Photo Tip of the Month: Cameras on the Cheap – Champagne Tastes on a Beer Budget

The Window
Good portraits can be taken with modest or small cameras, such as the one with a Brazilian girl, taken with a Leica D-Lux 4 (the same as a Panasonic DMC-LX3) compact camera, which fits in a pocket. This allows us to take a camera anywhere. But unlike most camera phones, we can take fantastic looking photos suitable for magazines or gallery shows.

An amazing sunset.  Fascinating looking people.  Vibrant landscapes.  Whether traveling abroad or exploring our own neighborhood, we want to take great photos without busting the bank.  Is this possible?  I get asked for recommendations for good bang-for-the-buck cameras more often than any other question, so I’ll start here.

When film cameras were king, camera technology didn’t change that much.  Sure, cameras got smaller as they went along, but a good camera made in the 1960s wasn’t all that different from a good camera made twenty years later.  Not so with digital cameras, which are continuing to evolve at a breakneck pace.  What does this mean for us?  We can get great cameras that have features that didn’t exist at that price point – if at all – even a few years ago.  We have, for example, the Sony Alpha A55 or A75 interchangeable lens cameras, with their groundbreaking translucent mirror technology, allowing light to pass straight through to the sensor without needing to move the mirror away to allow exposure.  What does that mean?  Less bulk, and fast continuous shooting rates previously unthinkable at this price.  Mirrorless cameras such as the Panasonic G2 also cut down on the size and weight, removing the optical viewfinder and the swinging mirror.  Cool.  Better cameras for less money.  I like it.  Oh, and it has a touch-screen.  Even among more “normal” DSLRs, you have major bang-for-the-buck cameras like the Canon T3i or even a Nikon D3100, which you can grab for under $600 with a kit lens.  Even these last two DSLRs are still lighter and smaller than professional DSLR cameras, such as the venerable Nikon D3s, an incredible full-frame camera which is amazing for low-light photography, although the $5000 you spend for it may lighten your wallet enough to compensate for its weight.

But, you say, that’s fantastic, but some of us still can’t afford the new Sonys or Canons or Nikons.  But these enormous leaps in new technology can often drive the price of cameras that are just a few years old down.  Buying used cameras such as the Nikon D50 DSLR for under $200 can get our foot in the door.  This is a camera that I owned for years, and I used it to take photos that appeared in books, encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, the Huffington Post, photo assignments for Jimmy Page and Jack White, and even winning photo contests.  While not state of the art, it’s good enough that you can’t really blame the camera if you aren’t getting great looking shots. And there’s always film cameras.  You can get amazing deals on film cameras that people are virtually giving away.

What kind of lens would you use with a DSLR?  Depends.  You need to start thinking about how you like to shoot.  What’s your photography personality?  Do you tend to prefer wide-angle?  Telephoto?  Portraits?  Something else? As I fell in love with photography more and more, I explored this with what I call a “walkabout lens”, an 18-200mm AF-S VR Nikkor telephoto, which is extremely flexible for many sorts of situations, which is why I love it for travel photography.  It’s not without its drawbacks, though.  It’s a little heavier than many fixed-length lens (prime), has lens creep, alters its aperture as you change the zoom, and isn’t quite as sharp as a prime lens.  For prime lens, a good choice is a high-speed 50mm lens, such as a the AF F/1.4D 50mm prime, or what must be one of the best bargains in DSLR photography, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D from Nikon, which sells for under $125.  New.  Brand new.  They’re a good travel lens, and are outstanding for portraits and low-light photography.  And at 8 ounces, they’re light.

And there’s always compact cameras to consider.  Fuji X100 makes a good lightweight camera, although at about $1200, it’s not cheap.  The Panasonic Lumix LX3 is physically identical to the Leica D-Lux 4, a fantastic camera that does surprisingly well in low light situations, at a little over $500.  I own the D-Lux 4, and can assure you that it takes vibrant, sharp photos.  The Panasonic G2, Canon G11 or G12, and other compact cameras are quality cameras worth looking into.  They’re lightweight and small.  I like that. In a later post, I’ll discuss why I never leave on a trip without a compact camera.



Photo Tip of the Month: Seriously Cheap Studio Lighting Kit…and Happy New Year!

Stephanie and the Emergency Kits 4 All brochure

Stephanie the Chihuahua of Emergency Kits 4 All wants you to know 1.) that it is possible to buy good studio lighting on a shoestring budget, 2.) these lights don’t make me pant because they don’t give off much heat,  3) that you should have an emergency kit for you, your family, and your beloved pets, and 4.) HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!  This is a raw photo before I color-corrected or did much of anything else, just so I could show you how it comes out.

Seriously Cheap Studio Lighting Kit For Photographers On The Go
Professional photographers who do a lot of work in studios need a professional setup. This can cost a truckload of money. But what about the rest of us who might only occasionally require studio lighting? Was it possible for the photographer on the go to get cheap studio lighting that was light, portable, and durable…something that didn’t suck?

