Practice is all, practice has many forms

When I am not out shooting or when I cannot find the time to practice and get my gear off the shelf, I still work on my photography skills. I can gather knowledge and ideas by watching video courses, behind the scenes, or technical explanations, even gear reviews online. I always find something new, be it an innovative shooting technique, interesting gear or new artists under the spotlight… And if I don’t even find the time for that, I still read everything I can put my hand on from books on different aspects of shooting, on lighting, or biographies to blogs and photography community websites…

I’m just always a smartphone away from something new, or refreshing. And here is an example, I was reading today about strobing photography, which reminded me I have a flash I rarely use. And yesterday I was reading an article on using curves adjustments to achieve some very interesting results. So, as soon as I could grab my gear this evening, I put myself to the task, and tried it out. That’s how I practice.

Noticing how the blacks are not blacks ? Think curve adjustment. See how the camera pops out, but the ambient light is still present ? Think flash-gun !

Now, off you go! Every minute you spend ‘practicing’ is a minute well spent. And you can practice everywhere, with and without camera.

The Goémonier’s lost craftsmanship

All around the globe, local traditions lie hidden from the rest of the world, perpetuated by only a handful of people. As a photographer, this is something that I would love to document, just grab my camera and go meet extra-ordinary people. I like to shoot ordinary life scenes a lot, but when the ordinary becomes unique, it couldn’t get any better. Not so long ago, I was lucky to get one of these opportunities.

Back in beginning of August, I was in Bretagne, the northwestern region of France, where I got the chance to attend to the local Goémon festival. There, a very peculiar tradition is preserved and exhibited to all. As far as I could gather, Goémon is the regional name of a brown algae which is also known in France and some other european countries as varech. I was told its burning produces potassium chloride which made it particularly valuable for Breton people over the years as it is most commonly know for being a good fertiliser and Breton history for harbouring great farmers.

Oh, did I mention I love Breton folks ? If you’ve never been to Bretagne yet, it’s time to plan for it, it’s an amazing place filled with amazing people. And it offers a mesmerizing cost line to my fellow landscape photographers. Don’t forget your rain sleeve though ! Oh well, back to the topic.

The Goémon festival is celebrating the century old tradition of harvesting and carrying this algae along the coast, whilst literally maneuvering huge bales of goémon across the treacherous currents of the cold Atlantic ocean. I won’t spoil you any longer, here are the pictures !

For the short story of the 5 months old pictures, I am only dusting these pictures off now because I finally found – well, took – the time to go through the whole shoot. Ah… vacation. I had worked on some pictures before, I even displayed some in an early post here, but never did I work on the complete series so far. Time is the worst enemy of a photographer, whereas we often find the time to shoot, very seldom do we unearth the time to sort, post-process and select the final pictures. I’ll do my best to bring you my pictures faster in the future, and not discard potential series for too long.

Ten thousand photos this year

On this fine Christmas Eve, here comes inspiration to every photographer out there. I always say, and I truly mean it, practice is everything. I just achieved my 2015 practicing goal! Today, I have finally reached 10.000 pictures in my 2015 Lightroom catalogue. That was close, but I made it! Care for a challenge ?

10k @ 2016 ?

Now, it’s not just about filling up my catalogue, I could have done that in a few months if I simply imported every single pictures I shot. Or worth still, I could have just shot pictures without working them on camera first. Ending up with infinite meaningless material. No no no, what I mean is: I have selected 10.000 exposures out of the myriad of pictures I took and tucked them away safely, effectively discarding the other tens of thousands. You don’t believe me ? Fair enough. How about that, this year I have acquired a new camera of which I just checked the shutter count, and it proudly displays 20.626 while I’m writing this post. I can’t check my older one because it’s in another country, but Lightroom keeps some records. That should be enough to prove I discarded a lot of shots.

Approaching the new year, I think this is a good time to reflect on the photographic year that is ending. How did my photography evolve in the past 365 days? Do I use all my gear ? Where is my comfort zone and where do I need to improve ? Before we start, let’s have a peak at my motivation all year round.

As you can see, I have had ups and downs when it comes to photography, which interestingly enough coincide with the downs and ups of my day job, plus peaks during vacation time. Oh well, it’s how it is, practice when you don’t have time for it, and practice even more when you do. Period.

Now, on to the real topic, in this post I’ll focus on one question only, after all, it’s Christmas time, and I have a family reunion to attend to. So, how do I use my gear ? Or how do I not? And what can I improve there? Maybe I have a lens or two I could sell or lend to friends ? Well, Lightroom keeps track of the EXIF data. So I can get stats, but for that I need an app to crunch these statistics. I have just the one I need, let’s head to lightroomdashboard.com and get these numbers down to usable data. Here is the pictures per gear elements.

It seems I have some favourite gear, but we already knew that didn’t we? Obviously my trusty Nikon D7200 is the one I bring everywhere since I got it. I never bring a second camera with me, first because I don’t have two of the same model and don’t want a trade-off, and because it’s too heavy anyhow. If anything happens to my camera body, well, I’ll have to buy a new one. I don’t shoot for a living, so I don’t really care. But as someone said – I can’t remember who – the gear is most often less expensive than creating the occasions to use it. So I might change my mind on that when the inevitable happens in the middle of a desert. If I know I’ll be the only photographer on a trip, I might think twice about taking my Nikon D80 body with me, or maybe get an entry-level camera body on the cheap. Just so I can tuck it away in a backpack and forget about it.

Regarding lenses, it’s a tad more diversified, but it seems like my Sigma Art 18-35mm f/1.8 tops it all. Then comes my Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8 followed closely by my Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8. That also says a lot about the focal length I tend to shoot with. And how a cheap prime can still uphold its promises. This distribution is very reassuring when it comes to using my gear well. I see all my lenses in there, including the 0.0mm f/0.0 which is actually a cheap-chipped Dörr 8mm f/3.5 fisheye (same as Rokinon) I’m playing with often. It’s pretty good, I don’t own useless gear. But I’ve upgraded my gear this year, so let’s see about this a year from now, I’m pretty sure it will be very different. New year, here I come.

Look at this 35mm craziness. If that’s not love, what is? Well, at least, it’s a huge 40% of my whole library. On a D7200 that’s equivalent to a 52mm focal length due to the crop ratio, which is roughly the field of view of most people. You, and everyone else, should definitely have a good old ‘normal’ prime in your photography bag. It’s cheap, lightweight and definitely worth it. I even take my prime 35mm with me when I already have my Sigma 18-35mm. Why ? Because.

All this data crunching gives me another interesting perspective: what aperture and ISO do I mostly use? It’s very interesting to see a pattern emerging from this. Just see for yourself.

The aperture usage reveals that I hardly ever use more than f/8.0, but although I use plenty of third stops, and not just the standard full stop scale, I tend to skip some of them, and over-use some others. I’ll have find out why, but my guess is, because I don’t chimp much, I don’t look at the results, and therefore do not finely adjust my depth of field – controlled by the aperture – when working my shots. I merely set what I guess-timated would give me a good result. I definitely have to work on that, so for 2016 I will start using the DOF preview function. Let’s see how this goes.

Checking out the ISO data is giving away my use of Auto-ISO in some occasions, because you get some weird ISO settings, but actually, I’m proud of this, it can be amazingly good at dealing with fast-changing light situations. But overall, I stay in low ISOs between 100 and 800, manual that is. What it also clearly exhibits is my need for higher ISO on a regular basis, I tend to shoot a lot during dinners, events, parties and so on, and I absolutely hate using a flash even in the worst of low-light situations, it just ruins it for me, so here I stand cranking up my ISO all the way up to 6400, after which I usually give up shooting. I know myself and I know I will not go for a flash any time soon. But what I could definitely do is checking out my camera’s ISO invariance, maybe I can underexpose my shots a bit to get to either lower ISOs or faster shutter speeds. It would be very interesting to see my shutter speed distribution at these high ISO (1600-6400), I’m sure I could improve there, but it’s already work in progress.

That’s it, just some quick analysis already gives me a hint towards improving my skills. But I see another point here, from these 10k shots, roughly 75% of them come from the D7200 which shutter count hit 20k last week. That means I have discarded approximately 60% of the pictures I took this year with this camera. I need to improve this drastically. I know I can get the ‘trigger-happy’ syndrome from time to time, I will fight that back. I also keep working on my ‘never take the same picture twice’ rule, but in low light, focus can be so off I prefer maximizing my chances of a good shot. But low light is not all I shoot, so let’s keep working these shots more and more, and bring this discarded ratio down for 2016. And let’s use live-view in low light more, because it uses a different – more accurate in low light – focusing method by using contrasts detection rather than phase detection. Yippee Kai Yay low light!

How about you ? What do you plan on doing next year to get these shots to the next level ? Check out your habits, and common mistakes. It’s where one starts…

MERRY CHRISTMAS !

Why processing your shots matters

Whether you print your photographs or casually share them on Instagram or Facebook, or maybe showcase them within photography communities such as 500px or Flickr, you should always – always – consider post-processing your pictures.

You can shoot with the most expensive equipment, or simply use your smartphone to freeze an instant in time, the unprocessed results will never display their full potential. Great photographs require working your shot in camera, but also off camera.

I cannot emphasise how much this will improve your photography the more you care about it. But what I can do, is show you a few examples.

I decided to take a couple of boring shots I took while going for a walk to illustrate what I mean. I stumbled upon a scene I wanted to capture, and snapped a few pictures, of which I only selected a handful that I post-processed. Here are the results.

You like what you see ? Then go get your hands dirty ! Adjust the white balance to give the picture a different atmosphere. Crop and reframe to focus on your subject. Adapt the contrast and colours relationship between the foreground and background. Push those controls to all extremes, experiment with them…

More importantly, find out what works best for you.

I was working these shots in a hurry while the swan was still cooperative, and the sun was going down quickly. (For the record, I did not feed it to get these pictures, I tend to disagree with such practices).

There is only so much you can do in the available time. Post-processing will give you some of this missing time back. And will grant you so much more.

Now, it is true, I am using some decent gear to get these shots, which might grant me a more than average flexibility in post-processing: higher pixel count, better dynamic range, high-quality lenses, etc. But – in the end – the gear doesn’t really matter.

I usually shoot while keeping in mind that I will want to maximise this flexibility. One can do so by being mindful of a couple of points:

Configure the camera for RAW format
This way, I can maximise the colour’s digital representation saved by the camera to the picture file. The RAW format will not compress nor alter the data recorded by the sensor. In post, this means I can adjust white balance and colours with tremendous freedom. JPEGs don’t allow as much. Some camera’s RAW settings can enable some compression, I use these to keep the file size under control. On my Nikon D7200, I shoot 12 bits compressed (lossy) RAWs. It still gives me more than enough data to freely post-process any kind of shot.

Shooting with a tad wider angle
If I have any doubt about my framing, I’ll take step back. I will capture a tad wider frame, which will allow me to crop later without lacking important parts. It can also save the day if I have missed some detail during the shoot, or when I might need more data for reconstructing some parts of the final image when doing heavier editing.

Check the histogram: think ‘post-processing’
This advice might seem a bit off. Everyone shoots correctly exposed pictures. Well, yes. But I need to think about what I want to post-process. Maybe I’ll be better off compensating the exposure on camera when shooting, to get better exposition of the foreground or background. This will give me great control over the exposure in post, and might save me from over or under-exposing crucial elements of my shots.

These simple steps allow me to record a maximum of details both in term of visual information, and digital information. This is extremely important for post-processing your photographs. You should always keep in mind common steps of post-processing like local exposure or contrast tuning, colour adjustments and so on…

Regarding softwares, I personally use Lightroom for 99% of my post-processing. I enjoy the whole control over the workflow, the use of catalogues, and it bundles most of what I ever need after taking the pictures off camera. But the one feature I would advise anyone to carefully consider in any software, is the non-destructive editing capability. This is an absolute must to my opinion.

By now, I hope you are strongly considering post-processing your pictures if you didn’t already. Just because you can, and because it’s going to bring you to the next level.

