Wednesday, 31 October 2012

My second journey into photography - what did I learn?

This time around I was ready to really understand the basics of photography: depth of field, shutter speed, aperture etc. The triangle, which I remember reading about in my photography books but not understanding very well in practice, came up as soon as the second lesson. I had to get to grips with it rather than choose the tactics of ignoring. What I needed was someone talking me through the different elements of photography. And this time it was digital photography, rather in keeping with my time, instead of film. Also my expectations were more realistic than those during my first journey into photography (see previous post). I wasn’t going to be the photographer I may have dreamt about in my younger years.

My main subject was going to be the little baby that has taken 
centre stage in my life. Because he is growing fast and time just flies I wanted to capture all the beautiful moments, his cheeky smile, his first claps (the first time he clapped he was really excited)

... his first time in the sea, etc. 

So we, his parents decided to invest in a Canon 450D. Instead of unearthing the old books I wanted us to go on a course to learn how to use and make the most of the camera. It coincided with a friend wanting something similar for her and her husband, a big push to actually sign up for the course.

So there we were, the four of us attending the first class. Impressive! The class was full and bustling. It had been R’s intention from the start, to test out the first course and see if he enjoyed it as much as to continue for the next nine others. Our friends had something similar in mind. One constraint we all shared was babies and babysitters. We initially thought of sharing one, thus sharing the cost too, but in practice we realised it wouldn't be that easy, with babies sleeps being disrupted from beds to cars. So the choice was between, both parents going for the course and paying the price of the course and the babysitter, or one parent doing the course and sharing the learning with the other parent.  

However we wanted to give it a try and make a judgement depending on the quality of the course. The course being pretty average at least at the start, made our decision easier. It did get better towards the end but R had by now dropped together with my friend's husband. My friend starting missing some of the classes later on, caught up between work, travels, family and blogging (Eva’s blog, but so did most of the initial intake. It made it better for the few of us still holding on, but I am not sure about what it says on the quality of the course.  

The start was quite frustrating as we were not progressing very fast, we came back to the same points (aperture and shutter speed) as they are a little bit counter-intuitive and for most people difficult to remember. But perhaps the repetitions were good for remembering!

As photography is quite technical and has a long history of adapting to different technologies the way things work doesn’t make much sense to the modern user. So it is important to structure the course so that the technicalities don’t become a barrier. The best way of learning was by practicing and sharing images. So assignments should have been more prominent in the course as well as shooting sessions.

After 'mastering' the basic elements of photography, the question for me was where to next and what do I do with my images? 

Practice seemed the next logical step. So practice I did, anywhere, where I live, on holiday, in the park, at home. Some of my pictures were overexposed, especially those taken during our holidays where it was really bright and we were on the beach, so inevitable. I should have started with underexposed settings, so here is a lesson. 

On a few occasions while I have been pondering about the settings, which value for shutter speed/focal length I have been too slow and have missed the moment. Two lessons so far, be careful about overexposure and use automatic mode when need to capture quickly. 

But what else did I learn from the course?

To use my camera in one of the priority modes as well as in manual. In manual mode before taking pictures start by checking the ISO values first. I then set my focal length and last shutter speed. 

The triangle

The famous triangle of exposure is key. Aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the three elements which can be used to control the amount of light coming in through the camera and the effects one wants to achieve.  

Aperture (or the f stop) - an easy way to remember  

The way I remember this, avoiding the technicalities is: when I want to take a picture that focuses on a subject and I want to throw everything else out of focus, I use a small value for the F stop (for my camera and my 18-55mm lens, something like F3.5 or F5.6; of course for other cameras and lenses it can be different and the lower the value the better the effect, the lowest being F1.4).

When I want to have everything in focus and not lose any details I use higher values (F16, F22). The values in the middle produce a bit less of each effect and a bit more of the other.

ISO values

The ISO sets the sensitivity of the sensor (the modern version of the film) to light, so on a dark day, indoors higher values of ISO (400-1600 and over 1600) will increase the brightness of the picture. On a sunny day, outdoors the lowest values will be enough (100-400).  

Shutter speed - an easy way to remember 

For low values of shutter speed (60, 125; this is my definition which means the value in the fraction 1/value but conventionally it would be high values as it is 1 over that value), a lot of light comes into the camera. For high values (1000 and more) less light goes through.

Depth of field 

One thing I remember well because I like using it, is depth of field and how you can make an image have different layers. This is like using various values of aperture but in addition you decide how close you want to be to the main object of your photo and make the rest looks unimportant, just as part of background. I like images with shallow depth of field, where an element is clear and the rest out of focus.

I also like taking landscapes and again with shallow depth of field, focusing on a flower or a leave. 

Also street reporting is interesting but difficult to do unless you have a really good long lens so that you don't have to be very close to peoples faces. 

