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Stop Following the Rules of Photography to Start Capturing Photos You Love

Redefining Perfection
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If you ask someone how to get the perfect photo, you might get a response that includes information about exposure, posing, and lighting. Books you read might warn against chopping limbs, using wide angle lenses when photographing people, or failing to follow the rule of thirds. You might end up scared that other photographers will judge your photos and notice when you have broken “the rules,” making you nervous to step outside the box and get creative sometimes.

Even worse, you might try so hard to follow the rules that you leave every photo session stressed, exhausted, and disappointed–like I did, before I redefined perfection.

I did all of those things. When I first started trying to learn more about photography, I read a ton of books. I talked to a lot of photographers. I read a lot of tutorials, watched a lot of videos, and studied a lot of photographs to determine what I had to do to take “perfect” photos. In the process, I learned more than I thought possible about the technical side of photography, but I became so insecure and critical of my own work that I was not having fun.

I was not getting images that I absolutely loved.

For me, the sessions that stressed me out the most were always my own sessions with my two children. By the end of an attempt to get perfect photos with my sons, Gavin and Finley, I was usually ready to quit photography, my husband was usually ready to send me packing, and Gavin and Finley were usually crying because I kept trying to make them be still, look directly at my camera, and smile, when all they wanted to do was play or explore.

The turning point came for me when Finley was close to his first birthday.

I had planned out very specific shots that I wanted to get of him for his one-year photos, set aside a weekend to do them, and gathered together all of my props. I got a few cute photos with perfect smiles, perfect eye contact, and imperfect exposure (I only had a few months of experience with professional shooting), but I essentially ended each session with tears—either mine or Finley’s…and sometimes both.

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When Finley’s second birthday rolled around recently, I had already made the decision that I wanted to capture his true personality and the things he loves most, not try to get perfectly posed photos with perfect eye contact and perfect smiles.

You see, Finley is the ultimate reason that I learned to embrace imperfection in my photography.

Finley has always been a difficult subject to photograph. He never reacted to my crazy sounds and pleas to look at my camera and smile. He never stayed still longer than a second. He never focused his attention on taking photos long enough for even one great shot of the four of us smiling and looking at the camera. After my experience with his first birthday photos, I gave up on getting “perfect” shots. And when we tried to get family photos a few months later using a friend as a human tripod, I didn’t get upset when this was the end result.

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Even though people still make repeated comments like, “It’s too bad Finley isn’t looking at the camera,” the canvases I had made of this photo are hanging on my wall, my parents’ wall, and my father-in-law’s wall.

Why? Because he’s Finley. He would rather study a branch than smile for a photo or even look in that general direction. And you know what? That’s okay. In March, we got the official diagnosis that Finley is one of a growing number of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and although it explains why I always had such a difficult time getting his attention in photos, it doesn’t change the fact that my entire idea of perfection in photography has been redefined. Finley’s photos that I took for his second birthday are perfect examples of my idea of perfection.

Perfection is capturing Finley’s love for drawing.

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Perfection is documenting Finley’s habit of exploring textures by rubbing things on his cheeks.

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Perfection is showing Finley’s love for horses (and wearing nothing but a diaper and cowboy boots).

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And sometimes, perfection IS a photo of Finley smiling and looking directly at the camera, but not because it’s “perfect” by any definition of the term.  I’s perfect because it shows the sweet spirit he possesses.

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When I was stressing so much over getting my subjects in the perfect position or trying to make them constantly look at the camera and smile, I missed amazing shots of my boys being themselves.

I decided it was time to loosen up a little. Instead of planning out sessions with my kids, I started leaving my camera in the living room where I could grab it quickly if I saw an opportunity for a cute photo of them. I broke a lot of rules in those photos, and some of them are not very sharp or exposed very well. But some of those photos are my absolute favorites. Some of those photos, in fact, are the ones that I know my children will still treasure when they are adults.

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By loosening up, I discovered that those photos were the ones I always considered perfect. I started to fall completely head-over-heels in love with lifestyle photography, and when I did, I rediscovered my passion for my hobby. Instead of trying to capture perfect smiles, I started trying to capture the love my subjects have for each other and the personalities that make them unique. As a result, my skills and the quality of my photos started improving because I had more room in my head to think about exposure and using available light to my advantage.

