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What I’d want for Christmas (if I didn’t have two)

A long time ago, I thought that as long as you had a fast enough shutter speed, your photos would be fine and sharp, and look great.  If your lens had image stabilisation (IS), then you couldn’t possibly go wrong!  Then, I actually started looking at my photos.  How many times have you looked at the back of your camera and thought, “Ooooh, that looks good”, then got home and full size it’s more like, “Oh, not so great.”?  It happens to everyone, it’s (one reason) why we take so many of the same shot, but it needn’t be as common as you’re currently getting.  The biggest step change in my photography was buying a tripod.  Actually, no, the biggest change was using a tripod (it doesn’t work in the same way as having lots of books in your house makes you smart without actually reading them).  Automatic built in flash is also not your friend.  As pretty as it looks at a concert where all those camera flashes are going off, those people all go home with photos of brightly lit backs of heads, a lot of darkness and a very blurry something going on in the distance (okay, if you know how to use the camera you can get a bit better than that).  My advice is, put the camera away and enjoy the show.  I’m definitely not suggesting you take a tripod to a concert.

Interior illumination of the Palm House at Kew

2.5s, f/4.0, ISO1600

If you enjoy photography, then taking a little time over your photos is going to make you happy, I promise.  If you like to have a basic record of what you did that day, and you’re not so bothered about the details, then a tripod probably isn’t for you.  The Christmas at Kew event is stunning.  Sadly, I’m not paid to say that (65 of you reading this, surely that must be a week’s groceries in sponsorship!), but I’ll recommend it anyway.
This photo of the palm house is, hopefully obviously, taken on a tripod.  As the light was continually changing, I needed a reasonable exposure time, less than about 5 seconds, but didn’t want to push the ISO beyond 1600 (maybe I’ll talk about noise next time).  So, I had to keep an open aperture and go for a faster film speed.  Good saturation of colours without it just being a big blob of light, I hope.  Most cameras now have ‘live view’, showing what you have framed on the view-screen.  Some further allow you to zoom in on a part of that display (without changing the framing of your photo).  I use that to get the exact point of the photo I want in the best focus I can get.  If you’re really going for it, then SLR cameras (non-SLR cameras don’t have this ‘problem’) will have a setting in a menu somewhere to “Lock mirror up”, which means that, rather than move the mirror, take the photo and put the mirror back all in one go (so, technically, possibly introducing vibration movement), it will move the mirror on your first press of the shutter button, and take the photo on the second.  If you’re not using a remote shutter release, then use the timer, obviously (winter photos are much nicer when you can keep your hands in your pockets).

long exposure of Alberta Falls in Colorado

1.3s, f/8.0, ISO400

This final picture is taken with my favourite filter, an ND10.  It just looks like a black piece of glass (the filter, not the photo), and blocks light to make the required exposure 10 stops longer to get the same result as you’d get without it. That can take a photo down from and exposure of about 1/1000th of a second, to a little over a second.  I’m a sucker for a slow shutter waterfall, and this one was no exception, taken on a bright, sunny Autumn day in Estes Park in Colorado.  I could play around at waterfalls for hours, but on this occasion we were making our way elsewhere, and we had come equipped only with a bag of jelly apple rings, so energy reserves were on a tight budget, and we had to plough on as fast as we could.  If you’re visiting Estes Park, you have to do the Sky Pond trail, but it’s going to take you 6 hours, not 2.  Ignore the woman in the YMCA information centre, she hasn’t got a bloody clue!  And maybe take two packets of jelly apple rings, or even, like, some proper food.  Oh, and a tripod.