Saturday, April 27, 2013

Shoot the Moon with the Photographer's Ephemeris

The moon has long been a favorite subject of photographers. This article will explain how to raise the bar for your moon photography by using a free and simple tool: the Photographer’s Ephemeris.

The moon rising bright over Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin
Moon Rise over Mendota by Archaeofrog on Flickr
The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a program that provides you with the timing and relative locations for sunrise, sunset, moon rise, and moon set. What makes it an invaluable resource, however, is its mapping function. You input a location, and the map overlays the direction of each event (sunrise, sunset, moon rise, and moon set). You can then move around your reference point to determine the best location to achieve a certain photograph.

Let me explain with an example. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and one of my bucket list shots has been to photograph the full moon rising above the city skyline, featuring the glowing dome of our state capitol building. There are several parks and public areas around the lake near the Capitol, from which I could shoot the skyline. Using the Photographer’s Ephemeris (Windows version), I was able to move the reference point around until the angle of the moon rise aligned directly with the Capitol.

The narrow peninsula pictured in the map is a local park that offers several different unobstructed locations for viewing the skyline across the lake. Using the information from the Photographer’s Ephemeris, I was able to be set-up, on location and ready to go, knowing exactly when and where the moon would rise.

Above: screen shot of the PC version of the Photographer's Ephemeris showing Madison, Wisconsin.
Below: Full moon rise against the Madison skyline and Capitol by Archaeofrog. Available for purchase.

The narrow peninsula pictured in the map is a local park that offers several different unobstructed locations for viewing the skyline across the lake. Using the information from the Photographer’s Ephemeris, I was able to be set-up, on location and ready to go, knowing exactly when and where the moon would rise.

Once the moon started to come up, I realized that I would need to move a little bit further west back down the peninsula to get the moon even closer to the Capitol dome. However, I was stymied by the trees along the way, as there was no unobstructed location to get the alignment exactly as I wanted.

Full moon rise over the Madison Capitol
Madison Capitol Moon Rise by Archaeofrog on Flickr
I was very happy with the near-Capitol results that I obtained, but I will definitely continue to try again around each full moon. The relative angle of the moon rise shifts dramatically through the course of the year, so an alignment that worked one month may not for another. That is what makes the Photographer’s Ephemeris such a useful and convenient tool.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is also extremely handy when traveling, allowing you to precisely pinpoint locations to get dramatic sunrises, sunsets, moon rises, or moon sets against an incredible backdrop, architecture, or scenery.

Full moon rise over Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park
Moon Rise over Yellowstone Lake by Archaeofrog on Flickr
The Photographer’s Ephemeris is available for a wide variety of platforms. The home computer (Windows and Mac) versions are a free download, and mobile versions are available on iTunes ($8.99) and Android ($4.99). I highly recommend downloading and trying the program on your computer first, and then buying the app for your Smartphone or tablet if you find it useful.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Spinning Fire with Steel Wool Photography

You can achieve spectacular long exposure fire shots using burning steel wool and a few simple supplies. This article will lay out exactly what you will need and how to prepare to safely experiment with this technique.

steel wool photography, photography, steel wool, spinning fire, how to


The supplies needed for spinning steel wool are simple, inexpensive, and can be easily obtained at your local hardware store. First, you need steel wool. Not the scrubbing brushes sold in the grocery store, but the abrasive steel wool for cleaning and polishing. Super fine grade steel wool (#0000) is recommended for its ability to throw sparks, but you can have success using any of the fine grades (up to #0). A package of 12 pads costs around $6 at the hardware store.

Supplies needed for steel wool photography
Second, you need a system for spinning the steel wool. For this, you will need a wire whisk (no plastic handles), a key ring, and a short length of chain, around 2-3 feet. I found the key ring and cut-to-order chain for $1 a foot at the hardware store, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond had a set of three wire whisks for $4. (Although I was also able to find some very inexpensive wire whisks at the thrift shop, they were missing a ring on the end to attach to the chain.)

