Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A little off topic - Family Crests

So in a totally random happening I discovered the meaning of my last name. The other day I was over at my parents house and we were talking about the new Tom Cruise movie "Valkyrie" when someone asked what the word means.

Valkyrie as defined by wikipedia pertains to Norse Mythology where female figures riding winged horses fly over the battlefield and pick up heroic warriors to take them to Valhalla. In the wiki article it shows an excerpt from a poem which lists one of the Valkyries as "Hildr" meaning "Battle". This caught my attention so I looked into it a little further and it turns out that german surename Hildebrandt is derived from the German personal name "Hildebrand" which is composed of two elements: "hild", derived frome the Old High German "hilja" meaning "fight" or "battle", and "brand" derived from the Old High German "brant" meaning "fire" or "sword".

So I'm James Battle Sword, nice to meet you ;)

I did a bit more digging and came across a few websites with family crests and coat of arms. One of which is http://www.family-crests.org/ you should check them out to see if your crest is listed.

Another site is www.houseofnames.com if you can't find yours at the above site.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Share your lighting setups easily

I've been following David Hobby's Strobist Blog recently as I've started down the road of using off camera flashes instead of full sized studio strobes. On sites like Flickr you'll often find people listing their "strobist info" along with their photos to explain a little about how they shot it. On rare occasions you'll find detailed diagrams of the setup, this post is going to give you the tools to make the same thing.

First you'll need a program called Google Sketchup and with that you can open this template I made.

Contained in the template are a backdrop, two softboxes, as well as a 3d model of a person*. If you're familiar with Sketchup you'll know how easy it is to tweak and modify this to suit your needs. If you've never used the program before I'd recommend going through the tutorial that pops up the first time you open it. This little program is easy to use and its very powerful, I've used it to design countless DIY projects and even plan renovations in my house.

*To trim the size down on the template I used a low resolution model of a 3d person that is included in the basic sketchup library. The 3d person shown in the image is downloadable via sketchup, just do a search for "3d Woman" and you'll get quite a few results.

[Update: Apparently I didn't look hard enough the first time because I just found the template that everyone else is using here, its a photoshop file with all the light sources etc housed as seperate layers. I guess mine still has some worth since its 3d but for ease of use you can't beat the original.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Cool, fun, creative, group photos

Before I start I should mention that I actually got this idea from Photojojo, a really neat e-newsletter that always has cool photography stuff in it.

Nowadays everyone and their dog has a digital camera, we all snap away at parties and post them on facebook etc but rarely are the shots anything eye catching. Here's a simple way to make a fun group photo with your friends that people may actually take the time to look at ;)
The first thing you need to know is how to set the self timer on your camera. Look for the icon shown above in your cameras menu. Often it is selected by pressing one of the directions on the directional pad on the back of your camera [on my Canon point and shoot its the down arrow].

Now get everyone around you and set the camera on the floor, press the shutter, huddle around and smile!
It may take a few tries to get everyone centered properly, the halloween shot was a little off :)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What are some good slideshow programs?

I wrote this up for the camera club at work originally but it is a question I hear a lot so I figured I'd post it here to help everyone else out (assuming some people will start reading this in the future ;)

The stuff in Green is free, Red costs money, and Blue means it's sort of free because you may already have it bundled with your computer or burner.

For viewing just on pc (they're all FREE yay!)
FastStone image viewer even if you don't necessarily need a slideshow program this is a very solid image viewer that works better than the default windows one.

Irfanview another image viewer like the one above that also allows slideshow viewing except this one lets you customize the slideshow a little more instead of just playing all files in a folder. I find it a little more awkward that FastStone but some people really like it.

