Daily Archives: August 13, 2013

My Photo Tools, 2013

Question from the gallery:

Could you share some of your photo tools and secrets? You’ve been showing off some striking pictures recently.

One, thank you, and two, sure. I’m pretty sure I’ve covered this topic before but it never hurts to update this stuff.

Let’s start with cameras. I usually use one of the following two:

* My Nikon D5100. This is Nikon’s midrange DSLR, or was a couple of years ago, anyway, when I bought it. For me, an amateur who usually doesn’t take the camera off auto but likes having the option from time to time, it hits the sweet spot between ease of use and array of options. It also takes some very nice pictures right out of the gate, which is actually important. I like fiddling with my pictures, sometimes a lot, but no amount of fiddling with filters or software is going to make a crappy picture magically decent.

I have the Nikon set up so that it simultaneously shoots JPGs and RAW format files. The latter, which are much larger but have a lot of information you can manipulate in a good photoediting program, are very useful because whenever possible I like to shoot with available light rather than flash, which is almost always harsh and ugly (I am not nearly dedicated enough to shell out for a decent flash). The RAW files let me go in and work with the picture to bring out the details I want.

I tend to use the Nikon for portraits, sunsets and other pictures where I know I am going to want to work with the picture, or if I know I’ll be wanting to keep the image for a long time.

* My cell phone camera. My current cell phone is a RAZR MAXX, which has, I believe, an 8mp camera. It’s perfectly fine as cell phone cameras go, which means it is objectively mediocre and trending toward bad, particularly in low light. But I don’t take my Nikon with me everywhere I go, and as the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you. The pictures I take with this tend to be spur-of-the-moment ones, or ones that I intend to go immediately onto Twitter or Facebook, because the phone has easy social media integration, and the DSLR does not.

Somewhat more rarely I will use the camera on one of my tablets, particularly my iPad. I realize it’s uncool to take pictures with your tablet, but one, there are good reasons to do it, and two, like I care what anyone else thinks about it. But by and large, it’s the Nikon or the cell phone.

When I’m using the Nikon, I tend to port the images into one or both of the following image programs:

* Photoshop: Which would seem obvious, I suppose. I am currently using the latest iteration of Photoshop, the “CC” version which is only available on a subscription basis. I have philosophical issues with not owning the software but I’m not going to get into that at the moment, and besides, I use enough Adobe programs that on a yearly basis, the cost of the subscription is a wash with what I would pay to upgrade anyway. So. I use Photoshop to handle RAW files and to do a lot of basic cleanup of the images before I post them. I also use it for post-camera tweaking of images to get certain “looks” and in particular to fiddle with images I am going to make black and white.

A professional photographer, I suspect, would be able to do “in camera” a lot of the things I use Photoshop for, probably quicker and in many ways more effectively. I am perfectly fine with this; as noted, I am an amateur, and I’m doing this for my own enjoyment, and I am geek enough that I enjoy playing with Photoshop to see what happens when I move sliders and and fiddle with curves. And in the end for me, if I like the result, it doesn’t matter to me how I got there.

* Camerabag 2: I discovered this program a couple of years ago, and it’s my go-to program for when I want to slap a pre-set filter (or more than one) on a picture. The filters tend to offer neat specific effects, and you can chain the filters together (or create your own) and then save that specific arrangement of actions as its own new filter. In one sense it’s not too much different than any other photo filter program out there, but I like both its interface and its ability to customize. If you see a picture of mine that looks particularly “arty” then I’ve probably run it through Camerabag.

As noted, I don’t always just use one of the programs; sometimes I will run a picture through both. The picture at the top of this entry, for example, was run through Photoshop in RAW format to tweak settings, do some judicious editing and set into black and white, and then ported into Camerabag to run it through a couple of different filters, and then brought back into Photoshop for some final tweaking. If I made an effort, I could probably do all of my photoediting in just one of the programs, but this process works fine for me, is good enough, and anyway I’m having fun doing it my way, so there’s that.

Outside of these two programs I will occasionally use Aviary, which is the photoediting program embedded into Flickr, the photosharing service I use. It has a set list of filters which can come in handy. I wish it were slightly more full-featured, but then I do have two other programs I use that are more full-featured, so this qualifies as me being whiny and greedy.

