Another letter to an imaginary friend (And how to take nice photographs with a crappy camera)

Testing, testing, TESTING!!! Is this thing on? Oh God, why am I here writing to you again? Oh, yeah, there’s something about photography, some ranting and some lack of sleep related with this whole thing that I’m supposed to do before falling on top of the keyboard. I think I’m even going to add some pretty pictures… you like pretty pictures, don’t you?

This time you won’t find any silly prose, or anything related to clouds. Does that make you sad? Clouds are nice, but quite frankly they are a show stopper when you’re trying to get some sun light on your pale south American skin. So fuck them! (Oh, yeah, you’ll probably find more profanity on this one; I’m trying to get an R rating, hell yeah!). Also, apparently even clouds have enough money to go on a long vacation when I have to stay here at the “Ghost Town”, so good riddance! I hope I don’t see them again! I hope they get turned into cotton candy!!!

Ok, if you’re still reading, that means you’re not one of those freaky cloud fans, and that you’re willing to read the whole thing (hopefully), so thanks! Maybe this time there will be a cookie waiting for you, although I can’t promise anything…

So, the whole idea of having me write random stuff today is to let out some steam and actually give out some practical advice about “taking nice photographs with a crappy camera” (so much for randomness). Of course, if you do know me, you already know that this is a trap. This doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try and teach you some stuff; it only means that you will have to eat a load of crap (namely, my rantings) during the whole process. Does that sound bad to you? Come on, at least do it out of morbid curiosity! Pretty pleaseeeeeeeeee?

Good! You’re still here… or there… or wherever… This time I’ll try to tell you a story about my day, and as you’ll soon find out, I’ll try to interweave stuff with cheap photographic tips. No need to say it, but if you already know about professional photography, or have sufficient knowledge, or simply know more than me for that matter (not that tough, really), you’ll probably get bored and will end up correcting my whole empirical theories (can theories be empirical? I think so!).

Ok, my day started yesterday (bet you didn’t see that one coming, did ya?). I haven’t slept in 24 hours, which in fact explains why I’m writing like this, and comes as a great freaking excuse for any messy stuff you’re bound to find in the following lines. Not that it’s important, but the reason for this problem is that my usual reflux decided to come back to haunt me, and also I had some trouble controlling my body temperature (don’t ask me why, but I think it’s related to my new hobby of drinking “aguapanela”).

See? You’re already learning new stuff! Nothing like adding Wikipedia links to a post to make it feel more “nutritious”, right? So, back in track, all rant and no sleep makes Daniel a dull boy!

Even after no sleeping at all, I decided that today would be the best day to go to the bank and pay the rent for the next three months. Mind you that this bank’s main office is located very close to the lake, so the trip promised to be very ludicrous, what with all the sun and calm breeze. I decided to bring my crappy camera with me (Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S700, one of the lower range 7.2 Megapixel cameras that came out a couple of years ago), and went to the lake, willing to spend some extra time wandering around and taking lousy pictures.

Ok, shall we begin with the cry baby stuff? I must admit that I hate going to this particular part of the city. It’s not that there is anything bad with the area itself, it’s just a very peculiar problem that I have: I’m a person that makes binds with ease, whether it’s with people, places or things. I try to relate with people, even when I’m not exactly what you would call a “people’s person”. I try to be nice, I try to help and I try to empathize. Just in case, this is not hypocrisy in disguise; I really feel that I should be giving my best for people, even if I don’t know them well enough (but let’s not touch the subject of “complete strangers” please, because that’s a little bit sloppier and complicated). This per se is not a real problem; the problem is that I also get really used to having certain people around me, and as usual, these persons won’t always be around (obviously for different reasons).

So what happens when I get used to people? It’s not exactly dependency on someone, but the effects are pretty similar (or I’m lying to myself, you be the judge). Let’s just say that I get a little emotional (what? Don’t tell me that you didn’t cry on that Futurama episode about Fry’s dog!!!). Not a big deal, really. It’s what I call a “thing of the moment”; it’s just saying goodbye and good luck. End of story.

No, don’t go away, that was just a manner of speaking! Don’t scare me like that! Don’t leave! As I told you, it’s just a brief thing, usually not important enough. But getting back onto the reason of why I don’t like going close to In Riva Al Lago, it’s because I have a lot of memories from that place, with people who simply are not there (for me) anymore. Confusing, uh? You want to ask why the “people” disappeared. Well, to be honest, I’m not really sure I have the answer myself. Shit happens! You just have to learn to live with that.

