Advice for beginning photographers

Scrutinize by Paurian on FlickrOver the years I’ve come to the realization that no singular type of informational source is fully acceptable. As people we have five physical senses and being such, we relate better with multiple formats of learning.

For learning photography there isn’t one “perfect” site to stick with. Each decent site has its strengths, but each of these sites also miss some important topics. There are several sites for learning great general photography techniques, digital photography techniques and post-processing techniques. Many times the general photography and digital photography techniques overlap.

The most important concept, and sometimes the most difficult, for a beginner to grasp is that of exposure. Painters, like most artists, are trained to notice light and shadow. Most paintings compress the dynamic range to allow the viewer to enjoy all aspects of the painting in a similar way that our eyes and brain process images. Photographers, however, need to look at light differently because of the constraints of their primary tool. Cameras see light differently, so when taking a photograph think about lighting like a camera. The most important thing you could learn is how aperture, shutter speed and ISO Sensitivity work together in creating all exposure.

Scott Kelby’s   Digital Photography
Bryan Peterson’s   Understanding Exposure
National Geographic’s   Photography Field Guide
Bryan Patterson’s   Learning To See Creatively
Bryan Peterson’s   Beyond Portraiture
Brenda Tharp’s   Creative Nature Outdoor Photography

Digital Photography School was founded by Darren Rowse. While not much more than a photography hobbyist, he has done an excellent job of collecting ideas and getting guest writers to produce great articles on photography.

Popular photography magazine has a more professional team that still covers the basics. I particularly enjoy their “how-to” section for ideas that range the entire gamut of the digital photography experience.

a href=””> is an interactive learning site with many fantastic articles on learning general photography. This site was founded before digital photography became mainstream so most of its content is geared around general photography. You’ll notice the “Post-Exposure” section is only a small part of their list of tutorials. Here are the main articles I would recommend from this site:

  1. Then there are a few online books and articles at Photo.Net. This is the place I got started on since there were no other resources on the internet at that time, but it has some really key articles that every photographer should read.

Those last two links from the site about tripods are pretty important. It turns out that if you want to do really good professional photography, even in fast lighting, a tripod can greatly improve the results. This is especially true for landscape photography. Of course, with wedding and on-site portrait photography you’re usually very limited to when you can use a tripod, which is when that first article on flash photography techniques (below) becomes excruciatingly important.

Do you have iTunes? There are some amazing video podcasts for photographers!
Scott Kelby’s Photoshop User TV
Scott Kelby’s D-Town TV (Usually Nikon gear specific)
Ted Forbe’s The Art of Photography

There are other photography podcasts that are really good, but don’t have video – just search for “Learn Photography” or “Photography” in the iTunes search bar then click on the Podcast Section’s “See All” link.

There are blogs that are written by professionals that have amazing information. Below are some of my favorites articles:

  1. Flash Photography Techniques from Niel Van Niekerk – – Absolutely the best article on flash photography, period. He now sells a book, but still provides the material free on his site.
  2. When buying new equipment I check two sites: Digital Photography Review ( and Ken Rockwell ( Ken Rockwell is very upfront and honest about equipment and talks about certain aspects that others miss. He has a good primer and reminder called “Your Equipment Doesn’t Matter” ( and an overview ( that reminds us that spending big dollars on equipment does not make us any better than well trained eye. Apparently some of the best pictures have been made with really bad equipment (including the really poor camera on the original iPhone).

Personal Experience:
about photography:Zee Arteest by Paurian on Flickr
Take pictures often. Keep a digital camera at hand always, even if it’s just a cheap point and shoot that you picked up at the Target clearance shelf for $25. After you take pictures, look at them critically and if you have time and it’s possible (some photographic moments are fleeting) return to the site with your nice DSLR for an actual shoot. Look at your EXIF information. This is a photographer journalist’s dream come true! I used to record the f-stop (aperture), shutter speed and ISO along with the subject and shot # on a sheet of paper. That was a pain and took some joy out of the moment, but it’s still just as important. The difference is that nearly all digital cameras record that information for you – even the point and shoots. Now you can look at dozens of technical aspects of the photo from free software to learn from it. I think iPhoto has that ability, but it has been a while since I’ve played around with it. I use EXIF Viewer from opanda software for the PC and as a FireFox extension. Simple EXIF viewer for the Macintosh should be identical to the PC version just mentioned.

about flashes:
I read somewhere that it was better to have multiple SB-600s for the same price as one SB-900. The reasoning behind this is that with the right camera, the SB-600’s become multiple slave sources of light allowing for more control than the single SB-900. What I’ve learned is the type of lighting system you use is really dependent on the type of photography you’ll be doing – e.g. studio photography has more controlled lighting so less featured lights work well while on-site photography has less controlled lighting so flashes with more features and power become desirable and in landscape photography the flash is rarely ever used. Before investing in an expensive lighting system look at renaissance lighting techniques that utilize natural light with a great wow factor: Google “Chairoscuro lighting technique”. You should also use the natural window light technique. My most favorited photo by visitors on Flickr was done through natural window lighting (from a north-facing window).

