I wanted to go through a few useful tips for those of you that are thinking about or even ready to embark on their journey as fine art photographers. When I started I thought about where I wanted to go and what I needed to do to get their, my milestones. I categorized five main areas that I had to tackle:
- Using my DSLR camera correctly
- Photoshop skills
- Locations and/or stock photos
Using my DSLR camera correctly...
A pretty big one I think. We all need to understand the basics of using our equipment at the very minimum. I had already built up plenty of experience over the years with the camera so this particular area wasn't so daunting. That said I still felt I was battling with noise in my images which generally catches me out when submitting my work to stock sites such as Fotolia and Shutterstock. So to improve the overall quality of my images I did two things. I researched on YouTube and Google to understand my camera settings more. I typically only shoot in manual, and very rarely go to one of the auto modes. I also learned more about the histogram feature. In the past when the histogram popped up on screen I just found myself bewildered as I didn't understand what it was for or how to use it to my advantage.
Well these days I generally always have my histogram visible while shooting. It's a great way to understand the exposure levels of the image you are about to take. What I aim for is an even histogram with more visible spikes leaning to the right (the whites) giving a brighter exposure. The camera will normally indicate if any areas are blown out after I take an image, but this doesn't happen often. What I realized down the line was I relied far to much on how images looked on the camera display. And it was image brightness that always caught me out, things tended to look brighter on screen than they did on the computer. So when I started to use the histogram and pushed as far as I could to get a brighter more evenly exposed image, it always looked over exposed on screen. But when I put it on the computer the images were fine and weren't as bright. I also noticed a reduction in the amount of noise creeping in to my images. I've even allowed myself to use higher ISO ranges (typically ISO 400), rather than sticking with ISO 100 all the time. I don't get it right all the time, but that's the beauty of post production and noise reduction filters!
So I would encourage you to shoot in manual mode as much as possible and learn about working with ISO, apertures and shutter speeds. And remember to use that histogram, it's your friend!
As a fine art photographer you will no doubt come across Adobe Photoshop, it's one of those tools you will end up using A LOT! The majority of my workflow involves compositing and blending so it was vital to learn the basics of Photoshop as well as some technical skills to achieve effects in my work that will make my images look believable and professionally done. My strength in Photoshop gets stronger the more I use it, it stands to reason that as you do something more and more, day in day out, you remember more. You're picking up hints and tips along the way which all adds up to making you a better artist in post production.
As with most things I always make a stop by YouTube to checkout tutorials people have shared. There are some incredible and talented artists out there who are kick arse when it comes to Photoshop. One incredible guy is Aaron Nace of phlearn.com. They have a wide range of tutorials available on their site to suit every level of ability, as well as plenty of freebies on their YouTube channel. Whether you are experienced with Photoshop or not I strongly urge you to checkout phlearn.com. It's become one of my core 'go to' sites when I need inspiration or want to learn/brush up on some skills. I promise you, you wont regret it!
I'm going to list all my main equipment that I have currently. What I will say to those thinking about starting out as FAP's is that you don't need to invest in the most expensive camera to begin with. If you are 90% sure that this is something you want to do then I'd say bite the bullet and invest in something mid-range, something from the Canon EOS range perhaps. If you're still at school or just want to dabble then any digital camera will do to begin with. If you prefer Nikon or indeed some other brand, then please go for what you feel comfortable with. As with most things you tend to get a brand war amongst photographers where each camp thinks their brand is better because of XYZ. I'm personally not fussed either way about the brand. I use Canon because when starting out the Canon T2i hadn't been long out. So for a mid-range DSLR camera it offered a lot of features for a reasonable cost. I'm not a brand whore by any means, despite what my friends might say. I just like to use something which has a good reputation, is reliable and is built well. Indeed my very first 35mm film SLR was a Nikon, and I loved that camera a lot! But times move on, as does technology and the Canon T2i was the perfect match for what I needed at that time.
