Now that it’s been confirmed that the current coronavirus restrictions will be extended for at least another 3 weeks, many of us are going to have more time on our hands than we expected to. This is happening just at the time of year when we might normally be itching to get out walking and taking photos of spring – but with restrictions on our movements, that is not going to be possible for many of us.
We can still take photos in our own gardens of course (the snakeshead fritillaries in the photo above were taken in my garden only last week), and in the local countryside or parks, but here are a few ideas for other ways in which we photographers can use our time productively to improve our skills whilst staying indoors if the weather is bad or we are having to self-isolate. Best of all, for most of them, all you need is an internet connection!
1) Get your photos organised! Over time, it’s very easy for your photo collection to become fragmented, with images scattered in different folders, on different hard drives, memory sticks, CDs or DVDs, your phone, cloud storage etc. Getting them all organised in one place is one of the things that we typically say we’ll “get round to doing one day”. Doing it now will not only help you find images more quickly when you need them in the future, but also make it easier to back them all up (best practice is to keep at least 3 copies of anything digital) in case of hard drive failure etc.
How and where you choose to organise them will to some extent depend on your shooting habits – there is no simple “one size fits all” answer. If you shoot fewer pictures in JPEG format, you may be able to store your entire photo collection on your computer’s internal hard drive in subfolders of a single folder (e.g. inside your Pictures folder). If you shoot larger numbers of images and/or you shoot in RAW format, sooner or later you’ll run out of space on your internal drive and need to store them on an external hard drive which is kept just for photos. Whichever option you choose, work out a folder-based system (typically based on the date or location where the pictures were taken, or the subject matter) for organising them which makes sense to you. Time spent planning and setting up a good folder-based system now will reward you many times over in the future – and help prevent you losing images as well. It will also help you identify any copies of images that can be deleted to free up storage space.
You don’t need any special software to do this – Windows Explorer for PC users, or Finder for Mac users is perfectly suitable, or your camera manufacturer’s software (see above) should also be able to do it. However, if you are already using a database-based application – such as Apple’s Photos or Adobe Lightroom – to store and view your photos, make sure you only use that to move images and folders around.
And once you’ve got all your photos organised in the one place, don’t forget to back them up onto a separate hard drive!
2) Get to know your camera really well. It’s surprising how few people actually read their camera’s manual, but with cameras now being so complex, and offering so much customisation, there’s really no substitute for working your way through the full manual. You may have only got a 40 or 50 page printed “quick start guide” when you bought your camera, but a more comprehensive manual will normally be available to download from the manufacturer’s website for free – just do a Google search for your camera model with the word “manual” after it. Don’t be tempted by other sites offering free downloads (they can be a source of malware) – go to the manufacturer’s own site and follow the links to the download, which will usually be in PDF format (PDF files are nice because you can search on them, rather than having to look for an index). Sometimes, there are numerous versions of the manual listed, but make sure you pick the english language version, and the largest file size – you will typically find that it is around 300 pages. Sometimes, there are versions available for download to your phone or tablet as well.
Unfortunately, some camera manuals are just so badly written (Sony and Panasonic are particularly bad in this regard) that the manual may make little sense to anyone who is not already familiar with photographic terminology. In those cases, try reading some of the better and more in-depth reviews for your camera model before trying to understand the manual itself. Review sites that can be recommended include DPReview, Cameralabs.com and Photography Blog.
3) Install the software for your camera. You may unaware that your camera actually comes with you some free software! Typically, this is a file browser designed mainly to allow you to view your images on your computer, but it will probably also allow some basic editing of your photographs, and convert RAW files into “normal” formats (such as JPEG or TIFF) which can then be opened by other software. It may also allow you to do things like stitch multiple images into panoramas. Very few people ever actually install this software (even though it’s free!). It may have come on a software disc with your camera, but these days it is more often available as a download from the manufacturer’s website (there is usually a link to it in the manual or quick start guide).
If you don’t have any other photo browsing software and just use the Windows Explorer or Mac Finder for viewing your images, you may find those applications rather slow and cumbersome, and they may also not display the colours in your images correctly. Your camera manufacturer’s software will probably be both faster and more flexible, but its biggest advantage is that it can read all of the metadata stored with your photos. Your camera stores all sorts of information in the file when it creates it – including the date and time that the photo was taken, GPS information, any copyright information as well as most of the settings on the camera – including exposure, white balance, lens settings, metering and focussing modes, and the focus area(s) used. No other software (not even Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop) will be able to display all of this information, so even if you use another application to actually edit your photos, it is well worth installing the camera manufacturer’s software just to enable you to see all of that metadata – which can be very useful for helping to sort out any problems that you are having with exposure or focussing etc.
The software differs from one manufacturer to another, but Nikon’s is called View NX-i, and Canon’s is Digital Photo Pro. These applications can only open RAW files in the manufacturer’s own RAW format, but they are usually able to open JPEG and TIFF format files from any other make of camera as well.
If you have cameras from multiple brands, a very capable and highly regarded file browser that will work with all of them is FastRawViewer, which is currently on offer until May 1st at only £15.74.
4) Learn some new techniques. There is a bewildering variety of photography resources on the internet, but have you checked out your camera manufacturer’s website recently? It will almost certainly have loads of videos (including some tailored to your particular camera model) and “how to” articles. Many of these will have some sort of sales or marketing content, but they usually contain plenty of useful information as well – even for users of different types of cameras.
Some of these sites have special deals during the coronavirus lockdown – for example Nikon USA has made all their video classes free for the month of April.
Canon’s website also has loads of useful material, which can be seen here. All the other manufacturers’ websites have plenty of information as well.
We hope the tips above help get you through these dark times, and let’s all hope that we can all get back to photographing as normal soon. Stay safe!