Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography

16Jul/09Off

How to take photos of Sports, Children, Wildlife, and other fast-moving subjects

Sunrise Flight

Sunrise Flight

Taking photos of fast-moving subjects can make for some amazing photography, but it also presents a unique set of challenges.  In this tutorial, I’ll cover some of the basics of how to set your camera to capture fast moving subjects that you might see in sports, or wildlife, or when trying to capture children.

First, let’s discuss shutter speed.  It is shutter speed that allows you to freeze motion and capture sharp photos of moving subjects.  For most of this tutorial, we’ll assume you’re aiming to capture sharp frozen-in-time photos of your subjects.  I’ll discuss creative motion blur later.

For fast-moving subjects, you need a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement.  There’s no exact shutter speed to memorize because it varies by situation.  The shutter speed to use depends on how fast the subject is moving, how far away the subject is from you, and whether it’s moving across the frame or coming toward / away from you.

Derek Jeter sliding into 2nd base

Derek Jeter sliding into 2nd base

For most “general” types of moving subjects, I find that 1/500th second works in a lot of cases, and is a good starting point.  1/500th should be able to freeze most moving subjects.  Of course, some things can be frozen with a much slower shutter speed, and some require much faster.  The farther the subject is from you, the slower you can go with the shutter.  Similarly, if the subject is coming toward / away from you, you can use a slower shutter speed.  The opposite is true if something is close to you or moving across the frame.  Think of it this way, if there are horses a mile away running toward you, you won’t need that fast of a shutter speed.  They’ll look pretty much the same even after a second has gone by.  On the other hand, if you’re standing on the track at a NASCAR race and a racecar speeds past you when you’re twenty feet away, you’re going to need a mighty fast shutter speed to capture that car.

If you have the time to experiment and try a few settings, then go ahead and see what shutter speed works for the subject you’re shooting.

Bellagio, Las Vegas

Bellagio, Las Vegas

So how do we get those fast shutter speeds and how do we set the camera?  You have two options as far as setting the camera.  You can either set the camera to Shutter Priority or Manual Mode. Then select the shutter speed that works for you.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages.  If you use Shutter Priority, the camera will use the shutter speed you select and will set the aperture automatically for you, but with a potentially different aperture from shot-to-shot, depending on the lighting in each shot.  This can be useful if you’re pointing the camera in all different directions from shot to shot and the lighting is different in each shot.  The camera will help ensure the exposure is correct for each shot, by adjusting the aperture.  The disadvantage is that there will be no consistency from shot-to-shot, which is actually the advantage of using Manual Mode. 

In Manual Mode, you set both the shutter speed and the aperture to capture the subject with the correct exposure.  Regardless of whether the subject is in front of a light background or a dark background, the subject will always be captured correctly, but the brightness of the background will vary because the aperture will remain the same.  If you use Shutter Priority, it’s “possible” that the camera may choose an aperture you don’t want.  Here’s an example to make it clearer… let’s say you’re taking pictures at an NFL football game.  You have the camera set to Shutter Priority mode at 1/500th second.  You’re taking several photographs in a row using your camera’s rapid-fire continuous shooting mode as a player is running across the field.  In one shot, the player is in front of a background that consists of the crowd, and the crowd is fairly dark.  The camera chooses an aperture of F4.  Two seconds later the player has run down the field some more, you take another picture, but this time the background is a bright white billboard for a car company.  Because the scene is brighter, the camera chooses an aperture of F8.  Well now you have two pictures at two different settings, and the player is going to be darker in the second one.  Had you shot in manual mode, the player would have looked identical in both shots, but the background would have been bright in the shot with the billboard.  This is an example of some of the types of things you’ll want to think about.  Do you want the player to look identical from shot-to-shot, or are you more concerned about the overall exposure of any given one image?  It’s up to you.  I personally shoot in manual mode so I know what I’m going to get, but it’s a matter of personal preference. 

Skiing -- Taking Photos of Fast Moving Subjects

Skiing -- Taking Photos of Fast Moving Subjects

Let’s talk a little bit about how to ensure you’re getting the correct exposure.  We know that fast shutter speeds let in very little light.  All other things being equal, fast shutter speed = dark pictures.  So we have to compensate for that to make the photo brighter.  The best way to compensate for fast shutter speeds is to open up the aperture (set it to a low F-number like F4 or F2.8).  Apertures that wide let in a lot of light, allowing the fast shutter speeds while still keeping the image bright.  Of course opening up the aperture that wide also limits depth-of-field (the amount of the picture that is in focus front-to-back).  A wide aperture causes a nice blurred background, which in many cases is exactly what we want (for the football example above, it’s best to have the crowd render as a soft out-of-focus dark area so the player really pops out in the image). 

If you want more of the photo to be in focus, you’ll have to close down the aperture. You may also have to use a narrower aperture simply because your lenses don't have particularly wide apertures at all.  Lenses with wide apertures are expensive to make.  What you’re paying for is all that glass and technology that allows the lens to let in that much light.  If you’ve ever heard the term “fast lens”, that’s what this is referring to.  A fast lens is a wide-aperture lens that allows for fast shutter speeds.  Most people consider a fast lens to be at least F2.8.  Zoom lenses rarely go below F2.8.  Prime lenses (non-zooming) can go down to as low as F1.2!  They can take pictures in incredibly dim lighting and still allow a fast shutter speed. If you’re at the widest aperture your lens allows (or that you want to use), you’ve determined the appropriate shutter speed, and the photo is still too dark, then you have to resort to raising the ISO.  ISO essentially brightens the image, but it also decreases image quality.  I use ISO as a last resort in the chain.  I start at ISO 100 (which will ensure the best image quality), then I adjust my shutter speed and aperture to see how much light I can get.  If the image is still too dark, I increase the ISO to 200 and check the brightness again.  I keep increasing the ISO one step at a time until I reach the correct brightness level, all the while trying to keep the ISO as low as possible.