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Getting correct exposure is critical, and there are some “rules” that have their place in your work. I would never want to use a wide angle lens to take a serious portrait of a bride, for example, or make my subjects look like they are sliding off the edge of the photo. However, it’s okay to chop a limb sometimes, if necessary. It’s okay if my subject is not looking at the camera. I even read once that you shouldn’t have your subject looking off camera unless you can see what he or she is looking at. But does that make this a bad photo?

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Here’s my point—If you are one who absolutely, positively, LOVES perfectly posed photos where everyone is looking at the camera and smiling, then that’s perfectly fine. Those types of photos are perfect—for you.

However, if my experience raising an autistic son has taught me anything so far, it’s that what is considered perfect for one is not necessarily perfect for another.

Just as Finley is perfect in my eyes, the photos I take that show who he is and what he loves are perfect in my eyes as well.

If you find yourself stressed, exhausted, and insecure like I was every time you attempt to get great photos and want to redefine your idea of imperfection like I did, here are a few tips to help.

  1. Get a good grip on exposure first, if you don’t already have one. No amount of emotion or personality in your photos is going to matter if you can’t see it because your photos are completely over or under exposed. There are tons of MCP tutorials here on the blog that can help with that.
  2. Stop scouring Pinterest and trying to replicate the images you see. Getting inspired by photos you see is one thing, but trying to make your subjects do exactly what you have seen done before in those photos will usually only end in frustration. I once spent two hours creating a backdrop of newspaper pages to use in photos of my boys only to rip it down five minutes later because neither of my boys would cooperate at all.
  3. Decide what you truly want to document. Is it a relationship between two people? An aspect of someone’s personality? A hobby or interest? A particular emotion? Once you decide, make sure your exposure is solid, and then solely focus on capturing what you are setting out to capture.
  4. Relax about the “rules.” Don’t toss a photo that cuts someone off at the knees if that photo shows genuine emotion. Use a wide angle lens, if you like the look it gives your photos. Relax. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken…if breaking them results in a photo you love.

Now, grab your camera and go take a photo YOU think is perfect. Don’t worry what the books say. Don’t think about what other photographers might think of it. Take a photo you love, and love the photos you take.

Period.

Lindsay Williams lives in south central Kentucky with her husband, David, and their two sons, Gavin and Finley. When she isn’t teaching high school English or spending time with her quirky little family, she owns and operates Lindsay Williams Photography, which specializes in lifestyle photography. You can check out her work on her website or her Facebook page.

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Why You Might Need a Mirrorless Camera in Your Camera Bag!

Fuji X-E2 mirrorless camera
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What is a Mirrorless camera?

In the past few years there has been a buzz in the photography industry. A new kind of camera has come out which promises fantastic optics, at a lower price, smaller form factor and has really started to gather momentum.  Some of the leaders in the Mirrorless segment are Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, Olympus, Canon, Samsung, and Nikon.

These cameras are physically smaller than the traditional DSLR because they don’t have a mirror that reflects what the lens sees up through to the viewfinder. By getting rid of the mirror you not only get the benefit taking up less space, but it also means that the sensor is placed closer to your lens. Most of the Mirrorless cameras out there are not equipped with full frame sensors. Most are crop sensor or 4/3s sensors. The Micro 4/3 cameras offer a 2x crop factor vs the 1.5x on many other mirrorless cameras.

The sensors are larger than a point and shoot, and that equates to better image quality. In addition, many of these systems require their own lenses for optimal performance. But, these lenses are smaller than those for dSLRs and are usually the same price or less expensive to other comparable lenses.

Vacation snapshot in St. Maarten taken with Olympus Micro 4/3 OMD EM5 and Panasonic 12-35mm lens.

Who benefits from a Mirrorless camera?

