Ben from In an Instant, a YouTube channel dedicated to “the wide (and square) spectrum of instant film cameras,” recently got the chance to shoot with some incredibly rare, incredibly out-of-date, long since discontinued Kodak Instant Film. It’s a super fun video. So make sure to check it out or better yet, subscribe to Ben’s channel.
It comes as no surprise that Ben is an unabashed instant camera nut and as a result, he’s beyond elated at the prospects of making pictures using an instant film long thought to be dead.
With acrank-operated camera called the Kodak Handle in hand, he sets out to test what may be the last usable pack of Kodak Instant Film in existence. And it’s worth noting, the video is more about the journey, history and geeky nature of the medium, rather than the results! And there’s something truly heart-warming about Ben’s excitement and passion for the instant film medium.
What happened to Kodak Instant Film?
But first, a little history lesson. Until the 1970s, Polaroid was the only name in instant film cameras. That’s why many people ignore all trademarks and call any instant shot a “polaroid”—the Kleenex of instant gratification imaging. Kodak, as a major film manufacturer at the time, wanted in on the financially lucrative action but, unfortunately for them, Polaroid had all the important patents. What could be done?
In Kodak’s case, ignore all the patents. And so in 1976, Kodak released its own line of cameras and an integral film called Kodak Instant Film. The medium had a few differences, like the film being exposed from the back and cameras not needing batteries. But it was still incredibly similar to Polaroid’s film. Somewhat predictably, Polaroid sued and a lengthy court battle ensued.
Over the next decade, Kodak continued to produce instant cameras and film while the court proceedings trundled along. They did so until 1985 when they were handed a resounding loss. An appeal to the Supreme Court failed in 1986. And almost 10 years after its release, Kodak Instant film was pulled from the market. Polaroid was later awarded $925 million (almost $2 billion in today’s dollars) in damages and countless Kodak customers were left with cameras that couldn’t be used.
How Ben got his film
Since Kodak Instant Film was discontinued 35 years ago, there’s not exactly a lot of it lying around. Also, what little there is has almost certainly expired. At room temperature, the chemicals in the film quickly dry up and it becomes unusable.
Ben got his lucky break because a fan of his show, Mike Thibault, found a working pack of Kodak Instant film at the estate sale of a former Kodak employee. The employee had presumably been storing it in a fridge for the past three-and-a-half decades. Thibault was kind enough to donate the last four shots to In an Instant so we could all see it in action (thanks, Mike!).
The results (but they don’t really matter)
Ben’s first shot doesn’t come out: it’s soft and almost appears to have been impacted by a light leak in the camera. At this point, he’s almost ready to toss in the towel, unsure of what went wrong and afraid the rest of the shots will also be duds.
Thankfully, that’s not the case! He switches places with his subject, Lauren. And the very first shot to come out is a delightful portrait of himself. The image quality obviously isn’t draw-dropping—the results look a lot like washed-out Polaroids—but that’s not the point.
After one successful image, Ben considers, for a moment, saving the additional shots for a special project. But after reminding himself of the snap-shot nature of the film and camera, he instead decides to keep on shooting. The next shot, a portrait of Lauren, also comes out great (or as great as 30-years-expired instant film can look).
Now, nobody shoots instant film (expired or not) because it allows for technical perfection and dialed-in creative control—they shoot it because it’s fun. Does Ben get four tack-sharp, perfect shots? Of course not. Again, he’s using a long out-of-date film. But does he get an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated shooting opportunity? Absolutely.
The video is full of some other surprises and lots of good commentaries, so again, be sure to give it a watch!
Ultimately, it’s so easy with digital photography, and especially smartphone photography, to get caught up focusing on the results rather than enjoying the experience of shooting. But Ben’s experience is a lovely reminder that sometimes we just need to slow down and focus on the process.
Are you even a photographer if you’ve never taken a Polaroid? If you’ve yet to experience the magic of instant photography, or if you’ve been away from the game for a while, there’s good news. The film being produced by Polaroid over the last couple of years is more consistent than it has been for a long time.
As well as an improvement in film quality, there’s also been a ton of new releases, including limited edition frames, round frames, and both yellow and blue duochrome.
With Fall Polaroid Week taking place October 24-29, why not dust off your Polaroid camera and go shoot some Polaroids?
Fall Polaroid Week
I must admit I’ve always been a bit puzzled by Polaroid Week. As someone who loves instant photography, why would I only shoot instant twice a year?
There is a simple explanation, though: Polaroid Week was conceived at a time when the company was teetering on the brink of collapse. A group of instant photography fans devised Spring and Fall Polaroid Weeks to encourage people to shoot more instant film and share their images in a Flickr Group.
There are a couple of odd things you’ll have to come to grips with about this twice yearly celebration. First of all, it’s not a week at all, but six days: the upcoming Fall Polaroid Week is October 24-29.
Second thing — and perhaps this will only resonate if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere like me — the weeks are named after Northern Hemisphere seasons. Perhaps the organizers never thought the idea would take off beyond the United States.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t really matter what season it is in your neck of the woods; just get out there and shoot some Polaroids. With that in mind, here are 10 tips to help you make the most of your instant pictures.
