Thursday, May 1, 2008

How to Get the Most out of the Gear You Already Own - Part 1

How to Get the Most out of the Gear You Already Own - Part 1

I think this can apply to all levels of photographer, and a huge variety of camera gear. Please don't take this post the wrong way. I do have a lot of "stuff", but that alone hasn't made me take "good" photos... and I didn't know all this when I first started out with a dSLR in August of 2005.

Suggestion 1
My number one suggestion, and it's so obvious, is get out and take/make photos often. Over the past couple of years I've probably been out shooting nearly every weekend day, and on average a day or two during the week as well. The more you use the gear you have, the better you will know it. The more you get out to familiar places as well as new places, the more chances you will have to get that shot, something new, something you've never captured before. Or maybe it will be something you HAVE seen before but you missed the chance before due to something you could have had under control but for whatever reason caused you to miss that chance. The more you get out, and use the gear you have, the more the gear will become second nature, and the more time you can spend focusing on your surroundings and what you see, and what you think you might want to shoot.

Suggestion 2
This might seem controversial or counter-intuitive, but, until you get all the specifics of how your camera works, and what you like to shoot, and what works best, you should just shoot in jpg mode. Forget about the raw feature of your camera. You will wind up spending too much of your time processing images, instead of doing what will serve you better which is getting out and taking images, and learning to control the tools in your hands (the camera and lens). An image that you didn't capture properly can only be recovered so much. If it takes you an hour to improve via the raw file an image 10%, vs what you can do from the jpg in 2 minutes, is it worth it? Wouldn't you rather have spend that 58 minutes taking more images, and getting better at operating your camera?

Suggestion 3
This one requires that you handle your gear with care, and keep it clean. Don't use a UV filter on your lens, unless you only are using it as a protective filter while not actually shooting images. A UV filter will degrade the quality of your images, reduce the ability of your camera to focus due to the extra layer of glass, and can add lens flare due to light bouncing off the filter itself.

Suggestion 4
Don't use a Circular Polarizer as a standard attachment for your lens. All too often I see someone with a dSLR and they're not an avid shooter like I am, and they're shooting in poor light, indoors, or on a cloudy day, and they've got a polarizer on the front of their lens. Unless you're shooting in direct sunlight, directional sunlight, there's little reason to use a polarizer, with the one exception being when shooting through glass, to try to cancel out a reflection. What you get when using a polarizer in the wrong circumstances is decreased image quality due to the extra glass. But what is even worse is you lose about 2 stops of light.

A polarizer works by blocking out light from a certain direction. When you have harsh light coming from the sun, this can be helpful. But as a general rule, you're going to turn a chance to shoot at a give ISO and f/stop at for example 1/1000th of a second in to one where the shutter speed is instead about 1/250th. So you're going to give up sharpness due to the slower shutter speed.

But one of the real impacts is that you're depriving the focusing system of your camera the light it needs to gain and track focus quickly and accurately. If you have a lens that is near the limits of what your camera is rated for to focus properly (Nikon is f/5.6 I think) you're going to think that the camera isn't working right or well, and you'll end up either not getting the images, or getting ones that are not fully in focus, and are also possibly blurry due to a slower shutter speed. A polarizer on a lens at f/5.6 will turn it in to a lens with the equivalent light of a lens at f/11 (one stop is f/8, second stop is f/11) and you won't even get the benefit of the added sharpness or depth of field that f/11 straight from the lens would offer. So, to get the same shutter speed and aperture at 5.6 with a polarizer you need to for example to change your ISO from ISO 200 to ISO 800, and add all that noise due to the higher ISO, but you will still not get the focusing advantage back. When you stop down a lens, it uses the lens at wide open to gain focus prior to taking the shot, and then at the last second changes the aperture and shoots the image. With a polarizer that light is blocked throughout the process of capturing the image, and thus limits the ability of the camera to lock and track focus.

I'm going to leave this blog post at that, and revisit some more of the basics in a follow up post.

To summarize: Get out often and learn your gear. Don't use a UV filter or a Circular Polarizer (as a general rule), and while you're in the (early) learning stages of photography shoot just in jpg mode so you don't end up spending a lot time trying to recover or improve flawed images in post processing that could have been shot better from the start if you were more familiar with the camera gear and settings in the first place.

The following image was taken at 400mm, ISO 400, f/7.1, and 1/1600th of a second and is partially cropped, and didn't use a UV filter or circular polarizer...
2008_0426_D300_20686-cs1 copySM1




Eric Haas said...

Definitely some good suggestions here.

flickrfotografer said...

Excellent suggestions!

Thanks for the information on the UV filters. I've always used them on my film SLRs, mostly for protection. I wasn't aware of the negative effect they had on DSLRs. I did some further reading online and discovered that UV filter usage is responsible for the 'purple fringing' I have found on some of my photos.

Marty said...

You know, I've had a UV/haze filter on my lens the whole time to protect the lens, and you've got me wondering if it's been doing more harm than good. I think I might have to test out how things look with and without the filter this weekend.

Tom O'B said...

Wonderful advice, very valuable. Thank you for sharing.

I was in a camera store recently and the salesperson said I should definitely have a UV filter on all my lenses, all the time. I asked and was told there was no downside. To be kind I assume he just didn't know, but you wonder how many camera store clerks are dispensing bad advice like this all the time...

Nikographer said...

They try to sell them because they are such high margin, and if you have multiple lenses with different size rings you'll have to buy tons of them.

For the casual / clumsy shooter, they're good because they offer physical protection. But they do degrade image quality a bit, and can affect focus, etc.

mon@rch said...

Thanks for sharing all this info and I am one who hasn't done much with lenses! I really need to get some for my camera!