This guest post is the first of three in a photography series that was kindly contributed by Brad and Margus.
Adventure Rider is filled with fabulous stories and photos of places just waiting to be explored, and your contributions play a role in keeping ADVrider authentic, entertaining, and exciting. This short series of articles is intended to provide ADVers with knowledge of photographic techniques and gear so that you can experience your own photo explorations, and share them with us, making ADVrider even better.
This series of articles will cover in brief the basics of exposure and using your camera’s manual settings, followed by a second article giving a brief description of photo equipment used by a couple of ADVers, and then the last article will delve into some basic photographic pointers—things that can make or break a photo.
Maybe the best place to start is with a little background about us.
Brad: I’ve always loved photography. My mother had an Argus rangefinder camera on which she learned to take pictures, and that’s the same camera I first used. I still have that camera, and it still works. When my college photography professor asked if everyone had a camera, I brought him the Argus to see if it would suffice. He was shocked to see that it still worked. Some 35 years later, it still does.
My first jobs out of college were as a newspaper photojournalist.
I remember going to an event in Mamou, Louisiana, for a local newspaper to cover a bizarre Mardi Gras festival. I was carrying my full set of Nikon gear and lighting equipment, probably something like 40 pounds in all. I ran across a shooter from the Black Star photo agency in New York. She carried a single Leica rangefinder camera with I think one spare lens in her pocket. I felt a bit silly with all of my gear, most of which I never touched that day. That chance encounter made me rethink both what I was doing and how I was going about it. The experience still has an impact on me today . . . but more on that later. Today, I’m a lawyer for a small midwestern state, but I still love photography and shoot just about every day.
Margus: As a self-learner I started the other way round. I did have a very compact and simple Soviet Smena 35 mm rangefinder camera given to me by my parents during my teenage years, but I never made much out of it—my photos sucked. It was actually the very first pioneering motorcycle travel stories I came across back in the day that sparked my real interest in photography.
The good ol’ days. I still have the same bike and the same film camera.
I wanted to emulate it, even at least something similar. I got one of the first digital Nikons, a very awkward Coolpix 950 if I remember, but this missed a target for me as well since it was too sterile looking.
Brad: OK, that’s hilarious because my first digital was the Coolpix 900. I thought it would save on film development cost, but that camera ate AA batteries faster than Paul Prudhomme plowing through a box of doughnut holes.
Margus: I got newer and better digital cameras every year or two, but I eventually got tired of the technology race and went back to basics, where I found my true calling.
So deep in the digital era, I’ve ended up carrying quite a large chunk of medium format film gear on my travels. With an old Pentax 67 setup I’ve found my holy grail of photography, and I’ve started to make hand-made prints to express my secret artist side. The package of a Pentax 67 body and three lenses fills my large tank bag. I would not recommend this setup to anyone, but it’s proof that you choose the tools that suit your vision and fit your style of travelling.
My message is this: Don’t be afraid to think out of the box, try and test different equipment and methods until you’ve found what suits you best. There’s no single perfect tool or even photographic method, but if it does the job you want without much hassle, stick with it and see where it brings you as you evolve. It may be a tiny compact automatic point-and-shoot, or a more common fancy dSLR, or even a very rare bulky large-format film camera if you are a resourceful artist with a unique vision. One camera with a better technical specification may not be better for you than another with lesser numbers. If it suits your individual needs, it’s right for you.
So, enough about us. Let’s jump into some basics.
Your photography will never improve until you understand and use some of the manual settings on your camera. Before we jump off into ideas of what works best on the bike and how to capture that “decisive moment” in your travels, let’s do a quick primer on the basics.
Photographers are light gatherers, and cameras are just the tools that help you gather that light. Whatever you do with photography, you want to make sure that you capture the right amount of light when you record something, so exposure is critical. Exposure in all cameras is controlled by three parameters: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, sometimes referred to as the “exposure triangle.” All modern cameras have an automatic setting, usually designated as “P” for “Program” or, as Brad’s wife says, “the big green square” on her Canon. To get creative with your photography, you have to get out of the big green square. To do that, you have to understand how to gather light manually.
Cameras today list shutter speeds using all sorts of numbering schemes, but just make sure you understand the basics. Shutter speeds on old cameras were normally listed something like: 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, etc.
The “1” stood for one second, “2” for half a second, and so on. The numbers tell you how long the shutter stays open when you push the button. Each increase in shutter speed cuts the time the shutter stays open in half and, therefore, means you cut the amount of light coming into the camera by half. So, 1/1000th of a second lets in half as much light as 1/500th of a second.
Photographers refer to this halving of light as a “stop.” So, moving your shutter speed from 1/250th of a second to 1/500th of a second would be referred to as “losing a stop of light” or “one stop down.” If it gets brighter during an outdoor shoot, a photographer would probably tell you to “stop down” because of the extra light in the scene.
Also know that shutter speed matters when it comes to you and your subject. You can’t handhold a camera still for a full second. Even if you can, there’s little chance that your subject will stay still that long. It takes quite a bit of practice to see what shutter speed works best with a given subject. For instance, things that are moving pretty quickly need a shutter speed of 1/250th or better if you want to have any chance of stopping the action, and 1/500th would be better. However, some things don’t look right when you shoot with a really fast shutter. For instance, 1/4000th of a second will stop the rotors on a helicopter in mid-flight, which frankly looks . . . weird.
Margus: Here’s an example of 1/640th shutter speed “stopping” waterdrops in the air.
Also, using a slower shutter speed and panning the camera with the subject during exposure can blur the background and convey a sense of motion and speed—way cool stuff when it works out.
Margus: You can use “smoothing” pans with lower shutter speeds around 1/30th to give that sense of a motion and flow.
The sensitivity of the medium you are recording with is referred to as “ISO”—an acronym you don’t need to worry about. We used to call this “ASA” or “film speed,” but we don’t use film much anymore, so now we just talk about ISO in relation to the “sensitivity” of the sensor in digital cameras. The major steps of sensitivity look like this: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, etc. See what is going on there? The numbers double at each step up in sensitivity. Modern cameras have steps in between these numbers, but you need to understand the full steps.
Essentially, each major jump in sensitivity is a doubling of the prior sensitivity. So, 200 ISO is twice as sensitive as 100 ISO, and half as sensitive as 400 ISO. This works in conjunction with the other elements of exposure. So, if you decide that your scene requires you to move up from 1/250th of a second to 1/1000th of a second, you have lost two full stops of light, and your image is going to come out too dark because of that unless you do something to correct it. You can make up for the lack of light by jumping up two full ISO settings. So, if you were at 100 ISO, just go up to 400 ISO, and your scene will be properly exposed again.
In the days of film, you changed film sensitivity by . . . changing the film. Today, you make this adjustment on your digital camera with a setting and continue shooting.
Brad: One of my favorite things to do with digital cameras is to use “auto-ISO,” which lets the sensitivity “float” as necessary while I pick the other settings I want.
Also note that as you increase in sensitivity, you are asking the sensor to record your scene properly with less light. Once you get up into the higher sensitivity settings, your pictures will start to develop digital “noise.” The noise shows up mostly in the shadowy areas of your image and can either be a gritty look or appear as blotchy colors.
Back in the film days we referred to images as being “grainy” when the higher film sensitivity started to show up in the printed image, but now we would say the digital rendering is “noisy.” Pretty much the same concept. Some of this can be fixed with post-processing in your computer, and some can’t.
Your eye automatically adjusts in light and dark settings by closing down or opening up the iris. This adjusts the pupil size and regulates the amount of light entering the eye. Cameras do the same thing with blades in the lens that create an “aperture.” If too much light is coming into the camera and overexposing your scene, one way to correct this is to close down the aperture to limit the amount of light coming in. Old lenses used to adjust the aperture via a dial on the lens, but most modern cameras have done away with the physical dials. If you look at an old camera lens you’ll see the aperture settings.
