Getting better pictures without getting more gear

After bemoaning the fact that my wife’s little D40x does a better job capturing pictures than my D100 I immediately starting thinking about how I could go about getting a new camera body. I am, however, cheap and certainly don’t have a couple spare Grover Cleveland’s to throw in Nikon’s tip jar. Fortunately, there’s a solution: just be a better photographer.

My first step: take Scott Bourne’s advice to heart. Scott has published a list of 10 ways to improve your photography without buying gear. Scott’s suggestions were inspired by David duChemin, but David’s tips cost $5 (I refer you to paragraph one for information on my fiscal leanings).

My second step: start taking pictures. I know it’s the only way to get better, and yet I still don’t do it. From now on, more pictures, I promise (I promise myself, that is, most of you really don’t need any more pictures to look at).

Blur of fur
Blur of fur
My greyhound spazing out at with .5s shutter speed and rear curtain flash


Sometimes things just work out

My phone’s camera has a mode where it takes a 3×3 or 2×2 grid of images by snapping pictures in series. Press the shutter button and it starts going. There’s the typical camera phone lag to get started and then it takes pictures on its own schedule. I tried it on Finney and here’s what I got:

Autopilot for picture taking ain’t too bad. It just reinforces the same old “take lots of pictures, you’ll get something you like.”


My current favorite picture

Because I’ve become “one of those people” I’ve been taking a ton of pictures of Finney. When you take lots of pictures you often end up with something you didn’t quite anticipate.


I took this while he was in the middle of playing with a rope toy. I’ve decided he doesn’t look angry, just mildly insane… and that pleases me.


What’s entertainment for a greyhound? Paula took a little video to give you a fairly clear picture:


How to add EXIF data to your cell phone pictures

While my Windows Mobile phone is fantastic at synchronizing data with my PC and operating seamlessly with Exchange, it does lack in some of the non-business areas. Most frustrating for me lately: no EXIF information on the pictures it takes.

What is EXIF data and why does it matter? EXIF (Exchangeable image file format) is a standard that specifies, among other things, the metadata tags included in image files. The key bit of metadata that my camera pictures lack is the date and time I took the pictures. The pictures do have a date & time they were modified, but not having a separate entry for when the picture was taken leads to the date information being lost when the pictures is edited or copied to another PC. As a result, I have a lot of pictures from my camera phone like the example below, created in 2009, modified in 2007 and I have no clue if I took the picture on either of the dates… or some completely different date and time.


(Oh, by the way, iPhone owners, this is one more thing you can use to taunt your non-iPhone owning friends about: the iPhone adds EXIF data to the pictures.)

While I may have lost the historical data I haven’t given up on my future pictures. I’m now using an excellent app from Phil Harvey, ExifTool. This powerful command line app allows me to preserve the date taken by copying the modified date to the date taken. In the process of adding the date taken I am also adding extra info to indicate what phone I used and correcting the time taken since my pictures are all date stamped in GMT (no, I don’t know why, I’ve stopped being surprised by stuff like this).

Downloading and installing ExifTool

ExifTool is Perl based and will work on Unix, Windows or Mac OS X, your install steps will depend on your platform. From the ExifTool home page you can pick the version you want, Windows and Mac users will want to get the platform-specific version for simplicity. The Windows executable is a single file "install." Unzip the download and you have an EXE file, there is no installation or required dll’s. Clean & simple (monolithic is good, right Jud?).

Creating and/or changing the date taken

Once you have ExifTool, creating date taken info based off the file’s modified date is a simple command line operation.

  1. Open up a command window.  If you’re using Windows, bring up the command line by clicking the start menu and typing "cmd" (for Vista or Windows 7) or selecting run then typing "cmd" (for XP).
  2. Change directories to the location you saved ExifTool (e.g. if it’s in your documents folder, type "CD C:\Users\ME\Documents\ExifToolFolder").
  3. Create a date taken by coping it from date modified like this (you’ll need to specify the path to your picture):
    exiftool.exe -"filemodifydate>datetimeoriginal" c:\Users\Me\Pictures\picture.jpg

Straight forward enough, no?

