Robin Wilhelm’s Photo Blog

Hints, tips and advice to let you understand photography and take better photos!

Can I use an old flash on a new camera?

Well…yes, no, maybe. It depends on the flash and the camera.

Most point and shoot cameras don’t allow for any kind of additional flash to be connected directly to the camera. Not to say you can’t still use additional flash equipment. More on this further down.

If you have a hot shoe mount on your camera, and you are trying to connect a hot shoe style flash, then you can probably use it. You may have to use the automatic settings on the flash itself or use it in manual mode, but most will work to a limited degree. If you want all the automatic features of the flash to work with the camera, you will generally have to match the camera and flash. For example, most Nikon flashes will work with most newer Nikon cameras, but you may not have all the automatic features such as TTL (through the lens) exposure or auto zoom. Some independent flashes may well work also, with similar restrictions.

However, I wouldn’t expect a brand name flash to work with any automatic features on anything other than the same brand camera however (You wouldn’t expect to use a Canon lens on a Pentax camera either, would you?)

You may have an old flash that connects by a cord (commonly called a PC cord – PC standing for Prontor/Compur) – this is not the same thing as PC computer. To connect this cord, which has a male end, your camera will need to have a little (female) PC hole in it to plug in the cord. Unfortunately, most new cameras today are manufactured without such connection. The demand for more and more modern features on equipment has relegated the PC connection to the same bucket as your cassette tapes. The lowly PC connection only provides an electrical connection between your camera and flash to allow you to set off the flash when you push the shutter release button. Any automatic features that are built into the flash may still be usable however, just not controlled by the camera.

Now, if you have a PC cord flash and a hot shoe camera, you can buy a little adapter that fits on your hot shoe that has the female PC connection. It should be available online or in camera stores for about $10-15. Quick fix to allow you to use that flash!

Back to the point-and-shoot cameras and old flashes. To use an additional flash with a point and shoot camera, buy a remote trigger called a “slave trigger”. This is a little gizmo that triggers your external flash to go off when it senses your on-camera flash going off. The beauty of this little guy is that you can move the flash around anywhere you want (as long as it can ‘see’ the other flash going off). I’ve seen these for under $10 online.

Here’s a professional hint for you. If you want to practice your portrait photography skills, but don’t want to spend a ton of money on equipment, buy an old studio light or large ‘handle flash’ such as Metz (just search Ebay, Craig’s List or Kijiji…there’s lots of used equipment out there), and a cheap slave trigger (maybe even an umbrella to soften the light). Use a low power flash on your camera (such as the little pop-up built in flash many cameras have now). But, make the slave flash your main light off to the side. Your pop-up flash then becomes ‘fill-in’ flash, softening shadows. Esthetically, it’s best to have your main light off camera anyway, and this will allow you to do it cost effectively!

Getting focused!

How well you focus a picture can make or break it. Moreover, knowing what to focus on is also very important. With action such as sports, the moment is often over as soon as it has begun, giving you only one chance to capture it. Today’s auto focus cameras are quite quick and accurate but the photographer must know how to use their focusing system correctly.

Most auto focus cameras use a central point of the viewfinder as the point of focus, so in this case, whatever is in the middle of the frame will be what gets focused on.

Modern advanced cameras, especially single lens reflex (SLR) models, often have multi-zone focusing. These are specific zones that you can either set, or the camera will follow the movement of your eye and select where you are looking. Pretty cool eh? However, even with these extra focusing areas, you still need to know how to set up the camera properly, so as I always recommend, read your instruction booklet and get familiar with all the controls.

A sure way of focusing properly (at least with practice), if you have this option, is to keep the camera on manual and focus it yourself, assuming you are comfortable doing this. If not, just leave it on automatic. Either way, you still need to know a few things about focus, so keep reading!

Now, where to focus?

If you are photographing landscapes, you need to decide what the main subject of the scene is, and focus on that. If it’s a person with a nice scene in the background, you will focus on the person. If you are photographing a beautiful building with nice flowers in the foreground, you could focus on the building, letting the flowers remain out of focus in the foreground, but using them to help frame the building. Alternatively, you could always use the flowers in the front, letting the building go out of focus. This would make a good stock or travel photo, suitable for a title or type to be added. What would I do? I’d shoot it both ways!

