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

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


5May/09Off

A "General Approach" to Photography and Working a Scene

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

I thought it might be interesting to write an article that discusses a “general approach” to photography, and is less technical than some of my previous articles.  I’ll still discuss camera settings to a certain extent, but will focus more on how to approach a scene and some high-level steps to capturing images you can be proud of.  This note mostly covers travel / landscape-type photography (vs. portraits).  It’s also primarily meant for those photographers who are getting started in taking their photography to the next level, or who may have just purchased their first DSLR, but even some of the more experienced photographers may get something out of it…

I’ll start out with one of my favorite photography quotes, by Charles Harbutt: 

“…I don’t take pictures, pictures take me. I can do nothing except have film in the camera and be alert. My adversary, a photograph, stalks the world like a roaring lion. Pictures happen. One can only trust one’s sensitivity, the bounty of the world, and the chemistry of Kodak. This is THE photographic method." 

My personal philosophy on photography is similar to my interpretation of this quote, and that is:  Let the pictures happen.  Walk around with your camera at your side… forget about the fact that you’re taking pictures and just look around at your surroundings.  Eventually something will jump out at you that just “looks” interesting.  It could be a particular reflection that catches your eye, or an interesting pattern that a series of fence posts running down the beach may make.  Don’t concentrate too hard on “finding that perfect ‘picture’”.  That’s going to close down your senses and potentially make you miss something.  Even worse… your concentration on “getting the shot” will prevent you from simply enjoying everything around you.  Way back in the past, I’d found myself getting home with a lot of pictures, but not actually “remembering” being there, because my full concentration was on the photography.  Luckily I came to my senses and I ensure that doesn’t happen anymore.  I always make sure to take the time to enjoy the surroundings and really take it all in.  There’s something to be said for putting the camera down and actually “watching” the sunset!  So what do you do if nothing in the scene jumps out at you to be photographed?  Don’t worry about it!  There’s no crime in not taking a picture.  There’s nothing worse than wasting your time uploading, tweaking and editing a photo that just doesn’t have enough substance to ever have any real impact.  I’ve been out with my camera before and happily returned with an entirely empty memory card.  Rather than use time unnecessarily reviewing fifty pictures that I would never do anything with, I’d rather take the time to write an article like this, or edit other pictures I’ve taken previously that have been waiting for a little attention.  This also helps in how others “perceive” your photography.  I think a famous photographer once said “It’s not that all the pictures I take are good, it’s that I just don’t show you the bad ones.”  If you set out on a hiking expedition with the goal of coming back with waterfall photos or wildlife, but the only thing you wind up finding is underbrush and nothing is too exciting, no worries… there will always be another hike.

So what do you do when the magic happens and something does jump out at you?  Unless whatever you’re seeing is a fleeting moment that will be gone shortly, don’t immediately start snapping pictures.  (Of course if something is temporary, like a rainbow, feel free to shoot as quickly as you can).  Otherwise, take your time.  Think about what it is you’re trying to say with the picture.  It could be something as simple as “this place is beautiful”, for example a gorgeous sprawling landscape, or you might be trying to say “this place is really busy with an incredible amount of people”, for example NYC’s Grand Central Station:

Moorea, French Polynesia

Moorea, French Polynesia

 

Grand Central Station, NYC

Grand Central Station, NYC

Think about what you want to include or exclude in the picture.  Is it the entire wide expanse of the landscape with a waterfall, mountains, and flowers, or do you want to concentrate on just the waterfall and focus attention on that?  For a Grand Central photo, do you want the whole station or just the busy entrance to the escalator?  Before taking any pictures, walk around the scene a little to see how it looks from various angles.  Kneel down low to see how it looks from a lower point of view, or climb a nearby stairwell to see how it looks from above.  Really “work the scene” before you get the camera out.

Once you’ve decided on what you might like to include and from what angle, it’s time to look through the viewfinder and choose a focal length that accomplishes your goal.  If you want to pick out a single feature of the landscape to concentrate on, use a telephoto lens (80mm+).  If you want the wide expanse, go with a wide angle (around 10-28mm).  For something in the middle, choose a “normal” focal length (30-75mm).  Don’t forget about some of the other important effects of focal length, such as exaggerating perspective or compressing distance – See my other note on “Choosing the Best Focal Length for a Photo” for more information.

Now that you’ve selected a focal length and found a composition that you like, it’s time to set the exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO).  I always suggest using the full manual “M” mode on your camera whenever possible.  The following several paragraphs are the opening text of my “Intro to Digital Photography” workshop – I think it’s worthwhile to read here to learn more about the Manual mode:

“DSLRs are capable of taking incredibly creative shots, far more creative than can be taken with a compact point-and-shoot camera.  As a photographer using a DSLR, you have complete creative control over how much of your subject is in-focus – you can choose to completely blur the background or keep it pin sharp.  You can also control the shutter speed to totally “freeze action” and make time stand still, or you can choose to keep the shutter open longer to achieve creative “motion blur” effects which emphasize movement.  These are all artistic decisions that you, the photographer make when taking the picture.  However, they can only be achieved if you take control of the camera and learn to use its “Manual” or “M” mode – otherwise the computer in the camera is making all these artistic decisions for you!

Today’s DSLRs come with several different modes to take photos – there are “automatic” modes from “fully automatic” and “scene” modes where the camera makes the decisions for you, and there are the manual and semi-automatic modes where you take more control over the photographic process.

The automatic modes are just that – the camera automatically calculates all of the settings necessary to take the photo, and you just have to press the shutter button.  The decision as to what will be in focus and what will be blurred, as well as the decision of how much “movement” and “motion” to show are all made by the camera.  The “scene” modes such as “Landscape”, “Sports”, and “Portrait” are just variations on the same automatic mode, except they try to take a better guess as to what type of photo you like.  Either way, the camera is making the decisions based on a guess as to what it thinks will look good.

The Manual or “M” mode on the other hand gives complete creative control to the photographer.  You decide exactly how you want the picture to look based on your own artistic vision.  Yes, it requires a little more effort, but that’s because you are telling the camera exactly what to do so the photo looks precisely how you envisioned it.”

Now that I’ve (hopefully) successfully convinced you to try out your camera’s Manual mode, let’s continue:

With the camera set to manual, you now need to determine the aperture and shutter speed.  I usually ask myself a couple of very simple questions that guide me to right settings: 

Firstly, is there anything moving in the scene?  If anything is moving in the scene, whether it’s people, birds, rushing water in a stream, swaying trees, etc., then you’ll need to keep the shutter speed in mind.  Ask yourself, am I trying to say anything with the movement?  Do I want to freeze the moment to show an instant-in-time, or do I want to purposely blur the moving objects into streaks, emphasizing movement?  Here is an example of using a long shutter speed to intentionally blur the flowing water:

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Set the shutter speed according to the artistic effect you’re trying to achieve.  Then set the corresponding aperture and ISO to get the right exposure.

If there is nothing moving in the scene, then you don’t even need to concern yourself with setting a “specific” shutter speed (except if you don’t have a tripod and you just want to double check the shutter is fast enough to hand-hold the camera – see my note on Taking Sharp Photos for more information).  With nothing moving in the scene, you can just concentrate on the aperture.  Looking at the scene, decide if you want to concentrate the viewer’s attention on one specific item or area (in which case you’d use a very wide aperture to create a narrow depth-of-field and blur the background), or if you want every detail to be in focus from right in front of you to the very far distance (in which case you’d select a small aperture).   Here is an example of using a wide aperture to blur the background:

Pina Colada, Mexico

Pina Colada, Mexico

Set the appropriate aperture, and then select the shutter speed and ISO to get the right exposure.

