James Brandon, who is a Ft. Worth-based wedding and travel photographer I stumbled upon after reading one of his articles at Digital Photography School, was kind enough to pass a copy of his new ebook along to me. And let me tell you, the book – “Tack Sharp: A Step By Step Guide to Nailing Focus” – couldn’t have been more timely, as sharpness has been my photography nemesis of late. I’ve been especially frustrated with my inability to capture crisp images of aircraft; one of my favorite subjects. As luck would have it, I was able to download a copy of the book last week, just in time for a fly-in at one of our local airports this past weekend.
The eBook Format
I thought I’d first say a quick word about obtaining and using the book. Trey Ratcliff (of Stuck In Customs fame) has been assembling and selling a collection of photography eBooks through a site he calls flatbooks. Trey asked James to write a book focusing (c’mon, you knew it was going to happen!) on making sharp images, and “Tack Sharp” is the resulting product. It’s sold, alongside books on several other photography subjects, at the flatbooks website.
The checkout process was very straight-forward, and in no time at all I had an email in my inbox with a link to a download URL. A few minutes after that I’d downloaded the document (which comes in PDF format), fired up iTunes, pulled the document from my desktop into my iBooks library, synced my iPad, and was flipping through the book. It looks great on the iPad! A quick editorial comment: I’m so excited about the new frontiers that the modern Internet is opening up to “amateurs”. The democratization of something like book printing and distribution is a cool thing to be in the middle of. One no longer has to grovel to a publisher in order to fulfill their dream of having a book published and read by millions.
“Tack Sharp” is divided into two main sections. “Foundations in Focus”, and “Advanced Techniques”. There are also additional photo examples, references, and a page full of discount codes (thanks James) at the back of the book. But the meat of the content is in those first two sections.
The “Foundations” section covers the following subjects:
- Shutter Speed
- Do Lenses Really Matter?
- Tips For Buying A New Tripod
As James acknowledges in the lead-in, much of the material in the first section is basic, and will likely be a review for all but the very newest to photography. Still, I find it can be helpful to hear familiar concepts taught by someone new. Sometimes a different method of explanation can help clarify or further solidify a concept. This was certainly the case for me with the book’s explanation of aperture’s effect on depth of field.
But it was the “Advanced Techniques” section, which covers the following subjects, that proved most valuable to me:
- Using a Self-Timer Or Remote
- Live View And Manual Focus
- Back Button (AF-ON) Focus
- Servo Focusing
- Single Point AF
- The Focus Trifecta
- Infinite Focus
- Depth of Field Preview
My camera, a Canon 40D, has a dedicated button for Back Button Focus. It’s the main reason I upgraded from my previous 30D. But little did I know the camera wasn’t set to use the BBF button the way I thought it was! My assumption was that Back Button Focus would automatically start auto-focus and meter the scene. The button is dedicated to Back Button Focus, right? Well, my mistake was in assuming that metering and focus are always a package deal. James advocates setting the BBF button as the permanent focus/metering trigger, and using the traditional shutter button as a shutter button ONLY. And that’s exactly the way I wanted my camera (and assumed it came from the factory) set up. In the book, James explains how to use the Custom Function menu to alter the way the BBF button works, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to just follow along as a learning exercise. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my camera was set incorrectly!
I’ve gotten fairly good at using the Single Point AF focus point selection button, and the multi-controller to change auto-focus points on the fly. But James suggests an alternate method of controlling AF points, one that I like better. Here again, he provides a step-by-step guide to working in the Custom Function menu to make the suggested change. I really do like the suggested method better; it’s much faster and more efficient.
The other subjects in the section were fairly familiar to me, but still contained information that gave me new things to think about. Especially the discussion on Infinite Focus; this is an area I need to learn more about.
For me, back button focus and single point AF information alone was invaluable. I felt like I had two new tools to try out, and I was excited to give them a test.
Did I Learn Anything?
After spending the morning out at Stearman Field in Benton, Kansas, this past weekend, I can honestly answer “yes!”
At an airshow last fall, out of about 100 pictures I was only able to get about three or four really sharp images of flying airplanes. This time, when I returned home and snapped in the memory card, I was rewarded with crisp image after crisp image. Yes, I still had a few blurrfests, but my scrap rate wasn’t anything near what it’s been in the past. It was so very rewarding to see immediate dividends from taking the time to learn something new. Thanks, James!
If you’re a photography enthusiast (especially if you have any interest in HDR), I’d highly recommend following James. Besides being talented, he’s very helpful and eager to connect with fellow photographers. You can find him on Twitter (@jamesdbrandon) and on the blog at his website (http://jamesbrandon.cc/blog/)
I’m still processing photos from the fly-in, and will post a larger album soon, but here’s one selection for now: