Picking a Beginner Camera

Nikon D7000
Nikon D7000 - by Nikon

The question I get most often is, “What kind of camera should I buy?” That’s a big question and a lot depends on your budget and what kind of photography you’ll be pursuing and at what level.  The word beginner comes in many contexts: are you a beginner to shooting for money or using a camera period. Different options apply.

Professional and Semi-Professional

You’re planning on making money with your camera or plan to do a lot of shooting as a semi-pro or amateur. You have $1,800 to $2,500 in your budget.

Cameras: Nikon D300s , Nikon D7000Nikon D700, Canon 5D MKII, and Canon 7D.

If you’re shooting stills, go with Nikon. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of video go with Canon. Nikons have video recording capability, but most of the video accessories are made for Canons.

Advanced Hobbyist

You are really serious about taking pictures, but you have a day job in another field. Photography is a serious hobby. There’s an outside chance you’ll be taking a paying job, or filling in for friends who can’t afford a professional photographer. You have a budget from $800 to $1,500.

Cameras: Canon 60D, Canon T3i, Nikon D3100, Nikon D5100

It’s pretty much just which ever camera you like in this range.

You Just Want To Take Good Pictures

You want to take great pictures, but mainly of your family and friends. You want something better than a pocket camera and you might want to experiment with manual controls once in a while.

Your budget is $400 to $800.

Cameras: Sony NEX-5N, Canon S100, Nikon P7000, Samsung NX100

Remember you can always use Snapsort to get the latest and best camera recommendations, including beginner DSLRs, semi pro DSLRs and small high quality cameras.  Our system will produce slightly different results from our editorial coverage as it allows you to define your exact personal criteria.

Perfect Panoramas

panorama photo
Waves can be a challenge when shooting panoramas, you can see the break lines if you look closely - by 1suisse

Creating the perfect panorama is far more difficult than merely stitching together a series of images in Photoshop. Getting the perfect shot takes planning, the right equipment and a surprising amount of preparation.

For certain specialized areas of photography, like architectural and structural, it’s not unusual to see photographers employ highly specialized cameras like the Seitz 6×17, which is great choice if you have $30,000 to drop on a camera. For some specialty areas of photography and certain applications such expense is justified.

I’m guessing most of you will want to utilize the equipment you happen to own now, as I would.

Once you select the vista you want to capture and have established your vantage point, you’ll need to gear up.

– Your camera
– A sturdy tripod
– A bubble level if your tripod doesn’t have one (some cameras have built-in software levels)

Remove the polarizer if your lens has one as subtle changes in the angle as you pan across a scene can cause the colors in the sky to change slightly.

There are specially made panorama heads for tripods, but those are expensive.  A $6 bubble level and tripod will usually do the job.

Horizontal or Vertical Framing

It’s your choice. Horizontal framing will give you a long, narrow shot. To get a wider picture select vertical framing.

Be aware that vertical framing may introduce subtle errors because you’re no longer pivoting around the lens access. To correct for that you need to either have your camera perfectly level relative to the horizon, or there are specially made panorama tripod heads that compensate for the shift.

The vertical framing won’t be quite the issue if you’re perfectly level, especially with a full frame camera like a Canon 5D.

Turn Off Auto Everything

This will be a challenge because most cameras have automatic settings that most people aren’t even aware exist. Modern cameras are fitted with computers that will fight to the death to get you the most perfect picture it can with whatever functions it still controls independent of the operator. So, for panoramas, you have to turn them all off.

The auto ISO setting is the one most people overlook, auto white balance is another. I go so far as to turn of Peripheral Illumination Correction and Low Light Noise Correction. Some of the newer consumer cameras have panorama features built-in that take care of the exposure and overlap issues for you.

Depth of Field

In most panoramas, depth of field is going to be more important than shutter speed since you’re working on a tripod. You’ll want to use a smaller aperture (higher f-stop) but don’t feel like you have to go all the way to f/22. You should be able to get adequate DoF for a panorama out of f/11 or above.

Overlapping Frames

I prefer to pick my overlap points manually. For landscapes it’s easy: Find a prominent feature with strong vertical lines that will be easy to match up in post and overlap your frames on those features.

Oceans and beaches present peculiar problems in panoramas because of waves and people moving around on the beach. Waves may be one time you want to think about bumping up to f/22 so you can utilize a slower shutter speed. Since it won’t be possible to preserve a wave pattern from one frame to the next, sometimes the best compromise is to use a slower shutter speed that blurs out the wave motion. You can also cheat in post-processing and use the clone tool to blend wave features, but that’s a lot of manual work.

