There is now a PDF version of my recent blog post “How To take good photos of jugglers on stage”, presented as magazine article with all the text and photos formatted to fit each page. It looks great and is easier to read compared to scrolling down through screen after screen. You can download it here. Thanks to Marian Kersting for making it look so good!
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There is now a PDF version of this blog post, presented as magazine article with all the text and photos formatted to fit each page. It looks great and is easier to read compared to scrolling down through screen after screen. You can download it here. Thanks to Marian Kersting for making it look so good!
Taking good photos of jugglers is easy… as long as they are juggling outside in the sun. The scene is bright, the juggler looks beautiful, the background of other jugglers is interesting, and the juggler will try the same trick many times over for you to capture them in a perfect position.
Taking photos of jugglers on stage is a much trickier business. For a start, it’s normally pretty dark, there’s too much movement, the background is a boring black curtain, and the juggler typically only does a trick once before moving on to something new.
Once I really hated taking photos of jugglers on stage. It was really frustrating that the photos always turned out blurry and boring. Then I worked out a few tricks, and suddenly I found it loads of fun. Why? The photos looked good! My new problem was that while I performed on stage, nobody took as-good photos of me. To solve that problem, here’s my in-depth guide on how to take good photos of Luke when he’s juggling on stage.
First, what not to do:
Don’t use a tripod! A tripod helps keep your camera steady, and that would be great if your subject was also totally steady. But jugglers move! Juggling props move! If the juggler or props are moving fast enough to become blurry, keeping the camera steadier helps you not-at-all.
Don’t use a flash! It’s a really stupid idea.
Don’t sit down! Unless your seat is in the perfect position, every single one of your photos will be compromised. And that perfect position doesn’t exist for an entire show. There simply isn’t a single position that will work for every juggler in an entire juggling convention gala show. More on positioning later.
- Lightroom from Adobe or Aperture from Apple
As stated in a previous blog post, the second most important piece of camera “gear” to buy (after a wrist strap) is Lightroom from Adobe or Aperture from Apple. I wrote: “by using the editing tools you get better results than the raw images from the camera. Obviously. I take many photos knowing I’ll do an edit in Lightroom. Nothing drastic, but I know I can rely on adjusting some parts of the image later.”
The most important thing in regards to this blog post is Noise Reduction. To put it clearly:
A noisy image is better than a blurry image.
Lightroom and Aperture are really, really good at getting rid of noise from your camera sensor, but no software can make a blurry image of a juggler into a sharp image.
Here’s an example of noise reduction in Lightroom from the Adobe website:
As you want to make the shutter speed fast enough to freeze a moving juggling club, and the aperture is going to be as wide as possible (more on this in a bit), the camera sensor is going to have to grab as much light as possible (high ISO). This results in noise… noise we can rely on Lightroom or Aperture to sort out later.
- A DSLR camera
Pretty much any DSLR is going to be good enough. I use a Canon 60D, but have taken many good photos with the 500D. A similar Nikon will do.
- A telephoto zoom lens.
I use a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS. The “IS” stands for Image Stabilization. Not to go too in depth on this, but it kinda adds an extra stop of low light capability to the specs. All that means is that I can use a slightly faster shutter than I could without an IS lens.
This lens costs about 500 euro, and you can get waaaaaay better lenses if you are willing to pay waaaaaaay much more money. I’m not.
However, the 70mm angle is wide enough to fit a juggler into the picture, as long as they aren’t too close (more on positioning later). The 300mm end of the zoom is good enough to get a tight shot of a juggler’s face or pattern.
- Big SD cards.
Have large capacity cards. You’re going to be making lots of huge image files. You won’t have time to look through and delete them. You can do that later (or not), but not during the show.
Third, camera settings:
Keep in mind a good photo depends on how much light reaches the sensor. You can get more light by:
- Decreasing shutter speed – which makes stuff blurry.
- Increasing ISO – which creates more noise… but we can worry about that later.
- Increasing aperture size – which is good throwing the background out of focus.
So keeping these three functions in mind, I’ll take it in steps. Before you take any photos:
- Set the image format to RAW. This is SUPER important, as RAW images have all the sensor information you need to remove noise later, and hold way more information than a JPG, which we’ll also need for post processing later.
- Set the ISO as high as possible. Noise? Don’t worry, we can fix that later. And you’re not taking photos for printing on posters, only for sharing online, on Facebook and jugglers’ websites. Nobody is going to be zooming in on individual pixels.
- Switch the camera to Tv mode. The most important thing is no motion blur so we want to control for shutter speed more than anything else.
- Set the shutter speed to 160. From long experience, this will freeze most juggling props in the air. Juggling props swung in hands will still be blurry, as will whipped diabolos and pirouetting jugglers (humans can move far faster than props in the air).
- Set the exposure compensation to -1. This means it is less likely that any bright or white areas will be over exposed. It also means the light information lost will be the dark stuff. The dark stuff includes the black curtain behind, the empty spaces beside the stage, the lighting rig, etc. In other words, all the stuff that isn’t important. However, much of the time it’ll be so dark the camera will automatically open the aperture as wide as possible anyway, so the -1 setting won’t have any added effect.
- Set the drive to continuous, but slow continuous. There’s no need to snap nine or twelve photos a second. Three per second is enough.
- I put the autofocus on AIFocus. Not sure why, but this seems to get the best results for juggling on stage.
