Cats in Windows, A lesson in back-lighting

Zeb with fill flash. Check out the great rim lighting on his fluffy tail!

Cats love windows. They can spend hours watching the world fly by or basking in the warm rays of the sun. They are so very cute and snugly and you just want to capture an image of them, but the lighting is against you. So what’s a photographer to do?

Back lighting is a tricky shooting situation, one you’ll often run into with many different subjects. The problem is that the light is behind the subject, not illuminating it, so the subject is in shadow. You would prefer light shining on your subject, but the silly cat wants to sit in the window! So we’ll look at several options you can try to capture your beautiful cat or any back lit subject.

Exposure Review

First let’s briefly review exposure. When you frame an image in the view finder, the camera averages all of the reflected or direct light in the frame. It then sets an aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get the exposure or end result. In the manual modes, you control one or all of these settings, but there are only certain combinations that will give the results you want.  If you’re a beginner, the camera will choose for you.

The exposure varies widely depending on how much of the subject you have in the frame vs how much brightly lit background you have included. The less of the bright background included, the better.

I recommend reviewing how to use exposure compensation in the owners manual if you are not savvy with your camera settings.

Now for those tips for dealing with back-lighting!

Fill Flash (Beginner & Advanced)

The simplest thing to do is pop up the flash, which gives you fill lighting. The flash lights up the shadow areas on the subject so they show up against the bright background. It’s magic! The camera automatically figures out how much light to fire from the flash, so this is a great starting point for the beginner. However, it does not allow you to control the background exposure which will vary widely from really blown out to slightly blown out depending on how bright it is.

Buggs with fill flash

If you want to control the background exposure, you need to know how to set exposure in the manual modes. Use the camera meter to set an exposure for the background and then pop up the flash. This gives you a properly exposed background and subject.

Background exposure set to +1 and fill flash

Expose for the Subject (Beginner & Advanced)

The most important part of any image is the subject. So if you have bad lighting, expose for the subject and let the background do whatever it’s going to do. There are two ways to do this, the precise method and the zen method. For precision, change the metering method to spot metering. Meter the subject and set the exposure using manual mode or exposure lock in aperture or shutter priority. This is for advanced camera users. If you’re a beginner use the zen method below.

The zen method involves bracketing several exposures with the default metering method, matrix/evaluative metering, unless you’ve changed it. Bracketing is a technique used to take multiple exposures of the same lighting situation to find the exposure you like. For instance you’ll set exposure compensation to take an image at 0, + 1 and +2, then compare them to find the one you like best.

Some cameras have a setting to do this automatically or you can manually change the exposure in the manual modes. If you’re a beginner, use your owners manual to figure out how to use exposure compensation, then the camera will automatically change settings for you.

The result is a properly exposed subject and blown out background. Try to eliminate as much background as possible and fill your frame with your subject. This decreases the amount of bright light in the frame and can help get a good exposure on your subject.

Spot metering on Oz set to +2/3, no flash. Note that background is completely washed out. Same location as image above.

Go with the silhouette! (Beginner & Advanced)

A silhouette is created when there is a lot of contrast between the subject and the background. You will underexpose, make very dark, the subject and have a properly exposed or overexposed background. Try exposing for the background and see what you get. The brighter the background the better the silhouette. The higher the contrast the better.

If you’re a beginner bracket the exposures until you get a good background exposure and a really dark almost black subject.

It’s important that the subject be recognizable if you use this technique, so profiles are best.

Oz back-lit by the setting sun

Use HDR (Advanced)

If you have a very still subject or still life, then HDR, High Dynamic Range, photography is an option. Find the exposure for the background and then find the exposure for the subject. Take both of those images and then take exposures at one stop intervals to fill in the gap between. Combine the images using an HDR program . This result usually gives you an obviously stylized HDR effect, but it’s an option and has some fun results. Check your camera to see if it has a built in  HDR feature such as Canon’s 5D Mark III.

HDR of Oz using Googles HDR Efex Pro 2

Practice each of the above methods and let me know what works best for you. You’re welcome to post some of your results on my Facebook page for comments and critique. Have fun and happy shooting!

A New Beginning

After a rough couple of years caring for my elderly father, he passed away last December. I have spent the past 2 months moving through this time trying to rediscover what my goals are and where my ambitions lie. I’m not close to any answers yet, but I am once more drawn to working on my photography. There is a sense of satisfaction and joy in crafting a beautiful image and teaching these skills to others.

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Late summer Milky Way Galaxy at Ravens Roost, Blue Ridge Parkway

 

My last post back in March of 2016 was introducing my first e-book. I am proud of that work and hope that it helps beginning photographers learn useful information while having fun doing it. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out on Amazon here. My graphic artist friend did an amazing job making the book pleasing to look at and easy to read.

I am now working on my second e-book in the Beginning shots series. This book, Create Beautiful Images – Basic Composition and Lighting, will be chock full of image examples. Look for it later this year.

Classes at PVCC in Charlottesville, VA continue this spring. Beginning LIghtroom (starts next week!), Street/Travel Photography and Beginning Nature Photography are all on the agenda. Check those classes out here!

So I apologize for dropping the blog for the past year. We’ll see where this new life will take me.

PS Let me know if you like the design of my new blog. Any comments are appreciated. It’s not quite where I want it yet!

New E-book for Beginning Photographers

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I’ve finally finished my first E-book, Getting to Know Your Digital Camera! This is the culmination of years of teaching my beginning photography classes. I wanted to create a book packed with information in a fun, easy to read and view format for new photographers.  With the help of my wonderful Graphic artist friend, Cynthia Gisiner, I believe I achieved my goal! She created a beautiful format for the book and designed a smashing cover.

I have come to love teaching and hope students find this book useful. My plan is to continue with a series of beginner, intermediate and advanced books. I also have plans to add small video clips to enhance the teaching experience. The book format can support this so I can’t wait to get started on that as well.

So a copy for yourself or as a gift for the aspiring photographer in your life.  I’ve kept the price low, only $4.99! It’s available through the Kindle store on Amazon.com. Even if you don’t have a Kindle, most any device will support the Kindle reading app. Use this link to access my book on Amazon: Getting to Know Your Digital Camera

I appreciate all of the students that have made this book possible and everyone in my life that supports what I do.

Below is the full description of the book:

Learn the basics of your digital camera in a fun, easy to read manual with plenty of practice exercises so you can get shooting! Cameras help us capture the moments of our lives; so don’t miss out on learning how to make the most of your camera. We’ll start at the beginning with a digital primer. In it we’ll demystify megapixels, file size, file formats, and types of cameras. Then we’ll address basic navigation of the camera and learn some terminology. Once we have the basics set up we’ll learn a little about how the camera works. Understanding a few key features will make photographing so much more enjoyable and then you can move onto the fun stuff – making beautiful memorable pictures.

A solid foundation in photography comes from understanding the basics of how the camera works and sees the world around us. So you’ll get a primer on exposure, light, shutter speeds, and aperture. Then I’ll teach you how to choose the proper shooting mode for the situation, get sharp images by paying attention to how much light you have, avoid unwanted colorcasts, control how bright or dark the image is, know when to use the flash and when to avoid it, and so much more. Don’t worry; I will not force you to learn full manual control of the camera, yet. If you have a desire to move on, I’ll have a book for that in my Intermediate Shots series.

This book is also great for those of you unsure what type of camera to buy and for those of you looking to upgrade. Get an overview on camera types and the variety of shooting modes and what they can do in various shooting situations.

This guide, the first in a series, will give you a solid foundation in photography. These books are drawn on 12 years of teaching photography to people like you and me. Continue on to learn about composing the image and seeing great light in my next Beginning Shots e-book, Create Beautiful Images. Want more? I plan to take you to the Intermediate and Advanced levels as well. Stay tuned!

Some testimonials from former students:

“In reflecting on earlier workshops and private lessons I took with you I realize how much you provided me with inspiration and instruction for photograph. Please continue your classes and workshops to positively influence others. As you know good teachers are rare and you are one.” Morris L.

“Fantastic and fun learning experience – as I’ve come to expect from Victoria! Love the humor!” Dana T.

“I enjoyed the class and was a true novice with my camera and I’m not so afraid of it now. “ Connie H.

For more testimonials visit www.victoriasimages.com/instruction/testimonials/index.php

Share with your friends!!!

Persistence wins the day

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Critters are notorious for vexing you. They can’t be found, they’re walking away, they’re too far away, they’re in the wrong light, you’re not ready, the list of problems goes on and on. What to do? Keep trying!

My friend has a little ornamental pond in their yard and they have a bunch of happy green frogs. I visited one evening and spied quite a few of them. Despite a good number of fairly tolerant subjects, it was still a challenge to get a good shot.

Some individuals were more shy than others. Moving off when I got too close.

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Some had a terrible background.

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Others were not interested in posing properly either. Just sitting, sitting and sitting there, sigh….

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I just kept bidding my time. Patience is not my strong point, but finally this little guy turned around, but only for a moment. I got a couple shots before he jumped off.

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And this guy had a nice little water bubble around his feet. He was my favorite of the evening.

