Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Travel Photography Must Haves

With summer rapidly approaching, I have been going through and refining my packing lists for travel with my camera. This post covers some must-have (and generally inexpensive) purchases to consider before your next trip.

Cleaning Products

No matter where you travel, your camera is at risk of getting dirty. Sand at the beach, dust on the trails, even smudges and fingerprints can all stick to your lenses and filters and detract from your images. You should never leave home without a method of easily cleaning your lenses, and most are so small they fit easily in a purse or camera bag.

Slow shutter photograph of the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park
(If you look in the blue sky, you can see smudges from dirt/grease on the lens.)

Your first line of defense should be a blower. These simple products work well to loosen and remove larger bits of dust, dirt, or sand. It is best to use this first, as larger particles of debris can get stuck in brushes or clothes and scratch your lens or filter. The Giotto brand of rocket blowers are very well-regarded by photographers and come in multiple sizes. The small works well for travel or when space is at a premium, while the large size is more effective.

After removing the larger particles, a LensPen is a must have for cleaning on-the-go. A little wider than your average pen, but the same length, a LensPen contains two different tools for cleaning your lens: a retractable brush on one end and a flattened tip with a carbon cleaning compound. The brush can be used to remove any visible particles left after using the blower, then the flattened tip end is used to wipe away any smears, smudges, or grime. Use a small, circular motion for best results. The carbon cleaning compound is stored inside the pen and refreshes each time you twist the tip back in. It is not a liquid, so there is no risk of spills. You can buy individual LensPens or multiples in cleaning kits or packs. I keep one in my purse and one in my camera bag at all times. I recommend only buying a LensPen sold by the manufacturer to avoid imitations.
A LensPen (older model) is a convenient size for travel.

When I am traveling and trying to minimize my gear, I stick to just a blower and a LensPen. If space is not an issue or if you are visiting a particularly dusty or sandy location, you may also want to consider bringing along a liquid lens cleaning solution and a microfiber cloth or disposable wipes. In my personal experience, I have found that the blower and LensPen are enough to cover nearly all cleaning situations.


Another thing to consider when traveling is duplication. Memory cards fail or get full, batteries lose their juice, and all kinds of issues in between. It is also important to consider how you are storing them.

I always carry at least one extra memory card when traveling. I shoot RAW+jpg which means that even my 16GB cards tend to fill up quickly on a trip. When buying memory cards, you need to consider a few factors: the style of card your camera takes, the size of the card, the speed of the card, and the brand of the card.

Make sure that you enough memory cards.

Several different styles of camera memory are available including compact flash (CF), secure digital (SD or SDHC), MemoryStick, and more, so be sure that you are buying the style made to fit your camera. The second factor is the size of the card: how many gigabytes of memory it can hold. I generally use and buy 8GB and 16GB cards, but even larger sizes are becoming more common. It is worth looking at a variety of sizes, as there is usually a ‘sweet spot’ in the market (for example, two 8GBs might cost less than one comparable 16GB card). Shop for memory cards on Amazon.

The third factor is the speed of the card, which is generally indicated in a little circle symbol on the card itself. The speed indicates the read- and write-speeds of the card, which is how fast you can write data to the card and how fast you can read (download) data from the card. The write-speed is more of an issue for people who shoot video rather than photographs, unless you do a significant amount of high-speed, burst photography.  A fast read-speed does come in handy when downloading to your computer. Most of my cards are class 10, the higher-speed cards, and I suggest that you stick to 6 or higher.

The final factor is the brand of the card. Ask a group of photographers which brand they use and you may get as many different answers as there are photographers! SanDisk and Lexar are two of the most well-known, while ‘cheaper’ brands such as Transcend and Kingston are also well-regarded. Do some comparisons and see what kinds of deals you can find.

Store Memory Cards Safely | Boost Your Photography

Memory cards are usually sold in small plastic cases, and an inexpensive upgrade is a dedicated memory card holder. Many different sizes and styles are available, and you should consider both the size of the card you use as well as how many you want to have with you at a given time. Features to look for include weather-sealing and waterproofing to help guard against accidents. Shop for memory card holders on Amazon.