  • Mirrorless cameras are fantastic as they can suit a variety of purposes. Given the size and image quality they produce many full time photographers are choosing one of the Mirrorless systems as their walk around camera. Many claim that when they are not working for a client it can be burdensome to lug around a lot of gear and often times find themselves leaving their heavy gear at home.
  • For street photographers many of these cameras are a dream come true. Prior to Mirrorless you either had to deal with a small manual focusing camera, a point and shoot or a large DSLR, but it seemed like there was always a compromise. There are even a few models that have a fixed lens built into the camera and offer silent shutters. So if you’re looking to be discrete might be time to check them out.
  • In the last couple years a lot of wedding photographers have turned to Mirrorless to be discrete and to be used as a companion camera. Ever been in a church and found your Full Frame camera to be really loud? Or maybe you’re witnesses a personal moment during the getting ready part of the wedding day and don’t want to be intrusive. There are some photographers who have actually changed all their DSLR gear in favor of a light, high quality and discrete Mirrorless system.
  • Newbie photographers nowadays are faced with so many options of cameras. There is the big question of whether to go with Canon or Nikon, but Mirrorless is also a fantastic choice for your first high end camera. Many are very intuitive and help you “see” in manual mode better. Also, Mirrorless cameras are generally 40% less expensive to mid to high end DSLR and still produce fantastic images. So if you’re new, want to learn photography and are on a tight budget these could be just right for you.
  • Anyone who loves photography and has to have a camera with them everywhere. They know their cell phone isn’t quite good enough and a DSLR is just too much. They don’t want to compromise on image quality, but want something capable in a variety of lighting conditions and easy to carry around.
  • One perk with the micro four-thirds cameras by Panasonic and Olympus, for example, is that you can use the lenses interchangeably.  (Jodi, MCP, has both brands for her Olympus OMD EM5)

 

Taken with Olympus OMD-EM5 4/3 Camera with 60mm macro lens. Edited with MCP Enlighten Lightroom Presets.

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Taken with Olympus OMD-EM5 4/3 Camera with the Olympus 45mm 1.8 lens (Jodi’s favorite!). Edited with MCP Inspire Photoshop Actions.

What are limitations of Mirrorless cameras?

Of course there are some limitations of Mirrorless cameras. You must remember that they are only a few years old and although this generation is much better to last year’s offerings there are a few things that could be better.

  • AF – Autofocus has to be one of the big concerns regarding Mirrorless cameras. In the end technique will trump inexperience, but most Mirrorless cameras aren’t as quick to snap into focus as high end DSLRs. This is one area that has improved drastically and there is no reason to believe that it won’t improve incrementally with each new model release. Low light AF is a struggle at times, but then again DSLRs also struggle in low light.
  • Tracking subjects – This is related to Autofocus, but it goes a step further. Many sports photographers and similar will most likely stay away from Mirrorless systems, for now, as their tracking of moving subjects is still slower than most DSLRs. Although Mirrorless cameras do excel in the manual focusing department offering a variety of assist modes. But, even still, they can’t be relied upon for very demanding photography.
  • Replacing your camera system – Given that some of these systems aren’t very old their equipment and lens offerings are still pretty limited. So if you’re looking to make the switch make sure you are content with their current line-up of lenses. Of course, over time this will all improve. Some of the more eager manufacturers are producing up to 4 lenses a yr.
  • Battery life – When you have a Mirrorless camera you will instantly notice the difference in battery life to you DSLR. Mostly this is due to the smaller form factor and available space on the camera body. Most of these cameras average around 300 images per battery charge compared to around 900 photos (in RAW) on your DSLR. Some of the newer models are offering battery grips so you can have two batteries accessible at all times. Of course this adds to the bulk of the camera, but is a very useful add-on.
  • LCD/Viewfinder – Although there are some amazing things to say about the LCD screens and Viewfinders on the Mirrorless systems there are also some things to get accustomed to. A handful of these cameras have no viewfinder and only an LCD screen. For people transitioning from a DSLR this will be a disappointment. On most of the other Mirrorless cameras you are treated with an electronic viewfinder which is essentially a mini screen in the viewfinder. This will take getting used to as you’re not looking through a mirror, but instead you are seeing what the sensor sees. Although this sounds fantastic, and I agree that it is, these small screens suffer from lag and in some cases very low refresh rates. This is also an area that continues to improve as each new camera rolls out. But, there are tons of benefits to having an electronic viewfinder, but of course, it’s not for everyone.

There are a variety of differences to a DSLR so it’s hard to describe some of these as limitations. Instead we should see them as a completely different kind of system with its own quirks and way of using them. For anyone going to a Mirrorless system, there is a learning curve. But, like with any new piece of gear, once you learn it you’ll be amazed. I see a really good future for Mirrorless cameras as they continue to be innovative in ways a DSLR can’t. Their small form factor will appeal to many and the image quality has been said to rival many full frame cameras. I see this as only the beginning.

