Backing Up Your Photos

Losing all of my photos from a trip or, worse yet, ALL of my images is completely unthinkable. In fact, I better just stop thinking about that now and move on to the steps I take to prevent it from happening. Here is my strategy for back-up while traveling and long-term.

First, while traveling:

I buy decent cards (not the best, but definitely not the cheapest) and make sure I have enough card capacity for the trip. I shoot a lot of pictures and in RAW format, so I have about 120 gigs of card space which is usually barely enough. I don’t have extremely high capacity cards because I wouldn’t want to lose half my pictures if one of the cards went bad (and they are known to get corrupted sometimes). I have 6 cards at the moment.

At the end of every shooting day, I back up the day’s images onto my laptop and also import them onto the portable hard drive which I use for my Adobe Lightroom library. I do not erase the pictures off the cards. So, I carry three copies: 1) the originals on the cards; 2) the files on the laptop; 3) the imported files on the portable drive, which become my “original” files and which I can start keywording or processing. I never leave all three together alone. If I leave the hotel and head to dinner, I take either my cards or my computer with me and leave the others locked up in the safe in my room or hidden.

When the trip is over, I immediately back up my images to my long-term backup drives. I leave the copies on my cards and laptop drive as well until I have backed everything up to those drives. Then I delete the files off the cards and laptop.

Next, my long-term back-up strategy:

I am not at all comfortable having just two copies of my images:

As mentioned, I use a portable hard drive as my main (Lightroom) drive. Some people don’t advocate the portable drive, but I do a lot of processing away from home and prefer a portable drive for my original images.

Second, I have a good quality external hard drive as my main backup drive. This has all my images on it, including the RAW files, Photoshop files, etc. I do not recommend buying a cheap hard drive as your main backup drive, as two years ago I bought three cheap ones (the same brand) and had two crashes within a month.

I have another back-up drive (so 3 drives total) at a friend’s house inside a fireproof safe. He lives a bit farther away, so the same tornado couldn’t hit both of us.

Doing all of this allows me to get good sleep at night.

Watch the Windows!

When you are taking pictures of a building at sunrise, sunset or after dark, pay special attention to the windows. Windows can really add to a shot at these times of day. There are two things I watch for:

1. Reflections of the sunrise or sunset in glass windows which are facing the sun
2. Background sky which can be seen through the windows

When I was in Iceland, I took a couple of shots within a few minutes of each other which illustrate what I’m talking about. First, check out the cool reflections of the sunset in the church windows in this first shot:

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Red and white coastal church with the beginning of a beautiful sunset overhead

The reflections really add some life to the picture and give the viewer something to look at. A few minutes later, I walked around to the other side of the church and took this second shot:

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Silhouette of a church on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in western Iceland

The church silhouette looks much more interesting with the sunset showing through the windows. I have also used this same approach in twilight shots of churches, barns and old buildings:

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Silhouette of an old house on the Snaefellsnes peninsula

The above picture works because of the sky showing through the windows. Otherwise, this would have been a tosser.

High Contrast Cathedral Images Using HDR

Some time ago, I was in San Francisco and stopped at St. Ignatius church. This is a really beautiful church and was fun to shoot.

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HDR rendition of the interior of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco

Here are my recommendations on how to get this type of indoor church or cathedral shot using high dynamic range (HDR) processing:

– You’ll definitely need a tripod. It’s a good idea to call ahead and get permission to use it indoors.
– Generally, you’ll want to use a very wide angle lens. I used Canon’s 14mm with a full frame sensor for this shot.
– Shoot with a lot of depth of field. I used F22, since I wanted everything in focus, including the pews in the foreground and the columns in the background.
– Use HDR, or High Dynamic Range processing. There are books written about HDR, but the basic idea is to shoot multiple exposures and then use software to blend the exposures so that everything is exposed reasonably well. This is helpful in churches because the lighting contrast is so extreme. HDR photos do have an artificial look to them which you may or may not like.
– Important! Pay very close attention to your position. If you are trying to shoot straight on, such as in this shot, look at the corners and lines to make sure everything lines up. I was close, but not perfect, on this shot. With an ultra-wide lens, even a few inches to one side or a very slight tilt of the camera will distort the perspective. In this case, I wanted the same amount of column on each side of the image and the lines on the ceiling to be as straight as possible. I watched the corners and edges of the frame closely while setting up the composition.
– Use the manual setting on the camera. After setting your aperature, adust the shutter speed until you have a good exposure for the brightest part of the image, most likely the stained glass windows. Make sure they have good color and are exposed well. The rest of the picture will be really dark. Then, take subsequent shots while decreasing the shutter speed to allow more light. I do this in 2/3s of a stop increments. Make sure not to move the tripod between shots. When the darkest part of the image is exposed properly, you are done shooting that composition. The windows will be completely blown out, but the shadows should be exposed properly.
– After you are finished shooting, use HDR software to blend the pictures. Photoshop has HDR, although there are other options. I use Nik Filters’ HDR software and like the results I get better than with Photoshop. Photomatix is a very popular option. Even if you don’t have this software now, take the multiple exposures and you can process them later if/when you get the software.
– If you process in Photoshop or use filters, try increasing the contrast and enhancing the color a bit. I used Nik Filters “Pro Contrast” and “Brilliance/Warmth” filters for this shot.