Besides exposure, the other challenge when shooting moving subjects is focus.  There are a couple of options that will help you get the results you want.

Moving subjects can be difficult to focus on.  Many people (including myself) generally rely on only the center focus point and opt to turn off all other focus points for everyday shooting.  This means that if the moving object moves anywhere in the frame that is off of the center focus point, the picture will be out of focus.  In these cases, I may sometimes turn on all of the focus points to have a better chance of catching the subject.  Even so, it can be tricky, and it may require you to move the camera quickly to ensure the subject is always on one of the focus points.

Cat jumping for her toy

Cat jumping for her toy

When shooting in continuous shooting mode, a.k.a. sports mode, rapid-fire mode, etc., meaning that the camera will continue to take pictures in rapid succession for as long as you hold down the shutter button, there are a couple of focusing options. 

(1) Single-shot AF (autofocus) means that the camera will focus on the object when you first press the shutter button, and will remain focused on that one spot for as long as you hold the shutter button down, even if the subject moves off of the focus point or changes distance from you.  This ensures that all the shots in a series maintain the exact same focus.  It’s useful when the subject is moving side-to-side.  

(2) Continuous AF, Servo Focus, etc. means the camera will continually re-focus on the subject automatically from shot-to-shot while all the shots are taken in rapid succession.  This is useful if the subject is coming toward you or moving away from you.  For example, if you’re standing at the finish line of a running race with the runners coming toward you, you’ll want to use Continuous AF so that each picture re-focuses on the runners as they get closer. 

(3) Manual Focus:  Manual focus is one of the most important focus modes.  In this day and age with everything being automatic, you may wonder why you would ever want to use Manual focus.  The answer is because it’s quick and you’ll definitely get the shot off.  When you use autofocus, one of three things is going to happen: (1) the camera will take a certain amount of time to focus (albeit sometimes briefly) and will achieve proper focus or (2) the camera will take some time to focus but will focus incorrectly resulting in a blurry throwaway shot or (3) worst case, the camera will not focus at all and it won’t take a picture (this happens a lot at night or in dim lighting).  Using manual focus, you get around the problem of waiting for the lens to focus.  You don’t have to worry about the camera being incorrect in its focus choice, or not taking the picture at all.  I often use manual focus when it’s appropriate.  For example, going back to our car racetrack example, if you were in the stands and trying to take a picture of cars coming across the finish line, this is a perfect time to use Manual Focus.  Focus manually by eye on the finish line, or use autofocus to focus on the finish line and then switch the lens to manual focus.  Now, no matter when you press the shutter, the photo will be in perfect focus, it will take the picture immediately upon pressing the shutter, and should a bird fly into the top of the frame as you’re taking the picture, there’s no chance the camera will decide to focus on the bird!  For night and low-light photography, manual focus is often the only option that provides results quick enough for moving subjects.

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

The previous tips will help you get tack-sharp photos of moving subjects.  But what if you want to show some motion in your images?  Then you’ll need to do the exact opposite with the shutter speed and set it for extra long.  You have two options regarding the style of the shot when doing this:  you can mount the camera on a tripod so that all stationary objects are pin sharp while the moving objects are motion-blurred, or you can handhold the camera while panning along with the subject.  I wouldn’t recommend just setting a long shutter speed and handholding without panning, because that will just look like an unintentionally blurred shot. 

For the tripod shot, that’s pretty straightforward.  Mount the camera on a tripod and set the exposure so that there is a long shutter speed (experiment to determine the appropriate speed for your subject).  This will result in a bright photo, so you’ll usually need a small aperture (high F-number) for this, to ensure a properly exposed photo.  Shots like this will show a pin-sharp background with moving subjects.

Rockefeller Center at Christmas, NYC

Rockefeller Center at Christmas, NYC

For panning, experiment with a few different shutter speeds (start at 1/10th a second), and as the subject begins to pass in front of you, click the shutter, and while holding the camera to your eye, pivot your waist at the same speed as the subject is passing by you.  Continue to follow through with your pivot even after the shutter is closed, to ensure a smooth pan.  To get an appropriately long shutter speed, you may have to close down the aperture (small F-number like F16 or F22) because the long shutter speed will let a lot of light in.  You'll be counteracting that brightness by closing the aperture.  You can also add a burst of flash during the exposure which will help make the subject pop.  When using flash, I recommend using 2nd-Curtain flash sync (it’s a setting in your camera that you’ll see in the menus).  This means that the camera will flash at the end of long exposure (vs. the beginning).  It’s important because in most cases the photo will not look correct if you’re panning and the flash goes off at the beginning of the exposure – you want it to flash at the end.

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Here are a few more tips before we wrap up.  As a compositional tip, always allow space for the moving object to “move into” the frame.  For instance, if you’re taking a picture of a car moving from right-to-left, make sure there is room on the left side of the picture for the car to “drive into” (otherwise the photo will look cramped). 

Any time you’re trying to achieve a fast shutter speed to freeze action, be sure to remove any filters from your lenses.  For example, polarizers can reduce the light entering the camera by up to 2 or more stops.  That means without a polarizer, you might be able to get the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second, but if you don’t remove the polarizer, the best you can get is 1/125th of a second, or 1/60th.  That’s too slow to freeze action.

