Saturday, June 29, 2013

More on Exposure: how to fix common exposure problems in your photography

The second article in an occasional series aimed at beginners called “Things Experts Forgot to Tell You” or “Things that You Forgot you had to Learn” was All about Exposure.  (The first article is Why Won’t My Lens Focus?) This post expands on the ideas presented in that article with some real life examples of exposure problems and how to overcome them.

I recently returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. One of the major exposure problems that I encountered was white, featureless skies due the fog, mist, and overcast clouds common in the region. There are a few different options for dealing with such a problem, and I will present a few examples to explain them each, below.

AE Lock

In All about Exposure I explained some of the benefits of the AE Lock button and how you can use it to override your camera’s suggestions about what the correct exposure might be for a given situation. I found myself using the AE Lock button quite frequently at Mount Rainier to force the camera to balance the darker colors and tones of the trees, rocks, and landscape against the overwhelming brightness of the overcast skies.

The images above show the impact of using AE Lock. The image on the left was the camera’s suggestion for the correct exposure, based on evaluative metering: ISO 100 (set by me), an aperture of f/5.6, and a shutter speed of1/80th. For the image on the right, I pointed the camera up at the nearly blank sky, pressed the AE Lock button, and then recomposed the image, which resulted in an exposure of ISO 100, an aperture of f/8, and a shutter speed of 1/160th. The second image is deliberately underexposed, according to the camera, but far better represented the colors and tones before me, in my opinion. It also brought more definition and detail to the sky.

Troubleshooting Your Exposure | Boost Your Photography

The brightness of the sky can impact an image even when you don’t think of the sky as being in the picture, as in the two images above. Here, the brightness of the sky is evident in the light filtering through the trees and the shadows on the path. The camera chose the exposure on the left: ISO 100 (set by me), an aperture of f/3.5, and a shutter speed of 1/13th, while I used the AE Lock (again, pointed up more towards the sky then recomposed) for an aperture of f/3.5 and a shutter speed of 1/20th. This slight underexposure led to better colors and depth to the overall image (as did slightly adjusting the composition to ensure a straight horizon line and vertical trees).


Another option to fix exposure problems is to reconsider the composition of your image. If a featureless sky forms too large of a portion of your image, it may be impossible to properly balance it out for a correctly exposed image.

Tunnel at Mount Rainier - note the white sky

In the image above, I wanted to focus on the tunnel, but while I was happy with the colors and details through and inside the tunnel itself, the sky above got ‘blown out.’ (Blown out is a term that photographers use when a picture or area of a picture becomes so overexposed that it becomes completely white and loses any detail that might have been there.) If I used AE Lock and exposed for the sky, the resulting darker image would lose the colors and details in and through the tunnel that I wanted.

Tunnel at Mount Rainier by Archaeofrog on Flickr

The solution here was to rethink and then recompose the image. I knew that I wanted to feature the tunnel, both inside and outside, so I decided to recompose the image to completely exclude the sky. Then it became much easier to balance the light and tones before, inside, and through the tunnel.


The method and ‘how to’ part of exposure bracketing was covered in the All about Exposure article. Bracketing is a particularly useful technique in the field when you are unsure about an exposure or want to capture a range of different exposure options.

I know that the LED screen on the back of my camera is merely a compressed snapshot and not a perfectly accurate representation of the image that I have captured. In general, I have found that images that I might think look ‘too dark’ on the LED screen look perfectly exposed when I download and examine at them on my computer monitor. The LED screen is also difficult to see in bright sunlight, and I often don’t think about how my wearing sunglasses while looking at it may impact how I interpret an image. Thus, when I find myself in a situation where it is difficult to determine the correct exposure, I often rely on bracketing and make the decision later, in front of my computer.

For much of our time at Rainier, we were unable to see the mountain itself, due to the fog, mist, and clouds, but I still wanted to capture images of the bits of the mountains that were visible. Determining the exposure was difficult, due to the brightness of the sky, the darkness of the trees, and the variable nature of the mountain, so I decided to use exposure bracketing.

Bracketing. View towards the mountains at Mount Rainier by Archaeofrog on Flickr

This set of three images, bracketed at plus-and-minus one stop on the exposure compensation scale, demonstrate a range of exposures for the same image. In this case, I liked the definition of the mountain and the blue sky in the middle image (underexposed), even though it rendered the surrounding pine trees as fairly dark and a bit featureless.

Fixing Exposure Problems in your Photography

The key to finding and fixing exposure problems in the field is knowing what you are trying to accomplish in each image and using workaround techniques, as needed, to meet your goal. If a bright sky or overcast day is making your images appear too bright or blown out, use AE Lock to take a reading from the sky, recompose your image, and see if you get a result that is closer to your liking. Or, if you can, change the composition of your image to exclude the sky entirely and eliminate it as a factor. Or, give yourself a buffer by using exposure bracketing to capture a range of different exposures for the same composition and choose the best at a later date. Each of these methods gives you more control over your images and their exposure and will help you come home with the images you desire.

