Fort Washington Park charm revealed in old abstracts

I went looking for textures but found abstracts instead.

 

Fort Washington Park, a 200-year old fort overlooking the Potomac River, strikes me as a giant playground for photographers. From vistas of the river to old historic buildings, from abstracts to wild animals, there is almost too much from which to choose. 

 

Selecting a theme can be helpful technique when trying to narrow your focus. Because of the age of the fort, there was a lot of peeling paint, old exposed brick, and other signs of aging. I thought those might be good subjects for a 'texture' theme.

 

I got a couple decent shots of the peeling paint, but my photo ADD wouldn't let me rest. In the end, I found my subjects in a dark, abandoned room on the other side of the campus. Among items strewn across tables, a barrel and rusty bucket caught my eye. The room had very low light, but the shadows helped to create a mood that fit the scene. Here's my take.

 

Fort Washington Park could be a great location to shoot portraits as well. Look for that when it warms up a bit.

How to buy a digital camera - A 9 step guide

My notes: I just met a photographer, Laurie Doney, who has this article on her blog. It seemed like such a natural topic for the Camera Buyer Hotline, that I asked her if I could reprint it. Thanks to Laurie for allowing me to share her thoughts. LM

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How to buy a digital camera - A 9 step guide

by Laurie Doney

Today I want to turn our attention to how to buy a digital camera.

I’m not going to talk you through all the different features on a digital camera or tell you which models are best (something that is really quite individual and which changes regularly over time) however there are a few questions and factors to keep in mind when making the decision of which camera is best for you.

When searching for a digital camera there are a few factors that I encourage people to keep in mind when they buy a digital camera (while there are 9 steps they are not necessarily a sequence you follow)

So let’s get onto some tips for buying digital cameras:

1. Determine what you need
A mistake I see some digital camera buyers making is that they get sucked into buying cameras that are beyond what they really need. Some questions to ask yourself before you go shopping:

•What do you need the camera for?
•What type of photography will you be doing? (portraits, landscapes, macro, sports)
•What conditions will you be largely photographing in? (indoors, outdoors, low light, bright light)
•Will you largely stay in auto mode or do you want to learn the art of photography?
•What experience level do you have with cameras?
•What type of features are you looking for? (long zoom, image stabilization, large LCD display etc)
•How important is size and portability to you?
•What is your budget?

Ask yourself these questions before you go shopping for a digital camera, then you’ll be in a better position to make a decision when you see what they have to offer. A salesperson will probably ask you above questions anyway – so to have thought about it before hand will help them help you get the right digital camera for you.

2. Megapixels are NOT everything
One of the features that you’ll see used to sell digital cameras is how many megapixels a digital camera has.

When I first got into digital photography, the megapixel rating of cameras was actually quite important as most cameras were at the lower end of today’s modern day range and even a 1 megapixel increase was significant.

These days, with most new cameras coming out with at least 5 megapixels, it isn’t so crucial. In fact at the upper end of the range it can actually be a disadvantage to have images that are so large that they take up enormous amounts of space on memory cards and computers.

One of the main questions to ask when it comes to megapixels is, “Will you be printing shots?” If so – how large will you be going with them? If you’re only printing images at a normal size then anything over 4 or so megapixels will be fine. If you’re going to start blowing your images up you might want to pay the extra money for something at the upper end.

3. Keep in mind the ‘EXTRAS’ 

Keep in mind as you look at cameras that the price quoted may not be the final outlay that you need to make as there are a variety of other extras that you might want (or need) to fork out for including:

• Camera Case
• Memory Cards
• Spare Batteries/Recharger
• Lenses (if you are getting a DSLR)
• Filters (and other lens attachments)
• Tripods/Monopods
• External Flashes
• Reflectors

Some retailers will bundle such extras with cameras or will at least give a discount when buying more than one item at once. Keep in mind though that what they offer in bundles might not meet your needs. For example it’s common to get a 16 or 32 megabyte memory card with cameras – however these days you’ll probably want something at least of 500 megabytes (if not a gigabyte or two).

4. Do you already own any potentially compatible gear?
Talking of extra gear – one way to save yourself some cash is if you have accessories from previous digital cameras that are compatible with your new one.

For example memory cards, batteries, lenses (remember that many film camera lenses are actually compatible with digital SLRs from the same manufacturers), flashes, filters etc.