Taken with the Fuji Mirrorless. 

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Recent developments that show Mirrorless cameras are here to stay.

  • They have developed weather sealed Mirrorless cameras and lenses.
  • Some Mirrorless cameras have a leaf shutter which will allow you to sync with flash up to 1/4000 of a second!
  • More and more photographers are publicly writing/blogging/talking about their experiences and excitement over their Mirrorless cameras and how they are shooting more.
  • Several Mirrorless cameras are winning awards by major publications as the best camera of the year. And are quickly becoming trade show favorites. They’re even making magazine covers!

Using a mirrorless camera is challenging, fun, inspiring and most of all, it’s exciting to see the future of Mirrorless. As each manufacturer keeps improving others follow suit. Competition drives innovation and I’m excited to be a part of it. If you can borrow or rent a Mirrorless camera. Who knows you might find a place in your kit for it.

 

Taken with the Fuji Mirrorless.THPL1382 600x400 Why You Might Need a Mirrorless Camera in Your Camera Bag!

Tomas Haran is a Candid Style Wedding Photographer based out of Worcester, MA. He is also an educator and mentor. You can find him on his blog or on Facebook.

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Cheap Photographers are Crushing the Photo Industry…Or Are They?

cheap photographers
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If you are a photographer and you’ve spent any time on internet forums or Facebook groups in the last five years, you know who I’m talking about.

The cheap photographers get called many names:

  • fauxtographers
  • moms with cameras
  • shoot and burn photographers
  • “wanna be” photographers
  • cheap photographers

There are websites that feature these photographers and accounts on social media set up to mock them. These photographers are accused of undercutting the professionals in the industry and stealing customers. Plus, rumor has it, they are everywhere. Creating new Facebook pages right and left. Leaving flyers all over town. Showing up at playgroup and wowing all of the moms with their low priced specials. Sometimes they are even accused of copying another photographer’s promotion, creating a new graphic, and simply lowering the price to be competitive. In extreme cases, new and low-priced photographers are even blamed for image stealing to boost their own portfolios. Plus, they often have inexpensive gear, and to those who have just dropped $3000 on a new professional camera, this is infuriating.

So where does this put the “real” professionals?

Some say that they are hiding in their studios desperately waiting for clients to knock on the door and watching their incomes plummet. Others are frustrated that their inquiries balk at the prices they charge and flee to the “new photographers” instead. In fact, many feel it’s gotten so bad that they hesitate to even share their business and technical knowledge with others. They fear that it will create even more newbie competition. Some long-time professional photographers still run sustainable businesses that are bringing them a steady stream of clients and income. Are they are just lucky? Do they simply live in the right part of the country –The “right part” being a city teaming with rich people who fling their cash willy-nilly at the priciest photographer in town?

Dispelling the myth that new, cheap photographers ruin the photo industry…

New, cheap photographers are not killing the industry for a single person.

First, let’s face it. No one picks up a camera for the first time and has a five-figure income overnight. Not even in a month. Even in a year, it’s exceedingly rare. Building and sustaining a photography business requires a certain skill set that is at least 50% business management and 50% photographer. I would even venture that it’s closer to 90% business, 10% photography. (In fact, most photographers aren’t making all that much money according to this recent study by Kat Forder.)

This graphic (used with Kat’s permission) shows how much photographers in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area grossed in a one year period.  

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These skills take time to build and for the vast majority of us, education is required. Who really “gets” lighting because it’s easy? Who can naturally develop an excellent client experience from inquiry to order delivery? Who finds Photoshop or Lightroom so intuitive that they just instinctively produce perfectly edited images on the first try? No one. Certainly not all three at once. I can promise you that. The work of starting a business is difficult, lonely, time consuming work that often leaves us feeling alone.

 

Which brings me to the most popular phrase I’ve heard when discussing these questions with other photographers: Everyone starts somewhere.

And frankly, it’s true. Each photographer has a story about what inspired them to begin shooting seriously. Many remember the first time a friend or family member pointed out their talent and how good that felt. A good majority of professionals recall the moment they realized they could generate income for themselves doing something they truly loved. The American Dream, right?

