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

29Mar/10Off

Tutorials List

I've compiled a list of all the photography tutorials I've written.

To view a tutorial, please click the link below for the topic that interests you.

My iPhone and Android app which teaches photography is here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android


Taking Sharp Photos


Night Photography


Sports, Children, Wildlife, and Action


HDR Photography Tutorial


Photographing Lightning Storms


Camera Lens Filters for Photography


Using Live View on your D-SLR – Tips and Tricks


How to Take Sunset Portraits — Indoor Portraits — About Your Camera’s Light Meter


A "General Approach" to Photography and Working a Scene


Manual Mode on Your D-SLR — When and Why to Use It


Color Management Made Simple – How to Calibrate your Monitor


Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography


Photography Tips for Compact Cameras and Point-and-Shoots


"What Camera to Buy?" — A guide on choosing a D-SLR


Shooting in RAW vs. JPEG


Choosing the best Focal Length for a photo


How to Photograph Fireworks


Camera Settings for Helicopter Photography and Aerial Photography


Your First D-SLR: Best Ways to Use It


Taking Photos in Busy Tourist Destinations with no People in the Shot


iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch app which teaches photography:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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


14Apr/09Off

HDR Tutorial — How to take HDR Photos

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

High Dynamic Range photography (HDR) is becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. It opens up a whole new set of possibilities for photographic expression, and despite that it may “seem” complicated, it’s actually pretty straightforward. This guide will help you understand what HDR is, and how to create HDR photos.

First, let’s take a moment to understand some concepts. In photography, the phrase “Dynamic Range” just refers to the range of darkness to brightness in a scene. A scene with a high dynamic range has a large range of tones from dark to bright. It is very "contrasty". For example, a scene with a flower in the shade of an old barn, with the sun behind the barn would have a high dynamic range. The area in the shade might be fairly dark while the area behind the barn that is lit by the bright sun would be very bright.  The human eye is very good at “seeing” these types of scenes correctly. Your eye adjusts quickly to the darker shaded area so that you can see the flower and it adjusts when you look at the sunlit area so that you can see details there as well. On the other hand, cameras have more difficulty with these kinds of scenes. They cannot capture the entire range of darkness to brightness the way your eye sees it.

The picture below is a finished HDR picture that shows a scene with a high dynamic range.  This is the finished product.  Later on in this tutorial I'll show you how we created this final shot, and why it would not have been possible without HDR.

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

Generally, when you’re presented with these types of contrasty scenes and you try to make a photograph, you have to choose which area is more important, the shadows or the highlights, and take your picture with only one exposed correctly, while the other one is not exposed correctly. For example, in our example above with the barn and the flower, if you feel the shaded area with the flower is the most important part of the scene, you expose for the shaded area, and the sunlit area will be completely overexposed and “blown out” turning into a patch of pure white with no details. If you feel the sunlit area behind the barn is most important, you would expose for that area, but then the shadow area would be underexposed, resulting in a patch of pure black with no details. The classic example of a dynamic range “situation” is the silhouette. If a person is standing in front of you with their back to the sun and you look at them, you can see their face as well as the sunset. However if you take a picture with the sunset correctly exposed, the person’s face will be completely dark in silhouette. Another photographic example is indoor photos taken during the day, when there is a window in the photo (which is also a great time to use HDR). Without HDR, if you expose so that you can see the interior of the room, the window will be just a pure white patch -- you won't be able to see what's outside at all.

HDR photography seeks to fix this problem. The goal is to be able to photograph a scene and capture all of the range of tones from very dark to very bright in one photograph. Since we already know that a camera can only capture a small range of dark-to-bright in a single photograph, then how do we get around this problem? Simple: we use more than one photograph. We photograph the same scene multiple times, each time capturing a different range of dark-to-bright, and then combine all the photos on the computer into a single photo that has all the ranges of brightness together. It may sound complicated, but it’s not, especially when you can use special software to combine the photos.
 