You will also need something to ignite the steel wool. You can use a 9V battery and simply rub it into the steel wool until it ignites, or you can use matches or a lighter.

Finally, for safety’s sake, you should wear long pants and long sleeves, as well as a hat, to protect your hair and body. Darker clothing will help you blend into the shadows and disappear from the picture. You may also want to consider gloves and protective glasses or goggles. Be sure to have a filter on your lens to protect it from sparks. You should also bring a wet blanket or a jug of water to extinguish any small sparks that might catch.


You want to choose a location that is safe as well as photographically interesting. An ideal location would include a non-flammable surface, flooring, and possibly structures. The images for this article were taken at a state park inside the remnants of a stone barn with a concrete floor. Some spinning was done on the grass just outside the barn structure, but this was after a period of nearly two weeks of constant rain. Other popular locations for steel wool spinning include tunnels, such as the now-abandoned train tunnels along bike trails, or beaches. Put simply, you want to be sure that there is nothing easily flammable within at least a ten-to-twenty foot radius of the spinner, as it is the still-burning chunks of steel wool flying out of the whisk that create the fantastic sparks and light trails.

Choose a safe location for steel wool photography.
The remains of this stone barn has a concrete floor.

Steel wool spinning works best in lower light situations that allow for an extended shutter, but it depends on the mood and feeling of the image that you are trying to create. An ideal time for such photography is during the ‘blue hour,’ a period of roughly an hour from after the sun sets, when twilight occurs and the sky records as remarkable shades of deep blue on the camera. It is during this period when you have the best chance of recording long, vibrant exposures of the steel wool in combination with the rest of the scenery. Images taken after the blue hour will rely solely on the light of the steel wool itself, darkly rendering the rest of the image.

steel wool photography, photography, steel wool, spinning fire, how to, long exposure photography, night photography
During the blue hour (left), you will be able to maintain color in the sky and background,
while later on in the evening (right), the sky will render as black.
Blue Hour Steel Wool Photography by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Evening Steel Wool Photography by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Making the Shot

You will have the most success photographing steel wool if you have your camera on a tripod and use a remote shutter release. (See this article for how to use your tripod to its maximum potential.) You do not need a DSLR camera, but you need to be able to manually set the shutter speed on your point-and-shoot. I found that a shutter speed of 8-10 seconds rendered a good portion of spins and sparks, while also allowing me to capture two to four images for each time spinning. I started with an aperture of around f/14 during the blue hour and stopped down to my widest, f/3.5, as the night deepened. There is also a lot of creative preference here for what you are looking to capture in your image. If you want more spins and sparks, use a longer shutter. If you want more of the background exposed, use a longer shutter or a wider aperture.

You may need to assist your camera in finding the proper focus. The easiest way to do this is to have the person spinning stand in place, shine a flashlight on them if it is too dark, and focus the camera. Then turn the autofocus off, and your lens will remain focused on that spot. With a point-and-shoot you may need to wait until the person starts spinning and use the fire to focus.

steel wool photography, photography, steel wool, spinning fire, how to, long exposure photography, night photography
Steel wool orb shot using a point and shoot camera (by Jessica)

I highly recommend that you practice spinning the whisk on the chain before placing and lighting the steel wool. You want to hold your arm out straight, parallel to the ground, and spin the whisk in a circle parallel to your body. As you get more comfortable, you can also try things like spinning the circle above your head, turning your body around while spinning, or walking side-to-side while spinning to create spirals.

Once you are ready to go, load one or two steel wool pads into the whisk. Fluff them up once inside for maximum oxygen and sparks. Then light them using any of the methods above (battery, matches, lighter, etc.). The steel wool will smolder until you start spinning. The motion through the air will feed the fire and create the bursting sparks. You will have more sparks the faster you spin. Continue spinning until the fire is extinguished or your arm gets tired. Have a place designated where you can rest the whisk and remaining stump of steel wool until it is cool enough to reuse.

