Practice makes perfect, or at least doing something over and over again statistically increases your chances of getting it right. This is a key theme for me in photography – and I think a helpful tip for anyone trying to take good photos on a tight budget.
It’s very easy to get blown away or intimidated by some of the truly awesome photos out there taken by professionals, or occasionally by a lucky amateur in the right place at the right time. A key thing that can be learned from all of these photos, though, is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time. Also, know what to do when you find yourself there.
…a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.
I thought today, it might be fun to think about wildlife photography. This is a real passion of mine, and I try to take photos of the animals I find around me all the time. Many of mine lack the finesse and perfection of the work of the experts, but I think I have managed to get some nice images over time and this is almost certainly because I repeatedly set myself challenges and will carry on trying until I’m pleased with the result (and will carry on trying to get better even after that).
To make an obvious statement; you can categorize wildlife photos into two sorts: Photos of exotic animals where the simple inclusion of the animal itself makes the subject interesting and photos of everyday animals where you need to capture something more to keep the viewer interested.
If we examine this statement closely, though, how true is it really? After all, the animals which are exotic to you will seem everyday to someone else. The locals in Thailand (or even the South of France!) always laugh at me for spending my time taking photos of lizards, of which we see very few in England but are literally everywhere, there. Similarly, a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.
On this basis – I would recommend you set yourself a challenge and get out near where you live regularly and try and shoot the animals that you find. There’s no need to worry too much about what equipment your using. True – to shoot distant subjects you will need a long lens and to shoot really close-up you will need some sort of macro kit. This can be a lot of fun (and I’d encourage you to try it) but most animals can be shot with just a compact camera or a smart phone and a bit of patience. Just try to get yourself into the right place and learn how to get close to the animals, whether domestic or wild. After all, taking a photo of an animal is free!
…the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you. You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary.
If you get the chance, also try taking photos of animals at the zoo, or somewhere like Longleat safari park, or just at a farm.
In some cases, its a question of quietly “stalking” and not startling an animal. In other cases, it might be a case of attracting it over. Remember, a lot of animals have very sharp hearing and eyesight, so even if you’re shooting from a distance, sudden movements could scare them off. A hint, for example, is never make eye contact with a wild deer…
The great thing about doing this near your home and with your local wildlife is that you will learn skills which will stand you in good stead when you’re face-to-face with a more exotic animal, on holiday, or in those great chance encounters, like a barn owl sitting in your garden fence. So the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you. You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary. (Check out the British Wildlife Photography Awards website for some great examples).
Perhaps you’re one of those people who watched Jaws and has decided it still isn’t safe to get back in the water, or perhaps, like me, you watched it and thought “wow that’s cool!”
If the latter is the case, you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface. And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see (whether it’s your friends and family playing in a pool, a crab, a brightly coloured fish or jaws). So how do you do it, and how much will it cost?$
“you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface. And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see…”
As ever, it will cost as much as you want to spend.
It’s clear that for the very best, super-sharp and well exposed images at depth, you will need an expensive camera with high ISO (light sensitivity) capabilities. This may be a custom designed underwater camera or a specialist, dedicated underwater housing for a DSLR. This, though, is the realm of the scuba diver, and nearer the surface (down to around 10m) you can get by with some pretty cheap and basic gear:
Underwater shooting with zero preparation
If you’re not a regular scuba diver, the times when you’re most likely to want to take photos under water are when you’re on holiday. You might be by the sea in Cornwall, or in the Mediterranean or on the Pacific coast. Wherever the sea is, there is the desire to jump in it and boat on it.
However, most cameras are not waterproof. Take it from someone who knows, you don’t want to take a decent camera out, even on a boat, without protection if you want it to come back working. Ideally, you want to think about this before you go away, so that you can get a waterproof camera or some sort of housing. The great news is, though, even if you forget, nearly all beach resorts and shops sell disposable waterproof cameras. Some of them can even be reused!
This wouldn’t be a very helpful website, though, if I just said “buy a disposable camera” and everything will be alright. If you want to get the best from your photos, things aren’t quite that simple.
The first thing to point out, is that disposable cameras aren’t that cheap. True, to buy they’re cheaper than a digital camera, but they still tend to be over £10 and are only single use (or you will at least need to buy film to reload them) and you have to pay to get your photos developed.
Here are a few pointers on getting the best results and best value for money:
So long as it works, there’s not much point worrying about brand – cheap ones tend to work just as well as more expensive ones. They are all fixed focus and generally don’t have a flash.