Finally, you always want to make sure that you have at least one extra battery (I carry two). Name-brand batteries that match your camera are often significantly more expensive than the knock-off brands. I have had good luck with both my Promaster and Sterlingtek knock-off batteries, but I always carry two backups just in case. Don’t forget to bring along your charger if you’ll be gone for any length of time!

Take a record shot each time you change your battery.
(Taken as close as we got to the top of Electric Peak, Yellowstone National Park.)

Another tip for batteries: learn how long your batteries last. Every time my battery dies and I replace it, my next shot is always of the dead battery. That way I have a record of exactly when during each shoot I had to replace the battery, and I can calculate approximately how many shots I can take with a given battery. So, I know that my original Canon battery lasts around 800 shots, while my Promaster and Sterlingtek batteries last around 650-700 shots. These numbers vary considerably, of course, when doing long-shutter shots or in colder weather. Read the full article: How Long Does Your Camera's Battery Last?


Size is an important consideration when traveling, and this post has covered some small, inexpensive purchases to consider before your next trip. A few small upgrades can make a big difference in making sure you can get the shot crystal clear, save it, and have battery life to spare.

Always remember:
  • Blower to remove large debris
  • LensPen to brush off and clean lenses and filters
  • Lens cleaning solution
  • Microfiber cloth or disposable wipes
  • Extra memory cards
  • Memory card holder
  • Extra batteries

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Be a Local Tourist: Photograph a Farmers' Market

Memorial Day weekend in the US marks the unofficial start of summer, a time when many photographers’ minds turn to thoughts of travel. But you don’t need to travel to a new location to practice your travel photography. There are endless opportunities in your own town.

The Dane County Farmers' Market takes place around the State Capitol

Farmers' Markets

A summer-Saturday tradition in Madison is the Farmers’ Market, where local farmers, producers, and crafters crowd the square around the Capitol building to sell their wares. This practice follows from traditional European markets when farmers would bring their goods into the cities for sale. The main Madison Farmers’ Market was established in the early 1970s and is now the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the country (at least according to their website). The concept is so popular that dozens of smaller markets can be found in and around the city on any given weekend. The best part of my Saturday is the two block walk to the neighborhood Farmers’ Market and the tasty Danishes that await me!

Celebrating the first Danish of the season with market in the background.
Danish by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Play with Patterns

Farmers’ Markets are an excellent place to play with patterns. Fruits, vegetables, and flowers all offer opportunities and can be compared and contrasted in interesting and unexpected ways. Practice filling the frame with just one of a given object and see what results you can find. Or, look for where different objects are placed together and see what kind of compositions you can create.

Stacks of asparagus make a beehive pattern.
Asparagus Pattern by Archaeofrog on Flickr
A panoply of pumpkins
Pumpkin Patterns by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Street Photography

Farmers’ Markets are also a great venue for street photography, as you will find many people interacting, exploring, and enjoying what the market has to offer. Also, don’t forget the vendors! Screw up your courage and ask if you can take an environmental portrait – you can capture a strong sense of the individual as well as their surroundings. Or shoot from the hip and see what you are able to accomplish.

An environmental portrait of a vendor and his products
Vendor in the Rain by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Don’t Forget the Details

Farmers’ Markets offer an abundance of produce and products that also lend themselves well to macro or close-up photography.  (A series of earlier posts offers suggestions about inexpensive ways to achieve near marco-level effects without investing in an expensive macro lens.) While the photograph below is not quite to that level of detail, I did want to focus in an emphasize the details in the sugar crystals atop the amazing muffins.

Close Encounters of the Muffin-Kind
Delicious Muffins by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Make a Statement

Be sure to also put the camera down and spend some time observing. What draws your attention? Is it colors, crowds, interactions, movement, delicious smells? Think about how best to convey that aspect of the Farmers’ Market in your photography.

For me, since I so rarely visit the downtown market, what strikes me immediately is the crowds. There is such a constant hustle and bustle of people continuously in motion. But at the same time, there is a strange, agreed-upon order to the chaos. No matter when you go to this particular Farmers’ Market, the crowds will always move in a counterclockwise pattern. There will be a constant ebb-and-flow as people move in closer to the stands they are interested in, but they will always return out to the broader counterclockwise course.

