Summer is coming to an end, and what did I learn? Actually quite a bit—embarrassingly simple fundamentals I should have known all along. I am going to share a few here in the event they might be of benefit to others.
1. Don’t fear higher ISOs. I have screwed up too many good shots because I was afraid to turn up the ISO to 1600. Newer cameras actually produce pretty good images with little or no noise and decent resolution at higher ISO settings like 800 and 1600. To qualify that, if you are shooting in good to bright light, then a higher ISO setting assures sharper images, particularly if you are photographing people or critters that might move some. If you do get noise, dial it back with plug-ins like NIK Define or Topaz DeNoise. (See 4. Below). That said, I prefer ISO 100 or 200 when possible.
2. Don’t be afraid to use a monopod. I hate to stand out with my camera, so I hesitate to use a monopod or tripod unless I really need it. However, particularly if the light is low or the lens is long, the monopod can save a lot of photos for you. I think most newer lenses with image stabilization will work fine on a monopod, but I turn it off anyway on both the monopod and tripod just to be sure. I find that spiders, dragonflies, and butterflies are harder to photograph freehand as are people. Monopods can be cheap and compact. But I am now convinced that all my friends who have counseled me toward a sturdy tripod are right. I recently upgraded my tripod to one that is considerably larger and more substantial, and I seem to be getting better images with my long lens as well as my standard lenses. But in those situations when you cannot drag your tripod along, a monopod works well. A half hour recently with my long lens on a monopod produced a number of insect photos I am very happy with. I was able to get better aim on the moving critters. I set the ISO at 800 and 1600 and pushed the shutter speed often to 1/3000 sec. The extra stability made some of the shots work quite well. Now I have to keep working on anticipating their movement so I can catch one in flight.
3. Let the shutter open. Night photos taken using a tripod can be especially fun if you let the shutter stay open a few seconds. Drop back the ISO to 100 or 200 or even 400 and use the mirror lock-up and a cable to keep the camera stable. Don’t be afraid to experiment with exposure times. If you are shooting at infinity, you can leave the aperture open pretty wide and get a nice image, or you can close it down. I used to always close the aperture down to f/22 or so, but now I am finding I can get a crisper image on these long exposures if I shoot around f/8
4. Get rid of the noise. Unless I am viewing a print shot with something like the old standby, Tri-X film, noise or grain turns me off. Topaz Labs’ DeNoise and NIK’s Define both do a masterful job on eliminating noise. While I use both liberally, I take care not to be too aggressive with noise reduction. Sometimes, you need to tolerate a little noise to get the detail and sharpness you really want in an image. I guess you can take that advice with a grain of salt—pun intended.
5. Plan your light. I have to admit that this really fundamental idea is one I have had to work on. I knew better, but out of laziness or business, I too often ignored what is critical to a photographer’s success. For outside photos, that means checking out the location, sun angle, weather, and time of day to make sure optimal natural lighting works for you. When natural light is not working for you, make your own and test it out ahead of time to make sure you don’t lose the shot. I guess if you get really good at this, you can walk in and make the shot under any conditions from experience, but successful photographers I know at all levels always plan their lighting.
6. Make the best of bad weather. You know hackneyed advice about making lemonade when you are handed lemons. Sometimes you get up early and are hoping to be rewarded with an awesome sunrise. Instead the sky fills with a slate gray canopy, and your dreams evaporate. Remember, you are now looking at a monochrome landscape that is ideal for black and white conversion or possibly for treatment with software programs such as Topaz Labs’ recently released Clarity or ReStyle. Whichever way you decide to go, you may be lucky and produce a moody image that speaks to your heart.
As much as I now know, I am amazed at how much more I have to learn and internalize so I can improve my photography. The summer months were particularly productive this year in that regard, but I am now looking forward to fall shooting.