If you’re shooting sports from a long distance and are using a telephoto lens (for example, something in the 150mm+ range), you may want to consider using a monopod.  A monopod is basically a one-legged tripod with an attachment at the top to mount your camera.  You have to hold it up yourself, but if you’re using shutter speeds in the 1/250th range with a long lens, you may have some camera shake that will result in a blurry photo.  Monopods help stabilize the camera, are very inexpensive and can make a huge difference in the sharpness of your shots.  It’s easy to sit in the stands watching a game with the monopod adjusted to the correct height, and a side benefit is that you don’t have to hold up the weight of the camera the entire time.

Carousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris

Carousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris

Taking action-stopping photos or photos with creative motion blur can really help make your pictures stand out.  Experiment with the techniques above and you’ll see the difference right away.


For those looking to improve your photography, I've also created an app for iPhone / iPad / Android which teaches photography and how to get photos like these while you're out taking pictures. Click here:

Photography Trainer for iOS and Android

 
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Thanks for reading, and best regards,
Paul

 
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Copyright 2014, Paul Timpa

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


15Jul/09Off

Photography Tips for Compact Cameras and Point-and-Shoots

Positano, Italy -- taken with a 3 megapixel compact point-and-shoot camera

Positano, Italy -- taken with a 3 megapixel compact point-and-shoot camera

Just because you may not have an expensive D-SLR camera, doesn’t mean you can’t take incredible photos.  Compact point-and-shoot cameras are capable of capturing extraordinary images, and their quality gets better and better with each new camera.  I’m taking a different approach for this latest article, and writing a tutorial aimed at those who shoot primarily with a compact camera. Using some of the tips I present below, you’ll be able to take photos with much more impact.

Compact cameras have some distinct advantages over D-SLRs in a few respects.  Firstly and most obvious, is their size.  Because of their size, it’s easy to take one wherever you go, and you’ll always have the opportunity to take a great photo should something amazing unfold in front of you. Their zoom lenses generally cover a wide range so you can take wide-angle shots of landscapes and buildings, and telephoto shots of distant subjects, sports, etc.  Because the sensor and lenses are physically smaller than D-SLRs, you’ll often be able to get everything in sharp focus, from objects right in front of you to distant mountains (this is not always easy to do with a D-SLR).  Compact cameras almost always have a built-in flash for when you need it.  Most compacts are also great for close-up macro work of flowers and other small subjects.  All of these factors combine to make a compact a great camera to have, even for those who already own D-SLRs.

So what can you do to take your photos from simple “snapshots” to amazing photos worthy of framing on your wall?  Below are a series of tips and techniques to help you get the most from your compact camera.  Some are “technical” ways to operate the camera, while others are tips related to composition and how to “frame up” your subject.  If you combine them all, you’ll be on your way to capturing incredible images.

First, let’s talk a little about focal length.  Focal length just refers to how much or how little you’ve zoomed in or zoomed out.  If you’ve zoomed your camera all the way out, you’re taking wide-angle shots and capturing a wide area of space around you.  This is a short focal length.  You’re probably used to doing this if when you’ve taken a picture of a large group of people, or you’re taking a wide-angle photo of the Grand Canyon or a big expanse of beach.  On the other hand, if you’ve zoomed all the way in, you’re bringing far away objects closer to you, and you’re using a long focal length, a.k.a. telephoto.  You probably use this at a sports event or ballgame to bring players closer to you and make them bigger in the picture.  Many people think of zooming in and out in terms of those two types of situations:  “I need to take a picture of a wide area of space so I’ll zoom out” or “That person is really far away so I’ll zoom in to make them bigger.”  While that does work, there are far more powerful ways to use focal length to your advantage.

Rather than thinking of zooming in and zooming out in just the two types of scenarios described above, it’s useful to understand some additional, more creative concepts related to focal length.


Let’s start off with a straightforward one.  While you may be used to the idea that zooming out wide captures a wider expanse of the scene, you may not always be thinking in terms of the opposite:  when zooming in, you’re taking in a lot *smaller* portion of the scene.  Most of us are used to thinking in terms of zooming in to bring far away objects closer, but just as important, if not more important, is the fact that zooming in reduces the area of the scene that is being captured (in addition of course to making the object seem closer).  You may be asking, so what?  What does this have to do with my photography?  The answer is this: armed with this knowledge, you now have the choice of what background you want for a picture of any given subject.  It can be incredibly helpful for clearing up clutter, simplifying your pictures, and making them better.  Let’s use an example to illustrate.  Let’s say you’re taking a picture of your friend in front of a beautiful mountain, from a scenic overlook on the road.  You stand a few feet from your friend, zoom out nice and wide to make sure you get all of the mountain in the shot, and you take the picture.  You know what else you probably got in the shot besides your friend and the mountain?  …the trash can 15-feet to the left, the telephone pole behind your friend about 20-feet to the right, and who knows what else.  Because you’re using the wide-angle setting, you’re capturing a very wide expanse of the scene… this expanse may include objects that you don’t want in the picture.  Here’s where zooming in and its ability to *reduce* the scene can be helpful.  Instead of taking the shot from a few feet away and zooming out wide, step really far back from your friend and zoom all the way in.  You need to take the picture from farther away, because as you know, zooming in will make your friend bigger in the picture.  You want to counteract that and keep them the same size in the picture by taking a few steps back.  But in the process of zooming in, you are reducing the area to the left and right that is in the picture.  If you’ve zoomed in enough, you will completely eliminate the trash can and the telephone pole from the shot, leaving just your friend and the mountain.  This is one of the most fundamental techniques in photography and one you should master through practice.

