Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mockingbirds, Photoshop, and Miss Maudie

One issue that I was wondering about when we bought our Nikon D200 camera a few months ago was the lens. Like most people, I wanted to be able to zoom in and zoom out because, well, why not? Our little pocket camera has a monster zoom, and I didn't see why a big ol' DSLR would be any different.  But you probably know by now, if you have been reading this blog with any regularity, that we chose against a zooming lens and instead opted for a 50mm Prime f/1.8 lens.  It didn't take me long to realize that this was an outstanding choice, and after taking more than 6,000 photos with this lens and body since May I have come to realize why it really is such a fantastic lens.  This morning, then, was sort of a case study illustrating exactly why.

I work on a college campus and we often have birds, squirrels, and other animals running around and staking their claims on various flora outside the buildings.  Yesterday I noticed a pair of mockingbirds hanging out on top of a shrubbery across the street, and thought they were rather photogenic. So today I hauled my camera to work and managed to snap a picture of one of them. Fortunately, this little guy must have read my mind because he happily complied with my wishes and sat still long enough for me to snap his photo:
"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy." -Miss Maudie, To Kill a Mockingbird
To take this picture I first had to figure out what angle at which to shoot.  Too high and it would seem like he was buried in the bush. Too low and he would be obscured by the shrubbery. This is when the "sneaker zoom" feature of a 50mm lens comes in handy: it forces you to move around and seek out the best angle for a given shot.  Not being able to rely on a mechanism to zoom in and out forces you to take in the surroundings and actively seek out the best angle and location from which to shoot.  I spent a few minutes walking around the bushes until I found a good spot, and thankfully he waited patiently for me while I was doing it.

Another issue to consider when planning a photo is the aperture you want to use on your lens.  The bigger the aperture, the faster the shot and the shallower the depth-of-field.  Basically, this means two things: the lens lets in more light and the shutter doesn't have to be open very long, and the area that is in focus is very small.  This made it possible to get only the bird in focus, and not the rest of the bush or the background (the blurry background is also called bokeh).  Here's an illustration of how this worked as I was taking the shot:

For this shot I used an aperture of f/2.4, which meant that given the available light the shutter was open for 1/350th of a second and the depth of field was very shallow. This helps draw the viewer's eye to the bird and not the surrounding area, which generally makes for a more visually pleasing photo.  A smaller aperture would have meant that the bushes, and possibly even the building in the background, would have been in focus too. This isn't necessarily a bad thing depending on the type of photo you want to take, but for this particular shot I thought a shallower depth of field would be more appropriate.  And that's the thing about photography: there's never one correct way to do it. As long as you find something that works for you and you're happy with it, you're all good.  Most pocket camera lenses have smaller apertures, and kit lenses (i.e. the lens that comes with the camera) on DSLR models aren't a whole lot bigger.  But again, it's all about what works for you and knowing how to use what you have.

Anyway, back to this shot for a bit.  Since a 50mm Prime lens cannot zoom in and out, and getting too close would have probably disturbed my new bird friend, the original shot is actually quite a bit larger:
I thought the surroundings were a tad distracting, so I cropped the photo to be tighter and bring the subject (the bird) in closer.  You might also notice that the colors of the original photo are not as vibrant as the one I posted at the top.  This is due to some post-processing I did in Photoshop but the same thing could be done in just about any image editing program, even basic ones like iPhoto.  I'm generally not a big fan of over-editing images, but I do think some degree of alteration is just fine.  And like I said earlier, it's all up to you.  Some people like to adjust everything in Photoshop, and some like to leave the photograph as-is.  Other times it's about the purpose of the photograph: are you trying to capture a scene, present an emotion, manipulate the viewer, tell a story, or ask a question?  Photoshop, as I see it, is just another arrow in a photographer's quiver to allow him to hit the target for which he is aiming.  Anyway, for this picture I used Adobe Camera RAW to adjust the contrast and saturation of the original, and then Photoshop to crop it down and add a bit of vignette.  I am pleased with the final result, and I hope you are too :)

Finally, I thought I would mention one other thing: megapixels.  For years I was under the impression that more megapixels equaled better pictures, but in truth this metric has almost nothing to do with the quality of the photos taken by a camera.  Don't take my word for it, though--just do a quick search on "megapixel myth" and you'll see what I mean.  But permit me, if you will, to use this mockingbird photo as a case study.  Our camera has a maximum resolution of 3872x2592, which means it's just a tad over 10 megapixels.  This is pretty low for cameras today, and even most pocket cameras have at least 14 or 16 megapixels. It works fine, though, and if you download the full-size photo at the top of this post you might notice that it clocks in at just a hair over 3 megapixels at 2638x1536.  Would a 15- or 20-megapixel camera have made the photo any better?  Probably not, though having that extra real estate would have allowed even tighter cropping for the final image.  Is a higher mexapixel number a bad thing? No, generally not. But I say all this to illustrate that lower megapixels on a camera doesn't mean it's a bad camera either.  So if you have an old model that you think isn't worth using anymore just because it has fewer pixels, I would say don't worry about it. Instead, go grab that sucker and get out and take some photos!


Steve said...

After reading what you went through to get this photo, I'm super impressed the bird waited for you to circle around him. You weren't wearing a birdseed tie, were you?

Julie said...

Very informative post, Simon, and an excellent shot of that bird!