In other than landscape or scenic photography, you focus on the subject’s eyes. People looking at your pictures will always be drawn to the eyes of who or whatever is pictured. This applies to portraits, sports, animals and birds. Never mind their outfits, their hands, the background, or whatever they are sitting on…whatever. Focus on the eyes and the rest will look right too.

If your subject is moving, a multi-zone, eye following focus system can greatly aid getting the area in focus that you want. I still like manual focus for sports, and learn to ‘follow focus’ to follow the action while keeping the focus sharp on the moving subject. It takes some practice, but can give very rewarding results. If you have an all automatic ‘point and shoot’, you may be limited to keeping the subject in the centre. Better to re-crop later than to not get it in focus though!

With portraiture, it may be necessary (probably desirable) to place your subject in other than the very centre of the frame. Single point focus systems almost always read from the centre of the viewfinder, which can present a problem when re-framing. However, most will ‘pre-focus’ by letting you depress the shutter button half way down to lock the focus, re-frame it, then depressing it further to take the photo.

On multi-zone cameras, you can simply select the appropriate zone where your subject is.

When focusing, just remember…the eyes have it!

Protecting your investment

So you’ve got some new camera equipment, and can’t wait to use it! Great!

There are some basics you should know about how to take care of that investment.

 Cameras and lenses don’t like extremes of anything…heat, cold, storms, etc.  Actually, no electronic equipment does very well with water, rain or snow. A few drops is OK, but you sure don’t want to drop it in a puddle or have it fall out of your purse or pocket into a snowbank and have it get waterlogged. Not good. My wife even spilled some computer ink on hers once and it was bye-bye Nikon point and shoot! Moisture just seems to wick into the cracks immediately!

 Prolonged exposure to heat and cold also isn’t good, but the equipment will tolerate it better than water. When you shoot in freezing temperatures then want to come indoors, it’s best to put the camera in a zip lock bag (squish all the cold air out of it), then bring it inside. This will protect it from condensation, which is water that forms when warm moist air hits something cold. Water not good, remember!? The plastic bag will allow the camera to warm up slowly and if condensation happens, it will be on the plastic bag, not your valuable camera.

 Avoiding dust and dirt is also good. This can accumulate inside cameras and lenses, clogging things up, especially anything that moves like lenses and mechanisms, shutter buttons, etc. It can be difficult and expensive to have cleaned back to working condition. A simple preventative is a small camera case or bag to protect it, or if in a purse, a separate zipped compartment or even a plastic bag in the purse.

 Same rules apply to the digital data cards you may carry for the camera. Keep them in their little protective cases and they’ll avoid getting messed up, and will last much longer.

 Happy shooting!

Film or Digital?

Now, with that title, you may be thinking I must be a bit of a dinosaur, and maybe I am…but seriously, film may still have a place (even though you won’t ever see Kodachrome again).

Today, digital cameras are everywhere. You can buy them in camera stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, just about everywhere. They are reasonably priced and compact. But, they have their disadvantages. What do you do with all your photos? If you’re a serious shooter, you’ll end up needing multi-mega bytes of storage on your computer if you shoot high-resolution images. And what if your computer crashes? You lose it all. Personally, I have two back up drives for storing information, and I regularly burn DVD’s too. But, these can all become outdated, fail or become unreadable. I’ve already experienced early CD’s that I can’t read anymore. Bye-bye pictures  :(

Film, although older and viewed by many today as passé or antiquated may still have merit. Let me explain.

Film is a time-tested media, which lasts for many decades with proper storage (basically cool, dark and dry). I have family negatives nearly 100 years old, and I can still use them! Will you still be using DVD’s in 100 years? Probably not even another 20 years.

And, film cameras have also become really, really cheap on the used market. You can now buy a professional quality film camera for a fraction of what they originally cost. And, used lenses to fit them are also reasonably priced. So, someone who is just starting out in photography could conceivably have a bagful of film gear that they may not be able to afford in digital.

And, in my opinion, if you want to really learn photography, there’s nothing like learning how to properly expose film (you have to…you can’t just check the digital screen on a film camera, since there won’t be one). Learning why a camera does what it does will help you understand how to get better exposures and when something goes wrong, you’ll know why. Yeah, I guess I’m a little old school. But, when you learn that stuff, you’ll be a better photographer.

Also, megapixels aren’t a factor with film. ASA or ISO of the film determines the quality of the image (along with quality of the lens…but that applies to both film and digital). The lower the ISO number, the tighter the grain, and hence the better image quality.

Ah, but what about cost of developing and printing? Yup, that costs money. However, if you want to control costs, most labs will process negatives for you for a few dollars. Who says you need to get all those prints done? Most labs will even print out a ‘contact sheet’ of tiny frames for a wee bit more. If you want to use your pictures digitally, many flatbed scanners are able to scan 35mm film also. You can find them for well under $200.

So, pick a few of your pictures from the negatives, and then scan them into your computer. You’ll have the negatives as originals should the computer die, and so, peace of mind never losing your pictures. You’ll have the best of both worlds.

Something to think about anyway!

Loupey photo hint!

Hey, here’s a great hint. Have you ever needed a loupe to see negatives, slides photos, or just to have a small magnifying glass?

A good loupe can be quite costly. However, a low cost solution is to buy a used 50 mm lens, even a really old one that doesn’t work…as long as the glass is good and you can look through it! They make great loupes! I’ve been using them for years. They usually have great optics, easy to use, and cheap. Don’t use a wide angle or telephoto…they may work, but 50 mm is best. Look through the front of the lens, with the back facing what you need to magnify. Be sure the aperature is wide open. You should be able to find one for $10 or less. Check out Kijiji, Ebay or Craig’s list, the local want ads and garage sales (if you frequent those)…I once found a whole camera system, body and three lenses (Canon) for $25! The owner threw in some darkroom equipment just for paying her full price! Why would I argue about price! Sometimes you get lucky!

How to pick a camera

As a news photographer, people always asked me “which camera should I buy”. My response depended on what the person wanted. Often, they didn’t know what they wanted themselves until I focused in on a few areas (pun intended!) and asked a few questions.

Question one to ask yourself: Do you want to learn about photography, or do you just want a camera to do everything for you? Many people just want a camera to whip out and snap that candid picture when something happens. Others may want to actually learn about the various controls and adjustments that most modern cameras offer. If you want to learn about photography, and are serious about knowing the full scope of the art of photography, I would recommend a single lens reflex camera with interchangeable lens capability, or at least a fixed lens model with a wide-ranging zoom and ability to set it manually. For the casual photographer, a ‘point-and-shoot’ model is just fine, with a good set of automatic features such as focus and exposure, or `program` settings, so you can just turn it on and snap away.

Question two: What will you be photographing most of the time? If you only bring out your camera at family get-togethers, or when the grandchildren come to visit, then a price-conscious camera is all you’ll need. If you will be spending your time travelling, you may want a camera with a wider range of lens capability (wide angle & telephoto) to capture whatever you find along the way. Wide angles will be great for giving you a strong foreground while maximizing the amount of scenery in the background. Telephotos will allow you to zoom in on a distant object. Many point and shoots now have a great optical range. If most of your work is inside (real estate for instance), a camera with a wider angle lens will be more important than telephoto.

Question three: What are you going to do with the photos? This question has to do with how many mega-pixels you need to shell out for. Mega-pixels are a measure of how much information the camera is capable of recording, and therefore, the quality of the final photograph. Most newer cameras are at least 8 to 10 mega-pixels, with many much higher than that. That’s great, but the thing to realize for single lens reflex cameras is the higher the resolution, the higher the price tag. Usually point-and-shoots are more reasonably priced, and again, for casual shooters a point-and-shoot is fine, and you can find reasonably priced cameras with lots of resolution. If you aren’t going to enlarge your pictures past 8×10, you won’t need high mega-pixels (6 to 8 is fine). Same goes for photos that will only be on your computer, or to send to friends by email. However, if your ultimate goal is to sell your photos, you’ll want to consider a single lens reflex camera with more than 10 megapixels.

Question four: How will you treat your camera? As a professional photographer, I often had two or three cameras around their neck, especially at sporting events. They`d bang into each other and jump around as I ran down the field to follow the action. They would be outside in the blazing summer heat and in the worst blizzards you can imagine (and people think a photographer’s job is glamorous!). So, they had to be professional quality to withstand that abuse and range of conditions. And they did. But they cost more too! Seriously, most people won’t be exposing their equipment to that, but if you are routinely taking pictures in a wide range of conditions, really cheap cameras probably won’t stand up, and in my experience, will die at the most inconvenient time!

Question five: Do you want a new camera or are you willing to look at used (and how much money do you want to spend)? Several questions, but they are all related. If you have an unlimited budget, then please buy new. You get the warranty and you can be assured that most of the time, everything will work out of the box. However, especially with SLR’s, buying a camera body plus several lenses can run up the cost quite quickly. In my opinion, it is safer to buy a new body, but OK to buy used lenses if price is an issue. Most of the time, it’s the camera that will screw up, not the lens (unless it’s been dropped). There are a lot of places to find used equipment, ranging from camera stores (great because they usually try it out and stand behind what they sell), to Ebay (which offers a limited amount of buyer peace of mind), to Kijiji, Craigs List and newspaper classifieds, none of which offer guarantees, but where you can at least look at the equipment before you buy. Ask a few questions about the history of the equipment. Like a car, if a little old lady just brought it out at the church picnic, that’s better than the war photographer who just got back from the latest skirmish. As always, it’s buyer beware with used stuff.

Make your photos look GREAT!

Ever wonder why some photographs look great and others don’t?

Are you constantly looking at other people’s photographs and wishing yours looked just as good?

Do you open the newspaper and ooh and aah over the photos that the pros take on a daily basis?

Well, I can help.

I`ve been a professional photographer and photojournalist for more than 30 years, and I know what goes into making a great looking photograph.

When I was starting out, I was in the same position as you, always looking at photos wondering if I will ever be able to take pictures that my friends and family will admire.

The first step to improving your pictures is knowing what goes into making a photograph ‘look’ good. Now, this may sound strange, but you have to open your eyes and see what’s in front of you!

WHAT? Of course you’re looking at what’s in front of you, since you are pointing a camera at it…!

But, you have to look at EVERYTHING in front of you!

What you are taking a picture of is called the ‘subject’. But, although your subject is the main focus of your photo, there are other elements that the camera will see that you may not.

The human eye tends to have rather selective viewing, focusing on the subject and kind of ignoring everything else. Lots of other stuff is in your peripheral vision, but many people aren’t aware of it, or don’t notice it. So, it’s not really your fault when you see the actual photos and are disappointed that you didn’t see that distracting lamp, stranger, hydro wires or whatever.

Two other important elements in the photo are the foreground and background.

The foreground is what is in front of your subject or closest to you, and likewise, the background is what is behind your subject or furthest from you.

The key to improving your photos IMMEDIATELY is to consciously look around at what is in front and behind your subject and try to eliminate distracting elements.

If you are photographing a person, try moving them a bit to avoid a lamp growing out of their head, or a lamppost and hydro wires outside. Pick a plainer background such as some dense bushes or trees, or a plain wall with no pictures, windows or other objects that will distract your attention away from the subject. If you can’t easily move the subject, move yourself a bit to try and eliminate the distraction.

The same rule applies to the foreground. Look at what’s in front of your subject…a messy table, the corner of a vehicle, litter on the ground, etc. and move to eliminate it. Change your position; move closer (no need to photograph people from 10 paces!), shift one side or another, whatever it takes to improve the look a bit. It usually isn’t difficult. And, most people are very cooperative about moving a bit if you just explain that it will make a much better photo!

If it’s scenery you’re photographing, the same basic rules apply, but the subject and background may well be the same if it’s a panorama. However, you can still easily improve foreground by just moving to eliminate distractions, or including something that adds interest, such as a few nice flowers. If you’re photographing a person overlooking a scenic vista, don’t put them in the centre of the picture, which just serves to bisect the scene, but rather put them to one side or the other, turned slightly inward toward the scenery. Turning the person slightly inward directs attention into the scenery rather than competing with it. The subject person then becomes the foreground with the scenery the background. It’s effective, and gives equal emphasis to both.

In short, just notice all aspects of the photograph you are about to take, and as much as possible, try to eliminate anything unnecessary or distracting.. A few simple corrections can greatly improve your pictures, and you’ll be proud to show off your latest work!