Farmers' Market in motion
Movement at the Market by Archaeofrog on Flickr

In the photograph above, I wanted to capture that feeling of motion and pattern. I had brought my DSLR but did not have my tripod or any special filters with me. So, I improvised by using a nearby bench to stabilize the camera and held my polarized sunglasses in front of the lens to mimic a polarizing filter. I was not able to slow down the shutter speed as much as I would have liked, but you at least get some sense of movement from the blur of the crowds.

Conclusion: Be a Local Tourist

You do not have to travel far from home to be a tourist. Think about events or happenings around your own town and neighborhood that could offer photographic opportunities. Apply the same skills and strategies that you would when traveling to your own town and surroundings. You might be surprised at what you find!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Remember the Background and Move your Feet

As a photographer, your mind is always on your subject – whether that is a person, a physical object, an idea, or an inspiration. But if you are wondering why many of your images look and feel more like snapshots than photographs, it may be because you are focusing too much on your subject and not enough on everything else in your viewfinder.

The background of the image is often overlooked by beginning and casual photographers. Everyone has, at times, fallen prey to the allure of the subject and neglected to notice some background detail that will, upon discovery, ruin what might have been a wonderful image. This category includes the classic ‘pole growing out of someone’s head’ shot where the subject accidentally aligns with some background object, as well as many other ‘not quite right’ shots.

Composite of two images to make Peter Pan
(Admit it, once you noticed the electrical outlet, you couldn't stop staring at it.)

Some of these background mistakes can be remedied in post-processing. In the example above, I was using my apartment wall as a neutral background, but I neglected to notice the distracting electrical outlet in the bottom left corner. A little bit of patching in Photoshop replaced the plug with wall, and this small change made a tremendous difference in the overall focus and flow of the image.

Small change; big difference
Peter Pan by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Many times, however, the background and its distractions are so integral to the image that it may be beyond the reach of post-processing to remedy (or certainly beyond the length of time I’d be willing to commit to try). The best and simplest solution is to remember the background when you are shooting and, if you come across a distracting background, use your feet.

These two photographs of lilacs were taken of the same bush within moments of each other, but the backgrounds give each image a very different feel. In the top image, the background is very busy, with several sharp diagonals and a stone path leading the eye out of the image and away from the flowers. In the bottom image, the background is more consistent and more blurred, with a hint of other lilac bunches and trees beyond. The colors blend well together and it makes for a more harmonious image overall. 

Two major things played a role in the differences in the background. The first was that I moved my feet. Changing the perspective of an image requires you to move physically, whether that means moving your feet, standing up or getting down, or trying a different angle or viewpoint with the camera. (Zooming in or out can change how things appear in an image but will not change the perspective. Read more in Zooming vs. Cropping: perspective in photography.) In this case, I looked around longer and, instead of pointing my camera at the lilac with the stone path behind it (top image), I turned and got lower, so that the lilac bunch was silhouetted against the more distant branches and trees (bottom image).

This led to the second major difference in the background – the out-of-focus background achieved in the second image. The depth of field of an image (the depth of the focal plane or area in sharp focus) varies based on a number of factors, including aperture, focal length, and distance. The further away something is from the focal plane, the more blurred or out-of-focus it will be. So, because the trees behind the lilac bush (bottom image) were fifty feet away, they appear nicely blurred, while the stone path (top image) was only five feet away and appears more angular and distracting.

A simple tip for achieving the blurred background look with any camera or lens is for you to get physically closer to your subject while keeping them physically further away from the background. This is a trick often used by photographers for outdoor portraits.

Close-up of a crab apple tree, demonstrating the difference in making small changes to the aperture.

Depth of field is also affected by the aperture used: a wider aperture (small number, but larger fraction, like f/1.8) has a much shallower depth of field so less of the image will be in focus, while a narrower aperture (larger number, smaller fraction, like f/22) has a much wider depth of field so more or all of the image will be in focus. The triptych above demonstrates the impact of even small changes in the aperture: varying from f/5.0 to f/1.8. At f/5.0 some of the further back leaves are still in focus, while everything except the closest leaves are out of focus at f/1.8. Read more about Aperture in the series that begins with Aperture and the F/Stop Conundrum.

So, the next time you prepare to take a photograph, stop for a moment, ignore your subject, and consider the background. If you find something distracting, try moving your feet or adjusting your aperture to get more blur. You may find that a small change in perspective can make a big change in your final image.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rephotography: Dear Photograph

Rephotography is the practice of taking a photograph of the same person, place, or scene over a period of time. In a previous post, I shared tips for seasonal rephotography and how to create a collage of the same scene across all four seasons. In this post, I’ll share a technique for creating a rephotography shot within a single image.
Rephotography: Dear Photograph | Boost Your Photography
Rephotography: Original image from Easter 1988.  Rephotographed in June 2011.

These shots are powerful and attention-grabbing, with their ability to demonstrate change as well as connectivity between people and across time. This idea of rephotography in a single image was popularized on the web site and Tumblr Dear Photograph and more recently by New York photographer Christopher Moloney, who has been applying the idea to movie stills shot in New York City.

The concept is simple, but the execution can be tricky. The first step is finding old photographs of an identifiable location that you can revisit. (The series of pictures in this post were all taken at my childhood home.) You also want to establish a visual connection between the original photograph and the modern location. This works best if some element of the original photograph continues outside of the frame and into the modern section.

Rephotography: Original image from 1989. Rephotographed in June 2011.

In this rephotography of the swing set, there is a visual connection between the edge of the play structure in the original photograph as it leads into the rest of the play structure today. This type of rephotography is most convincing if you can re-establish the exact same angle and perspective of the original photograph as viewed against the modern location. While the background in the swing set picture does not perfectly align, the huge growth of the trees in the middle ground obscures this misalignment.

Rephotography: Original image from September 1988. Rephotographed in June 2011.
Rephotography: Original image from August 1989. Rephotographed in June 2011.

You can also create a series of such images across a single location by either collecting old images all taken at the same location or by starting your own collection of new images in a set location. These two original photographs were taken a year apart and show subtle changes in the background, such as the planting of the background left tree and the different flowers.

Rephotography in the style of ‘Dear Photograph’ can be a fascinating way to revisit old locations and capture a sense of change and continuity in a single photograph. While such images can take some planning, the end result is well worth the effort of scouting through old photographs.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Start a Series: from where I stand

A lone photograph can tell a powerful message, but a collection of photographs can tell a story far beyond the abilities of an individual shot. One way to capitalize on this idea in your own photography is to create a series of shots, linked by a particular style or motif. This can be a collection you create all at once or one that you add to over time. One easy way to start such a series is to begin with something that you always have with you: your own two feet.

While the presence of the photographer’s feet in the image can feel like a cliché, it can also be a powerful way of demonstrating your own presence and place in the world. In the image above, the double-brick line marks the original location of the Berlin Wall. By placing my feet on either side of the line, I am able to interact in that history in a meaningful way.

The inclusion of your feet in a picture provides a strong sense of place and can be interesting to explore at various locations. The image above was taken in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, calculated to be the geographic center of the United States.

Your feet can also convey information about you and your personality. Personally, I hate shopping for shoes, but last summer I finally gave in and crammed at least a year’s worth of shoe shopping into a single week. To celebrate my accomplishment, I took the above photo, which also has a feeling of indecision to it, as I contemplate all my new options.

Such shots can also have a sense of humor.  I took this shot above early into my 365 project on a day I had been laid up with a head cold for nearly the entire day. Having been prevented from taking any photographs, I decided to use that to my advantage and set-up the shot to capture my feelings about the day.

Finally, collecting a series of repeating shots can make for a great collage. Here, I went for a seasonal theme, including the flowering petals of spring, the dramatic drought of last summer, the first leaves of fall, and a pile up of lake ice during the winter. I also like how the passing of the seasons is reflecting in my shoes as well as my surroundings.
Start a Series: From Where I Stand | Boost Your Photography

So, next time you’re feeling stuck about something to photograph – or are in a new location and want to record your presence – think about looking down. You might be surprised with what you see!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Why Won't My Lens Focus?