Want more posts like this one? Click 'For Beginners' up at the top or try the rest of our series, Camera Settings and Strategies:

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.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Postcards from Rainier

The prelude to our recent Alaskan cruise was an overnight at Mount Rainier National Park. While I am still going through the many, many pictures of the trip, I wanted to share a few of my initial favorites and some observations.

Welcome to Mount Rainier National Park by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Before I left, I had never considered how much Mount Rainier, as a National Park, is built around the weather, even more so than the mountain or the scenery. The mountain greatly influences the weather, and the weather greatly influences any trip to Rainier. We arrived to the rain, easily visible in my quick shot of the welcome sign, but it graciously abated as we traveled deeper into the park.

Hiking the trails along Mount Rainier by Archaeofrog on Flickr

We were left with the fog. The water continued to drip at times from the trees above, but the fog hung around as we hiked along some of the lower paths. Within the trees, the view was clear and calm, and the muted colors shone in the dimmer light.

Viewpoint down towards the valley and Longmire by Archaeofrog on Flickr

This viewpoint of the surrounding mountains was cloaked in fog (and the briefly returning rain), much like the further along viewpoint of Rainier that offered only clouds and a slight hint of blue in patches.

Road near Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Further into the park, the elevations start to rise along with the road, and we actually found ourselves above the clouds (or were the clouds below us?). This shot highlights the deep blues of the oncoming night echoed by the fog and the trees. It also gives a small sense of the snow that still blanketed the ground, up to ten feet deep in places around Paradise.

Morning at the Paradise Inn by Archaeofrog on Flickr

We spent the night at the Paradise Inn, located more than 5000 feet above sea level (but still 9000 feet below the summit), and when we awoke, the fog had lowered, and we were completely surrounded. We had not had a single glimpse of the summit of the mountain during the first day, but at least we had a vague sense of in which direction it lay. With the initial fog, we could hardly see the cars across the parking lot.

Summit of Mount Rainier as seen from Paradise by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Exactly an hour later, the weather was reformed. The fog lifted, the clouds broke, and for about seven glorious minutes, we were able to see the summit of the mountain. Everyone around us stopped what they were doing and where they were going and stared (and then immediately started photographing). We wouldn’t see the top of Mount Rainier again while we were there.

Snow melting into fog and mist by Archaeofrog on Flickr

As we descended in elevation, the fog followed, clogging the road and the views and lending a very otherworldliness to our surroundings. At this location, I had a difficult time deciding where the snow stopped and the sky began.

Grove of the Patriarchs by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Further down, the fog lessened, though the clouds remained, and we were able to see more of what the park had to offer. This short walk to the aptly-named Grove of the Patriarchs gave us a chance to see and appreciate some of the ancient trees in the park and the many, many variations of green found around the mountain.

Rainier was a deeply mysterious and temporal kind of place. It seemed a shame that we had such a brief time to visit and that the weather seemed determined to interfere with our plans. But on the other hand, the challenged seemed to draw us closer to it too. Mount Rainier, as I learned, is not an easy subject to photograph and one that defied my poster-worthy-photography ambitions. I cannot wait for another chance to try it again.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why and How to Tag your Photographs

How do you organize your photographs?  While it may not seen like a large question when you first start out, the more photographs you take and the longer you are at it, the faster the backlog can grow. I am now almost 900 days into a 365 project (taking and uploading at least one photograph per day) and have accumulated a collection of more than 40,000 shots. By implementing the processes and procedures described below, I have been able to keep it under control and easily find images when I need them.

Why Tag Your Photographs?

A tag is a word or phrase that is attached to files and can be searched for at a later time. Tags are an incredibly useful and powerful way to keep your photographs organized and to assist you in easily finding specific photographs when you want them. In this article, I will explain two important ways that I use tags: first, when reviewing and culling images and second, when categorizing them for future use.

Workflow: sorting and initially tagging images

Think about the steps that you take when you are downloading and reviewing your images. The more streamlined and efficient you can make that process, the more time you can spend shooting, processing, and enjoying your images instead. After downloading your images to your computer, the next step is to determine a system for categorizing them as you review them. Some people use the star or ratings systems that come with their software, but I recommend using a system of tags, for their flexibility, customizability, and ease of use.
Why and How to Tag Your Photographs | Boost Your Photography
Screen shot of Picasa showing a search for the tag 'closeup'

The function to add tags to your images in available in a variety of photography software programs, including Picasa, iPhoto, Lightroom, and others. Personally, I use Picasa because it is free, integrated with Google+, and compatible with my PC, but choose what works best for you. You can even add tags to your images directly in Windows: when you click on an image in its folder, ‘tags’ will be one of the categories that shows up at the bottom of the folder. You can click in the box right after it and type in any tags, separated by a semi-colon. Hit enter to save them. The benefit of using a program like Picasa, iPhoto, and Lightroom is the ability to add the same tags to multiple photographs or entire folders at once, by highlighting the files or folders before adding the tag or tags.

Regardless of the method you use for adding tags to your images, you need to find a ranking system that works for you. When I first download and view my images on my computer, I use a simple tag system to sort them into three main categories.
  • Notkeeper: photographs that are not keepers: those that are out of focus, poorly composed, or other irredeemable accidents
  • Like: photographs that I like or are the best examples of the bunch
  • And those in between (no tag applied)
This three-tiered system helps me to immediately weed out the photographs that are not worth keeping or spending additional effort on and those that will go on for further work and tagging. (Each month I do a search for the ‘notkeeper’ tag, move those images to a folder, save that folder onto a hard drive, and then delete it from my computer, saving valuable space.)

Once this initial sort is done, I can do a search in Picasa for all photographs tagged with ‘like’ and then concentrate on just those.

Workflow: reviewing and tagging images

Once I have narrowed down the pictures to just those that are worth ‘like-ing,’ I go through a second review that is more detailed and has two main purposes: first, narrowing down and selecting my photograph of the day for my 365 project, and second, tagging the images with any important attributes that I might use to find them later. For choosing my favorite image of the day, I review all the images tagged as ‘like’ and use the tag ‘runnerup’ for any that really stand out. Then, as necessary, I do a search narrowed down to just those ‘runnerup’ images and chose the one that gets tagged ‘365project.’ The ‘runnerup’ tag serves as a reminder of my favorite photographs and is one that I try to use sparingly. You may prefer a more obvious tag like ‘favorite’ for this purpose.

These four photographers were my runner-up contenders for May 31st, 2013.
Read here How to Spin Fire with Steel Wool or How to Spin an Orb.
The last step in tagging is deciding what kinds of information and attributes you want to assign to each image. It is important to take some time to think about how you plan to use your images in the future and for what purposes. Are you planning to print some of your photographs for later framing in your home or to sell? Then you might want to use a tag for ‘frameable’ or ‘tosell’ or ‘bestever.’ Do you want to start a collection of photographs of hands working or of sunsets? Then you might want to use a tag for ‘hands’ or ‘handcollection’ or ‘sunset.’ As an aside: it is easier and more reliable for the computer to search for one word tags, so when using a phrase, I recommend either smushing it all into one word or using hyphens.

I tend to think of these ‘future tags’ in a few distinct categories: people, location, subject, techniques, and accessories. Within these categories you want to think of both general and specific groupings that you might come in handy when searching for certain images.

Screen shot of Picasa showing photographs identified as 'me,' including when I was very young
Picasa has a function that searches photographs for faces and groups them according to individuals. You can then give a name to those people, and Picasa will continue to find and identify photographs with those individuals. I have been suitably impressed by its ability to recognize photographs of me even as a child, but it can also be distracted by things like paintings or pictures of people on money. It works well enough for my purposes, so I use this function if I want to search for photographs with a certain person in them. The alternative would be to add a tag with the person’s name (or descriptor, such a ‘Mom’) for later searches.

Eruption of Castle Geyser in Yellowstone National Park
Castle Geyser by Archaeofrog on Flickr
I use tags for the location mainly when I am traveling or taking pictures of an important landmark or location near my home. These are not always tags that I plan to use when searching for an image later, but they serve the important purpose of reminding me of the specific names of places, buildings, or geysers months or years down the line. I will often use a general tag for all images from a trip (such as YellowstoneTrip or AlaskaCruise) and then progressively more specific tags for state or country, city, location, and name of building or feature. The photograph above is tagged  Yellowstone; NationalPark; CastleGeyser; UpperGeyserBasin; geyser; eruption; reflection; and landscape.

Winter Cardinal by Archaeofrog on Flickr
Brussels Sprouts by Archaeofrog on Flickr
The next tags that I consider are those for the subject of the image. A photograph of a cardinal in my yard might receive the tags wildlife; bird; cardinal for the subject, while a photograph of Brussels sprouts might receive the tags food; vegetable; brusselssprout. Again, try to think of a combination of general and specific that might be useful later.