Check the speed of the film in the camera – it’s unusual to find ISO 1600, but 800 and 400 are both common. 800 is much more useful, particularly in the sea (swimming pools tend to be better lit with higher visibility).
If you can get a re-loadable / re-usable one, do. They tend to be about the same price, and you can choose to load 1600 film after the first use. They’re also more environmentally friendly. Make sure you’re careful with the rubber seals though. These cameras really are cheap and low quality and not built to last!
Pay extra when you get your film developed for a CD with JPGs on it. It’s only a couple of quid and is really useful because you can then get the best from your photos with some careful post-processing (see below). If you have a negative film scanner, or know someone who does, this is just as good.
Always check the “use by” date. Chemical film has a shelf life, which is a lot shorter in hot countries. You may well find that these cameras have sat around for years in which case the film will have degraded. If you can, get something (nearly) in date!
Try to remember that the ideal distance from your subject is 1m to 3m, because this is how the lens is normally set. Trying extreme close-ups is a waste of time!
It’s more about the effect than image quality…
So what photos can you get? – Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s hit and miss. Here are a few examples that (with a little care) have worked out quite well:
I think we can all agree – the image quality here isn’t great, but it’s great for a personal memory. However, these have all had their brightness, contrast and most importantly their white balance adjusted.
Disposable cameras in the sea will all have a blue colour cast which needs to be corrected or it can make a photo really disappointing. This can be done in several free or inexpensive software programs (such as GIMP or PhotoScape) – but only if you have a digital copy of the image.
Underwater digital photos on a tight budget?
So – let’s look at options when you have had a bit of time to plan. Just how cheaply can you take photos underwater?
Just about the cheapest way, is to use an underwater camera bag. There are loads on Ebay and Amazon – and here is one I bought earlier this year for about £3 (including P&P).
I don’t know about you, but I would be very dubious of sticking an expensive camera in one of these and just diving into the sea. The problem is, there’s not really a good way to test them without putting something electric in them and going for a long swim… (If it doesn’t work, I accept no responsibility…)
Because I was worried, I bought a cheap second hand camera for £7. It’s 7.2 MP and has since become a firm favourite. I’ve dived with it several times and it still works! At £10 in total this is cheaper than a disposable camera. BUT – the results can be disappointing.
The key problems are:
The plastic “pouch” over the lens is not flat or perfectly clear, which plays havoc with the cameras auto-focus. Since manual focus is impossible with most cheap cameras, this is a real issue.
Using the cameras controls / buttons can be very difficult.
The bag is not well insulated, so your camera will get cold quickly, spoiling battery life.
You can get fairly good results by ensuring that the camera lens is right up against the plastic lens window. Alternatively, you can buy a more expensive bag with a solid plastic, or better, glass, window – which if right against the lens will solve many of these problems. The issues with battery life and accessing controls will remain the same, though.
A “proper” waterproof compact camera
Of course, there are a whole range of custom-designed waterproof cameras out there, and after years of being prohibitively expensive, costs of some have now come down to below £100 in many cases (though well known brands are still more expensive). In truth, these cameras don’t tend to stand up well against similarly priced regular (i.e. not waterproof) cameras on dry land. Image quality and optical zoom both tend to be limited. But in the water they are generally much better than other cheap options.
Again, you will want to make sure that you know how to edit your photos once taken. A lack of light and poor white balance are classic trouble-makers with these cheap cameras, though you would be amazed the level of detail you retrieve…
A key point about dedicated underwater cameras is that they have autofocus mechanisms that will work, and a quirk of underwater photography is that water is magnifying (so you can get better close-up shots).
As a final thought (though not strictly underwater) – if you have a waterproof camera with you and quick reflexes, you may one day get a picture like this.
I promised in Maddening Macro to return to the subject a few more times. For a while, I have shied away from writing about this particular approach, because it is only of use to Canon EOS users (either SLR or DSLR) and I try not to be too brand-specific. In this case, though, I think this is well worth writing about because it is one of the best and cheapest ways I have found of getting into Macro since buying my first DSLR.
The whole thing works because of the specific construction of one common lens, the Canon EF 35-80mm 1:4-5.6 USM (particularly the Mk I version) – available for well under £50 second hand. The lens looks like this:
I don’t want to get too bogged down into the details of how or why this works, but basically, you can very easily turn this lens into a macro lens, simply by removing the front element. This sounds really drastic (and like it would do irreparable damage to your lens) but in this case, it is really quick, and simple, and the front element can be put on in a matter of seconds. (You don’t even need to undo any screws). The lens will then function perfectly normally again as a standard lens.