5. DSLR or Point and Shoot?
While digital SLRs are getting more affordable they are not for everyone. Keep in mind that they are usually bigger, heavier, harder to keep clean (if you’re changing lenses) and can be more complicated to operate than point and shoot. Of course there are some upsides also.

6. Optical Zooms are King
Not all ‘zooms’ are created equal. When you’re looking at different models of digital cameras you’ll often hear their zooms talked about in two ways. Firstly there’s the optical zoom and then there’s the digital zoom.

I would highly recommend that you only take into consideration the optical zoom when making a decision about which camera to buy. Digital zooms simply enlarge the pixels in your shot which does make your subject look bigger, but it also makes it look more pixilated and your picture noisier (like when you go up close to your TV).

If you’re looking for a zoom lens make sure it’s an optical zoom (most modern cameras have them of at least 3x in length – ie they’ll make your subject three times as big – with an increasing array of ’super zooms’ coming onto the market at up to 12x Optical Zoom).

7. Read reviews
Before buying a digital camera take the time to do a little research. Don’t JUST rely upon the advice of the helpful sales person (who may or may not know anything about cameras and who may or may not have sales incentives for the camera they are recommending).

Read some reviews in digital camera magazines or online to help you narrow down the field. There are some great websites around that give expert and user reviews on virtually every camera on the market – use this wonderful and free resource.

8. Hands On Experience
Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a handful of cameras head into your local digital camera shop and ask to see and play with them. There’s nothing like having the camera in your hands to work out whether it suits your needs.

When I shop for a camera I generally use the web to find reviews, then I head into a street in my city with 4 camera shops side by side and I go from shop to shop asking for recommendations and seeing the cameras live. In doing this, I generally find the same camera or two are recommended in most shops and I get to see them demonstrated by different people (this gives a more well rounded demo). I also get to play with it and get a feel for which one I could see myself using.

9. Negotiate
After you’ve selected the right digital camera for you; it’s time to find the best price.

Once again, I generally start online and do some searches to find the most competitive prices on the models I’m interested in. With these in hand I’m in a good position to be able to negotiate in person with local stores and/or with online stores. I generally find that retail stores will negotiate on price and will often throw in freebies. Online stores are more difficult – most bigger ones don’t give you the ability to negotiate but smaller ones often will if you email them.

Don’t forget to ask for free or discounted bonuses including camera cases, memory cards, extra batteries, filters, free prints, cases etc. I even know of a couple of stores that offer camera lessons that you can ask to be included. Some stores will also consider giving you a trade in on older gear.

I generally do negotiating from home on the phone and only go into a store to pick up the camera after a price is agreed upon.

10. Your Tips
The above is my advice on buying a digital camera and comes from my own experience of buying numerous cameras, but I’m sure others will have useful tips to add. Feel free to add your suggestions on how to buy a digital camera in comments below!

Reprinted with permission.

'What's the best buy to shoot my son's sports?'

My buddy called me from Best Buy last week looking for advice. He was interested in buying a camera for the holidays and needed someone to help him make sense of the retail store information overload.

I get these kinds of calls about cameras all the time, just as I’m sure plumbers get calls about leaky faucets and accountants about taxes. My cousin, who is a lawyer, regularly hears from me when I have vexing legal issues.

I actually enjoy the opportunity to talk camera, so I don’t mind the inquiries. Besides, photography won’t flood your basement or invite an IRS audit. This is fun work.

Here’s what my friend wanted:

  • A camera that was going to be simple and easy to use;
  • One that would allow him to shoot his son’s sporting events using rapid bursts;
  • He didn’t want to have to keep changing lenses; and
  • He expected to spend around $1,000.

Here’s what I suggested:

  • Get an entry-level DSLR. If shooting rapid-fire sporting events is a priority, you’re going to need the performance of a DSLR. You don’t have the shutter lag you find in compact cameras, and the performance will be much better if you hope to get great sports pics of the kids.
  • If you are going to buy a DSLR, start with Nikons and Canons. They are the best in the camera business and have the widest array of models for just about every situation. You’ll also find they have the widest choice of lenses and accessories.
  • If you are looking for a camera that will get outstanding photos without a lot of fuss...and under $1,000...both have entry-level options that will more than fit the bill. Nikon just released its D3100, and Canon’s T2i has been a consumer favorite for a while now.
  • If you don’t want to fuss with lenses, skip the kit lens that comes with the camera and get an 18-200 mm lens. That range covers 95 percent of everything you will ever shoot, so you will never need to swap it out to get closer or farther away from a subject. Both Nikon and Canon make 18-200 mm options (Nikon 18-200 mm/Canon 18-200mm) that are much better constructed than their kit lenses. You can also find third-party manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma who make that lens for Nikon and Canon mounts. If you can, go with the camera manufacturer’s lens, however. Consider this an investment. You’ll want to change cameras in about three years, but you will keep your lens forever.

