It doesn't take long for a photographer to figure out that the worst time to make a photograph is midday on a bright, sunny summer day. The light is coming from a bad angle. Shadows are cast in the wrong places on faces. The contrast becomes difficult to manage in all types of scenes. The beautiful blue sky is so much brighter than the ground that it washes out to a very pale, almost white in the final print.
On the other hand, the light at either end of the day, especially very early or very late, is spoken of with great reverence by photographers. They call it the “sweet light” or "perfect light." This richly colored light begins at sunrise, lasts about half an hour, and begins again about half an hour before sunset. However, this light changes so rapidly that you need to watch vigilantly and grab your shot at just the right moment.
As a rule of thumb, don’t shoot between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Of course, there are going to be a lot of times when you will have to shoot during the middle of the day, but remember to avoid it when you can.
According to many surveys, most people choose a photofinisher based on convenient proximity to home or work. On the other hand, people rank quality as the most important factor when choosing camera equipment. But without quality photofinishing, you may as well not have that fancy new camera.
Photofinishers are often ignorant of the qualities that make up quality photofinishing. (You wouldn't believe how many times people have been sent to us by their photofinisher with a "broken" camera, only to discover that their pictures were simply printed out of focus.)
How do you choose a photofinisher? Just realizing that there can be a difference between photofinishers goes a long way toward changing the way you look at the prints you get back. Large photofinishers have the least time to spend on your prints. Conversely, smaller labs that do in-house finishing have the most time for you individually. Large labs do thousands of rolls per hour, while small labs process only 30-50 rolls during a busy hour.
Remember that the individual who prints your negative is the most important factor that determines the quality of the final product. Huge finishing factories lack consistent quality because most of the time no one ever sees your prints. It’s all done by machine. However, small labs may lack quality because of inexperienced personnel.
Rob Hahn, who has run the National Camera Exchange & Video labs for well over a decade, says that a strong commitment to daily, even hourly, monitoring and maintenance of the latest high-tech equipment is key. Look at your photofinishing company objectively and think about whether their focus is fast profit or long-term commitment to customer satisfaction.
What's the next step? Any lab can hit a peak in performance every once in a while, but what you need is consistently high performance. Try several photofinishers. Examine their results, knowing that there can be a difference in quality. Take note of the company, the personnel, and their willingness to correct mistakes. And if you simply must have convenience, ask if your photofinisher offers mailing envelopes for finishing services.
A tripod is one of the most overlooked accessories in a photographer's bag. The sharpness of your photograph is related to the stability of the camera at the time the photo is made. Your camera must be stable the moment the shutter is released.
Try this experiment: Hold your hand up where you can get a good look at it. And try holding a book by one corner. Now, close one eye and look carefully at the opposite corner of the book against a patterned background. You need a tripod.
The images below illustrate different states of sharpness. (Click on the images to see a larger version.)
1. Good Image – This is what a well-focused, stable image should look like. The subject is in focus and the background is the way you want it.
2. Accidental Misfocus – This is a common type of “unsharp” image. Notice that the foreground is not in focus but the background is. It is usually the result of an autofocus system picking the wrong thing to focus on. Unfortunately having a good tripod will not help you with this.
3. Classic Camera Shake – This photograph results from too long a shutter speed. Notice that there is nothing in the photo, either front or back, that is in focus. If you had a hard time holding a book still for a long time, a long shutter speed will magnify your movements. Also, the larger you print your photograph, the more pronounced camera shake appears. A good tripod will eliminate this problem, even with a very long shutter speed.
4. Classic Camera Shake – This type of camera shake is due to pushing the shutter button down rather than squeezing it carefully. Notice how the image seems to spin around its center. If you look closely you can see the telltale "comma" shape of the highlights that are symptomatic of this problem. That means the camera was held more firmly on one side than on the other. A good tripod will eliminate this problem.
When you shop for a tripod, be aware that there are tripods for video/movie cameras and tripods for still cameras.
Video/movie tripods are designed to allow the camera to move smoothly. They have a head with a long handle at the back to give good leverage. The better quality tripods have some sort of device that assists you in moving smoothly, usually a hydraulic system called a "fluid head."
Tripods for still cameras are designed to hold the camera as still as possible. Some tripods are designed for use in the studio, others for use in the field.
Since "bigger is better – no exceptions," studio tripods tend to be big, really big. Often studio tripods take the form of a single wide-based column weighing several hundred pounds. However, we all know that if you don’t carry your tripod around, it's no good having one in the first place. So get one that is the biggest one you are willing to carry. Field tripods range from a couple of inches high to ten feet or so.
Choosing the right head for your tripod is just as important as choosing the tripod. A good rule of thumb is to make sure it does what you want it to do. For instance, if you shoot a lot of nature photos, make sure that the head turns upside down so that you can shoot from very low angles. If you shoot a lot of macro, look for a head that does not move the center of the lens very far when you adjust it. This keeps you from having to recenter your subject all of the time. If you shoot a lot of telephoto shots, get a head that can support the front-heavy lenses. Tell your National Camera Exchange & Video salesperson what you want to shoot, and they will help you to make a good choice.