Let’s talk a little about the procedure to create an HDR photo. There are really just two primary steps: (1) capturing the series of photos that have all the ranges of tones from dark to bright, and (2) combining them on the computer. We’ll take them one at a time. The first step is to capture a series of photos, all of the same scene, without the camera moving while you are shooting all the shots (for this reason, most HDR shots are taken on a tripod, although if the shutter speed is fast enough, it is possible to handhold an HDR shot, but that is much less common). Each picture will contain a different range of brightness levels. So how many photos do you need and how do you know what the exposures should be? There are varying opinions on both topics, but for the majority of scenes, three photos is enough to capture the whole dynamic range. The three photos capture the dark, medium, and light tones in the scene. Occasionally I’ll shoot a fourth, and very rarely I’ll shoot a fifth, but that’s in extreme circumstances. As for the exposures, you’ll want them spaced 2 stops (or EV) apart. For example, if the middle exposure is 1/100th a second, then the other two exposures will be 1/25th second (which is two stops brighter) and 1/400th second (which is two stops darker). So how do you determine what exposures to shoot? Everyone has their own method. Here’s mine: First I set the ISO to 100. The process of combining the three photos can sometimes introduce or magnify noise in an image, so I like to start with the cleanest images possible. Shooting ISO 100 helps produce clean images. If your camera has RAW mode, I also suggest using it (see my separate note on RAW vs JPEG for more information). RAW files contain a lot more information than JPEGs, which is really important in HDR photography. Once the ISO is set to 100, I set the camera to full-manual (M) mode and I set the aperture so that it’s appropriate for the scene. The next step is to determine the exposure that will properly expose the highlights (bright areas) without them being blown out. I estimate a shutter speed and take a shot to see how the exposure looks. If there are any areas that look blown out or too bright, I set the shutter speed to a little faster and try again. Keep in mind that when you look at the shot, most of the shot will be very dark or even completely black. What you’re trying to do here is determine the shutter speed where you don’t blow out the highlights, that’s all.  The picture below, which is part of the final image, is the picture I took being careful not to blow out the highlights.  Note how the rest of the image is extremely dark.  On its own, this photo is unusable.  On the other hand, it captures the sky and all the details in the clouds without blowing anything out.

Sedona, Arizona, HDR, -2 EV
Sedona, Arizona, HDR, -2 EV

Let’s say a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second is what’s needed so that I can see detail in the clouds.  We will keep this photo as the first in the series, because it correctly captures just the clouds.

So now that we’ve established that 1/400th is the exposure that accurately captures the highlights, it’s time to take the other photos. This is pretty straightforward. Just set the shutter speed for two stops brighter and take another shot. In this case, two stops brighter is 1/100th second. Set the shutter and take the shot. Here's the middle exposure:

Sedona, Arizona, HDR, Normal EV
Sedona, Arizona, HDR, Normal EV

Note how the main rock is now pretty close to a good exposure (though still a little dark) and the brightest parts of the grasses and fence are also at a good exposure.  Also note that now we've blown out the clouds -- they are very overexposed.  We also still do not have enough detail in the shadows and darker areas -- this photo is still not bright enough.  On its own, although this picture captures some of the grass and the rock at a good exposure, it is for the most part unusable due to the blown out clouds and dark shadows.

Now we need one final shot that’s two more stops brighter. Set the shutter speed to 1/25th second and take the shot.  Here's the exposure at two stops brighter:

Sedona, Arizona, HDR, +2 EV
Sedona, Arizona, HDR, +2 EV

Note how the sky is completely and utterly blown out, the rocks are fairly overexposed, but the shadows of the fence and the darker parts of the grasses are now correctly exposed.  Like the other two shots, on its own, this shot is unusable.  However, it correctly captures the darker areas of the scene.