In addition to its effect on how much or how little of the scene gets captured, focal length has another important effect, and that is its effect on “perspective”.  Perspective refers to how far away from each other any two objects look in a photograph.  You may be surprised to learn that zooming in and out has a HUGE impact on how far apart objects “appear” in a photograph.  Keep in mind that how they appear in the photo has nothing to do with how far they appear in “real life”!  Let’s use the example we used before with your friend and the mountain.  Let’s say that the mountain is about two miles behind your friend.  Just looking with your eyes (no camera), the mountain will appear, as it should, to be two miles away.  If you zoom your lens to somewhere in the middle of its range and take a picture, when you look at that picture, the mountain will appear to be two miles from your friend.  That’s a “normal” focal length.  However, if you zoom out wide and take the same picture, the optical qualities of the lens will in fact exaggerate that distance greatly.  If you take a picture and look at it, you may be shocked to see that the mountain now “appears” to be five, ten, or even twenty miles away!  Wide angle lenses exaggerate distance.  On the other hand, if you zoom all the way in and take the picture, you will see that the mountain may appear to be directly behind your friend, maybe a few hundred meters or less!  It may appear that your friend is literally standing at the base of the mountain.  You can use focal length to adjust the closeness of the background to exactly how you want it.  Just remember that if you want your friend to be the same size in the picture, you may have to step closer or farther away from them, depending on how far you’ve zoomed in or out.  This perspective effect is why you sometimes see pictures of people with a sunset, and sometimes the sun is a tiny yellow dot in one picture and in another it’s a huge orange ball.  In the picture with the huge sun, the photographer has stepped all the way back and zoomed in as much as they can, making the sun appear much closer.

Sunset, NYC

Sunset, NYC

One of the most important tips I can give for shooting people is also related to perspective... and that is: take photos of people's faces from far away and zoom in!  Pictures of people taken from farther away with the lens zoomed in are much more flattering than pictures taken up close.  Have you ever seen a picture of a person taken up close with a wide angle lens, or been out with friends and tried to hold the camera in your hand with an outstretched arm, pointed at yourselves?  You'll notice that your noses look bigger than they really are and your facial features are exaggerated.  This is because the camera is close to you and the wide-angle lens is exaggerating distance... in this case it's exaggerating the distance from the tip of your nose to the rest of your face!  It will look larger than it really is.  If you stand back and zoom in, you reduce this effect and the face will have normal proportions.  Did you ever wonder why Sport Illustrated photographers are standing half-way across the beach shooting the models with a huge telephoto lens?  Perspective is part of the reason...

The next tip is a brief one, but it can be invaluable for architecture photography and photos of buildings or other tall objects.  (You may want to use software to crop the picture after using this technique, but most people are familiar with basic cropping.)  The tip is this:  whenever possible, when taking photos of tall subjects like buildings, do not tilt the camera upward to make sure you get the “top” – instead, keep the camera level (not pointed upward) and zoom out as wide as you can (in order to get the top of the building) and take the picture.  The reason for this is because tilting the camera upwards causes the walls of buildings and vertical objects to point inward like a pyramid.  The building may appear to be leaning back or falling over. 

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

If you keep the camera level, this won’t happen. 

Straighter version of the photo above

Straighter version of the photo above (this was fixed in software to illustrate, but the effect is the same)

You may however, have a large expanse of ground in front of you, which you can then simply crop out later.  With high-mexapixel cameras these days, cropping should not affect picture quality unless you’re making massive prints.

Now let’s talk about flash.  Built-in flash can come in very handy when you need a little bit of extra light, but flash is often not used to its full potential, and sometimes it’s used when it shouldn’t be.

First I’ll make one important comment.  The light from the flash on your camera probably only “realistically” reaches about ten feet or so in front of you.  After that, the flash has no effect.  If you’re taking pictures of something that is more than ten feet in front of you, turn the flash off (you may need to refer to your camera’s instruction manual to determine how to turn it off, as many times it comes on automatically).  Sometimes I go to a baseball game and a famous pitcher will be put into the game and everyone in the stadium is taking pictures of the pitcher from hundreds of feet away, but all I see are flashes going off.  Every one of those flashes is illuminating the back of the head of the person in front of the photographer, and not much else.  I can assure you that flash is not reaching the pitcher’s mound.  Worse yet, with the flash on, the camera is making decisions as to how to expose the photo.  It “assumes” that the light from the flash is reaching the subject, and thus it darkens the photo in anticipation of it being lit by the flash – however the flash never reaches the subject, and now you’re left with a dark photo (or a perfectly exposed picture of the back of someone’s head).  In these situations, it’s best to turn the flash off.

On the other hand, one of the best places to use flash is actually in bright sunlight.  When the bright sun is overhead, it can cast shadows under the eyes and generally result in an unflattering picture.  Turn your flash on and the flash will brighten up the shadows resulting in a much better picture in broad daylight (refer to the manual to learn how to turn on what is often called “Fill Flash”).  Similarly, if you’re taking a picture of a person in front of a bright background, like a sunset, turn on the flash.  Without the flash, it is likely you’ll just get a silhouette.  That may be the effect you're going for, and if so, leave the flash off.  If you want to see the person’s face, turn the flash on. 

Flash is also useful for close-up shots of flowers.  Not only will it brighten them up and help with shadows, but the flash will help “freeze” any movement of the flower caused by wind.

Whenever possible, I’d recommend taking two shots – one with the flash on and one with the flash off – in any situation where the flash might be helpful.  You never know which one you’ll like best, so it’s best to have both.

Now let’s cover some technical tips about night photography.  In this case, I’m referring to nighttime shots of city skylines, buildings, landscapes, etc. (and not necessarily pictures of people).  Night photography can produce some truly spectacular images.  It is however one of the most “technically” challenging types of photography.  It’s all too easy to wind up with a blurry shot or poorly lit shot.  Here are some tips:

Most importantly, it’s virtually impossible to take a sharp night shot while holding the camera in your hand.  You’ll need to find a place to put the camera down.  If you don’t have a tripod, just look for a bench, a railing, a tree branch, a soda bottle, anything to prop the camera up on.  Even if the camera isn’t pointing “exactly” where you want it, you can always crop out parts of the picture later… resting it on something will always result in a better shot than you trying to hold the camera.  The second piece to this tip is that you *must* use the camera’s self-timer to take the picture.  All too I often I see people going out of their way to prop the camera up on something to hold it steady, only to use their finger to press the shutter button.  Using your finger to press the shutter button will completely blur the shot and negate and beneficial effect of propping the camera up.  So just prop the camera up pointed in the right direction, set the 10-second self-timer, and let the camera do its thing.  Also ensure that the flash is off.  Going back to our previous discussion about flash – we know it only reaches about 10 feet, and having it on negatively affects the brightness of the picture, so turn it off.  If your camera has any kind of “Night Scene” mode (and most do), then definitely feel free to use it.  Most “Night Scenes” modes instruct the camera to leave the shutter open for a longer period of time than it normally would – the longer the shutter is open, the more light gets in, so you get a better, brighter picture.  Just make sure the night mode doesn’t automatically turn on your flash – if it does, make sure you can turn it off.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

For situations where you're handholding the camera in dim lighting, for example when taking a picture of someone blowing out candles at a birthday party, you may wish to take the picture without flash to preserve the "ambience" of the scene.  You may also be too far away for the flash to reach, for example taking a picture at a concert or school play.  Any time you're handholding the camera in dim lighting without flash, it's possible you may get a blurry shot due to camera shake.  The camera needs to keep the shutter open longer to let more light in so the picture is bright enough, but the longer the shutter is open, the more chance there is of the camera recording any slight movement (of either the camera OR the person you're taking a picture of).  You can help fix this by manually adjusting the ISO if your camera allows you to (many do).  ISO is used to magnify the amount of light entering the camera -- the more light the camera gets, the less time the shutter needs to be open, resulting in less blur and sharper pictures.  ISO is rated in numbers, usually around 100 at the lowest, and going up to around ISO 800 or so on compact cameras.  The higher the ISO number, the more light gets in the camera and the faster the shutter speed.  The tradeoff with ISO is that picture quality is best at low ISOs, and deteriorates at higher ISOs, so you only want to use the highest ISO that eliminates the blur, but no higher.  Personally I recommend not going above ISO 400 on compact cameras.  So how do you use it?  If you find yourself in a situation like the ones mentioned above, where you want to take a picture in dim lighting without flash, but the picture comes out blurry, then simply raise the ISO number in your camera.  You may need to consult your camera's manual on how to do it.  Many cameras just have a button or menu item that says ISO.  Start at ISO 100 to see how sharp the shot is, and if there is any blur.  If it's a little blurry, then raise to 200 and take a test shot.  If it's sharp now, then leave it at 200 and you're ready to go.  If the shot is still blurry, then raise to 400 and try again, and so on.  You'll see that raising the ISO can really help in getting sharp shots in dim lighting.  Keep in mind that the picture quality will not be as good as if you took the shot at ISO 100, but in many cases, a little less picture quality is worth it to get a sharp shot, because a blurry shot may be unusable entirely!

The final “technical” tip is about “Exposure Compensation”.  If your camera has exposure compensation, and many do, it’s worthwhile to learn how to use it.  Exposure compensation simply lets you adjust the brightness of the picture to your liking.  Under normal circumstances, when you press the shutter, your camera looks at the scene, performs some calculations, and determines how bright the shot should be.  In many cases, the brightness level it chooses is pretty good.  Sometimes however, the camera can be thrown off in certain situations.  For instance, if you’re taking a picture on a ski mountain, the camera can be “fooled” by all the bright snow.  The camera says “wow this is really bright out here” and so it darkens the picture thinking that’s what you want.  You may wind up with snow that is more of a “light gray” than white.  In this case, you may want to use exposure compensation.  You might see it as a +/- where you move the arrow toward the “+” to make the picture brighter and the “–“ to make it darker.  Take a look in your camera’s manual to learn how to set it for your particular camera.

OK, let’s move on from the technical details and cover some pointers related to composition.  Composing the picture just refers to deciding what to include or exclude in the photo and where to position the subjects in the frame, the angle of the shot, how much you’re zoomed in, etc.

The most useful compositional tip is probably “The Rule of Thirds”.  It’s not really a “rule”, but rather a guideline to keep in mind when you’re taking pictures.  The Rule of Thirds is designed to help you determine where to place your subjects in the frame.  It’s easy.  When framing your picture, mentally draw a tic-tac-toe board over the scene – so there will be two vertical lines and two horizontal lines dividing the picture into thirds.  When taking a picture, try to place your subject along one of those lines.   (Some cameras even have a feature where you can turn on a Rule of Thirds grid that appears right on the LCD -- you can check your manual to see if yours has it).   Notice how the horizon is on the lower horizontal line and the bird is on the left vertical line:

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

What you’ll see is this helps you avoid putting your subject dead center of the picture, which is often the worst place to put the subject.  The subject can be a person, or a sunset, or anything else.  If the subject is small in the frame, like the moon, you can place it where two of the lines intersect, which is even better than just putting it on one of the lines.  The next time you’re taking a picture of a sunset, instead of putting the horizon straight through the middle of the picture, cutting it in half, try putting the horizon one-third from the top or one-third from the bottom and you’ll see how much better it looks.