Can you get this for $1,000?

It depends. B&H Photo Video, a favorite camera store of mine, lists the Canon T2i with kit lens at $749. That gets you up and running if you need to stay within your budget. If you have flexibility, add the 18-200 mm lens. Canon’s version runs $595, Tamron sells for $289, and Sigma offers theirs for $249 and $329. Given those options, your ideal Canon outfit can run between $1,038 to $1,344.

Nikon’s D3100 retails for $639 at B&H, and the Nikon 18-200 mm lens sells for $759. Nikon is running a special promo, however. If you buy the 18-200 mm lens with a camera, you get a $250 instant rebate. That brings your total to $1,148. It’s hard to beat a deal like that.

My bottom line to him -- take a hard look at the Nikon D3100 with the 18-200mm lens deal. It gets you all the features you wanted in a camera and lens, and you will take amazing photos once you’ve taken my class.  (Couldn't resist the gratuitous plug.) :-)

How to take pictures in low light and the secret fix when you can’t

Emy Tseng sings at SOVA Wine Bar on H Street, NE, Washington, DC.

A jazz singer and wine bar are a great combination for evening entertainment -- unless you plan to take pictures. Once you introduce a camera, what was once charming becomes challenging.

I wanted to illustrate low light photography by shooting a live music performance and got my wish in an invitation to see Emy Tseng perform at SOVA Expresso & Wine on H Street, N.E.

SOVA has a cozy upstairs venue -- deep red walls, comfy couches, and best of all, low light to create the atmosphere. If you were on a date, you’d relish the ambiance. If you were toting a camera, you’d be a bit more antsy.

Emy was right at home. She is a bubbly and talented singer who found her niche in Brazilian jazz. Now she sings monthly at SOVA and performs Thursdays at the Utopia Bar and Grill on U Street, N.W.

I’m digging the vibe and atmosphere at SOVA, but to shoot this performance, I have two options: let in a lot of natural light or use a flash. I ruled out the flash option because, after all, this is a low light shoot.

Harnessing the light:

You basically manipulate three levers to get more light into your camera -- how wide your shutter opens, how long your shutter opens, and your ISO setting. At SOVA, I maxed out all three.

How wide the shutter opens

You measure how wide your shutter opens with your aperture, or F-Stop. A lower F-stop number means a wider aperture opening. I used a lens that would allow me to open to F 1.8. The lens was a fixed 35mm, meaning it was a wide angle setting that didn’t zoom.

How long the shutter opens

The second lever that controls the amount of light coming into your camera is the shutter speed -- how long the shutter stays open. You measure that in fractions of a second. You want to choose a shutter speed that is slow enough to let in lots of light but not so slow that you can accidently shake the camera and blur your image.

ISO - In search of...light

Your third lever is the ISO setting. This tells you how much light your film or digital sensor needs for a good exposure. The higher the number, the less light you need to expose your photo. Your average consumer camera these days maxes out between ISO 1600 to ISO 3200.

Shooting at those high settings will allow you to take pictures in very low light, but you have a trade off -- digital noise. As the ISO numbers increase, the image pixels get bigger and your color desaturates.

I had to shoot Emy at ISO 3200. On my Nikon D300s, the pixels were clearly going to show up.

The formula: F 1.8, 1/60 sec, ISO 3200

A slow shutter speed makes the drummer's hands blur.If you know what that means, I pushed every boundary to get a good exposure using existing light and no tripod. You’ll see that I got a decently exposed image. You can also see how ISO 3200 leaves noticeable image noise.

With the picture of the drummer on the right, you can see how the slow shutter speed shows up as motion blur.

The secret fix

Here’s how you fix a photo like Emy's. Make it black and white and add some vignettes around the edges. Voila! You have art. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.