Lenses are perhaps the single most important thing after the camera in your equipment. The kit lenses that are bundled these days are great lenses don't get me wrong, but any seasoned photographer will tell you that a well made prime lens are second to none. A prime lens differs from a zoom lens simply by the fact that it's you which must physically move towards your subject to get a closer shot. So a prime lens has a fixed focal length and therefore has no ability to zoom like a telephoto lens. It's for this reason that prime lenses tend to produce brighter and sharper images than that of a telephoto zoom lens. At this point it's probably worth mentioning about one of my experiences with a prime lens and how they impact image quality. When I upgraded to the T5i I was happily snapping pictures and then found myself saying aloud "Why are other peoples images so much sharper and more detailed than mine... it can't all be done in post surely!?!". Well, no I don't think it's any magic done in post, but rather a combination of lens and camera.
In late 2014 I was invited to a charity event for a children's hospice to take some pictures to record the day. I decided up front that I was going to try out a red ring prime lense from Canon (lenses with the red ring tend to be held in high esteem as professional grade lenses). I had my eye on the Canon EF 85mm 1.2 UFM prime lens, and it's one HEAVEY piece of glass as I found out! As of today this lens commands a princely sum of around £1500 GBP. So an alternative way of getting my paws on this lens was to hire it for the weekend. I found a company called LensPimp which hires out lenses and cameras. After providing some ID via email I got the lens delivered on time and it only cost me about £70 for 3 days hire. I was so impressed with their service that I hired another lens later down the line so I could try it out before I committed to buying one.
After the shoot I got the photos up in Adobe Lightroom and I have to say I was blown away by the 'tack sharpness' of the images. It was this tack sharpness that I was picking up in other photographer's work that my images were lacking. I was over the moon that my camera was more than capable of taking even better quality photos than it had been. Although it now dawned on me that I needed to invest in some decent lenses. As much as I loved the Canon 85mm lens, given the price tag and the weight I opted for the Carl Zeiss Planar T* ZE series f/1.4 50mm prime lens. The ZE model is designed specifically for the EF mount that my T5i has. I now have a lens that in my opinion creates images on par with that of the Canon 85mm lens.
One thing that bugged with kit lenses, and indeed most cheap lenses is chromatic aberration! Don't worry I wont bore you the science behind it, but in short it's a colour fringing that's noticeable on your images if you zoom in at 100%. I've put some images below of my Rolliecord camera in the hope I could demonstrate chromatic aberration in action. The settings remained the same on the camera and I just swapped out the lens. One thing I forgot to mention is that the Carl Zeiss lens I have is manual focus only, so the focusing between the two wont be exact.
In the above image it's clear the Planar 50mm prime lens produces a more contrasted image. At this sort of distance you might say both images are quite similar in overall image quality. But are they? Lets take a closer look and zoom in to 100%.
What is apparent is the lack of detail on the surface of the Rolliecord in the image taken using the kit lens. With the Carl Zeiss you can pick out specs of dust and dirt much easier and the lettering at the top is much sharper. Now this probably wasn't the best prop to use to show off chromatic aberration, but it is there! If you look carefully at the silver trim running around the lens where the highlights are, can you see there is a slight purple fringe/tint to it. In this shot it is subtle but depending on your subject and lighting they can be rather noticeable. However the shot taken with the Planar shows no visible chromatic aberration.
Thats enough about lenses for now! Lets take a look at my kit:
- Canon T5i (700D) DSLR camera
- Carl Zeiss Planar T* f/1.4 ZE series 50mm prime lens
- Canon 18-55mm zoom lens
- x4 16GB SD cards
- x2 tripods
- YouGo YP-860 wireless trigger
- Canon 600EX-RT speedlight
- Canon ST-E3-RT speedlight transmitter
- Grey backdrop and backdrop holder
- Adobe Photoshop CS6
- Adobe Lightroom 4
- Wacom Intuos Pro tablet
This list is pretty much what I have collected over the last few years as and when I needed them. I still need to get a few more speedlights but I don't think I'll go with Canon, there are others out there which can link in to the system and work just as well at a fraction of the price! If I could have gone back in time I probably wouldn't have bought the Canon speedlight but this other brand instead (I'll hopefully cover this off in a future post once I've bought them). I would say if you're starting out, get a mid-range camera (if you can afford it), stick with the kit lens to begin with and subscribe to the Creative Cloud by Adobe to get a copy of Photoshop. It used to be that you could buy these products outright but these days they push their monthly subscription. If money is tight or you're a student the subscription method is actually quite useful. However I'm probably a bit old school in that I like to buy their products in full and not worry about losing programs if I stop the subscription.