1. Make Sure Your Camera Works
Grab your Polaroid camera and get ready to shoot.
If you’re shooting with a vintage Polaroid that takes SX-70 or 600 series film, you can test out basic functions with an empty cartridge that still has a charge left in the battery. Yes, that’s right, the battery that powers SX-70 and 600 series cameras is in the film itself. If you don’t have a spare empty cartridge, ask a friend or fellow photographer in your town.
The newer i-Type cameras are charged by a USB cable, as there is no battery in the film pack. Make sure you charge it the night before you want to go take pictures; there’s nothing worse then heading out and realizing that your I-type camera’s battery is flat.
2. Clean Your Rollers
Friends don’t let other friends shoot with dirty rollers. If you’re wondering why they’re so crucial, read on.
After you press the shutter button, your image will pass through two metal rollers in the camera, which spread the developer paste between the negative and positive parts of the photo. If your rollers are dirty, the chemistry may not evenly spread across the image, and defects can form on your images.
To get the best out of your instant experience, make sure you clean your rollers regularly. As you finish off a pack of film, take the old cartridge out and inspect the rollers. If there’s any gunk on them, use a damp cloth to gently wipe it away. Even if there’s not any residue on them, it’s a good habit to wipe them down every two or three packs. Make sure the rollers are dry before you insert a new pack of film.
3. Use Fresh Film
Remember that pack of Polaroid 600 you have on the shelf with an expiration date of 2008? By all means, try it out, but don’t expect great results. Unfortunately, the expired film craze did not extend to Polaroid film, as it generally doesn’t have a great shelf life.
It’s best to buy fresh film, shoot it, and then buy some more. Jump online or visit your local camera store and stock up. Instant photography is addictive, so buy more than you expect to shoot. While you’re waiting to shoot your Polaroids, keep the packs in the fridge.
An interesting side note: Instax film fares a lot better when expired. Generally, it can be used years out of date with no issues.
4. Bright Light
Gizmo from Gremlins may not have loved bright light, but your Polaroid sure does. Always make sure you’re shooting in well-lit conditions. This goes especially if you’re using SX-70 film indoors, as it has an ISO value of 160.
600 film and i-Type films are a little easier to shoot with, as they have an ISO value of 640 and many of the cameras have a flash. Generally, Polaroid flashes works pretty well; just make sure your subject is within the flash range.
With some Polaroid cameras, you can also shoot long exposure images, so don’t forget your tripod.
5. Shield Your Print From Light
One issue with current film stocks is their light sensitivity after ejection. Although this is improving, it’s still best to shield your image from light for around 10-15 minutes after it spits out of the camera.
This applies to the color film more than the black and white or duochrome. The duochrome images I’ve shot lately develop in a few minutes.
To shield your images, you can buy a “frog tongue” to help with this process. A frog tongue is a plastic, curled shield, which inserts into your camera, covering each print as it ejects. I’ve found them a little hit or miss; after a few packs, the frog tongue starts to play up and can even jam a print as it tries to eject.
If you decide not to use one, pop your image in your pocket or an empty Polaroid box as soon as you can.
6. Don’t Shake It (Like a Polaroid Picture)
Outkast has a lot to answer for. One simply does not shake Polaroid film. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting SX-70, 600, or i-Type. There’s nothing wet about the image, so it doesn’t need to dry. Shaking it has absolutely no effect and can, in theory, even damage the image.
7. Mix in Polaroids With Your Other Work
Doing a model shoot? Visiting a new city? Up early to photograph sunrise? Along with your other kit, make sure you pack your Polaroid camera. It’s fun to see the difference between your digital or other film shots and your instant images. Quite often, the Polaroid is my favorite.
8. Take It Everywhere
Take your camera with you everywhere during Polaroid week; you never know when an opportunity will present itself. Always make sure you bring a fresh pack of film along, and try to store the film in cool conditions on the go.
9. Don’t Forget the Family
Some of my favorite Polaroid images are of my family. Kids love instant photography, so why not hand them the camera too?
10 Share Your Images
Make sure you share your images. Use a flatbed to scan your Polaroids, or if you don’t have one, take a photo of them on your smartphone: the Polaroid app has a useful scanning option.
You can now take part in a Live Remote Shooting course with the Nikon School UK, where you’ll be able to take photographs alongside a Nikon School professional trainer, without leaving your home.
During a Live Remote Shooting course, customers can participate by either watching along from the photographer’s point of view, seeing the exact in-camera setup in real-time or by actively taking part in changing the camera settings themselves from their home device.
Neil Freeman, Training Manager for Nikon School UK says: “We’re really excited about introducing Live Remote Shooting to our course line-up, providing all photographers with accessibility to remote locations and the unique opportunity to see and shoot as we do in picturesque sites around the UK and beyond. We hope by offering this opportunity, it will enable photographers to experience photographing with new and recently announced lenses and cameras out in the field, as well as testing Nikon equipment they’ve been considering purchasing, without the need for lengthy or costly travel.
This is also a perfect opportunity for them to ask us specific questions and test out unique features live, allowing participants to see how these changes reflect in the final images they’ll receive at the end of the day.”