The next compositional tip is called “Leading Lines”.  Leading Lines refers to using objects in your photo to lead the viewer “into the picture.”  It can be a pathway, railroad tracks, a pattern in waves, etc.  You place the leading line so that it starts in the foreground (the bottom of the picture) and your eye follows it further into the picture.  It’s often best to put leading lines a little bit off to one side and to lead your eye diagonally into the frame, but experiment to see what you like best.

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

 

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

Another simple tip is related to moving objects such as people running or cars moving.  Always allow space for the moving object to “move into”.  For instance, if you’re taking a picture of a car moving from right-to-left, make sure there is room on the left side of the picture for the car to “drive into” (otherwise the photo will look cramped).

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Patterns are all around us and can be used to create amazing photos.  No matter where you are or what you're doing, have a look around and you'll see patterns, many of which can be great photo opportunities.  The pattern can be anything from a repeating line of sun umbrellas on a beach, to an interesting row of trees, a fascinating pattern that all the windows of a skyscraper make, or something as simple as some cherries in the market.  The key when looking around for patterns is to avoid getting caught up in the "wide expanse" of the scene where it may be harder to recognize patterns, but rather focus in on small areas of what's around you.  In the photo of the cherries below, it could have been easy to miss it in the hustle and bustle of the market, with the flowers right next to them to the left and the pile of onions to the right, but if you take the time to look, you'll see patterns everywhere.  When you do, you can either take the photo of the pattern in the larger context of the whole scene, or focus in and create a more "abstract" photo.  Each can produce interesting images.

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

The final compositional tip is to make use of “Natural Frames”.  A natural frame is something in the scene that you can use to literally “frame” your subject.  It helps draw attention to the subject and adds a lot of impact.  You can use archways, tree branches, anything at all really.  Step forward or back as you need, to place your subject in the natural frame, and take the shot.

Pool, Dominican Republic

Pool, Dominican Republic

With a little practice of the technical and compositional techniques you’ve read here, you’ll find that you can take amazing shots with a compact point and shoot.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to let me know.

Best,
Paul

To keep up-to-date with the latest photo additions and other topics, you can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page at:

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

Paul offers one-on-one photography workshops in New York City, including an "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information or to see my main photography website, please use the link below.

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


6Jul/09Off

Camera Lens Filters for Photography

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Waterfall, Costa Rica

In this article we’re going to talk about the world of lens filters, and I’m not referring to the types of filters you see in Photoshop, but the “real deal” glass ones you screw on your lens.  In this day and age with all you can do in post-processing on the computer, many photographers wonder if there is still a need for filters.  I can assure you, there is…

The good news is that there are really only two kinds of filters you “need” to know about.  Once you understand them, how they work, and what they’re used for, those two kinds will cover 90% of your filter needs.  They are the Polarizer and the Neutral Density filter.  Toward the end of this article, I’ll briefly touch upon some of the other kinds of filters too.

Firstly, what is a filter?  It’s just a piece of glass that you attach to your lens that has various effects on the picture you’re taking.  They can help with making colors brighter, or cutting out haze on hazy days, fixing bright skies, etc.  One quick note – I say “glass” here, but they’re not always actual glass – sometimes they’re high-grade plastic or some other material, but for our purposes, we’ll just call it glass…

So before we talk about all the ways to physically attach a filter and how to actually “use” them, let’s jump right in and talk about the magic that is the polarizer.  A good polarizer may be the most important filter you buy, and is usually the first.  It’s important for two reasons -- #1, polarizers can have a dramatic effect on your photos that can make them look much better and #2, they are one of the only filters that cannot easily be replicated in Photoshop or with software. 

So what exactly does a polarizer do?  Rather than get into the all the scientific details about how light works, let’s just say that polarizers help eliminate reflected light, and that has various beneficial effects on your photos.  Some of the beneficial effects include:
- Making blue skies a deeper shade of blue; this makes clouds really pop
- Enhancing colors, especially of foliage / leaves
- Removing reflections on water, allowing you to see through the water
- Removing reflections on glass, allowing you to see through glass
- Cutting out haze

If you’ve ever seen one of those landscapes with an incredibly rich, deep blue sky and puffy white clouds, you can almost bet a polarizer was used.  Polarizers are also used (especially by me!) on turquoise Caribbean-style water.  Looking at the water without a polarizer, you’ll see a white sheen of reflected light on the surface, and probably not much else.  It is doubtful you’d be able to see anything underwater.  Look through a polarizer and prepare to be amazed.  The sheen on the surface completely disappears and suddenly you can see completely through the surface down into the ocean.  It’s literally like putting X-Ray glasses on.  Suddenly fish, coral, and even the ocean floor becomes visible, when before without the polarizer you could see nothing.  This is precisely the effect that could never be replicated in Photoshop.  If you took a photo without a polarizer and now have a picture of a white sheen on the ocean, there’s nothing you can do after-the-fact in Photoshop to suddenly “see down through the water”.  Your “x-ray vision” is only available while you’re on-the-scene. 

 

The same principle applies to reflections in glass.  If you’re in NYC at Christmastime taking pictures of the displays in the store windows, with no polarizer on, you’re going to wind up with shots of glass reflecting thirty other onlookers looking at the display, and your photo may not even show what’s behind the window.  Put a polarizer on, and the reflections of the people disappear, and you see straight through the glass.

