Sunday, June 22, 2008

Half of photography is just luck...

Thanks to a friend's suggestion/encouragement, I've decided to start blogging again... this time it'll focus around photos and photography in general... I don't think my photos are good enough to warrant blogging about, but I'll at least try to describe my thought process, places I've been, lessons learned and whatever else I see. If nothing else, it'll document my journey over time as I think I've changed a lot over the past 2 years when I first picked up my SLR. Hopefully I can keep this up longer instead of just forgetting about it :).

I've recently started a photo club at work in Santa Monica. We'll be doing bi-weekly assignments together and hopefully learn from each other. Some people were intimidated by the idea of a photo club thinking it'll be filled with professionals with their big SLRs, and I had to reassure them that equipment does not matter. I've seen some amazing shots taken by simple point and shoots. Personally I believe there are 3 factors that make up a good photograph:

40% is skill of the photographer... this includes basic techniques and understanding how to use your camera.
10% is the equipment... this might be a bit high, but the equipment is really an enabler in some cases, it makes certain shots that much easier to get.

The rest... 50% of it is pure luck. Sometimes, you just have to be at the right place at the right time and let mother nature do the rest.

Looking back at some of the photos I've taken the past 6 months or so... I think the majority of my photos falls in the luck category.

Case in point: This photo is quickly becoming one of my favorite photos. I think it is more or less pure luck... we were on a trip to KenTing (southern most part of Taiwan) when we just decide to pull over at some random run down beach. At the time I knew that you can make some interesting photos with this old fish net so I intentionally tried to include it while my mom avoided it like a plague. But I had no idea how much I'd like the image until after I snapped the first shot and realized I had found something really cool and decided to snap a few more shots, trying harder to compose it but nothing beat the original shot. I've since framed this shot up on my wall now and no matter how many times I look at it, it still fills me with a sense of joy. In the end, it was pure luck that I got this photo... if we had stopped at the beach 30 mins earlier, the light wouldn't have been the same and it just wouldn't have worked... the sky was also perfect in my opinion... a bit ominous with the clouds but still clear enough for the blue to shine through. The golden light of the setting (but not yet set) sun, the empty beach, everything just came together for me.
Of course sometimes it takes a lot of practice to get the shot just the way you want it, I guess that's why people call it painting with light. This is by far the most complex (and maybe the most technically challenging) photo I've ever taken. I'm shooting straight into the sun here which means that the foreground would be completely black if I don't use a flash. I decided to use a wide angle lens to try to exaggerate the size of the cactus and make it stand out even more. Once I got the composition more or less the way I wanted, then came the hard part: balancing ambient light with flash. Thanks to the strobist ( seminar I went to earlier this year, I knew exactly what I had to do. Normally The exposure is affected by both the shutter speed and aperture; but things are a bit different when using a flash. The amount of the flash that gets captured is purely determined by the aperture... the wider the aperture (smaller the F value) the more of the flash you'll capture along with ambient light. This means that you can increase the shutter speed to capture less ambient light without affecting the flash (well... sort of but that's a different story). After a few quick test shots in manual mode, I decided to set the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second so that I can still get some color in the background but that it is dark enough to not draw attention away from the cactus (apparently I should have paid more attention since that sun is still too bright). At 1/1000th of a second, I had to put my flash into high speed sync mode which meant that it had less power/reach but that was fine. I was only like 2 feet away from the cactus anyways. I didn't want the light from the flash to spill too much on the foreground so I decided to point the flash (on camera flash) away and use a few business cards to act as my mini-reflector. I forget the exact flash setting but the aperture was set at f5.0 so just take a few test shots to determine the right power output for the flash. Overall, I am extremely happy with the shot and the mood that the dark background sets up. If I had to do it again, I'd definitely take the flash off the camera and use a snoot or something to direct the flash better. Oh well :).
And finally, sometimes you DO need the equipment... Having the ability to shoot 5 frames per second meant that I got 5 or 6 shots to pick from... also having a 200mm lens also really helps with the composition :). But I think this is really a rare case. And you can definite still get good action shots with any camera, it is just a bit harder.

I'm a firm believer that the equipment does not make the photographer... you can have thousands of dollars in equipment and still take the crappiest photos (hm....) while someone with a point and shoot can still take award winning photos. As people say, it's the machine behind the camera that matters the most. People might not believe me looking at the gear that I carry around everyday... to be honest a part of me regret the path I've chosen. I definitely don't recommend people to do what I did i.e. buy 4 or 5 lens all within 3 months of buying the SLR as a complete beginner. I wish I had held off and just gone with one kit lens to really learn how to shoot photos... but like most guys... I just like to buy new toys :). In the end, I got lucky and all the lenses I bought 2 years ago I still use religiously today (some more than others) but I've definitely gotten good mileage out of each one and they've enabled me to take shots that I wouldn't have been able to otherwise. In the end, just keep shooting, a lot, and look at your photos to see which ones you liked better and try to figure out why. Digital film is free, just keep shooting, try different angles, low, high, close, far, left, right, and experiment, do something out of the box; the most boring perspective is roughly 5 or 6 ft at eye level. But most importantly, have fun! I know I certainly did the past two years.