How the live remote shooting works:
A Nikon School trainer travels to a difficult to access location e.g Waterfalls and tethers the camera to a laptop.
The course will be live-streamed via a video hosting platform and photographers will be able to join virtually.
The Nikon School trainer will share their screen and give the photographer joint control over their laptop; this screen includes the same button functionality as if they were using the camera in real life.
The photographer now has the opportunity to guide the Nikon School trainer in positioning the camera into a desired frame.
With free reign over controls, the photographer has the chance to play around with settings and either direct or capture an image.
Once taken, the image will display immediately on the screen providing an opportunity to see how the settings, camera and lens they chose affected the way the final picture looks.
The photographer is welcome to request specific lenses or cameras to be used, including those not yet available in-store, and ask any advice Nikon School can offer.
Afterwards, Nikon School will send the customer their RAW images taken on the course, allowing them to post-process to their desired specification.
Live Remote Shooting courses will join the Nikon School lineup at www.nikonschool.co.uk from October 2021. For more information, take a look at the course video trailer below.
Nikon has announced that it’ll soon be offering a new virtual photography Nikon School experience called “Live Remote Shooting” that invites photography enthusiasts to learn photography and shoot with Nikon from the comfort of their home.
The organization provides courses that cover a wide range of photography aspects, from understanding a camera and lenses, shooting fashion, landscapes, wildlife, videos, and more. Now, it’s gearing up to expand its educational services to include “Live Remote Shooting,” as first reported by Digital Camera World.
Unlike a traditional workshop, attendees don’t have to travel to a particular location and instead are guided by a Nikon School’s professional trainer via a video call. During this call, the participants can follow the action from the trainer’s point of view, discuss and view the in-camera setup in real-time, and take part by changing camera settings without leaving their desks.
This type of virtual training enables photographers to explore various locations, shoot set-ups, and even different models of equipment — so as long as it is Nikon brand — without the commitment to travel or rent the gear.
Here’s how the Live Remote Shooting system will work: the Nikon School trainer first tethers their camera to a laptop and starts a live stream through a video-hosting platform which enables students to join in. The trainer also shares their screen so that the students can control the tethered camera connected to the laptop.
This allows students to guide the trainer to compose the image while having full manual control over camera settings. Once captured, the images are displayed on the screen. Students can also request particular lenses or cameras, including those that are not yet available in store. After the live shoot has concluded, all captured RAW images are sent to the students so they can post-process them as they wish.
As Nikon leans into virtual education and develops a wide range of online courses, it opens up possibilities for photographers who are not able to travel but still want to enjoy the benefits of interactive learning, led by an experienced trainer.
Here’s a short video introducing Live Remote Shooting workshops:
This new workshop type is set to feature in Nikon School’s event and training line-up starting in October 2021. Nikon School also offers in-person workshops as well as other types of online courses. More information can be found on Nikon School’s website.
Landscape photography is often associated, or even equated, with the use of wide-angle lenses, however, this can lead to formulaic compositions. Telephoto lenses may seem like the province of wildlife photography, but alternating with them brings new creative opportunities for landscape photography.
This is illustrated by the two opening images of my photobook Our National Monuments, compared to their wider counterparts.
For many years, I was heavily influenced by the near-far compositions of David Muench: a graphic and impactful foreground subject, with mountains in the background, all often below a dramatic sky. Photographers such as Galen Rowell would embrace that esthetic. His most used wide-angle lens was a 24mm, with the occasional 20mm, but since then the short end of the 16-35mm lens has become a standard, with focal lengths of 14mm, and more recently 12mm fairly common at a wide end of a zoom.
Wide-angle photography was one of the main reasons I turned to a large-format camera – which is severely limited for telephoto lenses. There is much to be said for this approach. It helps place the viewer into the scene, depicting everything that someone standing there may see, naturally creating a sense of depth. On the other hand, they shrink the backgrounds, for example diminishing the impact of huge mountains and placing the emphasis on foreground elements that are more common than those mountains. If, in addition, you process them the same way, images can end up all looking the same.
Telephoto lenses are heavier to carry and more challenging to use than wide-angle lenses. Compositions need to be more precise, as small changes have greater effects. You have to look harder for them, as they form only a small portion of your field of view.
That latter point is maybe what makes telephoto landscape photography so compelling: when you pick up a small portion of the scene, you direct the viewer to something that you found interesting but they may have missed. This makes those shots intrinsically personal.
A group of photographers standing at the same scene with a wide-angle lens is much more likely to produce similar images than if they were using a telephoto lens.
Even with close to 500 pages, packing 60+ national parks in my photobook Treasured Lands was such a challenge that almost each image had to represent a different location. Our National Monuments had more room, and I could use multiple images to represent single locations. In two cases, I repeated images taken at the same time from the same viewpoint, looking in the same direction and differing only by the choice of the focal length.
Example #1: Our National Monuments Cover
During the afternoon I spent at a petroglyph site in Ironwood Forest National Monument, besides close-ups of petroglyphs and flora, most of my compositions consisted of wide-angle photographs with etched rocks in the foreground. At sunset time, I made one more such photograph at the widest setting of my 16-35mm lens (page 247). The foreground includes the main mountains in the monument, Silver Bell and Ragged Top. However, being located more than 20 miles away and only about 4,000 feet high, they appear tiny on the horizon.
Because of my awareness of that mountain, I still noticed the distinctive profile of Ragged Top, the crown jewel of Ironwood Forest National Monument. Between two wide-angle shots, I zoomed into the peak with the 100-400mm lens for a single shot at 340mm. Although the resulting image is just a crop of the previous image, it is entirely different, conveying a sense of majesty rather than of space. The perspective looks natural enough that without comparison, I suspect you wouldn’t have known it was made with a super-telephoto lens. A bit of cropping enhanced the image’s symmetry, making it an excellent cover image for Our National Monuments.
Example #2: Our National Monuments Half-Title Page
In Our National Monuments, there is a second pair of images where one is a crop of the other. They were photographed from the summit of Snow Mountain in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. During my spring visit to the monument, the low-elevation hills were lush with an explosion of verdant grass and wildflowers. From the trailhead, it did not seem like Snow Mountain would live up to its name, but as I neared the summit, I found a landscape still emerging from the winter. Photographing towards the south let me include north-facing slopes with some snow.
The comparison between this image (page 83), and the following is even more striking because the two focal lengths are not that different. The wide image was photographed at 54mm, which by today’s landscape photography standards is quite long, and the telephoto image was photographed at 240mm. The graphic quality of the latter made it a good choice for the half-title page, the first image inside the book. One of the challenges with telephoto lenses is to create a sense of depth, as the perspective that helps create it with wide-angle images is now compressed. In this case, depth is created by atmospheric perspective, the drop off in warmth and contrast occurring naturally with distance, and it would have been ill-advised to apply a “dehaze” correction.
Here’s a technical detail that illustrates the depth of field issues with telephoto lenses. When I photographed the Ragged Peak image, I thought that the cactus in the foreground were far enough that they would be subjects at infinity, like the mountains. I therefore used an aperture of f/8. On the Sony a7R IV, diffraction begins to limit sharpness after f/6.7. On the LCD, the image looked sharp enough, but when reviewing the image at 100% on a computer screen, it turned out that the mountain was a bit soft because of insufficient depth of field.
Applying Topaz Sharpen AI worked but necessitated doing it selectively, as the software over-sharpened the mountain crest. You’d think that the difference would not be noticeable on a 10×12 inch print (the size of the book), and indeed the original image looks acceptable, but my daughter was able to tell the difference between two test prints viewed side-by-side.
Using this Depth of Field calculator with the circle of confusion 10 microns appropriate for the Sony a7R IV 61 MP full-frame sensor (2.5 times the pixel pitch 3.76 microns as explained here), we find a hyperfocal distance of 1,450 meters for 340mm and f/8. The hyperfocal distance is the closest distance you can focus on and still have perfect infinity focus.
Read also: What is Hyperfocal Distance and How Do You Find It?
All this means that in this case, to get perfect infinity focus, I would have had to focus close to a mile away! Would stopping down to a sharpness-degrading f/22 have helped? The hyperfocal distance would still be over 800 meters, or half a mile.
Telephoto lenses can help you make different landscape images, but they present many challenges. Not only do you have to pay more attention to compositions, but also they require a more careful technique. As we’ve just seen, depth of field is limited, particularly so with high-resolution sensors, so focusing has to be very precise, and even though the closest element may seem far at hundreds (or maybe thousands) of feet away, advanced techniques could be necessary. Since they amplify the effects of vibration, even in a small breeze getting a sharp image can take quite a bit of work.
Below are 13 practical tips in no particular order for overcoming this challenge. All images in the article were photographed with the Sony FE 100-400 lens for Our National Monuments, but not used in the book.
Tip #1. Check Sharpness
Shots can look great at a glance on the LCD, but turn out unusable in print because they were not sharp enough. Checking the camera LCD at 100% magnification to see if your shot was sharp before moving on to the next one is always a good idea to prevent disappointments. That practice is all the more important in telephoto photography because there are so many reasons why telephoto images may lack critical sharpness. If you notice that images are not sharp, then it is time for some of the adjustments described below.
Tip #2. Mind Focus and Depth of Field
One reason why it is more challenging to get sharp images with telephoto lenses is that the depth of field area is so much smaller than for normal and wide-angle lenses. Any imprecision in focusing shows up. Manual focusing at 100% magnification is the most reliable way to proceed, but if you use autofocus, but sure to check if it is perfect.
For an indication of how narrow the depth of field area can be, refer to the above example in which we saw that with a 340mm lens on the Sony a7R IV, even at f/22, the depth of field area including infinity starts half a mile away, meaning that you cannot have any object closer to half a mile and infinity in perfect focus at the same time.
Tip #3. Consider Focus Stacking
At a longer focal length, getting a foreground and background both in focus can be impossible. Stopping a lens down to f/22 is not optimal because it results in degraded image quality due to diffraction. In addition, the requirement to use a slow shutter speed makes the capture more vulnerable to vibration. A useful alternative is to merge exposures made with different focus points at f/11, a feature automated by Photoshop.
