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Getting Simultaneous Feedback with a PC

Histograms on an LCD are great, but they can't compare with the experience of seeing your image on a full-sized monitor. Your computer monitor may be anywhere from 12 to 30 times the size of your camera's LCD (Figure 3.11), and it can give you vastly more information about detail, white balance, color, noise level, and many other important things, all of which will affect how you take your next image. I often connect my camera to my computer monitor, in what's called a "tethered PC system," to give me instantaneous, detailed feedback on my images.

Figure 3.11

Figure 3.11 The size of your LCD screen makes it hard to spot detail on an image, even with the use of magnification. Compare this to the rich, detailed image a computer display can provide.

Getting large-scale feedback from a photographic session can be valuable in many instances. It brings the photographer full circle in the picture-making process, by showing results quickly and in a more compelling format. A tethered system allows a photographer to assess the image's technical information and metadata—the hidden identifying information attached to each image—its composition, lighting, focus, and depth-of-field (Figure 3.12). The computer monitor becomes the second viewfinder in the photographic process, an expanded view of what's been done right and what's been done wrong (Figure 3.13).

Figure 3.12

Figure 3.12 A tethered system gives the photographer immediate access to all kinds of useful information about the image he's just captured.

Figure 3.13

Figure 3.13 A tethered system provides the fastest feedback possible on an image, as well as access to many tools for making objective image evaluations.

Wiring a camera to a PC depends on the input and output (I/O) that your equipment provides, but today's modern computers have USB 2.0 ports and some have FireWire. Both formats have the necessary bandwidth to move images pretty effortlessly. Once connected, you'll start to see your digital camera as an additional hard drive on your computer's desktop. In some cases you can simply drag and drop images from your camera to a designated folder on your computer; in other cases the images are moved from camera to computer with the click of a button. The tethered system frees you from having to remove memory cards or use a card reader to move images.

Setting up a Camera-Computer Connection

If you're working in a studio a tethered system is the best way to get accustomed to working your computer and your camera at the same time (Figures 3.14 and 3.15). Remember that it's also possible—and something I recommend—to take your tethered PC out into the field as well. It's a bit trickier to haul all that gear to a location shoot, but it can be more than worth it. Out in the field, a wireless connection is one way to go, but in most cases a wired system should work just fine, especially as wireless systems are more complicated to set up and can suffer the inconsistent connections similar to that feeling that plagues any cellphone user from time to time. In either case you will need a camera with tethering ability, which describes of today's Digital SLR cameras. Here's a quick primer on how to set up a tethered system.

Figure 3.14

Figure 3.14 Your digital camera is basically just another computer peripheral. A wired or wireless system, such as the one shown, will help you get better results.

Figure 3.15

Figure 3.15 A tethered system can look as simple as this.

  1. Place your computer and digital camera on a safe and secure base.
  2. Select the appropriate cable, making sure it's long enough to connect your computer to your camera without limiting your motion more than you're willing to put up with.
  3. If you haven't done so already, install your camera software on your computer.
  4. Connect either the USB or FireWire cable between your digital camera and computer.
  5. Install a light-blocking hood on your computer monitor for better previews.
  6. Set your exposure time and f/number, either on your camera or through your computer if your software allows it (see "Controlling Your Camera with Your Computer").
  7. Make a test exposure.
  8. Review the image on your camera's LCD. Look at image focus and exposure quality. Use your histograms to see if the exposure is well balanced.
  9. Now review your image on your computer using your digital camera's software. Check sharpness and exposure again, as well as image noise and detail within the shadows and highlights. Use your software's information dialog box to see if the numbers support your visual impression of your image. Export the image into Photoshop to get even more information.

Challenges and Solutions of Connected Systems

Connected systems are a great way to get detailed and timely feedback on your images, but they do complicate your photography workspace and introduce a new set of challenges.

  • Challenge: Seeing the laptop screen is a problem in bright lighting conditions.

    I've found myself and other photographers with jackets or blankets draped over our computers, looking much like Ansel Adams or any other early-20th-century photographer trying to see his camera's ground glass. Add the difficulty of handling a mouse—or worse, a touchpad—and the situation can start to feel downright hopeless. For those of you wearing glasses, it's even worse.

    The answer is to make or purchase a monitor hood that can block extraneous ambient lighting without interfering with your keyboard (Figures 3.17 and 3.18). In a pinch, you can even make one yourself, using foam core, cut and trimmed to fit your display (Figure 3.19). Attach the hood to your display with two-sided tape or a Velcro-type material.

    Figure 3.17

    Figure 3.17 A light-blocking hood, such as a Hoodman, will help you see your display clearly in bright conditions.

    Figure 3.18

    Figure 3.18 One versatile solution is a camera/computer bag such as the Tenba Gemini, which also functions as a display hood.

    Figure 3.19

    Figure 3.19 You can also make your own inexpensive screen hood from foam core. First, measure the screen dimensions. Next, cut some foam core to size. Now score and bend the foam, and finally, apply it to the screen with two-sided tape. This is a short-term solution—a homemade screen hood won't last as long as commercial products.

  • Challenge: The camera needs to be placed in a position in which a photographer can't stay—for example, it may need to be high in a rafter, in a dangerous area, or in a location that the photographer must leave to attend to other things.

    Connect your camera to your PC and operate the camera remotely. A camera's capture software will allow you to work at a distance, and you'll reap all the other rewards of a tethered system as well.

  • Challenge: Rain or hot coffee gets on your keyboard.

    We can control a lot of things in photography; weather is not one of them. There are some protections for cameras (Figure 3.20), but laptops are another story.

    Figure 3.20

    Figure 3.20 A Vortex Media's Storm Jacket, or something like it, will protect your lens and camera in inclement weather conditions.

    If you shoot out in the elements, find a laptop that is element proof. Considering how often photographers injure their laptops in the line of duty, having a laptop that can weather a flash rainstorm is more than a blessing.

    If you already have a laptop, there are a few ways to weather-proof your computer. I've used large disposable, resealable plastic bags effectively, although typing on a plastic bag-encased computer is not always an ergonomically pleasant experience.

  • Challenge: Computers, cords, PSDs, camera equipment—what's the best way to set all this stuff up?

    Find something that is light, portable, sturdy, and reliable to use as a workbench, although make sure it can withstand windy conditions and the occasional bumping. If your car is nearby, sometimes the trunk makes an excellent workspace (Figure 3.21).

    Figure 3.21

    Figure 3.21 The trunk of your car is a great place to work at your computer, refresh your battery gear, and transmit images to your client or home office. I use a combination of AC/DC inverters and, for long sessions, a portable generator. The generator keeps me from running my vehicle's battery down. 1) DC/AC inverter, 2) power strip, 3) battery charger, 4) camera gear, 5) laptop, 6) extension cord, 7) Hoodman E2000 laptop sun shade, 8) tripods and stands, 9) camera and lens cases, and 10) portable generator.

  • Challenge: There are no outlets in the middle of the wilderness.

    Photographers have moved from depending on film to depending on batteries or AC outlets. Have you ever counted the number of rechargeable devices you use? Used to be that only our flash units asked for a recharge. Now it's cameras, flashes, computers, portable studio strobes, cell phones, image storage devices, PDAs, Family Radio Service radios, DC/AC converters...and the list continues to grow every year. I often carry one kit that includes nothing more than just extra batteries and chargers. Sometimes I feel like we spend more time charging batteries than making photographs.

    Out in the field, power is always a problem, especially on long shoots when you drain all your batteries. Here are your power options, such as they are:

    • Locate a 110-volt power source and establish a safe, AC connection.
    • Convert 12-volt power to 110-volt power using a DC/AC inverter. Most cars have one or more 12-volt power outlets, or you can draw power directly from the battery using alligator clips.
    • Make power with a fuel-powered inverter or a generator (Figure 3.22). Solar options are also available, which are useful for backcountry trips.
      Figure 3.22

      Figure 3.22 While shooting on location, I use whatever electricity I can find in the area, or produce my own with a portable generator.

    • Buy more batteries.

    I use a generator to handle the power needs of my devices and an inverter for battery recharging in my vehicle.

  • Challenge: Your bag is bulging with gear.

    Photographers often have a plethora of bags in their midst, but what works best will vary from one photographer to another (Figure 3.23). I use a combination of solutions: traditional camera bags, backpacks, camera/computer combo bags, and traditional computer bags.

    Figure 3.23

    Figure 3.23 Now that cameras and lenses are used in concert with computers and a lot of electronic accessories, organization is all the more important. Here, a photo backpack bag and a Tenba Gemini camera/computer bag keep things in place.

    Unless I'm only carrying a single camera and computer (which is almost never the case), I often like to use a combo camera and computer backpack.

  • Challenge: I've got digital cameras with wires leading to computers and computers with wires leading to displays, hard drives, printers, networks, UPSs, and power sources... Space is getting tight!

    Every studio is different, but organization is key, especially when you're working with a tethered system. Figure 3.25 shows one approach to creating a safe and efficient work environment.

    Figure 3.25

    Figure 3.25 In this well-organized studio workspace, a rubber wire channel near the photographer's feet protects both him and his flash sync cable.

In my opinion, every photographer should consider using a connected PC, no matter where he works. In the studio, Photoshop is the photographer's primary postphotographic production tool; you can count on using connected computers there. But Photoshop can be just as useful in places we never thought to take a computer.

The more you use a connected PC on location, the more adept you'll become at using it in a nondisruptive way. Yes, it takes some practice. There will be awkward moments, maybe even some near catastrophes, but in the end, a tethered system will help you make much better pictures. Find a PC that works for you on location. Load it up with your digital camera's software and Photoshop. Now you're ready to embrace photography in a more meaningful way than ever before.

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