The Technology of Photography
Who is this article for?
This article is for new photographers embarking on what will turn out to be an expensive but rewarding lifestyle. I hope that I can share some insight into the reasons to acquire photography kit and help prioritise those acquisitions.
The technology of photography goes way beyond the act of taking the photograph, and the extent to which we choose to be involved is down to the individual needs of the photographer. The point of this article is to lay out the technical landscape and provide a focal point for the many rabbit holes down which the curious photographer may choose to dive! Some of which I’ve written about extensively.
I make no apology for being overly focused on Canon cameras. This is my area of expertise and experience. I’m not saying they are the best, my suspicion is that give or take a few pixels, Canon, Sony and Nikon are pretty much level pegging right now and while occasionally one surges ahead with a new product, the others catch up pretty fast. The boundaries of the technology of photography are pretty much defined. by these three companies. A mention too to Fuji and Olympus, both manufacturers make excellent cameras I’m sure, just ones I have very little experience of.
The practical guidance on buying a camera then extends to a single guideline. Buy the camera that feels most comfortable in your hand. People have very different sizes and shapes of hands and trust me, it makes a huge difference.
Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras use a mirror to reflect the light received through the lens onto the sensor. This design is a direct descendant of film cameras. With the advent of Mirrorless, it’s possible to pick up a high-end DSLR for a fraction of the cost; there are some real bargains out there.
Mirrorless cameras for better or for worse, are the future; all of the major manufacturers have switched their focus to mirrorless. The advantages are smaller size and in theory at least, weight, and because of the lack of a mirror fewer moving parts to go wrong and less vibration. Check out my article Ultimate Guide to Taking Sharp Landscape Photographs for some further insight into this. There will be other advantages emerging as development on DSLR technology has ceased.
The only drones that are serious tools for photographers are the DJI line. In the Mavic 3 (20 megapixels, 5.1k Video), DJI use Hasselblad cameras with automatic image stabilisation and the results are superb. The old DJI Phantom 4 Pro is the best alternative so far as camera spec goes with a 20 megapixel sensor and the ability to record 4K video at 60fps. Arguably, 4K is the most you are likely to need for YouTube until mobile connectivity speeds pick up.
GoPro pretty much set the bar for the technology of photography so far as action cameras are concerned but they do now have some competition. DJI are on the third iteration of their action camera and Insta360 are muscling into the market with an innovative modular design and a new partnership with Leica lens technology.
People detest tripods, pro photographers tolerate them, landscape photographers need them. As a landscape pghotographer I’d go so far as to say the tripod is the most important investment you’ll make after the camera itself. Don’t scrimp, the attics of pro photographers are often tripod graveyards as the photographer realises the pitfalls of cheap technology and upgrades.
These days, the choice is really between carbon or aluminium legs for weight reasons and twist or clip locks when extending the legs.
From the landscape perspective, don’t use a centre column. They always introduce the possibility of movement and the heavier your camera/lens combo, the worse this will become. Secondly, the entire tripod becomes more unstable the firther you extend the centre column as the centre of gravity rises. One gust of wind and you’ll see thousands of pounds worth of equipemnt hit the floor, hard.
The Tripod head is the icing on the stability cake. These days the ball head is the default, but be very careful, they tend with time to develop a noticeable lack of tightness which makes the job of composition increasingly hard. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up attempting to second guess the amount of slippage and that way madness lies. I speak from painful experience.
Acratech manufactures my favourite tripod heads, they are light, beautifully engineered and expensive, but in my view worth it. The other company whose products I’d happily endorse are Fanotec, who make the Nodal Ninja range of heads.
The Acratech panoramic head is a typically marvellous piece of engineering. Etched measurements allow camera movement to be replicated precisely across rows which makes the panorama easier to stitch and gives you a higher percentage of usable pixels. It’s robust design enables it to double as a long lens head for single shots.
The principle of a ballhead is that the camera baseplate is attached to a ball that is clamped into position by an adjustable clamp or screw. Usually there is a slot on one sode of the enclosure that enables the camera to be used in portrait orientation.
The advantages of ballheads are that they are easy to manoevre into position, light and simple to use.
The disadvantages are that they are prone to slipping, that it is very difficult to move the camera in a single plane and that because of the enclosure they difficult ot clean if grit gets between the ball and the enclosure.
About six months ago I acquired an Acratech GXP Ballhead and I couldn’t be happier with it. The design is such that it is easy to take apart for cleaning, it shows no sign of slipping and can be reversed to work as a levelling panoramic head for single row panoramas. The engineering quality is so high that the head is practically a piecof art in itself!
Gimbals need to be included here for completeness sake. They are useful for video where you need a smooth pan or tilt. The motorised Ronin Gimbals designed by DJI are complicated, expensive and heavy but unmatched for smoothness by any other manufacturer. Also they can be programmed to perform complex manoevres.
Other Gimbal driven cameras include the DJI Pocket, a tiny but startlingly effective video camera built into a gimbal that can be attached to any tripod.
These heads are not seen so much these days, but they remain popular with landscape and studio photographers because they don’t slip and can be easily locked into place for bracketed shooting.
Video heads are usually fluid dampened and enable a smooth action from beginning to end of camera movement. Unlike conventional pan/tilt heads that jump at the beginning of a movement as the force required to move it overcomes the latency of the fixed position.
This category is so huge that I reduced it to two accessories that I feel are indispensable and technically notable.
Arca-Swiss Quick Release System
The Quick Release system is the combination of the base plate on the camera and the mounting base or clamp that is attached to the tripod. The Arca-Swiss system is another example of perfect engineering that provides a rock-solid base that can be applied to almost any photographic task. And be ported across various tripod and lens manufacturers’ equipment. The problem it solves is not just one of stability, Manfrotto Heads for example demand Manfrotto base plates.
Thankfully many manufacturers are working to the Arca-Swiss specification and advertise their products as Arca-Swiss compatible. I use a combination of Acratech heads and Kirk baseplates both of which conform to the standard and the benefit it brings is that I can use any camera/lens combination on any tripod/head that I own, without ever thinking about it.
I was a very late convert to L Brackets, preferring to use the slot on my ballhead to achieve portrait orientation, but what a difference they make. I now have a Kirk L Plate attached permanantly to both of my main shooting cameras.
What does it do? Well, by design it wraps around the camera presenting an Arca-Swiss mounting plate on the base and one side of the camera. It doesn’t block any of the camera controls or hatches and means I can flip from portrait to studio orientation without shifting the point of focus of the camera.
Secondly, because it places the nodal point (just in front of the lens attachment) closer to the angle of rotation, the Parallax issue is much less problematic.
File under non-essential unless you are specialising in panoramic photography. Using a nodal rail, it is possible to eliminate the Parallax issue altogether. It’s important to say that this is only a problem if you are shooting panoramas with objects in the foreground. Many panoramas use long lenses and focus on distant points, but some, including almost all 360° panoramas fall foul of this problem. The problem arises because the relationship of the foreground to the background changes between shots if the camera is offset from the nodal point. A crude example of that is to close one eye and note the position of a close object relative to a faraway object. Now try it with the other eye and observe the shift.
A nodal rail, allows you to move the camera along the axis of focus until the optimal position is reached where the nodal point of the camera/lens combo is directly on the axis of rotation. Because this point is different with every lens, the rail solution is perfect and with practice the nodal point can be established pretty quickly.
The display on the back of the camera is very useful for composition. If you can see it. Even a UK sunny day will overpower most LCD screens. A loupe is a device with an eyepiece that can be placed over the LCD so that it can be viewed in any conditions.
Check out my review of the Hoodman HoodLoupe.
Most photographers start with an all purpose kit lens (one that is supplied with the camera) and buy a telephoto lens to open up the possibilities greater magnification brings.
