Saturday, October 18, 2014

An Introduction to Night Photography

Night photography (including astrophotography) is this week's topic for the Boost Your Photography: 52 Weeks Challenge.

The Basics of Night Photography

There is a wide, wide range of photographs and photographic situations that fall under the umbrella of night photography. This first section will lay out some of the basic skills and techniques that are useful for many night photography subjects and situations.

Equipment - optimal

The optimal equipment for night photography includes the following:

  • A DSLR camera with a lens capable of manual focusing. If that lens has a switch for image stabilization (IS, Canon), vibration reduction (VR, Nikon), or vibration control (VC, Tamron), switch that to OFF when using a tripod.
  • A stable tripod. Read How to Maximize Your Tripod for top tips on how best to use a tripod, and read GorillaPod Tripod Review if you are interested in learning more about GorillaPods. A standard, full-size tripod may be more useful for night photography situations, however.
  • A head lamp or flashlight, preferably one with a red light option if you are doing astrophotography. (The red light will allow you to see without ruining your night vision.)

Equipment - alternate

If you do not have some of the optimal equipment, above, there are some alternatives:

  • A point-and-shoot or phone camera in night photography, low light photography, or long shutter mode. These modes signal to your camera that you are shooting in darker situations, and long shutter mode allows you to set the shutter speed yourself (often from one to fifteen seconds).
  • A stable surface. If you do not have a tripod handy, you can use any other stable surface. Tables, benches, large rocks, and more can work to keep your camera more stable than trying to hand-hold it for shutter speeds measured in seconds.
  • The 2-second or 10-second countdown timer. If you do not have a remote, you can set either a 2-sec. or 10-sec. timer on your camera. Pushing down the shutter button on your camera can impart a slight wobble to your camera, even when it is on a tripod or stable surface. Even the 2-sec. timer allows the camera to stop wobbling before taking the picture.
  • You really don't have a flashlight? Not even a flashlight app on your phone?

Shoot in Shutter Priority or Manual Mode

Most night photography shots are taken in shutter priority (S in Nikon or Tv for time value for Canon) or manual mode. In shutter priority mode, you set the ISO (start with 100) and the shutter speed, and your camera will chose the aperture. In manual mode, you choose all three. Many night photography shots work best with very long shutter speeds, like 10-30 seconds, especially if you are looking the capture the movement of lights or lit objects.

Want the easy way to use full manual mode? Start in shutter priority mode, and dial in an ISO of 100 and a shutter speed of 10 seconds. Take a photograph. Look at the resulting photograph and check the histogram (see Demystifying the Histogram for more details). Now, switch into manual mode and select the same three settings from your previous image. If your test photograph looked too dark, use a wider aperture. If your test photograph looked too bright, use a narrower aperture. (Confused? Read more about Aperture and the F/Stop Conundrum.) Take another test shot and adjust until you get the result you want.

Manual Focusing

It is often very difficult for your camera to use autofocus in dim or dark situations. There are two solutions to this problem.

  • Use your flashlight to illuminate your subject. Hold the shutter halfway down on your camera to set the autofocus. Then, switch your lens into manual focus (the AF/MF switch on the side of your lens). Now your camera will remain focused on your subject.
  • Or, use manual focusing entirely. Most camera lenses have a focusing ring with a scale that indicates the distance to your subject. You can use this scale to set the focusing distance of your lens. (Remember to have switched to MF.) If you are photographing something very distant, like the moon or stars, turn your focusing ring to the infinity setting, then dial it back very slightly. Take a photograph and check the focus. (The "infinity" setting on many lenses is actually a little too far out to focus.)

Night Photography Subjects and Situations

Now that you understand the basics, you are ready to start experimenting with night photography!

Creative Night Photography

Shaped Bokeh - all you need is a 50 mm lens (or other prime lens), some black cardstock, and some lights to create fun and unique shaped bokeh, like the snowflakes shown above.

Photograph Ghosts (without Photoshop trickery) - a long exposure gives you enough time to create a ghostly silhouette or actual ghostly presence in a single shot, without any need for post-processing.

