The Ghost Cameraman – Getting the Gear

A decent photo remains the best way to record a particular moment. Trouble is, for those of us who like to go it alone into the backblocks in search of these moments, a decent photo can take a bit of imagination and skill. If you are trying to get your story across to folk when you get back, it’s hard to keep anyone’s attention for long if you are just flicking through scenic shots and close-ups of fish lying on the ground or dead animals. Enter the world of the ghost cameraman.

A well composed photo is great result - this was taken using a tripod, self-timer and flash - all set in a few seconds so as to minimise stress to the fish
A well composed photo is a great result – this was taken using a tripod, self-timer and flash – all set in a few seconds so as to minimise stress to the fish

There are a few things you can do to boost your self-shooting picture taking skills and come up with some better than average shots while out alone. In this series of short articles I’m going to outline some of the tricks I’ve learned along the way while playing about with cameras; including some key ideas regarding camera setup, self-shooting techniques and other considerations that will need to be taken into account. First thing first though: what gear are you going to need to get that shot you were hoping for and make people guess just who was with you to take such a good shot.

Cameras

You don’t necessarily need the top end of camera technology to get good photos; and the setup you go for totally depends on what you want to do with your shots anyway. If you are only interested in keeping a record of a few fish, animals, scenic or action shots for yourself or to show friends then a point-and-shoot camera will do the job fine. If, on the other hand, you want to get a bit more tricky and move beyond some of the basic in-camera settings, a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) may be the choice for you. You might want to note that I’m referring only to digital cameras here – I can’t say I’ve had a lot of experience with film cameras and will leave that to those in the know.

Point-and-Shoot

I started out with a simple point-and-shoot and still use one for particular situations. Considering the capabilities of some of these cameras in regards to image size (measured in megapixels) and corresponding photo quality, some point-and-shoot cameras are pretty capable machines these days.

They are also really handy simply due to their small size and weight. The most recent one I bought, a Sony Cyber Shot, is tiny (smaller than an iPhone) but still produces 16 megapixel images. This thing is great for keeping in a pocket or backpack where it is ready for use at any time.

Most camera manufacturers provide really good cameras that are waterproof and shockproof, which is a great option if you are planning on being on the water and/or clumsy for extended periods. Dick has an Olympus Tough Series and it produces solid images at 14 megapixels. The newer models have higher megapixel settings too.

Point-and-shoot cameras are generally pretty easy to set up and use, particularly for the beginner. As a first step, ALWAYS set your image size to its highest setting. You may as well get the best photo quality the camera can produce. While this will take up more space on your memory card, high capacity cards are cheap enough these days.

Find the self-timer and get ready to use it. Some cameras will have a button that you just press to turn the timer on; others may require you to go through a menu to get there. If you have a choice when buying a camera, one with an actual self-timer button is good because it is much quicker to use; this is important if you are catch and release fishing, for example.

There will also be a menu (or button) that will allow you to change flash settings. Get to know where this is and change the settings if required. Setting the flash to AUTO is generally fine, but remember that in some instances (particularly when taking photos in overhead sunlight) you might want to have the flash go off for every shot in order to light up any shadows and even out the brightness of a picture.

Most point-and-shoot cameras have a fairly high aperture setting when set to AUTO shooting mode. This is good because the camera will have a deeper depth of field, rendering more of the image in focus. This is forgiving of slight miscalculations when composing your shot – a common problem when self-shooting. The downside here is that too much of an image can be in focus, making it appear cluttered (particularly if there is a lot going on in the background) and flat, or two dimensional. You will not get that smooth blur of foreground/background with a point-and-shoot, which really makes the subject the centre of attention in a photo. While setting your camera to MACRO shooting mode may give slightly less depth of field, this type of shot is not the realm of this camera type.

SLR

If you want to go all out or are interested in some more advanced photography, you are probably going to be better off with a digital SLR camera. What these cameras lose in the size and weight department, they more than make up for in capability, versatility and picture quality.

I started out with a Nikon D40 which was outdated even when I bought it, yet it has put up with a lot of rough work over the years and produced some shots I’m really happy with, even though it only produces 6 megapixel images. The camera is so easy to use, as an entry level SLR, that it is hard to go wrong.