The key focal lengths are:
- Wide Angle – 14mm – 35mm
- Standard – 35mm – 70mm
- Telephoto – 70mm – 300mm
Covering these focal lengths should be the first priority for a new photographer. Check out my post The Best 3 Lenses for Landscape Photography for some insight into these three lenses.
After these I would add:
- 50mm Prime Lens – these are known as “Normal” lenses because they more or less see life as the human eye sees it.
- 100mm Macro Lens – Primarily for close up photography.
As your photography develops there will be requirements for new lenses, better lenses and specialist lenses. As a commercial photographer I used the 50mm, 100mm and the 24-70mm lenses more than any other. As a landscape photographer I use my 17-40mm, my 24-70mm and 70-200mm more than any others. For architecture my 24mm Tilt/Shift lens comes into play.
Cards and Card Readers
Buy fast cards manufactured by a well known brand like SanDisk. Cheap cards will fail more often. Card readers fail too, you need to buy something robust and portable. I have a card reader by Kingston that has lasted six years so far. I recently bought one by SanDisk that seems more robust.
Disk Drives and Backup Solutions
Don’t store pictures on your hard drive. The sensible option is to buy a portable drive and use that until it fills up. Then label it and buy another. In case you haven’t already seen my article A Backup Strategy for Photographers in 2022, it contains a lot of detail about disk drives and the optimal way of backing up your photographs according to your needs.
For the new photographer, the purchase of a camera bag usually comes just after the camera/lens and tripod, using what is left of the budget. As the amount of kit grows, that first camera bag is rapidly outgrown and the slippery slope to a roomful of camera bags has begun. I have nine myself, I have sold at least that number again. I know of one photographer with twenty five bags!
The best way to deal with the inevitability of bag bloat is to step back and take a view of what you need to transport and for how long you need to transport it. I think most photographers could get by with a day bag and a single more substantial bag for storage and extended trips.
Before buying prioritise your criteria. First on the list should be comfort. I’ve had bags that make my shoulder numb after an hour or so and I find most shoulder bags unusable as they pull my back out of alignment. Nothing will spoil your fun like an uncomfortable camera bag. Other criteria are capacity, ease of access, airline friendliness and price.
I wrote in December 2022 about F-Stop Mountain Photography bags and in the previous year about the best Think Tank Camera Bags.
Post Processing & RAW
As a new photographer you will probably shoot in jpeg at first as the format produces a presentable image straight out of the camera.
As soon as you can, start shooting in RAW and invest in post-processing software. Adobe Lightroom is the choice made by the majority of photographers but it is not the only solution. DxO PhotoLab is an excellent RAW processor and there are other manufacturers such as ON1, Capture One and Luminar that make good software.
Check out my post describing a workflow that can be applied to most if not all processing software – A Workflow for DxO PhotoLab 6
Be sure to read plenty of reviews and go on the forums in Facebook to see what existing users think of the software before you commit.
My own preferences are DxO PhotoLab, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I would also recommend Capture One if you can afford it.
With the cost of ink these days, printing can become a very expensive hobby. My recommendation is that unless you are selling prints, then investing a kings ransom in a Canon or Epson pro-level printer is a luxury. There are some who will argue that print is the only medium that matters but the reality for most people is that their photographs will be viewed on social media or on their website.
Social Media is becoming more fluid, so recommendations here may be out of date by the time the article is published!
Instagram is the go-to social platform for the majority of people right now. Up and coming alternatives include Vero and Mastadon.
You can build a personal portfolio on sites like Flickr, SmugMug or 500px.
You can also build your own website, but unless you are a professional photographer selling prints or services this will be a vanity project. You will still need social media to build your audience
The Technology of Photography – Conclusion
When I started writing this article I realised quickly that I was making myself a hostage to fortune! Nothing moves quicker than photography technology. I’ll try to keep the content updated, but if you think I’ve missed some new development entirely then do let me know in the comments below!
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