Those are the basics; the rest is up to you. Try different motions or angles. Think about having multiple people spinning or use props, such as a wet umbrella. Spin closer or farther from walls and floors to see how the sparks bounce and react. Try different locations or backdrops. But above all, have fun and be safe.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Maximize Your Tripod

Tripods are a useful part of a photographer’s gear, and one that is often underused and misunderstood. Tripods are often considered a ‘set it and forget it’ type of tool – you use it to hold your camera in a given situations and that’s all you need to do. But there are a few simple steps you can take to maximize the effectiveness of your tripod – and the sharpness of your photos.

Water droplets shot with a 50 mm lens and 7+14 mm extension tubes. Tripod used for 2" shutter speed at f/22. Read how to make the shot: Water on CD Refraction.
First is to use a remote or timer to trigger your camera. While the motion of pushing down the shutter button doesn’t seem like much, it can create minor movement in the camera or the tripod. A remote shutter release removes this movement, whether you use a simple cord remote that attaches directly to the camera (and is very inexpensive) or a wireless remote. (Shop for remote shutter releases on Amazon. I use this remote with a cord.) If you don’t have a remote with you, you can set the 2-second or 10-second timer on the camera. This gives the camera those few seconds to recover from any motion conferred when you pressed the shutter.

Mirror lockup is an additional step to remove unwanted movement. Every time your DSLR camera takes a photograph, the reflex mirror inside moves up before the shot and back down again after. This small, mechanical motion can impact the sharpness of your picture. You may need to look in your camera’s manual to find out how to enable mirror lockup.  (For my Canon T1i, it is in the Custom Functions menu.) After you have enabled mirror lockup, you can use either of the methods above the trigger the shutter. You will hear two sounds: first, the sound of the mirror locking up, and then, two seconds later, the sound of the photograph being taken.

Maximize Your Tripod | Boost Your Photography
Use different tripods in different situations.

A final tip is to disengage the image stabilization function on your lens, if available.  Image stabilization (IS) is known by different names for different companies (IS for Canon, vibration reduction or VR for Nikon, vibration compensation or VC for Tamron, etc), but they all accomplish the same thing. Stabilized lenses allow you to handhold at lower shutter speeds by compensating for the possible motion or shake when you take the picture. When the camera is properly secured to a tripod, however, there is no motion from handholding, so a stabilized lens can actually add motion back in instead. Stabilized lenses often have a small switch on the barrel of the lens that allows you to turn off the stabilization.  (It will generally be labeled with the brand-specific abbreviation.) So, if you’re using a tripod, flip it to off. Just remember to flip it back on when you are finished.

So, there you go. Three simple steps to help minimize movement and maximize the effectiveness of using a tripod: use a remote or timer, engage mirror lockup, and turn off image stabilization.

A Gorillapod is a very convenient and flexible style of tripod that allows you to take photographs in unconventional locations.
Looking to buy a tripod? I use the DSLR version of the Joby GorillaPod for lightweight and travel photography and a Vanguard Alta Vanguard Alta Plus 233AP for an everyday tripod. You can read my full review of the GorillaPod. (Shop for tripods on Amazon.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cheap and Easy Macro: comparisons and recommendations

Cheap and Easy Macro: Comparisons and Recommendations | Boost Your Photography

Macro or close-up photography is not limited to those with big budgets and expensive macro lenses. There are several easy and inexpensive ways to achieve macro-level results with your current DSLR camera and lens, and I have written a series of articles that explains each of these techniques in detail (close-up lenses, reverse rings, and extension tubes) as well as tips about how best to use them. This article will provide a comparison of these techniques, so that you can figure out which are right for you. If you want to explore more, one book that has come highly recommended is Understanding Close-up Photography: creative close encounters with or without a macro lens by Bryan Peterson.

Close up image of burrs captured with a +10 close-up lens
Burrs Up Close by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Your Zoom Lens

First, you should evaluate your current macro capabilities. One often overlooked method for close-up photography is to use your longest zoom lens. Figure out the minimum focusing distance of your lens (the closest you can get to your subject and still have it in focus), which is often written on the lens itself. (On Canon lenses it is the length written after the flower symbol.) Then, pick a subject at that minimum distance, zoom your lens out to its longest zoom, and see how close-up of an in-focus image you can capture. This is your starting point for macro photography. Tip: if you really want to know how close of an image you can make, take a photograph of a ruler.