Once you’ve got the main shot you’re after, don’t be afraid to experiment.  Turn the camera to vertical mode and take a few vertical shots if the first set were all horizontal.  Zoom in a little tighter, or go a little wider and take a few shots.  Walk a little to the left, or right, or set the camera up higher or lower to the ground.  This is one of the great advantages of digital.  You can capture a variety of alternate angles and compositions without worrying about burning through rolls of film. 

Below are two shots taken in Newport, Rhode Island.  The only difference is horizontal vs. vertical, a slight change in focal length, and I moved a little to the right on the vertical shot.  You can see how they are still two completely different photos: 

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

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Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

Of course be careful to put thought into each photo, though.  The intent is to capture meaningful variations to the shot, not to fill up your memory card with randomly chosen angles.  When you get home, you can look at the variations on the computer to see what worked and what didn’t.   You’ll start to get a feel for the types of shots you prefer.  You’ll also begin to remember what’s “visually appealing” as you compare the finished images, and the next time you go out, you can go right to the shot that you instinctively “know” will work.

Always remember that it's a constant learning process, even for pros with many years of experience.  The more you get out there and shoot, the better you'll become.  Subscribe to a few magazines, read articles on the web, and most of all, have fun with your photography.

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

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/

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

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

17Apr/09Off

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

Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Choosing the right camera to buy for yourself might seem like a difficult task, but is shouldn't be. Yes, there are a lot of options out there (which is a good thing), but with a little thought about your shooting style and needs, you'll be able to buy a camera and lens(es) that perfectly suit you.

Before we start, first let me say this: for the most part, the quality of the pictures is not the main difference between less expensive and more expensive cameras. More expensive cameras do not necessarily take better pictures. The primary difference between less expensive and more expensive cameras is the physical camera body and controls (knobs and buttons), as well as performance, which I'll talk about in this article. The #1 factor affecting picture quality for ANY camera is the quality of your lenses... not the camera. But we'll get to that in a moment...

So you're about to purchase your first Digital SLR camera, or are upgrading to a more advanced model. Firstly, congratulations. You're about to take your photography to a whole new level. DSLRs enable you to be creative in your pictures in a way that compact cameras and those without manual controls can't match. It may take some time to learn how to use your new DSLR, but the photos in the end will be well worth the effort.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

So where do you start as you decide what camera to buy? It's worth understanding the various "categories" of DSLRs. These categories generally apply to most camera brands. For this discussion, I'll use Canon in my examples, but they apply to Nikon and other brands as well.

For many brands, there are three main categories of cameras they produce (sometimes four, I'll explain that later). The primary categories are consumer, prosumer, and pro.

The first thing you should know is that all cameras in each of the categories take outstanding photos. Modern DSLRs are fantastic, and are getting better every day. Even the least expensive DSLR will take great pictures, and better than any compact camera could take. This is because the sensor in DSLRs is far larger than the sensor in compact cameras. The sensor is the chip that records the image (the equivalent of the piece of film in a film camera). Without getting into the technical details, just know that all other things being equal, the larger the sensor, the better the picture quality, especially in low light or at night. DSLRs have a significantly larger sensor than compacts.

So what's the difference between the consumer, prosumer, and pro cameras?

The "primary" difference between the three categories is the design of the camera body and controls, and the durability / ruggedness / weatherproofing of the body. That's not to say there aren't important differences that can affect picture quality -- there are. But the "primary" difference is the body.

Consumer-level cameras are the least expensive cameras in a brand's line, but don't be persuaded into believing they aren't great cameras. They are capable of taking extraordinary images. These cameras generally have smaller bodies, made of lighter material. In Canon's lineup, these cameras include the Rebel T2i / XSi /Xs (known in other countries as the 550D / 450D, etc.) In Nikon's line-up, we're talking about cameras like the D3100, D5000, D90, etc. The sensor in these cameras is often very similar or almost identical to the sensors used in the brand's more expensive cameras. That means they can take pictures that look pretty much exactly the same. Because the bodies are small and light, they are great for traveling. They're also good for people with smaller hands. Because they're lighter, they're less intimidating and easier to get used to for photographers transitioning from a compact camera. What they generally lack is the ruggedness of some of the more expensive cameras. The cameras in the brand's prosumer and pro line are built from heavier and more sturdy material, which makes them more suitable for challenging shooting conditions. Because the consumer cameras are smaller, they also lack some of the dedicated physical controls, knobs, and buttons that appear on other cameras, simply because there is no room on the back of the camera to put them. For instance, on the prosumer and pro lines, there is a dedicated wheel to change the shutter speed, and another dedicated wheel to change the aperture. On the consumer cameras, there is only one wheel and it is shared for both functions: the wheel controls shutter speed and you have to press and hold a separate button to use the same wheel to change the aperture. Because there are fewer dedicated controls, you often have to rely on navigating through on-screen menus to change settings. This actually appeals to many people, who are comfortable navigating menus and are used to using them from compact cameras. On the other hand, it is a slower process, and if you need to respond quickly to changing situations while you're shooting, having dedicated controls makes it easier. Because they are light, the consumer models may feel unbalanced if you buy heavier pro-grade lenses. The camera can feel a bit "front-heavy" when you use one of these lenses. There are other differences between the three categories that are separate from the body. These differences can broadly be categorized as "performance". For example, the autofocus speed and sensitivity (how easily it focuses on a subject), the number of autofocus points, the burst speed (the number of pictures that can be taken per second), and the burst depth (the number of pictures that can be taken in a row before the camera needs to "take a break" to pause and process the images it just took). In consumer cameras, for example, there might be nine autofocus points, and the camera can take pictures at three per second for a total of nine shots. The pro cameras might have as many as 45 autofocus points, and can take photos at ten per second. Cost-wise, consumer level cameras are "very generally" in the area of U.S. $500-900.

The next step up from the consumer-level cameras is the prosumer category. The prosumer category sits between the "consumer" and "pro" categories, thus the name "prosumer". In Canon's line-up, the prosumer category consists of cameras like the 60D and 7D. In Nikon's line-up, it's cameras like the D300s. This is the category that many professionals use, from wedding photographers to landscapers. The prosumer cameras are generally significantly larger and heavier than the consumer models. They are sturdier and more rugged in order to handle the knocks of professional use, and are more tightly sealed against the elements. As described earlier, their larger size allows there to be more dedicated knobs, buttons, and control wheels, allowing you to quickly change settings in the field under rapidly changing photo situations. Because they are heavier and solid, they feel well balanced with the heavier pro-grade lenses. Performance-wise, they are generally more advanced and may have advantages such as greater burst speed. For example, the consumer-level Canon Rebel XSi shoots at 3.5 fps (frames per second) for 9 consecutive RAW files while the prosumer-level Canon 50D shoots at 6.3 fps for 16 consecutive RAW files. As far as image quality, the sensors used in the prosumer models are often very similar to the consumer models, so the images are quite comparable. Cost-wise, prosumer level cameras are "very generally" in the area of U.S. $900-2000.