Tip #4. Time for Better Air Clarity
Air clarity is an overlooked issue with telephoto photography. Often with those compositions, even the closest subjects can be far enough that image degradation due to air quality is quite noticeable. On a hot afternoon in the desert, looking in the viewfinder of a telephoto lens, you can see distant elements vibrating due to air convection.
Even in windless conditions, if you take a picture in those conditions, nothing at a distance comes out sharp. In the cooler temperatures of the morning, the air is often more clear, and that is often the best time for telephoto work. In addition, at dawn and dusk, when the sun is not out, haze is much reduced.
Tip #5. Use a Polarizer
Haze consists of particles in the air that reflect light, reducing contrast and desaturating colors. A polarizer makes the haze disappear because it cuts reflections. The more distant the subject, such as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from its Northwest rim, the more haze there is, which makes a polarizer particularly useful for telephoto shots.
Tip #6. Use a Sturdy Tripod
The main reason for unsharp telephoto images is unwanted camera motion. Handholding a telephoto lens with successful results is difficult. Those lenses are often large and heavy. Small camera movements affect the composition. You need faster shutter speeds for sharp images, with the general rule that you need an exposure time in seconds faster than 1/F, where F is the focal length in millimeters. This is difficult to attain in low light, particularly if you stop down and use a polarizing filter.
In the slightest of breezes, even a tripod that works fine for normal lenses is not enough to stabilize a telephoto lens. Typically, I use a series 2 tripod and a medium-size ball head. However, that combination is often insufficient for a telephoto. On road trips, I pack a series 3 tripod and a full-size ball head. While I don’t like to hike too much with that setup, it works fine for roadside photography and short hikes. I have found it makes a significant difference for telephoto lenses.
Tip #7. Use a Tripod Collar
Tripod collars are often used on telephoto lenses to reduce the strain on the lens mount caused by a heavy lens with a long lever arm. That is a good enough reason since the strain could result in long-term misalignment of the lens mount. The issue relevant to this article is that without a tripod collar, the offset of the center of gravity degrades the stability, and the lever arm of wind pushing the lens is larger.
Most high-end telephoto lenses come with a built-in tripod collar. Lesser telephoto lenses don’t, but you can buy a third-party collar for them. Once I added a tripod collar to the Sony 70-300, I noticed a higher success rate, whereas before I often struggled to get sharp images. However, in terms of weight and bulk, the difference with the better Sony 100-400 became minimal.
Tip #8. Stabilize the Tripod
Even though a light tripod is not optimal for telephoto photography, sometimes that’s all you got. You can somehow make it into a heavier tripod. Many tripods come with a hook at the bottom of the center column or the platform, from which you can hang weights, such as your camera bag or a shopping bag that you load with rocks.
Another related technique is to apply downward pressure to your tripod. The easiest is to press on the top of your camera with a hand, but you can also step with your feet into a strap attached to the center column or platform. Note that while those solutions address the lack of mass of the tripod, they don’t address its lack of rigidity, hence the “somehow”.
Tip #9. Use a Remote Release
Unless you use an extremely sturdy tripod, pressing the shutter will result in some camera vibration. For normal lenses, with a self-timer delay of 5 seconds (but not 2 seconds!) the vibration dies down enough, but in my experience, for telephotos, 10 seconds is more appropriate. The problem is that quite a bit can happen during those 10 seconds, including a gust of wind picking up. And there are those situations when the shot needs to be timed, for instance for a wave. A remote release alleviates those issues.
Tip #10. Time for the Wind
Telephoto lenses are particularly sensitive to the wind because of their physical size and magnification. If you pay attention to the wind pattern, you’ll notice that it is almost never uniform. There are gusts alternating with calmer periods. Try to release the shutter during a lull. It can take a lot of patience, but such lulls often happen.
Tip #11. Shelter from the Wind
Not only the wind is not uniformly distributed in time, but the same also applies in space. When I stepped up on the summit ridge of Dona Anna, the wind hit me with full force, but by descending a few meters the downwind side of the summit, I found enough shelter to photograph at sunset. Even a tree can offer enough shelter.
Getting lower to the ground usually results in lower wind speed, so just lowering your tripod can help, with the additional benefit that a lower extension means higher rigidity. Besides taking advantage of terrain configuration, you can shelter your camera with your body. Among many other useful applications, an umbrella makes an excellent wind shelter. For roadside shots, I have used my car as a shelter, either by pointing it towards the wind and standing behind the rear hatch or even by shooting from a seat.
Tip #12. Crank Up ISO
If you are not able to get out of a stiff breeze, unless you have the beefiest tripod, there are always going to be some vibrations. The shorter the shutter speed, the lesser their impact. Everything else being equal, you can get shorter shutter speeds by increasing ISO. Increasing the ISO from base 100 to 400 in the daytime doesn’t result in significant noise and loses only minimal detail, but it divides your exposure time by a factor of four.
Tip #13. Take Multiple Exposures
In some situations, you may not have the time to check at 100% magnification that the shots are sharp, maybe because there are quick changes not to be missed, such as the sun cresting above the horizon. That is a case where making redundant exposures can be useful to increase the chance that you got a usable shot.
