Imagery, Bit by Bit

Chris Harris's Digital Video and Photography Page

I've always been a very visual kind of guy, as you may already have seen from my graphics page. But it's only in the last few years that I've really begun to investigate the use of the computer in producing or manipulating images.
Click on the photos to see my stuff at www.flickr.com
This page is about the sort of tricks I've got up to as a photographer.

Last update: November 2015

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I've been a photographer for a long time: I got my first camera (a Kodak Instamatic 25 camera that used 126 film cartridges) as a present when I was seven years old.

When I was 20, I bought my first proper camera: an Olympus OM1, and in the next few years I bought a telephoto zoom lens for it, a wide angle lens, a number of converters and filters, and bits and pieces of peripheral stuff. It was safe to say that generally I enjoyed taking the occasional picture. But they were just that: occasional pictures. I would seldom get through more than a couple of rolls of film in a year and most of those were used up on holidays and ski trips. It was a real pain going off to the shops and handing in film to be developed.

Then in 2003 I made the leap and got myself an Olympus digital camera. It had quite an effect on the rate at which I took photographs. In the first eight months I'd taken over 600 pictures, and there are quite a few photos on this website that were taken with it. Over the next few years I really started to look at what I was taking pictures of with a new eye, and tried to develop my skills in framing and composition. I took far more pictures, and realised I had far more opportunities to take interesting pictures than I'd realised before.

So I took the camera with me far more often than I'd ever done with the OM1. Unfortunately, this wasn't always a good idea and eventually the C300 got rather squished on a ski trip. After sending it away for repair I realised that I needed something to sustain my burgeoning passion for photography. It was time to take another step forwards, and I got myself a Canon digital SLR.

What I've learned so far is to always take pictures at the highest resolution you can - better to scale things down later than to sit there wondering how you can scale a picture up without it looking blocky. I've also learned to use rechargable batteries - otherwise it can be a very expensive hobby - and always to have a spare set of batteries with me.

I've also upgraded my printer so I could make hard copies of the results - and from taking a picture to having an A4 print in my hand ready for framing now takes less than ten minutes, which I still find mind-boggling.

These thumbnails show a selection of the pictures I've taken over the last couple of years. I feel like I'm beginning to develop a fairly good eye for a reasonable picture, and the folks I've shown them to seem to agree with me.

I've also learnt that with a digital camera you can never take too many pictures, only too few.

These photos are examples of some of the pictures I've taken in the last five years or so. Most of the photos on this web page are also available on my Flickr Page, and at higher resolution, too.

I added a photoblog page to this site that I used to use to show a selection of my pictures from time to time. However, because there are far easier solutions these days than hand-coding a page for each photo, the page has been retired.

I used to work in video in BT's Distance Learning unit, which was probably the most enjoyable job I've ever had. I'd been hankering to do more over the last few years, and when the prices finally dropped low enough bought myself a camcorder. I went for miniDV format, and although up until recently I din't capture the video in native format (I already had an analogue video capture card in my computer) the results have been pretty good.

OK, your eyes have glazed over. What did that last sentence mean? Well, the DV means Digital Video. In other words, the camcorder saves the pictures and the sound on the tape as digital information - ones and zeroes - just like a CD or DVD stores information. If it's digital information while it's in the camera, then it makes sense that you'd want to transfer that digital information as is, still as ones and zeroes, directly into your PC. The usual way of doing this is through a firewire port (sometimes called an IEEE 1394 port) on your computer.

My main PC has a firewire port built in to the sound card, so I can control my camcorder from the computer and load audio and video directly to the hard disk. I can then transfer the files over a wireless network to my video editing machine. On this machine, I also have the option to get the computer to capture analogue video. I do this by playing the video into my computer in the same way that I'd play back a VHS tape. The video editing computer has a card that reads this video, and turns it into digital information. At the same time the computer's sound card records the audio. The two are combined - hopefully synchronised - into a single file on my hard drive. Although this introduces errors, or distortion, I really can't tell the difference as far as the picture quality goes. Having the capability to capture analogue sources is also very useful for capturing existing content from my VCR. Perhaps I'll get a DVD recorder eventually, but at the moment it's not particularly high on my list of things to do.

Each video I produce is better than the last one (well, I think so, anyway), and I learn something new each time. I've also seen a lot of other people's home movies, and there are a number of points to remember which will help you make your stuff stand out from the crowd.

