Camera-derie: My thoughts about taking, processing, and sharing pictures.
By Devasmita Chakraverty
Browsing through old albums is one of those things that bring unalloyed joy. Be it the wedding pictures of my parents, the pictures from my birthdays and rice ceremony, the pictures of us as we grew up, or the pictures from that first trip to Puri and Vizag, I could spend hours browsing through memories left decades back in some forgotten alleys of time.
The process of building newer memories never ends. As we sail through more years, more memories freeze in our albums. Times have changed, and so has the process of taking and showcasing pictures. Digital cameras and DSLRs were never in vogue when I grew up. My father had a Yashica camera we were not allowed to touch. A trip to anywhere meant a camera roll worth of pictures, maybe two if we were lucky. There was no scope of rectifying accidental closed eyes in the pictures. We would smile for a lifetime until our jaws hurt while my father adjusted his camera settings for the perfect shot. Then we would wait for months before those pictures were printed.
The Kodak KB10/KB12 automatic cam-era was a revolution era for us. This one, we could touch occasionally, even carry with us during educational excursions. It took me two more digital cameras in the US before I got to my first DSLR, a Nikon D40. Ever since, I have stuck to it, taking it with me everywhere. The physics classes had taught me a little about how a camera functions, the pinhole camera basics, focusing, shutter speed, aperture, and so on. However, I never really understood much of it. For me, while camera is science, photography is an art. I am still learning the technicalities of taking pictures. However, over the years, I picked up some skills in the art of photography, which works wonderfully for me.
Disclaimer: This is not a post about the science of photography or how to take pictures.
Tip 1: How good is good enough?
Invest in a good camera and gear. We often misunderstand a good camera for an expensive camera, baulking at the thought of spending hundreds of dollars not knowing what to buy if we have never owned cameras before. Here is my take on it. A camera will probably last you for the next four-five years, depending on how frequently you like to keep pace with technology and discard old stuff. While it is good to invest a little extra in getting a camera with some additional features, it does not make sense to spend hugely, mostly because what you buy will be outdated in a few years anyway. Instead of buying the “best camera”, learn to make the “best use” of any camera you buy. My favorite metaphor is that of complimenting a good cook for the utensils they use. When you take good pictures, it has more to do with your photography skills, and not just a good camera. While buying a camera, consider these questions: how long do you plan to keep it, how frequently would you use it, where and how would you use it? You can always invest a little extra in buying a tripod for stable images, or an extra lens, instead of spending all your money into one camera. Buying camera gear is an addiction, and once you get into it, it is hard to stop. I typically suffer from what they call the NAS (Nikon Acquisition Syndrome), where I keep buying camera gear and seldom sell old camera gear. Anyway, back to my suggestion, do not hesitate to stretch your budget a little bit if you can, but do not go all the way and get insolvent in the process of buying a camera (unless you are a professional, and that little detail matters to you).
Tip 2: Organize well
Always take more pictures than you need to. This is especially useful in human subject photography. My human subject success rate is 20% with the general population, and 10 % with children. This means for every 100 pictures I take, roughly 15-20 come out to be very good. This is my personal estimate, that gives me an idea of how much to click during photo shoots.
Be good in organizing pictures right away. Once I move past my 7-day window, I lose the enthusiasm of processing pictures. This is challenging, especially coming from a person who takes an average of 300-400 pictures daily in a trip. This brings me to the next point. Always keep backups, duplicates, triplicates, whatever works. I have had the misfortune of losing hundreds of pictures years ago when I over-relied on technology and did not keep backups.
Tip 3: Work hard, keep your eyes open, and develop a sense of humor
Photographers are eccentric people who spend hours in solitude, social separation, and physical discomfort, brazening the cold or the sweltering heat, driving for hours, trying to get that one perfect shot of dew on flower, or that shade of the sunset they were hoping for. Sometimes, they crouch on the road, unmindful of the world watching them, to get that shot of the cobbled streets. Sometimes, they do not mind climbing trees or hundreds of stairs to the top of the lighthouse to get a panoramic view. I often find it hard to wake up for my 9 am class, but have no difficulty waking up at 4 on a cold wintry morning to drive two hours to get a shot of the sunrise. Sometimes, I sail through boring parties because I have a camera and can hide in some obscure corner taking pictures. Always keep your eyes open for the little things that surprise you. Be on the lookout for the right moment to take pictures. Look at the world with a sense of humor. There are little details which often skip the eyes of the fledgling photographer, but not the experienced one. Be innovative about the way you take pictures, the angle you use, or the way you compose them. The picture of the pigeons in front of the Eiffel Tower is testimony to the fact that the best pictures are usually the most unexpected ones. I was looking for the tower, not the pigeons.