Picasa- This is a free program made by Google, it allows you to view your photos in slideshow form but also includes pretty decent image editing and a bunch of other "fun" stuff. I recommend everyone download this, its free and its constantly being updated with more and more stuff. Get it at http://picasa.google.com/ or if you'd just like to see what all you can do with the software you can watch a video clip explaining all the features at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rskC6c_5L1M

For burning DVD/VCD/SVCD slideshows to watch on your TV (Free... not so much, but you may already have some of these)
Windows DVD maker - I totally forgot about this one and its actually one of the best I've used, the best part is its free the only problem is that it only comes with Windows Vista

None - Just burn the photos to a disc and pop it in your player. Nowadays most players will actually play the pictures right from a cd or dvd, the only problem is that this only works if your photos are below a certain size since the player can only hold a certain amount "in memory". One option would be to use Picasa to create a gift cd and under photo size select "640x480" (800x600 or even 1600x1200 could work too), you may be able to just pop the disc right in your player or you may have to copy the resized files off of the disc and re-burn them onto a new disc so that it only contains pictures. Consult your DVD player manual for the most accurate information, normally it states what sizes it accepts and tells you if you should burn the disc in any special way.

Your current buring software - Just about any computer you've purchased in the last 8years or so should come with a burning program (or it would have came with your CD burner or DVD burner), the two most common ones are Nero and Roxio. Both of these will allow you to make slideshow CD's and DVD's that will play in most players. These are normally pretty decent programs that suit the needs of the average everyday person.

Trial Burning Software - The trial versions of most burning programs don't restrict the features of the program, instead they limit the burning speed to 1x and have a time limit. If you really need to make a slideshow though you can download a trial and use it to make a slideshow to burn to disc. Its not the best way to do it but if you're in a pinch its a soloution.

Ulead Pictureshow
- I really liked Ulead Pictureshow 2 but unfortunately they are up to #4 now and you can't get 2 anymore. This is a commercial program that costs money but you can download a free trial to see if you like it or not.

Photo DVD Maker Professional - this is another one that costs money, you can download a free trial and check it out if you want. I found it wasn't too bad.

DVD Slideshow GUI - After much searching I did finally find a free program that will create DVD slideshows, I briefly tried it out and its not too bad. There are also a bunch of add ons for more transitions and effects, its all there on the website. Now being that it’s a free open source program it’s a little less user friendly but not too bad, I was able to create a basic slide show in just a few clicks.

Hopefully that gives you some options to more easily share your photos with friends and family.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Buying Guide For Entry Level Cameras

[Originally written for a camera club we started at work]

Entry Level Camera Buying Guide
written by James Hildebrandt with contributions from Perry VanDongen
Budget: $150-250 (May 2008)

**Disclaimer: This guide is intended to help you with your purchase, however the decision is ultimately yours and we are not responsible if you are unhappy with the camera you choose

Who this guide is for:

This is for the person who likes taking pictures but doesn't want to be bothered with complicated settings (aperture, ISO, shutter speed etc) but may want to tinker a little later. They don't want to blow up images larger than an 8x10 and most of the time they are just going to get 4x6 prints or email them to friends.

If this is where you fit in you're lucky, you can get a decent camera for under $200 and most likely be thrilled with your purchase. With the digital era taking off this is the range most people fall into and the camera companies know it, because of the volume of cameras they sell they can produce them cheaper and cheaper. What used to cost over $500 a few years ago now is less than half that price.

Glossary of Terms:
There are too many to list in this article so here is a link to a nice one online

MP / Mega Pixels: Not as important as you might think*
This is the amount of pixels the image sensor in your camera can take, however DON'T BE FOOLED! For entry level (Point and Shoot) cameras the higher the number isn't necessarily going to mean a better picture. A 3MP or 4MP camera will most likely fill all of your needs if you're not wanting to print larger than an 8x10. Most Cameras available as I'm writing this are above 5MP so you really don't have to concern yourself at all with the MP rating. When you start getting into the higher and cameras with interchangeable lenses MP do start to become more important however as the numbers get higher and higher a jump of 2MP becomes almost insignificant.

This chart shows print sizes at various DPI or “Dots Per Inch”, generally people say 300DPI is photo quality however often you can get away with a lower setting. Photos of nature tend to enlarge better than photos of people but it all depends on the style of the shot. The MP value is tricky because it is representing an area, the larger the number gets the more you have to increase it to get a significant change. Take a look at the difference between a 12MP and a 16MP camera, the 300DPI print size only increases by 2” whereas the difference between a 3MP and a 6MP is 4”.

