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

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

5Nov/09Off

Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Photography

Tropical and Coastal Stock Photography - Images by Paul Timpa

I’ve written several detailed articles on specific photography topics, but I thought it might be helpful to compile a “Top 10” list of ways to help you take your photography to the next level. This will help tie many of the concepts together and serve as a sort of “quick reference guide”. Feel free to print this out, fold it up, and stuff it in your pocket or camera bag for next time you’re out shooting. If you incorporate even a few of these techniques, you’ll come back with some amazing travel or landscape photos. If you were able to take pin-sharp shots every time, that were perfectly exposed, full of drama, with vibrant colors, and engaging composition, that would be a good thing! These tips will help get you there.

Note: This article is mainly for those using D-SLRs, but some of the tips apply to compact cameras as well. D-SLRs are very powerful cameras. Because of the large physical size of their lenses and sensors (“digital film”), they’re capable of taking photographs that a compact camera cannot take. Add to that the full manual control over the exposure settings, and you can take extremely creative images.

So, let’s get right into it. Try to use some of the items below on your next shoot, and I think you’ll see a tremendous improvement in your pictures.

1) Learn to use “Manual” or “M” mode on your camera, instead of Program Mode (P), Aperture Priority (Av), or Shutter Priority (Tv). It may seem complicated, but it's really easy. In fact, I personally find manual mode to be EASIER to use than the automatic modes! This is because I'm not always wondering what the camera is up to and trying to override the decisions it makes in automatic. Here's an analogy I like to use: Which is easier? --> driving a car where you control both the steering and the speed, or driving a car where you control the steering but a friend controls the speed, and if your friend doesn't get the speed right, you have to start telling him how to correct it, hoping he gets it right. For me, it's much easier just to control both. Trust me, with just a tiny bit of practice, you'll be very comfortable using manual mode, and may even like it better than the automatic modes too.

There are two main reasons for using manual mode. Firstly, it forces you to choose a specific shutter speed and aperture. Both items will need to be manually chosen by you, which is a good thing, because you then have to think about what you’re trying to achieve creatively and stylistically with those choices. Using any of the other modes mentioned above causes the camera to choose at least one of those two items (shutter speed or aperture) if not both. Because background blur / depth of field and the representation of movement in a photo are directly controlled by the aperture and shutter speed chosen, it’s critical to select exactly what they are so you get the effect you’re looking for. The second reason to use manual mode is because on any other mode, the camera is choosing the exposure for you, meaning how dark or bright the photo is. The camera uses a technique where it tries to “guess” the correct exposure, but it’s just a guess. Sometimes it’s correct, and sometimes it’s not. The only way to ensure a correct exposure is to set it yourself. For more detail on how the camera makes its guess at the exposure and a great example of when / why to use manual mode, feel free to see this separate article I wrote on the topic:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/blog/2009/08/how-to-take-sunset-portraits-indoor-portraits-about-your-cameras-light-meter/

 
2) Incorporate “Long Exposures” into your photography. One of the greatest things about photography is its ability to convey motion in a still image, and one of the most creative ways to show this motion is through the use of long exposures (using a long shutter speed). From flowing water, to car trails and star trails, to just people walking, long exposures can create magic in your photography.


[The photo above of Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange was taken with a long shutter speed on a tripod to blur the people walking]

You’ll need a tripod or something steady to rest the camera on for this technique, because it’s not possible to physically hold the camera still for the duration of the long exposures. Moving the camera would result in blurry photos. Important: You should also use the 10-second self timer to take the shot, as touching the camera to press the shutter button will shake it enough to cause a blurry shot. Better yet, you can buy an inexpensive remote control to trigger the shutter, which allows you more control over when the shutter is clicked. To use this long exposure technique, set the camera up on a tripod or steady object, and choose a long exposure like 2 seconds, 5 seconds, or even 30 seconds. This shutter speed will result in a very bright shot, so set the aperture to something small (a big number) like F16 or F18, which will darken the picture and bring it back to normal brightness. If the photo is still too bright even with the smallest aperture, you can use a Neutral Density filter, which acts like “sunglasses” for your lens, and darkens the picture. Try this technique on water, cars at night, busy streets, etc. and you’ll see some amazing images. A great time to experiment with long exposures is at night, where you don’t have to concern yourself with the pictures coming out too bright. Some of the most stunningly beautiful photography is taken at night, and almost all requires the use of long exposures. At night, set your camera on a tripod or something steady, set your aperture to F5.6 and your shutter speed to around 5 seconds, and make sure to use the self-timer so that you don’t physically have to touch the shutter button. Experiment with the shutter speed to get the correct brightness. You’ll be amazed at the images you can produce with this simple technique.


[The photo above of the Brooklyn Bridge at Night, NYC, was taken with a long exposure] 

 
3) Use wide apertures. A wide aperture is what creates that beautiful background blur and makes your subject “pop”. There is just something special about a photo taken with a really wide aperture that makes it stand out. Whenever you see a portrait and the person is pin sharp, but the background is just a creamy wash of color, it just looks “professional”. This is also one of the things that a compact camera simply cannot do, because it’s a physical limitation of the size of compact cameras. On a D-SLR it’s possible to get beautiful background blur when you use a wide aperture. To further increase the amount of blur, use a longer focal length (zoom in) because longer focal lengths provide more background blur than wide-angle focal lengths. Standing close to your subject also increases the effect. The next time you’re out, set your camera to an aperture of F4 or wider (smaller number like F2.8 for F1.8), zoom all the way in, and try taking some creative portraits or landscapes.


[The photo above of a Pina Colada on a Caribbean beach was taken with a wide aperture to blur the background]
 

4) Keep horizons level and verticals straight. This one is easy, but it can make such a huge difference in the perception of your pictures. You could take the most amazing landscape photo, perfectly in focus with a great exposure, but if the horizon is crooked and slanted, the photo will look amateur. Always do your best to make sure the horizon is level when you take a shot. If it’s not, it’s a relatively easy correction in most editing software, and it takes less than 10 seconds to fix. It may sound silly, but it makes a huge difference. (Of course if you’re intentionally slanting the horizon for some kind of creative effect, that’s something different). As for “verticals”, that’s something that’s a little more difficult to control. When I say verticals, I’m just referring to any perfectly vertical lines in a photo like the sides of buildings, or walls, or lampposts, or anything that runs straight up and down. You get slanted verticals when you point the camera up or down, versus keeping it pointed straight ahead. This is why it’s so common in photos of buildings and architecture… you tilt the camera upward to include the top of the building in the photo and this causes the sides of the building to tilt inward. So how do you fix it? There are a couple of ways. Firstly, try not to tilt the camera. If you don’t think you’ll be printing the picture at a large size, then you can keep the camera level and zoom out wide with your lens to include the top of the building. Then you can just crop out the foreground later which will have the “effect of zooming back in”, except the final picture will have nice straight verticals. If the widest focal length still doesn’t capture the top of the building, you can try to see if you can take the photo from a higher spot like a nearby stairway. This way you might be able to get the top without tilting the camera upward. If none of those works, you can correct it in your editing software using the perspective control features. (For some situations, this may be the easiest way). Lastly, if you take a lot of architecture photos, you can invest in a Tilt / Shift lens (a.k.a. perspective control or PC lens), which allows you take photos of tall buildings without tilting the camera (I have one and I use it all the time). Level horizons and straight verticals really add a level of professionalism to your photos.

 
5) Rule of Thirds. The “Rule of Thirds” is a guideline to help with the composition of your photos – that is, where you place objects within the picture. The basic principle of this guideline is that you should avoid putting the subject of your photo directly in the center of the picture. For example, if you’re taking a picture of an ocean scene, rather than putting the horizon directly in the middle of the picture with the top half of the photo consisting of sky and the bottom half consisting of the land/ocean, think about putting the horizon in a different spot. The Rule of Thirds suggests that it’s more visibly pleasing to have main objects in your picture 1/3rd of the way from the top or bottom, or 1/3rd from the left and right, rather than splitting the picture in half. For instance, for the ocean shot, if the waves of the ocean are especially captivating, you can fill the bottom 2/3rds of the frame with the ocean and the top 1/3rd of the frame with the sky. This tells the viewer that the main point of interest is the ocean and its waves. On the other hand, if the sky is very dramatic, you could do the opposite and fill the top 2/3rds of the photo with the sky and clouds, and the bottom 1/3rd with the ocean. For people shots, consider putting the person 1/3rd in from the left or right, rather than right in the middle. For a sunset, rather than placing the sun directly in the middle of the photo, try placing it 1/3rd from the top and 1/3rd from the left. You’ll see that your pictures actually feel more “balanced” that way because the subject is not cutting your photo in half, leaving your eye bouncing around both halves not knowing which is more important.

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

 
6) Take sharp shots. It’s so common to capture what could have been a great image, but it’s ruined because it’s blurry. I’ve written an article dedicated to the topic of taking sharp shots, and I’ll include the link below. To summarize, the most important thing to remember is to use a shutter speed that is fast enough to combat the camera shake that causes blurry photos. My rule, which is conservative, is to double the focal length to determine my minimum shutter speed. This is especially true at longer focal lengths. So for instance, for a shot with the lens zoomed to 100mm, the shutter speed has to be at least 1/200th second. For a focal length at 200mm, the shutter has to be at least 1/400th second, and so on. If you do this, you’ll get a lot more “keepers”. If you have a lens with Image Stabilization or Anti-Shake, you have a little more freedom. Even so, I then shoot at a shutter speed equal to the focal length, so for an image-stabilized lens at 150mm, I’d shoot at 1/150th a second or faster. If you’re in a situation where you need a longer shutter speed than the guideline above allows, because the photo is too dark at faster shutter speeds, it’s simple: use a tripod or rest the camera on something steady. Alternatively, for “snapshots” you can try raising the ISO, but for important pictures, I wouldn’t recommend going above ISO 400 or 800 if using a tripod is an option. The other way to help ensure sharp pictures is to make sure the camera is focused properly. I recommend using only the center focus point, because if you use all the focus points, it’s much easier for the camera to accidentally focus on something you didn’t intend. I’d say more otherwise good photos are ruined because of lack of sharpness than any other technical problem. If you concentrate on getting this right, you’ll be well on your way to taking many more great images. More detail on getting sharp photos can be found in my article on this topic:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/blog/2009/03/taking-sharp-photos-avoiding-blurring-pictures/

 
7) Get creative with Flash. It’s all too easy to just use the flash only at night, by setting the camera to program mode and popping the flash to illuminate your subject. This will get you decent-to-mediocre results, but with a just a small bit of effort, you can take your flash pictures to a whole new level of creativity. Here are a few tips.

Firstly, learn to use Flash Exposure Compensation. This simply controls how powerful the light from the flash is, making it brighter or darker as necessary. This is probably the easiest technique to use, and can greatly improve flash results. In your camera’s settings, there will be a setting for Flash Exposure Compensation. You can change the flash exposure, usually in a range from about -2 to +2 stops. When you do this, the camera adjusts the power of the flash accordingly. It can be very useful in many situations. You may have seen or taken photographs where the flash power is just way too bright. This sometimes happens with portraits when you take pictures from close up. Because you’re close to the subject, the flash power is too bright, making faces appear white or washed out. In this case, simply set FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation) to a negative number like -1 or -2, and take the shot again. You’ll see the lower flash output produces a much more natural result. Similarly, if your subject is very far away, you may want to increase the flash output so that it reaches your subject. You can do this by changing the FEC to +1 or +2 or any number that works for you.

Another important time to use flash is during the day when there is bright sunlight. The bright sun can produce harsh shadows on your subject. The shadows are even darker and more pronounced if the sun is behind your subject. In these cases, it can really help to use flash. Pop the flash and set the Flash Exposure Compensation to -1 (so that it provides just a hint of fill-light) and you’ll see how much better your outdoor photos will look. I often use flash outside during the day.

Finally, you can start to use flash along with your camera’s Manual exposure mode, to capture amazing night images and portraits. For example, for a photo of a person in front of a nighttime city skyline, you can follow these steps: turn off the flash and set the exposure manually for the background, in this case the nighttime city skyline. Once you have the city skyline correctly exposed in Manual Mode, pop the flash to illuminate your subject. You will get a perfectly exposed subject as well as a perfectly exposed background. Use Flash Exposure Compensation to tweak the brightness of the flash if necessary.

 
8) Shoot in RAW mode, instead of JPEGs. Shooting your pictures using your camera’s RAW mode, vs. shooting JPEGs, will greatly affect the final look of your pictures for the better. You may have already seen my detailed article on this topic (I’ll put the link below), but to summarize: Shooting in RAW gives you the flexibility to adjust the contrast, saturation, sharpness, and white balance “after” the photo is taken. These elements are absolutely critical to the final look of your photo. When you take a photo using your camera’s JPEG mode, the settings for saturation, sharpness, contrast, and white balance are “burned into” the picture permanently and cannot be changed. The only way to adjust these after the fact is if you tried to manipulate the image in Photoshop or some other editing program, which could severely degrade the quality of your photo. Further, shooting in RAW provides a higher-quality picture because the photo is not “compressed” to make the file size smaller, like it is with JPEGs. If you want to take your photography to the next level, you really should be shooting in RAW. I often get asked about the vibrant colors in my photos – it’s from shooting in RAW. More detail on shooting in RAW can be found in my article on RAW vs. JPEG:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/blog/2009/02/shooting-in-raw-vs-jpeg/

 
9) Use filters. There is still a place for filters in your camera bag, even in the digital age where images can be edited in Photoshop. Photoshop will never be able to blur a waterfall (not realistically, anyway) or remove glare from the ocean. This is where filters come in, and they can make a wonderful impact on your photos. The #1 filter that every photographer should have is the polarizer. It’s easy to use and can have a great impact on your photos. A polarizer reduces reflections, which has a couple of beneficial effects on your photos. For daytime shots, blue skies get deep blue and beautifully saturated, and clouds really pop. For distant objects, a polarizer cuts through the haze. On water, a polarizer reduces reflections on the surface of the water, allowing you to see what’s beneath the surface.


[The photo above of a woman snorkeling in Tahiti was taken with a polarizer to remove reflections from the surface of the ocean]

It also reduces reflections of water droplets on leaves and foliage, increasing saturation. For glass and other reflective objects, reflections are removed allowing you to see through the object. I use it especially in tropical locations with gorgeous turquoise water, to cut the glare, allowing you to see the coral and ocean life below.

Another type of filter is the Neutral Density filter. “ND” filters reduce the amount of light that goes through the lens (much like a pair of sunglasses reduces light getting to your eye), effectively darkening the photo. This allows you to use long shutter speeds during the day or at night, without the picture getting too bright. The long shutter speeds will allow for fantastic motion blur effects, and are necessary to blur moving water and waterfall photos that are taken during the day.


[The photo above of a waterfall in Costa Rica was taken with a Neutral Density filter to allow for a long exposure during bright daylight conditions]

A twist on the ND filter is the Graduated ND filter, which reduces the amount of light going through the lens, but only for a portion of the picture (for example, just the top half). This is useful for sunrises / sunsets or any scene where half the picture is very bright and the other half is darker. You simply place the dark half of the filter over the bright part of the scene to even up the lighting for a perfect exposure. For more info on filters and how to use them, I wrote a more detailed article here:

http://www.timpaphotography.com/blog/2009/07/camera-filters-for-photography/

 
10) Shoot in the right light. This is one of the most important, though “abstract” tips. Truly understanding this principle is possibly the single most fundamental technique that will improve your photography. Shoot in the right light. Think about it – you’re not “really” photographing an object. You’re photographing light. Here’s a very oversimplified example that will illustrate what I’m talking about. Go on a beach and take a picture at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Return at midnight to the same spot and take the same picture at night. Do they look the same? Of course not. The beach itself is exactly the same, but the “light” is different. Yet you have two wildly, drastically different photographs, even though the location and the subject is identical. It is critical to think about that and understand that as a photographer. Whenever you’re shooting travel or landscape photography, think about the fact that you are shooting the light, and not “just” the object. Decide on the quality of light you want to shoot, that is, how bright, how dark, is it sunlit, moonlit, from what direction, etc. Then go take your photographs when the light is right. You may have heard the term “golden hour” used by photographers. This refers to the light you get outdoors just before/after sunrise and just before/after sunset. This is generally some of the best light to shoot in, because you get beautiful golden sunlight cast on your subject from an angle (which brings out texture), the scene is not too bright so you don’t have harsh shadows, and the sky is deep and saturated with a multitude of colors from golden yellows, reds, and oranges to deep blues and purples. Shooting in the right light can transform an ordinary photo into something special.

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Taking properly exposed, pin-sharp photos that are full of drama, with vibrant colors and engaging composition can be possible if you just keep in mind these few simple tips the next time you’re out shooting. Have fun, and as always, please feel free to let me know if you have any questions.

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

Please feel free to share this tutorial with your 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/

 

New York City Stock Photos - Images by Paul Timpa

Photos used in this posting:

Wall Street and New York Stock Exchange, New York Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000Kw_9_puecYo

Brooklyn Bridge at Night, New York Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000LjU_W9RRIvQ

Pina Colada on Caribbean Beach, Tropical Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000U3N.juBas0o

Tahiti, Snorkeling in Lagoon, Tropical Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000kd9OAeUvqKc

Costa Rica Waterfall, Tropical Stock Photos:
http://pa.photoshelter.com/image/I0000iansaqXbPO8

18Aug/09Off

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

Sunrise over Tahiti

Sunrise over Tahiti

I’m writing this brief tutorial on how to take sunset portraits, since it was inspired by a “real life” situation that occurred on a fun trip this past weekend.  Hopefully it can help some other people too.  This article also goes into detail on how your light meter works, and a technique for using flash.

This past weekend we were on a small vacation, and decided to take a sunset cruise on a sailboat around the island we were on.  A nice young couple that was on the boat with us asked me if I could take a picture of them with the sun setting behind them.  They had a D-SLR, and I took the picture with the settings that were already set up on the camera, in this case “Auto Mode”, where the camera chooses the aperture and shutter speed based on the lighting.  I took the photo and the couple looked great, but the beautiful colors of the sunset were completely gone, and replaced with an almost white / gray background.  I asked the couple if they minded if I adjusted the settings on the camera a bit, and less than a few seconds later, I took another shot that looked completely different.  The colors of the sunset were back, beautifully saturated, and the photo looked great.  The couple was really pleased and of course I showed them how I did it, and they couldn’t believe how easy it was.

So what was the problem with the first shot that caused the sunset to disappear into a white patch?  It was the use of Auto Mode.  Many of you who have read my other articles already know how much I stress the importance of learning to use Manual mode, and using it as much as possible.  This is a perfect example.  Let’s discuss why Auto mode doesn’t work here…

When you take a picture on Auto mode, the computer chip inside a camera measures the light in order to determine how bright to make the photo, but it has no idea what it is looking at.  It takes a guess.  The computer is specifically set to take all pictures at a “medium brightness” level because “most” scenes we encounter are taken in medium lighting (not too dark, not too bright).  So it automatically selects a shutter speed and aperture that will result in a medium-brightness photo.  This works in many cases, but definitely not all.  If you always used Auto mode for every photo you took, there would be many photos incorrectly exposed, as was the case in the sunset picture.  The reason in this case is this: except for the sun itself (the bright ball that is actually the sun), a sunset is fairly dark.  Think about it… it’s almost night.  When you try to take a picture of a sunset on Auto Mode, the camera’s light meter measures the light and sees that it’s fairly “dark” outside.  As mentioned before, the computer chip in the camera is programmed to take all pictures at “medium” brightness… so what does it do?  It increases the brightness of the photo!  Your beautiful golden-red sunset has now been artificially brightened into a white/gray sky because the camera thinks that’s what you want.  But it isn’t what you want, and that’s why Auto Mode is not a good mode to rely on.

So how did I correct the photo?  It’s simple, I took the picture on manual mode with the sky correctly exposed.  There are two main steps: (1) Set the proper exposure for the sunset without the people in the picture and then (2) turn on the flash and add the people, then take the photo.  Here are the detailed steps:

* Switch the camera to “M” Mode (Manual)

* Turn off the flash – at this point, we are just setting the correct exposure for the sunset

* Set the ISO to 100 (you can raise this later if necessary)

* Set the Aperture to around F5.6 or F8

* Set the shutter speed to a starting test number, let’s say 1/250th second

* Without any people in the shot, take a test shot and look at the brightness of the sunset.  If it’s too bright, increase the shutter speed to 1/500th of a second and take another test shot.  Still too bright? Increase again until the sunset looks beautiful and fully saturated.  If the original test shot was too dark, then decrease the shutter speed to 1/125th second, and take a test shot.  Play with shutter speed until the sunset looks perfect.  Once you’ve got the sunset looking just right, proceed to the next step. Note: In many cameras the shutter speed may be limited to a certain speed when the flash is on. If you've raised the shutter speed to 1/250th or 1/500th and it cannot be raised further, you can close down the aperture to F11 or F16 to darken the photo if necessary.

* Turn on the flash and ask the people to step into the picture

* Take the shot… if it looks good, you’re done!  Depending on how close to the camera the people are standing, you may want to lower the flash power if their faces are very bright compared to the sunset.  This can easily be done by using the Flash Exposure Compensation feature of most cameras (see the manual for your specific camera on how to do it).

That’s all there is to it.  That simple adjustment completely changed the picture for the better, and it took me literally less than ten seconds: I switched the dial to manual mode, checked the ISO an aperture which were fine as-is, and I set a faster shutter speed that kept the sunset a beautiful golden red.

The reason why this works is because in Manual mode, the exposure of the background (the sky and sunset) and the exposure of the people (with the flash) are two completely separate things.  The exposure of the sunset itself is determined by you with the shutter speed.  The exposure of the people is determined by circuitry in the flash unit, which generally does a fairly good job of setting the flash at the proper brightness.  This “separation” allows you to control the relative brightness of the background vs. the people in the foreground independently. The reason I went into so much detail here is not so that you can take beautiful sunset pictures, but because it’s important to understand the underlying principles of how the camera works.  Understanding that the camera’s light meter is measuring with the intent to make all pictures “medium brightness” is fundamental to getting the correct exposure.  For this same reason, a picture of bright white snow will come out as a dull gray when a camera is on Auto mode.  The camera sees the bright white snow, says to itself “this is too bright” and then artificially darkens it to a medium brightness, which in this case would be a gray.  Also, the principle that in Manual mode, the background exposure is separate from the flash exposure is also important, not just for sunsets.  For example, in indoor shots, this is very useful.  We’ve all seen shots taken with the flash indoors, where the area behind the people is completely black – informally called the “cave effect” because it looks like the people are in a dark cave.  When you understand that the exposure for the room itself is controlled with shutter speed / aperture, you can follow the steps above and (1) turn off the flash, (2) adjust the shutter speed so the room is exposed properly and then (3) turn on the flash and have your friends enter the picture. This will allow you to take much more creative photos with incredible impact. For the photo below of the couple holding hands, I adjusted the exposure for the background, and then turned on the flash to ensure their hands were not in shadow.

Holding Hands in Bora Bora
Holding Hands in Bora Bora

[Click here to purchase this photo as a Print or Stock License]

Using these techniques, you can take much more powerful photos.

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

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

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,
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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

16Jul/09Off

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

Sunrise Flight

Sunrise Flight

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

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

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

Derek Jeter sliding into 2nd base

Derek Jeter sliding into 2nd base

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

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

Bellagio, Las Vegas

Bellagio, Las Vegas

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

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

Skiing -- Taking Photos of Fast Moving Subjects

Skiing -- Taking Photos of Fast Moving Subjects

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

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

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

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

Cat jumping for her toy

Cat jumping for her toy

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

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

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

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

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

Colosseum, Rome, Italy

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

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

Rockefeller Center at Christmas, NYC

Rockefeller Center at Christmas, NYC

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

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

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

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

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

Carousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris

Carousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris

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


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

Photography Trainer for iOS and Android

 
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Thanks for reading, and best regards,
Paul

 
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Copyright 2014, Paul Timpa

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


15Jul/09Off

Photography Tips for Compact Cameras and Point-and-Shoots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunset, NYC

Sunset, NYC

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

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

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

Walls are pointing inward because camera is tilted upwards

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

Straighter version of the photo above

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

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

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

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

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

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island with Rule of Thirds Grid

Newport, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

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

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

South Street Seaport, NYC

South Street Seaport, NYC

 

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

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

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

Taxi, Times Square, NYC

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

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

Cherries, Union Square Farmers Market, NYC

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

Pool, Dominican Republic

Pool, Dominican Republic

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

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

Best,
Paul

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

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


6Jul/09Off

Camera Lens Filters for Photography

Waterfall, Costa Rica

Waterfall, Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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

Best,
Paul

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

Paul Timpa Photography's Facebook Page

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/

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

http://www.timpaphotography.com/purchase

Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa


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

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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/

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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/

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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