- I put the metering to Evaluative Metering. Spot metering is too precise as a juggler won’t always stay under your focus point. Center weighted and partial metering isn’t always cool because a juggler isn’t always in the center, and the juggler is usually the brightest thing in the photo anyway. Nikons probably have different names for these settings.
That’s the setup! But I don’t leave them like that.
It’s usually dark, so the Tv mode opens the aperture as wide as possible. This is awesome, as I want them in focus and everything in the background out of focus.
What if it gets so bright on stage that the aperture starts closing down? I don’t want the F number to climb as high as 8 or 9. In this case, with a single flick of my finger, I’ll take the shutter speed up to 250 or 320. The juggler will now be even sharper in terms of motion blur, and the background will still be out of focus.
If there are two jugglers on stage, and I want them both in focus, I need to make the aperture smaller. I sometimes switch to Av mode to do this, but reducing the shutter speed can do the same thing in Tv mode, and the result is the same, mechanically. I just need to keep in mind that the two jugglers can’t be moving too quickly.
If the lighting gets even better for a longer stretch of time, I’ll leave the shutter speed at 250 and then use a lower ISO setting to force the aperture open. This makes marginally better quality photos.
If it gets darker? Well, I’m pretty much fucked. To avoid this problem I try the following:
- I organize the show myself, and tell the lighting technician to always make it as bright as possible on stage so everyone can see.
- I don’t try to take photos of French jugglers on stage. French jugglers try to be “artistic” and, unfortunately, mistake “dark” for “artistic”. Time and time again I’ve come away from French shows and French Open Stage acts with nothing but dark blurry blobs. Meanwhile the Germans and Japanese performing in the same Open Stage will have bright, colourful and crisp photos of their acts.
I use a combination of the two focusing techniques, both changing focal points in camera and focusing-and-reframing, to make my photos sharp. Just remember, focus on the face of the juggler, not the props. First, the face is the most important thing in the photo. Second, the face usually moves less than the props, so the autofocus will have a waaaaaay easier time getting it right.
For fuck’s sake, don’t sit in the front row to take photos. Really. It’s a bad spot to be. Really. You think it’s a good place, but you don’t know enough.
The most important thing in the photo is the juggler! Not the lighting rig, not the curtains, not the stage, but the juggler. I’ll explain with diagrams.
It’s all down to the angles. If you use a wide angle lens and are close to the juggler, you will include loads of crap in the photo which is just distracting. Here’s a photo where I intentionally included a lot of the background:
And now, from the same act, taken a few seconds before, where I excluded as much of the background as possible:
In both photos Wes takes up around about the same space, and both are taken at an “interesting” angle. But in one the focus is very much on Wes, and the other is very much about Wes being on a stage in a big top with lights shining on him. If you stay at the front of the stage and use a wide angle lens to fit in the whole juggler, you’ll never not have photos that focus on the venue itself rather than just the juggler.
Another reason to exclude lighting rigs is that a juggling ball and a stage light are both round objects, and it can be confusing as to what is what in some picture. Here’s a not very good example of what I’m talking about, again featuring Wes (look at the lights):
In this case I was actually sitting in a seat a long way from the stage, but as I couldn’t move from that spot (I was more interested in watching the show with my girlfriend than taking photos), I couldn’t exclude the lights from the image.
If you get further away from the juggler, and use a 70-200mm or 70-300mm lens to fill the frame with that same juggler, the amount of background included along with the juggler is greatly reduced.
At rock concerts the lighting and backdrop is often part of the show. It adds to the atmosphere rather than intruding on the action. I take wide angle shots at juggling shows, but I usually do it to include the audience or some other factor, something that adds to the image rather than clutters it. For example, the reason I put the wide angle lens on to take the above photo of Wes is that I wanted to be prepared for the end of his act. I knew, when the applause arrived, that he’d do something acrobatic:
Another reason you don’t want to be right at the front is because the stage often cuts off the feet of the juggler from that angle. There is a line I don’t want to get below, and a photo like this is right at the edge of that line (look at the feet):
You can avoid cutting off the feet of the juggler by standing up with the camera… but if you are at the front you’re then in the way of everyone behind you, asshole.
Another reason you don’t want to be right at the front is because then you are looking up at the juggler. This can work sometimes, but do you want every photo show what’s up the nose of the juggler? No. I took this photo of the signing translator from that angle, because he was super close to me at the front, and he looked funny:
Later in the show I took this photo of the same guy. He still looked funny, but you can see the angle is way better for not-looking-up-your-nose angles.
Jugglers look up a lot. A lot. The more you can do to minimize looking at the underside of their chin, the better. Get away from the front of the stage!
So if I’m not at the front, where do I normally stand? Usually I stand at the sides, and a long way back away from the stage. As far around the side and as far away as I can get. If I need to zoom in I can walk forward, or just zoom in.
- Jugglers normally face towards the audience while juggling, and look up. Instead of seeing the underside of their chin in the photo, I capture their profile or a half-profile. If they turn sideways I can get a direct shot. If they turn the other way, away from the camera, I can get an interesting over-the-shoulder photo of the pattern. If I stayed at the front I’d never have the option to take photos from behind.
- If there are two jugglers on stage together, they more often standing side by side rather than front to back. If I’m over on one side of them I can frame them up in far more interesting ways than they appear straight on to the audience. Check out the following photo and compare it to the photo of the same two jugglers I put above. In that photo (taken from directly in front of the stage) I had to rely on them coming close together on stage and arranging themselves into an interesting position. In this photo (taken from the side) I could move slightly to line them both up in the shot as far apart as I wanted:
- If I put on a wide angle lens I can fit in the entire audience too. For example, like this:
For an even more extreme example, this photo was taken by Juliane from on the stage itself:
Often the audience is a more interesting background than whatever is at the back of the stage. By showing some of the audience (if you can get the angle) the photo becomes unmistakably a recording of a live event, and not fake or posed. This photo was taken with a telephoto lens, but the fashion show catwalk meant I could get way around behind the action:
- Even if you can’t get the audience in the shot, the sides of the stage also make for a more interesting background for the action than a black or blank curtain or backdrop. This contradicts my advice about not including the lighting rig and keeping the attention on the juggler, but sometimes something in the background is better than nothing. At the Berlin Juggling Convention I had no options with the trapeze act, as they were at such a strange angle, up at the back, so they just got a blank background:
The acrobats, on the other hand, performed at the front. I could position myself so the performers were framed with the lighting rig down the side of the stage.
Which is the better photo? That’s up to you to decide, but I picked the second on as the cover photo for the Facebook album of that show. As long as the background is framing or complimenting the action, rather than intruding on it, you’ll have something way more interesting than a black backdrop.
In the end I try to strike a balance, and move around to keep up the variety, especially if my only job is to take photos (and I’m not in the show, nor wanting to simply sit in my seat to watch it). Sometimes being right at the front is the best place to be, like for a wide angle shot of the finale:
But that doesn’t mean you won’t find me behind the lighting and sound desks looking for a more interesting composition:
Or over the other side of the stage, getting a more intimate shot where you can see the magic working:
Once you have all the photos from the show, it’s time for the most crucial step: editing. And by that I don’t mean post-processing or changing anything in individual photos themselves. Editing means cutting down the photos to a manageable number.
When I import my photos into Lightroom I give them all 1 star automatically. I then look through each in turn and give 3 stars to the ones I think are both technically good and interesting to look at. Then I go through all the 3 star photos again and remove as many as possible. Let’s talk numbers:
At the EJC this year I took just over 2,000 photos.
When I first started out with photography I was happy with 1 in 10 photos being technically proficient, and about 1 of those 10 being interesting enough to share. Starting with 2,000 photos and sharing 1 in 100 would leave me with 20 photos.
However, as I got better at photography, it got to the point where 5 in 10 photos were technically proficient, and then 9 out of 10. And as I got better, soon the majority of those photos were interesting enough to share.
So now, out of 2,000 photos, I could easily pick 1,000 technically proficient photos interesting enough to share.
But, they are only interesting in isolation.
It doesn’t matter if one photo is good, if it is next to five other photos of the same subject taken from the same angle, only the first of those six photos is interesting. The next five are still technically proficient, but if you look at them in order they are simply boring.
So, back to the editing part, once I have a folder full of 3 star photos, I’m not then downgrading “bad” photos to 2 stars, as the bad photos would never make the cut in the first place. Instead I’m removing duplicate shots of the same subject.
In the end I chose to narrow my original 2,000 photos down to 200. I picked 200 mainly because that’s the maximum number of photos allowed in a single Facebook album (or was the last time I checked). I could probably narrow it down much, much further, to just 100 images, but as I share the full resolution version of all my photos for the benefit of artists and jugglers (to use on their websites or promotional material (as long as they credit me)), I like to include a larger selection of show photos.
But if I did limit it to just 100 photos, or even 50, it would look like I’m an even better photographer than I am to those browsing the Facebook album. Instead of picking the best 10 photos out of the 60 I took of the EJC unicycle competitions, I’d pick just two. And they would be the most awesome two photographs.
Once again I want to strike a balance. I don’t take photos to show off how good I am at photography, I take photos to document the convention for everyone. If I narrowed my selection too far I’d exclude many people and events and acts that I’d like to share.
One of the best things to do though, when sharing photos online, is to be brutal in your editing. Never show two photos of the same person from the same angle with the same framing doing the same trick. Both photos might be “good”, but only you care that you got two good photos. Everyone else wants to see the best of those two photos, then let them move on to the next one. They don’t want a time-lapse record of what you saw while watching the show, they want to see the high point of each act visually, and then move on to the next act.
Set yourself a low number of photos at the start of the editing stage, then try to beat that number. I started with 2,000 photos and in the end shared 195.
Once you have edited down from a big number to a small number of photos, it’s time to play with the levers and pulleys and nuts and bolts inside Lightroom or Aperture.
The RAW image will look a bit drab:
The first thing I do to all photos I take of juggling shows (I actually do it on import, before the editing stage) is to make them less drab. The basic import settings I use (in Lightroom 3) are:
- Increase Brightness to “50”.
- Increase Contrast to “25”.
- Increase Blacks to “5”.
- Turn Noise Reduction on. I set Luminance to “10” and Color to “10”.
This makes the subject of the photo (the artist on stage) pop out from the background. All that dark stuff in the background? That gets darker and less distracting. The colours are brighter and… well, it’s generally less drab.
