I was recently asked by a very good Kiwi friend of mine, Rosie Percival who also happens to be a kick-ass yoga practitioner and teacher in Wellington, NZ, how I took the photo set that's the base of my yoga gallery. A friend of hers was trying to get into photography.
I ended up taking way more time than I thought writing about it so I thought it could make a good base for an article on this poorly treated blog. Anyway, here's a personal insight on what I use, but also why and how.
Camera body: Nikon D7000. It's an oldish enthusiast-level APS-C (crop sensor, not as big as a 35mm standard film or FX-grade digital camera) DSLR released in 2010. There's absolutely no need to get anything fancier, more up-to-date, to build these photos. It's a well known fact of modern photography, but when you start, save money on the camera body, but not on the glass. Really good lenses will outlive the body and will still produce outstanding images as time passes and bodies improve. Things have evolved quite a bit lately with the democratisation of smaller, interchangeable lens systems, called mirrorless, but I still think good lenses are more important than camera body.
The widest shots are taken with a Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 DX. It's a lens which only works (actually, it can work on FX, but it's not ideal) on APS-C (DX in Nikon jargon) bodies. It's about as wide as is possible without heading into fisheye territory. I ended up selling it because I was mostly not using it. But when needed, nothing replaces an ultra-wide angle lens.
- Most of the other ones are shot with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8. It's one hell of a tank, almost 1kg of glass and metal, it's big, it's incredibly expensive, but it's pretty much unbeatable in terms of sharpness and usability all around the zooming range, and corner to corner, all around the field of vision. I could have done these shots with the prime lenses I used to work before (35mm f/1.8, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8). But I bought the zoom originally for low light music photography, where I wouldn't have a second chance if I was missing a shot because of changing lenses. It happens to be very convenient wherever I would be shooting.
As per my camera settings, I usually shot in matrix light metering (the camera deals with calculating the exposure by itself by measuring the whole scene and comparing it to a whole bank of typical scenarios). I kept loose control on speed and aperture (mostly stuck above 1/80s for shutter speed, and between f/2.8 and f/7, depending on the lens). The aperture was not crucial on these shots, and the speed was just at least enough to stop Rosie's or my own body movements from blurring the shots. ISO were free to soar all the way to 1600 (the Scorpion shot is taken at iso 1000). I then applied a healthy dose of noise reduction in Lightroom.
I almost never use on-camera JPEG compression. I've found the raw file formats (.NEF for Nikon, .ARW for Sony) give me so much more flexibility in post-processing. I'm not very interested in any kind of JPG smarts the camera can do. It would not have been crucial on the yoga shots anyway, but I've stopped counting how many photos I've saved (and sold) during other gigs, purely thanks to the magnitude of hidden exposure and white balance informations that a raw file contains.
The drawbacks of setting image quality to RAW are:
- more disk space consumed. But if you're serious about getting into photography, a solid file management and backup strategy are unavoidable. There are tons of posts online about it, maybe one day I'll write about mine.
- Less photos per memory cards. Easy: buy big memory cards. They are dirt cheap.
- Heavier files to be processed by your post-processing software / computer. You'll need a decently powerful computer anyway.
- apparently more time spent in post-processing (I.E. in front of a computer instead of behind the lens). It's a myth. Most, if not all commercial photographers today spend a fair amount of time behind a computer. Learn how to do it fast and learn how to concentrate during the shooting on what can't be changed (spot-on focus, facial and body expression of models, point of view (i.e. where your legs are when pressing the shutter!)). Getting other parameters right straight away is better, of course. But not crucial.
I can't insist enough on the last point. I totally respect photographers who are all about the purity and perfectness of what gets out of their camera. And that's totally fine. That's not how I work, and I found this approach to be a game changer to start selling images.
I often shoot my DSLR in bursts of 2-3 images. This gives me better chances of perfect sharpness (as I'd move on the first shot, when pressing the shutter, then my body would tend to stabilize a bit). Also, it sounds silly, but I'd try and find a solid point of extra support whenever possible. A human body shakes quite a lot when only standing on 2 feet. Walls, door frames, wooden poles (as in this particular yoga studio), anything that's sturdy will help your stability and then image sharpness.
Spend some time and money saved on a fancy camera body on learning a post-processing software (psssst: Lightroom is leagues ahead of any competitors when thinking about the overall workflow of a photographer, and workflow thinking is super important!).
If photography is to become a job, it's mostly ok to forget about courses which focus on photography techniques. Chances are that whoever is thinking about starting to work as a photographer already knows most of what matters about the camera already. The more important, and way too neglected part of becoming a pro photographer is how to be serious about pricing, client prospection, customer relationship, productivity (somewhat less important in shooting, but fundamental in the post-processing approach) and all these completely non-glamourous concepts.
In this particular series, I never used a strobe, speed light or continuous artificial lighting. It's pure natural light, and it was just a question of knowing what time the studio would be best lit. Natural light works very well with the wooden floor as it reinforces the natural touch that can be a pretty important concept in yoga.
The rest is a somewhat gut feeling for scene lighting. I've figured out through my years spent behind a camera that I have a better, if still mostly instinctive, understanding of how light hits things and people. It's mostly a question of looking all around with curiosity. What's capturing a warm light? What's shiny? where are the shapes of strong contrast? How to get a human body in relation to a light source to get the most flattering angles?
Everything else is practice in shooting and a shameless approach to post-production. In order to get shots like that, I don't see any other way but shoot, shoot, shoot, throw away 95% of the shots, learn how to use Adobe Lightroom (or any other powerful and end-to-end software solution to post images), and shoot more. That's how I learnt, anyway.
And that's about it. Any (descent) thoughts are welcome in the comments.