Useful Photography Advice
February 23, 2005 11:11 AM   Subscribe

How to Do Anything Photographic This site — while not as extensive as good ol' — has plenty of practical advice. The technique section, in particular, is worthwhile reading for amateur photographers. (Alas, according to the author, I'll never be able to photograph birds.)
posted by jdroth (31 comments total)
Neat, you don't see Firefox pop-under ads much nowadays.
posted by smackfu at 11:37 AM on February 23, 2005

Well I'll be damned. I had wondered where that ad came from, and now I know. (Much to my lasting shame.)
posted by jdroth at 11:53 AM on February 23, 2005

Yeah, Ken Rockwell used to have a good site until he got those Fastclick pop-unders. It is now teh suk.
posted by scruss at 11:53 AM on February 23, 2005

smackfu: Heh - yeah, I noticed that one too - it's nice to now see how many pop-ups get blocked, rather than counting how many you've got to close...

Regarding pictures of birds - yeah, they're not the easiest of subjects, and a digital SLR is definitely the way to go...

Shameless self-link to some favourites of my own bird photographs... you can actually see my reflection in the fourth link!
posted by Chunder at 12:03 PM on February 23, 2005

Thanks i want one of these now

on a side note anyone know of any digital camcorder sites that are simmilar, and has good suggestions for the 800 - 1500 price range.
posted by sourbrew at 12:05 PM on February 23, 2005

I didn't get any ad with Firefox.
posted by rhapsodie at 12:08 PM on February 23, 2005

Mandatory warning: Ken Rockwell is well-known within many photographic circles for his -- how can I put it diplomatically -- "less than perfectly informed" opinions. For example, he'll frequently review equipment based on press releases alone without even laying eyes upon the equipment in question (often vehemently arguing against the experiences and first-hand knowledge of those who actually own and use said equipment). He's famous for his chauvinism and shilling toward a certain camera brand -- doesn't take more than a few pages before it becomes obvious. And he holds many rather odd and apparantly arbitrary views on "the way things should be" in photography. For example, he insists that a "professional" camera is defined by having a 1/500s max sync speed, which disqualifies all four of the current-production models in both the Nikon and Canon lineup of professional DSLR's (Nikon's D2X and D2H, Canon's 1DmkII and 1DsmkII) but which also coincidentally qualifies the decidedly amateur and entry-level camera he owns as a "professional" camera. Why this moniker means so much to him is beyond me -- for example, Galen Rowell is famous for his landscapes despite his insistance on using cheap camera bodies and lenses due to their light weight. In any case, browse through his site with at least one bucketful in grains of salt at your ready.

During his intermittent moments of lucidity, however, Rockwell does produce many useful how-to's and the occasional amusing essay, such as his Seven Levels of Photographers. Ultimately though, Rockwell is so controversial and hit-and-miss with his opinions that just mentioning his name is enough to start a flame war on many forums (for example).

In addition to, Michael Reichmann's Luminous Landscape has a plethora of photographic tutorials while Norman Koren is a great repository of technical-based photographic information.

On preview: Stay the hell away from shooting birds if you know what's good for your pocketbook -- next to astrophotography, birds are the fastest and surest way toward succumbing to the dreaded Gear Acquisition Syndrome. :)
posted by DaShiv at 12:10 PM on February 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

he insists that a "professional" camera is defined by having a 1/500s max sync speed

The funny thing is, he's kind of right, except he shouldn't be. That is, if you're shooting studio action shots, the difference between 1/200th and 1/500th of a second are huge. Except, the stuff he shoots is mostly landscape stuff, where there's absolutely no benefit at all.

And that's another thing: it's hard to appear credible as photographer extraordinaire when your gallery is full of such mediocre shots. /donates $0.02

Stay the hell away from shooting birds if you know what's good for your pocketbook

Oh, you can get a nice fixed-aperature 500mm mirror lens for, like, $75. :) But sports photography is a real beast. Nothing slower than f/2.8 + nothing smaller than 300mm = nothing cheaper than $1500. Ugh.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:25 PM on February 23, 2005

Thanks jdroth for the link and DaShiv for the informed followup.
posted by fatllama at 12:32 PM on February 23, 2005

Usually when a photographer spends a lot of space on his webpage talking about his gear, the photography books he's read, the places he's been to, how passionate he is about photography, etc., his actualy photographs tend to be mediocre. Ken Rockwell is not an exception. See also Philip Greenspun.
posted by driveler at 12:38 PM on February 23, 2005

Nice little jab there. Did he kick your puppy?
posted by smackfu at 2:13 PM on February 23, 2005

I really wish there was a good community-based alternative to For one thing I can't stand Philip Greenspun's pervasive and now entirely out of date self-gratifying comments about web design. More importantly, though, the majority of the posters need a major attitude adjustment: there's a lot of broken English sniping and not a lot of constructive criticism.