about tripods:
In a couple of words: Garage Sales. When garage sale season comes up, I look for two things: photo props (e.g. chairs, hats, etc) and tripods. Stick with the following names: Gitzo, Manfrotto, Slik, Sunpak in that order. Gitzo will be the most expensive while Sunpak the least. Also, ball-heads are better than tilt-heads. Finally, you’ll want a tripod with a quick camera release of some sort. Usually it’s in the form of a foot that you screw to the bottom of the camera. Before I knew much about tripods, I was able to get a Gitzo tripod at a garage sale for around $20. I thought it was expensive at the time, but it was very sturdy so I bought it. Turns out to be an $400 tripod. It’s as heavy as a sack of bricks but in the windy mountains it sits very solid, which is critical. My other tripod is a light-weight “cheap” Sunpak. It’s okay for quick indoor shoots, but wobbles when anyone walks past it.

about purchasing camera accessories:
Since I like to trek off the beaten path, and got tired of having hard knobs and metal banging against my back spine, I got an inexpensive tennis racket bag from Salvation Army to carry the tripod in. In other words, since good tripods and tripod accessories are so expensive and cheap tripods and accessories are so plentiful, keep an eye open for the good ones at garage sales, flea markets and pawn shops and compromise when it makes sense. A benefit of getting beaten up, tattered and torn camera bags from these places is thieves overlook them for the snazzy new $100 looking bags that other tourists carry. If you noticed, the camera bag I looked at in the store didn’t look like a typical camera bag. The only accessories that most photographers don’t skimp on, and are very picky with are the lenses. Lenses range from $100 to $2000+. I have purchased some good used lenses, but only after really scrutinizing them through my camera body and taking a few test shots with them first.

about post-processing (sometimes called post-exposure):Juicy Fruit by Paurian on Flickr
Post-processing usually involves Photoshop, but can often be done with an equal quality with Gimp, a free open-source version. A new license of Photoshop usually runs around $600, though it can be had for as low as $200 on special occasions (as an upgrade path). Be very wary of eBay. I bought a copy of Photoshop from someone there and it ended up being pirated. Pirated versions have TEMPORARY license keys. After a couple of days your “bargain” $200 purchase of the $600 license will be rendered useless. I knew enough about Adobe products to pin the guy down the hour I received it. He quickly refunded my money in fear of being reported to the authorities. So caveat emptor. Gimp is free and, though the menus and hot-keys are different, the main functionality that you need for photo touch-ups are there. The most powerful are your layers, masks, Hue-Saturation-Brightness, Levels and Curves. 90% of all my post-ops involve only the last three while 9% of the rest only involve the full five. That last 1% is for special filter, convergence, and alignment functions. Another growing-popular choice for photographers is a workflow processing program called “Light Room”. This one normally runs $200, but could go as low as $100 on special occasions. Again, eBay can be a great place to get this, but “buyer beware” still applies. Light Room is also from Adobe and utilizes the same temporary license key technique that disables your software if its server discovers it to be pirated. For the past few years companies have been writing software that not only automatically updates the program when new bugfixes come out, but also reports to the server the license keys to determine if its legit or not.

Get Plugged-In:
Once you know the rules you’ll know when to break them and have the power of knowledge to deliberately do so. Even so, you need to be around others who are also familiar with these rules to give good direction and advice. Also there will be times when you get the equivalent of “writers block” and will need a push or an inspired idea to get rolling again.

You should get plugged into a social network photography site such as Flickr. From there you can join groups that will inspire, broaden and even critique your photography. At the very least, it allows a quick way for you to share your photos with friends and family. My wife likes to use the i heart faces social photography site.

And if you use someone else’s idea, or if a picture you see posted on the internet inspired you to take a few shots be sure to mention it. It’s okay to pull someone else’s hat trick as long as they get credit for the idea.

Finally – have fun. Enjoy it. If it becomes laborious you’ll resent it.
Catch me on Flickr

Cave Photography

Cave photography is tricky for several reasons. This is especially true if you’re trying to use the “natural” lighting that cave tours provide.

I tend to like the orange red glow of incandescent lighting, and taking pictures without a flash emphasizes my personal memory of the experience. While using a flash yields better sharpness, it also changes the lighting to something other than what you remembered seeing. However, it does show the true nature of the rock which tends to be browns and tans. Flash is nice if you’re wanting to study the geological formations, but not as nice if you’re wanting the feel of that memory.

1. Come Prepared

Make sure you have a crisp-just-recharged battery or even two. These batteries take a beating in darkly lit areas – whether it’s to power a flash or to power the sensor that’s being exposed for hundreds of times longer than usual. Also put the largest, fastest card you’ve got in your camera. In those dark caverns, fumbling around with your cards is a quick way to get them lost! You don’t want to open up your camera unless you really have to. What lens you use is up to you. I used a moderately slow zoom lens which took me from 3.4 to around 5. The 50mm f/1.8 might have been better, but many of those formations are so far out of reach that to close in on them you must zoom. Switching lenses during the tour increases your risk of dropping one.

