Like so many photographers, I love to travel and to photograph the world around me. Whether close to home or in distant lands, there’s nearly always something worth gazing at in wonder, just taking it all in.
Staring at things will hopefully give you an eye for what you like in an image – and if you’re like me you will then want to take a great photo as an aide memoire or souvenir of the scene, and how you felt at the time.(I have no idea why English people need to remember everything in French!)
As this blog is generally about making photography cheap, I’m not trying to suggest that to take great photos you need to do lots of expensive travelling. It’s simply that, if you are travelling, you should take the time to enjoy your photography, no matter how cheap or expensive your gear is. The photos you take on your travels will naturally feel more interesting and exciting to you than the more everyday shots near your home – and travelling throws up some wonderful opportunities to capture great images.
I thought it might be worth sharing a few ideas for things to try when travelling, which are free, cheap or at least well worth the expense. They’re all things that work for me, and hopefully might work for you too!
You don’t need to travel far to get some great photos
It’s always struck me as weird that people will take a camera on holiday and take photos of absolutely everything, but when they go on a day trip to fantastic places in their home country with family and friends, and not bother taking a camera at all. Take a camera with you everywhere – it’s great practice.
Don’t be afraid of including friends and family
Having photos of and with the people closest to you is really important. Sure – you probably can’t sell them and enter them into competitions, but you can pass them on through the generations and get some great moments. Plus they will actually mean something to you – and you will therefore look back at them again and again. You can still take some beautiful photos (even with your ugly mates and relatives in!)
Take a boat trip…
There’s so much to see at sea (or on lakes and rivers) and the time you spend sitting and staring means you notice things and take photos that you might otherwise have missed running around. Nearly everywhere you go on holiday, it’s possible to get a boat, and they hardly ever cost much. Just be prepared to jostle your way past other tourists!
Learn to stitch a panorama
Lots of phones and some cameras can do this for you in-camera, these days – but to get a truly huge effect (horizontally or vertically) you need to take several stills and combine them:
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).
I thought it might be worth returning to macro again immediately, having started touching on the subject yesterday.
When writing yesterday, I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras such as SLRs / DSLRs / CSCs or bridge cameras. I thought, since this is a budget blog, I should return to the more accessible end of the market, using a mobile phone or cheap compact. In both cases, many have macro modes which allow you to get surprisingly close to small subjects.
“I was feeling a little bit guilty about focusing so narrowly (if you’ll excuse my pun) on diopter lenses which generally only work with more expensive cameras”
Here comes the science bit… I have included this under the title “Macro” because it is generally used to refer to close-up photography. Strictly speaking, though, the term macro isn’t right for most mobile phones or compact cameras, but it is the technical difference which gives these cameras some interesting properties.
Macro: A technical definition. – The ratio of the subject’s size on the film or sensor plane to its actual size is known as the reproduction ratio – macro normally describes reproduction ratios greater than 1:1.
So – now we’ve got this out of the way, why are mobile phones not macro? And what difference does it make?
Well, if you’re old enough to really remember 35mm film, you’ll know it was called this because each shot was taken on a 35mm wide piece of film. This is the same size as the sensor in expensive DSLRs. So, for a photo of a 20mm long insect to fill roughly two thirds of a photo, you would have needed a 1:1 (macro) reproduction.
Your mobile phone, though, will have a sensor which is considerably smaller, typically 1/3 inch, which is just 8.5mm across. This changes the reproduction ration from roughly 1:1 to 4:1. Don’t worry too much about the numbers themselves, but the point is that the insect you’re trying to shoot is now larger than the sensor you’re shooting it with, rather than the other way around.
Now, this reproduction ratio doesn’t mean you will actually be able to focus on something at very close distances (so you may struggle to shoot an insect which fills your whole frame, without some sort of adapter), but it will drastically increase the depth of field which can be achieved at the shortest distances your phone can focus at.
Here is an example, shot using my mobile phone, where you can see that nearly all of the flowers in the photo are in fairly sharp focus:
This increased depth of field is, in my opinion, generally a bad thing in macro photography, where you often want to remove distracting backgrounds with a tasteful blur. However, it does have some interesting applications, and you can have a lot of fun with them.
One of the great things about using a mobile phone is that you can often achieve greater depth of field from close-up of objects that otherwise would be impossible to keep in sharp focus when shooting at a short distance. This might be useful when shooting models, dolls houses, chess boards, or other miniature environments or landscapes. This can create some great fun opportunities to create some fun composite images. (See my articles on software such as PhotoScape or GIMP for some free applications to do this).
And the same shot after playing around with it in some software:
…use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.
As this blog is about photography, I guess it’s only right that my first proper post should be about cameras. With all the thousands of different types of cameras out there, what on earth should you use?
The shortest and best answer I can give is – use whatever you like, whatever you can get your hands on and whatever you have lying about.
I’m not saying that to be frivolous or to avoid answering the question – but after all, this blog is about doing things on a shoestring and frankly, I don’t know how long your shoestrings are. Of course, I could recommend you a particular make or model of camera, but if I did, for some it would be too expensive, for some too complex, for others it may be too basic, or not powerful enough, or not carry the right features. If there are any camera snobs reading this, my recommendations could even seem too “cheap” – but if you fall into that category, this blog probably isn’t for you.