I’ve recently upgraded to a Nikon D5200, which is still an entry level camera (but a quite capable one at that) and it produces fantastic images at a whopping 24 megapixels. If you are in the market for an SLR, it’s worth doing the research and finding what suits your intended use most. While I like my Nikons, Canon is of course a great make also.

SLR’s will take a bit more time to understand if you want to get the most out of them. The higher up the model rungs, the more capable the camera. This does not mean that you will get better photos from the top of the range cameras if you don’t know how to use them! Whatever camera you choose, take time to read the manual and play with the settings. You need to.

As for point-and-shoot cameras, make sure that your image size is on the highest setting; and work out how to use the self-timer. The in-built flash on your camera should be fine for most work that the beginner will do, and this is operated either automatically in low light when the camera is set to AUTO or P mode; or manually when set on Shutter priority (S), Aperture priority (A) or Manual (M) shooting modes. A button will pop the flash up.

As a start, I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode so that I can quickly adjust my depth of field to suit the shot (other camera settings will adjust automatically to get the shot right in this mode). For most self-shooting I will keep the aperture between 8 to 10 which gives enough flexibility to compensate for slight composition errors and keep the subject in focus. If you are looking for the sharp focus on the subject offset by a smoothly blurred foreground/background, turn the aperture down (5.6) to achieve the effect.

Another consideration (particularly for low light situations) is the ISO sensitivity setting of the camera. Cranking this up will make your camera more sensitive to available light, which means faster shutter speeds and sharper images. The downside of this is that higher ISO settings will render images more ‘grainy’ due to increased sensitivity to digital ‘noise’ within the camera. It’s always a trade-off. Remember that using the flash will freeze any motion and give sharp images, if a flash suits the situation.

Accessories

Self-shooting doesn’t need much in the way of accessories, but one thing you should have is something to rest the camera on the take a photo. I’ve used logs, sticks, rocks, hats, camera cases and backpacks to sit the camera on over the years; but things are definitely easier with either a beanbag or a tripod. You will have to consider weight of your camera rest if you have to cart all your gear around by yourself, so go for sturdy but light if you can.

A small beanbag is a versatile rest for a camera that provides a solid base regardless of the topography of what it’s sitting on. The downside is that it doesn’t sit very high off the ground. There is usually something in reach that you can sit that on though.

A tripod, while a little more cumbersome, is fantastic for playing about with shot angles (from low down to high up, and switching from portrait to landscape shots) and is really good if things could get a little unstable as the camera is actually attached to the tripod. Remember, if in a boat or canoe, SECURE THE TRIPOD! I’ve never learned that lesson and can’t believe the close saves I’ve made as an SLR and tripod toppled over the edge. I haven’t lost one yet, but I’m playing with fire.

As with anything, you get what you pay for when it comes to tripods. With that in mind, for self-shooting you don’t really need a top line tripod as most photos will be taken in slightly haphazard ways anyway. Also, lighting probably isn’t going to be that bad that you need a rock solid platform to get a sharp image. Choose what you like to have.

Another great option is the flexible tripod such as the Joby GorillaPod. I used one of these quite a lot with a point-and-shoot before giving it to my dad (which hasn’t made his self-shots any better) and they are really handy. They are relatively small and light and can be adjusted to cope with many situations. You can also wrap the legs around suitable things (such as tree limbs etc.) in order to achieve the shot you are after. These tripods are also made in sizes suitable to cope with SLR’s. They are well worth consideration if you are in the market.

When it comes to choosing a camera setup for self-shooting, you have to consider what you want to achieve with it. As well as this, buy only what you can afford and what you are going to get use from. There is plenty of good gear out there that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg while fully capable of producing quality images. There is also top of the line technology that is so confusing to master that the amateur never gets their money’s worth. Do your research and choose what works best for you.

Having all the good gear won't always stop you from looking like a sasquatch out for a cast
Having all the good gear won’t always stop you from looking like a sasquatch out for a cast

Stay tuned for further discussion of self-shooting tips and techniques!

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