Advice: buying equipment and taking engaging photos of industry/an ugly city

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by Ridge08, Feb 6, 2009.

  1. Ridge08 macrumors member

    Feb 2, 2009
    I bought a Nikon D40 about a month ago. I`m using the 18-55mm kit lens. I`d used a point-and-shoot for a few months previously when I decided to move up to DSLR. So I`m basically a beginner, but doing as much reading as I can, and of course taking quite a few photos. Following Scott Kelby`s advice in the Digital Photography Book, I bought a sturdy tripod and a remote.

    Following the advice people have given on other threads here, I`ll tell you a bit about what I photograph and when.

    I live in a city of a million people in Japan. It`s not a beautiful place. There are a bunch of green hills and the like within the city, but every one of them is covered in electrical pylons, cable cars, radio and TV masts, roads, etc. The city used to have a lot of industry but much has evacuated to poorer countries. Still, industry and the urban landscape seems like a good theme to me.

    Getting close and actually having a clear shot of something is often difficult, since there are so many tall buildings everywhere. With my kit lens only extending to 55mm, I often have trouble keeping unwanted and distracting things out of my pictures.

    Assuming I have cash to spend, does this constitute a strong case for buying a longer zoom lens? If so, please give me some recommendations! I`m not looking to pay pro-lens prices but I do want good performance!


    Because of my job, I often miss the daylight and end up shooting at night. Apart from factories, there`s a pretty extensive red light district. Seems like that area has potential, but I`m also keen to avoid unwanted attention. Another possibility is the groups of young people who hang out and practice their breakdancing.

    So there are some ideas for subjects. Any more from more experienced photographers would be great. Can anyone offer some tips on keeping my nighttime (and more general urban/industrial) photography interesting and varied? Making it genuinely engaging? Getting greens and light blues in my pictures?
  2. toxic macrumors 68000

    Nov 9, 2008
    Well, obviously you could use more reach, so go ahead and grab a 70-200. I would suggest getting a wide or ultra-wide angle, though, like a zoom starting around 12mm or a ~24mm prime. Assuming you can get close, the ultra-wide can be really nice, though there is a bit of a learning curve. A 24mm prime would give you a classic 35mm FoV, 20 would give roughly 28mm that some people prefer...but you still need to get close.

    As for shooting at've got a tripod for that (maybe grab a monopod, too?). Next step, after the lens(es), is probably a new body with better high-ISO handling so you have more flexibility with shutter speed.
  3. rogersmj macrumors 68020


    Sep 10, 2006
    Indianapolis, IN
    ^ Considering he doesn't want to pay pro prices, I'm not sure the 70-200 f/2.8 AF-S VR at $1600 -- the only Nikon one that will autofocus on that body -- is a viable option. The Sigma and Tamron ones will AF on the D40 for around $800 I think, but that still might be a lot.

    Go for one of those f/2.8 zooms if you can, the f/2.8 will really help at night, but if not then the 55-200mm VR for about $180 is really one of your only options. It's plenty sharp but not all that fast; you'll need a tripod in all but the best light.
  4. mrgreen4242 macrumors 601


    Feb 10, 2004
    I like my Sigma 18-200mm pretty well. That can give you some reach and the VR will help with lower light a bit (also with capturing the motion of the dancers you mentioned without also introducing camera shake). It's not the GREATEST lens ever made, but for the price (<$400USD) it's a good buy for an all purpose walk around lens.
  5. jaseone macrumors 65816


    Nov 7, 2004
    Houston, USA
    Sounds like you have two distinct requirements:

    1. A cheap tele zoom lens
    2. A fast lens for use at night

    For 1 if your budget would allow it I would look into the Nikkor 70-300VR lens, more and more people are forming the opinion that it provides a lot of bang for the buck! It is not a lens for low light purposes though as the autofocus will hunt a lot trying to gain focus if you don't have decent ambient light.