The rule of thirds stuck with me as an aesthetics general rule to keep in mind. It seems that images are more pleasing to the eye when the subject is in one or two thirds of the image frame rather than dead in the centre. I really like using this as it gives me something to focus on when I take a picture and have to decide framing my image. Which bits matter most, what should I keep in, leave out?  

So here is my resume of a photography course and lessons from practice. I am hoping to keep practicing and perhaps will share more tips in the future! 

Your turn now!
Let me know what did you think, I'd love to hear from you. Don't be put off by the need to write your name, a web link (which can be any, your work, your blog, any other website you find interesting) and typing the characters that deny access to the 'badies' (the spams). I would love to know what you think.

Monday, 8 October 2012

End of season holiday on the Albanian Riviera

Another end of season holiday, on the Albanian Riviera. The domestic and 'patriotic' (meaning other Albanians living in Kosovo, Macedonia or outside Albania) tourist crowds have left and only a few foreign backpackers or cyclists are still around but not on the beach. Mainstream foreign tourism, such as in neighbouring Corfu is still underdeveloped and in the meantime all the bars are shut, hotels are boarded up or starting works for next year. Other times I have had the feeling of desolation, 'the party is over' sort of message, despite very warm and sunny days. It was 33 degrees most days but no one was to be seen on the beach. 

We made the most of the beautiful weather, bathed in the cool, transparent waters  and enjoyed the peace and quiet around us. Because of a different context, being here with my parents at their lovely holiday house and simple expectations, having some rest, seeing my parents and them spending time with their grandson, I enjoyed this. 

It is all so local and typical. The van providing supplies for the village, with delicious white bread. My mother's early morning pancakes that we eat with feta cheese, local honey and/or homemade strawberry jam.

No doubt we all enjoyed them! 

The bar opposite our house where a big flat screen TV used to entertain the few visitors, mainly bus drivers driving back and forth to Greece, until one night it disappeared. The entrance to a beach now closed, 'Niki beach' blocked by a crane instead of a gate. Cows wandering on the beach making the most of the left-overs from the visitors' last days. Construction materials and equipment starting on new sites or finishing off last year's ones. 

All that remains unspoilt is the sea and the stones of the beach. Everything behind is work in progress, all too familiar. Of course long lasting damage is being done to the beatiful coastline, which is unstoppable and will be regretted, but the 'people of Albania' are in charge and they don't think the same.

Obviously for a young toddler it doesn't really matter, everything is great fun especially the great number of stairs everywhere, a new environment, the company of my uncle's dog and the pebbles and stones. The sea was not that appealing for him despite its turquoise and clear waters but it was refreshing and really pleasant for us. After all he never really enjoyed the swimming pool either!

And me in all this? I felt content, although R was not with me, but had the feeling of resting and being close to my family and in a typical Albanian place. A place mixed up with elements of Greek language but still so Albanian. 

Besides Albanian, Greek language is also spoken in the South of Albania. This is mainly due to the proximity to Greece and to the fact that before the definition of the border between the two countries - at the time of the First World War - Greek, Albanian and other ethnic groups lived in the region. When the border was drawn some Albanian villages were included in Greece and some Greek ones in Albania. However Greek is spoken also in villages which are not close to the border and this might come as a result of exchanges with Greece and Greek historically being the written, commercial and language of the Church from Antiquity up until the Ottoman Empire. The village where my mother's father family originates from - Palase, is one of these villages, not close to the border but speaking Greek as a second language. Of course talking about such issues as Greek language, Greek minorities and Greek influence in the South of Albania can quickly become a heated conversation because of the region being a matter of territorial dispute and a source of conflict between nationalists from both sides. 

Leaving this to the side I find it interesting to observe the Greek speaking Albanians who are still so Albanian. Like these two ladies, out on their evening promenade who were speaking with my mother about some common acquaintances. My mother's mother family originated from the same town the ladies were from, Himare, and it happened that they knew my grandmother's aunts. 

Himara was looking very peaceful at the end of a sunny day. 

After engaging with the ladies we went to look for fresh fish at the port but at the end my mother wasn't convinced by its quality and price. 

We saw a little boy with blond long hair tied up with clips, with his granddad who was speaking to him in Greek. 

Our little boy was excited and we said 'look at the pretty little girl'. His granddad replied 'he's a boy under cover, we don't want him to be exposed to the evil eye'. That was an interesting comment but difficult to understand. I decided to guess its meaning and thought that since boys are usually preferred to girls for many cultural reasons, dressing up the boy as a girl reduces his chances of being harmed by the 'evil eye', which I had the time to notice is still a very common belief in Albania. We saw them again about to leave on a scooter with the boy looking like a girl standing on a banana box at the front of the scooter. They were probably only going around the corner in a small town but didn't seem to be bothered by any safety concerns. All so typically Albanian!

On the way back the last big town on the Ionian sea, Vlora offered other interesting views, with pensioners their skin naturally tanned enjoying the bright morning sun. 

The Albanian Riviera, I strongly recommend it to all those that want something out of the ordinary and take life with a pinch of salt. And a lot of sun!