This earring photograph is tagged with macro; closeup; jewelry; bokeh; Canon50mm; reversering; lowkey; 365project.
Macro Earring with Bokeh by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Finally, I tag the images for any specific photographic accessories or techniques that were used. For accessories, I find it very useful to remember whether I used, say, a +10closeuplens or an extensiontube or a reversering to get a specific macro photograph, but I also use a general tag like macro or closeup to be able to search for all of them at once. For techniques, I add tags for composition or style of photograph, such as selfportrait, lightpainting, or ruleofthirds. This subset of tags has been particularly useful when looking for specific photographs to illustrate a technique or method for a new blog post.

Use Tags to Streamline your Workflow

Tags are a powerful way to future-proof your photographs and ensure that it is easy for you to find specific photographs, locations, or techniques later. Tags are also a quick and easy way to do an initial sort of your images and to determine which are worth spending more time on and which can be safely removed or deleted. The more thought you put into your categories, the more quickly you’ll be able to add useful tags to your images and the more easily you’ll be able to access them later.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Puddle Reflection Photography

Tetons Reflection by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Reflections are a classic photography technique, and the results can be breathtaking. But you don’t need to get up at dawn to find a large, windless, still lake. You can capture stunning reflections using nothing more than your point-and-shoot camera and … a puddle.

Reflections on the Monona Terrace in Madison by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Puddle photography works better with a point-and-shoot camera rather than a bulky DSLR for two reasons: one, the key to perfect puddle photography is to put your camera down as close to the water as possible and two, having a large viewscreen makes it much easier to compose and level your image.

Puddle Reflection Photography: the technique

The first order of business for puddle reflections is to find a suitable puddle in an interesting location. The puddle doesn’t need to be more than a foot or two long and a foot wide, but a wider puddle will give you more composition options. It is also helpful if the puddle is relatively level with whatever you are looking to reflect, rather than bounded by something concrete like a wall or curb. ‘Natural’ puddles will give you a more seamless transition in-and-out of the reflection. This gives the more ‘infinity pool’ style effect that really makes these images.

Get down as close to the puddle as you can

Once you’ve found your puddle, you want to position your camera as close to the surface of the water as possible. I’ve found it’s often helpful to put your finger underneath to help judge where the water level starts. For focusing, I usually point the camera down a little bit to focus on the far end of the puddle, hold the shutter down half-way to lock focus, recompose to level the composition and take the picture. If you want to squat down to where you can see the viewscreen, mores the better, but you can also simply lean over, take the picture, and then check your results.

Puddle Comparisons

The following diptyches of images demonstrate just how easy this technique can be and offer a realistic look at the puddles involved.

Puddle Reflection Photography: how to | Boost Your Photography
Two views of the same puddle. The first, taken down low to emphasize the puddle, and the second taken to show the relative size and location of the puddle.
This reflection of downtown Madison was taken using the gutter puddle pictured on the right.
This reflection within a temporary scaffold was taken from the tiny puddle on the right.

You are not just limited to puddles. Roadways and paving stones can often be reflective when wet, even without a formal puddle. A slick of rain on stone pillars can also make a reflective surface. The photograph below was taken using water on top of a stone plinth across the street from the Capitol building.

Madison Capitol Reflection by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Puddles are a simple and easy way to achieve fantastic reflection shots. Feel free to share a link to  your own puddle reflections in the comments.

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

All about Exposure

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.

Sunset in Cancun, Mexico. Sunsets can be tricky to get the right exposure.

This is the second article in an occasional series aimed at beginners called “Things Experts Forgot to Tell You” or “Things that You Forgot you had to Learn.” (The first article is Why Won’t My Lens Focus?) 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.

What is ‘Correct’ and ‘Creative’ Exposure?

Photography books, blogs, and manuals are full of information about exposure, but initially, I had a very hard time sorting out what they all were talking about.  Some speak of ‘making an exposure’ when they simply mean ‘taking a photograph.’ Others talk about ‘exposing for a specific element in the picture’ or choosing the ‘correct’ or ‘creative’ exposure.

Exposure is calculated by your camera. Each camera has a sensor that analyzes the scene in the viewfinder and chooses a combination of shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), and ISO to make what it deems a ‘correct’ exposure: where the colors and highlights and lowlights seem to accurately represent the scene being photographed. There are many different ways that this determination is made. Many point and shoot and DSLR cameras have scene modes, such as portrait, macro, landscape, action, nighttime, etc. that use different settings to match what the camera thinks works best for that style of picture. Even when shooting in program, aperture-priority, or shutter-priority modes, there are different ways that the camera can calculate exposure. (On a Canon these metering modes are known as evaluative (or matrix), partial, spot, and center-weighted average.  For the majority of scenes, evaluative mode will suit you just fine, but more on that later.) There is more than one ‘correct exposure,’ however, and these are known as equivalent exposures.