F-stops on the old lenses typically look something like 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22. The smallest number corresponds to the setting where the aperture blades in the lens are moved completely out of the way and the lens is letting in all of the light it can. The other end of the spectrum—f/22, for instance—represents the setting where the aperture blades are at their tightest setting and letting in the least amount of light possible.
Each of the numbers in the series of aperture settings in the list above represents a setting that cuts the amount of light entering the camera in half. Each new setting is a “stop,” so like the other settings, you can add or take away “stops” of light by adjusting the aperture settings.
Let’s assume you have proper exposure at f/16, 100 ISO, and 1/125th of a second shutter speed.
Going from 1/125th to 1/500th means you have lost two stops of light. You could make up for this by opening up the aperture two stops, so you could go from f/16 to f/8. Now your scene is properly exposed again.
Aperture has a huge impact on how a scene is rendered by a camera. Wide apertures like f/1.4 or f/2.0 provide very narrow depths of field, which can be used creatively to blur the background and help isolate the subject you might want to draw attention to. Narrow apertures like f/11 or f/16 render a much deeper depth of field, meaning that you can record things in focus that are both near to the camera and quite far away.
Brad: Also realize that increasing the depth of field increases the depth available on both sides of the point of focus. You would probably need to look at an old lens to appreciate this, but have a look at my Fuji 14 mm:
The center line identifies the point of focus —here, somewhere just shy of one meter (meters shown with white numbers on the lower row of numbers). As the lens is set here, the marks on the upper ring show that if I shoot at f/16, everything from infinity all the way down to 0.5 meters would be in focus. This is known as setting your lens at its “hyperfocal” distance. An old trick from my photojournalism days was to set your lens at f/16, adjust it to this hyperfocal distance, and then use tape to hold both the aperture ring and focus ring in place. That way, you could pick up the camera and never have to worry about focusing as long as you were, in this case, at least 0.5 meters away. I often do this today when riding with friends so that when I pick the camera up to take a quick action shot, I don’t even have to think about camera settings.
Very wide field of view lenses have much deeper depths of field as compared to telephoto lenses. There are many online calculators that will show you the impact of apertures on depth of field for different camera systems.
Because more glass is needed to allow in more light for the wider apertures, lenses with big apertures become physically large, whereas lenses with smaller wide apertures can be manufactured using a much smaller form factor. Because of this, the travel photographer often has to make some compromises.
Margus: My 105 mm f/2.4 on medium format film has lots of bokeh giving you that “3D” feel (equivalent of around 55 mm f/1.2 on a 35 mm format). That gear is heavy though.
Those are the basics of exposure. As you think about a scene you want to photograph, focus on the element of exposure that matters to you. Do you want a fast shutter speed to stop the action? If so, you have to find some stops of light somewhere else to make up for that choice. Do you want a thin depth of field? Then you’ll need a wide aperture, and that will mean you have to deal with the additional stops of light created by the bigger hole in the lens.
Another key aspect of modern-day photograph is file format. In the old days there was one format—film. Different sizes of film yes, but it was all film. In today’s world, cameras generally can record your image—usually referred to as a “file”—in different formats. The one that you probably are most accustomed to is the JPEG or .jpg. JPEG is just one of many international standards.
Understand that a JPEG is a compressed file format. That means that a computer algorithm has been used to evaluate digital picture data and essentially throw away some of that information to cut down the file size.
We’re not going to get into detail here, but realize that storing a picture in digital form involves converting each little picture element or “pixel” into a series of ones and zeros. The more ones and zeros used to describe a color and brightness of a pixel, the more “depth” the pixel has. Modern cameras and sensors will typically have the capacity to record something in the range of 14 bits of information per pixel. This would customarily be referred to as 14-bit depth. The data stream that comes off of the camera’s sensor is normally referred to as “RAW” data, so you will hear photographer say, “I shoot RAW.” (There are even T-shirts available.) That simply means they are capturing in RAW format and retaining all of the sensor data in each file.
