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

26Dec/11Off

Learn How to Use that New Camera you received this Holiday Season

Many people received the wonderful gift of photography this holiday season. If you're one of the lucky ones and are now the proud owner of a new D-SLR or lens, you're probably excited to start taking magical pictures!

Once you've played around with it for a bit and taken some photos on auto-mode, remember that it's the Manual mode on your new camera that really lets you take creative pictures. It's easy to learn, and if you have an iPhone or Android phone you can get download an app that will teach you how to use your camera.

The Photography Trainer app for iPhone and Android is a training tool that teaches you photography when you need it most -- when you're out with your D-SLR and taking pictures. Over 50,000 people have downloaded the app and learned how to use their D-SLRS!

The app doesn't require an internet connection, so it’s perfect for vacations and holidays too – learn photography no matter where you are in the world, whether it’s during a beautiful sunset on the beach or while you’re on a mountain top.

You’ll learn how to capture images with impact and creativity by understanding shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and how they all work together. Learn night and low-light photography, sports, wildlife, portraits, architecture, and landscape photography. You'll always have an expert with you in your pocket, there to help you take spectacular photos.

iPhone and iPod Touch users can download the app by searching on Photography Trainer in the App Store or clicking here to download from iTunes.

To download the app for Android, just search on "Photography Trainer" in the Android Market from your phone or click here: Download Photography Trainer for Android.

The app is also available on the Amazon.com Android App Store. To download with your Amazon account, click here: Download Photography Trainer from Amazon.com.

The app has three sections designed to help you:

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

The Interactive Photography Trainer asks you questions about the lighting you’re in, what types of subjects you’re photographing (waterfalls, sports, city skylines, etc.) and then it guides you on how to set the camera. Most importantly, not only does it instruct you on the best settings to use, it tells you *why* to use them so that you actually learn photography in the process of using the app.

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

The Photo Gallery with Camera Settings contains dozens of professional photographs, each with detailed camera settings for shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, so you can see how the settings work together in real-life examples.

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

The In-Depth Techniques section has photography tutorials that go into further detail on topics such as:

* Getting razor-sharp photos
* HDR Photography
* Night photography
* Sports, Action, and Wildlife
* Composition
…and more…

Take your photography to the next level with the Photography Trainer and learn when you’re out with your camera – it’s the best time.

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/PhotographyTrainer

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


Best regards,
Paul

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

Tahiti

Tahiti

South Street Seaport, New York City

South Street Seaport, New York City




29Jun/10Off

How to Photograph Fireworks

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

With 4th of July in the Unites States coming up as well as other celebrations all around the world, I’ve written this tutorial on how to photograph fireworks.

Taking pictures of fireworks is a relatively easy process, and you can get some amazing photos. While it does take a small bit of experimentation to get the settings just right, once the camera is all set, you can just sit back and enjoy the show.

For the best photos of fireworks, you’ll want to use a tripod or rest the camera on something steady. To really capture the impact of the streaks of light, exposures of a few seconds are required, and that’s too long to hold the camera steady in your hands. If you have a shutter release cable that triggers the shutter, you may want to use that too so you don’t have to touch the camera with your finger to take the picture. Touching the camera can result in blurry shots. That being said, I’ve also included tips on how to photograph fireworks without a tripod at the bottom of this post.

One of the most important tips I can give for fireworks photography is to use manual focus. Autofocus doesn’t really work on fireworks and will often give you totally out-of-focus pictures. To set the focus of your lens for fireworks, temporarily use autofocus to focus on the farthest object from you (for example a distant building). This will set the focus on your lens to infinity. Then simply use the switch on the lens barrel to switch the lens to manual focus, and you’re all set. All of the fireworks will now be in focus. Note: Once you’ve switched to manual focus, it’s important to avoid accidentally touching the focus ring on the lens as you move the camera around, or all your photos will be out of focus. Periodically double-check the sharpness of the fireworks on the camera’s LCD screen.

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

Make sure the flash is off for all photos. Flash will have no impact on the fireworks, and will only illuminate the backs of the heads of other spectators, making the fireworks appear darker.

Once focus is set and the flash if off, it’s time to aim the camera toward the fireworks and pick the best focal length. Point the camera in the general direction of where the fireworks will be exploding in the air. Turn the camera vertically if all the fireworks are coming from one launch spot, or keep it horizontal if the fireworks are being launched from more than one location. Check to make sure that there are no nearby streetlights or other light sources in the picture, or they will overpower the photo. For focal length, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just choosing the widest angle on your lens so you capture everything, but you may wind up with photos of a lot of black sky and very small fireworks. It’s better to zoom in a little on an area of the sky where the fireworks are going off, so that they’re larger in the frame and fill the photo with light streaks. Just be sure to double-check now and again that the fireworks going off are in the frame. One exception where a wider focal length works is if the fireworks are over water – the wider lens may allow you to capture the fireworks as well as their reflection in the water.

When you’ve successfully set the focus and the camera is pointing in the right direction, it’s time to set the exposure. You may need to experiment a little during the first few fireworks bursts to pick the right camera settings. Every situation is different, depending on your surroundings. Set the camera to Manual (M) mode since you want complete control of the exposure. Start by setting the ISO to its lowest setting, usually ISO 100 or 200. Then set the aperture to around F16. Set the shutter speed for about 2 seconds.

Now you’re ready for some test shots. When the fireworks begin, take a few test photos of the bursts. Remember to use your shutter release if you have one. Take a look at the framing of the shots and ensure the fireworks are in the photo where you want them. Look at the brightness of the fireworks and the overall photo. If the fireworks are too dark or the streaks are not long enough, increase the shutter speed to 3 or 4 seconds, or more. If the fireworks are too bright, try closing down the aperture even more. Narrow apertures (higher numbers) such as F16 and F22 will darken the fireworks to ensure they’re not overexposed. Wider apertures such as F11 and F8 will brighten the fireworks and the overall photo. Take a few test shots at various settings to see what looks best. Periodically check that the camera is still focused properly and the fireworks are sharp.

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

Tutorial: How to Photograph Fireworks

If you find yourself at a fireworks display and you don’t have a tripod or somewhere to rest the camera, it’s still possible to take photos to capture some of the action. Try these settings and experiment until you like the results: Set the camera to Manual (M) mode. Set the ISO to 800, the aperture to F5.6 or F4, and the shutter speed to 1/20th second. You should be able to get sharp shots with a shutter speed of around 1/20th or 1/30th of a second if you use an image stabilized lens at a fairly wide focal length and you hold the camera very still. If the photos are too dark or you want a faster shutter speed to ensure sharp shots, try raising the ISO even further (to ISO 1600), or if your aperture goes wider, set it to F2.8. Press the shutter at the peak of the action – that is shortly after the burst where the long streaks are still visible in the sky.

That’s all there is to it. After just a few test shots, you should have the settings exactly as you want them, and you can sit back and enjoy the show. Simply press the shutter release during particularly nice fireworks bursts, and you’ll come away with some amazing photos of the celebration. If you have any questions, please let me know.

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

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

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

7Jan/10Off

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


Italy Collection - Images by Paul Timpa

Manual Mode on your D-SLR can really help you take your photography to the next level, allowing for spectacular images and much more creative shots.  It is especially important for:

* Sunsets
* Night Photography
* Waterfalls / Rivers / Streams
* Sports / Action

Many of you who have read my previous articles have heard me mention "Manual Mode" on cameras, and how using it can really help your pictures.  I decided to write an in-depth article on the benefits of using manual mode, and why it is often actually easier to use than the automatic modes like "Aperture Priority (Av)" or "Shutter Priority (Tv)".  I hope after reading it, you too will give it a try and find that it's the easiest mode to use and also results in the best photos.

I've guest-posted this article on a colleague's blog, and you can read the full text of my article here:

http://www.digital-photography-tricks.com/manual-mode.html

As always, if you have any questions, please let me know.

Best,
Paul

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

Please feel free to share this article with Facebook friends:

Share

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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Positano, Italy, Amalfi Coast

Positano, Italy, Amalfi Coast

15Jul/09Off

Photography Tips for Compact Cameras and Point-and-Shoots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunset, NYC

Sunset, NYC

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

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

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

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

Straighter version of the photo above

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

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

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

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

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

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

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

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

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

 

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

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

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

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

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

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

Pool, Dominican Republic

Pool, Dominican Republic

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

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

Best,
Paul

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

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


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

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/

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

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