Close-Up Lenses: overview

Close-up lenses are filters that screw on to the front of your existing lens (read the full review about close-up lenses here). They act like a magnifying glass to decrease the minimum focusing distance, allowing you to get closer to your subject. You can still use all the automatic functions of your camera, including autofocus and setting the aperture of the lens, and there is a minimal loss of light. Close-up lenses must be bought to fit the filter diameter of your lens, or you could buy a set to fit the filter diameter of your widest lens and then buy a step-up adapter to fit them on any lenses with smaller diameters. (Shop for close-up lenses on Amazon.)
Close-Up Lens Set by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Reverse Rings: overview

A reverse ring mount adapter allows you to secure your lens backwards to your camera body, and this reversal of the optics allows for close-up photography (read the full article about reverse rings here). You will lose autofocus with a reverse ring and will have to set the aperture of the lens before reversing it. Reverse rings work best if you have a prime lens, and you must purchase a separate reverse ring that matches the filter diameter of each lens you plan to reverse. (Shop for reverse rings on Amazon.) Excellent prime lenses include the Canon 50 mm f/1.8 or the Canon 35 mm f/2.
A 50 mm lens reverse-mounted by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Extension Tubes: overview

Extension tubes are hollow metal tubes that fit between your lens and the camera body (read the full article about extension tubes here). They move the lens further from the camera’s sensor, allowing the sensor to record a smaller area of the subject. The pricier, brand-specific versions maintain the electrical connections and allow you to use autofocus and easily adjust the aperture of the lens, while the cheaper generic versions do not. Extension tube use results in a substantial loss of light on the sensor, so you will need to compensate with a higher ISO, longer shutter speeds, or wider apertures. Extension tubes are bought to match your camera and will work with all your lenses. (Shop for extension tubes on Amazon.)
Set of three generic extension tubes by Archaeofrog on Flickr

How Close: a comparison

The big question in macro photography is always how close-up of an image you can take. The definition of true macro photography is the ability to capture an image the same size as the sensor of the camera, indicated as a 1:1 ratio, or better. For reference, my Canon T1i camera has an APS-C sensor that is approximately 22.3 x 14.9 mm (0.87 x 0.59 inches), which means I would need to capture an image of that size or smaller to be true macro. Practically speaking, however, most photographers are happy to capture an image that appears to be life-size or larger-than-life when viewed at a standard print size like 4 x 6 inches.

The chart below is a rough approximation of how close-up of an image you can create using each of the different techniques. The grey grid in the background is in inches, and the outside red rectangle represents the regular field of view for the Canon 50 mm lens: 4 x 6 inches. An image captured at that point would be exactly life-size when printed as a 4 x 6. Not true macro, but a good starting point. The interior red rectangle represents the field of view for the Tamron 18-270 mm lens zoomed out to 270 mm: 2.5 x 3.5 inches, which would create an image almost twice life-size when printed as a 4 x 6.
Comparison of the close-up potential of different techniques
The series of green rectangles represents the effect on the 50 mm lens of each of the four strengths of close-up lens: +1, +2, +4, and +10. These differing strengths are particularly useful if you want to capture a composition of a specific size, such as an entire Lego minifigure. If you just want the closest image you can capture, use the +10 (or try a combination).

The series of yellow-orange rectangles represents the effect on the 50 mm lens of successively adding each of three widths of extension tubes: 7, 14, and 28 mm. The 7 mm extension tube alone has the most dramatic impact, bringing the area captured even closer in than the close-up lenses. Adding additional extension tubes result in even closer images.

The blue rectangle represents the area in focus when the 50 mm lens is reverse-mounted on the camera body. This is close to half life-size when compared to the size of the sensor.