Photographing Lights at Night

Light Painting: how to spin an orb - with orb spinning you use a small LED light on a rope and spin it during the photograph to create shapes. This post lays out all the steps to make perfect orbs every time. Or just have some freestyle fun!

Spinning Fire with Steel Wool Photography - step up from LED lights and give burning steel wool a try. The results are amazing, and the sparks burn out quickly, which minimizes the danger. (The photograph above was shot with a basic model point-and-shoot camera on the long shutter setting for 15 seconds.)

How to Photograph Traffic Light Trails - let the cars, trucks, and buses be your light and capture traffic trails at night.

Quick Tips for Better Firework Photographs - fireworks are an endlessly entertaining subject for night photography! These tips will help you get the best shots you can with fireworks.

Long Exposure Photography at the Fair(e) - hit up the fair or carnival and see what kind of results you can get from moving rides and swirling lights.

Astrophotography (and the moon too)

Stacking Photographs and Star Trails - learn how to use stacking to create star trails photographs or to create other stacked sets of images.

Shoot the Moon with the Photographers' Ephemeris - get your timing, settings, and photograph exactly right for shooting the full moon. Or, push yourself further and go Beyond Full Moon Photography.

Get out into that great night and take some pictures! Share a link or a photograph in the comments below, or consider joining the BYP 52 Weeks Google+ Community to share your weekly photograph and see what others are capturing.

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Year Ago on Boost Your Photography

  • Learn Your Camera Lens: What's in a Name? Part 1 in the 'Learn Your Camera Lens' series focuses on all of the information provided in the name of your camera lens. Find out all the information you can from your lens name, and find out how best to choose a future lens.
  • Learn Your Camera Lens: the lens itself. Part 2 in the 'Learn Your Camera Lens' series carefully lays out all of the detailed pieces and parts of your camera lens. Learn what all the numbers, dials, buttons, and switches mean and how best to use them in your photography. 
  • Learn Your Camera Lens: accessories. Part 3 provides an informative overview of common camera lens accessories, including lens caps, lens hoods, and filters. Find out what you need and how best to use it.
  • Local Photography: Photograph the Harvest. Now is a great time to get out and explore your local surroundings - visit a farm, pick your own pumpkins, or try your hand at apple-picking. This post lays out some suggestions for how best to capture the bounty of the season.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Photograph the Seasons

The smell of autumn is in the air and the leaves are falling. Seasons is this week's topic for the Boost Your Photography: 52 Weeks Challenge. Below is a quick list of useful posts to help you make the most of the changing seasons.

  • Capture the Season: Rephotography. Take the time to find a favorite spot and get the perfect autumn shot for your seasonal collage. Start now and return over the course of the year to make an amazing commemorative collage.
  • Capture a Day in a Single Image. Similar idea, but do your entire series in an individual day. Read the article for detailed tips on how to easily accomplish this series of photographs and combine them.

  • Photograph the Harvest. Celebrate the changing seasons by visiting a farm and capturing the harvest as it happens.

How are your seasons changing? Share a link or a photograph in the comments below, or consider joining the BYP 52 Weeks Google+ Community to share your weekly photograph and see what others are capturing.

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How to Photograph "Ghosts" in a Single Exposure

The weather is getting cooler, the leaves are getting yellower, and the conversations at school revolve around Halloween and costumes. Why not have some fun with a Halloween-inspired photo shoot this year and learn how to photograph ghosts? (Even better, this technique requires no Photoshop or post-processing know how.)

Techniques for Photographing Ghosts

In order to properly photograph ghosts, it helps to be prepared. For the best results, you will need your camera, a sturdy tripod, and a remote shutter release. An atmospheric location is an additional benefit, but you can be creative about where you want your ghost to appear.

The trick to creating a ghostly image is using a long shutter speed. (This is one reason why most ghosts more often appear at night.) A few to several seconds ought to be sufficient. Night or early evening lighting works very well, but dim interior light can also work.

Begin by shooting in shutter priority mode (Tv for Canon or S for Nikon). Dial in a shutter speed of a few seconds and take a practice exposure. Most likely, your camera will capture a photograph that is far brighter than the gloomy look you will want. In that case, you can either switch into manual mode and dial in the same shutter speed with a narrower aperture, or you can use exposure compensation and choose a negative value (like -2 or -3) to get a darker overall image.

Once you have established the right mood with your background, you are ready to find your ghosts. The trick for capturing a ghost in a single exposure is only having your ghost visible in the frame for less than half of the overall length of the exposure (shutter speed). It is usually much easier to begin with your ghost in the photograph and have them hide halfway through.

This ghost photograph was captured at ISO 100, f/4, and a shutter speed of 20 seconds. My ghost took his position in the photograph, and I used the remote shutter release to trigger the camera. He stood as still as possible while counting to 10 and then ducked down and stepped quickly out of the field of view. (In darkened conditions like these, a moving subject will not be visible, so the camera only recorded his shadow when he was standing still.) The only lighting in this scene came from the glowing cabin, so the ghost is recorded without definition as only a silhouette.

This ghostly effort was a little less successful, because the details in the porch overwhelm the arms of the left-hand ghost, which are reaching out for the right-hand ghost. Experiment!

Defined Ghosts and Moving Ghosts

If you want more visibility with your ghost, then you will need to find a setting where some light is falling on your ghostly subject.

This ghostly shot was done in mid-afternoon with the aid of a circular polarizer and a narrow aperture. The circular polarizer blocks an additional stop or two of light, requiring an even longer shutter speed. With the overhead shade and polarizer, I was able to get a shutter speed of 8 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100. (You could also use a neutral density filter to get a longer shutter speed. Read more in Introduction to Filters.) For this ghostly selfie, I had the camera on a tripod with a 10-second countdown timer. After triggering the shutter, I raced to my location and froze. Once I heard the camera shutter I mentally counted to three and then rushed out of the frame for the rest of the exposure. (I also covered up my legs with my black jacket, which made my feet disappear entirely from the image.)

Moving ghosts are a bit of a trial-and-error effort. Your ghost will need to move slowly enough that the camera can capture their movement but yet quickly enough to have moved a good distance during the time the photograph is being taken.

This particular ghost shot, below, happened as a bit of a fluke. The local photography group had organized a behind-the-scene photography tour of our local performing arts center. We were a large group of about 40 photographers, so it was inevitable that other photographers would end up in your final images.

This photograph was taken at ISO 100, f/3.5, and 4 seconds. It was part of a series of bracketed shots I was taking of the interior of the concert hall. (This shot was taken at -2 exposure compensation.) My ghost was a fellow photographer in a white hooded sweatshirt who was moving at a very even pace up the staircase. He happened to pause just before the end of the photograph, which makes his head and body a bit more visible in relationship to his ghostly flowing movement.

To recreate a shot like this one, you would want to set-up and determine your settings beforehand, like with the shots above. Then, have your ghost start moving slowly before you trigger the shot. (If your ghost waits until you start shooting to move, then that standing position will be recorded more strongly than the later movement.) Have your ghost take slow but deliberate steps, which will help create more of an impression than steady movement. (Steady movement will create an undifferentiated blur, while start-stop steps will create a more herky-jerky ghost like the one above.)

Experiment! This kind of ghost requires a bit of trial-and-error, but the results are always interesting and a bit unpredictable. If you want your ghost to pause and freeze near the end of your exposure, you might want to consider shooting in Bulb mode. That way, you simple hold down the trigger to start the exposure, and the photograph ends when you lift up on the button. So, you can have your ghost begin moving, hold down the button to start the picture, ask your ghost to hold still after a time, count an additional second or so, and release.

Ghosts Everywhere

Have fun with it! Think about interesting or unusual costumes for your ghostly character. Get a few more friends in on the act and capture a whole group of ghosts doing something spooky or unusual.

Share your successful ghost shots with us in the comments below!