For situations where there are humans moving around, you’ll just have to be fast and try to pick break points large enough to conceal a moving person, like a pillar or big tree. If you’re far enough back from a crowd, minor imperfections won’t likely be that noticeable anyway.

I wouldn’t advise trying an HDR panorama where there are any moving parts. That’s going to be hard enough to get right on a static scene. Use Automatic Exposure Bracketing if your camera supports it and I do the HDR layering before trying to stitch the panorama photos together. It’s inevitable when adding HDR layering that the color in one frame will be off, so find that one first and minimize the amount of color work you have to do in post.

With that exception, do the stitching first and then run color and contrast correction on the final product.

Shooting Panoramas

Stitching Panoramas Together

Building Your Photography Business

media pool
Expect a lot of competition trying to do photography for a living - by Starscream

Last week we talked about the qualities that make a successful photographer.  If, after a time of self-examination, you think you have those qualities, your next step will be building a plan for getting started in the business.

Let me warn you in advance, many of the steps you’ll need to take to learn to run any business will not be fun.  There’s accounting, marketing, taxes, licensing, insurance and sometimes permitting.  When imagining themselves running a business, most people tend to focus on the fun parts and overlook the huge amount of work it takes to get there.

Education – Not Optional

Start with educating yourself about every facet of running a small business from marketing and advertising to taxes, commercial real estate, and contract law.  This step, which is not at all the fun part, is not optional.  It’s necessary for survival.

The hardest part of running a business is marketing and finding new customers.  You thought photography was the hard part?  No, no, that’s easy, fun part.

Some books that may help are Running a 21st-Century Small Business by Randy Kirk and The Real Business of Photography by Richard Weisgrau.

Keep Your Day Job As Long As Possible

To build up enough cash to get started, most people will need to keep their day job, at least for a while.  That means working weekends and that means wedding photography for most people.  The hard way is starting out as a second shooter or gear mule for an established photographer.  I never did that and, with enough preparation, you can skip that step.

If you know how to run a business and manage cash flow, you have more flexibility than starting out working for an established photographer or a second shooter on weddings.

Taylor Jackson has an interesting take on getting started in the wedding photography business, which is also how I originally approached the business.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7taQ8FXdM4

Still, even after you’ve established yourself, you’ll sometimes have slots available to be a second shooter.   I don’t have any problem shooting backup for someone, even today.  It’s fun when you can leave the stress and customer management to someone else and just go shoot.

Building Your Portfolio

That will frequently mean shooting for free or very minimal cost.  Shooting a wedding for friends who don’t have the money to hire a pro, charities, shooting for animal rescue and animal rehab facilities to help with their advertising and fund raising will be well-received both by the charities and potential clients.

The key to making a living will be reducing, as much as possible, the pro bono work.  Ironically, I still do charity work, but I can afford it now.  Starting out, you may not have that luxury.

Building Your Business

One way to get yourself established and make some money is bidding photography jobs on freelance jobs boards like iFreelance, Guru and oDesk.  The competition is fierce and the margins are thin, but a do a good job on the low-cost jobs to get your foot in the door.

Once you have a pool of regular customers you can start raising your rates, gradually, and getting those jobs to pay better.

Don’t overlook Craigslist as both a place to advertise and find work.  You’ll need to work hard to set yourself apart from the pack, but you can find work there.

The Danger Zone

One of the ironies of any small business, but particularly true in photography, is that your most likely time to fail will not be when you first start out.  It’s true.  When you’re just starting, you’re focused on providing quality shots, value to the customer and you’re pinching every penny.

The most dangerous time for a new photographer is when you achieve a measure of success, get ahead on some of the bills and are looking at a couple months of solid booking.  That’s when you’ll stumble.  That’s when you’ll be tempted to go into debt buying some new equipment, tempted to sign a lease for a bigger studio, spend money on a wildly expensive advertising campaign or hire a full time receptionist.

Get a little change in the pocket of someone with a new business and they’ll be thinking of all the things they could buy.  That’s the time to be on your guard and put some of that money away for slack times, because there will always be slack times.

Top Tips For Better Family Photos

family picture
Better than the average group photo - Next time break up the big group a little - by Walter Ching

You can always tell the holidays are coming when manufacturers scramble to stock shelves with the latest in point-and-shoot technology before everyone heads home for the holidays. Models like the Pentax Optio RZ18 and the Olympus Pen E-PM1 decorate store shelves before people travel thousands of miles for that most dreaded of all holiday activities, family photos.

People have been trained by both the process and results to give family photo time the kind of welcome usually reserved for a root canal.

So let’s all break the dysfunctional family photo trauma this year. Take these tips and come up with some family photos that are not only fun to shoot but tell a more intimate story. Instead of the usual group photo, let’s see if we can come up with a process that will help you find a better holiday moment.

Practice a Pose

You know there are going to be pictures, so job one will be finding a pose you can hit in two seconds that looks good. Something you can turn on anytime a camera swings your way.

One trick that almost always works is to turn your shoulders at a 45 degree angle to the camera, called “cheating to the camera” and then turn your head back to the lens, chin angled slightly. If you have problems with a double chin, this trick will avoid the horror of the drivers license photo look and will smooth out any wrinkles along the neck line.

If you’re going to cheat toward the camera, do keep the open side of the cheat toward the person you’re sitting next to or it will look awkward.

Another trick is not to look directly at the camera, which avoids red eye. Look just off to the left or right, but not so much it looks like you’re disconnected from the scene.

Get In Close

If you can see your subjects feet in a standing photo, you are way too far from them. Get in close, really close. When you think you’re in close enough, take another two steps in.

Crop out as much distracting background and foreground as possible.

Turn Off The Flash Indoors

I realize that sounds counter-intuitive but built-in camera flashes are terrible for indoor lighting. They’re harsh, flat and unflattering. Turn the flash off and get as much natural light as possible on the scene. Window lighting is the best, only station yourself so the window is behind you. You don’t want the window in the shot, you just want the light.

In some situations you can’t avoid using the camera flash, in which case spend $10 and get yourself an on-camera flash diffuser.

If you’re a real cheapo, make yourself a milk jug diffuser.

Turn The Flash On Outdoors

Now you think I’m deliberately trying to confuse you. Turn the flash off when you usually need it and on when you usually don’t!

Find some open shade, place your subject and then set the on-camera flash to mandatory. On camera flash units are usually terrible for lighting indoor scenes, but they’re fantastic for fills.

Get A Lot of Shots

Move in close and get a lot of shots and a few of them are bound to turn out. Most cameras these days, even the point-and-shoot models, have a burst mode. Use it. Storage space is cheap and you can always sort through the shots and pick out the winners later.

Shooting a lot of shots also gives people more time to relax and get comfortable with the camera around. On a professional studio shoot it’s not unusual for photographers to shoot 2,000 or more photos in a single shoot with both the model and photographer in nearly constant motion. There’s a reason for that. You never know what’s going to turn out, so you shoot everything. It’s surprising how many times the difference between a good shot and an amazing shot is a few millimeters.

Break Up Big Groups

So many group photos look like a police line up where a witness is identifying the killer and the people in the photo frequently look just as uncomfortable.

family photo
Avoid the police lineup. Group people and arrange the groups - by Mafue

It helps to break up big groups into smaller ones, arranged in some kind of order. Have husbands and wives stand together and arrange the groups instead of everyone in a line. Have some people sitting down, some standing up, try different arrangements. It will be much more interesting visually. Another oddity that happens when you break up the big groups is it seems to make everyone more comfortable.

Some great tips from Tracy Clark:

Mirrorless Cameras Cut Into Canon, Nikon

Mirrorless cameras take a bite out of Canon and Nikon markets - by Samsung

Figures from Bloomberg indicate that Sony, Panasonic and Samsung may be scoring market share gains from Canon and Nikon with their mirrorless camera models. The trend is most obvious in Japan where Canon and Nikon’s combined share of that market has fallen an eye-popping 35%.

The losses for Canon and Nikon have been a boom for Sony, as their market share has doubled.  Panasonic and Samsung also scored gains, but not as significant.

Mirrorless cameras have a smaller physical frame and lower weight, while keeping the larger sensor sizes and interchangeable lenses.  The big chips behind good glass are getting results comparable to larger DSLRs at closer to half the weight of their bigger DSLR cousins.

If you’re tempted to dismiss the trend as one confined to Japan, keep in mind that the smart phone and tablet trend also started there before spreading to more distant shores.

No surprise that rumors have surfaced that Canon is coming out with mirrorless models in 2012, it’s not much of a stretch to think Nikon is engaged in similar efforts.

It’s my opinion that Panasonic and Olympus stumbled with the 4/3 sensor format.  I just don’t see professionals investing in that format when full size and APS-C sensors are superior and proven technologies.  For consumer cams, it’s less of an issue because the average buyer doesn’t really understand the difference in chip sizes.

As the trend in SLRs moves to mirrorless, expect Canon and Nikon to claw back some of the market share lost to Sony.  But I don’t expect to see any significant growth from Panasonic or Olympus until they abandon 4/3.