The next step up and "top of the line" are the pro bodies. In Canon's line-up, these are currently the 1Ds Mark III and the 1D Mark IV. In Nikon's line-up, these are the D3S and D3X. These are the brands' flagships and are built extremely ruggedly to withstand the harshest conditions a pro might encounter. They generally have integrated vertical grips so you can turn them sideways to take portraits while still having a shutter button on top (giving the camera a "square" look), and they have the biggest and heaviest bodies:

Canon 1Ds Mark III

Canon 1Ds Mark III

They also have larger sensors than the consumer and prosumer models. The 1Ds Mark III, D3S and D3X all have "full-frame" sensors that are significantly larger than the sensors in the other two categories. A "full-frame" sensor is a sensor that is the same size as a piece of 35mm film. This does make for better picture quality in these models. A discussion on the advantages (and very few) disadvantages of full-frame sensors is for another article, but just know that the image quality from these sensors is often better than that of the other categories, especially in low-light situations. FYI, the 1D Mark IV has a sensor that is "in-between" the prosumer and pro categories. Performance-wise, these pro cameras are the top of the line models. They have many focus points, are capable of many frames per second (for example 10 fps for the 1D Mark IV), and they have countless options for customization. Cost-wise, pro level cameras are generally in the area of U.S. $3500 all the way up to $7000+. Note: most of these cameras do not have a built-in pop-up flash. You will need to buy a separate flash unit that fits into the top of the camera to take flash pictures. Popular flash models for Canon cameras include the 430EX II and 580EX II. Nikon has the SB-900 among others.

There is a very important "fourth category" that is worth discussing, especially since it's recently growing exponentially in popularity. This fourth category takes the full-frame sensor from the pro bodies and places it in a prosumer-level body. (Remember that a full-frame sensor is bigger than the sensor in the prosumer and consumer bodies, and all other things being equal, takes better pictures). Canon pioneered this with the introduction of the original Canon 5D several years ago. The 5D had a body very similar to something like the 50D today, but it had the full-frame sensor taken from Canon’s top-of-the-line 1D series. It took (and still takes today) amazing photographs, but was significantly less expensive than the 1D series, and was also smaller and lighter. It was one of the most popular and well-respected cameras they produced, and countless pro’s flocked to it. Today, there are several full-frame cameras available from the various brands. Nikon has introduced the D700, which is similar to the D300 but with a full-frame sensor. Sony has the Alpha A900 and A850. Canon is now producing the 5D Mark II. These cameras feature all the benefits of a full-frame sensor (better low-light performance, less noise per megapixel, true wide-angle capability with pro-grade lenses, etc.) but in less expensive, lighter, smaller bodies. Very generally, the cost of these cameras is U.S. $2600 – 3200.

So which of these categories is best for you? That of course depends on your needs. Hopefully the descriptions above about the size, weight, body ruggedness, controls (buttons / knobs), and performance will help guide you in a direction. If not, I add some more guidance at the bottom of this note to help you choose. Except for the decision about maybe buying a model with a full-frame sensor, picture quality should be less of a factor in your decision-making than some of the other factors. Speaking of picture quality, now is a good time to cover that…

In my opinion (and that of most photographers) the quality of your lenses is the #1 most important factor in the picture quality your camera produces. If you have a limited budget (which most people do!) spend your money on quality LENSES. If you were to take a great, high-quality lens and put it on one of the new inexpensive DSLRs, you can get incredible photos. On the other hand, if you take a top-of-the-line pro body and use a low-quality, cheap lens, you will not get quality results. There is nothing more bizarre to see than a guy walking around with a $7,000 camera and a $49 lens. I can assure he’s getting $49 worth of picture quality.

So what lens or lenses to get? Well this depends on what subjects you shoot and what you like to photograph. Certainly if you’re a sports or wildlife shooter, you’re going to be more interested in telephoto lenses than wide-angles. If you’re a landscape or architectural shooter, you’re probably more interested in wide-angles than telephotos. My recommendation would be to start with one lens (maybe two) and then acquire additional lenses over time as you feel out your shooting style and determine more concretely what you really need.

Most cameras can be purchased either as “body-only” or with a lens, commonly called the “kit lens” because the lens is bundled with the body as a kit. Nowadays, the kit lenses are getting better and better, many even including high-tech features such as image stabilization. The kit lenses when purchased with the body are generally very inexpensive vs. if you purchased it separately. If you know you will use the lens that comes with the kit, then by all means, purchase the kit. If you’re just getting started and want a general purpose “walk around’ lens for a variety of subjects, the kit lens can be a good choice to start out with. With focal lengths generally from 18mm to 55mm, they provide moderately wide coverage and a little bit of telephoto reach. Sometimes you might see an “alternate kit” which has a different lens (sometimes a little higher quality or with a wider focal range), also at a discount. Here are some examples of some lens options in the “walk-around” focal range (you'd buy just one of these): let’s say you’re buying a new Canon Rebel T2i (550D). You can buy it with the included Canon 18-55mm IS lens and you'd have a great general-purpose package. If you wanted more telephoto reach but still keeping the wide-angle, you could skip the kit lens and instead buy the 17-85mm IS. If you wanted a wider aperture for low-light shooting, you could buy the 17-55mm F2.8 IS. If you didn't care as much about the wide end and wanted a longer reach, you could buy the 28-135mm IS.

Outside of the “walk-around” focal range lenses, are some of the more specialty lenses:

If you don’t want to buy many lenses but still want to cover a very wide range, or you just want one lens so you don’t have to ever change lenses, you could go with an 18-200mm lens.

For telephoto, there are many lenses in the 70-200 and 70-300 range that would be great for sports and wildlife.

Canon 70-200 F4L

Canon 70-200 F4L

Coupled with a walk-around lens like the 18-55 or 17-85, the addition of a 70-200 creates a great range of focal lengths from the wide angle at 18mm to the telephoto at 200mm.

For super-wide-angle coverage for landscapes or architecture, look to something in the 10-22mm focal range (for consumer and prosumer bodies).

Then there are the wide-aperture lenses. These are sometimes fixed focal length (non-zooming) and include lenses like Canon’s spectacular 50mm F1.8, which is extremely inexpensive but takes razor-sharp photos and is great in low-light or when you need to blur the background. It’s fantastic for portraits as well. Most people who own a Canon DSLR eventually get this lens -- it's around $100.

For Macro shooters who want to get *really* close up to flowers, insects, seashells, or anything else, there are a series of macro lenses you can look at. These are generally fixed-focal-length lenses with wide apertures. They can be found in versions at 60mm, 100mm, 180mm, etc. Keep in mind the longer the focal length, the less close you need to be to a subject, so you can avoid scaring things off if you take pictures of live subjects. On the other hand, if you want to be close to your subject so you can reach out with your hand to make adjustments to a flower petal, then a shorter-focal length might be for you. Also keep in mind that these lenses are not just good for macro. They are fantastic for portraits as the wide apertures are great for blurring backgrounds. Perhaps more importantly, because they are fixed focal length and because of their design, they are preposterously sharp. In my personal opinion, they are the sharpest of all lenses that can be purchased. Canon's 100mm F2.8 macro is so sharp that I sometimes cannot believe my eyes. I actually use mine much more for portraits than for macro.

Then there are the really specialized lenses. These include Tilt / Shift lenses and fisheyes, etc. Tilt / Shift lenses are lenses that physically tilt around and swivel while attached to the camera:

Canon 17mm Tilt / Shift lens

Canon 17mm Tilt / Shift lens

The two "main" purposes, among others, are to fix slanted buildings when taking pictures of architecture (point a camera with a regular lens upward at a skyscraper and take a picture -- you'll see it looks like a pyramid! Tilt / Shift lenses fix this). The other purpose is to control depth-of-field, allowing you to get much more of the picture in-focus front-to-back, or to limit focus, no matter what aperture you're using. Fisheyes are ultra-wide-angle and are used creatively to capture an entire scene, and often can capture a full 180 degrees around you (including your feet, so be careful!)