As I said, I do this on import, so I never see the non-drab version. The Noise level is perfectly fine in this photos too, even though I took it at ISO 6400. That’s crazy high ISO, but I’ll just let Lightroom take care of it.
From then I wanted to make a few more tweaks.
First I cropped the photo slightly to get rid unneeded black space around the subject.
Second I fine tuned the exposure. Remember when I said I turn the exposure compensation on the camera down to -1? At this point I turned the exposure up again! In this case I set it to +0.7 to really bring back the light and colour I remembered from watching the show live.
Third I added a bit of a vignette to darken the corners a bit more, but it’s hardly noticeable in this photo.
In the case of this photo, that’s all the post processing it needed. Here’s the final image along with the original:
For the vast majority of the images, it only requires two or three steps. I crop the photo to taste, set a final exposure, then do a slight tweak like adjust the colour balance, add a vignette, boost the saturation or vibrance, etc. As I use a processing preset on import, ne that I know works with most show photos, I don’t need to worry about getting a good look from scratch, just playing with a formula I know already works.
And to make it even quicker, if I have multiple shots with the same lighting, I can copy settings from one photo to many others.
But I must make this clear again: I know what post processing adjustments I will make when I take the photo. Knowing that allows me to take better (read: less blurry) photos rather than trying to worry too much about making it perfect in the moment.
I very rarely use post processing to try to save a bad photo and make it good, instead I take a good photo knowing that what comes out of the camera is only the first step. The photo is only really finished once I export it from Lightroom.
That said, here’s one bad photo I took recently:
“Wait… that’s not a bad photo!”
No? Here’s the original:
I took it from my seat in the audience, so couldn’t move to a better position. The tent pole cut right across Wes’s rings. And Wes hadn’t caught his ring yet, so he was in a different “moment” to Patrik and Tony.
I cropped the photo down quite a lot:
But then there was a stage light half in and half out of the photo frame. That looks naff! I used the Spot Removal tool to duplicate a bit of black over the top of that light. And while I had a “clone-like” tool open, and because some friends were watching me edit the photo, I decided to copy some of the rings too. Why not? My memory of that moment in the show was that rings totally filled the stage! In the photos from half a second before this, the rings really did fill the stage! But Tony and Patrik weren’t in such a good position. Adding the rings in again is, in my opinion, a fun step. And now, after four days, that photo is one of the most liked in the entire Facebook album.
I often spot-remove lights or distracting things in the background of photos, but I don’t remember adding extra props into a juggling act before. This was just an example to show the most extreme I get when it comes to image processing… not very extreme, in other words.
Once I’ve finished doing all the processing, I go through and edit them down once again. If there are a few photos which are still a bit dull or uninteresting, I give them 2 stars, and they don’t make the final cut.
That’s it! That’s all I have to share about taking better photos of jugglers on stages. Now, if I’m on stage and someone with a half decent camera and lens is taking photos of me, they’ve got no excuse if the photos look shit.
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The best thing about being a juggler is that the main activity of a juggler is learning how to do things. And because a juggler is learning a lot, the best way to get better at juggling is to learn how to learn better. Which is why, when I do learn things that have nothing to do with juggling, I try to apply the lessons and ideas and techniques to the new thing.
One way I learn new tricks, or come up with new tricks, is to keep one element fixed, and find as many new ways to approach that element as possible. By the end I’ll not only be able to do the original trick better, but have many new variations, some of which will be better than the original.
So last year I decided to do something similar with my photography. I walk through Victoria Park (Viktoriapark) in Berlin quite often, as it is close to my home. In the summer I juggle there with other local jugglers just as often. In the center of the park is an unassuming statue without any name or identifying features, though I’m guessing it’s someone like Goethe or Schiller. The identity isn’t important.
What is important: take a different photo each time I walked through or juggled in the park.
All but the first photo were taken in March, April and May in 2011. I tried loads of different ideas, different angles, time of day, weather, closeups, long distance shots, including other subjects in the frames, and much more. I used it to learn how to use my strobe in different ways too. I finally stopped due to the statue being enclosed in the bushes so much I couldn’t get a clear shot except for one angle. Maybe I should have taken that as a new restriction, but instead I moved on to other photography projects.
The project was a success, in many ways. I did improve at photography, but it also came in super handy when taking photos of real people. Instead of just taking a boring portrait, I have a whole load of more dynamic shots in mind, that I know work, because I tried them out on an inanimate object.
A side-benefit is a fun little 31-photo record of a single statue over the course of a few months, with the addition of new graffiti, how people treat the statue, and more. I’m thinking of printing out some of these images for a series to hang on my wall.
EDIT: I guessed at the statue’s subject matter, Goethe or Schiller, but the googling expertise of my girlfriend discovered it is another Romantic poet/playwright/writer called Heinrich von Kleist. Coincidentally, 2011 was the 200th anniversary of his death, a double suicide, on the banks of a lake just outside of Berlin.
Also from this page: “Marmor-Original im Hof der Leibnitz-Oberschule; Schleiermacherstraße 23. Es wurde 1990 durch den Aluminium-Abguss im Viktoriapark ersetzt.” So it’s good to know nobody is spraying paint into the eyes of the original.
Statue at night
The statue stands way higher than me, so this shot turned out to be way trickier than I imagined.
Watching the sun go down.
Statue and flower.
Off-camera flash fun!
After easter holiday.