Conclusions for Cheap and Easy Macro

  • Closest-in image captured: extension tubes
  • Ease of use (autofocus and the ability to change aperture in-camera): close-up lenses
  • Range of composition sizes rather than just as close as possible: close-up lenses
In my experience, I find that I reach for my close-up lenses the most often, then the extension tubes, and then the reverse ring. The close-up lenses are quick, easy, simply screw in to the front of the lens, and you can use different strengths depending on what you want to accomplish with your composition. There is a minimal impact on the amount of light reaching the sensor, so you can more easily shoot hand-held. You can also easily take them on-and-off in the field without worrying about dust or debris getting into the camera body.

The extension tubes are most useful when you want to get as close as possible to something. Because each successive tube diminishes the amount of light reaching the sensor, however, it is more difficult to hand-hold without strong lighting, a wide aperture, or bumping up the ISO. I recommend using extension tubes indoors, where you can be less concerned when constantly removing and replacing the lens.

The reverse ring is useful when you want to get a very close-in image without getting as close to the subject itself. I have found that the minimum focusing distance is greater when using the reverse ring than with extension tubes, meaning that you can be further away from the subject while still capturing a close-up image. This is particularly useful when photographing something skittish, like an insect, that might respond if you get too close.

Each of these techniques is easy and inexpensive, and $10-15 can get you started with any one of them. Below are the specific brands that I use and would recommend, but make sure that you get the correct size for the filter diameter of your lenses and/or the model of your camera body.

Close-up lenses (buy a set to fit the filter diameter of your widest lens plus a step-up adapter to fit smaller lenses)
Extension tubes (buy a set that fits your camera model)
Reverse rings (buy one that fits both the filter diameter of your lens and your camera model)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Macro and Close-Up Photography: Tips and Tricks

Lego minifigure investigates a water crown. Shot with a 50 mm lens and a +4 close-up lens.
Lego Water Crown on Flickr by Archaeofrog 
Anyone can do macro or close-up photography, and my recent series of articles has covered three inexpensive ways to achieve macro results with your current DSLR camera and lens (using close-up lensesreverse rings, and extension tubes). In this fourth and final article, I offer a series of suggestions for macro and close-up photography that are applicable whether you use any of the three techniques above, a dedicated macro lens, or the macro (flower) setting on your point-and-shoot camera.  You can read my full guest post about Macro and Close-Up Photography Tips and Tricks on Photokonnexion.

Interested in getting started in macro and close-up photography? These are the products that I use.

Digital Concepts 1 2 4 10 Close-Up Macro Filter Set with Pouch on Amazon

Fotodiox Macro Reverse Ring Camera Mount Adapter for Canon on Amazon

Fotodiox Canon EOS Macro Extension Tube Set Kit on Amazon

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Capture the Season: Rephotography

Spring is slowly reaching us here in the Upper Midwest, although this week is much more full of April showers than any sign of May flowers. The changing of the seasons is an excellent time to start thinking about a long-term photography project. A seasonal collage of pictures is a great way to celebrate a favorite scene or a special spot.

Springtime Oak Tree with Fog

The first step is to choose a spot that would lend itself well to a rephotography project, and there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. You want to choose a view that will demonstrate the full range of seasonal variation. A deciduous tree is an ideal subject, but you should also consider the foreground and background of the image. Fields or forests or gardens can also emphasize the seasonal progression and add interest. Even a cityscape can offer seasonal interest, if you frame it well.

Second, accessibility is important. You want to choose a location that is easy for you to get to during all seasons of the year and, ideally, one that is fairly close by. The more often you can visit and photograph the spot, the better range of images you will have to choose from.

Third, you need to standardize your composition. This type of project works best if you can exactly match your positioning and composition across all images. Think about using physical clues in the landscape to remind you where you took each shot or what was near the edges of the frame. Keep in mind that you want to use markers that you can rely on even in winter.
Rephotography: Seasonal Collage of an Oak Tree | Boost Your Photography
Rephotography Collage of an Oak Tree
Four Seasons Collage on Flickr by Archaeofrog

This collage was one result of my first year of doing a 365 project (taking a picture a day for a full year). The composition is a bit deceptive, as this oak tree is actually on the playground of the school where I work, which made for a very accessible location. I was initially drawn to the stature and presence of the tree alone, but the inclusion of the grass in the foreground and the natural area in the background really helped emphasize the seasonal differences.

Finally, it was relatively easy to standardize the composition. This is the view out the emergency exit door in the stairwell. Because it is a narrow window, I could ensure that I was standing in approximately the same position each time. I also chose not to use the zoom on my digital point-and-shoot camera, so that the view of the composition would be the same.

Timing is important, as the right sky or the right lighting can really make or break this kind of composition. Because I chose a location I saw on a daily basis, I had many opportunities to capture an iconic composition that I felt represented each season. I loved the early morning fog of the ‘spring’ image compared to the bright blue sky for ‘fall.’ The image below was taken during a snowstorm in the middle of the day. The light above the doorway lit the speeding snowflakes, causing the motion trails.

Winter with Falling Snow
Snow Motion Blur on Flickr by Archaeofrog
There are many variations of this idea too. Some photographers try to take their pictures at the same time of day each time, while others try to take a picture every single day. For the month of October in 2012, I took a photograph of this view nearly every school day and created the following video composite of more than 20 such images. I find it amazing how much variation was captured in such a short span of time.

Animated GIF of the same tree daily during October 2012
Do you have a location in mind? Get out there and start playing around with your composition and your placement, and you’ll be surprised at what you’ll be able to capture!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Inexpensive Close-Up Photography: extension tubes

Drop falling from an icicle, shot using a 7mm extension tube
Dripping Icicle on Flickr by Archaeofrog
A third way to achieve macro or close-up photography results is with an extension tube. Extension tubes are hollow tubes that come in many sizes and screw on between your camera and your lens. This allows you to more closely focus on objects as well as for them to appear much larger in your photographs.  You can read my full guest post about extension tubes and their use on

There are two main types of extension tubes: those that maintain the electrical connections with your camera body and those that do not. Both types of extension tubes are available on Amazon. I used the generic Fotodiox set of three tubes pictured below for all shots in the article.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Photography Inspiration: Found Book Poetry

April is National Poetry Month, and schools around the country participate in a wide variety of events and activities to encourage poetry reading, writing, and enjoyment. You may not have considered that you can use your camera to ‘write’ your own poetry, but you can.

Book Spine Poetry

A world of wonders
A swiftly tilting planet.
Every living thing,
Joyful noise.
Absolutely normal chaos:
You come, too.

Found book poetry or book spine poems are very simple – all you need is your camera and your bookshelf. I came across this idea a few years back from a reading blog started by two teachers (original post here).

You can be as intentional or unintentional as you like. I often find myself trying to tell some sort of story or capture a moment. Some book titles just call out to be included, while pairing and combining others can spur your imagination.

Book Spine Poetry

The whales
Black and white
Learning to swim in Swaziland
To see the moon
Many waters.

Book Spine Poetry

What the moon saw:
The incredible journey
The doll people
Over Sea, Under Stone,
Small Steps …
Around the world in eighty days –
Snow Treasure!

While the previous examples tended towards the humorous, my personal favorite of my found book poems was one that I decided to do as more of an autobiography. I gathered together a collection of travel guides and interspersed them with books that represented my hobbies, interests, and occupation.  This was the final poem.

Found Book Poetry | Boost Your Photography

How to be an explorer of the world:
Little house in Brookfield,
Unofficial guide to life at Harvard,
Ghosts of Vesuvius,
Wisconsin's weather and climate.
The American Southwest,
New Zealand,
Teach like a champion.
Complete National Parks,
Digital landscape photography,
Live from Jordan.

Found book poetry is an easy go-to idea when you are feeling stuck in your photography and want to try something a little different.

If you create your own found book poems, please post a link in the comments so that others can read and enjoy them too!

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