How to Shoot (and Stay Sane)

{From Marisa: Woo, hoo, my first ever guest post – and it’s a great one!  Enjoy!}

Well hello from the upper midwest! Some of you might know me as Pink Heli or Mary Jane, but I’ve recently moved my blog. And with a new blog location comes a new name. From now on you can call me Nodakademic. And today, Marisa has graciously invited me to write a guest post (in the form of a photography-brain-dump) for y’all! Of course, I am extremely excited to be here. She’s one of my favorite bloggers, after all! (And I get to pimp my own blog too! Check it out.)

Since she and I have been conversing about photography ever since she bought her big-girl camera, I think I’ll use an ‘interview’ format to write this post. Shall we get started?

What do you shoot with?

Mr. N and I have a wide range of gear.

This might surprise people, but I most commonly shoot with my Canon Powershot SD100 IS (Digital Elph) or my SD300 (an older version of the same camera). Mr. N also has an SD1100 (his is blue, mine’s brown), and we have a Ricoh Caplio R7 – another point-and-shoot camera. (Yes, we own 4 point-and-shoot cameras. But three of them were bought used on eBay.) I use my point-and-shoot cameras a lot because they are so compact. And (compared to a multi-thousand-dollar dSLR setup) they are somewhat disposable. I can get paint thinner and carpet glue on a $75 camera, know what I mean?

If you shoot with a small point-and-shoot camera, much of the stuff in this post will apply to you, so don’t be discouraged. I firmly believe that it’s at least 80% skill, 20% equipment. Maybe even 90/10.

Moving on though, we do also have a decent range of dSLR gear. Namely: two bodies, and five lenses. They are:

  • Olympus E-500 body, purchased about 3 years ago.
  • Olympus E-510 body, purchased about 2.5 years ago.
  • Lens: 50 mm f2.0
  • Lens: 50-200 mm f2.8
  • Lens: 12-60 mm f2.8
  • Lens: 14-45 mm f3.5 (Kit lens*)
  • Lens: 40-150 mm f4.0 (Kit lens*)

We also have two off camera strobes (flashes) with wireless firing capability, plus an umbrella for one of the flashes and a couple of tripods. We bought this lighting stuff to shoot a wedding last year, and it was a great investment. Lighting is a crazy science, but it can be pretty fun! Websites like Strobist are the bomb.

*We started out with the two lenses I labeled ‘kit lenses’. If you can swing a few extra bucks, I don’t recommend buying the kits (unless it is a stellar deal of course). Just buy the body, and invest the extra money in good glass.

I’m not sure how to go about not-sucking, except to take a bunch of pics. Did you take a class? And do you find photo challenges (e.g. 365 days) helpful?

I haven’t taken any classes that really helped me. Mr. N and I did take one class at our college two years ago called “Intro to Digital Photography”. They talked a lot about framing a shot well, f-stops, aperture, basic camera understanding and all that. But by that time, we already knew those terms and framing “rules,” so the class didn’t help much in our case. Something like that would have been very helpful if I had taken it say… 2 or 3 years earlier. So for a true beginner, a class of that sort would really help you hit the ground running. The assignments were basically ‘go out and take pics of ______’. Then in class, the teacher would look at them and make suggestions. Personally, I have been a shutterbug for years and just can’t stop taking photos. I then look at the photos and see what looks good and what doesn’t. If you do this, after a while you will start to recognize what you tend to do WRONG in photos.

I would say that the photo challenges are helpful, depending on how much effort you put in to it. If you just snap photos, that’s OK. But actually trying to capture a specific shot, and making the lighting, in-camera and scenic adjustments to make your ‘vision’ happen are what really ups your skill level. That’s how you pick up photography-gospel, like “Don’t shoot into the sun,” or “Avoid mixed types of lighting if possible.”

Do you have any tips for photo-takers?

My biggest tips for framing are:

  • Pay attention to horizons. It seriously makes a difference. Horizons should be parallel to the top of the picture, unless you’re doing something artsy on purpose.
  • If there are lines or things cutting through your picture. You should try to work with them instead of ignoring them. Most people ignore them. (I.E. power lines, roads, rivers, trees). Find ways to make them work with the subject or draw the eye to it.
  • Rule of thirds. Follow it. Your camera might even have grid-lines you can set to show up in your viewfinder.
  • When something is facing a certain way, put more space toward its front than its back. (I.e. cars generally should be driving INTO the picture, not out of the picture. Same with dogs, people, etc.) Otherwise, it tends to look like you were not quick enough to get your camera ready before the subject started walking out of your picture.
  • When shooting a subject, pay attention to what else is in the picture. If possible, don’t cut off feet or tree trunks or car tires unless that’s part of your framing plan. Try to begin and end your pictures in purposeful ways, making active decisions on what is or is not in the photo.