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As I get better at photography, and share more of my photos, many people ask me what camera I use. Many photographers take this as an insult, as in “You don’t ask a good cook what oven he uses” or “You don’t ask a good pianist what kind of piano she uses…” Personally I take it as a compliment!
So I’ve decided to make a single blog post where I list all my photography gear. The above photo includes all the gear and bags I use regularly, but instead of the rest of the blog post being a boring list, I’ve decided to give it a different spin. I’m going to list my gear by how important it has been to me in the pursuit of improving as a photographer.
Why? If you are new photography, buying an expensive camera isn’t going to help. Instead you need the smaller things that most lists like this push to the end or neglect entirely.
And if you are already a pro-level photographer, and know all about gear, my choice of camera body is hardly unique. The more subtle things will explain my photography mindset far more clearly.
The most important piece of gear is the strap on my camera. It cost €12, if I remember correctly. It goes around my wrist. When I’m out and about with my camera, or at a show, or any event, my camera is in my hand.
To get better at photography, you have to take lots and lots of photographs. That’s the only way to improve! It’s not that if you hold down the shutter on burst mode one of the shots will come out great. Think about it this way: Every photo you take is a small lesson in how to do something right or do something wrong.
So if the camera is in a bag, you won’t take photos. If it is on a strap around your neck, you might pick it up in time, and get a snap, but maybe not. If the camera is in your hand, you can’t forget you have your camera with you! This wrist strap means my camera is unencumbered, and I can easily slip it off my wrist if I need to, but only if I want to. If a strap is around your neck, you can’t easily swing the camera into the right position to get fun images like this one:
First, if you are taking lots of photos, and remember, that is the only way to improve, it’s a real pain to sort through them manually. Spend the money on either Lightroom or Aperture, as they make sorting through even thousands of photos a complete breeze. Even if you disregard all the editing features, having an easy way to sort, select, export and archive your photos means you will be happy to take more and more.
Second, you learn a million things about photography by fiddling with the settings in Lightroom or Aperture that are impossible to explain just by pointing at the settings on a camera body.
Third, by using the editing tools you get better results than the raw images from the camera. Obviously. I take many photos knowing I’ll do an edit in Lightroom. Nothing drastic, but I know I can rely on adjusting some parts of the image later.
I have two camera bags that I use regularly, but they are only for transporting my gear between home and wherever I’m heading in the world. I love my Lowepro Slingshot for airline travel (works as a “personal item” on every airline), but these days I rarely take it with me when actually photographing. Instead I use a lens case. Sometimes two. These I can throw in my lightweight day bag, or if I know I’ll be swapping lenses often over a short period of time, I’ll attach one to my belt.
Why? Well, one of the most annoying things ever is to not have the right lens on the camera when you need it. Sure, you can use two camera bodies, but that’s overkill for the vast majority of us. I can switch lenses super quickly, doing a little routine to make sure I’m not going to drop anything, and swapping lens caps.
They weigh next to nothing. Also when I took a helicopter trip in Hawaii we weren’t allowed bags of any sort. But a case attached to my belt? Technically not a bag! With a lens case on my belt I look like a dork, but a dork who is taking lots more photos, and a dork who isn’t going to be in any of those photos, as the camera is pointing away from that dork.
This is a negative gear pick. It might sound like sacrilege, but I don’t bother with the rear lens caps if I’m swapping lenses often over a short period of time. If the environment is full of sand or volcanic ash (and this can be the case when I travel), of course I’ll make sure my lenses are sealed, and if I’m not going to use the lens again for more than five minutes. But if I’m taking photos of a juggling show? The most important part is getting the “capture”. If I’m fiddling with a rear lens cap, the chances are I’ll miss a lot. For example, I know for a fact that my telephoto lens was sitting in the lens case on my belt with no rear lens cap when I took the following photo, and Wes wasn’t about to do this a second time:
Two of my lenses are suitable for full sized sensors, and two are for cropped frame cameras. If this means nothing to you, don’t worry. Needless to say, I make sure all these caps fit on both kinds of lenses, as there is nothing more annoying than trying to fit something that doesn’t fit onto something else when you’re in a hurry.
Removing and replacing front lens caps is now such a honed action that it doesn’t slow me down at all.
Holy shit, how awesome is the GorillaPod? I used one for almost every single non-hand-held clip in my International Juggler video series. I’ve used three different sizes over the years, with different video and photo cameras, and now I’ve settled on one that is slightly too weak for my DSLR with a long lens attached, but I don’t mind that due to the weight and space savings.
There are many shots that I’ve not managed to get because I didn’t have a full size tripod with me, but an order of magnitude more photos because the Gorillapod was small and light enough to put in my pocket. It’s even light enough to leave on the bottom of my camera, while carrying my camera in my hand for a full day, and not get in my way.
I have a Manfrotto tripod, but it never leaves my home studio where I use it for video projects.
To take long exposure photos with a Gorillapod, you need to leave the camera steady when activating the shutter. I sometimes use the cable remote, sometimes use the IR remote. For self portraits, the IR remote is the only way to go, and you might as well not bother with self portrait photography until you buy one.
GorillaPod plus cable remote means you can get shots like this, and don’t have to carry a heavy tripod up the side of Yosemite Valley:
Have too much storage than you think you might need. Seriously, if you’re worried about filling up your SD cards, you’ll take fewer photos, and one of the photos you didn’t take might be one that taught you a very important lesson. I have another 4GB card, but that was in the camera I used to take the above photo.