The thing is, I’ve never learnt to live with that. I’m a person who has a mind that can go wild in an instant, making it really difficult for me to just sit down and focus on something. I’m always wondering about different things, different places, and different people. So it’s not rare if in a matter of seconds I go from thinking about whether or not I have to do the laundry today, to thinking about beautiful Firenze and the amazing Ponte Vecchio. You must be thinking that this is not exactly a terrible problem, but in fact it is, mostly because I associate this kind of memories with persons who are no longer there…

If you are getting hold of the idea I’m exposing, you can do the math of what happens when I go near In Riva… my brain keeps bringing back memories of my early days in Como, of the interesting couple of Falafel Panini I ate (mostly with guilt because of the price), of the abundant breakfasts at the hotel, of the never ending rendezvous with the Welcome Desk at the University, of the small and terribly expensive Gatorade bottle I bought for 2 Euro on my first night in Como, and above all, of all the people I met and that I eventually decided to call “friends”, but who sadly were not.

Some people say that having a good memory is a blessing, but for me it’s always been a constant source of masochistic punishment and a fresh spray of salt in my open wounds. Ok, since I’m writing about all this, why not go all out and write everything else. It hurts, it hurts a lot. I learnt to associate Como and Italy with the wrong things, and with the wrong people. And now every time I remember something nice about those places, it brings along the unwelcome acid flavor of emptiness and desolation.

You will probably say “good riddance”, you probably already told me that a thousand times before. And you’re probably right! Hell, you’re actually reading through all this merciless stream of sad introspections, which means that you have a strong mind (or that you’re as crazy as I am, but I prefer the other option), and that probably you are worthy of the trust I have been misplacing for so long!

It does feel good to be able to release these thoughts openly. I’m quite sure that if you’re reading this, it’s because you might be sympathetic with me, dear imaginary friend. Or you only want that cookie too badly… but I’m sorry, I already told you that I can’t make any guarantees about such prize. And stop making those puppy eyes! You won’t convince me like that.

In fact, I’m pretty convinced that I don’t have to worry about having the “wrong people” read this kind of stuff. At the end, they don’t give a fuck about me, and they shouldn’t, that’s for sure. Why would anyone read stuff written by someone they don’t like, or that they despise. It wouldn’t make sense. This is my invisible shield, if you want to give it a really sissy name. I like to think that this kind of stuff I’m telling you about is not a weakness of mine, au contraire mon ami!!! It’s my strength, a gift that may suck from time to time, but an essential part of who I am, something that makes people actually like me, even respect me (or hate me, that can happen too, you know). The fact that I can feel bad about this stuff shows that my heart still works, that I haven’t been brainwashed by society, that people can think whatever they want of me, even hate me without a real reason, because at the end of the day I’m still the same person I’ve always been (hopefully even better, one can hope), and I’m happy enough with that!

That’s it, I think I’ve already said too much, and said nothing at the same time. Forgive me, I haven’t slept in more than a day, you can’t expect Shakespearian writing from me in the best of times, much less right now when my eyes are, literally, down in my ass. But let us advance! It’s time to start talking about photography!

Keep in mind that I’m not a professional, I hardly know anything about photography and I might be mentally unstable. Nah, come on, I’m kidding! I do know some stuff about photography! But not too much… you’ve been warned! Try to take my tips with a pinch of salt, please.

I recently read some tweets from a friend about photography and art. If it’s you who’s reading this, just let me say that I miss you a lot. For real! See how the whole “emotional” thing works? Hell, I miss all of you! Is that ok with you? What? You’re telling me that you don’t know me? It doesn’t matter! You’re reading this, so I can say that I miss you already! We are making links here y’know! And if you’re a cute girl, you can leave your personal information on the comments area and I’ll personally contact you later. Wink, wink.

But back into subject, I can’t presume that I’m some sort of artist. I enjoy writing, I enjoy drawing doodles, and I sure love taking photos! I believe that if I put my heart into something, I can eventually turn it into art, as far as I can get a reaction from people around me. Another definition I like is that art is when someone can take something really hideous and make it look beautiful in front of someone else’s eyes. Some people do the complete opposite, but I won’t talk about that now.

So? You want to take cool pictures, but your camera sucks? I know how you feel! My camera is terrible! Pictures look bland, colorless, lifeless. Even if I have a great scene and capture it in the right moment, there are no promises that the picture will look good once I transfer it to the computer.

