Final Project assignment, five 8×10 prints

For the final assignment, I selected five photos to have printed, then mounted them onto foamcore for display at the Empire State College campus in Cheektowaga, NY.

I brought two photos that were included in previous assignments, and shot three new ones that I felt represent a more abstract aesthetic that I’d developed through the course.

Below is the usual link to the online album of the photos, the captions of which comprise the remainder of my commentary.

Final Project images, all of which were cropped to an 8×10 aspect ratio for printing
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Portrait Photography

I’ve been doing portraits for years, sometimes in a fairly controlled setting, and sometimes just winging it. Sometimes the results are useful, sometimes they aren’t. But it’s certainly an important aspect of photography to master, whether it be for promotional purposes or just for a family Christmas card.

The challenge is usually getting the lighting right, and getting everyone into position. Of course, the more people you try to get into the photo, the more shots you’ll need, because out of twenty shots you might, if you’re lucky, get one where everyone’s got his or her eyes open and is looking in the correct direction.

My camera has a nice self-time setting on it that will wait up to twenty seconds and then fire up to nine times after that, although I have to make sure I’ve got very fresh batteries in my flash if I’m hoping for it to go off every single one of those times.

Below is an album of some various images I’ve collected, some recent, some not as recent, that I think illustrate some of the principles of portrait photography.

ESC Assignment – Portraiture

Master Your Camera

In all the excitement of waiting for my new camera to arrive, I never went back and actually did the assignment where I explained its features.

I bought a Nikon D3200, as I showed in my unboxing post and the one before it.

The main feature, the one that differentiates the D3200 from a lot of the cameras around it, is its extraordinarily high-resolution at 24 megapixels. It might even seem like overkill except for the possibility of some incredibly sharp images possible with some of Nikon’s better lenses.

The camera has a quick processor in it, the fastest generally available at this price level, and I’ve had some terrific experiences so far just blasting through one shot after another. It’s a tad slower when shooting in RAW format, and even slower than than when shooting in the RAW+JPEG format, where it saves both formats at once. When I set it to just shoot in JPEG format, I can keep firing rapidly for a few seconds before having to wait for the SD card to catch up. With the 4 fps continuous shooting mode, I can load up the card with images to choose from.

The camera has a decent built-in pop-up flash that will come up automatically in full program mode, and apart from some red-eye when shooting at a distance, it works well, and recharges quickly.

The shutter speeds range from 1/4000 down to a full 30 seconds, meaning I can shoot incredibly fast action or do a very long exposure. My old Canon AE-1 Program, by contrast, could only go from 1/1000 down to 2 seconds. When I wanted to shoot any longer than 2 seconds I had to screw in my shutter release cable and gaze at my wristwatch.

It has a “guide mode” that will choose all the settings needed to get good shots under a variety of conditions and of a number of different kinds of subjects, but I don’t see myself ever using it. I’d prefer to succeed or fail using my own intuition. My thought is that if one is going to use an in-camera guide, why bother with a DSLR at all? But it is a consumer-level camera, not a pro model by any means, so I just accept that the guide mode is there and opt to ignore it.

I generally most often use the camera on full manual (if I’m doing an assignment) or on full program (if I’m just shooting away at a gathering without the external flash). If I’m using my external flash, I’ll manually set the shutter speed to 1/200 (the max flash sync speed) and the aperture to around f8 or f11. I’ll usually do a few test shots of a gray wall to see if I’ve got an acceptable exposure level, and will make minute adjustments to the aperture or the power level on the flash before proceeding to make the rounds. There is a full program mode with no flash that I will sometimes make use of, if I feel there’e enough light but the camera doesn’t. Definitely annoying having the built-in flash pop up when it’s not wanted.

There’s an HD video recorder in the camera, and it works great. Trouble is, I have to dig into the manual (which I’ve downloaded from Nikon’s website and copied over to the iBooks app on my iPhone) to remember how to actually turn it on. I look forward to putting together a video sometime using both my D3200 and my Kodak HD camcorder, using iMovie to edit the footage into a compelling whole. There is a limitation, however, with the D3200, in that the sensor will overheat after about twenty minutes of continuous shooting, after which it shuts down to allow the sensor to cool. That’s a limitation I’ll have to learn to work around.