Focal Point: SOVA Expresso & Wine, 1359 H Street, NE, Washington, DC. 

This is what the full band looked like. I shot this with a flash from the back of the room.

Using color: How one red apple saved the barrel from monotony


 

If one rotten apple spoils the barrel, what does one red apple do? It creates a pretty cool composition.

I went to Burke Nursery last weekend to shoot pictures at their Fall Festival and Pumpkin Playground. I had my heart set on capturing hayrides and farm animals but never got past the main door. It really wasn’t fair of them to front load the produce market with all those colors and fragrances. 

The orange pumpkins got all the initial attention before a barrel of golden apples caught my eye. This is an easy depth-of-field shot. One sharply focused apple dominating the foreground while the others behind fall into softer focus. But the monochrome look was mildly interesting to me.

What about a splash of color?

 

One of these things doesn't belong here

 

Breaking a repeating pattern can have a dramatic effect. When I add a red apple to the bunch, it leaps out visually. Red is a color that always demands attention. It’s hard to include a dominant red in any photo without it fighting to be the center of attention.

In this barrel, the red apple gets its wish. We all notice you now, Red Apple. 

Now I have to put you back. Sorry.

Focal Point: The Burke Nursery and Garden Centre presents their 16th annual Fall and Pumpkin Playground from Oct. 1 - Oct. 31 at 9401 Burke Rd. The kids will love the pumpkin patch and hayrides. Lots of great locations to shoot the little ones as they scamper about.

Matt, the music nerd - How to make environmental portraits

Matt Joyner, self-described music nerd, working at Crooked Beat Records in Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.You might say that Matt Joyner moved to DC on a whim. The conversation that brought him back went something like this. 

“Hey, what are you doing?” 

“Nuthin.”

“Wanna move to DC?”

“Yeah, Man. Might as well.”

And with that invitation, Matt, the self proclaimed music nerd, moved from Oregon, across country, to work at Crooked Beat Records in Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C. 

“Hey, why not. It sounded fun,” he says. “Great people work here. Great people come in here, and it’s an excuse to hear good music all the time.”

In all fairness, he’d lived in DC and worked at Crooked Beat years before, but the call was just what he needed to instigate a homecoming. 

Crooked Beat Records, nestled on Adams Morgan’s eclectic 18th Street strip, is one of the last places you can go to hear music on vinyl. The cozy basement store is lined with stacks of original and new-release LPs, and for those who remember how to use one, a turntable to spin the classics.

I wanted to shoot Matt in an environmental portrait style -- meaning it’s a photo of your subject with enough of his surroundings to give you some context about him and his personality. 

When we talked, Matt was standing at the register, but the clutter of posters behind him was far too distracting.

A far better option was the rows of albums just off to his right. What better way to say music store. I posed him adjacent to the records. An extremely wide F-stop knocked everything out of focus just enough to give us an idea where he is standing, yet still allowing us to focus all our attention on him.  

The extremely tight crop allows him to dominate the frame and leaves no guess that he is the subject. Just a few snaps, and I felt I’d captured the essence of the guy who would travel across the country to follow a passion for music.

I don’t remember what was playing during our shoot, but Matt says his musical tastes run a wide range. “This morning, I was listening to nothing but Neil Young and the B-52s,” he says. “What’s the best music to wash dishes to? The talking heads.”

That sounds about right.

Why my picture sucks, and how to make sure yours doesn’t

What's the focal point? It's hard to tell.I was browsing through my photos the other day, and this one caught my eye. Do you know why? It sucks. I imagined someone bringing this picture to me and asking for some feedback.

I would respond with the same question I pose to just about everyone who takes my PhotoTour Excursion. “What’s the subject?”

Well, it could be the guy at the wall. It could be the huddle of girls. It could be the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall itself. It could be anything. But what is it?

The more specific and obvious the subject of your photo, the more dramatic your picture is likely to be. The subject is called a focal point, and every photo ought to have one. 

Without a strong focal point, your eyes wander from corner to corner looking for...the point. "Why am I looking at this photo?" you'll subconsciously ask yourself. Without an answer, you are likely to become frustrated and disengage. 

Do this: Before you lift the camera to take a photo, ask yourself "what's the point?" When you have an answer, take the photo and marvel at the results.

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Visitor at The Wall pays tribute to Calvin Maxwell. This photo has a much more obvious subject.Here’s a picture of someone doing the same thing in the same location. What’s the focal point? No ambiguity now, is there? 