Tip 4: Law of Parsimony
While showcasing pictures on Facebook, Picasa, or any public forum, always show way less than what you want to show. I see albums on Facebook with repetitive pictures, same background, same expressions, just a change of one person here and there. Do not do that. The human mind has a limited attention span and limited patience for browsing through pictures (unless it is your mom who will dutifully pore over every picture). Hence show much less than what you would care to show. Would you rather see an album of 100 pictures with the same repetition of flowers, scenery, and people, or would you rather see 10 exclusively picked shots that reflect 10 different things?
Tip 5: Follow Picture Etiquettes
Follow picture taking etiquettes. Do not occupy a public place thinking you are the only person who has the rights to take pictures. For example, desis go wild every time they visit Niagara Falls, not showing much tolerance for others but immersed in taking their own pictures. Remember, you do not own the world, and photographing something is a privilege. Always be kind to others when they ask you to take their pictures. I usually take 5-6 extra shots, and this really makes them happy. I believe it also enhances my photo-karma, since it is a real challenge to get your pictures taken when you travel alone. Most people are nice when you ask them if they can take your pictures (it is a different story that the pictures do not always turn out the way you want them to). Never take pictures of cute babies without asking permission from their parents first. We feel we have a right to click everything we deem pretty, but it is an annoying habit taking pictures of someone without asking. Although I seldom go anywhere without my camera bag, I specifically leave my camera behind when I visit people who do not like their pictures taken.
Tip 6: Know thyself
Some people are good at landscape photography. Some enjoy taking portraits. Some enjoy the spontaneity in taking candid shots more than staged shots. Everyone has that comfort spot one develops with time. Know what it is, and enhance it.
Tip 7: Invest in a good post-processing software
I cannot emphasize enough the necessity of good post-processing software. I often use this metaphor. No matter how beautiful you are, you would never want to be on television without putting on some makeup. Not a lot, but some minimal makeup that hides the blemishes, the imperfections, and the spots. Learning the skills of post-processing is an art in itself, starting with what software to use to knowing what exactly to do. My advice is, start with free software (like Picasa) and master it till you are ready to graduate to the next level. Learn the basics like playing around with contrasts, brightness, white balance, et cetera. The idea is not to create something that looks artificial, but to create something that looks natural. You can graduate to the next level of buying more advanced processing software once you are familiar with the basics. The options are plentiful (for example, Photoshop, Lightroom, Paintshop, Photomatix, et cetera) and there is no right answer to what you should buy. Some of them could be very expensive. I was fine with Picasa for years until I felt that I had learned everything and needed to move to the next level. Again, how seriously you take pictures will also guide what software you might want to use.
Tip 8: Camera maintenance
Take good care of your camera and lenses. Avoid dust, rain, or extremes of temperature. Always keep a cleaning kit handy. I hate it when people pounce on the camera, wanting to see the pictures and leave fingerprints behind. The camera, although usually hardy, is also sensitive. I once used it to take pictures of a windy sand dune and the next thing I know, my camera was back at the shop for two rounds of sensor cleaning.
Tip 9: Communicate
Read a lot about photography. Talk to people. Share insights and ideas. Join photography forums. Learn from peoples experiences. Go on trips with other photographers from the community. Ask about what camera they use and why they use it. I do not understand even half the words professionals use. However, it gives me certain keywords to remember and read about later on. The more you observe, the better sense of photography you develop. Learn to see not only through your lens, but through other people’s lenses too.
Tip 10: Art is not enough. Learn the science to complement it
This is my biggest advice to you, especially since I am trying to follow it too. My greatest limitation is that I take pictures in the auto mode, and do not know how to use the manual setting. I need a lot of time and energy to learn this, so I get lazy and opt out for the easier route. However, serious photographers usually use manual photography. Learn the science of photography. Learn everything you can about shutter speed, focusing, aperture, exposure, wide angles, HDR, Tilt Shift Photography, et cetera.
Last tip: See with eyes, not lenses
Not everything looks best through the lenses. We often forget to “see” things in the process of “capturing” things. Once in a while it is wonderful to let go of the lenses, and see things around us with the eyes, to enjoy that moment without the compulsive instinct of reaching for the camera and clicking a dozen pictures of it, be it a spectacular sunset, a happy baby smiling, or a butterfly on a flower.
Picture taking is an addiction. It not only leaves us with wonderful memories, it gives us a wonderful channel to portray our creativity. Even after all these years, “I love the way you take pictures” is a compliment that brightens me up, surpassing other compliments.
P.S.: I do not like to copyright or watermark my pictures, somewhat seems like territory marking to me. I will really appreciate it if you try not to be tempted into downloading, uploading, or passing the pictures along as your own. Thank you.