To use this lens for macro, you simply need to pop a screw driver into the nick shown in the photo, flick out the plastic ring and twist off the front element, as shown in this video:
It really is as simple as that!
While the front element is off, the autofocus function will not work, but this is actually not too much of a problem, because the zoom still does, and at this level of magnification (macro of more than 1:1) means the focal distance is very short. It is generally much easier, therefore, to focus by moving the camera physically closer or further from the subject.
Absolutely key to the success of this “hack” is the fact that the electric connections are still fully functional, and you can therefore set the aperture for your preferred shot, increasing or decreasing the depth of field as you see fit. Below are some examples of the type of photo you can take with this lens (with no other added filters etc.):
When you’re done, you simply twist the front element back on, and replace the plastic ring (again, the work of seconds):
For more information on using these lenses for macro – there is a long-term thread on the Canon user forum thread here. This also talks through the use of other lenses (such as the Mk II and Mk III version of the 35-80mm Canon lens) which can be used for macro in this way, but these lenses tend to be slightly more expensive – and you need to undo some screws. The Mk 1 version here can easily be carried and used on the go for macro, because of the ease with which the front comes off. It really is almost as easy as changing a filter!
When using the lens normally (i.e. with the front element in place), it is a perfectly serviceable little autofocus lens. It’s focal length on a APS-C sensor gives a slightly odd range of zoom, but it sits quite nicely alongside other common lenses like the 18-55mm kit lens or 75-300ish tele-zooms, as a reasonable portrait length lens. If you want to use if just for this, you will find better (but not many cheaper) lenses. If you want to shoot macro on a Canon camera, I have found few lenses that exceed this in terms of image quality and none which are anything like as cheap!
WARNING: This is something new I have recently found on the internet – there are a number of ebay sellers and other websites which are now selling these lenses “already modified” for macro – charging a huge premium (around £90 – £100 rather than the more common price of £30 – £50 for an unmodified Mk 1 lens on Ebay today). These modified lenses do not normally retain the full front element and therefore they can’t be used for non-macro work. Some have been modified to allow limited autofocus, but the extra cost you would pay is (in my opinion) not worth it.
A friend of mine recently asked me the simple question: “What sort of camera should I buy?”
I looked at him a blankly and was initially very unhelpful. Not deliberately, mind you. It’s just that there are so many different types of camera out there, with different advantages and disadvantages, prices and sizes. After a few minutes I managed to ask him what sort of photos he wanted to take, and what he wanted his camera for.
“Everything.” He said.
Now, I love a challenge, and I got to thinking about what sort of cameras you can use for everything – or at least what sort of camera you can use in the majority of situations. Obviously, budget has to be a consideration, so I asked him how much money he had to spend, and he decided that about £200 was a good figure to settle on.
To a lot of people (me included!) £200 is a lot of money to lay out in one go, and a lot of people would never dream of spending so much on a camera (me not included). But as high-end professional cameras can be in the tens of thousands of pounds, clearly some compromises need to be made somewhere when coming up with our solution to “everything” for £200.
My first suggestion was therefore a bridge camera which tend to be “good all-rounders”. There are some very powerful options available for around £200 either used or new, with zooms in the 30x to 50x range. (Particular favorites of mine would be the Fuji Finepix HS range, with manual focus and zoom rings, like a DSLR, but there are great options out there from all of the major camera manufacturers).
Nearly all of these new superzoom bridge cameras have DSLR-like controls for Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO etc., and will come with an electronic viewfinder. However, they tend to have smaller maximum apertures and smaller sensors, so they are not as good for beautiful soft, out-of-focus backgrounds and their lenses tend to struggle at long focal lengths in difficult lighting conditions.
But is there another option? Is it even possible to get a DSLR, with a set of additional lenses, to give you the versatility of a bridge camera for the same price?
I should set some rules out for this challenge before I get it underway, because there are clearly going to be differences in the overall specifications and results achievable between Bridge Cameras and second hand DSLRs, the point is, though, that the ultimate quality of the end image must be acceptable. Here are my ground rules for the challenge:
The equipment bought/identified does not have to be new (since the cheapest DSLRs are commonly more than £200 with a kit lens new).
The equipment does have to be in fully working condition (cosmetic ware is fine, but no scratched lenses, or broken screens etc.)
The final kit does not have to take up as little space as a bridge camera – but it does have to be portable, and transportable in a single bag.