Once you are all setup and ready to take pictures you might have what I can only refer to as 'writers block'. That sudden realization that you want to create something... but you're completely lost on where you should start. Whether you're new to fine art photography or doing it for years at some point in time we all hit this same wall. But fear not there are things you can do to unlock those creative juices!
I did debate about putting this next suggestion under either the Photoshop or equipment heading, but I felt it was better placed here. This suggestion is about training! When I started out I was asking myself questions like "I want to create this idea in my head.. but I'm not sure how best to go about doing it. I don't want to waste a day doing something that just wont work". It just so happened that while I was stalking my friends on Facebook an advert appeared that caught my eye. Adverts on Facebook tend to go unnoticed but this one was about 'creative training'. It was for a company called CreativeLive offering classes that were either broadcast live, or available as a download. This particular advert was for a workshop with Brooke Shaden doing a fine art photography session. Up until then I didn't even know that the term 'fine art photography' existed! That said I was doing it already in my work but somehow I felt alone and cut off in the hobby. Well this workshop not only set the record straight that fine art photography is big, but I also have come to discover just how many FAP's are out there, an amazing if not crazy bunch of folk that makes life that little bit more interesting! CreativeLive have a lot of courses that you can purchase (at a reasonable cost!). There is plenty of material on there to keep you busy for weeks if not months!
Although I've never had the pleasure of meeting Brooke, the workshop I watched through CreativeLive was a real game changer for me. How and why you might ask? Well to put it simply it gave me the confidence and technical ability to give things a go. The way in which I was having to do solo shots, was the exact same way Brooke was doing it, so I bonded with her (albeit one way) straight away. I could relate to her in so many ways that the workshop as a whole became incredibly important and inspiring to me. Everything suggested and done during Brooke's workshops are things we can all do at home or out on location. And it really brings it home that all you need is a camera, Photoshop, a tablet and some time. From there you can create some awesome images! I think there is a trap we run the risk of getting in to. The trap of thinking we have to spend all our hard earned cash on the biggest lens, or the latest and most expensive camera with the most megapixels or a set of expensive studio lights. Brooke's approach is quite the opposite... she keeps things simple! I'm not going to go in to depth of all the tips and advice Brooke gives, I dont' think that would be right. Instead I recommend that you find her workshops on CreativeLive. I have every confidence that you will find them both enjoyable to watch and instrumental in helping you develop!
Locations and stock images...
The final topic I wanted to talk about relates to locations and stock photos. When ever possible I'd recommend you snap as many pictures of different places at different times of the year as you can. What you'll end up with is a half decent library of your own stock images that can be used in your work. A case in hand is one of my latest projects 'Up and Go' where the main plate/background was created entirely out of stock images I had taken at one location. At least this way you can take pride in knowing all the content was created by your good self, but also no headache of potential copyright. You can of course buy images from stock sites, I've done it, but these days I'd rather be making and using all my own photos than those created by someone else.
So what else can you snap photos of madly to build up your stock? ... simple answer... TEXTURES! I don't think you can ever have enough textures. Take a picture of a wall, the floor, any surface or grimy window you can find. Just like people they all have their differences and when layered over your work can add that all important finishing touch.
As for locations you'll probably have a few places in mind that you can use, but believe me, after visiting them a few times you'll start to feel a little bored/uninspired by them. So see what is perhaps outside the area, plan a road trip to somewhere that you've seen that captures your imagination. You might not have a clue how you'll use half of the images you take, but having them to hand for a rainy day is certainly worthwhile.
Finally I wish you well on you journey and above all just make sure you have fun doing it! If you have any questions or tips you think would be useful please leave them in the comments.