    For 2 I would normally recommend the good old faithful 50/1.8 problem with that is it won't autofocus on your D40, an alternative would be the Sigma 30/1.4.
  6. DYER macrumors 6502

    Oct 4, 2008
    London, UK
    I second this entirely
    Maybe look at a used 80-200 AF-S they somtimes come up at good prices ! and it is fast fast fast
  7. GotMyOrangeCrus macrumors regular

    Well if I were you I wouldn't focus so much on adding new equipment and would focus on mastering the equipment you already have to start with. An 18-50mm is a great focal length for the subject matter your talking about. I would also sit down and figure out just what kind of pictures your looking to take. Just what kind of story do you want to tell with your pictures. Are you trying to show how ugly this city really is? Are you wanting to document the people of the city or is it more about the actual buildings and landscape.

    I shot alot of this kind of stuff when I was in school as I lived in Detroit for part of the year and that city is perfect for that kind of subject matter. I too started out wanting to document the ugliness yet halfway through the school year I figured out through critiques that I was actually romanticizing the subject matter and not really documenting it at all. I was looking for the angle that made that area look its best, not trying to show it how it actually was. It ended up making the pictures far more interesting yet took them out of the documentary style altogether.

    There is a lot of work out there on this subject matter. I would look at a lot of that work and see what pictures really interest you and then ask yourself just what kind of pictures your trying to make. Once you figure that out then I would focus on mastering the technical skills required for such shooting including shooting at night etc.. If you just go out and aimlessly shoot pictures there is a good chance you will wind up with just a bunch of pictures and not a body of work with some real meaning.
  8. toxic macrumors 68000

    Nov 9, 2008
    well, first, I didn't say it had to be a Nikkor, and second, I was assuming there's a Nikkor equivalent to the Canon 70-200 f/4.

    I was really just generally speaking about that focal length. If there's a 55-300 or something like that, that works too. But it seems like the OP needs a telephoto much more than a wide angle.
  9. OreoCookie macrumors 68030

    Apr 14, 2001
    Sendai, Japan
    There is, it's the 80-200 f/2.8 for about the same price as Canon's f/4. However, it needs a built-in focus motor. The only other exception is a used AF-S Nikkor, also 80-200 mm but with different optics than either.

    In any case, IMO you should get a prime, perhaps around 30 mm (Sigma 30 mm f/1.4, corresponds to about 50 mm on film) or around 20 mm (Nikon's 21 mm f/2.8 is probably hard to find, corresponds to about 35 mm on film). They're small fast and thus are well-suited for street photography. The tele zooms are very heavy, conspicuous and intimidating. I know that for sure because I own one ;) :D
  10. Martster macrumors newbie

    Feb 9, 2008
    Van Diemen's Land
    industrial aesthetics

    re keeping your urban/industrial photography interesting;
    check out the the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher; also
    Andreas Gursky who was one of their students.
  11. pdxflint macrumors 68020


    Aug 25, 2006
    Oregon coast
    On the second point... I'd say to consider that many folks managed quite well with fast "normal" primes (f/1.4-f/1.8 50mm) for years before autofocus became all the rage. Since the camera will take care of the exposure part automatically, you might find that in low light situations, actually doing the focusing yourself might be enlightening, and offer more control than relying on autofocus, which often isn't that great in low light. The precision of using your eye to focus as you swing the camera around is actually better in manual focus mode. The only shortcoming to this is that on your D40 the viewfinder isn't the biggest and brightest... but go into a store and try it out with a 50mm f/1.8 on manual focus before you rule it out.
  12. Ridge08 thread starter macrumors member

    Feb 2, 2009
    Everyone, thanks a lot for your input.

    Here are two of my main impressions of Japan:

    -First, there`s a lot of natural beauty and historical/cultural stuff surrounded by modern and often ugly structures. For example, the mountains are lush and beautiful but topped with radio masts. There are temples and shrines in close proximity to gaudy neon and badly-maintained buildings. At first, it feels really jarring: I couldn`t understand the way they tainted such beautiful things. Back home in the UK, the environs of historical buildings generally fit the building itself quite well; and in the countryside, we don`t have nearly so many enormous, unattractive structures in view.

