Five Things To Do With Any New Camera

nikon d5100
Step one with any new camera is reading the manual

Quite a few of you may be getting new cameras for the holidays. Most people are going to charge up the batteries, plug in a new storage card and start blazing away. That’s fine, that’s part of the fun of getting a new camera.

Once you get past that first enthusiastic blast, you’ll want to settle down and follow up with these five things.

Read The Manual

You really should do that before you start blazing away the first time, but try to tell someone with a new camera that they have to spend an hour with a book that appears to have been designed to be as dry and uninteresting as humanly possible.

But you will want to read it. Cameras are so complex, so jammed with features, that a lot of the neat things your camera can do are buried deeply in complex menus. While any camera will work in Auto mode, some of the real goodies will only be found browsing the manual.

Buy A Skylight Filter

If your camera has a kit lens or if you got a new lens for Christmas, then job one is ordering a skylight or sky 1-A filter.  Check the barrel of the lens to get the proper size for your lens.

Skylight filters are the cheapest insurance you can buy for a new lens.

Get a Rain Sleeve

While you’re getting the skylight filter for your new lens, get a rain sleeve, fold it up neatly and keep it in the bottom of your camera bag. That way you know where to find it without looking, day or night, in any working conditions.

Take a Class

Even if you’re an experienced photographer, you can learn a lot taking a photography classes. If you’re either a part-time pro or very skilled enthusiast, instructors will sometimes let you structure your class work to focus more on the elements of photography you’re interested in working on.

Go For a Walk

A photo walk in this case. Photo walks are organized by local photographers, photography clubs, nature clubs and bird watching groups. Many of them are free, some charge a small fee. It’s a great way to get out and spend the day taking pictures and getting to know other photographers.

I’ve met many of the local photographers on photo walks, it’s a great way to network and make connections in the business.

Flash Umbrellas – Size Does Matter

wescot 7 foot umbrella
New umbrellas like this 7 foot Wescott for $99 are bringing umbrellas back

It may come as a surprise to many photographers today, but softboxes are relative newcomers on the photography and video lighting scene.

In the old days on movie sets there were huge hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamps (HMIs), and “hot lights” with names like “Blondes”, which was a 2K open-face light and “Red Heads” which were 1K. Only poor filmmakers used Red Heads, although I saw them sneak on to big sets as background fills occasionally.

About the same time in photography, you probably would have found floor flash units mounted inside large umbrella reflectors.

Photography has always had an edge on film lighting, until very recently. With the advent of DSLRs on movie sets, we’re also seeing some intersection in lighting gear. The old days of HMIs, jokingly referred to as standing for High Monetary Investment, are giving way to less powerful lighting options that produce more even lighting. Softboxes are now turning up in photography studios and film sets alike, although the lighting inside is somewhat different.

With advances in construction and materials, we’re also seeing flash umbrellas making a comeback in photography, although these are not your grandpa’s flash umbrellas.

When it comes to umbrellas in photography, size matters. The broader and more diffuse your light source, the more even the lighting on your subject. The older style umbrellas were small, not much bigger than an umbrella you might carry with you for rainy days. Today you have a better selection.

Companies like Booth Photographicare fielding umbrellas that would make any softbox owner blush with envy. Parabolics, because of the shape, are going to have less fall off at the edges. A parabolic light like a large umbrella, near your subject. is going to give you a bit of wrap around the subject, contributing to a very smooth overall lighting effect.

Booth umbrella
75 in reflective umbrella by Booth Photographic

Umbrellas lost favor to softboxes because, for a long time, the only large umbrellas you could find were really expensive. Today, they’re coming back into vogue with models like this 7 foot Wescott and this 75 inch silver model from Booth.

When you’re out shopping for studio lights, don’t forget to give some of the newer umbrellas a look. With price tags under $200, it’s possible that parabolics will stage a comeback.

The Essence of Great Portraits

sample portrait
A very decent head and shoulders portrait that may be the most unimaginative work I've ever produced

You all probably remember the series we did on studio lighting a while ago. While we were focused on the technical aspects of lighting a good portrait, it completely overlooks the art. Sure, what we came away with was a completely decent head and shoulders portrait.  Looking at it now I realize it lacks any imagination and creativity.

Okay, that’s not totally fair. I shot those photos to demonstrate how changes in lighting change the look of a portrait, not as a demonstration in portrait photography. And yet it still bothers me. The reason it bothers me is that many photographers would think that’s a perfectly fine portrait.

You can have the camera, the lens, and the lighting and take fantastically lit portraits that are technically near perfect,  and still produce average work lacking in imagination and creativity.

The Essence Of a Great Portrait

The essence of a great portrait doesn’t come from the lighting or the camera, it comes from getting to know the person and capturing the essential qualities that make them unique. I don’t think the best portraits always come in a studio setting, they come taking the shots at home, in the shop, or where they work. Maybe that’s my background as a photojournalist talking, but those are the places people are most relaxed and most likely to be themselves.

If you are going to work in a studio, which does offer a lot of advantages, have the person bring something unique to them. For someone like my sister in law, I’d have her bring her knitting bag. I have a friend in Seattle, for her it would be one of her bikes and one of her cats. How you work such bizarrely different props into a single picture, that’s what you get the big bucks to figure out.

The bottom line is anyone who thinks they can capture a person just by having them sit on a stool or stand in front of a background is doing them a disservice. Spend some time getting to know your subjects and figure out what makes them unique.

Good portraits show people on the outside, great portraits show people on the inside.

Taking Better Holiday Kid Pictures

kid picture
The photographer caught this winner on film - One wonders how many it took?

Some of you are coming back from Thanksgiving vacation a few weeks back to discover that the family pictures you took were less than stellar examples of kid photography. Fortunately, you still have time to rally before Christmas, the premium moment for kid pictures all year. This time be prepared.

Kids and Animals

Working with kids and animals have gotten many Hollywood directors and photographers to consider a career in real estate, so don’t feel bad if your turkey day photos weren’t that great. It’s a tough shooting situation, even for pros.


– Plan picture time just before meal time. The kids will be dressed for dinner, still relatively clean, and animated in anticipation of eating.

– Have a supply of toys on hand, particularly anything small that walks, rattles, or makes noise. Wind up toys that walk around are perfect.

– Ask the older kids to help with the younger ones. In my experience kids respond better to their older peers than whoever is taking pictures.

– You can also use the older kids as translators for the younger ones. A lot of time you as an adult might not understand what a child is saying, but the other kids will know.

– Put the wind up wiggly toy on your head when you’re ready to shoot. You’ll have about 10 seconds of full attention.

– Pictures when they’re engaged in an activity are almost always better than posed pictures.

– A puppy or kitten will almost always provide a great group shot.


– Don’t have another adult standing behind you trying to help. That’s almost always more distracting than helpful and it’s really annoying to have a choreographer standing behind you.

– Don’t try to pose kids, it almost never works. It is better to get involved doing a song they learned in school. It puts them at ease, gives them an easy task they can manage, and gets everyone smiling.

– Don’t drag it out. You have maybe 10 minutes of quality shooting time before someone starts getting fussy.

– Don’t let kids wear shirts with logos or printed designs. Bright, bold, solid colors are best.

The ABCs of ISO

iso comparison
A comparison of grain at different ISO's - by HuttyMcphoo

The three legs of a good exposure are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. In the old days ISO was called ASA and was dictated by the type of film you had in your camera. The standard for color and clarity in those days was Kodachrome 64 and, for really fine work, you might pick Kodachrome 25. The lower the number on film, the finer the grain and the slower the film, meaning it needed more light to get good results.

In modern digital cameras the theory is similar but the application is quite different. Modern image sensors can change ISO, the sensor’s sensitivity to light, to suit the scene. Most digital sensors are optimized to produce the best results in natural daylight at lower ISOs, but it takes better eyes than mine to see the image quality degrade at ISO 400 and below. And the noise introduced by digital cameras at higher ISOs is not a constant. Ever year sensors get better and noise reduction algorithms in your camera’s computer also improve in every generation of hardware. What’s true today may change in a couple years.

Just like in film, the amount of noise in a digital picture increases at higher ISOs. It starts getting more noticeable at ISOs over 800 and becomes really noticeable at 1200 and above.

As a general rule, use the lowest ISO you can and still get a reasonable shutter speed. Ironically, long shutter speeds can introduce their own brand of image anomalies and sometimes it’s a matter of picking your poison.

When it comes to the three legged stool of exposure, ISO still works like it used to…for now. But expect this one to change sooner than either of the others.