by Rolf Lockwood
With big ol' Betsy shined up and looking grand, you've just got to take a picture. But don't be fooled into thinking you need to spend zillions on a fancy camera. In fact, almost any camera with almost any lens can be made to take a good picture of your truck if you manage the rest of the task well.
We'll run through the basics here, but in subsequent articles we'll delve a little deeper into some of those areas, like composition and film choices. Next month we'll look at your camera options. For now, we'll assume you have a little 35mm 'point and shoot' rangefinder camera that does just about everything automatically. They range in price from under $100 to well over $400, and for many people they're a better choice than a full-blown Nikon kit costing $5000 or more.
It will be useful if your camera has at least these two features: a moderately wide-angle lens and a way to create or lock in a different exposure than the one you automatically get from your camera's built-in light meter.
The five most important components of a quality photo are:
1) knowing the difference between the right light and enough light
2) measuring the light properly
3) choosing the right composition
4) holding the camera still
5) using the right film
Judging the Light - there are many times when you'll be able to get a proper exposure in lousy light that does nothing to flatter your truck, because your camera is just measuring light quantity, not quality. You'll increase your chances of good exposure if you avoid shooting at high noon on a sunny day when the light is most intense, for example. Try early morning or late afternoon when the light is gentler, a little diffused. A slightly overcast sky may actually be perfect if your truck is especially bright, because it can make colors seem richer. What you're looking for is light that makes your truck shine instead of looking flat.
Measuring the Light - getting the right exposure can be tricky if you're dealing with a light-colored truck on a sunny day because the camera's light meter will be fooled by all the brightness. Left to its own devices, it's likely to deliver an under-exposed print because it didn't let enough light reach the film.
Even simple automatic cameras, however, can often get around this. Read your camera's manual to make sure, but you can likely lock in a better exposure by pressing lightly on the shutter button and holding it until you're ready to shoot. If you have that capability, point the camera down until the centre of the viewing screen - and thus the light meter - is aimed a little above where the road meets the wheels of the truck, where things are less likely to be too bright. Press the shutter lightly to lock that exposure and hold your finger down while you re-compose your shot, then trip the shutter. Try several different exposures, measuring the light at different places above the pavement.
Your camera might also offer exposure compensation, with which you can tell it to increase or decrease the exposure in increments. In the above case, you would compose normally and then adjust the exposure to open up the lens a little, thus letting in more light. Read your manual.
The Right Composition - the way you position your subject in the frame is partly a matter of taste, but some basic universals apply. First, find the right place to park the vehicle, preferably alone, with a clean foreground and no hydro poles or other such junk in the background. Make sure the side of the truck you're shooting isn't the shadow side.
The key rule, unless you want to include a scenic background, is to fill the frame with the truck - without cutting off fenders, wheels, etc. Avoid a boring straight-on shot, but maybe a three-quarter view to add interest. Bend the rig a little if you're shooting a tractor-trailer, for still more interest. And try bending down and shooting up at the truck, to make it appear more dominant. The name of this game is impact, after all.
Be patient with the composition process and try different angles, maybe move the truck around too, because poor composition is the third great photo killer after camera shake and lousy exposures.
Steady Does It - camera shake is by far the most frequent cause of pictures that are less than crisp, but you can win that war even if you don't use a tripod support. Grip the camera in both hands, keep your elbows very close to your body, and maybe hold your breath as you trip the shutter. You might also try leaning against something solid if that's possible.
Shutter speed is a factor here - faster is good - but in simple point-and-shoot cameras you won't know what speed the camera has chosen. So make a good grip a routine part of your photography even in bright light when you can expect the shutter speed to be pretty fast. This is a learned skill, by the way, and you'll find that the more you concentrate on it, the steadier you'll be. I'm able to get crisp shots at an eighth or even a quarter of a second, for instance, but I once had trouble with a thirtieth.
The Film - there's a very wide choice in film these days, from the major manufacturers like Kodak and Fuji, as well as store brands made by the majors and brand-packaged. You can't buy a bad film, but you can choose the wrong one for the task.
First off, slide film will give you a crisper image, but it's very unforgiving and processing isn't easy to find. Print film, the one that gives you negatives, is a much better choice for most people. You can make mistakes in exposure and lighting and still get a decent print, with processing done almost anywhere. Be aware, however, that results from the one-hour machines can be uneven.
Your main choice with film, slide or print, is in its 'speed', or the ASA rating - usually 100, 200, or 400 in the case of print film. It's a measure of the film's sensitivity to light. The lower the speed, the crisper - and less 'grainy' - the picture will be. If you're just looking for 4x5-in. snapshots, this isn't so critical, though even there you'll be able to see the difference in graininess between 100 and 400 film. Go for an 8x10 or bigger print, however, and the difference will be increasingly dramatic the bigger you go. Your best choice? Assuming a fair bit of sun, try 100 ASA print film.
What about APS (Advanced Photo Sytem) film? There are advantages here, like ease of use, but you need an APS camera and film choice is nowhere near as wide.
One last piece of advice: don't forget that film and processing can be dirt cheap, which means you can try countless combinations of exposure and composition over a couple of rolls of film and still not kill $30 or $40. That's peanuts measured against the pride you'll feel if you create a really good photograph.
Part 2 of this series