    I find this combination of the natural and historical and beautiful with the modern and ugly fascinating, and in the longer term, want to assemble a body of work that reflects this facet of Japan.

    -Second, this city, like my own hometown, has been suffering the ill effects of heavy industry moving abroad for some time. People from the more traditional-cultural and cosmopolitan areas look down on Kitakyushu for all the usual reasons. But the people here are good and warm and open; there are cool things going on underneath the surface and it`s not a bad place to be at all.

    So far, I`ve mostly been trying to document the landscape. I want this to fit into this second impression, which I guess is about showing an industrial city in decline while revealing some of the more positive and sometimes hidden aspects of the city. I`m think I`m aiming for quite a delicate balance.

    I`m definitely guilty of the same things you were: that is, trying to document ugliness in the most attractive way.

    Generally speaking, I`m having a hard time trying to understand how I can pull all of this together because so many of the strands mentioned above can easily lead me to produce contradictory messages from photo to photo. I`ve certainly done that so far, which is why I`m largely unimpressed with my output to this point. I`m not being too hard on myself, since it`s early days! But I am looking to produce something meaningful.

    The other obvious issue I have with the above is that it seems like a huge project, and one I`m not necessarily ready to undertake. That`s why I`ve been trying to break things down into compartments for now and tie them together later on, as I go. Is that a bad move? Should I just concentrate on a smaller project?

    I know the above is where I want my Japan photos to go in the end...


    It`s also true that none of the above really determines that I need any particular new equipment. I tried to avoid putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, by talking about potential subjects for my photos; I obviously missed the point.

    Since I`ve been trying to break the big idea into smaller pieces, I`ve decided to document the city`s landscape, especially the industry. The idea of buying a longer zoom largely arose out of difficulties in getting tight shots of subjects when I was unable to get very close, which is quite frequently.

    I`d like to thank everyone for your lens recommendations! I`ve read about a few of them. When I said I didn`t want to pay pro prices, I really meant this: I don`t mind spending the money; but I do mind spending the money unwisely and I`m sure I`m not in the best position at this point to know exactly what I`d most benefit from.

    Pdxflint, I would happily consider a lens that won`t autofocus on the D40. The system does have some trouble at night. There are a couple easy ways to get around that issue, but I think it`d do me some good to be able to focus manually anyway. I have been reading about the Nikon 50mm f/1.8.

    Martster, thanks for the photographer recommendations. I`ll check them out!
  13. Ridge08 thread starter macrumors member

    Feb 2, 2009
    Some info on the prices of lens recommended to me in this thread, taken from Amazon Japan. They currently have a 33%-off sale on their lenses and some still aren`t great. All you camera shoppers in the US have it lucky.

    Nikon Ai AF Nikkor 50mm F1.8D:

    Nikon Ai AF Nikkor 50mm F1.4D:

    Sigma 30mm F1.4 EX DC HSM with Nikon mount

    Nikon AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor ED 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G (IF)

    Nikon AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor ED 70-200mm F2.8G (IF) ブラック
    At 33% off, this still costs almost $500 more than in the States!
  14. GotMyOrangeCrus macrumors regular

    Well first let me clear up what I stated before. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting a zoom lens or more portrait oriented lens and I certainly dont think that buying it now would be a negative thing. I was just trying to stress the fact that the lens you have is actually a really good lens for the subject matter your trying to document and a lot of people get fixed on buying more equipment before really even figuring out the gear they already have. Some photographers think more gear will make them better and that is just not the case. Most of the work I shot of this subject matter was in fact in that 28-50mm focal range. Its harder to tell a story, landscape wise, when your zooming in especially when your subject matter is such large structures. The bottom line is every photographer should have a wide/normal focal length and a zoom/portrait focal length so again I dont want you to mistake what I was saying before. Buy your zoom lens, just dont feel like you need to do it immediately as you have a great tool right now for what you want to accomplish.