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, visitors can trace the names of the fallen using pencil and paper. It is a moving way to pay tribute to your loved ones and take home a tangible memory their names. 

In each of my photos, a visitor is tracing a name. In only one photo is it obvious that the tribute is the focal point. That clear and unambiguous subject makes it a much stronger photo. 

P.S. I never spoke to the person in the photo, but he was tracing the name of Calvin W. Maxwell, An Army major whose body was never recovered from an aircraft accident on Oct. 10, 1969. He is listed dead on Sept. 5, 1978. I offer my sincere gratitude to Maj. Maxwell for his supreme sacrifice and condolences to his loved ones for their loss. 

Cool camera accessories you 'need' on your wish list

Linda (We’ll call her that to protect her innocence) was pondering a birthday wish list when she asked me for suggestions on camera accessories.

Now this is something I can relate to. I’m always on the hunt for cool camera toys and keep my own camera accessories wish list, just in case someone should ever ask.  

Here are some suggestions for Linda and anyone who might be feeling generous toward a deserving photography business owner. (Just kidding. Kinda.)

Lenses - I know I should assume that you have a good lens, but I’m including it anyway because it is foundational to great photography. If you are shooting with your camera’s kit lens, try an upgrade to a basic 18-200 mm zoom lens. Most manufacturers have something in that range. You’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Next, try and get at least one “fast” lens, which means you can take pictures down to at least an F 2.8 setting. 

Filters -  Many photographers keep a couple types of filters handy - UV and Polarizers. The UV filter will help protect your lens - especially if you don’t want to use the cap after every shot. Polarizer lenses will help you shoot through glass without producing a glare and see into water clearly. It will also help you dial up more vivid blues from your skies. 

Tripods & bean bags - Remember that slow shutter speeds introduce the potential to shake your camera and blur your images. For that reason, some wise person invented the tripod. You should have a sturdy one for times when you shoot in low light. Keep a table-top version in your camera bag.

ExpoDisc - Setting your camera to automatic white balance will get you through most average situations, but if you need to make sure your white balance is perfect, you have to get one of these ExpoDiscs. Pop it on the end of your lens, and use it to calibrate a custom white balance. On most cameras that’s as simple as taking a picture. 

External flash - If you’ve taken my photo tour, you probably had to pinky swear that you wouldn’t use the pop-up flash unless absolutely necessary. Nothing in nature blasts you in the face with a burst of light, so that flash will never yield a natural-looking photo. If you must use artificial light, try an external flash that will allow you to use a diffuser or bounce the light off the ceiling. 

Bags & straps - You spent a lot of money on your camera, please invest in a decent bag and strap to protect your investment. Enough said. 

So there it is... the start of a birthday wish list. What’s on your list of oughta haves? Post a comment and share your thoughts.

P.S. I included links to B&H Photo Video as examples. They don't pay me (Quite the opposite, actually), but they have good prices and a great variety of just about everything photographic.

Three tips for taking great photos with a camera phone

Use both hands to keep the camera phone steady.Anyone with a camera phone can take great photographs. The key is making the most of what you have. Here are some quick tips for taking better pictures.

Tip 1: Be Steady – Blurry photographs are often a problem with camera phones. Combat fuzzy photos by holding the camera still, using both hands. Unlike standard cameras with a physical shutter, cell phones use software to tell the camera how long to record light coming through the lens. This can result in “shutter lag” and a greater opportunity for you to shake your hand and blur your image. Remain steady, use both hands, and reduce the chance of blurry shots. 

Tip 2: Forget the Zoom – It’s easy to get all excited about zoom function on your camera phone, but using the zoom can result in grainy-looking photos. Instead, get close. The closer you move to your subject, the better images you'll get. One common mistake with camera phone images is that the subject ends up being a tiny object in the distance, so fill up your view finder.

Tip 3: Go for High Res – Most camera phones allow you to choose what resolution you use, so pick the highest possible option. The higher your resolution, the clearer your shot will be. If your phone has settings for file size chose the “large” setting, especially if your camera phone is less than 1 megapixel. 

Use your camera phone to capture the best of the capital region and enter PhotoTour Excursions’ first iLoveDC Camera Phone Contest. Upload your entry and encourage your friends to vote on your photo.