The following paragraphs are just some more food for thoughts which came to mind while writing this article. Enjoy!

Post-processing is gear agnostic.

I used a Nikon D7200 and a Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 to take the pictures I displayed in this article, and though it is far from being professional gear, it’s not the tight budget kind of gear either. But as I already wrote, it does not matter. I would give the exact same advice if you’re take snapshots with your smartphone.

Many smartphones feature very good camera functionalities, decent sensors, good apps with manual controls, some even can output RAW formats. So no reasons not to process your snapshots the same way you would any other photo.

Any software will do just fine.

The same way gear only contributes to more freedom for your post-processing work, there are lots of softwares out there, for all platforms, that will make your pictures look better for lots of different uses.

Some very powerful tools have become an absolute standard – such as Photoshop and Lightroom – but there is also budget-friendly counterparts to all of them – like Gimp and Darktable. Even smartphones have now very good and affordable, if not free, editing apps.

Don’t refrain yourself from using any of them. But a careful choice will make your life easier as these tools all have unique features, which you will have to weight for yourself.

They all have one point in common though: you will need to learn the tools of your trade. It does not always come easy for photography post-processing and editing. Be patient with yourself. Learn to use your software. You will improve your photography every time you learn something new.

Editing and/or Processing ?

You might have noticed I use both terms ‘Editing’ and ‘Processing’ to refer to the off-camera work I do the obtain the final picture. They usually refer to the same endeavor, but I like to distinguish them. I see Processing as working the framing and colours only, rarely altering the actual content. Whereas Editing involves heavier alterations and manipulations of the content.

I’m more the Processing kind of photographer, as my primary goal is to capture instants as they are. But it’s really up to you what you want to do with you pictures. And editing or compositing images is not only fun, it can yield great results !

The Brenezier Method (aka. Bokeh Panorama)

Not so long ago, I wrote an article on shooting and processing Panoramas where I discussed camera settings, framing and stitching together contiguous shots to produce impressive panoramic images. I also mentioned a technique involving the same process with a less conventional approach: the Brenezier method.

Originally, this method is associated with portrait photography. It is said to yield impressive portraits by mimicking the use of an extremely wide-angle while offering astonishingly shallow depth of field. Not the kind of lens everyone has lying around, but this method let’s you achieve it. And, I was wondering exactly how much shallower a depth of field – DOF from now on – I can achieve. So I gave it a go.

Unfortunately I’m out of friends or models today, so I ended up shooting still objects instead. Spoiler alerts, I find the results pretty impressive.

First I decided to shoot hand-held and just apply the same approach as when I would shoot an outdoor panorama. I mounted my trusty Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 to maximise the focal length difference, and set my camera. I took a reference shot at the widest aperture and shortest focal length (70mm @ f/2.8). And then went to the longest focal length (200mm), same aperture, exposure locked, focus locked, white balance fixed.

The reference picture 70mm @ f/2.8
The reference picture (70mm @ f/2.8)
The Brenezier shot
The Brenezier result stitching 17 shots together (200mm @ f/2.8)

Do you see the difference in the out-of-focus planes ?  I do, and it’s impressive.The front and back are completely blurred out. So I kept on testing. Here is crop of the two images above, and another comparison I shot, look at these coffee beans !

I already see some readers frowning. I am using a pretty decent lens here. This Tamron 70-200mm is a fast lens, which already gives me a shallow depth of field. And you’d be right. That’s why I dusted off my 10 years old Nikon 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 kit lens. It features decent glass but is a bit slow, and sure enough, DOF is not great. Still, look at the comparison.

It was not so noticeable before, but on this last comparison, the distortion is pretty obvious, and pretty bad. For close-ups, I’d consider limiting the number of shots I’ll be merging later, and therefore carefully choose a focal length that matches my needs.

I also chose to use a tripod for these close-up shots to make sure I wouldn’t move back and forth and compromise the merging process by moving the focus plane from one shot to another. Every macro photographer will know exactly what I mean, others will find out soon enough.

Conclusion, it’s worth the effort. The difference in DOF is mesmerizing. I had no idea the impact would be so impressive. I can’t wait to go out and try this technique on a larger scale. The best Brenezier outdoor portraits I have seen so far were aiming at a quite wide angle, probably a resulting focal length between 15 and 35mm equivalent. So that’s where I’d start.

Documenting the desertic Landscapes of Western USA

I have hinted at it with my previous articles: I was out in the deserts of the south-west USA not so long ago, and I brought my camera with me. Although I have to admit photography was not the primary purpose of the trip, I must say, it was such a great joy for me to document the amazing landscapes and locations I discovered there. It was worth every extra second spent framing my shots, every extra pound/kilogram of gear I was carrying around in the heat of the deserts. I learned – or rediscovered the meaning of – a few good lessons about photography, how to plan ahead, thinking about what you want to achieve and what you need to achieve it. And above all else, I improved my photography with every frame.

I came back with a myriad of pictures, from which I had a very hard time selecting a few I’d like to share with you. But, selection is almost as important as framing. I truly hope the following 20 pictures will resonate with the photographer hidden within you.

A few thoughts about the lessons learned

I had to travel extremely light on some of the trails I hiked. The obvious priority should always be water and food. But first and foremost, you need to enjoy yourself! I was not on any kind of photo-assignment, I used photography merely to document my journey. Every choice I made was to favour the experience, not just the pictures. Of course, I could carry around all the gear I referred to in my Preparation for travel article, but the added weight would make the whole experience much less entertaining. So I decided to stick to one camera body and one lens, leaving the rest in the trunk of the car. This is already a good trade-of between picture quality and self-enjoyment, considering I could simply use my smartphone. Plus, if anything happened to the gear, I would only lose one day at most, and get some replacement form the trunk of the car when I’d get back. Had I been on a trail for days, I might have thought otherwise.

I’d also like to point out a very simple – and very easy to overcome –  mistake. When you hike, you look ahead, straight in front of you, scanning the ground for any kind of obstacle. A photographer should do the exact opposite! Look everywhere. Change you point-of-view. Turn around. Go back and forth. Don’t go for the easy path – avoiding putting yourself in a perilous situation, that is – and think in term of framing: what you can cram into the frame, what you should and shouldn’t cram in there, how you want to frame it or from where you will be shooting ? Lots of consideration to keep your mind busy. Maybe too much to hike on a cliff at the same time ? Well, simply take a break! Pause for a few seconds and look around.

One last point, documenting an already long-lasting hike is going to take you even more time than you think, so you’d better plan for it ! I was significantly slower than the friends I was hiking with – by stopping every once in a while – and it was sometimes a painful effort to catch up with them after working a shot for too long. But hey, it was worth it !

Thoughts on shooting and processing panoramas

During my most recent trip to the USA, I came across landscapes I could only dream of, stretching for miles and miles over in every direction. I also came across the very difficult reality of using a DSLR with a cropped sensor like my Nikon D7200, the crop factor. Which makes it difficult to capture images with a real wide-angle (apart from owning a fisheye lens).

Nikon’s cropped sensor (called APS-C sensors) have a 1.5 crop-ratio (most Canon DSLRs use APS-C sensor with a ratio of 1.6). It’s essentially 1.5 time smaller than a 35mm film, which is the standard for rating lenses’ focal length. That means that despite walking around with a 18mm lens, which you’d consider wide, the actual angle ‘seen’ by the sensor is 27mm (1.5 x 18). Not so wide anymore right ? Well, it’s nothing you can’t work around. That’s why knowing how to capture multiple shots to compose a panorama will give you more flexibility.

Or maybe you’ll leave your gear in the car, and just bring your camera with a 35mm prime lens. Just like I did.

DSC_2679
Looking at the famous Horseshoe Bend in Arizona through a 35mm lens (+ APS-C crop) is not thrilling. Rookie mistake.

Or… You just might be preparing for a huge print, for which you’ll need a higher pixel count that what your camera can handle.

Personally, I use the techniques I’ll describe here when I want to play with depth compression. Depth compression is the effect a zoom lens produces on the apparent distance between two subjects on different planes. You can compress the distances to make far-away subjects appear closer by zooming in. But using a longer focal length might be preventing you from cramming all your subjects into the frame. So I shoot panoramas all the time.

Fortunately, merging multiple pictures into one final frame is a standard feature included in most post-production tools. Lately, I use Lightroom, and it has been merging my pictures nicely every time. I used to do it in Photoshop. And, it’s essentially the same process with any other software.

DSC_2397-Pano
Sometime, a panorama simply is the best way to capture what lies in front of you.

The tough part – and the one you need to master – is taking the pictures. Because you need to take a few precautions in-camera for the merging process to be successful.

Setting your camera correctly

The secret to successfully merging panoramas is to lock your camera settings so every frame is consistent with the group you plan to merge. That means that the exposure, the colours and the framing are absolutely identical in every shot. In more details, it means locking the shutter speed, the aperture, the ISO and the white balance but also the focus and the focal length throughout the whole framing process.

For that, well, you need to know your camera. Some cameras will have special functions to lock the focus and the aperture. My Nikon, for example, has an AE-L / AF-L button which locks exposure, white balance and focus, I anyway set my white balance manually and I make certain I do not touch the zoom and/or focus rings on the lens while framing. As long as I hold this button, the camera will not recalculate a correct exposure. A lot of cameras have user-assigned buttons, so check your manual, you can most likely assign A/E locks to it.

If you don’t have such functionality (either a button or a special mode), you can always set you camera to full manual mode. You can shoot one frame in your preferred priority mode to get a camera reading, and apply/tweak it to the manual mode.

In both cases, the exposure and focus need to be a conscious choice, it needs to match the most important part of your to-be-merged series of pictures. In my case I frame the most appealing part of my panorama, in aperture priority, I set my aperture to my liking for the depth of field, and half-press the trigger so the camera calculates the correct exposure. At that point, I can press the Exposure / Focus lock. And I’m ready to start.

Framing your shots

Shooting the pictures in a correct order is good practice. Both for you (when you look for this series lost in the hundreds of other pictures) and for the software which will try to merge them (and might have a preference for ordered pictures).

The way you frame your pictures will also impact the final result. First, you need a decent amount of overlap from one picture to its neighbours. Most commonly, 1/3 of overlap is a safe bet. Just keep in mind what you aim for, and think twice. If you plan on merging horizontal and vertical series together, a picture which has neighbours on all four sides will only hold 1/9th of unique information.

Also, keep in mind the merging process might distort the edges and corners a lot. So when you will be cropping to the final frame, you might be missing some crucial details in the periphery. I had this unfortunate experience with the following shot, where I did not get enough data for the top right corner, so I couldn’t get the final framing I was aiming at when cropping. I roughly have the same margin between the river and both sides, so it was conscious, but clearly, I missed my composition by skipping the cliffs surrounding the frame.

DSC_2695-Pano

When it comes to shooting for panoramas, I shoot hand-held. I never used a tripod when daylight is available. And in the desert, light was more than available. Now, my camera has a good ISO response, so I can crank it up quite a bit if needed. But if you know you are in a situation where you might reach some camera limitation, get a stable mount. If only one shot gets some blur from camera shake, your panorama will be compromised.

Merging multiple frames with Lightroom

Before going through the process itself, keeping post-processing in mind when shooting has some perks. If you shoot 20 pictures, in raw format, and plan on merging them on a laptop with limited resources, you might have some troubles handling that amount of data.

Now that you got your photos imported in Lightroom, merging is easy, simply select your shots all at once, go to the Photo > Photo Merge menu and select Panorama. Lightroom will then work on a preview. This is all there is to it, once the preview is done, and fits to what you expect, you are almost there. The auto-selection of the projection mode can be overwritten if you had something else in mind, just preview the modes and select the one you like better.

At this stage, I would strongly advise you to deselect the auto-cropping functionality. The auto crop will try its best to give you the most effective rectangular crop to maximize the image surface. But it does not know your subject. Plus, sometimes the merge tilts and shifts the final result.

DSC_9990-Pano
I cropped out a lot of sky and sea here, it was just flooding the picture with emptiness.

Cropping is the most crucial point after merging, so play with it. Deselect the constraints on the image ratio, and work your frame. Maybe you already have a frame in mind, maybe it already is the best option, maybe not. If you plan on printing the picture to frame it on a wall, know the ratio/dimensions you should use.

The Brenizer method: panoramas for portraits

Yes, your read correctly, why would one apply this panorama processing to take a portrait ? Well, multiple reason actually. Depth compression is one of them, it will soften the subject’s body and face, which always looks great for portraits. And it has one more effect, and a major one at that ! It will mimic a shallower depth of field. Whether you have a fast lens or not, you cannot complain any longer about the slow aperture, and the lack of out-of-focus background.

I yet have to try this technique in real life. But I would already recommend using a tripod. I’d use a lens with little distortion and probably with a focal length above 70mm. I have been hearing and reading it is a very difficult technique to master, but the results are absolutely gorgeous. Well, at least, if your subject can stand still while you take all those pictures. For the best results, zoom in, and take more pictures. I’d start with some 3-by-3 panoramas, and try to go slowly to a 5-by-5.

Managing memory on the road

I am just back from a long trip to the US, and I must say, memory has been a concern all along. I do my best to manage my shooting frenzy with some simple rules. But it’s never enough.

Even though I was being careful, I came back with thousands of pictures. My back-up flow is not optimised for the road. But it works, and it’s keeping my pictures safe digitally, and physically. Here are a few insights I brought back. And a snapshot of some upcoming article:

Upcoming article on multiple shots panoramas.
Upcoming article on multiple shots panoramas.

Managing your shooting

On the road, I have a few simple rules I follow to limit my tendency to fill-up my memory cards.

Rule #1 – Don’t take the same picture twice.
Rule #2 – Frame carefully before you release the shutter.

Rule #1 seems obvious, but you’ll see how difficult it is to refrain yourself from doing so. Did you get the exposure right? Do you know you have sometimes focusing issues? Know your camera, and its limitations (I’d add, conscious and reasonable bracketing is the only reason to divert from #1). If you followed the second rule, you should not need to break the first one. Rule #2 is about framing with your viewfinder, look at the corners, identify your subject, move it into position, adjust the composition, think about the depth of field, and all that BEFORE you release the shutter.

Personally, I never delete pictures directly on the camera. If I took it, it’s for a reason, and I’ll wait to see the details on a computer screen to decide whether to keep it or not.

Managing your memory

This trip was the longest I documented while being constantly on the road. And I had virtually no time to prepare for it (I know, that’s on me). I only packed four SD cards of 32GB each, thinking I would just buy new ones when they fill-up. I knew it wasn’t much storage for raw format, but it was what I had on hand, and it would give me a good 3000 pictures before I would need to buy new ones.

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Know how to identify your cards, locked are keepers, unlock are ready for formatting.

On some recent DSLRs, you have two memory card slots available. I always configure my camera to copy the same raw file to both cards. This way, I have two copies of every shot, at all times. I know, the chances of a failing SD cards is close to none, but I feel more comfortable that way.

When they are full, I lock them both, and store them away until I unload one to a portable hard drive before reformatting it in-camera. Which then leaves me with two copies still!

Of course, it did not really go as planned. And I found a few flaws in my flow.

Flaw #1 – I did not think I would have so much trouble finding the time/place to unload the cards onto the portable hard drive. But it happened. I almost faced the issue of having no memory card left. And I was lucky I did not have to drive, so I could focus on transferring the pictures while on the road.

Hint – I use Lightroom, and I don’t convert the pictures to DNG format while relying on battery power. I always do it later.

Flaw #2 – Lack of preparation. I was burning SD cards like crazy. Every 1000 pictures, I was locking one away for the rest of the trip. Not all 1000 pictures were keepers of course, but I still keep a copy of every picture. I had to buy new cards fast. But once in the desert, finding SD cards is not a trivial task.

Next time, I’ll be better prepared, I’ll check where I’m sleeping, where I can find more than tiny convenience stores or gas stations. Basically, listing what I might need, and where I might get it. If I need it before even starting, then I’ll get it before too. But I need to rethink my flow. It works like a charm when I’m coming home every day, but on the road…

Flaw #3 – One back-up flow for all situation is not working out too well.

Conclusion

Basically, this flow will ‘work’. I would just need more preparation, and more SD cards to begin with! If I was planning the trip, I would make sure of a few things:

Check #1 – I’m not leaving with missing gear.
Check #2 – I’m planning enough time to transfer/pre-sort the pictures regularly.
Check #3 – I’ll be able to charge my gear (camera + laptop) regularly.

If it’s a trip I have no control over, well, I would learn from my experience and change my flow accordingly.

If I had to do it again, I’d change a few things on top of being better prepared. First of all, I would not save raw copies to both SD cards. I would configure one slot to receive a raw copy, and the second slot to store fine JPEGs only. I would unload the raw files to the hard drive, and I would keep filling up the second SD card. I would only store the JPEG copies for the duration of the trip on SD cards. That way, I wouldn’t burn so many of them. I would also force myself to back-up the RAW files more regularly, whenever possible.

Preparation for travel

Preparing for a long trip can get some people nervous. Some might start packing days in advance, crossing a myriad of items off of a long list. I’m not that kind of guy, no need to plan ahead, I’ll simply take the minimum, and see what happens.

Although, there is one thing I will cross-check ten times: my camera bag. I can deal with buying a new toothbrush, but not a new lens, or a new battery charger (especially not in a small village in Poland, or in the deserts of the Far West). Plus, camera gear gets pretty heavy, so every decision is going to bring me great joy, or cost me great pain. However you travel – planes, public transport or by car – bring too much or too less and you will regret it.

I don’t write this article to be a guide of any sort. It is – in the end – completely up to you to choose what to bring and what not. But I would like to share the packing process and the reasons behind it.

Mainly, I’ll pack a camera body, a few lenses and the absolute minimum accessories I can fit in one small camera bag.

I’m leaving for a four weeks trip split between Poland and some south-western states in the USA. These are some pretty drastic changes in weather condition. But the thinking is the same.

“Select what you think you’ll need, and within that selection, remove what you won’t use every day.”

So I’ll pack the following gear:

Nikon D7200 – One body for obvious reasons. Not two bodies, because I have neither the second body, nor the space. If I have some serious camera issue, I’ll buy an entry-level camera on site.

Nikon AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8 – One ultra-light lens for when I’ll need a lightweight backpack (like for hiking in the desert).

Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 – An absolutely great walk-around lens.

Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 – A great telephoto lens for street photography and portraits. It will also be great for wildlife and panoramas (using longer focal length for its depth compression).

And the following accessories:

A set of batteries – One is never enough. I don’t always go past the first battery before finding a place to charge it, but when I do, the second is a must. I know I can easily shoot 2000 pictures on one battery, so know your habits. And plan where you’ll have access to power.

A bunch of SD Cards – This is for me the limiting factor, I can store 1200 pictures on a 32GB SD card. That’s one day of heavy shooting, but not seldom. Without going into details, I always keep 2 copies of a picture at any given time. I use the 2 SD slots from the D7200 in parallel. Then transfer the pictures on one external drive, and write-protect one SD card which I keep locked during the whole trip. After transferring the pictures, I can re-format the second SD card. That method needs a lot of cards, but it’s worth not loosing your pictures.

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Note how some are locked. I can know in the blink of an eye witch one to use.

An external hard drive – for transferring the pictures on the go.

A light laptop (not in the picture) – For preparing the trip, downloading the pictures, pre-sorting them, sometimes post-process the pictures on the go.

Charging gear including charger and local adapters.

Some simple cleaning kit: a blower in case some heavy dust gets onto the sensor, and some glass-cleaning towels for lens maintenance.

That’s it ! Nothing more. I could technically kick out the Nikon 35mm, but I love it, and it’s so small and light that I decided to go against the “no focal-length overlapping” rule.

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Everything is fitting in the inner camera bag. Except for the 35mm.

Everything is fitting perfectly in my tiny camera bag and the weight is bearable. I hope this will help you enjoy your next trip by selecting the gear you need, and save you unnecessary efforts.