About the author: QT Luong was the first to photograph all America’s 62 National Parks — in large format. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Luong was featured in the film The National Parks: Americaʼs Best Idea by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. His photographs are extensively published and have been the subject of large-format books including Treasured Lands (winner of 10 national and international book awards), many newspaper and magazine feature articles, solo gallery and museum exhibits across the U.S. and abroad. You can find more of his work on his website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. This article was also published here and here.
You shoot perfect pictures. But are they the photographic equivalent of fast food? Maybe it’s time to consider changing the way you shoot and reject sausage machine images.
Piers thrust themselves into dead-still water, birds perch on rocks, beautiful women show off their perfect bodies, the interiors of decaying buildings crumble, distant snow-topped mountains reflect in lakes, and light shines off polished Porsches. If you look at any photo community website, there are thousands of technically flawless images like these. Each is a well-executed, flawlessly sharp representation of the subject. They are well lit, and their compositions, colors, contrasts, and exposure fit with everything we know about photography. They look great.
But after browsing your way through a few pages in any genre, doesn’t each successive photograph make you gradually lose interest?
However technically perfect they are, they no longer surprise us. I would go as far as to say that most are clichés, unoriginal imitations of similar photos that came before them. Occasionally, one does jump out and grab your attention because it is unique, but most fall into the category of what I call sausage machine photography.
Similarly, we appeal to our audiences by adding continuity between a string of images, as I mentioned in my previous article about photographic essays. This usually means sticking to one type of photography. Most great photographers are known for doing just that, concentrating on one genre, or, at least, one genre at a time.
Sausage Machine Commercial Photography
Of course, there is a commercial need for these kinds of shots: car advertisers want to see those flashy fenders, and bird identification books need shots of separate species of a sparrow sitting on a stick, or indeed, a puffin on a rock. Unhappily, fashion magazines still require perfect images of unhealthily skinny young women with plastic-looking skin.
There is nothing wrong with trying to achieve perfection in our images. It means that with each shot, we have studied our art, learned from our mistakes, and honed our techniques. We have studied other photographers’ works, and then emulated or even improved on them. Indeed, I would encourage everyone to seek the ability to achieve pristine photographs. However, commercial interests aside, we should then strive to be challenging in our photography, attempt to create something different.
Barriers to Being Different
It’s a tall order. Firstly, the photographic establishment expects images to cohere with its norms. Anyone who rejects the recognized standards will get pilloried for doing so. History has shown that this is true of any art form. Nevertheless, photography often seems to be stuck in the mud because a vocal conservative minority will deride anyone who suggests approaching it differently. For example, if one dares to suggest that great photographs can be shot with crop sensor cameras, the full frame fascists leap to attack.
Secondly, with around 1.5 trillion photos taken this year, shooting something unique becomes harder. Admittedly, only around 7% of those will be shot with digital cameras, with most being mobile phone snaps, but that’s still around 105 billion DSLR, mirrorless, and compact camera photos per year. In other words, 3,330 images are snapped every second by photographers like you. With that proliferation, it’s difficult to find a way of showing our viewers something new, because someone else is probably shooting something similar at the same time.
Nevertheless, there are still good reasons for breaking away from repetitive perfection and achieving compelling images that don’t comply with the accepted norms of the photographic establishment. Not least is the need to thrill our audience with surprises that keep them engaged with our work.
Lessons From the Other Arts
So, how can we surprise our viewers? There are lessons to be learned from other art forms, including cinema, television, books, and paintings.
Great photographers take things further than just shooting a single genre. Like some movie directors and cinematographers stick to using one focal length, some top photographers restrict themselves to just one too. Fixed apertures and shutter values, subject distances, and other compositional variables are kept the same within their collections. In this way, they make their portfolios more coherent and, consequently, more appealing to the viewer, especially if they reject the most widely used settings for that subject.
Then, there’s the image content. That’s where the big surprises sit.
Jump Scares, Big Reveals, and Plot Twists
The hand reaches out from under the bed and grabs the hero’s ankle (The Sixth Sense). The journalist looks at a photo and spots a vital clue that helps solve the mystery (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo). A murder is revealed when an image from a hidden camera is developed (Enemy of the State). We are left wondering what was real and what was not (Total Recall).
They could easily become something of a cliché in movies, but the jump-scare, the climactic plot twist, and the big reveal still work. M. Night Shyamalan is a master of cinematic surprises, as was Alfred Hitchcock before him. In his written stories that were later televised, Roald Dahl added a twist to the end of his Tales of the Unexpected. They shock us and are often the turning point or climax of the story. Can we incorporate those sorts of surprises into photography?
It isn’t as easy as it is in stories. In books and films, the revelation happens at a point along a timeline and, individually, our pictures are a fixed point in time.
Nevertheless, we can surprise. For example, hiding a twist somewhere within the photograph, something we don’t immediately spot can make an image more compelling, assuming the viewer takes the time to see it. Alternatively, it can be a surprise image at the end of a sequence of photos that brings the whole series together. Adding a title to a photograph can also make the viewer see the image differently.
Things That Don’t Sit Comfortably Together
Another approach is fitting disparate subjects together. Photographing things that are out of place with their environment can work too. Surrealist artists, such as René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, perfected this approach in their art. I am not suggesting you should have melting clocks on the beach or castles floating in the sky, but mundane objects out of place can have an impact and make the viewer think.