The autofocus on the camera is great. It can find subjects quickly and zero in on them nearly instantly. It’s rare that I miss a shot waiting for the camera to focus, even when a subject is moving. The focus can also be set manually to any one of the eleven focus points visible in the viewfinder. When in auto mode, the focus points light up red to indicate where they see a subject to focus on.

The auto metering is also terrific and very accurate. And when shooting in RAW mode I have even more latitude for making corrections after the exposure is made.

The ISO on the camera, as I showed in the ISO assignment, can be set manually from 100 to 6400, allowing for flash-free photography in nearly any lighting conditions. If I get my hands on a fixed-length, high-speed lens such as the 35mm f1.8 Nikkor lens I’ve been eyeballing from afar, I will have tremendous latitude for the conditions under which I can shoot. I may take up my old hobby of visiting my musician friends at their dimly-lit local pub gigs, this time around not limited to just shooting whatever film I was able to pick up on the way, and not having having to fret (no pun intended) about using up that film before the perfect shot comes along. With a capacity of 2,000 images on the 32GB card I just installed, I’m more likely to run out of battery power than frames.

A feature I’ve made a lot of use of, and have been very pleased with, is the self-timer. It can be set to fire up to nine times at a preset interval, and for taking family portraits it proves to be most handy.

There are some optional devices for the camera, too, such as the wireless remote control and the WiFi adapter, both of which I’m looking at as future purchases.

Guidelines for Better Composition

For this assignment I actually dug back into my photo archives and grabbed a handful that I feel represent some of the better composition that I’ve achieved or at least have found. These photos range from vacation snapshots to experiments in lighting and composition undertaken in a classroom setting.

Again, a lot of what I’ve learned about composition was under the unofficial tutelage of my friend at Delaware Camera twenty years ago. It was he who explained to me the notions of The Decisive Moment and the Rule of Thirds, ideas that seem obvious once they’re pointed out, but that revolutionized photography in their discovery.

In a small way, I almost miss the delayed gratification that came from having to wait until the film was developed and printed to see if I’d gotten the shots exactly right. But I say “almost” with good reason. I’m staggered by the fact that, with a 32GB SD card in my camera, I can shoot two thousand photos, the equivalent of more than fifty rolls of film, before I ever have to concern myself with either clearing the card or putting in an empty one. And considering, too, that the card cost me about as much in today’s dollars as I’d have spent on, say, three rolls of film, not including the cost to process it, and that an accident with the camera is far less likely to obliterate a day’s work than it was in the days of film, and I can really get behind the digital revolution with quite a bit of gusto.

ESC — Composition assignment for Nov 25

Rule of Thirds Assignment

I got a bit of an education on this topic back in my Delaware Camera days once I started really concentrating on composition using my SLR.

It’s one of those things one doesn’t really notice about photos until it’s pointed out. One might see a photo as being inherently better than another without knowing the reason why, and the Rule of Thirds can fill in the “why” in many cases.

It’s a bit like chess, where one of the main strategies is to fight for control of the center of the board, and not necessarily by just putting pieces there. A talented player will assert control indirectly, leaving the center squares empty.

And so, here, below, are some examples I’ve shot, either with my new DSLR or with my trusty old Canon Powershot (a point-and-shoot with surprisingly versatile features and control).

Rule of Thirds assignment

In-camera Flash Assignment Digital Photography

I’m old enough to remember when flashes were first built into cameras, at least, on the consumer side of it.

Of course, the original method of artificially illuminating a scene predates even my grandparents’ early years. A tray full of explosive powder would be ignited a moment after the shutter was opened, and the exposure would be made. Compared to this method, disposable flash bulbs were a significant technological advance. I specifically remember the “Flip Flash,” a bar containing ten bulbs, five of which could be fired before the bar had to be dislodged from the camera and flipped a 180° in order to use the remaining five.