I feel that my camera lacks… a soul! In fact there are no cameras with “soul” (well, maybe you can find one in Japan; there’s some really crazy shit going on over there…). But let’s be real, it also lacks a good lens, a big sensor, and a whole lot of configurations for you to play with…

In fact, you could spend some good money getting that Full-Frame HDR camera (gasp! I think I might have killed a kitty just by writing that! May ceiling cat forgive me!) you always wanted, and still come up with some really shitty photographs. I must agree that there has to be a certain level of skill, or at least of “heart” to get things right (maybe that’s where the whole definition of art lies onto). And where I’m trying to get to is that even if you don’t have the right equipment, you can try your best and probably get some semi-decent results with that cheap camera you bought for less than 200 bucks, only by setting your heart onto it (OMG! I should be writing movies for Disney or something!).

First, you must get to know your camera really well. The problem with most cheap cameras is that they’re made for dummies! And you’re not a dummy, no siree! They make most work easy for people who only want to take a quick pic for “storing” purposes, just to show it to friends, or upload it to Facebook or their blog. You can only touch some basic settings, but most of the work (focus length, aperture time, ISO level, etc.) is handled automatically by the machine (Skynet anyone?). Most of the time you won’t be able to change that, or doing so becomes too clumsy and uncomfortable.

My first tip: Learn what the predetermined “scene modes” do in your particular camera model. I’m referring to the typical “automatic”, “night portrait”, “beach and sea”, etc. You can use some of them in other situations when you need a special config. Also, it’s good to know how to use them on the right conditions, trying to go beyond what the manual explains. The results can be breath taking.

Nocturnal Mode

Nocturnal Mode (doesn’t look too bad)

Second tip: Learn how your flash works! Most people keep the flash working all the time, even when it’s not necessary. In some cases it doesn’t affect much the final result, except for battery use, but some cameras actually modify the illumination of the scene depending on the flash. For example, my camera will make things faraway look darker when the flash is on, while working in dark environments. Therefore I have to use the nocturnal mode if I want to get a decent result, but then I get problems with the stability of the picture (comes out all moved if I don’t use a base, or a tripod if I had one). Extra info, remember that you can disable the flash or “force” it, for times when you have a dark subject close by, but the whole scene is bright (which means that the auto mode will not enable the flash, even if you do need it).

Forced Flash

Forced the flash on the statue to light it up, but didn't quite make it...

Third tip: Trick your camera’s auto focus system. Most cameras will detect the amount of incoming light and will open or close the shutter so the scene doesn’t look too bright or too dark. Thing is, sometimes the camera sucks at this and makes everything really dark (like mine). In this case I prefer to focus on something else that has a different illumination until I get the right amount of light, and then take the picture without re-focusing. Of course, you have to be careful while choosing the object you use to trick the focus system, cause if it is too distant or to close in comparison to the original object, the pic might come out blurry.

Too Dark

Too Dark

Too Illuminated

Too Illuminated

Of course, this normally isn’t much of a problem, because focusing on this kind of cameras sucks! Thus, it’s almost impossible to get a decent Depth of Field “effect” in your pictures with a cheap camera. But I’ll get to this point later on, for now…

Fourth tip: Learn to use the darn Macro mode of your lens! It’s there for a reason. Technically it’s meant to be used for pictures that require you to be real close to the object (around 10 – 50 cm. depending on your particular model). If you want to take a close up picture of a coin, for example, you have to use the macro mode. Keep in mind that some cameras have a macro mode that sucks and even then they won’t be able to focus on something too close to the lens. And in that case you’re pretty much screwed. Also, always remember to disable the macro mode once you go back to your normal pictures, or you’ll probably get some weird results.

Fifth tip: Don’t expect too much of your camera during the night… this cameras don’t have good sensors, meaning that they won’t be able to take good pictures on low light conditions. Most cameras will offer you nocturnal modes and high ISO modes for these situations. Basic nocturnal mode should work better, because what it does is keep the shutter opened more time, so more light can get through to the sensor. The terrible side effect is that if you move the camera just a little bit while it’s taking the picture, the whole thing will look like cake on a kid’s mouth. The sensor will pick up the moved images and produce a smudged image. Therefore you need either good pulse, or a tripod or what I call a base (a wall, a lamppost, even your own body when you’re sitting or lying down).

High ISO modes suck on cheap cameras, because the sensor is not good enough and produces images with a lot of noise. So you’ll probably see more of your object, but it will look horrible on your computer screen. As a side note, some cameras offer the “nocturnal portrait” mode, which is an interesting mix between nocturnal mode, and a silent flash. This way you can illuminate objects close to the camera, without losing whatever background you have behind them. Some cameras will alter colors in this mode because of the “heating” of the flash, but most of times the picture will look decent enough. Finally, since this mode uses flash, it can help get closer objects more defined without having to use a tripod, so it’s a dirty trick to get quick results on dark places (but use it under your own risk).

Sixth tip: Optical focus good, digital focus bad!!! Optical focus uses your lens to zoom into objects, digital zoom is not really zoom per se; it just takes the pictures, makes it bigger (increasing the artifacts and the bad quality) and crops it. Avoid digital zoom, it’s not worth it. Always try to get a camera with decent optical zoom and use it as necessary.

Seventh tip: Know your light sources. Light is the most important thing in a picture, it helps focus by increasing the contrast between colors, or defining the first plane, or the subject, by leaving everything else in shadows. Usually you can play with this in controlled spaces, but when you’re outside, you’re crappy camera will only care about the sun and street lights. Try not to take pictures facing the sun; chances are that everything will look too dark (you can use the auto focus trick to play with this if you want). Also, when you focus, remember to focus on whatever is relevant to the picture. An example works better here:

Focused on statue

Focused on the statue

Focus on sky

Focused on the sky (you can even see the moon!)

Now let’s talk about the artistic feeling of your pictures. Most of the time people create photographs just to make a quick reminder of a place, or of someone. You may even try to get something in the image that you found interesting or pretty, but most of times the result is not what you expect… And some other times, even if you get exactly what you want, maybe when you show it to someone else it will be just “another picture” without any meaning or “flavor”.

There are techniques you can use to compel in a better way your idea, your concept. For some people that is the most important part of photography, to get a reaction of people when they see the image. Even if they weren’t there, they should be able to feel what you wanted to capture, they must find something to make their own, something they enjoy, or something that simply calls their attention. Is this art? I don’t know, this is as subjective as it gets. What one person thinks is art might make someone else sick, we all have different points of view and you can’t possibly reach for all of them… but I guess you can try.

So, what techniques can you use?

First: Create a reference frame around the object you want to photograph. Whether it’s natural or artificial, use something to make it easier to find the thing you were focusing on. It can be another object, it can be light and shadows, it can be colors and contrasts. It’s your call, be creative.

What are you focusing on?

What are you focusing on? The front or the back?

Second: Use focus to get people to look on the right spot. This is not as simple as it sounds, especially with lousy cameras. The DOF effect I talked about earlier is a great tool for this, you focus on the main object, and leave everything else slightly blurred so people won’t lose track of the main thing. Actually, sometimes the blurred aspects can be as important as the main one, giving contrast or complementing the scene. In my cheap camera I can only get this effect by using the macro mode of the camera and focusing really close to an object, but even then it’s difficult to get the right level of blurring. Sadly, there’s not much I can say about this topic, because I don’t have enough experience, or proper equipment.

Depth of Field

Depth of Field, sort of...

Third: Don’t complicate the scene too much. Remember that sometimes you can lose track of the trees when looking at the whole forest. Handle the zoom option properly and try to trim useless stuff of your scene by focusing correctly.

Ok, that’s it, please don’t be disappointed. I know it’s not much, and probably you knew all this stuff, or maybe I’m wrong and you just want to kick the crap out of me… I mean, who the fuck am I to try and teach you something! I don’t even know exactly what I’m talking about here. But let’s not get violent here! I really appreciate it if you read this far, specially the cathartically incorrect part where I talked about my problems. I really hope that you actually enjoyed it, maybe you liked one of my tips, who knows… oh, and I’ll try to work on that cookie thing, I promise.

As a conclusion, I must admit that Como is a very beautiful place, full of things that you’ll be willing to photograph time and time again. Some new light, some wind, anything is a good reason to try and take that nice picture again, and feel like it’s a completely different place, even when you’ve been there a thousand times. I guess that it’s the same with people; you eventually learn to accept them as they come, focus on the good things, forgiving the bad; and you expect to be accepted as you are, under the same conditions. Eventually you’ll get it right and you’ll have to accept that you’ve actually met nice people, who are willing to read the stuff you write, and who will probably be there when you need them. A salute to you all! And good night!

~ by Darsel on April 7, 2010.

4 Responses to “Another letter to an imaginary friend (And how to take nice photographs with a crappy camera)”

  1. El primer tip debió ser composición y la regla de los tercios… y me vale 5 que la gente piense que usted es una calabaza, lo cual seguramente es😛

  2. Que significa exactamente "ser una calabaza", ¿es alguna expresión Chilena?

  3. Hope you’re doing okay Daniel🙂

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