This is easier to explain with an example. Let’s say that I am shooting in Program Mode with evaluative metering, where I set the ISO and the camera determines both the shutter speed and the aperture.  I’m outside on a sunny day, so I’ll leave the ISO at 100 (the lowest or native value on my camera), and the camera suggests an exposure of 1/200 at f/9.  If I twirl the dial to adjust those values, I will get pairs that represent the equivalent exposures – the same amount and quality of light being recorded by the sensor.  Examples here include, say 1/60 at f/16 or 1/500 at f/5.6.  I can choose any of these pairs of values, and they will represent what the camera has determined to be the correct exposure.

All about Exposure: correct, creative, and equivalent exposures | Boost Your Photography
Equivalent exposures with variable shutter and aperture (all ISO 100)

In the series of images above, each of the four combinations of settings are equivalent exposures, but the pictures themselves are different. Because the ISO was set at 100, each change in the aperture value required an equal and opposite change in the shutter speed. So, as the aperture got narrower, the shutter speeds got longer. The ‘correct’ exposure is the one that you, the photographer, decide upon. If you wanted the blurred background of the upper left picture, then that would be the correct exposure for you. If you wanted the sharper detail of the lower right picture, then that would be the correct exposure for you.  (You would also want to be sure to use a tripod, like I did, in that case, as it is difficult to maintain a sharp image while hand-holding at a longer shutter speed like that one.  See How to Maximize your Tripod for more details.)

Creative exposure is anytime that you, the photographer, override the camera’s suggestion. You can choose a creative exposure in aperture priority, shutter priority, or manual mode, by adjusting the shutter, aperture, or ISO to values other than those suggested by the camera.  You can choose a creative exposure in program mode by using exposure compensation to tell the camera to deliberately over- or underexpose the shot. The images below were shot using exposure compensation to under- and overexpose the picture by one stop each.

A comparison between a deliberately underexposed (left) and overexposed (right) version of the same subject.

If you want a darker, moodier shot, you would select an exposure that is lower than the one suggested by your camera, which would underexpose the picture and make it darker. Likewise, if you wanted a bright shot with a white background, you would select an exposure that is higher than the one suggested by your camera, which would overexpose the picture and make it lighter.
This high key product shot was deliberately overexposed (according to the camera's exposure reading) in order to bring the background to pure white and emphasize the bottle.
Scotch Product Photography by Archaeofrog on Flickr

When you camera determines its correct exposure, it is looking to make all the tones average out to what is known as medium (18%) gray.  This means that if you take a picture that is mostly bright, white snow, the camera is going to choose an exposure that darkens your snow to a dull gray instead of the bright white your eyes saw.  Similarly, if you take a picture of your friend’s large black dog, the camera is going to choose an exposure that lightens the dog to a duller gray than your eyes saw. These are both situations where the ‘correct’ exposure as determined by your camera is unlikely to match the exposure that you are looking for. This leads us to the second question:

Is there an easy way to control what the camera is exposing for?

Photographers, books, and guides also often refer to exposure in a more specific sense, the idea that you want to ‘expose for’ a specific element in a picture. This gets at the issue discussed above. If you are taking a picture of a black dog, you probably want that black dog (the subject) to be correctly exposed, rather than turned into a lighter gray dog. Likewise, if you are taking a picture of a palm tree at sunset, you may want the camera to expose for the sunset, turning the tree into a black silhouette (like in the photograph at the top), rather than try to expose for both the sunset and tree, which would dim the sunset colors and bring unnecessary detail to the tree.

There are different metering methods that your camera can use, which I mentioned earlier: evaluative (or matrix), partial, spot, and center-weighted. Evaluative and center-weighted take into account the whole frame when calculating the exposure, partial takes into account only the center section of the frame, and spot takes into account only a very small area at the center of the frame. All of these place more emphasis on whatever the lighting is in the center of the frame (with partial and spot excluding everything else). If what you want to be exposed correctly is not in the center of the frame, such as the sunset and clouds, then you will need to lock in the exposure.

The top shot chose an exposure of 1/60 @ f/6.3 based on the darkness of the bison.
The bottom shot chose an exposure of 1/320 @ f/7.1 based on the lighter grass.
Bison and Baby by Archaeofrog on Flickr

You may need your manual to find the AE lock (automatic exposure lock) button on your DSLR. (On my Canon T1i it is indicated by the * symbol.) The AE lock button tells the camera to calculate its exposure reading based on whatever the camera is pointed at when you press the AE lock button, rather than on whatever it is pointed at when you click the shutter. With the example of the bison above, when I took the first image, the camera used the dark bison at the center of the image to calculate the exposure value, which resulted in an overly bright and washed out background. For the second image, I moved the camera to point at an empty area of grass right next to the bison, pushed the AE lock button to set the exposure for the grass, and then recomposed for the bison and took the picture. Now the grass is properly exposed, and both bison more accurately reflect their colors.

The bottom shot was exposed for the sky and reflects more vibrant colors in the sunset.
Sunset over Lake Mendota by Archaeofrog on Flickr

For deep, bright sunset colors and dark silhouettes, the trick is to expose for the sky (not the clouds). Set up your shot, then point the camera at the sky, press the AE lock button, recompose, and take your shot.  You can see the difference in the two images above. For the second, the camera chose a slightly faster shutter speed to underexpose the image (relative to the first), which resulted in the deeper colors. Another option for sunsets is to bracket your shots and take both over- and underexposed versions.

What is Exposure Bracketing?

Bracketing is the process of taking more than one picture across a range of exposures, and there are a few reasons you may want to consider bracketing certain shots.

Three photographs of plants in a window, bracketed at -1 (left), 0 (center), and +1 (right) 

One reason that photographers choose to bracket shots is for later use in HDR (high dynamic range) photography. Our eyes can see a greater range of light than our camera – we can look outside a bright, daytime window and see both the bright objects outside and the dimmer objects inside. If you try to take a picture of a bright window, however, you will have a difficult time and will have to either take a shot with the bright objects outside correctly exposed (with a darkened interior) or with the dimmer interior correctly exposed (and a blown out or perhaps all white window). With HDR photography, you would take a series of two or more shots at different exposures (here, one exposed for outside and one exposed for inside) and then combine them into one image later using HDR software. Some photographers are critical of the ‘overdone HDR’ style that has been digitally manipulated to have unreal colors and tones.

A comparison of two different ways of processing the three photographs above using HDR

Another reason photographers choose to bracket shots is when there is rapidly changing light. I often use exposure bracketing when I am shooting sunsets or the moon rising. The quality and color of the light is often changing rapidly, and exposure bracketing allows me to capture a range of images (lighter and darker) and decide later, on the computer, which ones are my favorite exposures for each situation. Compare the three versions of the moon rise shot below. Some might prefer the dark tones of the underexposed version (left), while others might prefer the brighter blues and bigger glow of the overexposed version (right).

Three photographs of the moon rising over the Madison capitol, bracketed at -1 (left), 0 (center), and +1 (right)

Scale for exposure compensation, showing the set up to bracket three shots at plus-and-minus one stop

Many DSLR cameras give you the option of automatically bracketing your shots. With my Canon T1i, if I select the exposure compensation option (the scale that goes from plus-or-minus 2), then I can spin the dial, which selects for three different points along the scale. The default is centered on zero and then the other two move in tandem to plus-and-minus the same value. I can also use the arrow keys to move all three shots up or down the scale. If I am bracketing shots, I often select for plus-and-minus 1, centered on zero. Then, when I am ready to take the picture, I hold the shutter down long enough for it to fire off three shots: the first will be the correct exposure, the second underexposed by one stop, and the third overexposed by one stop. For the best results, particularly if you want to combine the images later, it is best to use a tripod and self-timer. (For more details, read How to Maximize your Tripod.)

Exposure Summary

When I first started seriously taking photographs with my DSLR, I found exposure to be a particularly overwhelming concept. What I was missing was the big picture: that exposure is simply the camera determining which settings it thinks will make the best picture, based on the available light, and that there are different combinations of settings that will give you the same (equivalent) exposures.

You are smarter than your camera (even if you doubt that fact), and there are times when you and your camera are going to have a difference of opinion about the exposure you are looking for. This is when it can be helpful to use exposure compensation to deliberately over- or underexpose your image to achieve the look you want. Or you can use the AE Lock to ‘tell’ the camera what you have determined is important for the exposure calculation. Or you can bracket your shot to capture multiple different exposures and choose the best later (or combine them in post-processing). Controlling exposure to match your purposes will make a huge difference in your photography.

Want more posts geared toward beginners? Click 'For Beginners' up at the top or try the rest of our series, Camera Settings and Strategies:

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.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Improve your Photography: be accountable

Photography is rarely a solo endeavor. We all have an image in our heads of the lone photographer, striding through the jungles or deserts or back alleys of the unknown, seeking to find and capture something before unseen, but that is far from the truth. The majority of photographic work is done in a community, whether that is the photographers, assistants, writers, and editors of National Geographic; the members of your local photography club; or sharing your latest images with a group of friends and family. If you want to improve your photography, you need to find ways to engage and be challenged by a broader community. You need to be accountable. 

Improve Your Photography: be accountable | Boost Your Photography
Photographers are not merely drifting along in space. They flourish in community.

There are many different ways to find accountability, and this post will explore just a few broad categories. Make a commitment to try one, or more than one, and I think you will be surprised at how quickly you will see progress in your photography, motivation, and dedication.