When I first upgraded to my DSLR camera and started using it extensively, I found myself facing a whole variety of problems, and for many of them, I couldn’t find easy solutions online or in any of my beginning photography books. I realized much later that some of these problems were so basic and fundamental that experts who had been shooting for a long time had likely forgotten that they had ever not known how to do such things.

This is the first article in an occasional series aimed at beginners called “Things Experts Forgot to Tell You” or “Things that You Forgot you had to Learn.” Maybe you’ve just purchased your first DSLR camera or perhaps you’ve had one sitting around for awhile that you’ve been meaning to start using.  The next big steps are getting out there, figuring out what you and your camera are capable of, and learning where to get answers to your questions.  While the first two steps are up to you, this series is an attempt to briefly cover some of the questions that might not have yet occurred to you to ask.

Why Won’t My Lens Focus?

Trust me, it’s not because your lens is broken.  Early on, I was convinced that I had broken my lens while trying to do some close-up photography.  I had gotten the bee on the flower nearly in focus and then my lens would make this terrible grinding sound and get stuck.  I was worried that something had gotten caught inside the lens itself and that the damage would be irreparable.  Neither the camera’s manual nor a quick search of the Internet provided any clues, and it wasn’t until sometime later that I found there was a very simple explanation.  

Each lens has a minimum focusing distance, which is a measurement of how close you can get to an object and still be able to focus on it.  This measurement is usually written on the lens itself somewhere.  For my Canon lenses, it’s written on the barrel of the lens, indicated with a little flower symbol.  For my kit 18-55 mm lens, the minimum focusing distance is 0.25 m / 0.8 ft.  The weird noises and inability to focus were caused by the fact that I was too close to the bee.

Why Won't My Lens Focus? | Boost Your Photography
Out-of-focus foreground plant with an in-focus background. I fell victim to the minimum focusing distance.

This early image of mine demonstrates the problem of minimum focusing distance. I wanted the leaves of the plant in focus, but the autofocus on my camera kept selecting the magazine in the background. I eventually gave up and just took the picture as is, not realizing that I only needed to get a little further away from the plant to keep it in focus.

If you are feeling limited by the minimum focusing distance of your lens, there are some inexpensive solutions. Close-up lenses act as a magnifying glass and allow you to focus on objects much closer to the lens. You can read all about close-up lenses and their benefits in this article. Purchase close-up lenses on Amazon.

Another reason that a lens may have difficulty focusing is because there are simply too many options for it to choose from.  This is particularly a problem if you have ever tried to photograph something obstructed like a bird in a tree.  You understand that you want the bird in focus, but the autofocus can get ‘distracted’ by all the various, overlapping branches in the way (or the film on your dirty window) and choose something other than the bird.  The best strategy here (other than trying manual focus) is to move yourself and the camera around until you have an unobstructed view of the bird.

Here the camera decided that I wanted the nice foreground branch in focus instead of either bird in the background.
Moving around slightly and waiting for better lighting gave me a much cleaner shot.
This picture was taken four minutes after the image above.
Bohemian Waxwing at Dawn by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Finally, your lens might have difficulty focusing because of a lack of contrast.  Autofocus relies on a contrast between the focus point and its surroundings.  If you try to autofocus on a blank wall or background, your camera will likely hunt back and forth without settling and maintaining focus.  To overcome this, you may have to put something on or against the wall or background for the autofocus to latch on to.  Similarly, your camera will have a much harder time focusing in low light, as a lack of light contributes to a lowered contrast.

Trying to focus on this blank wall  was not working.
In the picture above, I used the pictures framed on the blank wall to set the focus. Then I used the 10-second timer on the camera to put myself in the shot and check on the focus. After that, I switched the focus to manual to keep it in place, took the pictures off the wall, and was able to take a series of pictures of myself attempting classic Peter Pan poses. A bit of work in Photoshop combined the best pose with the best shadow for the final image.