In a less intuitive way, this is also why foliage and other items look better and more colorful with a polarizer.  Leaves can be very reflective.  Without a polarizer, you’re photographing lots of white reflected light (think of the sheen on the ocean).  Put on a polarizer and you see through that reflected light, straight through to the leaf’s natural color.

So how do you use a polarizer?  Easy, attach it to your lens (described in more detail later) and look through the viewfinder to see its effect.  Polarizers are designed to be able to rotate while attached to the lens.  Rotating it varies the effect.  You can just experiment by rotating it to see how much effect it produces.  For blue skies, the amount it affects your photo (if at all) depends on where the sun is located.  Basically it works best if the sun is directly to your side (left or right) and somewhat lower in the sky.  This also happens to be when most landscapers take their pictures anyway.  Polarizers have less (or no) effect when the sun is directly overhead, or directly in front of or behind you.  For ocean shots, again it’s best on an angle.  I usually try to aim at a 45 degree angle or so to the water.  Shooting straight down on water with a polarizer will probably have little effect.  But again, how many times would you be shooting straight down on water?  For oceans, as with foliage, glass, or anything else, just experiment by moving around and rotating the filter until it produces the desired effect.  Once you start taking pictures with a polarizer, you’ll wind up always wanting to have one with you.  They can be indispensable in enhancing your photos.

I mentioned that there were two main categories of filters that you’ll mainly use.  The first is the polarizer.  The second is the Neutral Density filter.  Unlike the polarizer, which is really just one filter, Neutral Density filters (or “ND” for short) are a “category” of filters.  You’ll buy a few of them, each having a different (but similar purpose).  So what is an ND filter?  Real easy:  it’s basically just a pair of sunglasses for your lens.  Yep, an ND filter is just a piece of glass with a gray coating on it that blocks some of the light, just like sunglasses.  So why would you want to use one?  There are three main reasons:
- You want to use a long shutter speed but it’s too bright out
- You want to use a wide-aperture but it’s too bright out
- A portion of the scene is too bright but the rest is normal, so you want to darken just the really bright part

Let’s take these scenarios one-by-one.  The first reason you’d want to use an ND filter is because you want a long shutter speed but it’s too bright out.  We’ve all seen the photo of the waterfall with the beautifully blurred, silky water.  This is achieved by using a long shutter speed, sometimes several seconds long.  Even with a small aperture such as F22, if you try to take a two-second exposure during the day, it’s going to be overexposed and way too bright.  Solution?  ND filter.  With an ND filter over your lens, it lets in less light, and you can use a long shutter speed without overexposing the photo.  How much light does an ND filter block?  Each ND filter you can buy tells you how many “stops” of light it will block.  A one-stop ND filter will block one-stop of light…meaning you can double your shutter speed once.  For example, if using no filter at all, the longest shutter speed you can achieve is one second without overexposing, attaching a one-stop ND filter will allow you to use a shutter speed of two seconds without overexposing.  A two-stop ND filter allows you to double the shutter speed twice.  So in our previous example, you’d be able to use a shutter speed of four seconds.  (1 second doubled is 2 seconds (first stop) and 2 seconds doubled is 4 seconds (second stop)).  A three-stop ND filter allows you to double your shutter speed three times.  Using our previous example, you could shoot for eight seconds.  They generally come in those three levels.  I personally use the 3-stop version (I figure I can always open the aperture to let a little more light in, but if I buy one that’s not dark enough, there’s nothing you can do at that point).

The second scenario, wanting to use a wide aperture in bright conditions, is very similar to the one above.  If you’re trying to blur the background by using a wide-open aperture, and it’s bright outside, it may be too bright for even your fastest shutter speed.  For example, at F1.8 during the day, you may go all the way to 1/4000th of a second for a correct exposure.  If it’s still too bright out, there’s nothing you can do with the camera, if that’s the fastest shutter speed your camera allows.  Use an ND filter to cut down the light.  A 3-stop ND filter will bring your shutter speed from 1/4000th to 1/500th.  (4000 to 2000, to 1000, to 500 is three stops).

The third category is one of the most important, and is probably the category where ND filters are used most frequently.  If you’re photographing a scene that has one portion that is really bright but other areas of the scene are dark or normal, you can use an ND filter to even-up the lighting.  For those of you who have read my article on HDR, you may remember that cameras are not great at taking pictures of scenes that have both really bright and really dark areas.  Generally, you have to pick just one area to focus your attention on, and the other area will just come out too bright (or dark), and you just have to live with it.  ND filters fix this problem.  How?  It’s pretty simple.  You use a special ND filter that is a piece of glass where only half of it has the gray coating – the other half is clear.  This is called a Graduated ND filter, ND Grad, or just Grad.  You attach the grad to your lens in such a way that the dark part of the filter covers the bright part of the scene, and the clear part covers the normal part.  Thus, it darkens just the bright part.  A classic example is the sunset.  When the sun is setting, the sky is usually much brighter than the land.  If you’re taking a landscape picture at sunset and you set your camera so that the sky is properly exposed, the land will be too dark.  If you set your camera to expose the land properly, the sky will be too bright.  Using an ND Grad, you can place the dark part of the filter over just the sky, leaving the clear part over the land.  Now you can take the picture and both areas will be properly exposed.

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Like regular ND filters, ND Grads also come in a few versions, generally ranging from one to three stops.  They also come in two styles – hard edge and soft edge.  The soft-edge filters have a smoother transition from the clear area to the dark area of the filter, so you can’t really see the dividing line.  The hard-edge filters have a more abrupt transition and are useful when you know you can put the transition line right on the horizon.  I personally use the soft-edge, three-stop version.  “Conversationally”, it’s a 3-stop soft-edge ND grad.