Hiding the Main Subject
Then again, the main subject of the image may be less obvious than the secondary subjects. For example, in the above photo, the leading line of the mast’s reflection draws the eye to the nearest boat. One is then taken further into the image to the larger hull, top right. It’s only then that one realizes that the real subject is relatively small and is not the boat at all.
I must reiterate that I am differentiating between creative and observational photographic art and commercial photography here. Commercial markets cry out for sausage machine images. My clients have specific expectations that fit into the norms of commercial photography, and it would be foolish of me not to meet their needs. Photographers making a living from their work know their photos must cohere with the expectations of the broader public; most people buy bland, mass-produced images from Ikea to hang on their walls.
The appeal of extraordinary photography that takes an effort to appreciate isn’t as big. But it has far greater value. There is space for more challenging, less usual photography too.
What Do You Think?
Do you shoot images that break free from the clichés? It would be fantastic to see them in the comments. Or are you solely shooting standard images with mass appeal? If so, do you disagree with my premise that we should shun the expectations of the photographic establishment? It would be great to hear your thoughts on this topic, even if you disagree with me.
A landscape that’s considered graphic can feature lines, curves, obvious shapes and distinctive contrast from either colour, shadows or reflections. It may be a long list but graphic landscapes are something you can find just about anywhere if you take the time to look. Instead of looking at a city scene, for example, as roads and buildings see it as straight, strong lines and shapes. Throw strong shadows into the mix and a few spots of interesting colour and you’re well on your way to creating a graphic shot.
2. Shadows And Highlights
Strong light can add emphasis to shapes and help cast shadows which work well in graphical style shots. Using shadows to your advantage works particularly well on metalwork and buildings but can be used in nature too, especially if you have a bird’s eye view of a scene.
3. Strong Lines And Contrasting Colour
As already mentioned, strong shapes such as hills overlapping create great graphic landscapes particularly if they differ in colour. Misty, hazy or cloudy days can be good for exaggerating the shapes and while an interesting overlapping background can strengthen the effect, low rolling hills can easily work as well as mountains, so many locations are suitable.
4. Change The Ordinary Into The Extraordinary
Look at the ordinary and play with the composition so the viewer doesn’t realise what it originally was. A close up of a rock face, for example, that had deep shadows along the ridges created by the high sun will work well.
At just $2,499, the Canon EOS R6 has a remarkable list of specifications and along with the R5, has helped to reassert Canon’s dominance over the camera market. How does this camera hold up after a whole year of use?
Jared Polin was among the first to get his hands on the R6 and a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and a global chip shortage has meant that several elements of the camera market have been disrupted, making this a tricky camera to get hold of. Right now, B&H Photo is expecting more stock in the next two to four weeks, and other major vendors are also out of stock.
With this price tag, Polin is right to argue that this is a lot of camera for not very much money, and it will be interesting to see how Sony responds when it announces its much-anticipated a7 IV. Latest rumors suggest that it will have a 33-megapixel sensor and that an announcement is due in October, and Sony may choose to undercut its main rival. Just as the a7 III felt almost like a loss-leader, its successor may follow suit, presenting customers with a tough choice.
Will the a7 IV make the R6 feel slightly expensive? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Shooting portraits using natural light means paying careful attention to how that light is behaving and how it falls upon your subject. This insightful video gives you a series of tips on how to make the most of a wide variety of shooting conditions.
Photographer Julia Trotti has established a reputation for producing beautiful, dreamy images using simple locations blessed with some gorgeous Australian sunshine. In this video, she runs through a number of tips on how to ensure that you use the light to get excellent results that aren’t compromised by harsh or unwanted shadows or blown-out highlights that might take attention away from your subject and undermine your image.
It’s worth noting that Trotti’s final tip regarding backlighting can be made much easier by using a high-quality lens. Firstly, while a drop in contrast as a result of shooting straight into the light can create an ethereal feel to an image, lesser lenses can take it too far and also produce orbs and ghosting that you might not notice until you get to the editing stage. Secondly, less expensive lenses can struggle with autofocus, again a consequence of the drop in contrast, making it a challenge to produce consistently sharp images. You don’t need an insanely expensive lens to get good results, but good glass can make the process far easier.
What other tips would you add to this video? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Now that travel restrictions are slowly easing, at least in some parts of Europe and the US, photographers can think again about going off something interesting and photogenic with their camera. It’s fair to say that photographers in the west are more restricted to short haul, rather than long-haul, trips, but these can still be very rewarding. Travel photography encompasses several genres and skill-sets – landscape, portrait, architecture, street – so to do it well is challenging, but the effort is nearly always worth it.
To help you get the most from the increasing opportunities for travel, here are some gear recommendations and essential tips and techniques to try.
Leica Q2: The premium compact It really doesn’t get any more premium than Leica—and the Leica Q2 is no exception. With the build quality you’d expect, the Q2 gives you more in a package that blurs the lines between a camera for your travels and your main camera. It comes equipped with a Summilux 28mm f/1.7 lens, specific to this system.
With a wide field-of-view for all-purpose photography, this lens will allow you to capture almost any scene with its 47-megapixel full-frame sensor—with plenty of options to crop should you wish to reframe your final image at the editing stage. It’s pricey, but the build and image quality mean it’s worth every penny.
Fujifilm XF10: The pocket powerhouse For years, Fujifilm have been producing cameras giving us both functionality and style. The tiny XF10 is no different. Built around a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, the Fujifilm XF10 offers great image quality, and the film presets really help with the creation of quick-and-easy creation of JPGs in-camera.
The XF10 also manages to keep weight low at just 280g. With great handling and a truly pocketable size, this is a great travel companion.
Sony RX100 IV: The versatile zoom While all the other compact cameras in this guide have built-in prime lenses, the Sony RX100 IV is the only one featuring a zoom – which gives more flexibility, in terms of framing and reach.
With a one-inch 20.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, 4K video capabilities and 24–70mm—equivalent lens, you’d have thought Sony had to cut corners to provide this much in such a tight body, but there is also an effective pop-up viewfinder. A truly remarkable piece of engineering.
Fujifilm X100F: The retro compact The Fujifilm X100F is another beautiful and cleverly-designed camera that gives you excellent image quality in a small-and-stylish package. This camera, which followed three successful iterations of the X100, featured improvements in pretty much every area, from handling and controls to imaging and performance. With its 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, rear menu control joystick, reworked top-mounted dials and an improved battery, the changes were subtle.
But, together, these changes pretty much transformed this camera into an efficient everyday shooter that’s great for travel. While the X100F has now been superseded by the X100V, we still feel the X100F provides the greatest balance between performance and value-for-money.
Ricoh GR III: The street shooter The Ricoh GR III is adored by street photographers around the world. It’s a capable compact camera for any travel photographer who values low weight and portability.
The reason it gets its street photography tag is largely due to its super-fast start-up time—when you’re ready to shoot, this camera is too. With a 28mm-equivalent lens, this camera will ensure you always capture as much of the scene as possible. So, you can truly capture your subject as well as the environment they’re in.
Imaging duties are handled by a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor, with great rendering capabilities straight out-of-camera. The GR series traces its history back to the original GR film camera, and combines traditional quality with the latest technology.
Tips and techniques
Give yourself time in a place – but get up early After a long tiring trip to a destination, possibly made even slower by Covid-19 checks, it’s tempting to want to race around. Hopefully though, you have done your research beforehand when it comes to the most photogenic places and worked out how to get there.
Rather than trying to visit every single interesting locality, however, maybe pick three or four of the best ones and really spend some quality time there – chances you’ll get better images if you have explored the many different aspects of a place before you start shooting.
Getting up early is really important too: the light will usually be better and there will be fewer other visitors to get in the way of your shots!
Go beyond the ‘record’ shot Does the world really need another straight-on image of the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum? There is nothing wrong with going with this kind of ‘record’ shot but it’s unlikely to spark much of a reaction from other people. So why not wander around the locality and try and find a different perspective on a very famous landmark. Or you could shoot it in a reflection, or use another technique to add interest, such as slowing down your shutter speed to create motion blur on people or cars passing in front of it.
Zooming in a particular detail of a famous building can create something different too. Or, as with here, take a shot of other people interacting with a famous sight.
Focus on people as much as places Another way to add your own creative stamp to your travel photography is to take interesting pictures of a local. Approaching locals for a photograph can be stressful if you don’t speak the language, but if you gesticulate and smile, there’s a reasonable chance they will say yes, and you could even build up quite a rapport. If they say no? Well, that is not the end of the world.
Pro travel and documentary/press photographers have to deal with this all the time, just smile politely and move on to the next subject. Don’t take it personally! Or you can shoot people candidly as not every successful travel portrait requires full eye-contact (look at the work of Henri Cartier Bresson). The smaller cameras we recommend above make it easier to shoot discreetly.
If an an interesting subject does agree to have their picture taken, remember the essential rules of travel portraiture when working quickly: try and find a relatively uncluttered background, use a wide aperture or longer lens to further blur out the background, and focus carefully on the eyes. Using a smaller compact or mirrorless camera, such as the ones listed above, will also be less intimidating for the subject.
Go wide Another key skill in travel photography is soaking up the scene – so a wider lens is essential. This really helps to capture the spirit of a place, such as the busy cafes on a picturesque European square or a beautiful valley in Tuscany.
Taking along a lightweight travel tripod is a good idea if you find yourself shooting wider landscapes – it can slow your photography down, so you are more mindful about composition, and help keep images sharp when using slower shutter speeds in lower light. But don’t forget to make the most of your camera or lens’s image stabilisation features, too. Even a very light tripod can get in the way sometimes.
Make the most of the blue hour Depending on where you are the world, the ‘blue hour’, just after the sun goes down, can yield some wonderful photographic opportunities – particularly if picturesque buildings are involved. Most of the cameras we recommend above will have decent ISO capabilities for shooting in low light, or again, a lightweight travel tripod can come in useful. Include the lights of streets and cafes for visual effect, and try narrowing the aperture right down to create a pleasing starburst effect – you will probably need to use a tripod or image stabilisation for this, as less of the already diminishing light will be hitting your camera’s sensor.
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