How FPZ Helped Make Me A Better Photographer (A Photographic Year in Review)

Random holiday picture
Random holiday picture
Red Tractor at 2010 Plattsburgh Spring Nationals
Red Tractor at 2010 Plattsburgh Spring Nationals

Over the past year, my husband's renewed interest in photography has also made me examine my own photography "skills" and try to improve them. I would like to become a photographer rather than a "holiday snapper". Although I was a member of a photography club in high school, and someone who tended to always have a camera on holidays, I didn't really understand what made a good photograph. There are hundreds of photos I've taken over the years that will evoke the memory of that occasion, but not much more than that.

Spring 2010

Starting around the end of May 2010, I decided to take this hobby seriously. My first major "photo shoot" took place in Plattsburgh at the annual classic car show. I was happy with some of my shots, but there are a lot of things that could be better about them. In particular I tried to get an interesting shot of a large tractor that was set apart from many of the other vehicles. I was happy with the shot, but as rmtagg and mikeSF pointed out, there were some better angles, and ways to get the shot without the distracting items in the background. I did really work for this photo, I was sitting on the ground, trying many different angles to see what would make it appealing. One thing I did not try was shooting from the back of the tractor and that may have made the shot.

First attempts with new DSLR
First attempts with new DSLR

Summer 2010

My next big step was getting my own DSLR in June. I immediately went out and shot whatever I could find, in this case, some flowers. I soon found out when I went to post-process the images that I had a lot of work to do. My focus was poor, the out-of-focus elements were unattractive, there was a lot to fix! Fortunately, after posting I got some excellent advice from blackcloudbrew, mikeSF, Mr Pink, and Damn Brit on how to improve my next time out.

Study in Yellow and Black
Study in Yellow and Black
with other colours too
with other colours too

The next time I concentrated specifically on flowers. I feel I performed significantly better, and I received more excellent advice on how to improve even more! My focusing had definitely improved, although my bokeh and framing still need some work.

Fisheye basset
Fisheye basset

Around this time I was lucky enough to have a chance to experiment with a fisheye lens as well, but unfortunately I didn't quite understand how to fully utilize its unique features. I had an interesting photo of my dog, but I failed to check my settings before shooting and the white balance was off, and I just never got the right angle to duplicate the shot with better settings.

A new contest started on FPZ that involved using lens purchased for $10 or less. I was pleasantly surprised to place third with this shot. Good constructive criticism told me how I could make this shot better and perhaps place higher in the next contest. The shot itself came almost by accident while trying for a butterfly. I found the profile of the Queen Anne's Lace more interesting than a downward shot and the black and white conversion helped to fuzz out some of the distracting background elements.

Contrast In Lace
Contrast in Lace
135mm Shootout Entry
135mm Shootout Entry

Unfortunately I did not place in the next contest which forced us to use a 135mm focal length. However, I am quite happy with the photo I submitted. And the winners were well-deserved. I feel I captured the colours well in both the pale pink rose and the deeper pink rose, the roses are framed with the rule of thirds in mind. The background colour complements the roses well, and my one complaint is that it's still a bit noisy. I constantly struggle with my ISO settings and focus.

Montreal Old Port

Old Port Red Boat
Old Port Red Boat
Dog profile
Dog profile
Dog portrait
Dog portrait

My next big photo outing was in Montreal at the Old Port. I think I really turned a corner and took some good photos that day. After all the great advice I'd received, I was beginning to understand how to frame a shot, and what might make something that seems uninteresting into a unique photo.

I felt I was at a point where I had progressed enough to choose some specific photos for more in-depth analysis by FPZ members. Blackcloudbrew was especially helpful in showing me the difference between these two photos (shown at right) and how the second one could still be improved. I do need a lot more practice with cloud photos, and finally have a polarizer to try and achieve some better contrast and cloud effects. Thank you to Damn Redneck as well and JIMBO for the very sage advice to slow down and take my time.

Getting better results from my hobby made me more motivated to get out and shoot. However, I felt I was getting repetitive with constantly shooting flowers or my dogs, even though I was improving in my pet portraits. Previously, I always felt as if I was just repeating the same shot over and over. An example from 2009 compared to March 2010 and my favourite so far from October 2010.

2009
2009
March 2010
March 2010
October 2010
October 2010

Shelburne Museum

Inspired by Ansell Adams
Inspired by Ansell Adams
Bronze Casting at Electra Webb Memorial Building
Bronze Casting at Electra Webb Memorial Building
Serene pond
Serene pond

I'd been searching the web for photos from famous photographers and more tips to try and improve my abilities. An exhibition showing both Ansel Adams and Edward Burtynsky was taking place at nearby Shelburne Museum, so I decided that would be the site of my next shoot. There was a wealth of opportunity for photos here that I unfortunately did not have time to advantage of. I had never been to a photography show before, and seeing these two artists juxtaposed was very provoking. Burtynsky has enormous prints of desolation and man's injuries to the Earth. Adams brings a loveliness to the natural world in many of his much smaller photographs. I think it was a very strong show and we spent over an hour wandering a fairly small set of rooms. Full of photographic fervour I set off to see what I could find to make a worthwhile photograph. I was aiming for some Adams flair, although clearly I have a lot of work ahead of me. Another favourite was from the Electra H. Webb Memorial Building that houses many beautiful rooms and works of art. The downstairs holds several remarkable bronzes. The lighting enabled me to get this shot. The museum contains so many interesting collections I didn't get a chance to see them all. I can't wait to return there this year and try again! I'm fairly happy with one shot of a small pond that helped me try and show layers of depth, something I hadn't had attempted much.

Gates as shot
Gates as shot
Gates after post-processing
Gates after post-processing

The more photos I took, the more practice I had in post processing. Many times before this included some heavy cropping to try and frame a photo in a more satisfying, rule-of-thirds way. I decided I really needed to understand how and why following the rule makes a photo more attractive to the eye. Some work with contrast, saturation and noise reduction would certainly benefit many of my photos as well. Given that I use Linux on my computer, I'm able to use many of the fantastic open source programs to process my work. I started using UFRaw and GIMP, but I now use UFRaw and Digikam for most of my work. GIMP is still helpful for some cloning and specialty tools that I don't need with every shot. It would be nice to think my “eye” for finished results is good, but it would be more accurate to say it's “improving”. I'm sure I could always get even better. A good comparison would be the gate images to the left and right. The first shot I post processed in July or August 2010 with GIMP. The second shot I redid in early March 2011 with Digikam. Besides the obvious recovery of detail, I added a crop to get rid of the detritus on the left side. Thanks to lostminstrel for the suggestion of revisiting the photo.

Champlain Valley Exposition

Lights through jewelry
Lights through jewelry
Lots of animals to take picture of
Lots of animals to take picture of

Fast forward to late summer and there are fairs everywhere! The local Champlain Valley Expo takes place the week before Labour Day. There were some posts of long exposures and neon lights on FPZ that made me even more interested in checking out this fair to see if I could achieve the same effects. It was also a great opportunity to take pictures of people performing, many different types of animals, all kinds of things. With post processing I was attempting some different looks, and a black and white picture of a bonsai tree seemed to fit. There was a stall selling jewelry and the light effects attracted my eye. I'm pretty happy with this one. I was still discovering bokeh and I'm trying to learn what is good bokeh and what is not. This is one of my better examples. I had yet to get a hood for my then-favourite lens and given the amount of sun in September I had to use my hand to shade my lens most of the time. I didn't remember to shade all the time though, and had a lot of photos end up not worth processing. This shot worked well accidentally, which just goes to show flare can have a nice effect if used properly. I also had the chance to try some candid portraits. And I still need to work on taking my time so I don't cut off feet. I'm happy with the one posed portrait I took. I'm somewhat nervous asking people if I can take their picture. Blackcloudbrew pointed out asking for a “portrait” may seal the deal in some cases, so I will use that phrasing next time. Finally, a shot of the roller coaster. I got some good feedback from members, so next year I'll see if I can get better. I used a ½ second exposure.

Black and White Bonsai
Black and White Bonsai
Pig Race Announcer
Pig Race Announcer
Spinning Ride
Spinning Ride
Portrait of a llama (and human)
Portrait of a llama (and human)
2008: Click, click, click...
2008: Click, click, click...
Another oldie from 2008
Another oldie from 2008

Fall 2010

2010: After lessons learned
2010: After lessons learned

Now it's fall, and I'm determined to get something colourful and worth showing off this season. My previous attempts tended towards “Wow, pretty colours” without much thought for framing, and certainly no processing. I thought about one shot I took. After showing it to FPZ members I got a lot of constructive feedback and in 2010 I hope I used it well.

I also submitted the leaves pictures to the latest FPZ contest, Traditional Wides. I was pleasantly surprised to “finish” in both the colour and black and white categories. There were some really excellent submissions from all the participating members.

Winter 2010

Christmas Dinner Table Setting
Christmas Dinner Table Setting
Peekaboo!
Peekaboo!

And of course, after fall comes winter and therefore Christmas. A holiday contest “I'd Buy that for $1" began on FPZ. Again, given the traditional family atmosphere of the holiday season I was determined to break the mold of “holiday snaps” and take some worthwhile, memorable photos. It was more difficult than I thought to break away from the traditions my family have had for years and step away from that environment to try and bring an outsider's view of what the holidays are like for my family. I had the chance for a few family portraits, although only one really worked out as planned.

My father carving the turkey
My father carving the turkey
I'll Buy That For $1 Shootout Entry
I'll Buy That For $1 Shootout Entry

As for the contest, again there were many wonderful entries. Considering the competition, I was surprised and happy to finish second with one of my entries.

Given the extremely cold winter this year I've found it difficult to spend a lot of time outside to take pictures. It's not good for my camera, and I don't tolerate it well either! I tried revisiting photos I had taken in 2010 to see if my greater practice with post processing would allow me to make what maybe wasn't a great photo into something worth showing off.

I noticed a recent trend in my latest photo excursions. I was taking fewer pictures. In some cases, much fewer. When I had first received my new camera in June 2010 I was in Florida for 4 days. I took over 500 pictures! Granted, I was bracketing most of the time, so many of these could be ignored, but that is still a lot of photos. Finally I was learning to slow down and take some time to frame a shot and not just click away and hope I get something good. At a recent dinner out I took a total of 8 pictures and ended up with 3 that I really liked. That's not a bad average.

My new 35mm F2.4 lens
My new 35mm F2.4 lens
First sun starburst!
First sun starburst!

I was lucky enough to receive an excellent gift in February, a new lens! The DA 35mm F2.4. So far I've been amazed at the quality of photos I'm taking. It's funny how some better glass can really make a significant difference in the quality of the output. I'm also extremely happy to have finally captured a sun starburst! There are some excellent examples I've seen on FPZ, Leighgion has a real knack for them, but this is the first one I've captured..

Spring 2011

With the slightly warmer weather I'm finally able to get out and shoot some more instead of taking more pictures of my pets. My newly-acquired skills allow me to take better advantage of my great new lens.

I'm really looking forward to seeing what progress I can make this year improving my photographic ability. I know I will continue to receive excellent advice from members and maybe feel confident enough to offer my own opinion on other member's images. I doubt any progress I make will be as dramatic as it was over this past year, but I hope I will continue to improve. To that end, here's a few final photos:

Alice in jail
Alice in jail
Otto profile
Otto profile
Spring bud
Spring bud
Maple spigot
Maple spigot

Thanks for reading my ramblings.