I want to make one important note about lenses as you start to think about what you might like to buy. There are two types of lenses: lenses that are compatible with ALL the cameras in a brand's line and lenses that are specifically made ONLY for the consumer and prosumer categories I mentioned above. In Canon's lineup, for example, any lens that has "EF" in the name will fit on every camera in Canon's lineup. However, lenses with "EF-S" (vs. "EF") will NOT fit on Canon's Pro-category cameras (the 1D-series) or full-frame category (5D) cameras. Why is this important? Because someday you may upgrade your camera and find out that your lenses don't work with the new camera. For example, if you were buying a Canon Rebel T2i or Canon 60D, you might choose to purchase the Canon 60mm EF-S Macro lens to use with it. If someday in the future you decide to upgrade your camera and purchase a Canon 5D Mark II or one of the pro cameras, your 60mm EF-S lens will not work on the new camera, and you will have to replace it. So...if you think there is any chance that you might be upgrading cameras in a few years, then keep this note in mind and make sure that whenever possible you buy EF lenses so that you "future-proof" yourself. Now, I say "whenever possible" because sometimes you don't have a choice if you have one of the consumer or prosumer cameras and you want a certain focal length -- for example, if you want a super-wide angle for your 60D, the only Canon option in the 10mm range is the Canon 10-22mm EF-S lens. For technical design reasons, they simply don't make an EF version in that zoom range. This may not be a problem at all -- when you upgrade you may choose to keep the other camera anyway and all its lenses. I did this because I love the XTi and it's great for traveling. Or...you may choose to upgrade from the consumer line (T2i) to the prosumer line (60D), in which case your EF-S lenses will still work. They only won't work on the Pro line and the 5D series. Other brands also have lenses that only work on their consumer and prosumer lines, so always ask before you buy.

Alright, so which camera should you buy... you probably just want to know the answer to that one question. Here's the short(ish) answer:

If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot, and are interested in taking up photography as a serious hobby and getting some outstanding shots, buy something like the Canon Rebel T2i or XSi or a Nikon D5000 or D90, provided it's not too small for your hands and you don't plan on shooting in "adventurous" conditions or in the rain or dust. If you're not sure exactly what subjects you like to shoot, stick with the 18-55mm lens that comes with it, play around a little, and see how many times you wish you could go "a little wider" vs. how many times you wish you could have "zoomed in a little more." Based on the answer to that last question, you can buy your next lens at some point in the future, which will either be a wide-angle or a telephoto.

If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot, or you already have a film or other DSLR, and your intent is to get serious about photography, maybe make some money on the side, potentially shoot a friend's wedding on occasion or some travel photography for advertisements, then you might want to move right to the prosumer-level category and get something like the Canon 60D or 7D or a Nikon D300S. These are also a wise choice if you plan on taking your camera into more adventurous conditions where it might get banged around a bit, or get a little wet. Choose your lenses carefully because you may have them for a long time, and remember, it's ultimately the quality of your lenses that affects the quality of the pictures.

If your intention is to take photography very seriously, go pro (either part-time or full-time), then you can either go with something from the prosumer line or the pro line. If you want the very best quality in really low light, get a full-frame model from the pro line (Canon 1Ds Mark III or Nikon D3S or D3X) or one of the models with a full-frame sensor in a prosumer body (Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon D700, etc). If you intend on making massive prints, then get one with a high megapixel count... the 1Ds Mark III, 5D Mark II, and D3X all have over 20 megapixels for huge prints.

Two quick comments before I start to wrap up. I've used examples from Canon and Nikon (and a little of Sony), but all the brands make outstanding cameras. For the most part, these categories, lens types, etc. all apply to Pentax, Olympus, and Sony. If you already have lenses from one of the other brands and you're looking for a new camera, or you've had good experiences with their point-and-shoots and want to stick with the brand, you can always ask a salesperson to tell you which of the Canons or Nikons is comparable so you'll know which model to look at. So if reading this, you decide that a camera "in the category" of a Canon Rebel T2i is what's for you, then just ask the salesperson to show you the Pentax equivalent of the T2i and they'll help you out.

My final comment, which by now will be very (and purposely!) repetitive: it is the lenses that determine the picture quality! Don't skimp. You will always do better buying a lesser camera and better lenses.

I've 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

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

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Best,
Paul

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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:

Share

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/

Share/Bookmark

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

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


14Apr/09Off

Night Photography / Low-light Photography — Tips for Night Photos

Star Trails, Costa Rica

Star Trails, Costa Rica

The allure of the night shot. The sparkling lights of a city skyline, the moonlit seascape, neon signs, and star trails to traffic trails... For some (including myself) the night shot represents the epitome of fascinating, enthralling photography. Looking at these photos in awe, we cannot help but say “wow”.

Of course, one thing separates night photography from many other types. It requires a fairly significant amount of “technical” skill to get good results. It’s much easier to wind up with blurry, incorrectly exposed, or out-of-focus photos at night than it is during the day. So how do we fix that? This brief guide will show you how…

Night shots can be spectacular to look at. A properly executed night image can impress even the most jaded viewer. But one thing ruins probably 90% of night shots out there. Blur. Let’s talk about how to take sharp photos at night…

Because light levels are so low at night, longer shutter speeds are required to allow enough light into the camera to expose the image. You’ll often need shutter speeds that last several seconds. Of course any time you’re using longer shutter speeds, you’re introducing the possibility of blurry images due to camera movement. First and foremost, it’s just not possible to handhold a successful night shot. A tripod or other support must be used, even if it’s just a bench, railing, recycling bin, or tree branch. Yes, “technically” you can up the ISO to get a manageable handholding shutter speed, but I don’t recommend it. High ISOs lead to noisy images (multicolored or white speckles all over the image), loss of sharpness, and loss of detail. If you really want to take a powerful night shot, you should keep the ISO at 100, unless for some unusual reason you need ISO 200. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend going over 100.

OK, so you’ve found a great position to take your shot, and you’ve successfully balanced your camera on the back of a sleeping coyote (he’s very still). Now what? Provided the ISO is set to 100, it’s time to set the exposure…

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Firstly, set your camera to full-manual mode where you manually set the aperture and shutter speed individually. Your camera’s meter doesn’t work well at night and will only cause problems and inconsistencies from shot to shot, so don’t concern yourself with it. Once in manual mode, it’s time to determine what to set for shutter speed and aperture. If we know that the longer the shutter is open, the more chance there will be of movement (resulting in blur), then we should do whatever we can to get the shortest shutter speed possible. Since we’ve already established that we’re sticking with ISO 100, that means we need to use the widest aperture that will work for the scene. Using a wide aperture (low number), more light enters the camera and you can use a faster shutter speed. Unless you have objects that are both very close to you and very far from you that all need to be in focus (which I find rarely to be the case in night photography), you can get away with fairly wide apertures such as F5.6. I’d recommend starting with an aperture of F5.6 and a shutter speed of 3 seconds. This usually provides me with a good starting point of evaluating how much light is in the scene and often results in a decent starting exposure. Look at the LCD and see if the image appears too dark or too bright. If it’s too bright, set the shutter speed to 1.5 seconds and try again. If it’s too dark, set to 6 seconds. Experiment with various settings until you arrive at a shutter speed that works for the scene. There are three main reasons why you might want to have a smaller aperture (keeping in mind that you will be lengthening the shutter speed and increasing the chance of blur). (#1) – small apertures create that “star” effect on small bright lights – if you want the stars, you’ll need an aperture of at least F8, and more likely F11 and smaller, (#2) if you have objects that are up close and also far away, and all need to be in focus, then you’ll need a small aperture to increase depth of field, and (#3) for creative purposes, for example if you want a longer shutter speed to increase the effect of traffic trails, to create a silky blur of the ocean, or to allow yourself time to do some “painting with light” (using a flashlight to manually illuminate certain areas of a scene), etc., then you may want to use a smaller aperture.

