terms – just feeling that something was wrong, however as I thought more about it, I thought of more and more situations where it would really come back to bite us.

We plan to go live in the UK for a time, and if we happened to move over there and want another picture of our wedding to hang on the wall, we'd have to call back to Australia and have it printed over here, then shipped to us in England – not to mention paying ridiculous prices for the extra copy. If we owned the copyright and had the negatives or full resolution digitals, we could just go to any printer to get copies.

There's no indication in the conditions of how long our photos will be stored and made available to us for reprints. If in twenty years our house burns down and our wedding album is lost, there's no guarantee we'd be able to replace it, even if the photographer is still in business because he may have deliberately deleted the photos or just lost them because his backup strategy wasn't good enough. If we owned the copyright and had the full resolution originals we could just have it remade – particularly so if we had all the layout/design work that went into the actual album as well as the pictures.

It sounds like the best approach will be to pay a photographer to come and take the pictures, thus making it a work for hire so that we actually own all the copyrights. It will be interesting to see what the cost difference is, both up front and over the longer term.

I just have to wonder how many people have been caught out by things like this.

Beach Trip

Headed down to Tweed Heads with SWHO (she who is happily obeyed) and took some nice photos, here's my favorite.  Click for a bigger version – give me a yell if for some reason you want the full 2048×1536 version.

Roadside Shelter at Kirra Beach