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How 'Creeping' Can Improve Your Images

by David Peterson 0 comments

So you know how you follow some people on Facebook with great interest but don't actually ever talk to them? The urban dictionary calls that "creeping," which is similar to stalking but without malicious intent. This week, I'm going to advocate doing something similar with other photographers, only instead of keeping track of their Facebook posts, you're going to be keeping track of their Flickr posts, and the EXIF data attached to them.

Before things like the Internet and digital cameras, such a thing would have been impossible unless you became a photographer's groupie and followed him around the country in a VW bus from gallery to gallery, and even then all you could really do was just look at his work—there was no real way to know what it was he'd done with each shot unless you were already a bit of a pro yourself. Film cameras couldn't record things like shutter speed and aperture, and even if they could there wouldn't have been any way to access that information unless it was actually printed on the image itself. If the photographer wanted a record of his settings, he needed to carry around a notebook and meticulously record every setting he used for each individual frame. Can you imagine?


Ocean Flow by Flickr user Justin in SD

Today we have EXIF, which you can think of as a photographer's instant, whether-you-like-it-or-not notebook. EXIF data (which stands for Exchangeable Image File Format) records pretty much everything you did to get the shot, from ISO to shutter speed to flash, to the GPS coordinates of where you were when you shot the image. And that information is not just useful to you, it's useful to anyone else who is able to view it.

What is Flickr?

Enter Flickr, which is basically Facebook for photographers. When you upload an image to Flickr, your EXIF data goes with it, so anyone who wants to know what shutter speed you used can just have a look at the right side column on the Flickr page.

To take advantage of this wonderful way of creeping people you don't know, you'll first need a Flickr account of your own. Don't worry, a basic account is free and you don't ever need to use it to upload your own photos, if you don't think they're ready for prime time (you can also hide them from public view if you prefer to).

After you've got your account, spend some time browsing around the site. Check out groups that have been established for photographers who like to photograph the same sorts of things you like to photograph, and then favorite some of the best images. From there you can choose to follow photographers you particularly like. Which means that their images will appear on your home page whenever new ones are added.

What is EXIF?

Let's backtrack a little and talk about how your camera records that data, and some of the ways you can access it (besides Flickr, which is limited to basic image data). Every time your camera (which is essentially a computer) takes a photo, it records that photo to your memory card along with all the data about what settings you used to create the image. It can also tell you things like what time of day you shot the photo (provided your clock is accurate), whether or not you used flash, what brand of camera captured the image and what the focal length of the lens was.

EXIF isn't without some problems—it's not completely standardized, which means that some cameras record data that other cameras do not. And some software strips out the EXIF data when you save a file, which means you may lose it and never get it back. Facebook actually does this by design, so when you try to download an image from Facebook you won’t get any of the EXIF data to go along with it.

EXIF also concerns people because of potential privacy issues—for example, a person could conceivably use the GPS data recorded in the EXIF to locate a person they saw in a photo (in fact law enforcement has already succeeded in tracking down criminals this way). This is a legitimate concern, and fortunately most cameras do give you the option to enable or disable GPS tagging—or alternately, you can use an EXIF editor to strip out the information yourself.

But the rest of the data—the stuff that doesn’t identify you, like shutter speed and ISO—can be very useful if you know how to read it. Most post-processing packages can read EXIF; in Photoshop, for example, you just select File > File Info and you’ll get the complete dataset. But you don’t even need an image editor in most operating systems—on a Windows machine, you just need to right click on the image, then choose Properties > Details. On a Mac, you right click and choose “Get Info.” EXIF data will be listed in the “More Info” section of the window.

So back to those photographers you’re officially creeping on Flickr—how can you use their EXIF data to make you a better photographer? Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Sony DSLR-A580
  • 400
  • f/2.8
  • 1/2500 sec
  • 200 mm

Petal Perfect by Flickr user BryonLippincott

Here’s the basic EXIF data, as displayed on the photo’s Flickr page:

Flicr exif 1

Note the “Show EXIF” link—if you click on it, you’ll get a lot more information than what you see here, but most of what you need to know will be in this basic set of data.

Without having to do anything but view the page, you can see that this photo was shot with a Sony DSLRA580, and that the photographer used a 70-200mm zoom lens. When he made the exposure he was zoomed all the way in at 200mm, and he chose a large aperture of f/2.8 (the max for that lens). Both of these choices helped him achieve that very shallow depth of field and background bokeh. You can also see that he did not use a flash, and he set his ISO at 400 and his shutter speed at 1/2500.

Based on this information alone, you can immediately begin asking questions about his choice of settings. For example, was 1/2500 necessary to shoot a flower, or could he have lowered both his ISO and his shutter speed and still achieved the same results?

On the one hand, this information gives you a basic set of instructions for achieving a similar photo. You should know based on what you see here that if you want to photograph a flower with a lot of soft bokeh in the background, you can achieve good results if you select an aperture of f/2.8 and use a focal length of 200mm. But beyond that you can also put some of your critical thinking skills into play. Do you have to duplicate these precise settings to get similar results, or can you select a different shutter speed and ISO? If you zoom in on this photo, you can see that there’s a lot of noise in it, which is almost certainly due to that higher ISO. Was it intentional? Possibly—that would explain why the photographer chose the high ISO/fast shutter speed combination. But if that’s not something you want in your similar photo, you could choose a lower ISO and slower shutter speed instead.

Now let’s look at a second example:

  • Nikon D5000
  • 200
  • f/25.0
  • 25
  • 201.6 mm

EXPLORED Saturday 8-13-2011 (Highest position: 29 on Weds, 8-17-2011); Downtown Atlanta - I 75/85 at The Famous Varsity Restaurant across from Georgia Tech (for Our Daily Challenge) by Flickr user TheG-Forcers (Mike - CATCHING UP)

And here’s the EXIF:

Flicr exif 2

This photographer used a Nikon D5000 with a 55-200mm zoom lens. He was also zoomed all the way in—the data shows a focal length of 201.6mm, which is effectively 200mm. His ISO was low at 200, but what’s most telling about this image is the shutter speed. To achieve those long red and white streaks in place of traffic headlights and taillights, the photographer chose a very long shutter speed of 25 seconds. And the aperture is small (f/25), which did a couple of things for him. First, it gave him good depth of field throughout the scene, though he could probably have accomplished that with a larger aperture since there isn’t anything in the near foreground to keep in focus. Second, it allowed him to use that very long shutter speed even though the city lights are quite bright. But it also gave the hard points of light in the scene a starburst effect—you don’t get that when you use larger apertures. Armed with all of this information, you could conceivably go out and take a similar photo with the same settings and achieve equally good results.

Conclusion

Studying EXIF data works both ways—you can use the data from photos you admire to learn about what the photographer did to achieve those results, and you can also look at the data from your own photos to see both what you did right as well as what you did wrong. Don’t be afraid to look at the shutter, aperture etc. for your failures, too, because it can tell you what not to do the next time you’re in a similar situation.

Yes, “creeping” another photographer may sound a little unsavory, but it’s really a pretty benign and useful way to improve your photography skills. So if you don’t already have a Flickr account, it’s time to sign up. It’s free and your potential creeping victims are practically limitless.

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