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Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Digital Improv

The most important part of your digital gear may be a willingness to experiment

It's interesting that some new-to-digital photographers want to keep an old film style of shooting. They turn the review off for the digital camera and discourage others from using the LCD. I don't think it's ever useful to say another photographer's way of working is "wrong" if he or she shoots good photos. That's the bottom line—the photograph. For some people, the LCD is a distraction, so it should be turned off. I do take exception when certain photographers tell everyone else they should work the same way. I'm all for trying anything to see how it fits my way of working, but such "shoulds" can be counterproductive.

The LCD is a tremendous resource. Here are some digital improv situations made better with the LCD:

•Your lens isn't long enough to photograph a distant subject. Can you enlarge the image in Photoshop later? Only if the subject is sharp, so photograph it toward the center of the image area (the sharpest part of the lens), then check it in the LCD by enlarging the subject to see its sharpness:

•Your ideal camera position makes it impossible to see the viewfinder. Take the picture, remember how the camera was set (this works best with a tripod), check the shot and then try again until you get the shot you want. This can be an important technique when you're backed up against a canyon wall, for example, with few places to set the tripod legs.
•A special wildlife shot appears before you, perfect for your lens' focal length; however, the animal is backlit in such a way that you know its eyes will be dead-black caverns. The lowly pop-up flash to the rescue again! You're not sure if it will work? So what—try it anyway!
•You find you could get an exciting shot of flowers at a cliff's edge or a wide-angle shot of a snake that you don't want to approach too closely. There's no way to do that without putting yourself in harm's way...or is there? Put your camera on a tripod, then stretch the tripod out to the subject by holding it at the bottom of the legs, after first setting the camera off using the self-timer. For a subject that might be spooked by this, you could pretest the shot on something nearby to test the angle of the camera, the lens choice, exposure, etc. Refine the shot by checking it on the LCD.
•You're stuck—it's a great subject, but maybe too great; the scene overwhelms your photographic senses. Start improvising, but do it rapidly.

Shoot overhead, down low, wide-angle, telephoto, more foreground, less foreground. Try a variety of compositions to see if anything jars loose some creativity. After looking at the LCD, you'll usually find something does.

Additional ideas will come, not from thinking of every possibility, but by being open to the idea of digital improv. Whenever you find a shot that challenges you, that you can't take with the usual techniques, try a little improv.

This isn't about what equipment to use or what technique to try, since you can never know that until the situation arises. This is all about being open to experimenting and just trying something to see what happens. In film, that was difficult. Some pros even took Polaroid cameras into the field in order to do some of this, but that was never easy for nature photographers. If nothing else, what the heck did you do with the Polaroid "leftovers"—the sticky chemicals on the peeled paper, the extra paper and even the Polaroid shots themselves? With digital, you need none of that.

Editor Rob Sheppard's latest book is the PCPhoto Digital Zoom Camera Handbook, a guide to advanced digital cameras. He's leading a photo tour to Peru again this summer; visit the Palm Beach Photographic Centre website at www.workshop.org.


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