Why technical stuff matters

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  • #10124

    Hi All,

    You may be wondering what you’ve stumbled into here. I know discussions of cameras and lighting technique are not usually found on erotic websites.

    I started shooting Bondage sets in 2000, for what would become Restrained Elegance. My first efforts weren’t so great, as you’d expect. More than 12 years on, I hope you’ll agree that we’ve come on a long way. Part of that is me following my own “internal artistic compass”, something I rambled on at length about in this blog post: http://www.hywelphillips.com/HywelPhillips.com/Blog/Entries/2011/11/30_Art_or_Business.html

    But by far the biggest improvement has come from the helpful advice, suggestions, constructive criticism and occasional argument with others. Being an introverted nerdy chap of course that has mostly been done online. I’ve learnt a lot, but there’s so much still left to learn. And I hope I can pay back the karmic generosity of those who were kind enough to help me early on by giving constructive criticism and technical suggestions to people just starting to figure out how to go beyond taking snapshots on their iPhones.

    Here’s a few things I’ve come to learn over the years.

    EQUIPMENT DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE
    The 3.1 megapixel shots from my first digital camera, and the scanned slides from my original shoots, still look pretty good. Here’s Temptress Kate, looking smokin’ hot as a virgin sacrifice:

    Given how sexy that shot is, why am I not still shooting with film?

    Answer 1: Convenience. Reviewing the shot right now, instead of three weeks hence when they come back from the lab is extremely useful.

    Answer 2: Cost. Film cost a frigging fortune, especially once professional scanning is included. The only reason Restrained Elegance exists is because of the digital revolution. I bought my first digital camera (a Canon D30) after a shooting trip to LA where the film and scanning costs came to TWICE the cost of the digi-cam!

    So, given that the D30 shot 3.1 megapixel shots, and most people still look at the 1200×1600 versions of the shots (1.92 megapixels), it still should be overspecified for the job, right?

    In theory. Here’s a shot of Sammie taken with the D30:

    Looks pretty hot, too, doesn’t she? Undeniably. But look at the detail in her hair. See that “laddering” effect? That’s showing the limits of resolution and sharpening. At this size it is OK, at the original 3.1 megapixels it looks a bit soft. At 1:1 on a decent monitor, the limitations are clear.

    So here’s a shot with today’s camera (as a link, rather than a pic, as it is huge):
    http://www.restrainedelegance.com/members/helenstaircasebling1/full/reh_20111117_1244458.jpg

    with 10 times as many pixels, and lenses to cope, there’s a level of detail and crisp micro-contrast that the D30 could never dream of. The shallow depth of field is an artistic choice to draw you into those fabulous eyes.

    So- equipment matters. But what suits one person’s shooting style might not be right for another’s.

    LIGHTNING MATTERS A LOT

    Here’s an old shot where I got the lighting a bit wrong:

    And a newer shot you might not even realise *IS* lit, unless I told you that there was a honking great battery powered studio flash at full power through an umbrella to camera left:

    http://www.restrainedelegance.com/members/katycapturedbywater1/full/reh_20100606_1230503.jpg

    A lot of the glamour factor in this shot comes from the lighting, and the lens flare which I’ve made a deliberate choice to play up to (I don’t put a lens shade on for this sort of shot and shoot into the light deliberately to try to provoke the flare-resistant Hasselblad lenses into flaring nicely for me):

    http://www.restrainedelegance.com/members/arielautumnwalkerselfbondage1/full/reh_20111101_1243562.jpg

    and again you might not realise that there’s a whacking great studio flash unit in use here!

    To light, you need lighting gear. Full stop.

    A BAD WORKMAN BLAMES HIS TOOLS. BUT A PROFESSIONAL HAS THE RIGHT TOOLS!

    There’s a grain of truth in this old saying- I’m sure every model and photographer can tell you about the annoying camera guy who has the most expensive camera and every L-series Canon lens but whose photos are shit.

    But the truth is that if you check out every working professional’s tools, they will be of tip-top quality for the purpose for which they are required. The difference is that when you know what you are doing, you can be selective. The working pro will only have a sack of expensive lenses if he regularly needs them. He’s more likely to have the three or four which suit his working style.

    They may even have equipment which seems quaint, or out-dated, or silly. But it’ll have been chosen carefully to do the job it needs to do. For years, wedding photographers swore by a particular Fuji camera that most people thought was a prosumer toy. It just happened to have what we now call HDR built in to the sensor, with small sub-pixels for highlight exposure next to large ones for low-light. That gave the best dynamic range of anything on the market. Which is a killer feature if you make your living photographing black suits next to white dresses every weekend.

    LEARN AS YOU GO

    So- there’s no point buying a top of the line digital SLR and all the lenses Canon make for your first shoot. You won’t know what to do with it, and you’ll end up getting frustrated. Learn the ropes with a simpler camera which allows full manual control, and a starter lens. You’ll soon learn what is important to you and what limitations you need to get around. Fortunately these days with eBay to hand, you can recover quite a lot of the cost of kit when you replace it.