Let’s talk about focusing for a bit. The reality is, cameras really don’t autofocus all that well in the dark. You’re going to have to rely on some skill here. When you attempt to use autofocus in the dark, generally one of two things happens: either the camera focuses on the wrong object or the camera hunts around in the dark for a few seconds, it can’t find anything to focus on, and it prevents you from taking the shot. Neither one is what you want, especially if a spectacular scene is unfolding in front of you. There are really only two options. Firstly, you can set the lens to manual focus and just use your eye to focus as best you can. If you’re focusing on a far away city skyline or landscape, you can just look at the lens barrel and focus at infinity using the infinity marker on the focus ring. The second option, and the one I use most often, is a hybrid of auto and manual focus. Set the camera to use only the center focus point and turn off the other focus points. On most cameras, the center focus point is the most sensitive to light and works best in the dark. Look through the viewfinder and position the center focus point on where you want to focus. If there is a bright light near where you want to focus, use that. The brighter the object, the more easily the camera will find focus. Press the shutter button half-way to try to autofocus. You may need to give it quite a few tries for it to successfully lock on. If you successfully autofocus, immediately switch the lens to manual focus on the lens barrel. Be careful not to touch the focus ring and change focus as you’re doing this! Now compose the shot as you need to, again being careful not to touch the focus ring. Now you can take your shot without worry of the camera focusing on the wrong object, or worse, hunting in the dark unsuccessfully and never taking a shot at all.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

If possible, I also recommend using your camera’s mirror lockup function, if it has it. This text on mirror lockup is taken from my Note on “Taking Sharp Photos”:

If your camera has a “mirror lockup” feature, you can also use this. You may know that when you click the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way so that the light can hit the sensor. The flipping of this mirror can cause the camera to shake, which is especially visible when using long lenses. By setting the mirror lockup, you are flipping up the mirror before the actual picture is taken, preventing camera shake and the resulting blur.

My final note on sharpness, and something that is perhaps one of the most common mistakes in night photography: always remember to use the self-timer or a remote control to fire the shutter. Using your finger to press the shutter will result in blurry shots. The sturdiest tripod, the most accurate focus, will not help at all if you touch the camera when trying to take the shot. I recommend getting a remote control for your camera, so you don’t have to wait 10 seconds every time you take a shot as you would if you use the self-timer, and you have more control over when it fires (for instance, if you’re trying to fire it exactly when there are no people walking in front of the camera). Remote controls are relatively inexpensive and small (easy to carry around). The one for Canon cameras is less than $25 and it’s smaller than your thumb.

A few tips on specific types of night shots:

Moon photography: The most common mistake when photographing the moon is overexposure. The moon is reflecting the sun. It is extremely bright. You must use very fast shutter speeds to avoid overexposing the moon. If you don’t see individual craters and shades of gray (meaning it just looks like a bright white circle), the image is overexposed. Set a faster shutter speed and try again.

Traffic Trails: By nature of having the shutter open for several seconds during night shots, you will almost always get traffic trails when there are roads in the photo. Set the shutter speed to longer or shorter as necessary to adjust the length of the trails (and don’t forget to adjust the aperture to match the shutter speed you’ve chosen).

Lightning Strike over East River, New York City

Lightning Strike over East River, New York City

Star Trails: If you keep the shutter open long enough, you can capture star trails. Star trails result from the rotation of the earth. Objects on the ground remain stationary, but since the earth is rotating relative to the stars, long exposures will show this rotation (see the shot at the top of this post). You’ll generally need exposures of at least a half hour to show trails (though you will see small trails in as little as a few minutes). You can either take a single shot for the entire duration (which may result in a noisy image, but is very easy to take), or you can take a few shorter shots and layer them on the computer. Set your camera to Bulb mode, and using a remote control, open the shutter, wait the appropriate amount of time (just use your watch), and close the shutter with the remote. Make sure to have something on the ground in the shot, to add interest and emphasize the motion.

Taking night shots can be incredibly exciting and result in some spectacular images. Good luck and happy shooting.

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, and feel free to share this tutorial with your Facebook friends:

 Share

Best,
Paul

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

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

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

I offer 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/

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


27Mar/09Off

How To Take Sharp Pictures / Avoid Blurry Photos

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Taking sharp photos is one of the most important “technical” aspects of photography, as sharpness plays an important role in the quality of your image. Having your photo tack-sharp can often be the difference between a simple snapshot and a professional-looking image. This guide will provide pointers for ensuring your photos are pin-sharp.

(As a side-note, there will be many times when you’ll intentionally want to blur the background or have areas of your photo out-of-focus. That’s an artistic decision. This guide’s goal is to discuss sharpness in the areas where you want it.)

Probably the single most common cause of blurry pictures is camera movement during the exposure. Even the slightest movement of the camera during an exposure will result in some blur and loss of sharpness. So how can we fix this?

One of the most important ways to ensure sharp photos is to use a fast shutter speed (short duration). The longer the shutter is open, the more chance for the camera to move and the more any movement will be picked up. Once you start to get above 1/1000th of a second, blurry shots due to camera movement becomes almost a non-issue. So how short is short enough for the shutter speed? There used to be a “guideline” that said when handholding a camera, the shutter speed should be at least 1 over the focal length – meaning, if you’re shooting with a 100mm lens, the shutter speed should be at least 1/100th of a second. Shooting at 200mm, the shutter speed should be 1/200th of a second, and so on. (This of course refers to shots that are handheld – shots from a tripod do not need to follow this rule). This guideline needs to be updated though, as it is no longer accurate. I recommend doubling the focal length and using that as your guideline. For a 100mm lens, I’d shoot at a minimum of 1/200th second. For 200mm, I’d shoot at least 1/400th a second, and so on. (For a technical explanation of why we need to double the old rule, you can reference my other post “ The Camera Crop Factor”.) Just following this simple guideline will greatly increase your number of “keepers”. So how do you get the shutter speed that fast? There are a few ways.

The most common (and arguably best) way to ensure your shutter speeds are fast enough is to use a wide aperture for the shot. The wider the aperture (smaller the number), the more light gets into the camera. The more light, the faster the shutter speed. That’s why lenses with wide apertures such as F2.8 or F1.4 are known as “fast lenses”. It’s because they allow a fast shutter speed. That’s also why fast lenses are generally needed for low-light and night photography – their wide apertures allow enough light to get in, even in the dark, for you to keep shutter speeds at reasonable levels. Provided that having an out-of-focus background is acceptable (wide apertures create a blurred out-of-focus background when shooting up-close), shooting at F5.6 and wider will help ensure fast shutter speeds.