These days I read it for the product reviews and skip the user comments entirely.
posted by nev at 2:14 PM on February 23, 2005

Here are some useful review/info sites, the dpreview forums contain a wealth of information. (from a digital perspective anyway). Feel free to bag on these links, I have no particular loyalties to these sites, but I live with a photographer and I've seen them prove useful.

Digital Photography Review
Fred Miranda
Rob Galbraith
Steve's Digicams
posted by lazymonster at 2:39 PM on February 23, 2005

Don't get me wrong -- having a high native sync speed is great, except that for non-leaf shutter cameras (such as DSLR's), 1/500s sync is more an artifact from using fast CCD's as a capture device rather than being a defining "professional" feature. Rockwell says that "I have a real problem not having the full professional 1/500 flash sync" when, historically, both Nikon's and Canon's top-of-the-line professional film SLR bodies (the venerable Canon 1V and the new Nikon F6) sync at 1/250s, as do all four of the current professional DSLR's I mentioned previously. And ironically, most point-and-shoot digitals have "professional" 1/500s sync speeds due to -- surprise surprise -- using CCD's. I guess in Rockwell's world, nobody back in the film days was using a pro SLR at all, nor will anyone who is using a new top-end DSLR from now on, since both Nikon and Canon have moved on to CMOS's instead of CCD's in their latest generation of top-end DSLR bodies by now. (I'm not saying CMOS is better, just that it's not the direction that technology is heading.)

So what Rockwell is really saying is, only those using older CCD cameras are pros. :)

And high-speed flash sync when using external flashes work just fine. Rockwell's main objection is that you lose guide numbers (flash power and distance) when using high-speed sync, which is true. (His other objection, that using high-speed sync forces the flash to drain unnecessarily faster due to firing at full power, however, is a non-issue with the latest generation of TTL algorithms from both Nikon and Canon that can adjust flash output accordingly.) The hysterical aspect of why this is so relevant to Rockwell, however, is that he advocates using the on-board flash professionally; in fact, in his latest "spec sheet / sight unseen" review of Nikon's D2X he lists as a negative that the D2X lacks a built-in flash (which it and all other professional SLR bodies very sensibly lack to maintain weather sealing). He then triumphantly crows, "By comparison [his camera] has a great built-in flash." But professional external flashes have much more flash power than his camera's onboard flash, so much more that using an external flash for high-speed sync more than makes up for the difference in the light loss from having a lower sync speed. In fact, unlike his camera's onboard flash, external flashes often lose even more power through techniques like diffusers and bounce cards (1-2 stops light loss) or even full-ceiling bounce (2+ stops light loss). Obviously, reducing (or losing) flash power and output isn't the end of the world when you're using a sufficiently-powerful dedicated flash unit instead of the onboard flash! Thus, having a faster native sync speed is a wonderful advantage but in practice, plenty of real professionals use external flashes and high-speed sync (when necessary) just fine despite Rockwell's objections. Well, except that they get less "professional" results than Rockwell's camera's onboard flash, of course. :)

It's telling that Fuji's S3, the one DSLR most specialized toward wedding photographers (almost all of whom live and die by flash), has the lowest sync speed of all current DSLR's at 1/180s. (And its predecessor, the S2, had an even slower sync speed of 1/125s.) Not that Rockwell's wrong about how having a higher sync speed is advantageous (it is), but it's ludicrous to use it as a bully stick to dismiss everything else as "unprofessional" when actual pros working in a flash-centric field aren't making a big fuss about it. Unless you're trying to justify how "professional" your own camera is, of course.

Re studio flash: Having 1/500s flash sync is definitely great for things like freezing a model's hair in mid-air as she tosses her head, and this does give CCD-based DSLR's additional versatility in the studio. But all CCD-based DSLR's have a less-than-35mm-format sensor, and that doesn't exactly make their "small negatives" the first choice for studio use compared to, for example, medium format cameras. And leaf-shutter Hasselblads and the like are perfectly capable of 1/500s sync, and would be more at home in a studio than crop-frame DSLR would be anyway. Like the saying goes, horses for courses, and more in the compromise-filled field of photography equipment than anywhere else.