I used to film at work using a baby steadicam, which was a gorgeous bit of kit that looked like it had escaped from the movie Aliens. It positions the camera at the end of a supporting arm, balanced with a counterweight, so the picture doesn't wobble about as much. Because the camera is away from you, you watch the results on an LCD screen built in to the supporting arm. A full-on steadicam as used for a Panavision camera is a very hefty piece of kit and you need to be quite well-built to lift one, but the swooping, gliding effect it can achieve is instantly recognisable. The movie director Sam Raimi used to get the same floating effect by taping his camera to the middle of a plank of wood - with a guy carrying each end, the wobbles were kept to a minimum in the middle. More or less, anyway; which is why he calls it the shakycam! Luckily for you, camcorders these days have image stabilisation built in, but they can only do so much. The point I'm trying to make here is this: don't jerk your camera around when you're filming. Trying to watch stuff shot this way hurts. Moving your camera so that it glides, rather than spasms, from one viewpoint to the next will make a real difference to other people's enjoyment of your work. And if you're filming, laying off the caffeine beforehand might help you here, okay?

When you're filming stuff, try to have an idea of how you're going to use it. Why are you taking a particular shot? If you're telling a story, make sure you know what that story is. If you don't plan your story, you may find that one of your important chapters is missing - because you didn't think to film it on the day.

The same thing also applies once you start editing your footage together. Have a look at everything you've got. Those are the paragraphs to your story. Make sure that you put them together in a way that the viewer can understand, even if they weren't originally shot in that order.

If a friend has a camcorder as well, and you're at the same event, pool your resources. The most fun I've had putting something together at home was when I had anything up to three camera angles of the same event. There are some movie directors who don't work with that much material!

Some other things I've learned in my years of making videos?

  • Forget the fancy transitions. Fades and cuts are all you need.
  • Keep your fingers off the zoom control. Use it before you start recording to get your composition right, then leave it alone!
  • I'd recommend keeping quiet when you're recording. If you want a voiceover, dub it on later, don't do it at the time.
  • If your camcorder has a wind cut facility, use it.
  • Digital zooms are, by and large, completely useless. Get a camera with a good optical zoom instead.
  • Credits and captions can make an incredible difference to your videos, but use them sparingly, and choose a font that you'll still be able to read when the end result is played back on the TV.
  • Use your camcorder around people enough and they'll get used to it. You'll get much better results when people aren't conscious of the fact that you're waving a camera around.
  • A tripod is an immensely useful thing, particularly when it's been set up level.
  • Make sure your batteries are charged before that important even starts...
  • ...and if you can't decide whether or not to take the camera, always take it with you.

More than anything else, though - have fun. Don't make everyone else's life a misery getting your production just right. You're there to record the day, not control it!

First of all, I'd make the inevitable comment is that if you're thinking of putting things off until something better comes on the market, you'll end up never buying anything. Take the plunge now - it's possible to get good results without having to spend thousands.

Secondly, as well as investing in at least one set of rechargeable batteries and a good charger (which you're definitely going to need) try to get a mains adaptor for the camera. I got a non-branded mains adaptor for the Olympus and it works a treat. After all, when I'm just downloading stuff to the PC, there's no sense in running the camera off the batteries.

Other things to bear in mind? Well, if your PC hasn't got a USB port, you'd better start thinking about upgrading it, because your PC isn't going to be up to much for digital photography with the latest cameras. My old machine had USB 1 ports on it, which work out at about 11Mb/s. USB 2.0 is fast. Almost all the camera manufacturers provide a USB interface these days and it's easy to use. You'll also need a USB interface handy for the inevitable card reader that you'll end up hanging off your PC. There are many different card formats, and you'll end up needing to read just about all of them eventually.

OK, the stuff I've got isn't going to set the world on fire at the professional level, but there again, I'm not doing this as a profession. On the other hand, from a hobbyist point of view, I'm not doing too badly.

  • Panasonic MiniDV camcorder
  • Pinnacle DC10 plus analogue capture card
  • Canon EOS50D digital SLR
  • Canon EOS350D digital SLR
  • Canon PowerShot A720IS digital camera
  • Olympus C300Z digital camera
  • Canon i950 colour printer

The camcorder was a really good deal - and I've been very happy with the results, even if miniDV is rather long in the tooth these days (you mean you shoot in standard def? On tape?) I bought the wide angle lens for it, which has made a tremendous difference in terms of the sort of compositions I can get. There again, I have this thing about wide angle lenses; when I shoot film, my OM1 is almost permanently fitted with a 28mm lens because I like the way pictures look at that focal length. And of course I use a 10-22mm on the DSLRs. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In a field that's moving as fast as the digital domain, the Olympus C300z I bought back in 2003 was soon superceded by more refined models. Heck, my iPhone takes pictures with the same resolution! One thing I found fairly quickly was that the 300z didn't really offer that much control over the exposure and focusing, and the delay in the shutter release (common in early digital cameras) was a pain. After thirty years finding my way around the OM1 I've got used to choosing where I want the focus to be, not having the camera decide. Just after I got the 300z my sister bought a Canon A70, which offered more control over exposures, and recorded movies with sound. It's a field of technology which has seen upgraded models come out at about six month intervals. Eventually I decided to get another point and shoot digital camera for taking to gigs, and in 2008 I chose the PowerShot A720IS because it had a pretty decent optical zoom, an eight megapixel sensor and it shoots movies (with sound this time) which it saves as AVI files. It even has built-in image stabilisation, which has turned out to be far more useful than I expected. The PowerShot had the same sensor size as my 350D, which goes to show how far things have come since back in 2003 when I first put this page together.

Ahh, the EOS350D. You may know it better as the Digital Rebel XT if you live in the States. I bought mine in 2006, and I loved it from the moment I first pressed the shutter. The EOS350D was my first digital SLR, and I've enjoyed creating every picture I've taken with it. In three years, I'd gone round the clock with it - when the counter got to IMG_9999, the next shot wound things back to zero. As I approached my 11,000th shot I started to get twitchy about whether it would keep going, as the shutter is only rated for 10,000 exposures. As I was heading off on a photography holiday, I didn't fancy having it break down while I was miles away from home, so I splashed out on its big brother, the EOS50D. It's got a 15 megapixel sensor and the images work out at 4752 by 3168 pixels, which gives me a lot to play with. The shutter release on the 50D sounds much more robust than the 350D, too - when you press the shutter there's an extremely satisfying thunk. I hope it's more robust, as I've taken that round the clock, as well.

The 50D has functions that were unheard of when the 350D came out, including one called live view which flips the mirror up out of the way and lets you frame the shot using the display on the back of the camera instead of the viewfinder. The sensor has an ultrasonic shaking mechanism to keep it clean. The user display is on the top of the camera rather than under the viewfinder, and you can switch on a backlight for it - which will come in very handy when I'm taking long exposures at night with a tripod. The ISO sensitivity is ridiculous - at ISO 1600 it takes perfectly usable pictures, but with the custom functions enabled it will even shoot at a ridiculous ISO equivalent of 12800 and the results are quite acceptable, if a little noisy. The 50D came with the first DSLR lens I've owned to have image stabilisation, a Canon EF-S 18-200mm kit lens. It's been such a useful all-round lens that it stays on the camera by default. However I've bought myself a number of other lenses over the years, including the Canon EF-S 10-22mm wide zoom, which quite frankly makes it almost impossible to not take a striking and dynamic photograph.

With the extra battery pack and a selection of lenses to carry around, the 50D is neither small or light. When I travel these days I take another PowerShot with me instead, a SX40 HS that I bought in 2012. It has a quite ridiculous zoom lens (the equivalent of a 28 - 840mm lens on a 35mm SLR) that has built-in image stabilization and it shoots video in full HD as well.

After more than a decade of digital photography, I'm hooked. It's possible to do so much more with your pictures when they're in a digital format, which brings me nicely on to the next subject I want to cover...

It's amazing what software you can get without having to spend loads of money. I used to use some useful stuff - like Spin Panorama, which created Quicktime Panorama images - from old PC magazine cover disks. It's a shame that the company that made Spin Panorama is no longer in business, because I'd have upgraded to a full product on the spot. But they're not in business partly because these days, the panorama function is built directly into the camera. Even my phone can take perfectly-stitched panoramas at the push of a (virtual) button.

My latest copy of Paint Shop Pro came with a pack of 50 Imation CD-Rs, but open source image editing software like The GIMP is freely available on the net. But if you're running Windows and you haven't already got it, you really need to download Irfan Skiljan's "IrfanView" image viewing software. For home users it's freeware, and it's about the best there is. The link's given at the bottom of the page.

As far as video goes, I've output the results back on to VHS video, which look OK, but I also got a copy of Nero Burning Rom with my CD rewriter, and it produces Video CDs. So long as I use CD-RWs rather than CD-Rs, my DVD player will read them, and the results are pretty impressive. Hey, I can even set the widescreen flag so my TV plays it back in the correct aspect ratio! Now that I have a new PC complete with a DVD burner, I'm ready to try making my own DVDs, so stay tuned.

I've been very pleased with the copies of my stills I've printed out. Which magazine estimated that a full-colour A4 print on the i950 worked out at about 86 penc, which was a lot less than some of the other printers they looked at, and the quality was the highest rated. I'm sure things have improved since then, but while it's still giving me high quality output and I can still get replacement cartridges for it, I don't feel the need to change it.