Friday, September 30, 2011

Photography basics- 1

So far I have been resisting to write this as I don't consider myself to be having enough knowledge to write even a basic article on photography. But then thought there is nothing wrong in putting what I know which might be useful for few people. It will also serve as a note for myself in case I need to refresh it in the future and someone more knowledgeable might correct my mistakes. So, this is more about summarizing what I know about photography from different sources that I have referred.

I consider good photography as having 3 distinct elements.
1. photography equipments
2. photographic mind
3. understanding of post processing tools

The first one is a religious  topic. I can probably find an answer to the 'best language between Java and C++', but I am sure I can't find an answer to 'the best photographic equipment'. There are a lots of camera brands like Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Leica, Olympus etc. All of them have their own mark in the photography industry. Majority of the camera market is dominated by Canon and Nikon. But the rest of them also have very good cameras and able to play in this market so far with their unique offerings. So instead of talking about the brands, I will try to concentrate on other basic things.

All cameras can be broadly classified under 4 types.
1. Point and shoot or compact camera
2. Entry level DSLR
3. Mid range DSLR and 
4. Pro DSLR

Main difference between a compact camera and DSLR is that you can change the lens in DSLR. DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex, which basically stands for the working principle of those cameras. The light coming through the lens falls on a mirror which sits just in-front of the sensor(equivalent of old film) and reflects that light upwards(90°), which will be shown via the optical view finder. While taking the photo, that mirror assembly goes upwards exposing the sensor to the light, thereby capturing the image.
The DSLR - Not working
DSLR operation (source:chucol)

There is another kind of camera called mirror-less interchangeable lens camera which looks very similar to DSLR, but in a smaller size. This doesn't work like DSLR's, Instead of moving the mirror element they adopt another element which redirects a part of the light to the electronic view finder. They are in between compact camera and DSLR which allows you to change the lens, but lighter in size compared to DSLR. Still, they can be  treated same as DSLR and falls in one of the  three categories. No company has yet announced a Pro mirror less interchangeable camera, but it may not be too long to see one. So here onwards when I say DSLR, its a broad category of cameras which allows you to change the lens.
Entry level and Mid range cameras are mainly differed by its price, features and image quality. Pro DSLR's are more costlier and often has a full frame sensor. Full frame sensor makes the camera equivalent to older film cameras. They give the same angle of view as in a film camera for any lens, whereas most of the other DSLRs uses APS-C sensor which is much smaller compared to the full frame. In general they have a crop factor of 1.6, which means a 10mm lens on a full frame camera is equivalent to 16mm on APS-C sensor camera. In other words, Pro cameras gives you a large angle of view covering a larger area for the same lens compared to other cameras. In compact cameras the sensor size is generally even smaller.

In DSLR world, the lens also has a major weight. Probably it is considered more important than the camera body as they last longer and changes in lens technology is lot less compared to camera body. There are different categories of lenses. 
1. Prime lenses
2. Zoom lenses

This category is made based on the lens focal length. In ordinary language, focal length of a camera decides the angle of view of the subject. Lower the focal length, you get a broader view and higher the focal length your view gets restricted, but the range/magnification(how far you can see) increases. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length where as zoom lenses have a range of focal length. If you are having a zoom lens, you can change the zoom level which changes the focal length internally to change your angle of view or to get a closer view of the subject. But if you have a prime lens, you have to move yourself to achieve the same. So, why buy the primes lenses? Because zoom lenses are harder to make and therefore expensive. Also the sharpness and image quality of a prime lens is always better compared to zoom lens.