When I use the phone camera I don’t tend to do a whole lot of filtering, mostly because I just want to get the picture up on Twitter or wherever. That said, when I do want to do some post picture fiddling, I tend to use one of two programs: Perfectly Clear, which does a very good job of automatically brightening up muddy or dark photos, and Pixlr-o-Matic, which has a metric crapton of filters, effects and borders. I also and again occasionally use the filters and editing capabilities of Flickr, through its Android app. I find it vaguely annoying that the Flickr app filters do not directly correspond to the Web interface filters, but whatever.

From a technical and artistic standpoint, as a photographer, I think that I probably am as guilty as any hipster or Instagram-addict with regard to over-reliance on filters. But on the other hand I don’t feel the need to beat myself up too much over it. One, again, I’m not a pro photographer, so I feel perfectly justified in the occasional shortcut to get the feel I want out of a photo. Two, at the end of the day I’m doing the pictures for myself, so it’s actually about what I want out of the picture, not what anyone else thinks.

That said, as a photographer, I think I have a reasonable eye. I think I’m particularly decent at portraiture; I am able to find something interesting in a person’s face and work with it. It helps that I live with people with interesting faces, I admit. But even on the less interesting faces (for example, my own) I can still sometimes get lucky.

What it really comes down to, though, is not really the camera or the programs, but simply whether you as the photographer are interested in taking good pictures. If you’ve got that, I’m pretty sure you can get a good picture out of almost anything.

Update: A follow-up entry on how to make pictures like me.

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

Ever crash a ship into a planet? No? Well, then, Michael J. Martinez has one up on you with The Daedalus Incident. But to hear him tell about it in this Big Idea, that’s not even the coolest thing in the book. Think about that for a minute, why don’t you.

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ 

So…I’m crashing an 18th century frigate into 22nd century Mars. While that is certainly a rather large and important-ish idea in my debut novel, The Daedalus Incident, it’s actually not the Big Idea.

The Daedalus Incident is, in part, a historical fantasy in which the Age of Sail plays out amongst the planets of the solar system instead of the seas of Earth. And that was a great deal of fun to write, let me tell you. It’s got that big, noisy, whiz-bang vibe you get from swashbuckling, adventurous space opera. There’s lizard-people on Venus. Mysterious aliens on the rings of Saturn. Alchemy. Benjamin Franklin. Someone described it as Master and Commander meets Spelljammer. (I rather liked that one.)

And there’s a creaky, hardscrabble mining colony on Mars in the year 2132 that, I suppose, addresses the other half of my fan-brain. It’s a hard SF setting, with corporate mining operations, astronauts in dead-end jobs, laser drills, earthquakes, quantum physics and shuttle crashes. It’s the Future, right down to the holographic televisions and tofu-based diet. That was fun, too.

As you may suspect, the two settings come crashing together. Mad alchemists and nefarious evil are involved. There’s adventure and excitement and all the things Yoda says Jedi aren’t supposed to crave, but do anyway. Yes, even more fun.

But what’s it all about? Where’s this crazy yarn go?

I’ve often pointed to two different groups of influences on my writing. The first is the Napoleonic era naval literature of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. Aside from the obvious influence, these two writers are, in some ways, cousins of SF/F writers, because they write about men haring off on missions of war and discovery into a great, big, scary unknown. The other group includes classic science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, whose work often involves those same themes: coming face to face with the unknown and, in some cases, unknowable.

The common thread I discovered in the process of writing my own book was that these influences have, at their heart, ordinary people. There aren’t any Chosen Ones, or children of gods, or genetically engineered supermen. Nobody gets a dragon egg or a sacred gemstone or a magic sword. (Well, OK, there’s an alchemically treated sword in my book. Totally different though. It wasn’t stuck in a stone.)

The works that truly influenced me are about ordinary people facing the finality of death and the enormity of the unknown, and they do it out of duty, or love, or knowledge. Simple motivations, perhaps, but they spawn innovation, brilliance and courage. I think that’s why I liked them, because it made the characters incredibly identifiable to me.

That’s what I found in The Daedalus Incident as I wrote and revised it: the notion of ordinary people facing incredibly strange, dangerous and terrifying things because it was the right thing to do. It actually wasn’t an intentional theme at first – sometimes, I’m told, writing happens like that – but when I found that Big Idea in there, I definitely nurtured it as best I could.

I still liked crashing the frigate into Mars, of course. I mean, who wouldn’t?

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The Daedalus Incident: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.