2. Expect Grain

Push your ISO to the highest setting your camera allows and disable the flash unit if you have one built in. Even if you wanted to use a lower ISO, the long exposure time will create artificial grain and distortion on digital sensors so you’re going to get grain one way or another. Also expect a shallow depth of field. Push your lens to as fast as it can go by opening up to as wide an aperture as your lens allows. (Make that little f-number as low as it can get.)

3. Set To Burst

Set your camera to take a flow of shots instead of just one while you press the shutter button. In this setting, when you take a picture (remember to be perfectly still) hold down the shutter instead of just pressing it to take two or three shots of the exact same thing. This gives you a greater chance of capturing shots like the one you see here (this was the middle shot from a stream of three).

Camera shake isn’t as severely noticed in long exposures, but hand-holding a camera means it’s shots will be based on your overall stability on those slippery floors. The general rule is anything longer than 1/60 of a second should be on a tripod. Of the four different caves I’ve gone to, you couldn’t bring those in unless you have special permission. Somehow the flow of shots or burst shooting helps improve these odds.

4. Be Polite And Trail Behind

Our guide was rather miffed at anyone who wanted to stick around to admire the view. I think she was paid by the inverse of the hour by the comments she made and the way she wanted to cattle the fifty of us through so quickly. That’s another thing. These are usually large tour groups. Most people want to pay their $20 to walk through a cave quickly, learn a couple of things then spend another $20 on a T-Shirt that says they did it. They’re not interested in sticking around for an hour to fully appreciate the actual geological formations. What does this mean to you as the photographer? Stay at the end of the group.

In fact, I was so far back that the tour group behind us was just a few feet away – these tours were in 15 minute intervals. I wouldn’t suggest this if you were in the last tour of the day. Zoiks! Getting locked in one of these caves with all the lights out would be terrifying!

5. Seek Sensible Stability

If there’s a handrail nearby, lean on it with as much of your body as you can, and I mean squat down to the point that your arms, side and back are resting firmly on it. However, don’t lean on the walls. Let me say that again … DO NOT lean on the walls. You can be terribly fined for destroying the cave “life” by doing so.

We emit oils and acids that create a water barrier on these stones. That means the water won’t settle on these spots anymore to deposit the minerals that keep these formations “alive”. I think the fine here was around $15,000!

6. Protect Your Assets

Did I mention slippery floors? That camera strap better be around your neck. I usually have a small padded camera bag that fits around my shoulder at just the right height for the camera to rest in between shots while it’s still strapped to my neck. That way if I fall on my camera, it’s protected. I forgot that case on this visit, but it’s still good advice.

7. Remember Variety

Take pictures of formations up close and far back. The popcorn photo shows so much detail because I was zoomed into it and only 18 inches from it. Those things are small. Formations often look different looking back. Look up. Look down. Look behind you. Each of these are often missed photo opportunities and in most caves you’ll notice differentiations in the lighting that could make wonderfully appealing shots that would otherwise be missed.

8. Be Liberal With Your Photography

Be patient and take lots of pictures and at the highest resolution your camera allows. Out of about 200 pictures, only 20 of them came out with a decent level of sharpness. That’s only a 10% success rate. Some great formations could be discerned from the multiple identical shots of them, but not appreciated because of their blurriness.

9. Last words of wisdom? Hmmm…

Deep in the cave where the wind doesn’t blow, it’s hot. Dress cool. Wear good tennis shoes.

If I were to do this again, it would be by myself instead of with a family of kids and relatives. It’s an inconvenience to them. I’d warn the tour guide that I’m a shutterbug so I lag behind, then offer a small tip – like $5 or $10 in advance. In American Indian tours, they usually take a $20 – but a good Indian guide is easily worth that … some of the great shots in my Antelope Canyon trip were a direct result of advice from the guide! I would also ask the manager what types of accommodations could be made or if there were any special photography tours.

10. Final Words and Thanks

My mother in law was very gracious in buying our tickets. It was an expense she didn’t need to take, but it also created some great memories with the kids that they’ll talk about for years to come. I wanted to take some good pictures for the challenge and so that years down the road they could see them and recall that first whiff of cool cave air when they were still young.

New Textures – Two Introductory Sets

When I was young I just wanted to make stuff for the pleasure of it. When I got older I was told that wasn’t a way to make a living.

I disagree. God made things for a living so I guess those people’s attempts to civilize me into a common worker bee never quite stuck because of my higher childlike “ideals”.

My parents were pretty good with supporting me through it. Mom is an excellent painter and Dad is a great musician. They weren’t like the other grown ups who usually attended school board council meetings. That is, they weren’t looking for a way to build a society – just looking for a way to raise great kids.

If more people took up their personal responsibility to raise their kids instead of handing their kids off to the village (idiots) to raise them, I think they would discover that children are important… they’re a joy… they bring back those squishy playdough, colored in fingerpaint, bruised knees from playing in the rocks moments. That imagination is never really lost – not completely, anyway – it’s just suppressed. And like a good expectorant, when you have kids that creativity just spits right back up!

Enjoy the free cave and art textures:
Cave Textures
Art Textures