Find a Photo Buddy

One way to be accountable is to find a friend or family member who also has an interest or inclination towards photography. Make a plan to get together and go on a photo walk or attend an interesting event. Consider taking time to get together afterwards to compare your favorite images and offer critiques. I always enjoying seeing how each person interprets a similar scene or situation in a different and unique way. Having a photo buddy can also motivate you to get out and do more with your photography, as it is often easier to get up off your couch to meet a friend than to convince yourself to take photographs on your own.

This view of the fall colors was taken while on a photo walk with a friend.
Fall Foliage by Archaeofrog on Flickr

Find a Local Photography Group

The next step towards accountability is to get involved in your local photography community. Searching is a good place to start to find a group near you. You can also visit your local camera store or university to see if they support a photographic group or club.

A local photography group is great way to connect to other photographers, receive feedback on your photographs, and find out about photographic opportunities or contests in your area. Other photographers often have great ideas about locations, techniques, and upcoming events.

I thought this old timey band with the sepia toning matched with the Scavenger Hunt word, Anachronistic.
Anachronistic by Archaeofrog on Flickr

This photograph was from a scavenger hunt outing with the local photography group. The organizer came up with a list of twelve adjectives, and we had around two hours downtown to try and come up with our favorite image for each adjective. It was a great exercise to visit a familiar place and see it in a different way. 

Find an Online Community

There are many different online communities that exist for photographers. Think about your interests and photographic styles and find one that is right for you.

Flickr is a large photographic community, with a wide variety of groups specializing in all types and styles of photography. Flickr recently updated its services and provides a free terabyte of data for photo sharing and storage.

365 Project is a web site for photographers interested in committing to a 365 project: taking and posting a photograph every day for a year. The site has a very active community and is a great place to receive thoughtful feedback on your images.

Other popular photo community web sites including Facebook, Google+ (which integrates with Picasa albums), Instagram, and Deviant Art. There are also many sites that support photo hosting and sharing but may not provide as much community support and feedback: Shutterfly, Snapfish, PhotoBucket, and many others.

Accept a Challenge

It is easy to stick to the familiar with your photography, to build a niche for yourself and do what feels comfortable. But growth requires challenge and risk, and you need to step outside that comfort zone and try new and different things if you want results. One of the best ways to do this is to accept a challenge.

One of my favorite challenges, “Get Pushed,” comes from the 365 project. The premise is quite simple, but the impact on my photography has been immense. Each week, all interested participants are randomly paired up. You commit to looking through the last few months of your partner’s photographs to get a sense of what or how they shoot and then use those observations to formulate their challenge for the week. Likewise, your partner will look through your photographs to issue you a challenge. Then, during the course of that week, each person tries to meet the other’s challenge, and the issuer of the challenge provides feedback.

One week I was challenged to shoot light trails.
All Roads Lead to Madison by Archaeofrog on Flickr

It’s that simple. Two people, two challenges. At the end of the week, all of the entries are looked at, a top five are chosen, and the 365 community votes on a favorite.  The winner is then responsible for picking the top five for the next week. While hoping to be chosen for the top five and gaining that interest and exposure is always in the back of my mind, I have found that participating in the individual challenges themselves to be the true reward.

Being accountable to that one other person is often the kick I need to maintain my motivation, to get out of a photographic slump, and to force myself to learn and experiment with something new. Because of these weekly ‘pushes,’ I’ve tried many types of photography that I might not have, such as street photography, slow sync, smoke photography, and more abstract concepts like thankfulness.

My attempt to replicate the image on the left, "Sadness" by Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Julia Margaret Cameron-esque by Archaeofrog on Flickr

For a recent challenge, I was pushed to imitate the photographic style of Julia Margaret Cameron, which was a challenge for me both because of her subjects (portraits) and her style (as she was taking photographs in the 1860s). My final image represented a huge departure from my regular photography, and I learned a lot about lighting and post-processing.

You don't have to join a group or a web site to participate in such a challenge. Ask a friend to look through your recent pictures and issue you a challenge. Being accountable to that one other person can be just the push you need to move your photography forward.

Seek out Accountability

In order to success as a photographer, you need to find others who can challenge and support you on your photographic journey. Accountability means seeking out feedback, community, and criticism and then using it to grow and challenge yourself. Find a photography buddy, find a photography group, find a photography community. Use these connections to push yourself, to accept challenges, and you may be surprised at where you find yourself!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Light Painting: How to Spin an Orb

Long exposure photography provides a lot of opportunities to play with light, including drawing patterns, designs, or even words. One of the easiest and most popular ways to paint with light is to make a three-dimensional orb.  This post will explain what you need, what settings to use, and the technique behind painting your own orbs.