I recall that smaller point-and-shoot cameras had built-in flashes a few years before SLRs did, but a little research has me surprised to learn that Nikon had a built-in flash on an SLR as early as 1987, but it wasn’t a pop-up flash. I remember those being introduced right around the time I started working at Delaware Camera in the mid-90s. The first one I remember is the Canon EOS Rebel, but that model, from what the TV commercial shows, required the user to actually physically lift the flash up into place, rather than the flash popping up on its own. I believe the successor to that model, the EOS Rebel IIs, worked the same way.

At any rate, my wife was lovely enough to find me a good deal on a new 32GB SD card, one with a high read/write speed, for my camera, and I went ahead and fired a few shots onto it this week for the in-camera flash assignment. The link is below.

ESC Assignment 1028 – in-camera flash

Article on WikiHow about using old digital SLRs

There’s some genuinely useful, practical advice in this article, How to Use Old Digital Cameras: 5 Steps.

Definitely worth a read to anyone who knows someone who wants to get into higher-end digital photography but doesn’t have hundreds of dollars to sling at a brand-new DSLR.

The advice might also be useful for someone who wants to dust off an old digital to lug around as a second camera.

I know, for myself, I have some old digital point-and-shoots around, and I’ll bring those to, say, a party or a wedding where my nieces and nephews will be in attendance, and I’ll hand the old cameras out to them (loaded with fresh batteries and recently-reformatted memory cards) and tell them to get out there and get some pics. But the last time I did that I was remiss in not making sure they understood how to keep their fingers away from the flash. A lot of pictures came out very dark as a result. Oh, well, mental note for next time—do a quick training session first!

White Balance Assignment

White balance is important, of course, to the overall look and feel of a photo, and the age of digital photography has made it easier than ever to control.

I remember once being asked to come down and shoot some slides of an event at the shopping mall where I was working as manager of the Delaware Camera there. Knowing that the room where the event was located was lit almost entirely with fluorescent indoor lighting, I dug into my camera bag and pulled out an FLD filter. The filter has a pink tint to it, and as pink is on the opposite of the color wheel from green, it has the effect of canceling the green tint that fluorescent light gives off. The green tint isn’t apparent to the naked eye, but photos are quite sensitive to it. So my slides, when processed, appeared well-balanced color-wise, although, naturally, areas in the background that were lit by outdoor light or by incandescent light would betray the pink tint.

It’s actually almost difficult on a digital camera to get the color balance wrong. Today’s cameras are quite good at correcting for it automatically, and even when it’s a little wrong, it’s so easy to adjust in iPhoto or Picasa that it’s practically a non-issue. Just the same, I took a whack at it, using a colorful paper pulp sculpture as a model.

ESC assignment – White Balance

ISO Assignment

When I first started working at Delaware Camera back in the early 90s, I actually didn’t know there was such a thing as “film speed.” In fact, other than a vague understanding of shutter speed, I had little knowledge of what the word “speed” meant in photography at all. I would’ve guessed at the meaning of a fast shutter speed, but the idea of a fast lens or fast film was new to me.

So, naturally, a crash course on the subject was in order, courtesy of my childhood friend who’d hired me to work with him, and who had a BFA in Photography from SUNY Oswego.

Kodak, which, back then, was still the world’s leading photography powerhouse and trendsetter, had quite the variety of film brands to choose from, each with its own niche in either the consumer or professional market, and, once I had my mitts on my sister’s hand-me-down Canon AE-1 Program SLR, I was eager to try them all.

I was particularly fascinated by the extreme ends of the spectrum. There was Ektar 25, an exceptionally slow-speed film, usable only under bright light with slow-moving or stationary subjects, but which delivered colors and detail that seemed to pop off of a well-rendered print. There was Ektar 1000, which was grainy, but able to hold up its colors admirably when shooting fast-moving subjects under less-than-ideal lighting conditions. When shooting black-and-white, I loved TMax 100 for it amazing contrast and clarity, and I loved, with equal measure, the outrageous power of TMax 3200, which let me photograph, without flash, subjects such as musicians playing in a dimly-lit club, with graininess that enhanced the documentary feel of the prints.

And I learned to print black-and-white photos by hand, laboring long into the night in my friend’s basement darkroom, always fascinated by the results. I learned the real-world application of techniques that, these days, exist mainly as tool icons in computer apps like Photoshop, such as dodging, burning, and tricks to increase contrast and clarity.

