Lens for Portraits

Johane asked,

“My camera is a Nikon SLR D40 and I was thinking of getting a new lens for it. I take a lot of pictures of my daughter and family. I want to get a bigger aperture to get that blurry background that looks so good in portrait pictures but seems like the lower I can go with my camera is 4.0 for some reason and sometimes the pictures turn out blurry itself if I don’t use the flash. I really like natural lighting in the pictures instead of using the flash. What do you recommend for a beginner like me?”

I’m a huge fan of the Nikon f2.8 lenses — the Nikkor 28-70 f/2.8 is on my camera most of the time, but that’s an expensive lens.

You should be able to throw the background out of focus at f4 — you’ll want to ensure that the distance between you and the subject is much smaller than the distance between your subject and the background.

Another alternative to consider is a prime lens.  Both the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 ($200) and f/1.4 ($400) lenses are great, sharp lenses that will act as the equivalent of a 75mm lens on your D40.  That’s a nice focal length for portrait work. It is a different kind of photography (no zoom), and it may take you a bit of time to get used to it, but you can get very nice results.

Is my camera good enough?

Rohit writes,

“I’m using a Canon S3. It’s a simple SLR so and I’m a beginner. Is it a good camera for me?”

I haven’t tried that camera, but from the specs it certainly appears to have all the features you’ll need to learn photography.  As I often say, “It’s not the camera, it’s how you use it.” If you haven’t signed up already, please consider joining 12 Weeks to Better Photography!

Photographing Lightning

Adrian writes,

I’ve tried recently to photograph lightning but with little success.
Is there a basic set of rules to follow for this? Or some sort of guideline where I can try to find what works best for me?

I personally haven’t tried lightning, so for this one I turn to the National Geographic Photography Field Guide by Burian and Caputo. They recommend as follows:

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Using your flash

Adrian writes,

I notice a lot of professionals always use their flash no matter the conditions.
I’ve tried this but sadly poor results. Why do they do it and why do most of my flash photos suck!?

Photographers often use their flash for “fill”, especially when photographing people. Rather than blinding them with the sun and getting a photo of a squinting subject, it is often more effective to put them in the shade or even with their back to the sun and then use a reasonably powerful flash to light the subject. It’s just another technique to control the light falling on your subject.

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Photo Editing

Gerry writes,

I get the impression from what I have read so far about digital photography that all pictures have been somewhat modified in a photo editing program before being displayed in magazines. I would have thought that a picture taken by professional photographers would not need photo editing.

It depends upon how we define “modified”. Technically, you are quite correct. At minimum, basic adjustments such as white and black levels, contrast, saturation, etc. are usually required to produce a good magazine print. But that’s not really any different than what we had to do with film. it is also normal to crop images, especially if the camera aspect ratio is different than that magazine page or other space in which the print is required.

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Blurry Indoor Photos

An anonymous reader asks,

I took a bunch of photos at a party over the weekend. They looked fine on the back of my camera, but when I posted them to the web I noticed that a lot of them were blurry. Why doesn’t my camera do well with quick movement?

As we love to say at MyPhotoSucks, the problem isn’t your camera, it’s how you use it. The simple answer is that you should have used your flash.

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A reader asks,

“I’m thinking of entering [an image in a competition]. The rules state that I can send jpg images on a CD but that they must be in RGB format and not CMYK format. When I capture images on my Canon S2IS what colour format does the camera use? If I use Picasa as my photo program does it use CMYK (I know most printers use these colours)? If I have a jpg image, can I use something like Photoshop to convert from CMYK to RGB?”

Virtually every digital camera on the market produces image in the RGB colour space, so the good news is that you don’t have to do any conversion.  People are often confused by the fact that their inkjet printer uses a CMYK process.  However, the printer appears to your computer as a RGB device, as does your monitor, so you should continue to work in the RGB colour space unless there is a specific reason for you to convert to a different colour space.

Captioning Digital Photos

Ken writes,

“What program or programs are recommended for captioning digital photos? I want to be able to choose the location of the caption, the font, and the colour of the text.”

Most photo editing packages allow you to add text to your images. I seldom add captions to photos (and SmugMug automatically watermarks my uploaded images for me there), but when I do I usually just add a text layer in Adobe Photoshop. I just checked Photoshop Elements 6, and it supports text layers as well. Just click on the “T” in the toolbar, click on the image,and it will create the layer for you.
Many companies have downloadable trial versions online. For example, you can download Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 here and see if it meets your needs.

Cheap Flash for Backgrounds

Jim wrote to ask,

“Eric you spoke of small cheap flashes a while ago would you have a model number I could search for. I am looking for something to light behind my subject triggered by an optical trigger.”

While the best solution to light a background is a pair of strobes, you can often get away with a basic flash and trigger to light a small area. Just about any flash will do, although you’ll need to play with the output level and/or distance to the background to get what you need. If you’re close to the background a diffuser might come in handy — you can buy one or make one out of translucent fabric or plastic.

If you’re looking for something cheap I’d try your local photo store and see what they have laying around. You can also talk to anyone who has upgraded to a digital SLR and bought a new flash. If you have to order off the net, check this out. And, as always, leave me a comment and let me know how it goes!

55-200mm or 70-300mm?

Nancy writes,

“For a complete amateur like myself, who just really really really likes to take a lot of photos…which lens? Nikkor 55-200 VR or the Nikkor 70-300 VR ED.  I currently have the 18-70 which came with my D80. My husband bought me the 55-200 but now he wants to change it to the 70-300 and I am not so sure.”

My first question would be “What are you going to use it for?” Neither are wide enough to be your “main” lens. If you’re buying a lens specifically for nature, the zoo, etc., the 70-300 is the better choice of those two.

However, if you’re heading out on a family vacation, I think you need to be honest with yourself about whether you want to carry more than one lens. If you buy either and end up leaving it in the car or hotel, you may not get your money’s worth.
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