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Depth of Field: it's more than just aperture

Depth of field refers to the area of your photograph that is in focus. Depth of field can vary from having a very thin sliver of your subject in-focus to a very expansive focus that covers everything in your entire photograph. Many photographers understand that aperture affects the depth of field in your image, but there are other important considerations as well.

Join in! Depth of field is this week's topic for the Boost Your Photography: 52 Weeks Challenge.

Depth of Field and Aperture

Yes, changing the aperture of your lens will have an immediate and observable impact on the depth of field of your photograph.

The wider your aperture, the narrower your depth of field. So, shooting with wide aperture values, in the range of f/1.8 to f/3.5 will result in an image with a narrow section of your subject in focus and much of the background out of focus. (Read more about What an Aperture of F/1.8 Can Do for You.)

Conversely, the narrower your aperture, the wider your depth of field. So, shooting with narrow aperture values, in the range of f/18 to f/22 will result in an image with all of your subject and much (or most) of the background in focus. (Read more about What an Aperture of F/22 Can Do for You.)

The four photographs in the series above were all taken from the exact location, with the camera on a tripod. You can clearly see how the background trees change from being blurry greenness with the wide aperture to nearly in-focus trees at the narrow aperture. This relationship between depth of field and aperture holds true, provided that you and your subject remain in the same place. If either you or your subject moves position, then there are two additional factors that affect depth of field.

Depth of Field, Distance, and Focal Length

Depth of field also varies depending on the distance between the photographer and the subject, and it will also vary depending on the focal length of lens used. The closer you are physically to your subject, the narrower the depth of field will be. (This is why, for example, you can shoot a far-away landscape or cityscape and have everything in the distant scene appear in focus even when using a mid-range aperture like f/11.)

This comparison demonstrates the relationship between depth of field and both focal length and distance. Each photograph was composed identically in an effort to keep the scarecrow model in the same place relative to the rest of the composition. Starting right up close to the scarecrow for the 18 mm shot, I had to back up a few steps for each subsequent focal length in order to keep the composition the same. (You can see other examples of this in the article on Photographing Architecture: watch your lines and Zooming vs. Cropping: perspective in photography.)

Each of these photographs was taken with a constant aperture (f/6.3), but you can see that the effective depth of field changes dramatically. The longer the zoom used, the narrower the depth of field, and the more the trees in the distance become simply blur and color. The field of view also narrows dramatically: the background of the 270 mm shot is reduced to only one of the trees, compared to three entire trees in the 35 mm shot or a veritable forest in the 18 mm shot. This simplifies the background tremendously, drawing the eye toward our subject instead of being distracted by the background.

Depth of Field and Background Distance

This off-center photograph shows the setup used for the series above. The scarecrow is about five feet away from the green tree, while the other trees are at a significant distance. This illustrates a final point about depth of field: if you want a blurred background, you can give yourself a hand by positioning your subject farther away from the background.

Look again at the series of photographs, and pay attention to the green tree. You will notice that the depth of field is still wide enough to encompass the green tree that is just behind the scarecrow, even at the longest focal length. Only an extreme amount of aperture or focal length is going to be able to turn a nearby background into bokeh or blur. Make it easy on yourself. If you want a blurred background, then keep your subject farther away from it.

Apply It: Depth of Field

Give it a try. Pick a subject and shoot a comparative series of shots, like the ones above, and see how much your depth of field changes as you use a longer focal length and get farther away from your subject. Or, shoot a series of shots at the same focal length and aperture, but move yourself and your subject farther and farther away from the background. See what distance gives you a look that you like.

Looking to shoot a bokehlicious portrait with a blurry out-of-focus background? If you do not have a prime lens with a wide aperture (like the 50 mm f/1.8, read more here), use your zoom lens. Try the shot with a longer focal length, keep the background away from your subject, and see what you can do.

Want a final reminder? Check out this chart on depth of field by Digital Camera World. Click on the pin to see the original post and chart.

How do you use depth of field? Share a link or a photograph in the comments below, or consider joining the BYP 52 Weeks Google+ Community to share your weekly photograph and see what others are capturing.

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Year Ago on Boost Your Photography

Consider joining in the Boost Your Photography: 52 Weeks Challenge! For October we will focus on depth of field and different photography situations and subjects. Join the Google+ Community to share your weekly photographs and receive feedback. New members are always welcome!

  • Easy Photography Upgrade: Get a Remote Shutter Release. For less than $10, you can buy a simple corded remote shutter release that will dramatically increase the range of photography and photography situations that you can capture. This post highlights the styles and subjects that can particularly benefit from a basic remote.
  • Improve Your Fall Photography: Use a Circular Polarizer. 'Tis the season for fall colors (at least around here). If you want an easy way to improve your fall photography - and to really make those bright colors pop - consider investing in a circular polarizer. This post lays out all the details about how to choose and use a polarizer.
  • What an Aperture of f/8 to f/11 Can Do for You. This next post covers the middle range or "who cares" apertures, around f/8 to f/11. Find out exactly when to use these apertures and how you can rely on them as the workhorses of common shooting situations.
  • What an Aperture of f/22 Can Do for You. This post rounds out the series by covering the narrow end of the aperture spectrum, up around f/18 to f/22. Find out how to use these aperture values to maximize focus in your image or to slow down your shutter speed for lovely, silky water shots or to create incredible sunburst effects.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Portrait Photography Basics

Portraits are a popular photography subject and one that most hobbyist photographers want to improve at. If you can solve the problem of finding a willing subject, then this post has all the rest of the basic tips you will need!

Join in! Portraiture is this week's challenge for the Boost Your Photography: 52 Weeks Challenge.

Tip 1: Focus on the Eyes

It is said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and no where is that more true than in portrait photography. You cave "save" a poor photograph in many ways on your computer, but you cannot save a portrait if the focus is wrong. If you are shooting a portrait, regardless of whether that portrait is of a person, pet, or quick moving toddler, you need to have the eyes in focus.

Set your camera options to manually choose an autofocus point. This means that the camera is using a set single focus point to determine where to focus. (In automatic autofocus point selection mode, your camera determines which of all of the available focus points to use when determining focus.) A single focus point gives you control over what your camera is using to set the focus.

You should also pay attention to which autofocus mode your camera is using. In One Shot (Canon) or AF-S (autofocus single for Nikon), your camera will re-focus for each individual shot. If you have a constantly moving subject, you can use AI Servo (Canon) or AF-C (continuous-servo AF; Nikon), and your camera will track your moving subject and adjust the autofocus. Or, if you are expecting a mix of moving and still subjects, you can use AI Focus (Canon) or AF-A (auto-servo AF; Nikon), where your camera will adjust focus according to whether it detects a still or moving subject.

The focus point for this self-portrait ended up well behind my eyes, leading to the out-of-focus blur.

Now that your focus point mode is set, you can use the eyes themselves to set the focus. You can either use the center focus point and "focus and recompose" for shooting, or you can choose whichever focus point location works best for your portrait. (You can read more about how to focus and recompose in the post Focus on Focus.) Regardless of which method you choose, using the eyes guarantees that you have the most important part of the portrait in focus.

Tip 2: Follow the Light

Flattering light makes for flattering portraits. But what makes for flattering light?

Consider the time of day, if you are shooting outdoors. Many photographers prefer the Golden Hour, that approximately an hour-long period just after sunrise or just before sunset, when the light from the sun has beautiful golden tones. Shooting during the Golden Hour will add a feeling of warmth and glow to both your subject and your background.

Portraits work best with smooth, even lighting. Dappled or uneven lighting can make for harsh and unflattering portraits. Many portrait photographers prefer to shoot in full shade, so that an even light is falling on the subject. You can shoot portraits in full sun as well, but you need to be aware of how harsher lighting conditions and shadows affect your final look. Try to avoid shooting in any kind of mixed or dappled lighting situations - shooting under a sparsely leafy tree, for example, can create odd patterns of light and dark on your subject's face.

You can also use a tool like a reflector for helping to balance out the lighting in your portrait. A reflector can be as simple as a thick piece of white foamcore board, used to bounce additional light on the shadowy side of a portrait. Or, you can invest in an inexpensive 5-in-1 reflector that provides five different reflective surface options. (Mine has white, black, gold, silver, and a diffuser.) Reflectors are useful tools and fold down into much smaller sizes for carrying and storage. A larger size, like those around 40" inches, is most useful for individual or small group portraits, as you can bounce a larger quantity of light than with a smaller version. You can read more details about how to use a reflector in the pinned article, Tip for Using a Reflector for Portraits.

Tip 3: Use Aperture to Your Advantage

You may think that you need to be shooting in full manual to capture a truly great portrait, but the truth is that many portrait photographers do not shoot in manual mode. They shoot in Aperture Priority.

Aperture priority mode (Av for Canon, A for Nikon) allows you to set the ISO and aperture for your photograph, while the camera chooses the shutter speed. Many portraits are taken with a wider aperture, which will keep your main subject in focus (or at least their eyes) but render the background a pleasing blur. (Read more about Aperture here or specifically about wider aperture in the post What an Aperture of F/1.8 Can Do for You.)

If you are shooting an individual portrait, you can experiment with the very wide aperture values, like f/1.8 or so. Depending on your composition and focal length, you may find that you cannot keep the whole of your subject's face in focus, but as long as you nail the eyes, it can still look great.

If you are shooting groups of people, you may need to narrow your aperture somewhat, perhaps to f/4 or f/5.6 depending on the numbers and whether they are arranging in a similar focal plane (like side-by-side rather than one behind the other). You may need to take some test shots and see if the depth of field (area of the photograph in focus) is appropriate for your given situation.

Tip 3b: Keep an Eye on Your Shutter Speed

The downside to shooting with a more narrow aperture, of course, is that you will need to use a slower shutter speed. Make sure that you keep your shutter speed quick enough to avoid camera shake. (The general rule of thumb is a shutter speed faster than one over the length of the lens, so 1/50th of a second for a 50 mm lens or 1/200th of a second for a 200 mm zoom lens.) But, if you are dealing with people who are fidgeting or younger children who are on the move, you should keep your shutter speed at least as fast as 1/250 to avoid blur from your moving subject. (Read more details about Shutter Speed Guidelines here.)

If you realize that you shutter speed is becoming too slow, then you have a few options. You can raise your ISO value to capture more light (read the downsides in ISO Basics); you can use a wider aperture to capture more light; or you can add more light to your scene (reflectors or flash units) or move to a brighter location. You do not want a slow shutter speed and motion blur or subject blur to ruin your shot.

Tip 4: Watch the Background

Finally, one of the most important (and hardest to learn) lessons for portraiture is to watch the background. If you are shooting at a wide aperture, much of your background will become blur. But to achieve this look, you want your background as far as possible from your subject.

Aim for simplicity in your background. Even as blur, you want to avoid creating distractions or odd patches of light or color that might distract the eye from your intended subject. Try moving your subject or move yourself in relation to your subject to find a less cluttered background. (Read more in the post Remember the Background and Move Your Feet.)

Also aim for even lighting in your background and between your background and your subject. If you are shooting your subject in shade to achieve even lighting, then you will want a similarly shady look to the background. If the background is in full sun instead, it will appear far too bright and overpowering in the final photograph or require a lot of post-processing effort. Likewise, a full sun subject against a shady background might appear overly bright or blown out.

Portrait Photography Basics

These four basic tips can help you make the most of your portrait photography opportunities. The next step is up to you. Find a willing subject (or enlist yourself - see Shoot a Successful Self-Portrait) and starting putting these ideas into practice.

Ready for the next step? Check out these Top Tips for Photography Portraits and Posing and get ready to take your photographs to the next level!

Share a link or a photograph in the comments below, or consider joining the BYP 52 Weeks Google+ Community to share your weekly photograph and see what others are capturing.

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.