    As for what your trying to accomplish, now your talking! You seem to have given this a lot of though and I think its a fantastic idea. Thats the kind of subject matter I would shoot and I am actually kind of jealous after reading that post as I have always wanted to shoot in japan and that kind of subject matter in Japan is, well enough to make me extremely envious subject matter wise. That will make an outstanding show/book/series and the great thing about subject matter like that is you can continue to revisit it later on and continue to add to the body for years and years to come.

    Absolutely. Its really powerful subject matter. Its like the new culture is an infection, slowly creeping in on the old cultural areas. I have seen this in a few places myself including Costa Rica. You see really old and beautiful historic structures right next to a Burger King or McDonald's and all of the other trademarks of our current cultural situation, telephone poles, wires, gas stations, mini marts, billboards etc.. Again its really a fantastic subject matter and I can imagine that this type of thing being played out in parts of Japan has the potential for some really stunning shots.

    Well it seems to me like you might want to consider making this 2 separate bodies of work. Dont get me wrong I would be interested is seeing you attempt to make this into a single series and it just may be possible however you may find that the pictures are very different from one another. On one hand your trying to show this cities decline and that really lends itself well to a documentary style of shooting. On the other hand your pictures of the landscape and this clash of old vs new is a bit trickier. You certainly can shoot these areas in a documentary fashion however you may windup running into the same problem I did and that is you will wind up romanticizing the subject matter and I am not sure how well that will mesh with the documentary style of the decaying city. Dont get me wrong I am certainly not saying it cant be done and I am certainly not saying dont give it a try. I am merely suggesting that as time goes on you may in fact begin to see 2 distinct bodies of work forming and I dont think that is necessarily a bad thing in regards to these subjects and you may wind up just embracing that fact and making this 2 separate series. I would say shoot and decide that later on after you have a solid body of work to really look at and scrutinize.

    LOL, yeah its a lot harder than it looks and this is what I was talking about in the last paragraph. Its really tough not to romanticize it. Were photographers and were trying to make engaging yet beautiful photographs even if they do have somewhat ugly subject matter. I wound up actually giving up on the documenting aspect and really embraced the romanticizing aspect. In fact that romanticizing approach has actually become one of my favorite ways to shoot and not only does it make up a large percentage of my overall body of work, its also something I still actively shoot to this day.

    At least you recognize this early on and this is basically what I was talking about up above when I was talking about possibly making it two distinct bodies of work. It is hard getting both messages across in a body of work and ultimately you may wind up making them separate. The fact that you recognize this early on is a good thing as it gives you something to think about when shooting and examining the picture you have already shot. As I said above I think you should continue forward as if it was a single body and give yourself a chance to try and pul it together. You can always change it into 2 distinct bodies later on down the road.

    Just out of curiosity have you given any though to possibly using any post processing techniques to give your pictures a distinct quality? For instance there are literally thousands of Photoshop filters and while a lot of them are utter garbage, their are some that give really unique qualities to a picture. For example you can make the images really grainy and even add scratches and imperfections to help get that old and decayed look across. One of my favorite companies for filters is Machine Wash. I think they are up to 240 different filters and again while some are really bad they have a few that really are very cool. There are of course other companies making filters and there are things you can do in Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom that dont even require a filter. Or you can just shoot straight with no manipulation. This is something I would think about and its ultimately why I suggested viewing a lot of work on this subject matter as it can tip you off to styles and ways of shooting you never even bothered to consider. There is nothing wrong with shooting straight non-manipulated pictures as I do it all the time, its just something that you should give some thought to.