The final kit must be capable of taking photos of at least 10.1MP (considered the minimum for proper “photo quality” A4 / 8″ x 12″ photographic prints).
The final kit must be capable of at least ISO 6400 (which is at least faster than traditional film, though not much to shout about compared to some modern Bridge cameras).
The final kit must be capable of a wide-angle to super-telephoto zoom (ideally of over 30X).
Evidence of the availability of the item at that price (as at September / October 2014) should be shown – no open ebay bids!
The kit must be capable of macro.
So here goes…
Apologies to any Nikon fanatics out there – but I have plumped for Canon in this test for two reasons. Second hand Canon gear tends to be a bit cheaper, and because I am a Canon user myself, I can vouch for how well the items mentioned here work.
The Camera:Either a Canon EOS 400D or Canon EOS 1000D. Both available for around £100 – £120, including a 18-55mm kit lens:
The Lenses and adapters:
Canon 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens (free with body) – a wide angle to portrait length zoom lens – which can be found from as little as £25 without Image Stabilization, if you buy the camera body separately, such as the 1000D, available for £80.
Canon 75-300mm F/4.5-5.6 Lens, £45 (inc P&P):
Jessops 2x teleconverter (Canon Fit) – £40 (also available from Kenko and similar brands). WARNING!! These can be very variable in price, so you will need to do a lot of searching to find a bargain! Also do not buy a screw fit, filter ring type. They do not do the same thing, and they do not work anything like as well! They’re frankly rubbish.
Set of 4 macro / close-up lenses – £7.50. In this case, for a 58mm filter ring size – which will therefore work with both the 18-55mm and 75-300mm Canon lenses. If you were to, instead, buy something like the Tamron 70-300mm lens, you would want a 62mm thread size and a step-up ring for the 18-55mm lens.
The kit has a focal range of 8.1mm to 600mm (technically a 74X magnification from widest angle to longest focal length) – and a 35mm equivalent range of 13mm to 960mm focal lengths.
But how much space does it take up? Does it fit in a bag?
Yes it does (just!):
But is it any good?
Well – I think it is! A lot of this is equipment which I use pretty regularly in the tests throughout this site. There are a number of macro images already online, so I won’t dwell on these – but the full extent of the 600mm zoom hasn’t been demonstrated before. Sure, there is some chromatic aberration, but it would be much worse on a bridge camera:
Then at the extreme wide angle end things look like this – which is wider than can be achieved on a bridge camera without a similar converter:
There’s a truism about photographers who like to try different types of shots, just to see how well they can pull them off. And that’s that everyone needs a good moon shot.
It’s probably not surprising that so many people have tried to take photos of the moon, after all, you can see it from every continent on Earth and it’s easily the most noticeable object in the night sky. But while nearly all photographers try to take photos of the moon at some point, many find it difficult to get a really satisfying result.
“Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think.”
Having tried several different approaches to photographing the moon, I’ve realised there are two areas which need some consideration – exposure and equipment (in that order).
Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think, and brighter than just about everything else in the night sky. It is an object bathed in (and reflecting) direct sunlight, and your exposure should account for this.
Normally, to take shots of stars, you need a wide aperture and high ISO to gather enough light to get a useable exposure, without creating long star trails or without a some kind of tracking/rotating mechanism to account for the earth’s rotation. For the moon, however, this sort of setup would massively over-expose the moon, creating a burned out homogenous blob. For this reason, when shooting the moon, if properly exposed no stars will be visible in the same exposure (though some shots can be combined very effectively).
The moon also moves relatively quickly across the sky, so any exposures of more than a couple of seconds will “smudge” (how noticeable this is will depend on your focal length / magnification). To get a really crisp shot, it’s normally best to aim for a low ISO, an optimum aperture of around f/16 and an exposure of well under a second. Always try to use a tripod of you want things to be really sharp (though, because it is bright, it IS possible to shoot the moon handheld).
If you are using in-camera auto exposure, then you are likely to need to dial in several stops of exposure compensation, or you will need to use spot metering, as the dark mass of surrounding night sky will fool the camera into over-exposing the moon.
To shoot the moon, you don’t need particularly expensive equipment but if you want to really get fine detailed, zoomed-in shots, you will need a lens with quite a long reach. Most point and shoot cameras will not be sufficient (though I have seen some startlingly clear results shot with a mobile phone held up to a telescope!)