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So keep trying. Of the 55 images I took, which is not much for me – it was getting pretty dark, I got a couple of keepers. Sometimes I come up empty handed as well. It’s the challenge of finding the right moment that makes it all worth it in the end.

 

 

Finding Focus

Bear Eye

This post is philosophical and a bit rambley, so bear with me. I constantly struggle with focus and motivation. Everyone tells me it’s so great you’re pursuing your passion. The accolades they give far exceed how I personally feel. I do love creating an image, I love the chase of wildlife and getting that awesome shot, I love teaching people photography. These are all gratifying to me, but the day to day grind is more difficult. Working from home, alone is hard. Getting up and getting going is not easy. It’s easier to lose myself in a book, play a video game, clean the house, organize, anything other than doing the things that actually do give me a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. It’s like trying to hike up a huge mountain. I feel great when I’ve accomplished my goal, but those first few steps are hard to get going. It’s so much easier to take the level path back to bed, to the book or the game. Justifying I’ll get to it all later. Then I start to question whether it is all worth it? Am I really doing what I want to do? Where is the passion, the wake up and drive? You hear about these people. Do I not have the passion? Am I lazy? People seem to think it just happens, I’m not so sure. Maybe for a select few, but I think it’s a lot harder than that. Or do you need to create the passion, fake it until you make it so to speak.

So what to do? There’s the slogan, ‘Just do it’. There’s a lot to be said for that. Don’t think too hard, just go into the office and start working. But you have to have a plan, focus or else you’ll flounder and soon I’m clicking on the video game. What goal do I want to accomplish? I want to get a book published. Ok there’s a goal, but good grief, where do you start? It boggles the mind. So calm down and write out a list of steps. Make it fun, use big paper and colored markers or even crayons – they aren’t just for kids! Do a little research to flesh out the steps. Now pick a step and do it. It takes patience to get a huge goal accomplished but it’s well worth it in the end. So today I picked up my big pad of paper and jotted down my major goals. It was pretty easily actually, then wrote out some steps. The first one was writing this blog. So there you go, one thing down, now onto the next step.

I’m starting to feel a little better. Each day is a new battle or challenge – yes that’s a more positive word. So stay positive! Little steps and don’t be too hard on yourself.

Photo Cheat Sheet from Hamburger Fotospots

Trying to learn how the camera works can be daunting. I teach beginning, intermediate and advanced classes and even though there are only a few settings, the combinations of settings and variables make for a wide variety of options and results. My students often retake classes so they can continue to practice and pick up information they missed the first time around.

This cheat card from Daniel Peters at http://blog.hamburger-fotospots.de/kostenloser-download-foto-cheatcard-fuer-fotografen/ is a good basic start. It shows the basics of how ISO, aperture and shutter speed will affect the picture. Aperture affects how much of the image will be sharp based on where you focus, shutter speeds affects if the image is sharp or blurry and the ISO affects grain in the image. It’s a cool beginning tool all in one diagram.

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Moving In

Oftentimes you’ll see a cool scene but you’re unsure how to frame it. Or you’re afraid the subject may move and ruin the moment. I highly recommend starting wide and narrowing down your vision. Try different perspectives, vertical, horizontal. Start wide and move in. Move around the subject or scene and try different angles and backgrounds. Spend some time, don’t grab a quick snap and then run off, you might miss the key shot.

In this sequence I really liked the guy playing guitar. I grabbed a quick shot from a distance, but the guy in the background is quite distracting.

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As I moved in closer he didn’t notice me or wasn’t concerned and kept playing, so I got in closer and did a full frame shot of him playing.

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Then I tried a horizontal shot since that seemed like the natural composition with him squatting down and the guitar is horizontal, but I wasn’t overly fond of the trash can.

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Then I returned to what I liked in the initial image, using the sign in the image.  It provides an anchor for the guitarist and places him in the scene. Notice that I moved in and out and changed the perspective from horizontal to vertical in order to find the composition that I liked best.

Street Guitar Player

In this second sequence with the fence lizard I was afraid he’d run off. I didn’t want him to see my shadow so I started from a distance away and grabbed a quick shot.

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Then I gradually moved closer. Each time I’d grab a few more shots, never take just one, take a few to make sure you get a sharp one!

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He seemed to be tolerating me well so I got even closer.

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After shooting a bunch more I decided to try changing my angle to him. He was quite cooperative and I got a better angle with the light on his face.

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So if you see something cool, take your time and move in bit by bit, then try various angles to see if one pops out better than the others. You won’t always get lucky, but most of the time your hard work and patience will pay off!

 

Shooting Fireworks

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Firework displays are fun to watch and I can’t possibly pass up any opportunity to make some images, so here are a few tips for shooting fireworks.

1. Turn the autofocus feature off on the lens. Move the focus ring to infinity. It’s difficult for most cameras to focus accurately and quickly in the dark. So pre focus ahead of time. To get the best accuracy, autofocus the lens you will use in daylight on something far away. Then turn autofocus off and tape the focus ring with electrical tape. Now you’re all set. You’ll notice the most accurate focus reads slightly off the infinity mark.

2. Use manual mode. You’ll be adjusting the shutter speeds to get the proper exposure. I don’t use the histogram for this type of photography, I just view the image on the screen to see how it looks.

3. I set my ISO to 400 or 800 and f stop to 4 or 5.6, depending on the lens. Depth of field is fairly irrelevant for this type of shooting. White balance to Auto.

4. Use a tripod. It gets tiresome to stand and hold the camera up at an angle for very long. Most firework shows last 30-45 minutes. A tripod that is taller than you is best, you don’t have to squat down at an awkward angle to look through the viewfinder. Once you know where they are shooting you can just stand back and press the shutter button.

5. Use a remote control or trigger release cord. I prefer the trigger release better as the remote often requires you to use it from the front of the camera. That is where the sensor is. If the camera is pointed up towards the sky, it may be awkward to use a remote. The trigger release attaches to a port usually on the side of the camera. Now you can just sit back and click the trigger when a burst goes up. Once I’m set up I don’t even bother looking through the viewfinder.

6. I use a wide angle zoom lens, 16-35mm. If you’re really far away you might need a telephoto. Fireworks can be quite spread out and you want to make sure you have plenty of space in the image for them to fill up.

7. Shutter speed will vary depending on how bright the fireworks are. Typical single shot fireworks came out well with an ISO of 400, aperture of 5.6 and shutter speed of 1-2 seconds. The image below was made with those settings.

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Whereas this image of a much brighter show was shot at ISO 400, aperture 5.6 and a speed of 1/3 second.

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Both images were shot at 24mm on a tripod with a Canon 5D MarkII set to Auto White Balance.

The finale can get quite bright, so bracket your shutter speeds faster so you don’t end up with a blown out display like this:

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Get there early to get a good spot and bring a red flashlight so you can see your camera and preserve your night vision. It may take you a few shots to figure out the best focal length, and shutter speed settings. But once you’re set you can sit back and shoot away!

If you live in the Charlottesville area there is a show tonight at dark at McIntire Park celebrating the Dogwood Festival.

 

Grooming the Scene

Spring is here, time to get shooting!   I love shooting the spring ephemerals. These wildflower gems pack a lot of beauty in a tiny package. However, due to their small size there may be a lot of distractions around them. I like my subject to stand out from the background. This involves choosing a subject that has as clean a background as possible. Despite your best efforts, there are usually distracting elements around your subject. It may be another plant, bright or dark spots, color, pollen, dead leaves, anything that draws the eye of the viewer away from the subject is distracting.

Distracting elements in the image below are sheen on the leaf, the leaf of another plant in the lower left and a dead leaf on the right leaf near the bottom.

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The first problem I addressed was the sheen on the leaf. This was resolved by using a circular polarizer. This removes sheen and lets the color of the subject come through. This is why everything looks better through polarized sun glasses.

The next thing I did was recompose slightly to the right and tuck the offending leaf out of the way. The rule here is ‘Tuck don’t Pluck’. This image was taken on public land, so don’t go messing up the environment and ripping stuff up. I often times gently tuck a leaf or blade of grass out of the way. Finally I removed the dead leaf on the right leaf near the base. I have no qualms rearranging a few dead leaves.

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This image is better but there is another leaf encroaching in the lower right corner. The color of the leaf draws your eye away from the main subject.

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Here, I’ve tucked the lower right leaf out of the way. It’s looking much better, but there is a tall green grass stem sticking up on the right side intersecting the tip of the right leaf and creating a competing line with the main subject. I tucked this out of the way and WaLa!

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The final uncluttered image with no major distracting elements.

Good nature photography takes time and patience. Compose and take a shot. Then review it! Ask yourself what worked and what needs improvement. Do you have distracting elements? If so can you groom them out of the scene without tearing anything up?

Grooming your scene helps the subject to stand out. Never pluck or damage surrounding plants.

Use a tripod! As you see this took several shots to get the final one. Having the camera on a tripod eliminates the need to find the perfect spot again and helps you notice some of the distractions prior to pressing the shutter button.

This series is of a Showy Orchis that I photographed at Ivy Creek Natural Area. Other local Charlottesville areas good for photographing wildflowers are Secluded Farm at Monticello trails and Preddy Creek Natural Area. Happy Shooting!