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.

22 Comments on “My Photo Tools, 2013”

  1. Athena looks very teen angsty but you… you have that Frank Zappa tilt to your head…

    Cool, but disturbing.

    You do get some great effects though, a good number of which would have been hard with film unless you really knew your stuff… but I think I might be lamenting the progress of technology a bit too much…. thanks for the run down!

  2. Interesting post John. One program I’d recommend is Adobe Lightroom since it’s designed with photographers in mind. A lot of us never go beyond that program for our image processing. Highly recommended and there’s an evaluation copy that you can try out.

  3. As a pro photographer, as in people pay me to take pictures, don’t give the filters a second thought. If you’re getting the results you want, that’s all that matters. I have never had a paying customer complain about my use (or overuse) of filters. If the paying customers like the look, then that’s what I give them. The only people I’ve had knock me on filters are other photographers, mostly not professionals. They’re not writing me checks, so I pay them no mind. :)

    And you have more than a reasonable eye: you have a great eye. I’ve always admired your photos. You’ve got the skills and work habits that make a good pro, so you’ve got a least one thing to fall back on if you get tired of the writing gig. Not that I hope you get tired of it; I enjoy your writing more than your photos. :)

  4. If you have CC, you should try Lightroom. Unless you are actually modifying photos, LR does everything photoshop does; faster, and more intuitively. Plus, there’s a crapload (a photography technical term) of preset one can download.

    I still go to Photoshop for actual editing, but all my filters (OnOne, Topaz, DxO, etc) are available through LR, and the best part is that all the changes you make are non-destructive. At any time you can revert back to the original.

    When ready, you can export any size you want, or as movies, or slideshows, or PDF, or any of the popular formats.

    . . . er. . . no, I do not work for Adobe, nor do I get anything from them. As someone who processes a LOT of photos, LR is an indispensable tool.

  5. Currently I am using Photoshop, iPhoto (for quick and basic editing and slideshows), as well as a video filter program called Magic Bullet Looks. Magic Bullet is great for throwing filters and stuff on some pics, but it is a video editing plug-in suite that when used separately from Final Cut Pro restricts my pics to approx. 4092×4092. I could get the Magic Bullet plug-in made specifically for Photoshop, but it is $200.

    I like the looks available in CameraBag 2. I also can’t fault the price. Sounds like a steal.

    Looks like I’ll have a nice bit of filter mojo to play with, all without having to resize my pics, or when I don’t want to go into Photoshop and spend a lot of time on the intricate filtering and effects.

    As Sir Charlie of Sheen would say, “winning.”

  6. On the DSLR: Now THAT is a sexy camera. I wish I had one.

    On your haircut: You still look mildly disturbing. I prefer Vintage Scalzi–that beard makes you look more trustworthy.

  7. I think that like most good photographers, your photos show a real regard and affection for your subjects. A small, portable camera that you may want to check out is the Ricoh GR if the cell phone camera leaves you wanting more.

    To me, your skill as a writer in coming up with a character sketch is probably the same set of tools you would use to compose a portrait.

  8. As others have said: Yes, you have a great eye. :-) The only thing I’d suggest is investing in a decent flash, like the SB700. If you’re taking portraits indoors, you can rotate the flash so it points at the ceiling or a wall behind you, giving you a very nice soft relatively-natural-looking light. Bouncing it that way (assuming you’ve got an appropriate ceiling / wall surface to bounce it off of…) means that the light hitting your subject is coming from a very large, soft source instead of directly from a small, hard source.

    I don’t use my flash often, but there are times when it makes the difference between getting something “meh” and getting something great.

    Anyway. That’s my unsolicited two cents, which is (clearly) overcharging…. :-)

  9. Sorry to double-post… I forgot to mention that I know you said you’re not nearly dedicated enough to shell out the cash for a flash, I just wanted to express my own opinion that you’d probably get better ROI than you think on a good flash, for a cost that’s in line with what you’re already laying out for the camera, apps, etc.

  10. Nthing the Lightroom recommendation. Not only is it a fantastic image processing tool, but it’s been a godsend to my workflow, both in the studio and at Art Center. It must be coded with the blood of virgins, powdered unicorn horns, and fairy wings, it is so awesome. If you ever want something more robust, that’s a great way to go.

  11. Nikon has been pumping out some great small format “prosumer” bodies lately. Their control software is a mess, though, and the “G” lenses (the ones that ship with their kits and have no aperture ring) aren’t all that great, even though the higher end Nikkor stuff is unbeatable. I’ve been wanting to get a fast 300 or 400 prime to shoot birds in my back yard, but I’m not ready to drop that class of cash on it just yet.