Instead, I think it’s important to work our what sort of photographer you are, what sort you want to be and what sorts of cameras will best meet your needs. Note my use of plural here, as some of you may well want to use more than one type of camera depending on circumstances.- and this doesn’t need to be expensive…
A few tips on different types of camera:
Compact / Point & Click cameras:
Don’t write these cameras off as no good simply because they are (normally) at the cheaper end of the market – there are some excellent cameras out there.
Don’t get sucked in, looking for the highest number of megapixels. It is far more important to get a camera which is optically good (with a good lens) and decent response to different light conditions, than getting a high resolution JPG of an image which looks bad.
If you don’t mind buying second hand, you can pick older ones up really cheap. (I recently bought a 7mp camera for £6 and use it a lot).
Obviously, they fit in your pocket. This is great as it means you can always have one with you; you never know when you’ll find the “perfect” photo opportunity, and kick yourself for not having a camera.
If you get a cheap second hand one, you can try things and take it to places you may be unwilling to take more expensive gear (out sailing, diving in a cheap plastic cover, up a mountain etc.)
They normally run on AA or AAA batteries that you can replace anywhere in the world.
They tend not to have powerful zooms.
Look out for: Optical zoom. A decent ground glass lens. A view finder or electronic viewfinder (EVF) if you can find one. At least some level of manual control. A tripod mount.
Avoid: Digital zoom only. Small or poorly manufactured lenses. Cameras overladen with “gimmick” features but little manual control.
Always try before you buy – and zoom in on a test photo all the way to see the sharpness of the image captured. If you can, try the same in low light. Often the big names, like Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji etc are good bets, but they have also made some dogs!
Mobile Phones / Camera Phones
Some purists amongst you may object to their inclusion here, but let’s be honest, we nearly all have mobile phones, and nearly all of them have cameras these days. A lot of them are really very good. In fact, the cameras in phones have come on so far that these days, that sometimes the design is clearly more camera than phone. (Check out the Samsung Galaxy S4 or Nokia Lumia 1020 to see what I mean).
Of course, top end phones and/or camera phones don’t come cheap, but a lot of you will have access to them anyway because of your mobile phone contracts – so don’t be shy about using their cameras to their full capabilities, because it’s almost a camera for free.
Even older phones with less high quality cameras can still be very good, especially in good light.
One key benefit is that you will nearly always have your mobile phone on you, so you never need to miss that golden opportunity for a shot.
New phones can be loaded with loads of cool (and free!) photo apps for editing and sharing on the internet.
Because they tend to have small sensors, they can actually be really, really good for close-up work which dedicated cameras can’t achieve without spending quite a bit of money.
They often only offer digital zooms, which can be a pain (though some newer models buck this trend).
Look out for: Decent low light sensitivity. A powerful flash. Macro focus mode. A reasonably wide field of view.
Avoid: Poor low light response (like the plague!!). Poor field of view. Poor autofocus.
Bridge Cameras are called this because they bridge the gap between Point & Click cameras and interchangeable lens cameras (DSLRs and CSCs). They offer far greater manual control than most simple compact cameras, normally offering independent shutter and aperture controls and quite often they offer “manual” focus (thought this will be achieved digitally).
They normally have significantly better zooms than compact cameras, starting from around 15x from a few years ago right the way up to a whopping 50x available today.,
They have large ground glass lenses so their optical quality is normally much better than compact cameras (even on older models with lower pixel counts).
They are incredibly versatile, offering a wide range of shooting options in a single camera and lens.
They are therefore great travel cameras covering a wide range of situations.
Like compact cameras, old ones are now getting really quite cheap (though I’ve not seen one for £7 yet). If you shop around you can start finding pretty decent ones from about £50.
As you start pushing the boundaries of their capabilities, you are likely to start wanting to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera.
Look out for: A decent zoom range (anything from about 18x is pretty good for older models). Full manual controls including manual focus. RAW image capture if available. A threaded filter ring (or one capable of having a filter ring adapter added). A snug fitting lens cap. Optical Image Stabilisation.
Avoid: Anything with a scratched lens (if buying second hand). This is common in cameras of this type. Any versions that don’t have an EVF.
Interchangeable lens cameras
There’s so much to say about these, that they will need another blog entry, but they fall broadly into two types – DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and CSC (Compact System Cameras). Both types vary greatly, and the modern high spec versions can be pretty pricey. At the lower end, it’s much easier to find second hand DSLRs, as they have been around for a lot longer (basically since the early days of digital photography) where as CSCs are only really becoming mainstream now. It is therefore also much easier to buy second hand lenses for DSLRs today…
Looking at ebay today – you can buy a 6.3MP DSLR for under £50 but you would be lucky to get a decent lens with it, and the light sensitivity will not be as good as a more modern camera.
If you are really, really serious about photography, it’s likely that you will want to upgrade to an interchangeable lens camera at some point because the range of different lenses you can use ultimately gives a greater range of shooting capabilities than even those offered by a Bridge camera – but it can therefore be an expensive journey to set out on. If you’re total budget is £100, you are much better off sticking with a Bridge camera.
I can’t tell you what to buy – I own variants of all of these, but I would suggest to anyone that a few quid on a compact camera with a decent lens can never be a waste of money… If you learn how to make the most of it, you’ll be able to get some great pictures. If you’re a little more serious but still just getting going – an upgrade to a bridge is a massive step up in terms of the capabilities of the camera.