In most circumstances, you’ll be done here. If you look at the third shot and there are still areas that look dark and underexposed, you can take a fourth shot that’s two stops brighter still (1/6th) and so on. Once you’ve captured a series of shots that contains all the ranges of brightness from dark to bright, you’re all set and ready to move on to the next phase, which is combining the shots on the computer. But first, let’s talk a little bit about auto-exposure-bracketing.

This next paragraph talks about auto-exposure-bracketing, which is completely optional and not “necessary” for HDR, but it will make your life a bit easier. If your camera has this feature, read on. Otherwise, feel free to skip this paragraph.  Auto-bracketing is something you may already be familiar with, if your camera has this feature (many newer cameras do). It was originally designed simply as a way to ensure you cover your bases when shooting in tricky lighting situations. If you’re not sure of the correct exposure for a scene, you can set your camera to auto-bracket the shot, which means it will take three shots for you. The first time you press the shutter, the camera will take a photo at the exposure you set. Then you press the shutter again, and it will take another shot, but this time it will be a little darker than the original shot. The third time you press the shutter, it will take a shot that is a little brighter than the original. You specify how much brighter / darker, in stops, when you set up the bracketing. For instance, you can set up auto-bracketing to take three shots, one at the target exposure, and then a shot that is one-stop brighter, and a shot that is one-stop darker. This way, if it turns out that you incorrectly calculated the target exposure, you may still have a correctly exposed photograph in one of the two bracketed shots. It’s basically an insurance policy for exposure mistakes! The best part is, you can set it so that the camera takes all three shots in a row automatically. On my cameras, when I use the remote control, if the camera is set to auto-exposure-bracket, it takes all three shots in a row automatically with one button press. So you press the remote control button one time, and voila, three shots at varying brightness levels. I’m sure you can guess where this is going. It’s absolutely perfect for HDR! Especially because the shots are taken so quickly in succession. Even if there are objects moving in the frame, the three shots are taken so quickly that it may be barely noticeable. Using our previous example, this is how I would set it up. To start, you’ll want to turn off the auto-bracketing so you can determine the target exposures. Experiment with various shutter speeds to determine the shutter speed that captures the highlights accurately, as we did before, and make a mental note of it. In our previous example, it was 1/400th second. Now set the shutter speed on your camera for two-stops brighter than that shutter speed you just noted. In our case, that would be 1/100th second. Now go ahead and turn on the auto-bracketing feature, set it for +/- two stops (meaning that the camera will take one shot at the target exposure, one shot that is two stops darker, and one shot that is two stops brighter), and take the shots. It will take the first shot at 1/100th, the next shot at 1/400th, and the final shot at 1/25th. Perfect! You’ve just completely taken the correct series of shots with a single button press! Notice how it’s the same exact exposures that you had set manually above during the first example, except it’s all automatic. Fantastic. If your camera has auto-bracketing, of course I suggest you use it. If not, no worries. You can always just set the exposures manually, and unless your camera can be set to take more than three shots in a bracket (most cannot), you would need to set the exposure manually anyway if you needed a fourth of fifth shot to complete the series. You can also use auto-bracketing if you want to try to handhold an HDR shot. Set the camera to auto-bracket and then set the shooting mode to continuous (like sports mode, meaning it will continue taking multiple shots for as long as you hold down the shutter button). On my cameras, if it’s set to auto-bracket and continuous mode, holding the shutter button down will take three shots in very rapid succession at the correct exposures. If the shutter speeds are fast enough (for instance, 1/400th, 1/800th, and 1/100th), it is possible to handhold an HDR shot, but you must be sure to remain perfectly still when taking the shots so that camera doesn’t move at all in between shots.

OK, so now you have your series of shots with all the levels of brightness in the scene. What now? Now it’s time to combine them in software on the computer. There are many different software products that allow you to create an HDR image from a series of photos. In my opinion, Photomatix by HDRsoft is the best and most popular. Newer versions of Photoshop also have this feature, as well as a variety of other products. I personally use Photomatix, as do many other people. The rest of this tutorial will describe my personal process for Photomatix. Everybody’s workflow and procedure will be different, so feel free to use this as a guideline and to adapt it to your own style.

