Photography Tips: Tripods, Art, Filters - James Lomax

Here are a few photography tips. I’ve noticed they are sometimes not spoken about, because people teach photography using outdated methods and have an interest in doing so. I discussed this topic with a teacher friend after he attended a workshop. He said “I got the feeling she was keeping stuff to herself.” There’s a big difference, I said, “between a business person and a teacher.” Teachers are inherently generous, holding nothing back. He ran free photography sessions at his school. It’s the opposite in business because the aims, start point and ethos are very different.

Tripod

You must use a tripod if the light and creative demands require it. Very low light means slow shutter speeds, large apertures, and camera shake. You may want a slow shutter speed to blur water, lake, or skies; possibly with the use of a filter. I’ll say more about filters in a moment.

If you don’t have to use a tripod, don’t. And in good light, with a good quality camera with high ISO performance, there will be many times when this applies. Think about it. You want to find a good composition, and that means moving around. A slight shift of viewpoint often changes everything. A different location, a few feet away, often means a radically different picture. If there are, say, ten different possibilities for one shot you should explore all of them. Setting up with a static tripod impedes your creativity and locks you into one framing.

If you are a hill walker you must understand this: and you are likely to do so because you’re familiar with moving through a landscape. If you set up and wait for good light that’s another matter. The slanting sunbeam cutting through the clouds lighting the crag, it’s not there now but you think it might be, fine. But you must first explore all the angles, viewpoints, and framing possibilities.

Graphics Art

Think back to when you did art at school or college (perhaps) or that programme you saw on the BBC (possibly). If you can’t do that, find art material to enjoy and learn from. Books in the library for example. To a large extent, it’s the same ideas in photography. Painters use the rule of thirds, counterbalancing ‘weight’ achieved with brightness or colour or dramatic interest, leading lines, and so on. It’s good to demystify photography, not the opposite.

Outdoor photography is essentially about graphics. Light, colour, shape and line. Within that understanding you then look for drama (the big shape of a soaring hillside) or beauty (the stillness of a lake) or a nature theme (the colours of autumn) and so on. This doesn’t cover all eventualities, but it’s a starting point.

Filters

I read photography magazines and studied it at school and made aesthetic decisions at that time. Starburst filters were trendy and while I liked some of the shots I saw, I felt it wasn’t for me because it was artificial. As an adult (interested in philosophy and ideas) I know photography is in essence ‘artificial.’ It is however a matter of commonsensical degree as opposed to a ruling idea.

Think about it - what I mean is, yes all photography is artificial, but no that doesn’t mean a starburst shot is the same as a shot without a filter. People like to tie you in knots, obscuring logic, like it’s a power game they want to win. Don’t let them do it.

There is one filter you probably need because its effects can’t be replicated on a computer: the polariser. Theoretically you could replicate the effect in Photoshop by adjusting tone and brightness but the work involved is enormous for any scene where a polariser has strong impact. This is where you have reflections and glare with water, on tree bark perhaps, shiny rock, or with glass and metallic surfaces. I recommend a polariser.

A graduated filter effect can be achieved very easily in Photoshop. Remember – you are working with pixels, so it makes no difference if you modify those pixels with glass, a computer, or you may have a function for this in your camera.

The only time you need a graduated filter is when the light value of the sky in relation to the ground is such that you can’t capture it with your camera: this is called dynamic range. In my experience (and with my camera) that doesn’t happen very often.

Similarly with a neutral density filter which reduces the amount of light entering your lens, landing on your sensor, which means you must use a slow shutter speed - which you want to blur water or skies. This is one situation where you do need a tripod, with or without a filter - but you don’t need a filter. There is a method in Photoshop where you stack a large number of shots of the same scene, and blend them together to create the same water or sky blur you  get with a slow shutter speed.

You may like to use filters and enjoy the old method, but you should know you don’t have to do it. Good (interchangeable) filter systems are expensive and I personally don’t like them because they are very fiddly. 

The other reason for using filters concerns whether you prefer working outdoors or indoors on a computer. I like to walk and be outdoors, not to labour over photography for its own sake. I’d rather sit, walk or swim for thirty minutes, enjoying a lake, with a five minute photograph, than spend thirty minutes with a location camera to spare thirty minutes at home on a computer. A digital camera is a basically a computer, working with optical data. You have greater technical control and a better visual experience with a screen and keyboard.

Which comes first? I know which comes first for me. Not as a photographic compromise (it isn’t) but because I love the outdoors. My priority is walking with photography, not photography for its own sake. 

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