The new wave of super-zoom bridge cameras (with 42x or 50x optical zooms) have a far enough reach to photograph the moon as the primary subject. At these very long focal length, a tripod is pretty much essential – especially when using Bridge cameras which tend to have smaller front-elements and are therefore less good at gathering sufficient light than dedicated fixed focal length tele-lenses. Auto-focus can also be tricky, so switch to manual focus and zoom in, in live view, if possible to get things pin sharp.
If you want to get really good images, then you will probably want to get a fixed focal length telescopic lens. These don’t need to be really expensive, especially if you get a t-mount or M42 mount manual focus lens, such as the Photax / Optomax / Sunagor 500mm f/8 lens (or another similar design). You can pick these up second hand for as little as £25, and coupled with a tele-converter, they provide a huge reach. The shot below was taken with this setup and is pretty crisp and free from chromatic aberrations etc. Manual focus is pretty easy using live view.
An alternative is to use a mirror lens (a much smaller lens) such as the Opteka, Samyang or Neewer 500mm models (normally f/6.3 or f/8, fixed aperture) which can also be fairly successful. They are virtually completely free from colour fringes, but they do not give such impressive contrast and (because of the shadow of the mirror itself) tend to need a higher ISO and therefore create a noisier image. They can be picked up new from around £50:
Both of these lenses are considerably cheaper than, say, a 75-300mm tele-zoom, which tend to be the cheapest entry level telefocal length lenses produced by Canon and Nikon. While these may have the benefits of electronic aperture control and autofocus (which doesn’t always work well for the moon), they also struggle with colour fringing (which can be taken out in post-processing) and are not as sharp:
While this is no-where near as clear as the results achieved with the manual focus, fixed length lenses, it is a significant improvement on the results I have achieved with a bridge camera with an 18x telephoto zoom (although more powerful zooms are now available).
A final piece of advice…
No matter what camera you are using, you often get the best results photographically when you shoot the moon in a waxing or waning phase, rather than full (or nearly full). This is because the shadows across the craters on the moon’s surface are longer, darker and have greater contrast in the lunar twilight, between day and night (or the light and dark side’s of the moon).
Another point worth noting (given the time of year) is that some of the clearest, stillest nights come during the winter – so get your gloves on at night over the next few nights, and get out shooting!
As winter sets in, I find that the opportunities to take photos get harder and harder to find. The hours of daylight are shorter, and tend to be while I’m at work – and the weather conditions and lighting all get worse. As I find it impractical to carry bulky camera equipment with me everywhere, instead, I try to carry a small compact camera with me. I can then grab a few minutes taking photos if I find a nice scene or conditions are good.
At the same time, I also like setting myself little challenges, to see how far I can push the equipment I’m using, trying to get the best from the situation with simple gear.
Recently, I came out of work and I was walking near St Paul’s cathedral in London. I spotted an opportunity to shoot the cathedral (a very over-photographed building) through an archway, to form a nice “frame within a frame”. The camera I had on me was my ten year old Casio Exilim EX-Z120, which I recently bought second hand for £6.
The camera itself is nothing special (though I am rather fond of it, because it has a view finder, which comes in handy on bright days, and takes pretty decent “snaps” for most casual purposes). It is pretty limited, though, in terms of its metering capabilities, low light response and dynamic range. It’s therefore a challenge to coax the best out of it that you can. Here is the final shot, which I will then give a bit of background to:
Overall, I am quite pleased with the result, but to get the photo to this state required a fair amount of post-processing (digital manipulation).
The shot, as taken, looked like this:
You can see from the image, that the camera was not able to expose well for the darker sections of the image and the sky at the same time, lacking the dynamic range to do so. The image also struggles because the parallel lines of the arch converge. This could not be avoided in-camera, because it was not possible to stand any further back (my back was against the wall). I had to look up to frame the image. Sure, it would be possible, with an expensive tilt-shift lens on a DSLR, but that would have been very impractical – so you have to rely on software, such as Photoshop elements to correct the so-called “barrel distortion” in the final image.
Similarly, the original needed quite a lot of levels adjustment to bring up the dark shadows of the early evening, and lastly it needed the sky restoring to it’ blue glory. The sky was shot at the same time, in the same place, but correctly exposed for the sky only. With multiple exposures, it would be possible to achieve the same or a similar effect using HDR compositing. In my case, I simply cropped a square of sky and dropped it into the original image as a new layer and used the “darken” tool in Photoshop elements. While some may view this kind of manipulation as cheating – all I was doing was restoring what I could see with my own eyes, but the camera was not capable of capturing directly.
Ultimately, you have to make the most of what you’ve got!