Lens Size/Quality: Important

It doesn't matter how many mega pixels or how good the sensor is if the light getting to it is passing through a crappy lens. You're generally looking for a camera with a glass lens, some lower end cameras use plastic in order to get you a lower price (Kodak Easyshare for example) but if you can spare a little extra cash go for the glass. Another thing to note is the diameter, the larger the lens the less the image will be distorted. Think of the peep hole on your door, smaller lenses tend to "fisheye" a little. Another problem with smaller lenses is that the center of the picture is in focus but the edges get blurry. Unfortunately with compact cameras comes compact lenses so if you're looking for a tiny camera you may have to put up with a little distortion.

Some of the problems associated with small lenses

Optical Zoom & Digital Zoom: What's the difference?

L to R) Standard View, Optical Zoom, Digital Zoom (note how it looks pixelized)

Only optical zoom is important, For a point and shoot you're probably looking at a maximum of 3 to 4 times zoom (often shown as 3x or 4x). You can tell if the zoom is optical if the actual lens moves as you zoom (although on some models the lens actually moves inside the camera so you can't actually see it).

Digital Zoom: Not important at all ignore everything you hear about "digital zoom", often salespeople will try to make the camera sound more impressive by talking up a storm about the digital zoom (though they seem to be doing this less and less). Digital zoom is essentially the same as enlarging the image on your computer and then cropping the area you want "zoomed", this will result in the image looking pixelized.

Shooting Modes: Nowadays almost every camera has all you need

Most cameras have different shooting modes, sometimes called scene modes. These will setup the camera with the optimal settings to shoot a variety of subjects. These will be named something like "Kids & Pets", "Sports","Portrait", "Nature & Landscape" etc. If you're new to the cameras and just want to take pictures without having to place too much thought into the process then you want a camera that is easy to understand and allows you to switch between modes with ease.

Video: Depends on if you're actually going to use it

Cameras in general are getting better in this area, there are some that will take video that rivals camcorders. The main thing you need to know is that if you want the video to look really good on your TV you will want a resolution of 640x480 at 30 frames per second, a resolution of 320x240 will look approximately like an old VHS tape would on your TV. The average person though probably isn't going to end up doing much with the video files, often the just end up sitting on your computer because the process of converting them to DVD is often complicated.

Look at the the video feature as a bonus not a selling point, if you really want to take video then just go buy a video camera.

*Note on video cameras that take stills: While little point and shoots can take pretty good video it often doesn't work the other way around. Video cameras often don't take very good photographs, the reason is for video you don't need as high of resolution (think megapixels) sensor because the picture is always changing.

Accessories : Memory Card(s), Camera Bag, Batteries
As soon as you decide on a camera the salesperson is going to want to sell you as many accessories as they can for the camera. The main two things you will need are one or more memory cards as well as some sort of case to protect your camera.

Memory Cards: I recommend a computer store downtown called OTV for your memory card, a 2GB SD card is $11.50 for a generic brand. All of the brands I've tried there have worked well and I have not had a problem with them. When you start shooting higher end cameras that take large pictures or if your camera can take a bunch of pictures in rapid succession (burst mode) you may benefit from a high speed name brand card, however for the average user it is not necessary.

Card Reader: I always recommend getting a card reader as opposed to downloading by connecting your camera to your computer. There are a few reasons for this: 1) Its often faster 2) If your camera battery dies during the transfer you can lose the remaining photos on the card. You can get a decent one at OTV for around $10 and it supports all of the popular formats (SD, Compact Flash, XD, Memory Stick etc).

Camera Bag: Look for a bag thats small enough that you don't mind carrying it around yet has enough room to fit whatever you need to take along (spare batteries, memory card etc). Lowepro is a brand that's been around for years and has a quality product. Don's photo on Idylwyld Dr. has a good selection but you can probably find them at most big stores that sell cameras.

Batteries: If your camera runs on AA batteries then you are going to want to invest in a good set of NIMH rechargeable batteries and a charger. You're probably looking at $30-50 for a set of 4 AA batteries and a charger although I've heard XSCargo actually has some good kits sometimes for as low as $12. The batteries will have an mAh (milli-amp hour) rating, a good battery is around 1600mAh or higher.

Before you finally take the plunge and buy the camera:

  1. Leave you wallet at home and go try out cameras in the store, take your time, you don't have to buy the first camera you look at. Write down a few models that appealed to you and their prices.