And one trick I learned was something called “pushing,” which meant to slightly increase the development time of a roll of film (with slightly warmer chemicals, perhaps) and thereby effectively double or quadruple its effective ISO. We would actually shoot the film at the higher ISO and then mark the film can as a reminder to “push process” the film when it came time to do so. This would, of course, increase the graininess of the images, but would allow for taking photos in conditions that would be otherwise impossible to shoot.

I find it interesting that DSLRs and other digital cameras still make use of the ISO model, allowing the digital photographer to take control of the sensitivity of the camera’s sensors in a way that mimics the process of choosing a roll of film to use for a shoot. Of course, as my attached photos demonstrate, this can be done from one single image to the next, another of the digital camera’s major advantages over the chemical processes it has nearly replaced.

Now, without any further ado, here’s the link to my example photos. The lighting looks slightly different in them as they go along, most likely because a good deal of the light is coming from outside. This lighting can fluctuate as clouds pass overhead. Without the ability to close any blinds and light the painting artificially, I was at the mercy of these changing conditions. The change in the quality of the image from the first to the seventh is not terribly obvious unless one looks very closely. So to give a better impression of this, I duplicated two of the images, the first one and the last one, and in each I cropped in very closely on the figure in the painting just to the left and below the center. I’ve placed those side-by-side in the album to show the tremendous difference in actual clarity between the ISO 100 and ISO 3200 settings on the camera.

ESC assignment 1007 – ISO

Lost my photos when my SD card crashed, or so I thought

I got back from my trip to Charlotte last Monday, and discovered, to my horror, that the SD card I’d been using in my new camera had crashed.

I’d put it into the slot on my MacBook Pro, only to have the Finder tell me that I needed to initialize the card in order to use it. I popped it back into the camera, which told me a similar tale, that it couldn’t read the card and needed to format it in order to begin using it.

So, I tried a few things to retrieve the photos, even spending the last $20 iTunes gift card left over from my birthday in July to buy a little Mac app called CardRaider that promised to do the trick. It didn’t do the trick. The $20 app got a short way into reading the card and would crash. The online documentation for the app suggested overcoming the crashing problem by running the app in “Safe Mode,” which meant it could only retrieve JPGs. That’s all well and good if one is shooting JPGs, but I was shooting in Nikon RAW format, so CardRaider was useless. $20 down the bog, so to speak.

I felt pretty close to just giving up on the last few photos I’d shot, all of which were taken on the final day of the trip during the drive home to Buffalo, when I decided to take one more look at a suite of open source recovery programs called TestDisk. TestDisk’s apps run from the Terminal, which requires a bit of advanced knowledge of technical jiggery-pokery, which I’m just barely savvy enough to claim. One of TestDisk’s tools is an app called PhotoRec, that specifically attempts to recover image files, Nikon RAW being among them.

It turns out that it wasn’t the photos themselves that were missing or corrupted, it was really more the file system on the card that had gone bad. The data is still there, and PhotoRec, along with the commercial programs that offer a more user-friendly version of its capabilities, can attempt to find the data by examining each sector of the card’s memory and looking for the telltale metadata that precedes the data for a file. The website for the app goes into greater detail about this process.

So, I downloaded TestDisk, expanded it to my MacBook Pro’s hard drive, fired up Terminal, and followed the instructions on the TestDisk website to the letter. In about half an hour, PhotoRec had successfully recovered every single photo on the drive, and had even found a few files left over from my previous use of the 16GB card, which had been as a boot drive containing Mac OS 10.6 (Snow Leopard) into which I could boot should I need to run a non-Intel app under Rosetta (which is no longer supported in Mac OS 10.8). Really, I’d only been keeping that old OS handy in case I wanted to play the original 1998 version of StarCraft with my nephews.

So, that’s my tale of woe and triumph, which I’m posting in case any of my classmates find themselves with a crashed memory card and are loathe to spend between $20 and $80 on software that will recover the photos from it. The open source PhotoRec software will run on Mac OS, Windows, Linux, and so on, but, again, it requires the use of a command line app like Terminal. Fortunately, the well-written documentation on the app’s website makes the process clear and easy to understand.

Now back to my assignments!

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