    For me, I’d recommend a starter dSLR that shoots RAW and has interchangeable lenses, and can shoot fully manual. I’d go for a slightly wide angle, normal and portrait prime lens (35 mm, 50 mm, 85 mm full-frame equivalent). Personally I prefer to move rather than use a zoom to recompose, and primes are lighter, let a LOT more light in which gives you flexibility and usually they are sharper than zooms too. But your style may be quite different- you might find yourself yearning for a 16 mm lens or a 100mm macro. You’ll learn what you need as you go.

    MAKE MISTAKES

    Everyone makes mistakes. The glib thing is to say they are opportunities to learn, and that’s true. Make notes when things go wrong- it’ll be so much more memorable than when they go right! Strive to avoid making the same mistake again. If it is a mistake on kit purchase, flog the kit and get what you should have gone for in the first place.

    Cheap glass is almost always a mistake. As Stu Maschwitz put it, it is a non-refundable down payment on the decent kit you’ll one day need to buy.

    Expensive cameras are a mistake unless you are damn sure. Camera bodies get upgraded every few years, and do wear out- we burnt out the shutter mechanism on a couple of mid-range Canons. If your camera is more than half your investment, get a cheaper one and upgrade your glass.

    Sometimes you splash out on kit that languishes unused in your kit bag after a few outings. (My ringflash doesn’t see much action- the problem is you need to re-meter every times you move, so it doesn’t suit my move around a lot shooting style. If I liked to use a zoom and stay put, it would be awesome). Don’t sweat it. Flog it, or keep it for the odd occasion you’ll need to pull it out.

    Sometimes you buy cheap kit that does everything you need and will serve you a lifetime. I’m still using the polaris flash meter I bought 13 years ago and have never once wished for anything more.

    TRY BEFORE YOU BUY

    If you’re looking at a really major investment in kit, hire it before you buy it. Even a one-day shoot should give you enough idea if it is the kit for you.

    LISTEN TO YOUR ARTISTIC COMPASS

    In the end, the only reason you make art is to satisfy yourself. Sometimes, you need to follow what your artistic vision says, even if everyone else thinks you are crazy. Don’t bankrupt yourself, but in the end only you can decide what will best serve that vision.

    Cheers, Hywel.

    #16727

    aonurag
    Member

    Well, part of the draw of Restrained Elegance is that the photography looks like it’s high end and classy. And the best way to get that is for the photography to actually be high end and classy. So for people who are interested in “RE: Behind the scenes,” tech talk about photography is an important part of that.

    Also you do have an unusually strong preference for the high end stuff. Seriously, how many other bondage sites shoot using medium format? There may be some, but I’ll bet they’re heavily outnumbered by the sites that put up photos taken by point-and-shoots. I find your advice to be very good, but I do have to translate it (Canon & MF –> Nikon, and full frame –> DX)

    #16728

    The main difference between these formats is the sensor size. See table below for translation hints on that 🙂

    The difference between Canon and Nikon is more subtle. For me, the main difference is in the colour science. I like the way Canons (and Hasselblad) render colours, especially skin tones. I find getting skin tones the way I like them out a Nikon to be more of a challenge, but that’s probably because I very rarely have any Nikon sets to process so I’m not used to it.

    Traditionally, sports and wildlife photographers were 100% Nikon and studio photographers were 100% Canon (or Medium Format). These days the divisions are much less clear-cut, with Canon pushing Nikon on the high ISO and autofocus and Nikon pushing Canon on the pixel count and detail. (The new Nikon flagship can even be specified without an anti-alias filter, a distinctly chancy prospect unless you know what you are doing and therefore traditionally the domain of the studio photographers).

    It is fair to say that other manufacturers are minor players in the professional market, although Sony in particular has made considerable inroads with their newer cameras. Here the main issue is the system support. If you can imagine a lens or gadget for the camera system, Nikon and Canon will have it (up to and including ludicrous glass like this 600mm f/4: http://www.warehouseexpress.com/buy-canon-ef-600mm-f4-l-is-ii-usm-lens/p1523948).
    If you choose a Sony or a Pentax, you might not be so lucky.

    There’s also been a real revolution in non-SLR interchangeable lens cameras, with Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus leading the pack (and Nikon and Fuji getting into the game). Because they don’t have to have a pentaprism and mirror system, these can pack a big sensor into a small camera, which makes for fabulous travel cameras with full manual control. I’ve got a Panasonic GF1 which I love for general shooting, although its image quality isn’t up there with a Hasselblad, it is better to have a camera in your pocket that you then use than a splendid one you always leave at home.

