Getting it right in camera

January 10, 2022

The camera never lies, or so they say. Well, in reality the camera is a bigger lier than most professional politicians are. It reveals or hides whatever the photographer wants it to, and manipulates the viewer’s perception in the process. This is part of what drew me into photography in the first place. I have always enjoyed the escapism of viewing a photograph and feeling like I’ve entered into a new dimension. Letting go and allowing myself feel what, hopefully, the photographer intended me to experience. Pure fantasy.

From an early age, I enjoyed viewing photographs and art. I had a particular love of fashion, nature and architectural images. Back in the late 1970s through early 1980s, when my photography interests were just blooming, digital photography was not yet being used. All those early photographs that enthralled me so much were captured on film. With negative and print retouching being costly and time consuming, most photographers would choose to get it right in camera. With the exception of burning and dodging in the darkroom, most photographers’ effects were done in camera.

I was given my first camera when I was fourteen years old. It was a simple compact film camera, with no manual controls. I used to love to try and manipulate it into creating the types of images that I wanted. I developed ways to make it use long exposures so that I could capture more color in my concert photographs. I also used to like to arrange still lives and use a combination of fill flash and tungsten lighting for those images. But it was when I got my first "real" camera, a Yashica 35mm film slr, at eighteen that things really took off for me. It was then that I discovered Cokin’s line of optical filters and it was pure love and magic! Oh what fun to experiment with those magical squares & discs made of resin. Soft focus, dreams, cosmos (rainbow streaks – OMG magic), colors, graduated filters (especially the colored ones), and even bicolored polarizers. Wow! I could play for hours, only limited by the cost of film, processing, and my imagination. Oh, how I loved it!

Then I started buying photography books and magazines and started to learn advance techniques. All in camera magic. Filtering flash and using multiple light setups, painting with light, mixing light sources of various color temperatures, slow shutter speed motion effects, and so much more. When I got my first professional slr camera in 1988, a Minolta Maxxum 9000, I made another creative leap in camera magic. I learned how to use off camera flash and would set up still lives with my boyfriend’s collection of toys as props. All the while still using my Cokin filters, of course. The staff at the local photo lab used to enjoy when I would bring in my film for developing. They enjoyed viewing the photographs that were more than just the usual family and vacation snapshots. And all of my effects were done in camera.

Fast forward to 1998 when I got my first "serious" computer. My first computer was a black & white notebook used for word processing and when I finally had a computer that could actually handle color photographs things took off once again. I had been seeing some very interesting computer manipulated imagery in my photography magazines and I was excited to finally be able to experiment with it myself. Once again I went filter crazy, this time in the computer. I would scan my slides and negatives and then experiment with various Photoshop filters. Oh the tacky images I would make. All those effects were brand new to me and also still relatively new to most of the viewing public. I admit some of the images that I created back then make me laugh now. But some of them I do still like. But as with most novelty effects, it got old fast. Afterward, there was a brief period of time that I sort of lost interest in photography. I would mainly shoot concerts and wrestling, and wasn’t doing much scenic or still life work anymore. It was an in between period for me creativity wise. I was using digital cameras but they were not dslr cameras with interchangeable lenses. The magic was temporarily gone for me.

But that changed once again in 2006 when I bought my first dslr, my Olympus E1. That magic feeling was back. Building on my past skills and learning new ones, it was magic once again. My skills still needed to be improved and I felt that I wasn’t achieving a particular look that has since become part of my signature style. I love shallow focus imagery and just couldn’t figure out how to do it. So once again I resorted to using the computer to enhance my images. Well, let me tell you, I wasn’t achieving my vision that way either. While I did create some images that have held up to the test of time most of them just don’t measure up now.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of effects that can only be done in the computer. I love images that have texture overlays, some HDR (high dynamic range) images, color manipulations, and composites. Digital black and white photography is often best done in computer, you’ll have more control when converting a color image and you’ll also have a full color original as well – it’s the best of both worlds. I often burn and dodge in computer to enhance my images. Occasionally it is also necessary to clone out spots or distracting elements in an image.

After a long journey of experimenting with computer effects, getting it right in camera is still my game of choice. I’m not against computer manipulations, far from it. It’s just that I personally experience pure joy when I can capture an image that requires minimal computer work and matches my original vision right out of the box. I am a photographer, not a computer operator, and I enjoy being outside creating the images. Experimenting and playing with my camera settings and different lenses. Just like when I was younger. Some things never change. And yes, I still enjoying using those Cokin filters, even if I don’t use them as much now as I did back when I first discovered them.

I photographed this flower using an old film technique to manipulate the color in this image. I used an orange colored filter over an on camera accessory flash and set the color balance of the image to tungsten to render the background blue in tone while keeping the color of the flower fairly accurate. Effect done in camera.

Want to get it right in camera? Here are some of my favorite tips and techniques: 

1. Achieve a solid knowledge of exposure.

Knowing how and where to meter will help you to avoid having to "fix" exposure errors. And not all exposure errors can be fixed, even if shooting in the much more flexible RAW format instead of JPEG.

2. Pay attention to your composition.

Make sure that there are no distractions in the background or edges of the frame before you press the shutter button. Remove distracting elements either by hand if possible, or change camera position. While a lot of that can be done in computer, it takes a lot more time to do so.

3. Choose the best possible subject possible.

For example, if shooting flowers look for the flower with the least amount of marks, browning and other flaws, unless that is the reason you are capturing the image. If capturing images of people, make sure they look their best (neat clothes, perfect makeup and hair.) That way, you’ll have the least amount of retouching to do later. Of course, it is not always option but if it is use it!

4. Achieve a solid knowledge of depth of field.

Some background distractions can’t be removed by hand or by moving the camera. That’s when shallow depth of field can help. Use the widest aperture your lens offers and move as close to the subject as you can for the most minimal depth of field and out of focus backgrounds. And if you don’t know how to do that or what I am talking about, I refer you to the next tip.

5. Learn as much as you can about photography.

Having a solid knowledge base will help improve your photography. Buy books & magazines, and read articles online. Watch you tube videos. But don’t just study and observe, go out and practice, practice, practice.

6. Use optical filters.

I have already expressed my love of experimenting with filters. In addition to Cokin, there are many different brands available. Some filters render effects that can be duplicated in the computer, such as color filters, but some can’t. In particular, I recommend experimenting with polarizer filters. They deepen colors and remove reflections in a way that can not be replicated in the computer.

7. Experiment with shutter speeds.

Using a slow shutter speed can add motion blur. Yeah, you can do those corny motion blur effects in the computer. But they are much cooler when captured in camera. Trust me.

8. Experiment with lighting.

Mixing available light (daylight, moonlight, room lamps etc.) with an accessory flash can render some interesting effects. Especially when you also experiment with shutter speeds and colored filters.

9. Try different lenses.

Lenses are the photographer’s paintbrushes. Different lenses can render many different effects. From wide angle to telephoto lenses and novelty lenses like a Lensbaby, there are many different effects that can be had just by the simple act of changing a lens. The photograph at the top of this page was captured with a Lensbaby lens. Lack of interchangeable lenses is part of the reason I felt creatively stifled by using cameras with fixed lenses. If you are lucky enough to be using a dslr or film dslr camera, don’t just stick to using one lens all the time. Take advantage of all the "photographer paintbrushes" that you have in your current kit and regularly add new ones.  

10. Have fun!

Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn new techniques. The best artists and photographers experiment throughout their whole lifetimes. Enjoy!

There are a few in camera techniques being used here in this image. A solid knowledge of exposure meant I knew how to expose for the flower while letting the darker background go dark. I also chose this attractive and beautiful flower as being perfect enough to photograph. I used shallow depth of field and paid attention to the background so there were no potentially distracting elements in the frame. I did also take advantage of some help from the computer by removing digital noise and darkening the edges of the frame a bit to draw further attention to the beautiful flower.

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