As previously mentioned, it’s best to shoot RAW files (vs. JPEGs) as they contain the most information. Some HDR software tools can create HDR files directly from the RAW files, but I like to convert my RAW files to 16-bit TIFF files and process those into the HDR image. This is because I prefer to let my dedicated RAW conversion software do the conversion, vs. the HDR software. (If this paragraph isn't clear, see my article on RAW vs JPEG for more info).

Once I have my series of 16-bit TIFF files, it’s time to start the process of creating the HDR image. I’ll go through this process on a conceptual level, rather than bogging you down with the technical details of every mouse-click and screen. This will also make it more applicable to a variety of HDR software products, but will still provide enough detail on how to do it.

Firstly, load up your HDR software. In my case, it’s Photomatix. You should see a button or menu choice that says “Create HDR image” or something to that effect, and you’ll be asked to select all the photos in the series you took. Select the three (or more) photos you took, that have all the brightness levels. After you’ve selected the series of photos and clicked OK, the computer will do some processing and soon a weird looking photo that doesn’t look quite right will appear on your screen. This is “technically speaking” an HDR image, but it’s not yet in a format that can be correctly displayed on your screen. There are so many levels of brightness in that “technically HDR” image that your computer monitor (or printer) cannot handle it. The next step is what creates the final image that looks good, and that step is to “tonemap” the image, which really just means to combine all the levels of brightness in the series of photos into a single photo that can be properly displayed on your monitor and printed. To do this, you’ll click a button that says Tonemap Image, or something to that effect, and after your computer does some more number crunching, you’ll see your photo appear on the screen for the first time with all of the levels of brightness combined properly. At this stage, the photo with appear with the saturation, brightness, etc. set at the defaults for Photomatix. It is at this point you’ll begin the process of tweaking it to make it look how you want, to put your own personal touch on it. In Photomatix, there are a variety of settings that you can set using on-screen buttons and sliders that control the brightness of the image, the saturation, and most importantly the intensity of how strong the “HDR effect” looks. This is all a matter of personal preference so I won’t get into too much detail here. In Photomatix, the most important sliders / buttons are the “Strength” slider and the “Light Smoothing” buttons which control how intense the HDR effect looks. You may have seen HDR images that have that “painted” look. The Strength and Light Smoothing settings are the two settings that most affect how much of that painted look is applied to the final image. I personally prefer a more photo-realistic look, and use HDR to capture images with the same dynamic range as my eye sees, but I can absolutely see the merits of the painted look as well. Of course the other sliders and buttons also have a huge effect, and you’ll just need to experiment to see what you like best.

Once you’ve set the sliders and buttons and adjusted the image to how you like it, the final step is to save the final image. Press the “process” button and the computer will crunch some numbers again and will create a JPEG file based on the settings you’ve chosen. Save the JPEG and you’ve successfully created an HDR image!  As an optional step, many people will load the final HDR image into Photoshop or any other image editing program to make some final tweaks to saturation, contrast, etc. I often do this myself (I use Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo).

Our final HDR image looks like this:

Sedona, Arizona
Sedona, Arizona

I find HDR to be useful in a wide variety of situations. I particularly like using it for night shots. For instance, I can use it to properly expose a night cityscape with buildings and water, while keeping the highlights from the city lights properly exposed as well. The Brooklyn Bridge image you see below is an example of this technique, and is an HDR image. If you combine the information in my previous article on Night Photography with the HDR techniques you learned here, you’ll be taking similar images in no time.

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

(This HDR tutorial is part of the iPhone / Android app mentioned above -- take it wherever you go!)

If you have any questions or comments, please let me know, and feel free to share this tutorial with your Facebook friends:

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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

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

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/

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City
Brooklyn Bridge, New York City