And if you take lots of photos, storage is cheap enough these days that you can throw away nothing. Not deleting images is a blog post all of its own, but I think having lots of hard drives makes you a better photographer.
My favourite lens is the Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5. It is awesome. It’s designed for crop sensor cameras only, but that suits me fine.
Why do I like it so much? Because it’s light! I can carry this around all day, and not worry about my arm getting tired. Why else do I like it? Because it’s awesome value for money. The image quality is amazing for a lens that only cost me €600. Previously I had a cheap Tamron version, which was shit, and broke under heavy usage in under a year, but that model will probably do if you are experimenting with wide angle photography.
This isn’t the place to get into why I love a wide angle lens as my go-to walk-about lens, but once you get the hang of it, it makes for very distinctive images. With the Gorillapod and a cable remote it’s a really fun setup for landscape and nature photography. And during events you can’t get too close to any subject, or fail to get everyone in a large group in the frame.
The other lens I always carry with me is my telephoto zoom. It’s a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS. For a start, it’s a good “budget” lens for getting in close without getting close. It only cost €500. Previously I had a cheap Tamron version, which was shit, and broke under heavy usage in under a year, but that model will probably do if you are experimenting with a telephoto zoom.
I use this for portraits, for candid photography at event (when you don’t want to get in someone’s face), for wildlife and bird photography, and almost any time I’m snapping a juggler on stage.
It’s the heaviest lens I use, which is a pity, but in this case there is just no way to compromise further in weight savings. I’d love a better telephoto zoom, and could easily afford one, to be honest. But it’s not just weight in this case. The way I treat my lenses isn’t with the greatest of care, to say the least, and I don’t mind if this lens only lasts me two years before I inevitably throw it out of a taxi by accident (a story for another blog post).
The “IS” stands for Image Stabilization. This adds an extra f-stop of low light capability to the specs. Kinda.
I had two versions of the Rebel-level Canon DSLR cameras, a 400D and a 500D, which are the perfect cameras when starting out. If you don’t know why you need a better camera than the current Canon Rebel (or equivalent Nikon or Sony), then you don’t need a better camera like a 60D or a 7D or a 5D mark II.
When the 7D came out, I thought about buying one. Until I picked it up. The 7D has a magnesium chassis, and was waaaay heavier than the Rebel-sized camera I was used to. A year later the 60D was announced. It had all of the features I liked in the 7D, but had a fully plastic body, which saved just over 100g.
The one feature which made me order this camera from amazon the moment it was available was the fully articulated LCD screen. I never use this for when taking photographs, but for videography it is indispensable. I video myself juggling a lot, and without the articulated screen it always took me three attempts of running backwards and forwards, testing the shot, making sure I was in the right place, etc. Now I just set the shot up as close as possible, flip the screen, and walk out to the exact right spot. Sweet.
My long considered “hey, the 60D is awesome” blog post will have to wait. I still have my Canon 500D, but it’s held together by electrical tape after accidentally throwing it out the door of a taxi. I use it as a spare body sometimes, but as it is very broken it’s hardly worth trying to sell, and as a gift it would only be a burden.
Before you buy the above lenses, buy the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. I don’t use it much anymore, but should probably go above the other lenses in this list if you are just starting out with DSLR photography. It’s a perfect learner lens, and everyone should use one to really understand what photography is really all about. Needless to say, if you are already a pro-level photographer, you most likely already own the 1.4 and/or the 1.2 version.
If you don’t already know, it’s good for portraits and shallow depth of field:
The Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS came as the kit lens with my 500D. I use it only for video projects, never for photography, but I’m always getting video of me juggling around the world, so it is a constant companion. My 70-300 is almost always too tight to capture a video of me juggling, though it sometimes works, and the 10-22 is sometimes too wide. The 18-55 fills the gap in focal length.
That is it for my lenses!
Sharp eyed readers will be wondering “Hey Luke, if you don’t use the 18-55 for photography, what lens do you use if the 10-22 is too wide or the 70-300 is too narrow?”
The truth is that I just don’t bother. I like my photography to look different to what I can see with my eye. The reason 35mm is such a standard is that it captures what the human eye sees, or near enough, and that is why the kit lens always covers the focal lengths around that number.
I love the 10-22 because it lets me capture a wider angle than a human can, including many more details than you can get in the blink of an eye. And I love the 70-300 because it can capture any one of those details in more detail than you can with a human eye.
The 22 end of the 10-22 lens, on a crop sensor camera, is close enough to a true 35mm to me, or as close as I care for. Every time I use the 18-55 lens for regular photography, I just don’t know what to do with it! I feel totally uninspired, and when I see the results on my laptop, they look insipid. This is my failing as a photographer, I know, but I don’t take photos for anyone else. I take photos to have fun, and the more fun I have, the more other people are happy with my photos. I just don’t have fun with the 22-70mm range that is the basis of a majority of the photographic output of the majority of photographers.
If I need to capture more, I step back. If I want to capture less, I step forward. It’s more handy than changing lenses anyway, and gives my photography a distinctive look.
The telephoto lets me focus on the person having the experience, the wide angle lets me focus on the people around the experience.
If you’re unsure how well I can cover an event with just two lenses at the extremes of the focal length range, check out my previous blog post about the King Neptune Ceremony. The event lasted maybe 25 minutes, I took 166 photos and thought 70 were worth sharing. 70 out of 166 is a pretty good success rate, I think. As you scroll through you can see I swapped between my two lenses. I got loads of great reactions to these photos (a common on being “Your photos are way better than the professional photographers’ shots!” but that says more about the skill of cruise ship photographers than my own) but none of the comments were anything like “Hey, why were all of your photos either telephoto or wide angle shots, and nothing in between?”
Whenever I’m anywhere interesting I geotag all of my photographs. I do this with an Amod AGL3080 GPS data logger. I attach this to my bag and it blinks every 5 seconds as it records my current location. Later I use HoudahGeo to put the gps coordinates for every photo into the metadata. I’ve yet to find a use for this data in regards to sharing it easily with other people, but it’s nice to keep track of what I took where. Some places I’ll remember where I took the photo, but street maps aren’t that handy when sailing in Antarctica, or hiking in jungle in the Amazon, or visiting other extreme locations.
My camera bags are mostly used for transporting my gear. When I’m actively taking photos, I don’t use them much (see my points above). I’ll take this slightly out of order so it makes sense.
The Lowepro Slingshot 102 (or similar) is the perfect size for holding my 60D, 10-22mm, 70-300mm, 18-55mm, 50mm, a small Gorillapod, memory cards, cable and IR remotes, Amod GPS tracker, battery charger, and 5 juggling beanbags. I always want to have the beanbags with me in case I need to get a video of me juggling while traveling. It’s a tight fit, but I like to have it all in one bag which never leaves my sight.
Also the “slingshot-ness” of the bag is good for swinging it around the body to change lenses quickly and easily.
In fact, I love the slingshot action so much that I modified my other camera bag’s straps to enable me to do the same thing. It’s a bit tricky to explain in text, so maybe I’ll make a video of the modification some day. The Cullmann Lima is a pretty sturdy backpack which is big enough to hold all my photography gear, plus my 15 inch Macbook Pro, plus has space to spare.
When I went to Oregon and California this autumn, I took only this bag, and it held everything I needed for a two week trip. My camera gear, and my laptop, and my clothes and other travel stuff. It even survived a bear attack in Yosemite National Park. I’m planning to do many more trips with so little gear in the future, including an East Africa safari trip, and it’s a joy to travel without my juggling show gear.
So when I’m not transporting gear, I just use a cheap and light day bag. This folds totally flat and fits in my other travel cases.
An even cheaper and lighter option is the drawstring bag. This rolls up and fits in a pocket!
As they take up so little space and weight, they are way more practical for day trips out and about than a camera bag. If you pad the lenses inside the bag, there’s no need to have the entire bag padded, like the camera bags above. Why have a protected pocket for memory cards or a padded compartment for your water bottle? Just chuck that stuff in the lightest bag possible. It saves on weight and bulk.
I have Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash which is totally awesome, but I rarely travel with it, meaning that it sits unused for the majority of my photography, due to its own weight, and the weight of all the other accessories needed to use it effectively. I like using it for projects at home, or in Berlin, and plan to use it more in the future.
To go with the strobe I have various other equipment, like the FlashZebra Off Camera ETTL Cord for Canon — 7.5 Meter. And the Honl Speed Strap for attaching filters. And a set of Honl filters and gels. I have an old umbrella too, and some old stands, and some adaptors to fit it all together.
I’m listing this last because so far it hasn’t helped me become a better photographer. In fact it has kinda got in the way of me being a better photographer. It’s like a distraction. When I need it for a photo, this gear lets me get a better result for that photo, but as I don’t have it with me like the gear above, it’s not a constant help.
And I have a Flip camcorder. It comes in handy for when I want a 2 hour long video, rather than a 12 minute video (all a DSLR can manage). I’m thinking of getting a GoPro HD, but it’s hard to justify paying more for something I wouldn’t use that much.
So that’s all I want to share! Leave comments if you want, or email email@example.com.
Today I chatted to Shona, my sister in law, about photography. She has been struggling with lack of inspiration and motivation, lack of good equipment (three broken lenses and no autofocus!), and is recovering from a bad experience photographing a wedding.
She asked me what are the next steps to take in improving her photography. I’m a decent photographer, but not amazing. I’m certainly not an expert at photography, except at some niche subjects like taking photos of jugglers on stage.
But there’s one thing I do know, and that is how much I’ve improved at photography in the last few years. Not only do I know how much I’ve improved, but also how I’ve improved.
And I’ll share a bit about the how here.
First, I’ve got one major advantage over most people who take up a new hobby, or learn a new skill: I have almost unlimited free time! Such is my life as a professional juggler. This allows me to take as many photos as I like, and try experiments, and generally practice.
Second, I’ve learned as much technical stuff about photography as I need to. For now. If you don’t know how to use your camera, read the fucking manual.
Yeah, this is where it starts getting interesting. If you have the time, and know how to use your equipment, why can’t you take amazing photos like the professionals? It’s what makes people think that taking better photographs is about having a good camera, or a better lens, or having the right software.
“Nice photo! What kind of camera do you use?”
I get this all the time.
So how do you get that ultimate compliment? Study.
Don’t read about photography. Don’t listen to podcasts about photography. Don’t pay to go to expensive workshops. Well, you can do all those things, but I’ve learned all the most important elements of becoming a decent photographer by studying photographs. And, in another way, photographers.
I’ll explain my method using the example of Paul F. Gero. I heard an interview with him on the Candid Frame podcast (the only photography podcast I listen to), and his photo-per-day project sounded interesting. It was called One Camera One Lens One Photo Per Day.
I checked out the blog, and was immediately captivated by the photos of his kids. Almost every photo he took and shared was better than any photo I had ever taken! And he was sharing a photo he took every day, no matter what the weather or the subjects he had at hand.
What was his secret? It wasn’t the equipment, as I had a similar camera, and a similar lens, and the equipment wasn’t changing.
But I had to find out! There was something that he was doing, maybe many things, that I didn’t know about. If it was something he could share, it would be in a book or on a website or in a blog post.
So I just subscribed to his blog, and every day I saw a new photo come in, and they were all good, usually great, and often amazing.
What did his photographs have in common with each other? What did they not have in common with mine?
After a few months, something clicked! I already knew that he used a lot os shallow depth of field with his photography, as you’d expect from a 50mm 1.4 lens. But something else crystalized in my mind:
The parts of the photograph that were out of focus are always just as interesting as a subject matter as the part of the photograph that is in focus!
Now I say it like that, it’s obvious. Right?
Shallow depth of feel is a “look”, but it can be more than that. If things are too out of focus, you can’t see what they are. Sometimes if you can see too much, it looks ugly. It’s a balance you have to strike, and just having something, or anything, out of focus isn’t good enough. It has to be something interesting and engaging.
A few weeks later I visited my sister, and other members of my family, and took some photos of kids. Armed with this new nugget of photography wisdom, I took some photos. I intentionally made sure the out of focus stuff was interesting in its own right.
My photography had changed. With this one small skill, I’d taken it to another level. Shona just said this on skype about that blog post: “I remember looking at them and wondering when you’d got so good!”
Now I think “Not every photo Paul Gero takes is better than my best photographs, but sometimes, on a good day, I can take a photo as good as he can on an average day when the sun isn’t shining.”
For the last year, this is just one element I keep in mind when I take any photo. It doesn’t impact every photo I take, but way more than I’d ever expect. Judging by responses on Facebook (comments and likes) I can see which photos I take are popular, and it’s telling that many of them feature somebody in focus, and then an interesting scene out of focus.
And it joins many, many, many other nuggets of photography magic like that banging about in my head. The ones that are most important aren’t learnt from reading about photography but by immersing myself in the photography skill of someone else. Someone waaaaay better than I am.
My aim isn’t (as the above photos of my family might suggest) to replicate Paul’s images. It’s to try to lift my skill to the level of someone of whom I think “I’m never going to be that good at photography!” A tautology? Kinda. I’ll take one element, and then apply it to photos of jugglers, or travel photography, or whatever is in front of me at the time.
So here are some other photographers whose blogs I enjoy. The styles of photography vary, but if you look closely you can probably find some elements in common with my own work. Again, I’m not aiming to copy them, just elevate my own photography skill levels to somewhere closer to theirs.
In no particular order:
- Andy Biggs at The Global Photographer who leads wildlife photography safaris in Afica. One day I’ll join him on a safari, but meanwhile I’m learning a lot from his blog.
- Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir who takes great self portraits, along with interesting landscape photos of her native Iceland. She often combines the two, and has inspiring views on doing things live rather than in photoshop (though seems to be pretty handy at photoshop too).
- Nicolesy, or Nicole S. Young. Nicole takes photos of food, among many other subjects, as a professional stock photographer. It’s amazing how much you can learn about “clean” photographs when keeping in mind something like “Could this ever be used in a magazine to draw people into a subject, even if they don’t already know that subject?”
- Will & Matt Burrard-Lucas. Two wildlife photographers who aren’t adverse to trying out interesting technological solutions to trick photo problems. This includes putting cameras on radio control cars to get close to lions and elephants, dangling cameras on wires to photograph penguins under ledges, and capturing the great migrations of the Serengeti with time lapse techniques.
- Natalie Dybisz a.k.a. Miss Aniela. Another self portrait specialist who also makes “Urbex” photography worth looking at more than once.
- Bill Wadman and his blog On Taking Pictures. This is a new blog in my rotation. I like his sense of fun and comedy in his portraits, something I want to work into my own photographs somehow.
- The j w l photography blog. I’m not sure how this ended up in my blog list, but I like it! It’s full of wedding (and other event and portraiture) photography, specializing in mixing people with architecture and location. I don’t intend to do any wedding photography, but if I did, I hope it would be as good as this.
- David Friedman Photography. He shares portraits for magazine articles, and is collecting portraits of American inventors for a book on the subject. I chatted with him on Luke’s Creative Podcast s01e02.
- The Boston Globe Big Picture blog. Not a single photographer, but an amazing well edited collection of press photos about a single news topic or theme. If you have a 10mm or 14mm lens for your camera, subscribe to this blog! It’s like a how-to for well composed and interesting wide angle photography.
There are other photographers I enjoy, but maybe not on their blog, and the above list is in no way complete. But all of the above have taught me in some way. Or at least inspired me.
Go look at the photo at the top of this blog post again, and you’ll maybe see some of the thoughts and lessons and inspirations that go into a photo of two glasses of ice drinks.