The supplies necessary for painting orbs are inexpensive and easily obtainable. The most important item is a light source. LED lights are small, powerful, and come in many different colors. Many are sold as keychain lights and cost around $5-7 USD. You will also need a piece of string, around three feet in length, that you can tie on to the LED. (You want enough string so that you can comfortably hold the end with your arm out straight in front of you, parallel to the ground, and have the LED light close to the ground but not touching.)

Supplies include an LED light on a string and a camera shutter remote

It is also helpful to have both a sturdy tripod and a camera shutter remote. See this previous article about how to maximize your tripod for additional tips and information. If you do not have a tripod, you can also find a steady surface to sit your camera on, like a table or picnic table. If you do not have a camera shutter remote, you can use the self-timer function on your camera. One nice feature with many camera shutter remotes, however, is the ability to lock the shutter open and take continuous shots, allowing you to take several pictures without having to go back and re-set the camera. Corded camera remotes cost around $5-10 USD on Amazon. I have had great success with the INOVA brand of LED lights.

Camera Settings

Any kind of camera is capable of taking successful orb shots, as long as you have an option for setting the shutter speed. For the best results, you want a long shutter speed. I have found that thirty seconds is enough time to make at least one complete rotation for an orb. You also want to keep your ISO as low as possible to avoid unnecessary noise, so I leave mine at 100.

The main variable in your camera settings will be your aperture, which is highly dependent on your ambient lighting and what kind of detail you want from your surroundings. You may have to take several different shots with varying aperture to decide what works best for that given situation.

In the image above, I wanted to show the orb in context, so I settled on an aperture of f/9 and a thirty-second shutter speed. A wider aperture like f/1.8 would have let in far more light from the background and blown out the natural night feel of the shot, while a narrower aperture like f/22 would have eliminated much of the detail in the background, leaving mainly the orb without context. Particularly at this time of night, the hour after sunset known as the ‘blue hour,’ the ambient light with be constantly changing, and you will likely need to keep adjusting your aperture to get the shots that you want with a long enough shutter speed.


The technique for spinning a successful orb is fairly straight-forward, and with just a little practice, you should have no problem turning out lovely, even orbs.  Larger orbs often have a great impact, which is why I suggested tying the string so that the light nearly touches the ground, but you can vary the length to achieve any size orb.

To spin an orb, you will stand with your arm straight out in front of you, parallel to the ground. Hold the end of the string so that the LED is close to the ground. Then, you will swing it around in a circle, moving just your hand and wrist. Your arm should stay stable. The circle inscribed by the light should by parallel to your body (perpendicular to your arm). If you stood still and did that for an entire shot, you would have a successful, but two-dimensional, circle.

Technique for spinning an orb: start with a circle and find its bottom

Here you can see how I am standing and swinging the light in a circle. The lowest point at the bottom of this circle is where you have to pay attention. I have placed a quarter on the ground at that exact point, to emphasize it for the picture and to use as a reference. Once you are familiar with the idea, you can usually remember where you are swinging.

The trick for turning that circle into a three-dimensional orb is moving while you are spinning. You, however, are the one doing the moving, while the rotating light source is staying still, relative to its axis. So, each time you swing the light toward the ground, you want it to pass over that point at its lowest point in the swing (here, over the quarter).

Process shot showing the necessary movement to spin an orb

This photograph gives you the general idea. You can see that I am the one moving, side-stepping slowing around in a circle, while still spinning the light so that it passes over the same point on the ground. When actually making an orb, you want to be constantly moving, swinging, and stepping. This, along with wearing darker clothing (and doing this at night rather than in a lit garage), are what will make you disappear entirely from the picture, leaving just the orb behind.

Once you’ve mastered the basic technique, there are endless other variations; you are not limited to orbs. Another interesting shape is a spiral, which can be made parallel to the camera (making a long, wide spiral) or by walking closer or further from the camera (making more of a funnel/vortex type shape) or by swinging it around your body for a Slinky shape. You can free-draw other shapes or even spell out words. I find cursive easier than print, because you don’t have to turn on/off the light to break up your lines. You will need to either spell mirror-imaged or flip the image in post-processing to read it.

A wide variety of light painting and light sources with an interesting bridge background
Consider recruiting some friends and spin several orbs at once, or let each person make their own designs. Many different lights can be used for light painting, and the image above includes keychain LEDs, disposable glow sticks, and even a cell phone (white). Even your mistakes can make for interesting images!

The setting is what really makes an orb or light painting shot memorable. Try including a well-known landmark, particularly one that is lit interestingly at night. Ambient locations such as abandoned buildings, tunnels, or caves can also provide unusual results. Once you start looking, you’ll likely find many interesting locations around!