The second way to increase shutter speed is to adjust the ISO. If you’ve already reached the widest acceptable setting for your aperture and there is still not enough light to achieve the shutter speed you need, you’ll have to increase the ISO. Increasing the ISO by one level (one “stop”) doubles the shutter speed. For example, if your ISO is set to 100, and the meter shows the shutter speed for the scene at 1/30th of a second (too slow to handhold), increasing the ISO to 200 (which is one stop) will double the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. Increasing the ISO one level again, will double the shutter speed to 1/120th of a second. You may ask, “well why wouldn’t you just always shoot at high ISOs to ensure sharp photos?” The answer is because high ISOs degrade picture quality. The lower the ISO, the better the picture quality. High ISOs lead to noisy photos (little speckles of colored or white dots) and a loss of sharpness. I personally try to shoot on ISO 100 as much as I can. I will occasionally use ISO 200. ISO 400 and above I use only for shots that simply can’t be taken any other way. You may often see in magazines and advertisements references to great “high ISO performance” – they’re referring to the ability of the camera to keep noise levels down, even at high ISOs. The better the picture quality at high ISOs, the more versatile the camera. The Canon 5D Mark II for instance, goes up to ISO 6400 allowing fast shutter speeds in very dark conditions.

Another option which enables fast shutter speeds, and one we’re all familiar with, is adding light. For most of us, this basically just means using the flash! By using the flash, you are adding enough to light to use fast shutter speeds, which is why you almost always use flash in dark conditions like indoors or at night. Keep in mind this only works on subjects within the range of the flash. I generally find that anything farther than twenty feet away is too far. Flash will not help with city skylines, sports, night landscapes, etc. It will however, help with night shots of people, food, close objects, and photos taken indoors. Set your camera to 1/200th of a second using shutter-priority mode, turn on the flash, and you will almost always get sharp photos of close objects at night. A shutter speed of 1/200th may result in a dark background. If you want the background to be brighter, you can try lowering the shutter speed, but then you have to be careful about your subject moving, and ensuring that any ambient light from the room, street lights, etc. doesn’t light up your subject (in addition to your flash), or you will see two versions of the person you are photographing – one from the flash, and one from the room lights (this is commonly known as ghosting).

After shutter speed, focus is probably the next most common source of unsharp photos. Most cameras have excellent autofocus systems, but it’s important to know how to use them. Here are a few tips:

If your subject is not moving, I recommend using a single focus point in the center, and using that to focus. Multiple focus points are especially useful for moving objects, but I find it much better and easier to use just the center point, especially on stationary objects – otherwise, you can’t be sure what the camera is going to focus on. For instance, if you are taking a photo of a person in front of a mountain, and you have multiple focus points, it’s certainly possible the camera may choose the focus point that is on the mountain, resulting in a pin-sharp mountain but a very blurry photo of the person. If the subject is not in the center of the frame, simply move the camera so the focus point is on the subject, press the shutter half-way, and recompose the shot and take the picture.

In addition to using auto-focus, you should also get familiar with using manual focus. Manual focus is necessary in a variety of situations. In low-light, indoor, and night photography, auto-focus systems often have trouble finding focus, because it’s too dark. This is often a good time to focus manually. Alternatively (and this is the technique I use most often at night), move the camera so that you can use the camera’s center focus point to auto-focus on your subject. Press the shutter half-way to try to focus -- it may take a couple of tries to lock focus. Once you’ve successfully locked focus, then switch the lens to manual focus and recompose the shot. This way, when you click the shutter to actually take the picture, the camera is not searching in the dark for the focus point. You’ll have successfully used auto-focus to determine the focus, but then by turning it off, you’re preventing the camera from getting confused when you go to take the shot.

After shutter speed and focus, the next most common reason for unsharp photos is related to the aperture you select, and how it affects picture quality. There are two main ways aperture directly affects picture quality. Firstly, due to the way lenses are designed, they are often not their sharpest at their widest aperture (smallest number). Provided there is enough light to reach the shutter speed you need, it is generally worthwhile to stop down a few stops from maximum. I generally try to use at least F5.6 whenever I can. Many people feel that the sharpest aperture is generally around F8, and up to F11. It’s also important to note that small apertures (high numbers) also degrade quality (I’ll discuss that more below). The “sweet spot” is usually known to be between F8 and F11, but for me, I’m comfortable with F5.6 to F13. The second point related to aperture is depth of field. At wide apertures, depth of field (meaning the area that is intentionally kept in focus vs. the area that is intentionally blurry) is very small. At wide apertures, the area that is in focus could be just a few millimeters, with everything behind or in front of the focus point being blurry. For example, let’s say you have a 200m lens and you take an up-close photo of a friend at F2.8. If you focus on the person’s nose, only the nose will be in focus. The eyes and the rest of the face will be blurry, as well as anything in front of the face. In this case, you’ll want to stop down to F8 or above to keep everything in focus. It’s a common belief that since small apertures increase depth of field, it’s always best to use a small aperture to keep everything sharp. The problem with this is that small apertures decrease the overall sharpness of the whole picture due to something called “diffraction”. Even though the entire scene will “technically” be “in-focus”, you will actually have lost sharpness throughout the entire picture by using a tiny aperture. Unless you need the shutter speed to be very slow (to blur water in a waterfall for example) avoid using the smallest apertures like F22 or F32.

Of course, using a tripod or otherwise stabilizing the camera is always a great option. I won’t get into too much detail as I’m sure many of you are familiar with tripods or just resting the camera on a bench, railing, or anything handy. I’ll make two points though. Firstly, when using a tripod or other support, always use the camera’s self-timer or a remote control to fire the shutter. Your finger pressing the shutter button will cause enough shake to make the photo blurry. If your camera has a “mirror lockup” feature, you can also use this. You may know that when you click the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way so that the light can hit the sensor. The flipping of this mirror can cause the camera to shake, which is especially visible when using long lenses. By setting the mirror lockup, you are flipping up the mirror before the actual picture is taken, preventing camera shake and the resulting blur.

By using these tips, you should be able to get sharp photos in a variety of situations. Keep the shutter speeds fast, the aperture in the sweet spot, and the focus in the right area, and you’ll be shooting pin-sharp photos every 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

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

Best,
Paul

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 a one-hour "Intro to Digital Photography" course.  For more information, please use the link below.

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


22Feb/09Off

Shooting in RAW vs. JPEG

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

I often see questions in forums and magazines about whether to shoot in RAW vs. JPEG, and asking what are the advantages / disadvantages of each. I thought I'd tackle this topic since a lot of what's out there can be confusing. This post is long, but if you take the time to get through it, you will have a full understanding of RAW and JPEG shooting.
First, let me come right out and say it: if you're serious about your photography, you should be shooting in RAW. It's significantly better in just about every way possible. I'll explain:

As I'm sure you know, digital pictures are just a series of 1's and 0's collected together to form an image. There are many picture formats, such as JPEG, TIF, GIF, BMP, various RAW formats, etc. Each format stores the 1's and 0's in its own way. The most common picture format for viewing on the web, and even "general" printing is JPEG...that's what we're all familiar with. But let's backtrack a little and get behind the scenes to how we get to that final JPEG picture, and you'll see why shooting in RAW is so important.