On preview: what sort of photo community are you looking for, nev? Photo critique? Technical assistance? Deciding between whether to buy digicam X or DSLR Y? Professional networking? is a bit generalist, and somewhere else more attuned to your own interests and needs would probably serve you better.
posted by DaShiv at 2:46 PM on February 23, 2005

Oh I forgot, C_D: for those who are skilled enough to consistently manual focus one of those tiny-aperture mirror lenses through the dark, low-magnification, and squinty viewfinders on today's DSLR's (lacking aids such as split prisms or coarse mattes due to being designed for autofocus), well, they've more than earned and fully deserve every penny they've saved. And then some. :)
posted by DaShiv at 2:55 PM on February 23, 2005

Thanks for this post. Being fairly new to photography, I have nothing to add to the discussion...

This has served to fuel my lust for an SLR camera as I'm finding it harder and harder to get good photos from my tiny point and shoot as I get fussier and fussier with each batch of photos that I take. While I do agree that good equpiment doesn't necessarily make you better, being able to get decent pictures in low light levels would certainly make me stop tearing out my hair in frustration. It would be nice to have only myself, and my camera, to blame for lousy shots.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:31 PM on February 23, 2005

From the site:
It's the cheapest digital SLR on the planet and also has a whopping 6.3 megapixels.

Someday we'll all look back and laugh at the days when digital cameras came with a "measly" 6.3 megapixels.
posted by milnak at 4:48 PM on February 23, 2005

Ken Rockwell is not an exception. See also Philip Greenspun.

OUCH. But yeah. Phil is probably sitting on a few million bucks from his internet stuff, he's got more gadgets than God. Proof that the gear does not make the photographer.

The hysterical aspect of why this is so relevant to Rockwell, however, is that he advocates using the on-board flash professionally

Yep! I don't understand it, either...

But all CCD-based DSLR's have a less-than-35mm-format sensor, and that doesn't exactly make their "small negatives" the first choice for studio use compared to, for example, medium format cameras.

Hey now. A medium format scan isn't going to give you any more detail than a 1Ds mk2. Hell, Sports Illustrated has been doing two page spreads with 4 megapixel cameras. They look like dogshit, but nobody's gonna put a magazine in a frame on their wall. Like you say, horses for courses. But medium format is on its way out. You have to know this is true. The sensor crop is only an issue if the camera manufacturers remain cheap and lazy (look at Nikon's insistence on the damned 1.5 crop). Yet another reason Canon will wipe the floor up with Nikon (this coming from a Nikon guy).

The best sites on the internet for photography are:
DP Review - For the latest news, Forums are pretty good
Fred Miranda - Great forums, particularly the professional forums
Thom Hogan's Nikon site - Excellent Nikon reviews
Garage Glamour - Excellent budget glam focus; Great forums, instructional articles
Sports Shooter - The best sports photo site on the 'net
Featured - For all your inspirational needs (the Metafilter of photography).

for those who are skilled enough [...] well, they've more than earned and fully deserve every penny they've saved.

Glad you got the joke! :)

And on preview:

I do agree that good equpiment doesn't necessarily make you better, being able to get decent pictures in low light levels would certainly make me stop tearing out my hair in frustration

Thing is, throwing a bunch of money into gear will probably give you about as much improvement in your shots as practicing proper low-light technique. The difference is, once you hit the f/limit (nobody sells anything much faster than f/1.4) or you hit the ISO limit (about 800 ISO, but getting better) you'll have to rely on these techniques regardless. Invest in a decent tripod or monopod. It will cost about $800 less than a fast lens.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:05 PM on February 23, 2005

DaShiv: (and other sites) have been great in helping me figure out what equipment to buy given my budget and interests, so that's not a problem. The downside is that now that I've vastly improved my equipment, I feel like I've lost some of the creativity and sense of fun, and that's reflected in the pictures.