  2. Read reviews, a great website is www.epinions.com it offers customer reviews from real people on everything from cars to dishwashers and everything in between. Another two good sites just for cameras are www.dpreview.com and www.steves-digicams.com

  3. Check the smaller camera shops and see if they have the model you are interested in, if they do then try to buy it there (they'll often price match). Its at these smaller stores (Don's Photo, Phase II etc) that the people really want to help you and they are normally pretty knowledgeable. Some even offer incentives, for example if you purchase a digital camera at Don's Photo you will also get a loyalty card which gets you cheaper 4”x6” prints.
Some cameras in this price range to consider:

  • Powershot Series (this whole line is pretty good)
    A560 - $139.99
    A good entry level camera, decent quality and all the standard bells and whistles. This camera is not toobig and not too small, it has a decent size lens and 4X optical zoom. Great video quality too!
  • Digital Elph Series (good line of very compact cameras)
    SD1000 - $179.99
    A nice tiny camera that still takes good pictures, the elph series is known for its small size. You can still find an SD1000 in some stores, it is quickly being replaced with this years model the SD1100 ($259.99) which is why its on for so cheap. 3X optical zoom, great video, and an amazingly fast startup time.
  • Lumix 10.1MP (DMCFS5K) $239.99
    A very capable point and shoot, this camera sports high quality optics with is Leica lens that yields nice
    sharp images. The camera comes complete with all the standard shooting modes you'd expect to find
    and its surprisingly compact.
  • Coolpix Series (the whole series has a decent reputation) Nikon Coolpix 8MP (L18) $144.99
    Nikon has been in the game for a long time, the coolpix series has been known to be a decent point and shoot camera that offers good quality at a decent price. Has all of the standard options and a decent 3X optical zoom.

(L to R) Canon A56o, Canon SD1000, Lumix DMCFS5K, Nikon Coolpix L18

Monday, October 20, 2008

Photography 101 - Composition

Composition: The first step to taking better photos

[I originally wrote this for the camera club we started at work]

In this lesson we will look at composition, composition can make the difference between a snapshot and a piece of art. You often hear that so and so has a “good eye” for taking pictures, this is often solely due to the fact that they know how to properly compose a shot.

The first mistake that people often make is regarding symmetry, most of the time symmetry is a good thing but not in photography (at least normally). For some this can be hard to overcome, we're genetically designed to look for it. Our species is geared towards finding a mate with good symmetry, study upon study has been done on “what defines beauty?” and time and again symmetry is a key component.

Lucky for us people have already done a lot of the work for us, some brilliant mind found a formula for composition and named it “The Rule Of Thirds”. Now before we go too far I want to point out that rules are meant to be broken from time to time so you should take this more as a guideline. The rule of thirds is to photography as learning to tie your shoes is to childhood. Once you learn composition you will look at the world around you in a different light. Chances are good you already do this to some extent but you probably don't realize it.

Below is a rectangle that has been broken up into thirds horizontally and vertically, like a tic-tac-toe game. When framing your photos try to put the focal point at one of the white circles, or if shooting a landscape put the horizon on one of the two horizontal lines. It's really that simple!

(Left) 2 Vertical lines, 2 Horizontal Lines, 4 Nexus Points thats all it is.

(Right) Rule of thirds built right into your camera.
A lot of cameras actually have a feature built in that will make composing your shot a lot easier. If your camera has it you can enable a grid overlay on the screen, this will also help remind you whenever you are composing a shot.

Lets look at a few examples
In the image below you can see that it is using the rule of thirds in two ways:

1.The horizon line is pretty close to following the upper horizontal line
2.The barn, being the primary focal point of the image is more or less centered on the top left intersection point.


When photographng landscapes you can draw attention to different features depending on how you frame the shot. In the photo above the field seems large and expansive because the horizon line is on the top line. If you frame a shot with it the other way as seen in the photo below with the horizon on the bottom third, the focus would be more on the sky and lightning. Either way can work it just depends on the image what message you are trying to get across to the viewer.

When photographing a group of people try to keep their eyes in line (for the most part) with the top third of the photo rather than the center like most people do. If you center them all this does is leave a bunch of empty space above their heads.