When you take a picture with a D-SLR, the shutter opens and the sensor captures the picture. However, it does NOT capture a JPEG file. It captures a RAW file, which is a digital version of exactly what the sensor sees through the lens, no more, no less. It temporarily stores that RAW version in memory. Here's where the famous choice comes in...do you store the image on your memory card as the RAW file that was just captured, or do you store it as a JPEG? It is NOT the same thing. Here's why:

We know that JPEG files are the "standard" format for pictures, for posting on the web, emailing to friends, etc. We also know that "eventually" every picture we take will probably become a JPEG at some point for that very reason -- so we can share it with friends, put it on websites, and email it. However, when you're taking the picture, I recommend you shoot in RAW and not shoot in JPEG, and there are several reasons why. Firstly, a JPEG version of your picture has been compressed so that the file size is smaller, for purposes of emailing, posting to the web, etc. By compressed, I mean that actual picture information is thrown in the garbage. Picture information that you took the time to capture! When you take the picture, it's stored as a series of 1's and 0's. JPEGs are stored in such a way that a computer chip takes a look at all the 1's and 0's and tries to determine what is not important in your picture, and it throws away that data so that the file size is smaller. This results in loss of detail, subtle changes in color, brightness, etc. The problem is that the computer chip is deciding what to throw out. It may throw out more or less than you want. You may be saying to yourself, "well eventually the picture will become a JPEG and all that info will be thrown out anyway, so what's the problem?" I'll get to that, after I explain what a RAW file is.

A RAW file is an exact representation of what the sensor saw when you clicked the shutter. No information is thrown out. It's all there. All the detail, colors, brightness, everything. The only problem with RAW files is that the format is specific to that camera's brand. A RAW file cannot be viewed on a web page, or e-mailed to a friend for them to just double-click on it and view it. It must be...well...converted into a JPEG by you, manually, on your home computer. BUT...you say..."my camera could have just done that conversion to JPEG for me!" Here's why that's a bad idea:

A JPEG picture is a "final" version. It is the equivalent of a finished print you hold in your hand. That's the picture you show people and give to people. That final picture is going to have a certain level of sharpness, color saturation, contrast, etc, set to however you like it. If you shoot JPEGs in your camera, you're going to have set the sharpness, saturation, contrast in your camera's menus (that's partly what those shooting modes like "portrait" or "landscape" or "sports" are for...). You may also set the white balance to something like "Sunny" or "Cloudy" or "Candle", to correct the color of your photo for the lighting conditions. Once you snap the shutter, the RAW file is temporarily stored, the computer chip in your camera looks at the settings you've set for sharpness, color, white balance, etc., it converts the RAW file to a JPEG using those exact settings, it then compresses the file by throwing out information as described above, and THEN IT DISCARDS THE RAW FILE. The information and picture detail that the camera threw out: GONE FOREVER. That's it. It stores only the finished compressed JPEG, with the sharpness, colors, saturation, and white balance that you set in the camera. You're done at this point, and it's ready to post or email. There are several problems with this method when you compare to shooting in RAW. I'll explain below.

When you shoot in RAW, you click the shutter, and the RAW file is stored on your memory card. The RAW file is simply an exact representation of what the lens saw. No compression is done, no information is thrown out. None of the in-camera settings for sharpness, color, contrast, white balance are used -- they are all ignored. You have a perfectly pristine copy of the scene on your memory card. Now comes the next step. We already know that in order for the photo to be viewable by other people on the web, or emailed, it must become a JPEG at some point. This step is called RAW conversion. It must be done manually, by you, on your home computer, by a piece of software called a RAW converter that comes with your camera (you can also use 3rd party RAW converters). And THAT'S the beauty of it. YOU are now in complete control of what the final JPEG will look like. Not the camera. There are many advantages of doing the RAW conversion yourself on the computer. Firstly, when you convert to JPEG on your computer, the RAW files stays in-tact and remains unchanged. You can make a hundred different versions of the JPEG from your RAW file, each one tweaked a different way, and you'll still always have the original RAW file to use again. That's why RAW files are sometimes called "digital negatives". It's the equivalent of a film negative, where you can make many prints off of one copy, and make some darker, some brighter, some more colorful, etc. Also, when you convert a RAW file on your computer (vs. in-camera) your computer processor is much more powerful than the chip in your camera. It does a better job of analyzing your picture and deciding what to throw out. You also have control over the compression-level, meaning you can compress it only a little bit, keeping a lot of detail (but resulting in a larger file), or compressing a lot, and having a nice small file to email. You make the choice. The same goes for all the settings like sharpness, saturation, contrast, white balance, etc. You can look on the nice large computer monitor and decide on exactly how much sharpness you want, how much color, etc by simply moving some sliders on the screen. You can see instantly how each slider affects the picture. You can change the white balance AFTER-THE-FACT so that when you get home, you can see that maybe the "Sunny" setting looks better than the "Cloudy" setting after all. Once you have the picture looking exactly how you like it, you press the "convert" button, and voila, you have your final JPEG exactly as you want it. And if you change your mind about the saturation or sharpness a week later, simply go back into the RAW converter, tweak the settings, and make a new JPEG. You always have the option of having the photos exactly how you want them. JPEGs have all this information permanently burned into the picture. If you shoot in JPEG, and accidentally had the white-balance set to Sunny and you took pictures at your daughter's birthday party of her blowing out candles in the dark, that picture is ruined, and the moment is lost. The wrong white-balance would have been permanently burned into the JPEG. Sure you could try to rescue it in Photoshop, but it's not the same, and the quality will be terrible. If you'd shot RAW, you just change the white-balance in the RAW converter to Candle, and the picture is perfect.

In addition, you can use the RAW converter to convert to other formats besides just JPEG. For example, I convert to TIF files for editing. I use the RAW converter to make a TIF file which I can open in Paint Shop Pro. TIF files, like RAW files, are not compressed -- no information has been thrown out. So I convert to TIF and then edit in Paint Shop Pro to do my cropping, converting to Black & White, etc. on the TIF file. This way, I'm working with ALL the information and detail that was in the original picture. When that editing has all been done, then I convert the TIF file to the final JPEG to be used to post to the web or emailed or printed.

You may ask, well why would anybody shoot JPEG then? It's simple. Time. It's quicker. If someone doesn't have the time or desire to do the RAW conversion, then they shoot JPEG. (It also used to be that because JPEGs were smaller than RAW files, you could get away with buying smaller memory cards, but prices have come down so much on memory this is not really that much of a factor anymore). My question is: if you took all that time to set up and shoot the perfect picture, don't you want to take the time to get the best end result? If so, for all the reasons above, RAW is the way to go.

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.

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

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

Best,
Paul

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


21Feb/09Off

Photographing Lightning Storms

A few people have asked me about how to shoot lightning storms, so I thought I'd put up a post with some pointers. The good news is that you don't have to have super-fast reflexes and try to press the shutter when you think lightning is about to strike, and it doesn't require any expensive special equipment like a lightning trigger. The only thing you'll need is a remote shutter release, which you can pick up for $20 or less, and you'll probably want one anyway for all long exposure shots whenever you're out shooting, day or night. Here's the procedure for lightning:

* First and foremost, the process simply involves keeping the shutter open for a long time, and closing it once you see a lightning strike. That's really it. Now you just have to work out the settings so the picture will actually be exposed correctly.

* Set the ISO to 100.

* The first step is to determine the best aperture to use for the ambient light wherever you're shooting. The aperture setting will be very different in a city environment where there is a lot of ambient light vs. out in the desert in Arizona, where there is virtually none.