This site is a great resource: Digital Photography School.
Check out their composition tips in particular.

You can also find a lot of inspiration by simply looking at the types of photos you would like to aspire to take. One blog I enjoy reading (though the photos are often heartbreaking) is the Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog. For people-inspiration, I’ve been known to check out our wedding photographer, Shawna Noel’s blog. Flickr is a great resource too: there are groups for about anything you can imagine. Some are camera- or lens-specific, others are subject-specific, and still others are format-specific (e.g. black & white, square crops, fish-eye).

Snapping pictures is fun, but then there comes a time when you have to, um, do something with them. Which brings us to…

How do you handle your digital storage and post-processing workflow?

I have a folder on my desktop called “Unedited Pix”. I copy the photos from the memory cards into subfolders there and try to label them somewhat specifically. (I.e. “sunroom May 5” and “san diego.”) Then I get to them when I can.

I open the photos in Preview (free Mac software and I sort the crappy/blurry ones out). Then, I do all of my editing using either Photoshop CS3 or Lightroom. Lightroom is wonderful for editing the coloring and brightness of photos that were shot in RAW format. However, I still have to make actual corrections to specific things in the photo using Photoshop. (Like cropping a photo, or removing a blemish on someone’s face.)

When I’m done with editing the photos, I save them by Year/Month/Event in folders. If there was no specific event, they just go in the month folder. So in my pictures folder right now, I have:
>>Backyard [folder with more pix inside]
>>Sunroom Project [folder with more pix inside]
>>randomphotoofthecat.jpg [random photo from May]
>>jeremysbirthdaycake.jpg [random photo from May]

See what I mean? This works for me because I am the type of person who will usually remember *when* something happened even if I can’t remember what exactly that something was. You should organize your photos by what kind of memory you have or what’s important to you. For example, I know someone else who organizes his by event only (e.g. Trip to New York City, Joe’s 50th Birthday, Julie’s Graduation, etc.). He does it that way because he tends to remember *what* happened, but not when. Different strokes for different folks.

I keep photos from the past year on my laptop. The rest, I store on Mr. N’s basement server/storage computer, which I can access remotely. You could accomplish the same with an external hard drive, which have become very affordable (I think: $50 for 250 GB). I used to burn my photos on DVDs so that I’d have two copies, but I have been lazy about it for a couple of years now. Let’s all say a prayer that nothing happens to that server.

Now… what about travel? What do you bring with you?
The short answer is: as much as we are allowed to carry.

We bring our point-and-shoot cameras of course, and about 8 or 10 GB of memory cards for those. We also bring all of the batteries (we have at least one extra per camera) and a charger for each.

As far as the big gear, it’s tough. It’s also becoming harder and harder to travel (by air) with a lot of carry-on luggage. We have two decently-sized camera bags, so by carrying those on we basically forfeit the right to carry anything else on (i.e. laptop, essentials). Most airline regs allow for 1 personal item (think: purse, briefcase, laptop bag or camera bag) and 1 carry-on luggage bag. Most of the TSA agents don’t like it when I try to carry on a laptop bag AND a camera bag — even if I have no other carry-on luggage. It’s dumb. But back to the point.

We have not decided what we’ll bring on our fast-approaching Jamaica trip. I’m sure we won’t bring all of our lenses. We will probably end up bringing both bodies, three lenses, and one strobe (off-camera flash). Or maybe we’ll truly travel light, and not bring any dSLR gear at all. I worry we’ll regret that though, so I’m not sure. When we went to Orcas Island back in March, we tried to travel light (we brought one camera body, not two), and it was a bit disappointing because when we shoot, we like to shoot together. When we travel by car we’re not space-limited. In those cases, we bring everything but the lighting umbrella and its stand. We always bring all of our memory cards (which currently total 22 GB of storage, I think).

Thanks so much for taking the time to ‘listen’ to me as  I ramble about photography! And if you’re interested, please come check out It’s my personal blog where I discuss such important things as home improvement, graduate school, and life in the 48th-least-populous state. I also post some pretty pictures from time to time!

Love, The Nodakademic


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