    There is one thing that literally almost every single successful photographer has in common, they have a distinct style. Its the one thing that every photographer strives for. Some go their entire careers without ever succeeding and some are wildly successful like Joyce Tennseon, Sally Mann, Ansel Adams, David LaChapelle Etc. While this isnt something that you should concentrate to hard on, it is something that you should be striving for until the day you stop shooting. How can you make your images unique? What can you do in your approach and your technical abilities that will give your images that extra punch. Viewing other peoples work and learning how such photographs were taken is something every photographer should do. It will help you figure out what you like, what you dont like and ultimately what type of style you would like to develop. Just something to think about.

    Try not to focus so much on the big picture and start small. Dont get me wrong the big picture is important especially when putting a body of work together however you dont have to figure everything out immediately. Body's of work are not stagnate. They evolve over time and ultimately might change into something utterly different than you thought when you started out. You have a good solid plan for what you basically want to shoot and this may in fact be something you work on for your entire life, just how it has become with me. The best thing you can do now is really work on the technical aspect of your shooting as this is ultimately where the style aspect of your pictures comes from even if you decide to shoot straight with no manipulation. The most important thing is too shoot pictures. The more you shoot the better you will get. There is nothing wrong with breaking things down and concentrating on just one small aspect at a time. Different things work for different photographers. As you shoot more and more you will figure out what works best for you.

    I look forward to seeing some pictures and if you ever need any advice, dont hesitate to message me.
  15. SteveMobs macrumors 6502


    Dec 10, 2008
    Washington D.C.
    Don't go shoot in the Red Light district! I'm from the Netherlands, and if you ever go to the Red Light district in Amsterdam you may see a tourist trying to take pictures. The girls want to remain anonymous so the pimps come out and smash cameras, no joke.

    So I would refrain.
  16. Ridge08 thread starter macrumors member

    Feb 2, 2009
    I suspected that might happen.
  17. Ridge08 thread starter macrumors member

    Feb 2, 2009
    Good point; hadn`t thought about that.

    That`s one thing I like about the idea. It`s really a long-term project. Actually, it couldn`t be any other way: what I`m really trying to do here is reflect my understanding of a foreign culture in pictures; and of course, my impressions are continually changing.

    One of the things about Japan is how rapidly this country embraced Western culture, and in particular, consumerism. When I first came to Japan, only six months ago, I had quite negative feelings about this unseparated mix of old and new. I`ve gotten used to it since then and no longer find it anything like as offensive as I did, though it does seem a shame in many instances.

    So I`m trying to step back from that initial impulse to judge. I need to speak to more people and find out what the natives` opinions are, and think about it quite a lot myself. But no matter what I end up feeling, I think I`d prefer to produce (at least some) more non-judgemental photos. The more I think about it, the more I feel I`d rather try to stimulate discussion than put forward a strong opinion: people can make up their own minds. Maybe that`ll change, but I like that as a starting point.

    Seems like good advice. Don`t try to fix things too much in advance. I don`t know what I`m going to end up feeling and I don`t know what the photos will end up looking like.

    Even if both ideas are shot documentary-style, it still makes sense to view them, at least initially, as separate series. We`ll see if I can avoid romanticizing. Maybe I`ll discover I don`t want to avoid that!

    Maybe I can aim for ugly and engaging.

    Currently, all my photos go into iPhoto. I`ve played a little bit with upping the temperature and saturation of some outdoor photos taken on cloudy days. That`s about it. I`m thinking of buying Photoshop Elements. I`m wondering if GIMP is worth looking at too, especially since it`s free and might allow me to learn a lot before switching to a more full-featured version of Photoshop. I do wonder if I`d need that though.

    By the way, I just signed up to Flickr. If I upload photos from a program like iPhoto, which uses non-destructive editing, will they revert to their original form on Flickr, requiring me to edit them again?

    At some point, I`d like to study photography more formally. I`m not sure when or where, but I`d love to do that. Did you study it at college? Straight after high school or later on?

    Thanks a lot for the advice! It`s helping me to think about what I want to do much more effectively. I appreciate it.

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