What Was I Looking For?
I’m a WYSIWYG person and don’t need to freeze fast action, so I was looking for continuous lights, not speedlights (although I do have a Nikon SB-600, a good quality speedlight).

I initially considered hot lights, but dismissed them because photofloods were not terribly energy-efficient and require replacing more often, while halogens look great but also aren’t as energy-efficient.  And they both give off a lot of heat, something that wasn’t too fun to think about during the summer when I was considering these.

That left cool lights.  Fluorescents, to be exact.  These gave off less heat, were far more energy efficient, the bulbs lasted a long time and were cheap to replace.  Nice.

Now to find the exact kit. After searching the photography forums, looking at reviews, and other sources, I came across a kit that fit the bill:  theFlashpoint 3 Fluorescent Light Kit from Adorama.  They mimic daylight at 5500 degrees Kelvin. Each 85 watt bulb was the equivalent of 425 watts of light output.  Not bad. They had three lights with seven foot stands that were reported to be solid, one 33″ shoot-through umbrella and one 33″ reflective white umbrella with a black back, and a carrying case.

I assembled everything while watching TV in 30 minutes. I undoubtedly could have done it in less time if I were actively focusing. Assembly is easy, in other words.

The lights were plenty bright. The stands, including the base and the latches for allowing you to extend the stands, seem surprisingly sturdy for a $149 budget kit (note:  the kit now sells for $169 as of this writing, still a great bargain). You can adjust the stands for wider stability if needed. The kit breaks down and packs away in the included bag in a matter of minutes. I put a bit of bubble wrap around the bulbs to make sure they’re well padded. The black bag fit everything with room to spare.

The lights are fluorescent and did not flicker during the 20 minutes I was using them, giving off noticeably less heat than their incandescent counterparts.  I used the lights in the evening, and turned off my regular house lights so I could control the color temperature better. This worked very well, and I was able to get some test shots quickly and effectively without much maneuvering of the lights.

I have since shot three commercial product shoots, and it’s worked really well every time, setting up in minutes, perfect for the photographer on the go, shooting on location.

My friend has a hot light lighting kit that she purchased for about $200.  I used her kit when I was shooting her wedding last year. Her kit came with two lights/stands, two shoot-through umbrellas, and no carrying case.  The lighting kit I purchased had three lights/stands instead of two, gave off more light, ran cooler and “greener”, and had noticeably sturdier stands.  I’d say I got a great bargain.

What I Added To My Portable Photo On The Go Studio Lighting Kit
It was $149 (okay, now $169), so I was beyond happy.  Still, I felt it needed a little bit more.  The cords are rather short.  This was easily remedied.  I threw in a couple of power strips and a few extension cords.

Also, I wanted a black backdrop.  Now, I happen to be a recording engineer, so I have numerous microphone boom stands laying around, so I didn’t need to buy stands.  I never priced them out, but boom stands cost anywhere from $50-100 each. I also went to Home Depot and bought a few clamps for several dollars.  I wanted a black black black backdrop.  Construction paper is awful for this.  It reflects too much of the light back.  I don’t like things that wrinkle, so I dismissed curtains.  Black bedsheets aren’t black enough and are too sheer.  I decided on a large $40 black velour cloth, which soaks up the light quite well, almost as well as velvet.  With not too much hassle, I had my backdrop. If you look at the photo, you can see that it is a good dark black…black black.

I already mentioned that I also threw in some bubble wrap and a couple of towels to protect the kit.  With this and a couple of spare fluorescent bulbs, all is good.  I have a kit that gives provides good flicker-free lighting, sets up easily, and is durable and cheap.

This worked out very well for me.  What are your needs?  What are you looking for in a budget studio lighting kit?

I do not work for or own stock on Adorama, nor am I sleeping with anyone from the company. I just like this product.

The above photo was shot with a Nikon D90 and a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens.

Featured Photo – God Lives in the Details

El Tatio Abstract Photo from the Atacama Desert in Chile

Beautiful abstract colors.  Can you tell what this is?

Fantastic details are all around you.  But they can get lost, particularly when you are traveling, particularly at tourist sites, and particularly when you are freezing your you-know-what off.

This photo was taken at the El Tatio geysers in Northern Chile. There are 70 geysers at El Tatio, one of the highest fields of geysers in the world, containing about 25% of the world’s geysers.  Lots of hissing steam – early morning steam that condenses in the bitterly cold morning air. The steam plumes disappear as the air warms up. And at 4200m (about 13,800 ft), the air gets darn cold. -8ºC (17 F), to be exact.

But the ground near the geysers and bubbling pools of smelly arsenic are some interesting things. If you look closely, you can see some amazing textures and colors.   The details.

When I showed the above photo to my friends, some thought it was a satellite photo.  Some thought it was taken in an industrial setting.  And some did guess that it was some sort of hot pool or geyser.

El Tatio Geysers, Atacama Desert, Northern Chile

El Tatio Geysers, Atacama Desert, Northern Chile

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikkor 50mm f1/4 prime lens for the bubbling detail shot, Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens for the geysers with a Tiffen circular polarizer.

Photo Tip of the Month: 5 Ways To Take Beautiful Portraits – Even If You Don’t Speak Their Language

Atacama Father And Daughter

This father and daughter in the Atacama Desert of Chile were joking, having fun, goofing around. I chuckled, and they smiled at me. After a while, we had developed a rapport, and they were only to happy to continue the clowning while I took their photo. Nikon D90 with an 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens, 18mm, 1/125 second, f/3.5.

If you make a connection with people, you’re likely to have them agree to have their photos taken.  You’re likely to get really great photos.  And you just may make a friend or have memories you’ll treasure, whether you take their photo or not.  And much of this is almost a “how-to” on how to have more fun when you travel or even explore your own area!

Smile and Ask First
Sneaky shots and far away shots don’t always come out so well.  If you are exploring a market, at an athletic event or concert, walking around a city, and you see someone that you’d like to photograph, it’s better to smile, make eye contact, and ask first.  It’s more respectful, and people usually respond to that.  And if they don’t, then they wouldn’t have wanted their photo taken anyway. If you want to photograph their kids, who are often more willing to pose for photos at first, ask permission first.  If you don’t speak their language, that’s okay.  The universal pointing to your camera and a smile does the trick.  Show them the photo if you have a digital camera.  Some photographers will offer to send them a photo or bring a camera that allows them to print photos, such as the Polaroid PoGo, a digital camera with a built-in printer.  Great ice-breaker.  Consider shooting with a compact camera first.  Some people find these less intimidating.  Then if you wish, you can move to an SLR or DSLR later.

Show An Interest In People and Their Culture
Good manners and respect for people and their culture goes a long way.  When people see that you are respectful of their culture, they know that you put in the time to learn some of their ways.  That shows respect.  That shows understanding. It shows interest in who they are.  If I don’t know about a certain routine, ritual, custom, or whatever, I find out in a guidebook, ask a local, or stand and watch for a while so I can see what others are doing.  This also allows me to enjoy the moment and not rush through everything as if it were simply a display.

Get Involved
A sure ice-breaker is to join in on the fun.  What’s going on?  Attend a local church or temple service. Join a game.  Go shopping at a market. Watch a local football match in person.  Go rafting, take lessons, do something.  I’ve gotten some of my best people photos when I’ve joined in.  I’ve made friends with sadhus in the Himalayas when I we hiked up to a temple together for three hours.  I’ve met people while getting a shave on the streets of New Delhi.  I’ve helped plant tomatoes and dry food on rooftops in Kashmir.  I’ve tried to learn local dances in a small village in Peru.  I couldn’t speak more than a few words with any of these people, but that was okay.

Don’t be afraid to look silly.  If anything, that only helps break the ice.  People don’t expect you to do everything well or be able to dance their traditional dances perfectly.  But joining in and trying can create memories that will last a life time and make for fascinating stories to tell your friends or family.  And those interesting photos that you take back will remind you of those amazing times.

Establish Rapport
Going to temple or a concert or standing in line or wishing someone happy birthday when they are celebrating or eating at a restaurant are all enjoyable, and all are further opportunities to establish rapport.  I was waiting for food at a budget restaurant in the Atacama Desert in Chile.  I saw a father playing and joking around with his young daughter, making funny faces and having fun.  I chuckled, and they looked up and smiled.  That was fun.  We had also ordered similar food, and asked each other how it was.  We started a conversation.  I took photos of them together, still joking around, still having fun.  This photo still brings back great memories.  I’m not always looking to take photos of people, but I don’t like to pass up great opportunities either!

Learn a Few Words in Their Language
Learn the language of the country you are visiting, or at least a few words. This will often earn respect of people, particularly if it’s a more obscure language, and serves as a wonderful ice-breaker, helping you to connect.  I’ve had people invite me to their homes, their temples, or their place of work simply because I learned a few words in their native language and they were touched.  Making these connections will help you capture the spirit of the people, achieving far better photos…and maybe making a friend.

Think, Know, Plan (Okay, This Is Basically a Sixth Tip!)
You need to work quickly to be spontaneous. Therefore, you need to know your camera and equipment well. If you fiddle faddle with your equipment, adjusting settings, messing with this and that, you risk losing the spontaneity of your subject.

Before you approach your subject, think about what you’re going to do. Plan your shot. Think about the lighting at hand, your composition, focal length, viewpoint, and the position you wish to shoot from based on how the light falls on your subject.

Equipment used for photo:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens