Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Buying Used Gear on Craiglist

In the past months I've discovered the wondrous cess-pool that is Craigslist. I've seen scammy postings, advertisements by hookers, and cheap-ass wannabe photographers promising to shoot your 8 hour wedding for just $50 and provide incredible images at the end.

However! There are some gems to be had on Craiglist if you can just avoid the herpes.

I've managed to get the following in the three months from good old CL:

Canon 5D, less than a year old in like-new condition w/ two batteries and a charger: $1500
75-300mm Series III USM Canon Lens: $75
Backdrop support system that is higher than all ceilings I have encountered thus far + 10x20ft black muslin: $100

By my estimates I have saved roughly $1k from buying used equipment. $1000! So how can you get in on this money saving action?

1) Check early, check often. I try to cruise by the listings on CL at least once a day. I got the great deal on the lens because I saw the ad for it and immediately contact the person, and set up a meeting to buy it that afternoon.

2) Do your homework and don't be afraid to haggle. If they're selling used equipment and you know you can get a better deal somewhere, see if you can haggle the price down. The worst they'll say is no, and you might just find a way better deal elsewhere (just make sure to check before buying from online stores!)

Another big issue is making sure you don't get scammed. My first purchase via Craigslist was spending $1500 on a used 5D body from a complete stranger out of state. I was nervous, but I took precautions to keep myself safe.

-Always ask why they are selling the equipment, and in some cases ask for photos of it. They should be able to give a good answer, and if they can't -beware-. If they can't give you a solid believable answer then it could be stolen equipment, which if traced to you could land you in some hot water. The 5D was being sold because the woman liked film better and just didn't use it enough. The lens was being sold because the person was simplifying their gear. The backdrop was being sold due to the owner moving cross-country and no t needing to take it with him.

-Buy locally, and sell locally. Nigerian email scams anyone? Variations of that happen on CL as well. I posted some equipment for sale and had someone contact me who apparently was in Texas, but needed the equipment shipped to Africa... but it had to be soon since the person was about to leave for London. Uhhh yeah, right! Buying locally also means that you can keep shipping costs to a minimum or just meet in person.

-Use paypal for large transactions! It will keep you safe; you won't be robbed while carrying it around, it won't get lost in the mail, and the seller won't get your personal information. And if the whole deal suddenly takes a turn for the worst you can dispute the transaction as fraud and get your money back.

-For smaller transactions in person, I pay cash. I also prefer to get paid in cash unless I know the person or can track them down easily. Paying someone in a check could result in stolen identify and fraud, and getting paid with a check could end up with you at the bank finding out that it's bounced and you've just been scammed out of your gear for free!

-If you're meeting in person, bring a friend along. It might sound distrusting or cynical, but you owe it to yourself to look out for you. I bring along my boyfriend Dylan, he's got a big scary beard to scare away creeps. Also meet in a public place; I've met at a hospital and a dunkin donuts to do transactions and both were fine. Just be sure that the place you go won't get mad if you're hanging around without buying food or doing business there.

With some careful scouting and common sense you can some great deals on used equipment. Just make sure to keep yourself safe, and if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Working Studio For Less $$$

So you've been taking photos outdoors or near windows to make use of natural available light. But now you're wanting to explore other kinds of portraits with backdrops and controllable lighting - after all, it's not always sunny or nice out!

The problem is that, like most photography equipment, back drops, stands, and lights are very expensive, and can take up a lot of space. If you're like me with only a dorm room to work in most of the time, space is a luxury.

These two factors combined are enough to make a person just give up entirely, but wait! There are a few great ways to make your own studio gear on a budget.

Lighting is a doozy - it's expensive and it takes up a lot of room. A "standard" softbox can run you anywhere from $60 to over $150. I've seen them range to $200 all the way up to over $5k!
Then you need a good power source, and a place to store it when you aren't using it. All in all for a student or anyone without a dedicated studio space, having full on pro lighting equipment can be a huge headache and just not a workable idea.

The wonderful thing is that you can still get great lighting that is much lighter, portable, and best of all CHEAP! Same for backdrops.

The above was taken using just one small clip desk light placed behind the subject, , the kind that you might find at wal*mart. There was also normal light from the ceiling fixture lighting the subjects front. When you shoot using normal indoor lights you generally will need to tweak things in photoshop to get rid of the orange tone that the lights give off.

This photo was taken using just two clip lights from walmart that cost $6 each. I used energy saving lightbulbs in them - they last for a long time, don't heat up, and give off a pretty clean (non-orange) light compared to normal bulbs. I clipped them to a chair and a bureau to position them and had them plugged into normal outlets. The background is a blank off-white wall.

That photo was taken using one clip light, and a white blanket as a background (photoshop was used to make the background smoother). Blankets and thick or doubled up sheets can be good background if you have no blank walls, but if they wrinkle they can look very tacky, so be careful and iron them beforehand if at all possible.

For more powerful lights you can get floodlights from a hardware store, and set them far back from the subject or hang something in front (not on or over, always be careful of fire hazards) of it to diffuse it. The good thing about floodlights is that you can get them for cheaper than 'real' lights, and they can take a bit more of a beating if you have to move them around a lot or store them. You can also use white pieces of foam core board or silver baking sheets as reflectors to bounce light onto your subject.

With back drops I would suggest trying to get a real back drop if you can... it will be a lot easier to take full length photos, as regular sheets won't be long enough. I found a used backdrop with a 10x20 foot black piece of muslin on craigslist for $100 - to put this in perspective, the cloth alone can retail for about $75, and the support system can sell for $200. I've also bought my camera for hundreds less than I would have normally paid, as well as a telephoto lens that I didn't think I could ever get. Craigslist is a great place to get cheap equipment if you know how to look for deals, what questions to ask, and how to avoid being scammed or taken advantage of. Next time I'll go over ways to get the most out of craigslist to expand your collection of camera gear.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Taking Better Self-portraits

Photography is an expensive hobby. A good camera can run in the thousands of dollars, and pro equipment for a studio racks up cost very quickly. I've run into people who think they can't ever take a good photo because they just can't afford it, so in this entry I'm going to give some tips and tricks for taking better pictures with the camera you have. I've also included some of my earliest photos that were taken with a small samsung point and shoot.

Attack of the myspace photos! (or: why aren't my photos getting attention?)

You need a photo for your [insert social network site here] or decide that you just want to take some self-portaits. You grab your digital camera and start snapping. You upload all 500 photos you take, and are rather upset that no one comments on them or pays attention. Why is this happening?

We all know what a myspace photo is - someone grabs their camera or cell phone and starts snapping away at a 45 degree angle to their head. This is not good photography. You can argue all you want but I am here to tell you that those photos are a dime a dozen and generally suck. If you are trying to take a good quality self-portrait and actually express something about yourself other than the fact that you can rotate your shoulders and raise your arms above your head, you have to move beyond them.
Variations of this include pictures taken above your head to let everyone see down your shirt. Don't be a slut, no one wants to buy the cow when they can get the milk for free. There are ways to be sexy in photographs without being cheap and trashy.

Other common mistakes are:
-Close ups of a body part (generally eyes) that turn out blurry. What is the point of sharing these? If you have beautiful eyes, turn on the macro function of your camera, stand next to a light source, and have someone else take the photo.

-Shots very close to your face with the flash on. Yes, this will wash out (over expose) your face and make your skin look flawless, but it also erases your nose and most of your features. If you feel self conscious about your face then get creative and find ways to cover it, or take this is a great way to work on your self-esteem and acceptance of your body (which is what you should be working on in the first place).

-The trout.
Pushing your lips out, pouting, and sucking in your cheeks. This doesn't extenuate your lips or make your face look slimmer... it makes you look like you've eaten a lemon and it's not attractive in the slightest. Try a gentle close mouthed smile for a classic and attractive portrait. Practice in the mirror, and you'll get it down.
You can also use the mirror to see what angles flatter your features (not the 45 degree above the head angle) and use this knowledge to your advantage. A good full body pose is to stand with your hips point slightly to the left or right of the camera and twisting your torso at the waist to face the camera more head on. It generally takes weight off your tummy and minimizes any extra jiggle you might have.

-Mirror picture with flash
Using a mirror isn't always a bad way to take a self portrait, you can get some very interested effects with them. However - TURN YOUR FLASH OFF. What would have been an otherwise good photo can be ruined by a huge white splotch over your face from the flash firing. If the room is dark, turn on lights, use a lamp nearby, and open shades to let natural light in (bonus: natural light makes your skin look better).

-Abusing photoshop
Photoshop is a very powerful tool, and a lot of fun to play with. That being said, don't go crazy with filters. They can turn a perfectly fine portrait into something that looks very unskilled and juvenile. Polarizing filter and sharpening are two drugs of choice I've seen people overusing.

-Sensory overload.
I generally upload one picture per day or one picture every two days to deviantART
Uploading two or more photos, let alone twenty, is a great way to make people ignore you. Uploading just one or two give people time to look at them and appreciate them instead of being bombarded with image after image. And restricting yourself to just a few also makes you more critical of your photos so you only chose the very best ones to share.

I hope this has shed some light on ways to improve your photos! Next time I'll talk about ways to DIY your own studio equipment to take great photos without spending lots of cash.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

need a helping hand

I've entered a contest on brickfish, it's a photography contest with the theme of "beautiful places in the world". I have to two photos entered. The winners are decided based on rank which is a combination of votes and "viralness" - meaning how far and wide you can spread your entries.
So I am asking, as my friends, to help me with this. Click the two links below to see my two entries:

You don't sign up for anything, you don't give your email, your name, nothing. You just click the vote button. You can vote once every 8 hours. It takes maybe half a minute to do, and you would be helping me so much - $1000 is a lot for a college student. If I win it that's $1000 less off my bills that I need to worry about, $1000 less in loans I take out.

I also ask that you post the links wherever you can, to try to reach as many people as possible. Those of you that know me know I am extremely serious about my photography and it would be amazing (and my first time) to win something from it.

<333 thank you!