(Almost) unlimited power

Now that you have the basic info you can go crazy. Unlike the EXIF editing capbilities of most photo software (like PhotoShop or Windows Live Gallery) ExifTool allows you to create/edit fields like the camera’s manufacturer. 

  • ExifTool can make changes to an entire directory of files by replacing the path to a picture with a folder path (e.g. exiftool.exe -"filemodifydate>datetimeoriginal" c:\Users\Me\Pictures\).
  • You can make relative date changes to files with -datetimeoriginal. For example, I need to take 7 hours off the time for all my pictures with -DateTimeOriginal-=7. You can also make changes in years, months and days if your camera clock was reset by mistake .
  • You can move files with the directory parameter, allowing you to move files from a temp directory after they’ve been corrected .
  • Since this is a command line tool it’s really easy to create a batch file to make a whole list of changes .
  • Get plug-ins to use ExifTool from inside your some of your favorite apps like Photoshop or Lightroom.

To help make the process auto-magic for myself I’ve created a batch file which creates the datetimeoriginal data, adds the camera model and maker, corrects the time taken and, finally, copies the pictures from the staging folder to their final location. I have this batch file set to run periodically using a scheduled task. Now I just need to learn to have the scheduled task be triggered by new photos showing in the staging folder. 🙂


Random picture from a SmugMug gallery

Random SmubMug picture

It’s been almost two years since I posted a random picture from our trip to Salzburg, but strangely enough I never posted the mini-tip for inserting a random picture from a SmugMug gallery.  It’s actually simple enough.  Just insert an image link which points to with the album id and desired image size.  The URL ends up looking like this:

You can find the AlbumID by browsing to one of your SmugMug albums then examining the URL.

Go forth and randomize!


Smugmug tip: Feature your favorite pictures

One of the reasons I’m a huge fan of smugmug is because they’ve made it possible for their customers to enhance and extend their web pages.

I wanted to have a gallery on my smugmug site which consisted entirely of my favorite pictures.  One of the ways I could do this was by taking each picture I like, then making a copy of it into a new, “favorites” gallery.  While this would have done the trick it also means having to manage duplicate files and I would no longer have the context of when the picture was taken.  I had to find a better way.

While trying to figure out if there was a good way to do this I stumbled across David’s automatic “recent” featured gallery. The recent gallery used JavaScript to insert a gallery of recent pictures into the smugmug web page.  I realized that with a little massaging the code could instead display a gallery based on a keyword.


I now have the feature I desired: a gallery of all my favorite pictures which didn’t require duplicating pictures and was automatically updated.  Anytime I find a picture I like I simply add the keyword “favorites” and it is automatically included in the favorites gallery. Check out my smugmug site to see it in action.

If you are interested in doing the same thing on your smugmug site, I’ve written up complete instructions and provided downloadable JS files to cut and paste into your smugmug control panel.

Note: I really must give all credit to David for this since I really just trimmed and modified his code for this.


A handy reference for SmugMug tweaking

imageIf you’re like me and like to adjust the look and feel of your SmugMug site then you’ll love this: a visual reference for the SmugMug Class and DIV IDs.

I was poking around Chris MacAskill’s SmugMug galleries and came across this wicked cool reference.  I’m now going to load the printer up with 8×10 photo paper and print this beauty for my wall.


Now that’s just damn smart

I’ve made no secret of how much I love SmugMug.  Great price, straight-forward UI, unlimited photo storage, open APIs… blah, blah, blah.  You want loyal customers?  Simple: make a great product and support it well.

Well, here’s another tip for loyal customers: give ’em free stuff for no reason whatsoever.


I logged into SmugMug tonight to check the stats on my pictures and guess what?  They’re going to send me stickers and a camera strap…  just ’cause.

I’m feeling the love.