* You're going to want to set the Aperture closed down enough so that you can have the shutter open for about 20 seconds before the ambient light overexposes the whole photo, but open enough that you still get some foreground picked up after about five seconds. For example, in NYC, from a balcony in a high-rise building, if you set the aperture to about F7.1 to F8.0, you can keep the shutter open for about 20 seconds and the "city itself" will look pretty good. It doesn't have to be perfect, since the primary subject will be the lightning, but you want it to be "good". With an aperture any wider than 7.1, too much light enters the camera and you're overexposed in about 10 seconds, which is too quick. If the aperture is closed down more than F11, the picture will be too dark and you won't capture any of the city, unless you keep the shutter open for 30+ seconds, which is too long. The sweet spot around F7 is just enough to allow you to keep the shutter open for about 20 seconds. To do your testing to set the right aperture for your location, first set the camera's shutter speed to "B" or "Bulb" mode. Just about every D-SLR has bulb mode -- you usually get to it by setting to the longest shutter speed you have, and then going one more. That's Bulb. Once your camera is set to Bulb, this is where the remote shutter release comes in. The remote probably has just one button. When the camera is in Bulb mode, you press the button once to open the shutter, wait as long as you want while the shutter stays open, and you press the button again to close it. Set the aperture on your camera to about F8, press the remote button once, wait about 20 seconds, then press the button to close the shutter. Take a look at the picture on the LCD. Is it dark? If so open the aperture to F5.6 and repeat the process. If it's too bright, close down the aperture until the setting you're in looks good at about a 20 second exposure. Now you're ready for the lightning...

* This is the easy part. Use your widest lens and point in the general direction of where you see lightning strikes. Press the remote button to open the shutter and wait. If you see lightning strike, immediately close the shutter and you're done. The best result will happen if the lightning strikes between 10 and 15 seconds after you've opened the shutter, so that some ambient light will have entered the camera and you'll have captured the location, but the sky will still be dark enough to show off the lightning. If no lightning strikes after the shutter has been open for about 20 seconds, press the button, erase that frame, and start again (if you have enough space on your memory card, you may want to erase all the shots at the end, so you don't miss a strike while you're busy erasing). If the lightning is particularly far away, you may need a wider aperture, and then you'll have to keep the shutter to shorter speeds (10 seconds). These settings are meant to be a general guideline, and to get you familiar with the "procedure", rather than to specify exact settings. All situations and locations will be different, and you'll have to adjust the settings as necessary to get the best result.

Lastly, don't forget to always be safe when in storm conditions. You'll always have another opportunity...

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

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

Best,
Paul

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


21Feb/09Off

Choosing the best Focal Length for a photo


Tropical and Coastal Stock Photography - Images by Paul Timpa

Today's discussion revolves around focal length. While most of us are familiar with "zooming in" or selecting a longer lens to make our subject larger, or zooming out to "go wide" there is actually a more subtle, but in my opinion far more important effect of focal length, that should be thought about every time you take a photo and select a focal length or lens:

From a "photographic" perspective, it is focal length that determines how much distance appears between two objects that are at different distances from you (such as a flower in front of you and a mountain behind the flower). The actual distance between the two objects in "real life" is irrelevant and has no bearing on the photo. Through the "laws of optics" it is entirely up to you to set the distance between two objects, and you can set it however you like. That's why it's so important to recognize this every time you take a shot. Let's use a real life example to make it clearer:

Say you're in a field and there's a beautiful sunflower about 10 feet in front of you. Behind the sunflower, about a mile back, is a mountain. It is only to your eyes that the distance between the flower and the mountain appears to be a mile -- the camera can see that distance however it wants, longer or shorter, depending on how you set it. (FYI, if you put a 50mm lens on your camera (that's 50mm in 35mm format...it's about 30mm in a non-full-frame D-SLR), that 50mm lens will cause the distance in the photo to appear about the same as your eyes (about a mile). That's why the 50mm lens is often called the "normal" lens -- because it sees distance the same as you would "normally" with your eyes. Now here's where things get creative -- any other lens besides 50mm will actually completely change the appearance of that distance between the flower and the mountain. The wider you "zoom out", the more the distance between the flower and the mountain is visibly "stretched". The more you "zoom in" the closer the distance between the two. The key here is that you must move your body by walking closer or farther to keep the flower the same size in the frame. For instance, if your starting position is 10 feet away from the flower and you zoom out, the flower will get very small, so you'll have to walk closer to the flower to keep it the same size in the picture. However, because you've zoomed out, the optical properties of the lens will cause the distance between the mountain and the flower in the photo to have greatly increased. While the photo taken at 50mm will have it appear that the mountain is a mile away, the exact same photo taken at 10mm will have the mountain look many many miles away -- but the flower will be in the exact same spot. In fact, the mountain might be tiny, perhaps smaller than the flower now. Similarly, if you zoom in, there is the opposite effect. Let's say you decide to shoot at 200mm. Of course, you will need to step pretty far back from the flower to keep it the same size in the frame. Maybe many yards/meters away. When you look at the final photo, the mountain that previously appeared to be a mile away when you shot at 50mm, may now appear to be right on top of the flower, perhaps just behind it by a few feet. This is the magic of focal length. This may come into play in almost any photo you take. If you're taking a picture of a friend or spouse, it is entirely up to you to decide what you want behind your subject. If you're in a city, you can make it appear that an entire cityscape is behind them by zooming out and stepping closer, or you can zoom in, step far away, and put them practically inside one building! It's really up to you. My advice is to think about this every time you click the shutter. Think about the subject and the background, and how you want each to appear, and make a conscious choice. That's what photography is all about!

FYI, you can try this right from your living room. Place a glass of water on a coffee table and stand so that whatever is behind the glass is at least a few feet away. Zoom to your widest lens setting and frame the shot so that the bottom of the glass is as the bottom of the picture, and the top of the glass is about halfway up the frame. Make sure you can see what's behind the glass and re-adjust your position in the room as necessary. Take the shot. Now we'll take a 2nd shot. Zoom in to your longest focal length and frame the picture the same way by putting the bottom of the glass at the bottom of the picture, and the top of the glass about half-way. When you're zoomed in, you may have to step quite a ways back, probably up against a wall. If you can't get back far enough, just zoom out a little until the glass is halfway up the frame. Take the shot. Now compare the two shots on your LCD. The glass of water should look exactly the same, but the background in the second one will be much much closer.

Fun Fact: Did you ever wonder why professional photographers who shoot models (say for Sports Illustrated calendars or advertisements) shoot with these incredibly long lenses from half way across the beach? It's because "zooming in" and shooting with a long focal length as described above compresses distance...and they're actually compressing the model's face. By shooting at a long focal length like 200mm, you are making the tip of the nose appear closer to the rest of the face (than it is in real life), making the nose smaller, which is usually considered flattering. That's why the "portrait lens" is generally 85mm to 135mm (way more than 50mm!). To use this to your advantage, always try to take photos of people from a reasonably far distance at one of those longer focal lengths (zoomed in). It makes a big difference!

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, please feel free to let me know...

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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

Best,
Paul

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

21Feb/09Off

Welcome to Paul Timpa Photography's Blog

Snorkeling in Moorea, French Polynesia

Snorkeling in Moorea, French Polynesia

Welcome to Paul Timpa Photography!  This is my Wordpress blog for TimpaPhotography.com.   http://www.timpaphotography.com/

I’m a New York City based photographer who captures high-impact images of travel and architecture for advertising, publishing, and corporate clients.  My style often incorporates long exposures, dramatic lighting, and unique viewpoints to bring out the beauty of the locations I shoot.

I'm also the designer of the iPhone app Photography Trainer for iPhone and iPod Touch

Thanks for visiting...

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

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

Best,

Paul

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

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