And so the journey began.

But because photographers are also human beings with different life experience, education levels, and natural talents, not everyone puts these things into place in the same order or recognizes which ones are mandatory before starting a legal business, never mind a successful one.

The neat thing about capitalism is that photographers (and any other entrepreneurs) who build a sustainable business STAY IN BUSINESS. And those that don’t, simply don’t. Creating a business that is sustainable and brings joy is a difficult task and many need to try it out before deciding whether it’s a good fit for them. So if <insert name of cheap photographer>’s <insert terrible promotion> doesn’t sound like a good idea to you, that’s ok. Two things can happen. If it’s not a great strategy, that business will not be able to sustain itself financially or energy-wise and will eventually close. If it is, you’ll have yourself a shiny new competitor.

Network with them, exchange referrals, enjoy opportunity to second shoot with them, answer questions for each other. And if your potential clients find themselves attracted to the their business and not yours, then you have incentive to improve your business in a very specific way to close that gap.For most photographers, that’s examining what your target client needs and how can better meet that need. That does not necessarily mean price matching the newest guy in town. It usually means adding value! So when you see clients heading another direction, it’s your reminder to up your game and make your business more awesome! Remember, this isn’t easy and the best things for our businesses often aren’t easy.

Last but not least, our customers aren’t stupid. They know the different between high quality photography and low quality photography. Like us, they have different needs, preferences, budgets, styles, and values and are trying to find the person that best matches up with their needs. Because clients are the reason we are in business showing them the utmost respect is key. Shrugging off a client who isn’t savvy enough to see how much better you are once again is a call to more clearly show how awesome your business is!

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By focusing on your business and the value it brings to your market and client, you are getting closer and closer to your ultimate goal – a successful business that brings you joy. And nothing is more joyful than being a kind soul who accepts that everyone is human is doing their best in this world. (Even if their best isn’t all that impressive to you, personally.)

 

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Jessica Rotenberg is a family and child photographer in Raleigh, NC who specializes in modern portraiture and creating beautiful wall galleries for clients. She enjoys mentoring other photographers and participating on the MCP Actions Facebook group page. You can also follow her on Facebook. (photo credit: Rebecca Ames)

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A Guide to Photographing Hummingbirds

Ruby Throated Hummingbird
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A Guide to Photographing Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are beautiful.  And they are fast.  If you hope to photograph them you will want to plan for it, not just rely on luck. Here’s how I approach capturing images of hummingbirds.

The Necessities:

Feeders: I have two bird feeders which means up to 8 to 10+ birds can be at these feeders at any given time.  Each feeder is on a shepherd hook so I can move them around as needed. The feeder is between me and the supportive rod of the hook. I watch and focus my efforts on one feeder at a time. The other feeder is not far away, just in case. The second feeder is nice because it attracts a larger number of birds but also helps to show them I’m not there to threaten them because I am basically ignoring that feeder.

Light and backgrounds: Lots of light is needed because the birds are fast, some parts are dark, and they look best against a pleasing background. The morning sun is great for me because it lights up my sunflowers, which to date is my favorite background. Although that’s subject to change. One side of the feeder will have better light then the other so I make sure my pleasing background is on the best lit side. I’ve learned the hard way not to bother with a terrible background because removing it in processing is not worth the effort. If I sit in a chair and shoot up at the right angle the tree leaves create a lovely backdrop mixed with sky.

Patience and knowledge: Learn and watch the behavior of the Hummingbirds. Knowing what species you’re dealing with may also be helpful. I have the Ruby-Throated Hummers. Some of the birds in my area (Missouri) will hover nicely while others are not so trusting. Some birds will sit on the opposite side of the feeder and peek around to see what I’m doing. I start early in the summer sitting or standing about 8-9 feet away from the feeder. They start out weary of the camera and lens at first but grew more trusting with time over the course of the summer. Now I stand as close as my lens will allow, which is about 6’ away and they buzz around me, my tripod and my big lens. It’s harder to focus closer because my movements have to be small, tight and fast @400mm. Patience is required. Many times I can go out and have a wonderful shot in 10 minutes, in part because they are so used to me. I have the feeders about 12 feet away from the background of sunflowers. You can see from my yard setup picture that my sunflowers are starting to go downhill fast. But there is still enough color in them to get great shots.

 

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Gear and settings:

Camera, lenses, equipment: My camera body is the Canon 7D, and my preferred lens is the Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS USM. I use a nice and solid tripod/head. You do not have to use a lens with as much reach as mine but it does help.

Speed rules: I want a shutter speed of least 1/3200 so I’ll adjust my ISO (which is normally high enough to create noise that I have to remove in post processing) and aperture accordingly. I take a test shot, look at my histogram but that’s not always accurate because the bird is so small.  I shoot in manual because I can change aperture and shutter speeds on the fly in case something else comes along. While I can do 8 fps on the 7D I don’t necessarily have to go that fast. I shoot manual, spot metering, on Al Servo. My lens has an image stabilizer which I have turned OFF because it is on a tripod. In shoot in RAW and I do have a fast memory card.

Focus: First focus on the feeder. Once a bird starts buzzing around and hopefully darts in to take a drink I’m ready to quickly refocus on the bird and hope it goes into hover/drink/hover mode. If it does go into the hover drink pattern I take the time to make sure focus is accurate while it’s in one spot long enough and snap away when it hovers away from the feeder. Keep in mind I do throw out a lot of pictures that are not in focus. My exposures are not always accurate but I do periodically check my results. Yet sometimes I don’t bother processing nice pictures because I already have enough great ones from that day. I can’t let myself get distracted because once I’m distracted I will realize how many great shots I’ve missed.

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An example: At 100mm, I would concentrate on the two birds on the right. Bring my focus on the bird closest to me and take my shot. That’s not to say I won’t try for the ones on the left but if I do I will have to change my exposure because the light will be a little different.

Warning – It is an addiction.

My husband calls the hummingbirds my $10.00 a day junkies. It isn’t that expensive to feed them (at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) but with the number of birds I have feeding I use about 1 cup of sugar in my mixture each day keeping up with them. I will leave food out for them long after they are gone because we might have stragglers looking for a way south or ones that live here and lingered a little longer than the others.

In addition to the food, I have Sunflowers, Canna’s, and Hibiscus. I plan to add a Honeysuckle, a Crab-tree and Trumpet Vines in future gardening plans. It’s best to put in flowers that are native to your area.

Perhaps I should have mentioned this at the beginning of the article but be warned, Hummingbird photography can be addictive!

This article is written by Terri Plummer, who lives in Northwest Missouri. Find her on Flickr and Facebook.

 

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How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion

Lens distortion on a full frame camera
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Whether you’re a new photographer or someone with a lot of experience, you may have heard about lens distortion.  Have you ever wondered what is the “perfect portrait lens.”  While there isn’t one perfect lens or focal length for portraits, let’s check out how each focal length impacts lens distortion so you can choose the best lens for every situation.

First, what is lens distortion?

Lens distortion is the distortion of the true view of the subject in a photograph.  Generally, lines that are straight in true life become skewed outward in a photograph.  The lens optics cause this — the wider the lens, the greater the distortion.  Have you ever seen a photograph taken with a fisheye lens, which is very wide angle?  These cause major distortion (often used on purpose for creative photos)?  If you have, you noticed that it was extremely distorted.

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This is part of what sets fisheye images apart and makes them unique, but this effect is caused by lens distortion.  One other thing to keep in mind when learning about and understanding lens distortion, especially in relation to portraits, is that the closer you are to a subject, the more pronounced your distortion will be at any focal length.

What does lens distortion look like?

Lens distortion is pretty easy to recognize once you know what it looks like.  Portraits taken with at wide angles will have distorted features.  In addition, if you are including all or even part of a person’s body in a portrait and are using a wide angle, your subject will tend to have a “bobble head” appearance.  This is amplified by the fact that you will need to be close to your subject to take your portrait as compared to the distance you would need to be with a longer lens.  Longer lenses have much less distortion.  First, you do not need to be nearly as close to your subject which lessens the distortion effect. Additionally, longer lenses incorporate “lens compression”.  They flatten features, rather than widen them, which is flattering for most subjects.

Below are example photos demonstrating distortion at different focal lengths.  All photos in this article are SOOC (straight out of the camera).  Immediately below you will see two separate compilations of eight photos.  One set was taken with a full frame camera and the second set with a crop sensor camera.  All photos were taken with the same settings:  f/9, ISO 100, 1/160, and were taken in studio.  I used three lenses.  All shots from 24 through 70 mm were taken using a 24-70 2.8.  The 85mm shots were taken using an 85mm 1.2, and everything from 100mm to 200 was taken using a 70-200 2.8.  I used the 85mm prime because even though that focal length is included in the 70-200 range, that focal length is not marked on the lens barrel and I wanted to be sure I got that length exactly.

My assistant, who is obviously very enthusiastic, did not move between shots as I was very clear that he needed to stay still!  I moved back with each shot and framed them as close to the same as I was able.  The shots at the wide end are darker due to both vignetting from the 24-70 at the wide end and because I was actually standing in front of the light because I had to be so close to my subject.

Full Frame distortion 600x369 How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion
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Crop sensor distortion 600x369 How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion
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As you can see, the wider the angle of the lens, the more distorted the subject becomes.  At wider angles, his face is narrowed, is nose appears larger and wider, and even the edges of the backdrop are visible because of the wide angle.  At longer focal lengths, the subject’s face starts to widen and look more true to life.

What about the lens correction option in Lightroom or ACR?

Both of these programs have a lens correction option, which does reverse some of the vignetting and distortion caused by wider angle lenses.  But is it enough to still use these lenses as portrait lenses?  I don’t think so.  In the example below, you can see a before and after.  The before is a SOOC shot, taken on a full frame camera at 35mm.  The after is applying lens correction in Lightroom.  The after shot is brighter due to the reduction of the vignetting that occurs at the wider angle, and the shot is also flattened somewhat.  However, this shot after lens correction is still not comparable to a photo taken at a longer focal length.

Lens correction 600x450 How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion
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Does this mean I always have to use a long lens when I’m shooting portraits?

The short answer to this is no.  Once you understand the effects of wide angle lenses, you will learn when you shouldn’t use them but also when you can use them.  So why would you want to use a wide angle lens when you shoot portraits, based on the examples above where the subject looks rather unnatural when shot at a wide angle?  There are some photographers who will use wider angles to slim subjects.  In the example below, similar portraits were taken at 24mm and 135mm, using the same settings except for focal length.  Again, these shots are straight out of the camera.  In the first portrait, the subject is more elongated and her face appears more angular, making her appear somewhat slimmer.  However, you can see that her head does appear somewhat large for her body (the “bobble head” effect mentioned earlier) and this is something that takes practice.

slimming effect 600x450 How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion
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The shot below, again straight out of camera, was taken at 37mm using the 24-70 lens.  I was able to be a good enough distance from my subject where the wide angle did not cause as much distortion as it would be if I had been closer.  While it would have been ideal to have been able to be even farther from my subject with a longer lens, I obtained acceptable results with the area and conditions I was working in at the time.

Wide angle example 600x900 How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion
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Lens compression was mentioned earlier.  What does this mean?

Longer lenses, due to their optics, have the effect of both flattening the features of your subjects and bringing backgrounds in closer.  In a studio setting while using a solid color backdrop, the background element may  not be as apparent.  I wanted to show an example of this in a setting where it could be clearly visualized.  Compression is not distortion, but it is related and as it has been mentioned several times in the article it’s important to show an example.  In the two photos below, the same settings were utilized in both photos:  f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/500 shutter speed, and the same white balance settings.  The left photo was taken using a 50mm lens and the right photo, a 135mm lens.  My enthusiastic subject was in the same position for both photos but the background appears larger and closer in the second photo.  His features also appear somewhat flatter.  This is due to the lens compression of longer lenses.

Lens compression 600x800 How to Find the Perfect Portrait Lens to Avoid Distortion
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So what is your perfect portrait lens?  There is no one correct answer to that question.  That depends on several factors, including if you shoot with a crop sensor or a full frame; your usual shooting location; and even your style.  For me, an 85mm indoors and a 135 outdoors are my favorites, but yours may be different.  The most important thing is to understand how different lenses will impact your photos and make your choices from there.

Amy Short is the owner of Amy Kristin Photography, a portrait, maternity, and fine art photography business in Rhode Island.  She can be found at Facebook and Google+.  

 

 

 

 

 

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