So I'm looking for a photo critique site, but a critique can be supportive even if it's ultimately negative. Every Monday a "Photo of the Week" gets posted on and people fall all over themselves to tear it apart. Nobody learns from that, and it just reinforces my obsessing over whether I brought my tripod or a fast-enough lens when I should be just clicking the shutter.
posted by nev at 5:18 PM on February 23, 2005

nev, I've had bookmarked for years, though I've rarely visited. My memory tells me that it might be what you're after. Might.
posted by jdroth at 5:30 PM on February 23, 2005

Civil Disobedient : I'm currently working with a Kodak point and shoot, which, at night, fails unless something is either a) less than 20 feet away and lit with a flash or b) lit by god himself. And B doesn't happen all that often. A tripod would definitely be a start, but low lighting conditions is definitely tops on my list for "Why I Want an SLR If I'm Going to Pursue Photography Further."
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:59 PM on February 23, 2005

So I'm looking for a photo critique site, but a critique can be supportive even if it's ultimately negative

DP Review forums are the place for you. The members are extremely supportive yet very honest in their critiques and advice. You can learn a LOT there. Fred Miranda's site has a weekly contest with changing themes, but I haven't found people as willing to submit their shots as on DP Review Forums, where you will see the whole gamut: from craptacular to spectacular.

grapefruitmoon: Yes, you at least need complete control over the aperture and shutter speed. If you don't have these, you're camera's the one taking the pictures, not you.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:10 PM on February 23, 2005

If you are a Canon shooter, the best place on the net is Photography on the Net, it is really well moderated, the site admin is a great guy and is extremely helpful and patient with newbies, and there isn't any competitive gearhead mentality that many sites have.
posted by crazy finger at 6:37 PM on February 23, 2005

The one thing i liked that he said (i just skimmed the link) was "First and foremost your camera has NOTHING to do with making great photos.". I have a little canon s110 elph that i bought 4 years ago, and have taken around several continents, in all environments, and through many situations. Its not a technically superb camera, but some of the pictures I come out with I think are pretty damn good.

For an amateur of course ;)
and definetily biased by the memories they accompany.
posted by ba3r at 6:48 PM on February 23, 2005

woops make link#2 this..
posted by ba3r at 6:50 PM on February 23, 2005

Thanks for the all the suggestions, everyone. I'll definitely be checking them out.
posted by nev at 8:01 PM on February 23, 2005

C_D: Sorry for being a bit long-winded in my earlier response -- I had to provide some technical context for my criticism so that the audience doesn't think I'm coming out of nowhere just to rip at Rockwell. :) What you said about writing off medium format due to the full-frame DSLR onslaught is outside of my own shooting experience since I don't do that kind of studio work, but virtually all the 1Dsmk2 shooters I've known have expressed the sentiment that "DX isn't enough", which corroborates with your views. Mamiya is also working on a complete 22mp 645 body (not back) aimed at the groundbreaking ~$10-$12k price point, so even on the digital front, obviously medium format is feeling the heat from Canon's full-frame assault.

grapefruitmoon: Don't give up on the night shots just yet -- if your goal is long exposures, your camera is more than capable of the task as long as you secure it to a tripod or set it down on a flat surface for the entire (long) exposure. If you need some inspiration, there are some stellar nighttime scenics in this very renowned G1 gallery by Pekka Saarinen (the person behind the previously mentioned website Photography on the Net) which was shot using the 3.1 megapixel Canon G1 that released way back in 2000. I second crazy finger's observation that the forum on his site is also a superb resource for people either using point and shoots or those are thinking about about switching from one to a DSLR -- a lot of people there have at one point been in your shoes on this exact question (including Pekka himself) and they're a very friendly bunch to ask questions of. Totally not the testerone-fueled gearheads you'll find on many other camera forums (well, maybe a bit so around Photokina and PMA time like right now, but that's understandable). For me personally, watching Pekka "graduate" from a G1 (point and shoot) to a D30 (DSLR) years ago was one of the reasons I took the DSLR plunge with Canon myself, but wasn't an easy adjustment and is definitely not for everyone (relevant AskMe thread). You have the right idea though -- improved low-light shooting is a clear reason to head toward DSLR's.

Also, does your current camera has a hotshoe? Not many of Kodak's compact digicams have them, but IIRC some of the more sophisticated ones might, and you can do amazing things with a small external flash. Most of the indoor pictures in Pekka's G1 gallery were done this way -- he uses it well and his results are amazingly good! I'm using much better equipment now than he was when he shot that gallery, and I'd still be damn hard-pressed to match those result even on my best shooting days. Any photographer worth a lick of salt will tell you the same thing -- there's an awful lot of photographic potential in any kind of camera (as ba3r demonstrates too). But ultimately, equipment does matter to some extent, so if you really do feel like you're being limited by your equipment (be honest with yourself), there's no need to agonize over the decision -- rip off the bandaid all at once, upgrade, and be done with it. Just remember that you're not doing it for the shiny new toys: you're doing it to push yourself harder and farther. You owe it to your equipment to make the best use of it that you can. :)

nev: I've never liked hardcore critique sites like Photosig (and's commentary system) too much, since it's largely full of killjoys droning "I would have cropped this differently" along with rating-whoring sycophants carpet bombing threads with responses of "I love this picture! Now please rate mine." I agree with what was said about how the weekly/monthly challenges at can be a little too serious and "polished" to for one to feel comfortable diving right in, but the ongoing thematic "challenge" threads on each of the DPR forums are a more low-key way to participate with others who also happen to use the same (or very similar) equipment as you do. Nor do you have to remain equipment-specific: for instance, the Sony Talk forum is particularly friendly, with many non-Sony DSLR users as long time members who are ready to give everyone feedback, although you'll fit in a little more easily if you sing praises to the holy Sony MemoryStick every once in a while and stay clear of the many flames. Lastly, if you have a particular style/genre that's dear to your heart (landscapes, macros, etc), the "topical" forums at and Photography on the Net are good places to share and critique photos with like-minded photographers.

What works for me though is just to orgranize my shots and post them as galleries online, responses be damned. In addition, working on a larger gallery project (such as my current Chinatown series) helps to keep me productive in making progress toward something "bigger". Maybe this strategy could work for you, too. Good luck!
posted by DaShiv at 8:06 PM on February 23, 2005

DX isn't enough

Definately not. All those optical engineers didn't sweat for years coming up with the right combinations of aspherical elements and convex/concave, zoom-wide mental gymnastics just to have a third of the image chopped off.

If you're interested (and you seem the type that might be), there's a really interesting series of articles written for Nikon's internal newsletter that details some of the interesting stories behind some of their more famous lenses: Nikon Web Magazine. There's even an article about the much-maligned 500mm f/8 Reflex. It's written by one of the older engineers, and even if you're not interested in the technical aspects, it provides an illuminating look into the dynamics of a Japanese company, particularly in the Good Old Days.

Thanks for the link to Saarinen's G1 gallery. It reminds me that the real mastery comes when you're able to "see" shots like this excellent composition--extracting the beautiful from the ordinary. And I know I've said this before, but I love your rangefinder stuff.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:37 PM on February 23, 2005

grapefruitmoon if you don't feel ready to jump into a full on SLR don't discount 'SLR like' digital cameras. The advantage these have over most compact digital cameras is that they generally don't have to make as many compromises to the lens and CCD due to space restrictions.

They also usually give you the ability to manually adjust the camera, which is what you want to learn, but still have a good auto mode for when you just want to happy snap.

I've recently bought a Fuji S5500 and I find that it outputs much better prints than a compact that I own with a higher mega-pixel CCD.

Admittedly it's not SLR quality, but it's not SLR price either.
posted by bangalla at 3:46 AM on February 24, 2005

DaShiv : Thanks for the links & advice. :) While I know that I can get some pretty good results from a point and shoot, I've been really thinking about doing photography seriously and I do think that an SLR camera is in order once I can afford it. (A bit of background on me : I just graduated from art school in May. Collage is my main medium, but art is definitely more than just a hobby for me. I've had a gallery show and sold a few pieces of work. While I can't make a sustainable income on art quite yet, I intend on putting together another show this year and ideally, I'd like to include some photographs.)

bangalla : You make a good point about "SLR like" cameras, but as I have no intention of getting rid of my point and shoot, I don't really need the "good auto mode." Also, if I'm going to pay money for a new camera, I'm going to go all the way rather than buying an "SLR like" camera and then wanting a real SLR on top of that. Of course, currently, I don't have any money for anything, so it's sort of a moot point.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:34 AM on February 24, 2005

Don't know if anyone is still checking this thread, but for those of you interested in building up your photo gear, BoshWeb is having an 80% OFF sale. They don't sell cameras, unfortunately, but they have a pretty large complement of lighting accessories (stands, diffusers, umbrellas, etc.) for the studio. You have to use the coupon code when you checkout: BOSHWEB80. Also, there's a minimum order of $250 (before instant-rebate). For you math-a-phobes, that means you have to spend $50.

Disclaimer: I do not work for BoshWeb, have never worked for them, have no intention for working for them. I'm also not a stockholder, if they have any stock. I'm just a satisfied customer.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:19 PM on February 24, 2005

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