  12. Some lovely pictures. I’m a Cannon man myself though. Just slightly off-topic, I /would/ like to know which douchecanoe coined the term ‘selfies’ so that I can punch him in the throat!

  13. Agree with all of the above. I use Photoshop for about everything, but am open to others.
    That picture of Athena is great!! You do have a good eye.

  14. I’ll add to the recommendation for Lightroom, especially if you already have CS. As others have mentioned, I can do 95% of what I need in LR without ever having to open Photoshop. And since no one has mentioned it, I’ll point everyone to the Nik Collection of filters. They’re a steal at $149. Google lowered the price when they bought Nik. I think I paid around $600 for the Nik Collection a few years ago. I rely heavily on ColorEfex pro for my concert, event, and portrait work. SilverEfex Pro is the best tool, IMHO, for creating stunning black and white photos. I’ve almost switched completely from Photomatix to HDREfex Pro for HDR work, as I think it gives me better results. All the plugins work directly in Lightroom, so no need to go to Photoshop.

  15. Others have already extolled the virtues of Lightroom, so I’ll just add a +1 to that ,EXCEPT to mention that if you are already subscribed to Adobe Creative Suite as you mentioned, I believe that use of Lightroom is included in the subscription price – so you should already own the right to use it.

    In regard to your comment about being concerned that you would get harsh lighting because you are not using a “decent flash”, it’s a common error to feel that a high-end flash is a requirement for good lighting. For a typical amateur, the advantages of a high-end flash fall mostly into the category of convenience. Most of the time the harsh lighting results from using *direct* flash from a flash unit that lacks a diffuser, regardless of whether or not the flash is “decent”.

    If at all practical, bounce the light from your flash off of a ceiling or wall. This reduces the effective range of your flash, and has the potential of introducing a color-cast if the bounce surface is not white, but that is easy to correct in post-processing of RAW images. Even if an appropriate ceiling or wall is not handy, there are many diffusers or reflectors available for perhaps $20 that easily attach to your flash and make a major improvement in the softness of the lighting – albeit at the cost of a bit of reduction in the effective range. It’s even possible to use a 3×5 card and a rubber band to create your own on-flash reflector that does an excellent job of softening the light from the flash.

    (Having said the above, I should confess that I share your preference for available-light photography in most cases.)

    – Tom

  16. Dunno where this story really comes from but…:

    At dinner at a friends place, showing pictures – someone says, “You must really have a good camera.”

    The photographer turns to the person who cooked the meal and says, “That was a fabulous meal, you must have a really good oven !!!”

  17. I suggest you look into the Nikon SB100. I like it because: 1) It’s a bargain; 2) gives really good results in those situations where a flash is a must; 3) It’s small enough to slip in a coat pocket; 4) isn’t too complicated.

  18. yes, i think you have a good eye. many of your photos have interesting aspects.

    you didn’t ask for advice, but since i suffer from GAS (geek answer syndrome):

    i don’t use CC (because of … let’s just say “political reasons”). but i agree that you might want to give lightroom a try if it’s included in your CC plan, because it is a fantastic program. i use it as more of a primary tool for photos than i use photoshop. the digital asset management aspects are excellent, and most modern filters work the same. i don’t know how many photos you take, but i take enough that without LR’s organization and keywording i would never find anything again. i also develop photos in LR; crop them, change exposure, tonal curves, convert to B&W, etc.

    that said, IIRC camera raw in PS does have most if not all the spiffy functionality for developing photos that LR has. and not everything about LR is more intuitive than PS and as easy to use — if you use a lot of masks, it does not hold a candle to PS. and while it is non-destructive, you also don’t have layers, which IMO is a huge advantage when you play with filters.

    all my photos live in LR; i import, keyword, sort, rate, compare them in LR. about 90% never cross to PS. but those 10% need PS; enhancing/adding texture, cloning out that small bit that mars the composition, local adjustments to colour/brightness/sharpness, skintone — i can make very precise changes to finicky little bits that most people probably wouldn’t notice, but that matter to me.

    i still use PS CS5. haven’t really felt a need to upgrade, which saves $$ towards a better camera. is there anything super-awesome that i might have missed?

    i have camera envy. ;) i use a panasonic lumix FZ28 as my primary camera, which is a capable little thing, but no DSLR, and i would love to take better macro shots. some day.