Some might say that software solutions such as HDR make graduated ND filters unnecessary.  While there are some occasions where this may be the case, there are other times when an ND filter is the only real option.  For instance, for any scene where there are moving objects, it is much more difficult to take an HDR image because the objects will have moved from frame to frame, and when you composite the multiple images there will be alignment problems that have to be solved.  With graduated ND filters, there is no issue, since you’re only taking a single shot.  The other primary advantage of using filters is time.  It takes a considerable amount of time to create HDR images, especially ones that look natural.  When using filters, you’re capturing the image with the all of the  highlight and shadow detail from the start.  That being said, for scenes with complex highlight / shadow ranges like nighttime cityscapes, HDR is still a great option.

Let’s talk about how to physically attach and use these filters.

There are two main types of filters – screw-in filters and “filter systems”.

Screw-in filters are the easiest to use.  They’re circular pieces of glass that fit the size of lens you own.  They have little threads on them (like a screw) and you just screw them onto the front of your lens when you want to use it.  They come in various sizes to match all sizes of lenses.  If you have multiple lenses of varying sizes, you have two options: you can either buy a separate screw-in filter for each lens you own, or you can buy one filter that matches the largest lens you own (by large, I mean the lens with the largest diameter at the front of the lens), and then buy little “adapter rings” that let you put that filter on smaller lenses.  These rings are called step-up / step-down rings depending on what you need.  The advantage of using the adapter rings is that you only have to buy one filter, which is much cheaper than buying multiple filters.  The only real disadvantage of using adapter rings is that with wide angle lenses, the rings make the filter thicker, and you may get vignetting (vignetting is a darkening around the edges of the picture, sometimes due to the lens itself, sometimes due to the edges of a filter being visible in the frame).  Polarizers can often be used as a screw-in filter.


The other type of filter is a filter that belongs to a “filter system”.  A filter system allows for much more flexibility.  It consists of three main parts, a filter holder, adapter rings, and the filter itself.  Let’s talk about each.  A filter used in a filter system is just a plain piece of glass that is not attached to anything.  Holding it in your hand, it just looks like you cut out a square piece of window and are holding it raw in your hand.  By itself, it’s not really useful since there is no way to attach it to your lens.  That’s where the filter holder comes in.  A filter holder is a rectangular piece of plastic with little fitted slots that you slide the filters into, and it holds them tight and in place.  Sometimes a filter holder has multiple slots so you can stack filters on top of each other for various effects.  Finally, are the adapter rings.  An adapter ring is just a small inexpensive metal screw-in ring that you buy in the size(s) of your lenses.  The filter holder is made to easily attach to all the different sizes of adapter rings.  So you just buy a few inexpensive adapter rings for the lenses you own, and now the filter holder will fit all your lenses.  Since all the filters you own fit in the filter holder, you can now attach any filter to all your lenses.  There are several advantages to the filter system.  First, purely from a cost perspective, this is an economical solution.  You buy one filter holder, one filter for any kind of filter you need, and a few inexpensive adapter rings, and you’re all set.  Any filter can attach to all your lenses and you don’t have to buy multiple versions of the same filter to fit all your lenses.  Because the filter holders can be made relatively thin and wide, and the glass filters can be wide, these filters can be used on wide-angle lenses without worrying about vignetting.  Most importantly, filter systems are necessary for using ND Grad filters.  You can’t really use a screw-in ND Grad (although they do make them).  The reason is because when you are using an ND grad, you need to physically position the transition-line (where it goes from light to dark) in the right spot for your picture.  So if you’re taking a picture of a sunset, and the top 2/3rds of the pictures is a gorgeous sky, and the bottom 1/3rd is the ocean, you need to position the transition line right where the sky meets the ocean.  With a screw-in filter, there is no way to move the dividing line once the filter is screwed on.  With a filter system, you can slide the filter up and down in its holder to position the transition line right over the horizon.  The filter holder also rotates so you can have the transition line on an angle.

The only real disadvantage to a filter system is that for the most part they work best on a tripod, so you can’t be very mobile when you have them attached.  This is because the filter holder is designed to rotate (so you can adjust polarization or the transition line of ND grads, etc), and if you handhold the camera it has a tendency to rotate on you.  More importantly, if you move abruptly, it’s possible that the filter may slide out of its holder and fall to the ground.  Screw in filters allow for more flexibility with handholding the camera.

There are countless other types of filters as well.  There are filters that can enhance certain colors, filters that create soft-focus effects, some that create small 8-point stars over bright light sources (I use this once in a while), the list goes on and on.  I don’t normally rely solely on the use of these other types of filters too much because many of these effects can be replicated using software.  I’d rather have the “original” unfiltered version so that I can apply the effects after-the-fact and decide if I like it or not, or how much of the effect to apply.  On the other hand, since I’m also a fan of capturing the scene as much as I can “in-camera” without having to use software, if I have the time I will take two shots, one with the filter attached and one without.

Even in today’s digital age, there is still a need for traditional photography equipment like filters.  With all the software in the world, it’s still not possible to replicate the effects of a polarizer or ND filter during post-processing.  The use of these types of filters will certainly help to take your photography to the next level.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.

Best,
Paul

To keep up-to-date with the latest tutorials, photo additions, and other topics, you can also become a fan at my Photography Facebook page at:

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

Paul offers one-on-one photography workshops in New York City, including an "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information, please use the link below.

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

If you'd like to purchase prints or stock photography licenses for my photos (for advertising and editorial use), please visit:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa