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!

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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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.

 

Techniques for Photographing Landscape – Layers

You’re out enjoying the vast beauty of nature all around you. It’s spectacular, you set up your camera and snap a few shots. You look down at the view screen and you’re… disappointed. That’s not what it looks and feels like, what happened? The experience of a place live is much different than the experience a viewer of your image will have. They don’t have the benefit of sounds, smells, the feel of sun, wind, cold, nor do they have the same emotions you have while immersed in all of this.  All they have is a 2 dimensional representation of what you saw and experienced. So it’s up to you to bring that landscape to life. To entice others that they wish they were there. That they can almost feel those other sensations.

One technique for landscape photography is layering. Imagine building a sandwich, you have a bread layer, a condiment layer, a layer of veggies and/or meat and then another layer of bread. Layering a landscape works much the same way, except you usually have a foreground layer, middle layer(s) and a background layer – usually sky. This technique keeps the image dynamic and interesting.

For this to work, all of the layers must have something of interest, such as color, texture or a strong subject element such as a barn, tree, mountain and so forth. If you include the sky it must be interesting. Look for color and/or dynamic clouds. A plain blue sky is often just as boring as a washed out sky. But it can be used as a layer in your image, just don’t include too much of it.

Now that you have some layers it’s time to proportion them. Is the foreground or background stronger? Are they equal in strength? You might emphasize a foreground and minimize the background or you might have equal amounts of each layer. See below for some variations. Mentally divide the layers into proportions.

The first image has a foreground layer of grasses with a strong element immersed in them. Then there are two thin layers of rolling fields and a small strip of blue sky. The sky is minimized as it is not that interesting. The truck element is the strongest part of the image and is emphasized proportionally.

Red Truck

This image has a foreground layer of grasses with a strong element, the barn immersed. Then there’s another layer of rolling hills and finally a sky. This image is more 50:50 with the sky as there are dynamic clouds and color.

Palouse Barns

Here the sunset lit house is minimized against a very menacing sky. There are only 2 layers, the foreground field with house and the sky. The effect and feel is quite different from the previous 2 images.

Palouse Farmhouse

The foreground of this image has color, texture and a leading line of tire tracks that leads the viewer into the vast landscape. The middle layer is a fallow field and the remainder 50% of the image is filled with an interesting sky of blue and clouds.

Palouse field

Here the image has a diagonal foreground triangle with the sign. A diagonal road line divides the foreground from the middle ground of fields and then another dynamic sky of color and texture.

Dead End Sign

 

Next time you’re out shooting landscapes, look for layers to include in the image. Then decide what is more interesting or powerful. If you’re uncertain, take several images emphasizing the foreground and then the background. One will more than likely stand out from the others. Good Luck and Happy Shooting!

All images above are from the Palouse region in Eastern Washington state. It’s a beautiful area for landscape photography. My friend Rod Barbee and I teach a workshop out there every summer. For more information and see more images from this area visit my website.

Photographing Lovejoy

This past weekend I tried my hand at shooting the comet Lovejoy. I had lovely clear skies Friday evening and caught my first glimpse of the comet. It’s a cool fuzzy green blob below the Pleiades. I trained my long 300-800mm lens on it, but it was hard to get much with the lens. It’s slow at f5.6, not ideal for astrophotography. Combining that with the long length meant I couldn’t use shutter speeds much fast than 2-3 seconds before the stars lost their pin point brilliance. My Canon 5D MarkII has good ISO quality up to 3200. 6400 was ok, but the HI and H2 were too noisy to use. I also forgot to pre focus the lens to infinity during daylight hours, so the first batch of shots weren’t great.

I pulled out my 70-200 f 2.8 lens and had much better luck. The infinity mark on this lens was spot on and the 2.8 aperture combined with less focal length allowed me to get longer shutter speeds and some decent images. So I’ve got a cool fuzzy green blob on a field of stars. I’ll take it!

Key points to remember prior to shooting objects at night with basic camera photo gear:

  • Prefocus all lenses to infinity and tape the focus ring down
  • Turn off autofocus
  • Have a red light headlamp
  • Shoot in manual
  • Use the widest aperture you have – a 2.8 or wider lens is best
  • Start with ISO 3200 and go from there
  • Take the lens focal length and divide into 500 for the longest shutter speed you can use without significant star streaks, ie 200mm into 500 is 2.5 seconds, 20mm into 500 is 25 seconds, 100mm into 500 is 5 seconds, etc…
  • Don’t even try this without a tripod
  • Use your cable release or remote control
  • Consider long exposure noise reduction, but this does double the time to take each image
  • Mirror lock up not really necessary as the shutter speeds are too long. Mirror lock up is best for speeds between 1/15 and 1 second long
  • Figure out ahead of time where your object is located in the night sky and have a star chart or app available to help you find it.
  • Find a dark sky location away from light pollution

One day I’d love to have a telescope to shoot through and the ability to track the earth’s rotation. Something to look forward to. In the meantime I’ll drool over the spectacular shots other astrophotographers got. See this link for some examples:

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/observing-news/spot-comet-lovejoy-tonight-122920141/

Here’s my shot:

comet Lovejoy
Comet Lovejoy

 

12 tips for Practicing Your Bird Flight Photography

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Bird portraits are rewarding to photograph, but once you have good portraits it’s time to move onto action. Flight photography is dynamic and exciting, but technically a bit more of challenge. So where do you start?

  1. PRACTICE – In order to get good at anything you need to practice, practice, practice. In order to practice flight photography you need a pool of several birds that will fly. Song birds are not a great choice, they are small and really fast. I highly recommend a trip to the beach to practice on seagulls. There are a lot of them usually, they fly often, are a good size and don’t move terribly fast.
  2. EQUIPMENT –  I assume you have a SLR camera with a long lens, something in the order of 400mm or longer. Fixed lenses with 1.4x or 2x extender can get you a good start. A sturdy tripod with fully maneuverable head that is taller than you supports the weight of the lens and allows free movement to pan with a flying bird.
  3. CONDITIONS – You want to shoot for a blue sky day with lots of light. Morning and evening light are prettier but you need a good amount of light to get fast shutter speeds. I also don’t want to shoot against a bland white sky. Avoid windy days as the vibration in the lens and tripod can lead to lack of sharpness.
  4. SHUTTER SPEED – I prefer a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second. You can never have too fast of a shutter speed to stop action.
  5. ISO – adjust as needed to get faster shutter speeds, but try to keep as low as possible for quality.
  6. APERTURE –  You do not need a high aperture for flying birds, I usually shoot around F4 – F5.6. If you have multiple birds and a lot of light up to F8 sometimes.
  7. EXPOSURE – What to do about exposure? Go to manual, set the exposure for the sky and you should be good to go. Typically plus 1 should do it. Make sure you don’t blow out the highlights on a white bird. Try to shoot the bird in even light or slight side light, avoid shooting into the sun for now. As long as the lighting conditions don’t change, clouds moving across the sun for example, the exposure shouldn’t change regardless if you have a dark bird in a blue sky or a white bird in a blue sky.
  8. FOCUSING – I tend to center focus my flying birds, as I find the center focus point to be faster and more accurate than the side points. Several cameras allow you to cluster a set of focus points, this allows for more accuracy over a wider area.
  9. AUTO FOCUS MODE – Continuous shooting combined with AI Servo or AF-C enable the camera to track a moving subject better.
  10. IS/VR – many long lenses have 2 or more IS or VR modes. Read the instructions that came with your lens to see which mode fits your shooting situation.
  11. WHITE BALANCE – set for existing lighting conditions.
  12. REVIEW – review images as you shoot and make any adjustments to settings.

So head to the beach and enjoy shooting those gulls, they can still make for some great shots!

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Tips for Shooting Panoramas

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Creating panoramas is fun and easy with digital technology, but you do need to follow a few simple rules to get the best results. Some digital point and shoot cameras have a panorama shooting mode. This is great as it shows you how the images overlap. However SLR camera users have to ‘eyeball’ the overlap.

  1. To start use a tripod. This keeps the camera steady, level, improves technique and will give you better quality.
  2. Use a fixed focal length the entire time. Don’t zoom in and out, keep it fixed. A fixed lens is best but not everyone has one, so be careful with zoom and keep it fixed.
  3. Overlap your images about 50%.
  4. Shoot vertically, not horizontally. I know this sounds odd, but you need to give yourself a lot of space around the top and bottom of the main subject. When you merge the images into a panorama using software such as Photoshop, the merged image will curve some. So you need to give plenty of space on the top and bottom so the final image will include the entire subject.

    panorama raw
    Merged image before cropping
  5. Camera settings need to be consistent between shots.
  • So set a white balance, don’t use auto white balance as it might change between images.
  • Shoot in manual mode to prevent the exposure settings from changing. Even if you shoot in aperture priority the exposure might change as you move across your scene.
  • You can make white balance and exposure adjustments in the computer after the fact, but it’s much easier and saves you time to get it right in the camera.

Next time I’ll show how to composite the panorama in Photoshop CS 6 and PSE 12.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

Spring Time Photography in Charlottesville, VA

Spring is at hand, despite this late winter storm. The spring ephemerals are on their way. These flowers bloom before the trees leaf out and obscure the light. They are fleeting, small and beautiful to behold. Take a walk in the woods around the area to catch a glimpse. Places to go are the Monticello trail, Ivy Creek Natural Area, The Rivanna Trail System and Chris Greene Lake to name a few.

  Walk slowly and look down to find them emerging from the leaf litter. Go early in the morning for soft light or a cloudy day for diffuse light. A close-up lens will help you get close to these tiny beauties. If you don’t have a close-up/macro lens you can get an extension tube to use with an existing lens and help you focus closer. Extension tubes go between the camera and lens. Or a very inexpensive option is go get close up filters you attach to the end of the lens to magnify a subject.

In order to get good depth of field a tripod is highly recommended. This slows you down and gives you a better quality image. It’s hard to hand hold in low light and get a sharp image of your flowers. Also avoid windy days, unless you want to try blur techniques.

Regardless, it’s not too early to get out and start looking! Join me for my Spring Shooting Series. We’ll meet weekly to visit a new location and photograph what spring has to offer us. Visit http://victoriasimages.com/photo_instruction/local_index/nature/  for more information on this and other Spring Classes.

 

Pan Blur

Pan Blur 1/15th second

Pan Blur gives a static image a sense of motion. This technique works well if you follow a few basic tips. First you need a subject that is moving in a linear line, runner, bike rider, horse, roller derby, etc… Then you need a simple background that will create a streaky blur. So avoid skies or changing backgrounds. A line of trees, field of grass or race track, for example work well. I highly recommend using a tripod so you can pan the camera in a smooth motion.

My technique consists of using shutter priority and setting a shutter speed that is slow enough to allow enough time for me to pan the camera with the subject. The key is to focus on the subject and then move with them as they move. The longer shutter speed creates a blurred background, giving a sense of motion. The subject will rarely be sharply in focus unless you are using a computer controlled unit, like they do in advertising, use Photoshop techniques or get very lucky!

Pan Blur 1/20th second

I start with a shutter speed of 1/15th and go slower from there. There is a lot of trial and error and you need to take a lot of shots to get a few good ones. So keep trying! Next up is zoom blur.

Pan Blur 1/15th second

Blurring Action with Shutter Speeds

Waterfall 1.6 seconds on tripod

Last time when I discussed shutter speeds I talked about stopping action to get a sharp image. However, there are times when you want to show motion in a still image. A good way to do this is by blurring the action. There is a fine line between creating an image with too much blur and the viewer asks “What is that?” not a good sign. Or one with not enough blur, the viewer says “That’s a blurry image” not in a good way.

There are several blur methods. Today we’ll talk about the subject moving through the image. I prefer this technique for water and other inanimate objects. Set the camera to shutter priority. Pick a slow shutter speed. What you picks depends on the speed of the subject. I usually start with 1 second for waterfalls and running water or 1/15th of a second for objects moved by the wind and adjust from there. Adjust the ISO to get this shutter speed. It will vary with the available lighting. Finally adjust the white balance for the lighting present.

Ferriswheel at night, 13 seconds on tripod

Using a tripod, let the subject move through the image. Make sure the composition allows for enough room for the subject to move through the image. Don’t get too tight or too far away! Take multiple images and review. Is the blur cool looking or not so great? Do you need to adjust the shutter speed faster or slower?

Next time we’ll talk about Pan blur, this technique works great for some sports and animals.

West Coast, wave action over 20 seconds on tripod