Another thing to keep in mind is to give the people space! In the photo below the guard is facing left so this means the photo should “open up to the left”, this in turn places him on the right vertical line of the rule of thirds. The other thing that this photo covers is to try and have an interesting background if possible. There is however a problem with this photo that we'll discuss next, and that is distractions.

This photo could be better if I hadn't got the umbrella in the shot, it is distracting and draws the viewers eyes away from the intended areas. As you'll see on the next page removing these distractions makes for a better image

Here is the same image with the distracting umbrella removed, now the viewer's eyes are drawn to the face of the guard (top right nexus) and along his sightpath (top third line).

When possible simply move your position to get a better angle, maybe if you cross the street that lightpole won't be in the shot or if you get in closer you can avoid getting those powerlines in the frame. Always be aware of your surroundings and don't be afraid to take multiple photos of the same thing, you might find that after shooting 10 photos you finally got the right composition for that shot. As you get more familiar with how to compose photo properly you simply won't even realize your doing it. While writing this article I went through hundreds of my photos trying to find examples of what not to do and I had a hard time because I'm so used to using the rule of thirds in every one of my shots.

Some further tips:

Try to look at your forground and background and see if they compliment each other. If the object your photographing is too similar to the background it will result in a flat looking image.

Get in close! Take a shot how you normally would and then zoom in more and see how it looks. You might say “well I can just crop it later”, sure maybe you can but not if you aren't shooting with a high end camera. When you crop you lose resolution, if your crop takes away more than 20% of the image then you should have just got in closer in the first place.

Find beauty in negative spaces!
Sometimes by filling your image with negative space you can give your subject more impact

Sometimes images won't fit into the rule of thirds, luckily there is the rule of diagonals. Simply draw a line diagonally from corner to corner and then make duplicate lines on either side of it. You can see this present in the images below.

Be Careful! In order to utilize these techniques you have to make sure your camera is focusing on what you want first. Most cameras will adjust the focus and exposure when you press the shutter button half way down, so you'll need to center on the subject first > press the shutter halfway down> then move the camera to properly frame the shot. If you don't do this your background will be in focus and your subject will be blurry! Read your camera manual, it will most likely cover this problem.

Homework: Go through your photos you've always liked regardless of whether you took them or not and analyze their composition, chances are good you'll find they adhere to the rule of thirds or diagonals. Now get out there and start putting your new found knowledge to use!

DIY Twin Diffuser for flash

We're going to see how well posting a DIY works. Here is a quick and easy project that you can probably make for free since you'll have most of this stuff lying around. There is a commercially available version of this that I won't mention here, this device is so simple I couldn't justify the fifty bucks they wanted for it.

What you'll need:

1 Rubber band or a piece of fabric elastic
1 Regular sized paperclip
1 7½" Piece of semi hard steel rod or flat band
1 piece of white plastic (margarine container lid) or cardstock
Hot glue gun
Needle-nose pliers
15 min of time

Step 1:
Bend the 7½" steel rod at 90° 2½" up, then bend another 90° 1½" down from that. You should end up with something that resembles what you see in the top left of the photo above.

Step 2:
Using the scissors cut two pieces out of the white plastic at 2"x2" and two pieces at 1" by 2"

Step 3:
Cut two 2½" pieces from the elastic and using the hot glue gun attach them to the two 1" by 2" strips of plastic.

Step 4:
Straighten out your paperclip and loop it once around the top portion of the steel piece you bent earlier. See finished image below for a better idea.

Step 5:
Glue the metal legs to the sides of the plastic 1"by 2" pieces. Make sure you glue this to the opposite side we glued the elastic band to, this way the metal doesn't rub against our flash and scratch it.

Step 6:
The last step is to glue the two reflectors to the paperclips, contrary to the image below I fount it worked better to bend the two ends of the paperclip back into a bit of a "U" shape. This distributes the pressure a little better and makes the gluing easier.

Hopefully the instructions were easy to follow, I plan on adding more step by step pictures later. This was sort of a test post.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

First Post

Well I finally caved in and started a blog... I plan to post various photography related stuff on here ranging from DIY projects to Photoshop how to's.

For now you can visit my website here