The heuristics of digital photography

One of the things I like best about digital photography is seeing results and learning from them immediately. In shots like the one above, for example, I could see that the time exposure actually worked, even from an airplane flying at hundreds of miles an hour. I not only see what I got right away, but I know exactly what settings produced the exposure, and I don’t have to waste a roll of film and a pile of prints to see the result.

Shots like these also fool the photo processing systems too. Those systems often think night shots like these are underexposed and compensate by overexposing them in the printing process. To get the shot above to work with film, I’d probably need to bring the negative back in with specific instructions to enlarge it properly.

It’s also interesting for me to see, often months after I’ve posted them, which pictures people remark upon or call favorites. The one above, for example, I shot on June 6 of last year. Since then it has been called a favorite by five different people, all at different times, including once a few hours ago, which is how it returned to my attention.

The shots of mine that others call favorites are often not my own favorites. Yet the fact that others have “favorited” these is interesting and rewarding to me. It’s also taught me not to edit too heavily. Better to throw a pile of stuff up there than to post only those shots I consider most worthy.

Also, how people relate to photographs differs from one online photo service to another. For example, Tabblo (born in Cambridge, MA) supplements Flickr pefectly as a place to assemble photos into montages or “tabblos” that can, if you like, be printed in a variety of forms. (Disclosure: I’ve consulted Tabblo in the past.) Thanks to mashable web services, I can flow my Flickr sets into tabblos. It’s interesting to me that this tabblo has had 14 comments (two by me, in response to others), including two favorites (not by me), out of just 90 views. Meanwhile the original photo set on Flickr has had 2 comments out of 244 views. For the Tabblo set that’s more than 10x the rate of commenting on way less than half of the viewing of the same set on Flickr.

What would be my own favorites, among either photos or sets or tabblos? I’ll post a few here over the coming days or weeks, to see if any of the rest of ya’ll agree.

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10 Responses to The heuristics of digital photography

  1. Bob Colameco says:

    I have only recently (June) purchased a DSLR (pentax K10D) and started the process of learning how to use it. Years ago I had a 35mm and loved taking pictures. But the DSLR is a new and wholly different hobby. I would love to get your feedback on some of the shots I recently posted on flickr. Ignore the wedding shots, they are there so my friends can download them and in a week or so I will remove them. I am a high school history teacher and will be taking pictures for our yearbook this year so I am trying my best to get somewhat comfortable with the camera.

    Thanks for your time

  2. Leading says:

    A stunning picture there! I took a similar picture few months back just above Bangkok in the night.

  3. Doc Searls says:

    I just took a quick look now, and I think your pictures are terrific, nicely composed and exposed. (What lenses are you using?) My main advice is to play around with every variable you can on the camera: ISO, exposure combinations, and some of the new (to photography) program settings you’ll find with the K10D, which is an excellent camera. (I love the RAW button.) I’ve found that coming up with a variety of “user defined” combinations of sharpness, saturation, white balance and other variables has been quite handy. But each to their own.

    Cameras like yours (mine is a Canon 30D) are like musical instruments. You need to play them a lot to learn all they can do; and so, in time, they become an extention of your eyes and hands. When I shot this series of aurora pix from the north-facing window of a 777, I had just awakened from a slumber. I had never seen a serious aurora before in my life. Yet I knew I needed to use the 50mm lens (my other is a much slower 18-200 zoom) and start shooting at the highest ISO values, while blocking out reflected light from inside the plane. Of the 200 shots I took of that aurora, the best shot was the first one. If I hadn’t already shot thousands of pictures with that camera, I might have missed it.

    Since you’re taking yearbook pictures, you’ll want to do a lot of candids of people. For that I recommend taking “way too many” pictiures. Most of my experience, in spite of what you see of my work on Flickr, is shooting candids. In my experience the most important part of that is making yourself and others comfortable with you being The Guy With the Camera that others start to ignore, so they stop (or don’t start) posing. I suggest avoiding a flash. If you use one, bounce it off a white surface (ceiling, wall), rather than shooting it directly at the subject.

    If your computer can handle 10-megapixel RAW shots, consider shooting your high-quality shots (nature ones, for example) in RAW, and then learn to manipulate them in GIMP, Photoshop, Aperature, or whatever tools feel good for you. With RAW, you have a lot more to work with on each shot.

    In my case, I have old laptops that are annoyingly slow with large files, so I shoot mostly in .jpg. But that should change in the next few months when I get new computing gear.

    The main thing is to shoot a lot, fool around a lot, and look a lot at what others are doing. Thomas Hawk makes photos so delicious they’re almost edible. (As well as enviable.) But, most importantly, I learn stuff from him. Same goes for David Sifry, Ben Hammersley and many others.

    And throw lots of pictues up on Flickr (or wherever). As I said, I’m often impressed at what touches other people, that I might never have guessed — and that I would have missed if I had edited heavily.

  4. Bob Dale says:

    This night time aerial shot of yours is a great example of how digital has opened up the world of nighttime and low light level photography. In the old days ( five years ago) when you would shoot film, you would have reciprocity failure which demanded longer exposures (which I am sure you are aware of.)

    Any plans to do any more nighttime photos?

    Bob Dale
    Master Photographer
    For FREE 7 Day Ecourse
    “How To Take Better Photographs”
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  5. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Bob. In addition to reciprocity failure, there was the sad fact that most automated photo processing systems (incluing the best) saw night shots as underexposed and “pushed” them. Very annoying.

    As for plans, I tend to shoot what’s in front of me. The night shooting from planes is fun stuff. Sometimes I have to ‘track’ (move with the scene) to keep the shot steady on the lights below. This usually fails and results in streaks, but sometimes it works quite well.

  6. Yes, the image is great! If only Google Earth could look that good. Those nightshots above the earth already remind me that the earth is a living thing. It really captures the detail and highlights how small we really are.

  7. David says:

    Hi Doc,

    Great aerials!

  8. Derrek says:

    Shots like this make me want to get my pilot’s license renewed and get back up in the air… What type of photography lenses were you using to capture this?

  9. Doc Searls says:


    That shot was made with a Tamron 18-200mm zoom on a Canon 30D SLR. It was shot at 1/4 sec at 1600 ISO at an aperature of f3.5. It’s very rare for me to get a good night shot with that lens. Most of my shots from planes at night are made with Canon’s $79 50mm f1.8 lens. All these aurora shots for example. And all these shots of New York City from the air. If you’re using a Canon, I can’t recommend the 50mm f1.8 too highly as a utility lens. It’s not Canon’s best, just the best for the money.

  10. ucup says:

    you use a 3pod to capture this picture?

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