Final Peter Pan image showing both the images combined for the final product.
Peter Pan by Archaeofrog on Flickr
So, if you are having problems getting your lens to focus, think about whether it might be for one of the reasons above.
  • If you are closer than the minimum focusing distance of your lens, you’ll either need to back up or use something like a close-up lens that changes the minimum focusing distance.
  • If your autofocus is having trouble finding what you want in focus, you may need to move around for an unobstructed view or give manual focus a try.
  • If your camera can’t find focus due to a lack of contrast, put something up against what you want to focus on and use that. Or use a flashlight or other lighting to add contrast to a dark situation before switching to manual to lock the focus in place.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Missed the Shot? Remember "Camera Zero"

This light painting shot was taken with a 30-second exposure, a tripod, and a remote shutter release.
Read here How to Spin an Orb with Light
The top reason for missing a shot is not having your camera with you at the time. The only slightly less well-known reason for missing a shot is having forgotten to reset your camera. This is why you need to remember to reset to your “camera zero.”

Let me illustrate with an example. Earlier in the week, I was called into the back room since two large mourning doves had just alighted on the porch balcony and were acting affectionate. I grabbed my camera en route, pulled off the lens cap, and turned it on. As soon as I walked in, I zoomed in the lens, composed the image, and clicked the shutter. (Insert long click sound here.) It was only after taking the shot that I realized that the camera was still set on manual with a 30-second shutter. After an agonizing thirty seconds spent waiting for the shot to finish, I quickly adjusting the settings and tried again … just as both doves got spooked a flew off. I was left with nothing but this overexposed memento of their visit.
This picture was supposed to be of mourning doves but was taken with a 30-second exposure on a bright day.
(Taken the day after the photo above.)
That kind of missed opportunity happens to everyone, but you can prevent it by remembering to return to “camera zero” each time you finish shooting.

“____ zero” has become a catchy way of talking about getting an accomplishment back to the beginning, whether that be “inbox zero” (no new mail) or “dirty-dishes zero” (a time of celebration in our household). So, camera zero is the selected settings that you expect your camera to have each time you turn it on to start shooting.

Mode: My default shooting mode is ‘P’ for Program. In program mode, the camera chooses the aperture and shutter speed, but you set the ISO value. I keep my ISO at 100 (the native speed for my DSLR). P is a great choice for your camera zero setting, because it gives the camera the option to choose both the aperture and the shutter for the given situation.

Get the Shot: Remember Camera Zero | Boost Your Photography

Quality: I shoot RAW+L which creates a RAW file plus a high quality jpeg. This gives me the flexibility of using the jpeg with the critical data and flexibility provided by the RAW file. Unless memory and file size are a huge issue, you should always be shooting at the largest quality jpeg (without compression) that you can. Whether you shoot RAW or not is up to you.

AF Mode: The majority of the time I shoot in “one shot,” rather than AI Focus or AI Servo, which means that I need to set the focus of the shot every time.

Drive Mode: Continuous. Although I do not often use the burst function to take multiple pictures at a time (possible in continuous but not in single), I find it is a useful feature to have. This is most often the setting that I forget to come back to if I have been using the 10-sec or 2-sec timer options.

Metering Mode: Evaluative, though I occasionally use spot metering for shooting birds.

White Balance: Auto. Shooting in RAW gives me the flexibility to adjust the white balance in post-processing and prevents me from over-thinking this setting. Some landscape shooters swear by shooting always in ‘cloudy’ to get the warmer sun feeling, but I think auto is a much safer and more consistent choice.

Exposure Compensation: Zero. My most common mistake here is forgetting to take it off a bracketed setting (shooting three different exposures) and restore it to the one-shot zero setting.

Lens: vibration compensation: on and auto-focus: on. (See my article on How to Maximize Your Tripod to understand when to turn off vibration compensation.)

Knowing is half the battle when it comes to camera zero. The other half of the battle is taking those precious seconds when you’ve finished shooting to do a quick run through of your settings and return them to camera zero. Get in the habit of looking back over your display and at your lens each time you turn the camera off.

That way, the next time a split-second opportunity presents itself, you’ll be ready!

Want to learn more? 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.