The other classification is based on the usage
1. Wide angle lenses
2. Normal zoom lense
3. Telephoto lenses
4. Macro lenses

Wide angle lenses have a focal length range of around 8mm-21mm. Anything lesser than 21mm is considered as wide angle (for APS-C sensor) in general, which is around 35mm for the full frame camera. They are generally used for landscape photography. Another use is in real estate where you have to cover the entire room showing it as having a lot of space to fool the customers. Normal zoom range is between 35mm-105mm, which is generally used for street photography. Telephoto lenses are generally used for wild life photography, bird photography and sports. They generally have a longer range between 105mm-300mm or even higher. Sometimes they are also called as Macro as they provide decent subject magnification and can be used for photographing flowers. Macro lenses are generally prime lenses which provides 1:1 image magnification and allows close focussing of the subjects. They are used for flower, insect photography and also for portrait photography sometimes. 50mm Macro lens is good for flowers but you would need 100mm macro for insects and other moving subjects which needs to be focussed with some distance. Otherwise they might get distracted and move making it difficult to shoot.
Most of the kit lenses come with 18-55mm or little longer than that, which covers a short wide angle and normal zoom range. There are lenses with long zoom range like 18-250. But they are generally considered as inferior image quality compared to lenses having a short zoom range. But it mainly depends upon the lens and may not be true for all the lenses.

Apart from the camera and lens, it is also very important to have a tripod and a cleaning kit. And the addition of an external flash probably completes all the basic needs of an amateur photographer.

Having good equipment is just one part of the photography which you can buy by spending some money. But the more important thing is knowing what to shoot and how to shoot. This is more of an art than understanding the technology. There are a lot of established rules which might simplify the process of knowing how to shoot. But there is one rule above all these rules which says 'there are no rules in  photography'. That needs a pure artistic mind to see things differently than others and capture the same. People have taken photographs even 60 years back which are still considered the best. The technology at that time was no where compared to the current one, but not the photos taken at that time. That suggests, you really don't need a high end camera to take good photos. The photos taken by a DSLR need not be better compared to the one taken from a point and shoot camera. Good equipment definitely adds a lot of weight, but it is not the equipment alone that decides a photo.

Finally, it is very important to give a final touch to the photos you have captured before sharing it with others. In the film camera age, people are more careful before clicking a photo as the camera reel and the development used to cost a lot. Taking a photo with digital camera doesn't cost anything, but the people may not be interested in seeing each and every photo that you have clicked. So it is good to select only those distinct photos, make minor adjustments like cropping unwanted areas, changing the contrast, brightness where required. Adding a border might also make the photos look better. There are a lots of free tools to do these basic editing like picasa, picnic, f-spot etc. If you are looking for advanced editing, photoshop and GIMP are the best options. While photoshop is a paid software, GIMP is a free application available for both windows and Linux. The learning curve for GIMP is said to be high compared to Photoshop, but its free and allows almost everything that is possible using Photoshop.

In my next article I will try to cover what are the main things that you need to know in your camera instead of keeping the camera in auto mode, making your camera decide everything about the photo.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Snowdonia - North Wales

Generally I used to do some research about the places before going for vacation, but this time there wasn’t much time. Also there wasn’t any organized information about things to do at Snowdonia. So, just looked at 2-3 important attractions and took a print out of the same. Picked up Hebbar and Pooja on Friday night itself so as to save some time on Saturday.
Unlike my usual routine, got up very very early at 7:00AM and got myself ready by 7:30. As usual others were late and we left our home at 8:00 for a long drive to North Wales. We have booked our rooms in hotel Esplanade at Llandudno, just infront of the beach. The drive was easy on M40 till Bermingham, but after that it was slow due to some accidents in M6. We took the normal motorway route of M40->M6->M56 and then A55 which was quite scenic. We reached our hotel at 2:00PM, the hotel was far below our expectation with all old carpets and cots reminding few hotels at Majestic. The TV was half the size of my laptop! Just consoled ourself saying that is what we can expect for what we have paid :(
On first day we wanted to cover the cable car in Llandudno, that was the only thing we have heard about that place. It was quite close to our hotel, so we went there by walk, I wasn’t sure we will get our parking space back if we take our car out. We walked till the cable car only to find that they have closed it due to ‘bad’ weather. The weather was very nice, but it was very windy. The entire place was called Great Orme and the eastern side was called as Happy Valley. It is a listed public park and was dedicated to the town of Llandudno by Lord Mostyn in 1887 in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The Llandudno pier and beach was a spectacular view from Happy Valley in that weather.