Oil and Water Pictures

Oil and water pictures can look pretty amazing and are fairly easy to take. To do so, you’ll need a way to trigger off-camera flash, a macro lens (or other way to take close-ups, such as a lens with an extension tube), something with a colorful pattern, a tripod (recommended), a glass dish or container with a flat bottom surface, oil (vegetable or olive oil work) and water. Once you’ve collected all this, here are a few simple steps for how to take these images:

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Close-up of bubbles made from oil and water

1. Use a glass plate or baking dish with a flat bottom surface. Put just enough water in the dish to cover the bottom of it, perhaps around 1/4 of an inch at most. 

2. Now comes the tricky part. You’ll want to get the dish suspended at least a foot or so off of the ground or some other surface. The dish should be suspended flat and there should be nothing in the center of the dish. In other words, you will need to be able to look through the dish from the top and see the floor or surface below through the dish. I used a square baking dish and balanced two opposite sides of it on chairs so that the entire middle area of the dish was suspended. I only dumped the water over once, which isn’t bad.

3. After you get the dish stable, you will want something colorful underneath it. I took some construction paper of various colors and cut out little circles and set them on the floor about a foot or two below the suspended baking dish. You can also use a colorful shirt, scarf, CD cover, or anything you want with good colors and an interesting pattern.

4. Set your camera with a macro lens up on a tripod (preferred) above the dish pointed straight down through the water.

5. Set up your off-camera flash so that it points towards whatever colorful thing you have below the dish. In my case, I set the flash on the floor on a very small stand pointed down towards the construction paper. The idea is to light up the colorful object. 

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Pink and green oil and water close-up

6. Set your camera to manual. Because this is a macro shot and the bubbles have shape to them, you will want some depth of field. Something in the range of f11-f16 should work fine. As for the speed, you will want it slower than your camera’s maximum flash sync speed. 

7. It probably makes sense to set your flash to manual. Using your camera and flash triggering device, take some test shots and make adjustments to the flash power until you get the level of brightness you’d like.

8. Now, add just a little of the cooking oil and you should get some bubbles floating around. You can move them around as you like.

9. Take a lot of shots, while checking the results in the monitor. Move the bubbles around and recompose. In my opinion, you are best off shooting a pretty small section so that just a few larger bubbles are in your composition, such as with the above examples.

10. In Photoshop, you may want to clone out a few bubbles in post-processing if it helps simplify and improve the image.

Have fun!

Zooming During the Exposure for Colorful Abstracts

One easy technique to get cool abstract color shots is to zoom in (or out) while the shutter is open. Here’s a few hints on how to take these:

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Zoom shot of foliage at Groton State Park in Vermont

– You’ll need to use a relatively slow shutter speed. For the above shot, I used a 1/2 second shutter speed at f22. You’ll want to experiment a bit, but 1/2 second is a good starting point.
– You still need to focus on the subject. In the shot above, the trees are in focus which gives a nice contrast between sharp and blurry instead of everything being out of focus.
– Make sure you fill the frame with the colorful subject. For example, don’t include the bright sky either at the starting or ending point of the zoom.

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Zoom shot of Venice Carnival models in red, black and white

– Complementary colors work well in these shots.
– I like to use a tripod for these due to the long exposure times and to keep the camera steady. Of course, you can also try handheld which will give you a slightly different effect.
– I like to use the self-timer at 2 seconds so I can anticipate the shutter opening. I start zooming a bit just before the shutter opens.

How to Take Silhouette Pictures

If you found this article through a search on Google, then congratulations because it means you know how to spell “silhouette”.

I like taking silhouette shots. When they work, they can be beautiful. They’re easy to shoot and process. But I’ve seen a lot of bad ones too. Here are a few quick tips on silhouette photography.

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Dancer exercising at sunrise on Lake Michigan

First, the subject must have an interesting graphic design. This picture of the dancer works well because the model (a.k.a. my wife) knows how to pose. The interesting pose is what makes the shot. I’ve seen a lot of trees used as silhouettes. In most cases, this doesn’t work because trees don’t usually have interesting shapes. What you should look for is a simple, uncluttered subject with a shape that is compelling all on its own.

Secondly, on the metering, I’ve found that the camera meter will usually get pretty close on creating silhouettes. The lit background tends to turn your foreground subject dark. You can always adjust slightly using exposure compensation or in post-processing. The most important thing is to avoid blown highlights in the background, so be careful not to overexpose when shooting.


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Silhouette of woman wearing a hat and holding a rose against a red background

Third, pay close attention to the details of the design. For example, the profile of the lady with the rose is an interesting image. However, the design could have been slightly improved if I had tucked her hair in back underneath the hat (or cloned it out). This would have simplified the image somewhat.

Lastly, fix problem areas. For example, sometimes clothing tends to look a bit baggy on silhouettes. In cases like this, you may want to use Photoshop’s “liquefy” tool (or another method) to make minor adjustments to the shape of the clothes.