    For lenses, the key parameters are field of view and maximum aperture. The field of view is determined by the combination of the lens’ focal length and the size of sensor you’re using it on. A 50mm lens is a 50 mm lens whatever sensor you put behind it, but the smaller the sensor you have, the less of the scene it can see. So an APS-C sensor sized camera (DX, for Nikon guys) effectively crops out the middle bit of the image a full frame version of the camera would see. The net effect is called the “crop factor”, but that seems to confuse people.

    The bottom line for people photography is that you probably want a slightly wide angle (not too wide or it’ll be unflattering), a normal lens that gives the “natural” perspective, and a portrait lens (short telephoto).

    The determining factor in the lens’ cost is usually the maximum aperture. This determines how much light the lens lets in (and as a side-effect, how shallow a depth of field you can get). A “fast” lens like an f/1.4 prime lets in a lot more light than a “slow” zoom like a f/4. (Eight times more light, in this case). That lets you shoot in lower light, gives you a brighter viewfinder image, and gives you more artistic choices. Primes are almost always faster than zooms, and are also designed for maximum sharpness at one focal length rather than being compromised for several, which is why most studio photographers stick to primes. On the other hand, being able to shoot without changing lenses is an absolute requirement for some sorts of photography, so choose according to what you think you’ll be doing.

    This boils down to:
    Four Thirds (crop factor 2)
    Wide: 14-20mm
    Normal: 25 mm
    Portrait: 45 mm
    APS-C/DX (crop factor around 1.5/1.6)
    Wide: 28 mm
    Normal: 35 mm
    Portrait: 50 mm
    Full frame 35 mm (crop factor 1)
    Wide: 35 mm
    Normal: 50 mm
    Portrait: 85 mm
    Medium Format (crop factor around 0.7)
    Wide: 50 mm
    Normal: 80 mm
    Portrait: 120 mm

    Cheers, Hywel.

    #16729

    aonurag
    Member

    Well, I got a Nikon (and in particular a D90) because of the way it felt in my hands. I figured that there wouldn’t be much specialization toward shooting “studio” or “sports” in a (near) entry-level, crop-sensor DSLR. Besides, there’s move-around-a-lot studio shooting, and then there’s heavy-tripod-and-tethering-with-mirror-lockup studio shooting.

    I got the kit lens (18-105), and the 35mm f/1.8 prime. Cheap lenses, but by most reports very good quality for their price. I look at the price of my current lenses not as a down payment, but as a long-term rental while I figure out just how I want to upgrade. Once I figure that out, I can rent a few pieces of expensive glass, and then I can raid my savings account to buy the ones I want. I suspect that I’ll want a pro-quality mid-range zoom, in the end, rather than investing heavily in primes, but it’s still early days for me.

    The new mirrorless interchangable-lens cameras seem to hit the opposite of a sweet spot for me personally. (Sour spot? Bitter spot?) For a travel camera, I’d rather have a superzoom, or a waterproof compact, or a high-end compact with lots of manual controls.

    That new Nikon (D800, or D800E with the no-AA-filter option) does look interesting even if it is way too rich for my blood. It seems to me that it’s being sold at least partly as a medium-format substitute for people who lust for medium-format but don’t have $10,000+ to pay for one. But I’m more interested in Nikon’s next DX camera, although I don’t expect to replace my D90 for several more years.

    #16730

    earboy
    Member

    @hywel wrote:

    The difference between Canon and Nikon is more subtle. For me, the main difference is in the colour science. I like the way Canons (and Hasselblad) render colours, especially skin tones. I find getting skin tones the way I like them out a Nikon to be more of a challenge, but that’s probably because I very rarely have any Nikon sets to process so I’m not used to it.

    Cheers, Hywel.

    Hmm, Nikons and Skin tones. Even though I am a Nikon shooter, I probably agree with you that it is probably easier to get the Skin tones from a Canon than A Nikon. However I do seem to be getting better at it. Using Lightroom, I have found that using Camera Neutral (and Camera Neutral V4) settings in the Camera Calibration section can help enormously. I rarely use any of the other profiles now.

    I often don’t make my life easy however… Coloured light can make it much more difficult to get the nice skin tones…

    I went with Nikon for the User interface, and the Hi ISO performance. (Plus the D700 seems to be build stronger than the 5dmkII which I may well have broken by now…) I guess had I been mostly doing studio stuff I may have gone the Canon route. So Tempted by the new D800. If only I could come up with some way of Justifying buying it this year….

    Cheers,

    Sheep

    #16731

    aonurag
    Member

    I went with Nikon over Canon almost entirely for the user interface/ergonomics. I kept getting told that at the “buy your first dSLR level” the differences in such things as high ISO or skin tone rendition are much ado about nothing. And I believed it.

    Besides, I subscribe to the theory of:

    Camera painful or difficult to use –> not used much –> waste of money
    Camera pleasant & fun to use –> used a lot –> great value for the money

    So far, my Nikon D90 is confirming this; it feels so nice in my hands…

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