Llandudno Pier and beach
We spent close to an hour there just watching the sea, pier and the beach. As the cable car was closed we decided to climb the hill, the higher we climbed more beautiful the sceneries were.

View from one of the Great Orme points

Wind mills in action

beach view from Great Orme
With some resistance we followed Hebbar to Great Orme summit to see its other end. It gave nice opportunity to shoot some sunset photos, but we decided to comeback next day by car for the full sunset as it was getting late and we still had one hour to climb down.

View from Great Orme

It took close to one hour as expected to climb down and then we went straight to a Bengali restaurant to have some food.
We got up early on second day as well and headed to straight to Llanberis to see Snowdon after having not so good breakfast at the hotel. Very close to Snowdon mountain railway, we saw a beautiful spot on the left hand side and stopped there for 30 minutes.

Lake Llyn Peris in Llanberis
After that we rushed to get our tickets for the mountain train, but the tickets were available only for 5:00PM in the evening. We weren’t aware that Snowdon mountain train will be so crowded. Hiking wasn’t an option as it takes more than 7 hours and we also wanted to cover some other places. So we took the tickets for 5:00PM train and headed towards electric mountain which is just 2 minutes walk from there. We bought the 12:00 noon tickets for the electric mountain and waited for our guide while the girls went for window shopping.
The tour started with a 7 minutes video about electric mountain followed by a guided site visit. The electric mountain is the hydro electric plant generating upto 12MW power which can serve the entire Wales. The power is added to the national grid and generally used as an emergency service where the demand is high during the day time. It is quite different from other hydro electric plants because it is a pumped hydro electric plant. There are two reservoirs with a hight difference of nearly 600 meters. The water is pumped to upper reservoir during night time where electricity is cheap and the same water is used to generate the electricity at day time when demand and price is high. The site works at an efficiency of 76% meaning it only generates 76% of the power used to pump the water to upper reservoir. It took a long time for me to understand why do they even do it if it is going to waste the energy. Apparently electricity can not be stored without converting it to some other form! And nuclear and thermal plants only generate electricity at a constant rate and most of the electricity generated at night time is not of much use as the demand is very low during night time. So they sell it at cheap rate during night which is used by these kind of plants. Hebbar suggested an easy idea used by Indians to cut the power for some villages when there is high demand instead of wasting so much energy. Don’t think they really heard him, so you will get to see the plant even when you go there next year.
After the electric mountain visit we had to follow Hebbar again to utilize 2 more hours before going for mountain rail. So we went to a viewpoint around 8 miles from electric mountain where lots of people were hiking. We also followed them for an hour but had to return as we were getting late for the mountain rail. The views from that place were also very nice.
We took the mountain rail at 5:00PM. It took 45 minutes to reach the summit. The views were spectacular till 70% of the peak and after that visibility reduced and the entire place was covered with fog. It reminded me of mullayaanagiri and bababudan giri in chikkamagaluru.

View from Snowdon

We spent 30 minutes in the summit and then took the steam train back to the base.
After that we went back to Llandudno for a marine drive to see the sunset we missed previous day. We reached the point just about the time to see the beautiful sunset.

sunset from great orme marine drive

We went back to our hotel after that and went for another Indian restaurant for dinner.
Got up early again on third day and cleared the hotel bills by 8:30AM. After breakfast we headed towards Conwy castle. We reached the castle but couldn’t spend any time as none of us had the change for car parking and there was no one else there except for us. So we went straight to Swallow falls in Betws-y-Coed. After some difficulty with the Satnav, we managed to find the place.

Swallow falls - Betws-y-Coed

The falls wasn’t that crowded, so could spend some nice time there. After that we went back to Betws-y-Coed town to spend one hour exploring the town before heading back to Reading.
On a whole, North Wales was much better than what we initially thought, so will definitely plan to go there again.