New Nikon gear announced… Reeves considers a life of crime

Nikon announced some rather drool inducing product today.  The new bodies and lenses have me looking into my camera bag and feeling rather inadequate.  I turn my gaze into my wallet and find myself lacking there too.

We’ll discuss my failing self-image later… on to my wish list… (someone pass Santa a note in gym class please):

New lens please – Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8


My absolute favorite lens for my Nikon N90 was my Nikkor 20mm 2.8.  The 20mm when used on a film camera was just shy of fish-eye and gave me a view of the world which almost matched what I saw with my eyes.  Even today I’ll put on this fixed lens because it produces such great images.  I do have a wide zoom, an 18-55 hand-me-down lens… but it just doesn’t go nearly wide enough (and the quality is, of course, questionable).

Now, at the very wide end of Nikon’s new lens announcement is a lens which gets very close to the 20mm images I got on my N90.  The 14-24mm translates to 21mm on my D100… close enough.  I’ll once again be able to get the interior perspectives I see in my head… but not until I come up with a spare $1,800.

New body please – Nikon D300

D300 Back in 2002 I made the switch to digital and have never regretted it.  The release of the D100 gave me a DSLR I could afford and a size I could stomach.  I’ve always drooled over the D1 & D2 cameras and the new D3 is no different.  The features are incredible (view and take pictures remotely from your laptop: sweet) but the size is still for the pros. 

When Rob bought the D200 I was certainly tempted but I’m glad I waited.  Nikon’s new prosumer body, the D300, has some really great features and twice as many pixels as my D100.  The most interesting thing I’d like to try out is the new “liveview” mode which allows you to use the LCD for confirming framing and focus before taking the picture.  The reason I didn’t get the D200 was I didn’t have the scratch… at $1,800 I don’t think I have the means for the D300 either. <sigh>


Nikkor 105mm micro – 2 months in

Back in May when Paula and I were state-side for her graduation we picked up a couple of presents for ourselves: a Nikon D40X for Paula and a Nikon 105mm macro lens for me.  Like most photographers with a new lens I have spent most of the past couple months shooting almost exclusively with my new toy.

What’s the dealeo?

Early in 2006 Nikon updated their popular 105mm Macro lens with the addition of their VRII vibration reduction system.  Used by many as a multi-purpose lens, Nikon’s 105 produces roughly a 1:1 reproduction ratio when used for Macro photography and the shallow depth of field make for a passable portrait lens.  While I’ve found I can use it for a lot of different types of photography, I must state: it’s not quite a Swiss Army lens… and it certainly won’t fit in your pocket.

VR on macro lenses?  Genius

Well, perhaps “obvious” is more apt than “genius”.  Having the image stabilization functionality for close up photography is really a bit of a forehead slapper.  Why hasn’t anyone done this before? 

Our backyard has some wonderful flowering bushes which draw in a happy little cloud of bees.  Having the VR allowed me to grab my camera out of my bag and hand-hold some close-ups of the bees with their pollen saddlebags, something for which I would certainly have needed a tripod.  Electronic Quaaludes… nice.

Say cheese… okay, again… wait…

Macro lenses can be roped into duty as a portrait lens, their shallow depth of field providing wonderful blurring of background elements.  There is, however, a catch: their focus is manageable when tight into subjects but getting a subject properly focused at 10 yards away can be a touchy operation.

That said, it still does a decent job in the role of a portrait lens.  As your lens collection grows you’ll want to have both portrait and macro lenses (I assume).  My priority was macro first, portrait second… and I’ll be able to press this lens into portrait service until Santa brings me one of those 30mm f1.4 lenses Rob’s been raving about.

So, what is it? Whine or roses?

I love the lens, but there are a couple things to note: the touchy focus I’ve mentioned and the size.  The addition of the VR mechanism has turned the 105 into a beefy lens.  The barrel is thicker and the weight has gone up over 30%.  It’s a good thing they added the VR, your arms may get shaky after shooting with this beast all day.

Break it down for me

Pros: great optics, VR
Cons: touchy focal throw at distance, hefty

Bottom line: get one