If your camera is set to shoot JPEG, then the computer chip inside the camera just takes the RAW data and throws some of that away to give you a rendering of the image. You probably won’t be able to tell the difference in the end, and a JPEG file should print up pretty well as long as there are enough pixels there to print. But, throwing away that underlying data removes some of your ability to go back and correct the image with a computer. Underexposed shadow areas in a RAW file usually can be recovered so that you can see into the shadows, whereas a JPEG file will give you less “headroom” to fix a problem like this.
Don’t get us wrong, JPEGs are great. It’s just that you lose some flexibility when you only keep a JPEG copy of your scene. For that reason, it’s best to set your camera to save the RAW data for each file if you can. Wait until you offload those RAW files into a computer so that you can tweak them as necessary before making a JPEG for online sharing or printing.
Note that shooting RAW means that you are going to be recording and storing a LOT more information per picture. For instance, a typical high-quality JPEG coming out of modern cameras is in the range of 4 megabytes in size. The same image shot in RAW is more like 30 megabytes in size. While the RAW data doesn’t have to go through a processor to generate the JPEG rendering in the camera, thereby saving that chip processing step, the data still has to be read off of the sensor and then stored on the storage media. This much data can create digital bottlenecks in the camera and usually results in the dreaded “buffering” or slowing down of camera functions while the circuit board clears the backlog of ones and zeros and stores them away.
Various film formats were produced over the decades. The most popular size was 35 mm film, which recorded an image that was 24 mm tall by 36 mm wide on film that was 35 mm tall (inclusive of the sprocket holes). Other formats existed, but 35 mm is typically thought of as “the” standard.
Digital cameras likewise use a variety of sensor sizes, from cameras like the Phase 1 medium format camera with a 100 megapixel sensor all the way down to the sensor in the iPhones that are about 1/3 of an inch in size. For the most part, people refer to sensors based on the 35 mm film reference. Digital cameras with 35 mm sized sensors are usually called “full frame.” The next major step down in size is APS-C, which is usually about 16.7 mm high by 25.1 mm wide, or covering roughly 69% of the area of the full frame sensor. From there you drop down to the 1-inch sensor (8.8 x 13.2), then “four thirds,” etc. Basically, you have medium format (usually too expensive for normal mortals to own), full frame, APS-C, and then a lot of sensor formats that are quite a bit smaller.
Sensors have a given number of picture elements or “pixels” on them. Common APS-C sensor cameras these days have a total of 6,000 pixels wide by 4,000 pixels tall. Multiply those numbers together, and you get 24 million pixels, or 24 megapixels. Today you can find cameras of different sensor size that all render 24 megapixels. That doesn’t mean they are the same. The only way to get the same pixel counts on a smaller sensor is to make the pixels on the sensor smaller. Smaller pixels record less light than their larger cousins. The correction for this is to increase the sensor’s sensitivity to light. As noted above, doing this usually will cause a picture from a camera with a smaller sensor to be more “noisy” than a full frame image of the same scene. So unfortunately, guys, size does matter.
Also note that sensor size can drive other aspects of the camera system. A full-framed sensor requires a lens that will cast a circle of light that will cover the sensor. A smaller sensor needs a smaller circle of light. That means a camera system designed around the APS-C sized sensor can use smaller lenses. Smaller lenses are lighter than their larger full-framed cousins, so there can be a substantial size and weight savings here. Although full-framed camera systems are great, they are heavy and take up more space. This makes systems designed around something less than full-frame sensors appealing to the travel photographer.
In the end, camera systems are a lot like motorcycles. They are all compromises. It’s all about picking the right compromises for you. You have to do your homework. There are Bayer sensors (the vast majority are Bayer), Foveon sensors, Fuji X-Trans sensors, and then you get into issues around anti-aliasing or “low pass” filters.
Basically, not all camera sensors are the same, and you really have to do your homework to figure out what is going to work best for you. If you are going to invest in a camera system, you want to make sure that you are making a wise and educated investment, so get a cup of coffee, pop open YouTube, and get to researching.
Lenses are categorized by their field of view. It is often said that a 50 mm lens represents a “normal” field of view consistent with how the human eye sees a scene. But not all 50s are the same. A 50 mm lens renders that “normal” view when mounted to a 35 mm film camera or a digital camera with a 35 mm sensor.
Because smaller sensors cover less of an area than a full framed sensor, a smaller sensor captures a smaller area of the circle of light that comes through the lens. For convenience, it is said that the smaller sensor “crops” down the image that would be conveyed by the full frame sensor, so the smaller sensors are called “crop sensor” cameras.
An APS-C sensor covers roughly 69% of the area of the full frame sensor. Therefore, a 50 mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera renders more like a 75 mm lens would render on a full-frame camera body, so APS-C sensors provide a “crop factor” of 1.5. To figure out how any lens will render, you multiply the lens number by 1.5 on APS-C. So, a 14 mm lens will render like a 21 mm lens, and a 200 mm lens will render like a 300 mm lens, and so on. Just know that once you settle on a camera system, learning the camera’s crop factor and how to apply it to lens focal length designations is an important skill.
You also need to know that smaller sensors give you deeper depths of fields compared to full-frame cameras.
Brad: A shot from my APS-C sensor camera system using a Samyang 12 mm f/2 lens, which has a very deep depth of field because of the width of the lens and the fact that I shoot APS-C sensors. Those factors worked together here to let me shoot in a fairly dark setting with quite a deep depth of field while also stopping the motion of the KTM.
So, if you really are looking for a camera that will give you nice blurry backgrounds, you are either going to go with a camera that has a large sensor, or you are going to have to search out lenses with very wide apertures.
Brad: For instance, I shoot an APS-C system, and one of my favorite lenses on the camera is a 50 mm f/1.1. Because this is APS-C, the lens renders an image that looks very much like a 75 mm f/1.8, which makes for a very nice portrait lens with nice blurry backgrounds. But, that lens is quite large and quite heavy. Therefore, it’s not necessarily a lens I often carry with me on the bike.
By the way, the quality and smoothness of the blur and how point sources of light are rendered as beautiful balls of out-of-focus light is referred to by the Japanese word “bokeh” (pronounced BO-ka). “Creamy bokeh,” “smooth bokeh,” and “nice bokeh balls” are phrases you hear tossed about in coffee shops near liberal arts colleges.
Also note that most modern cameras will allow you to adapt old manual lenses to them. That means that in many instances you can use old lenses you find in thrift shops or on eBay without any problem. You just need to find an appropriate adapter. If you want to go this route, just do some searching on the Internet first to find out what works and what won’t.
Older lenses also often have “character” in how they render a scene. Some lenses provide greater contrast, whereas others will render colors with greater depth and punch. Technology these days has allowed manufacturers to create lenses that are very sharp and precise, but the lenses are sometimes referred to as “sterile” in that they no longer have the character seen in old glass. Sometimes, older is better.
Margus: For that very “juicy” bokeh, seek out vintage Tessar optical design lenses at longer focal lengths or for a very awkward bokeh with those particularly “big contrasty balls” in out-of-focus areas, a reflex (mirror) lens.
Brad: Yep, my Tamron 500 is a mirror lens. These lenses are basically small telescopes. They render out-of-focus elements as little donuts, which can either be very cool or very distracting. The image below was shot with the 500. Here, the background is really distracting, so the image just doesn’t work. The second image is from the same camera and lens.
From here we really need to wick up the G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and talk about the gear that we carry on our bikes. For that, let’s get to Part II.