Don’t Miss the Shot

Everyone has regrets over having missed some great photo opportunity which they will never get back. However, nobody’s story is as sad as mine. So, grab a handkerchief and read on…..

It was shortly after I got my first 35 mm film camera while in college. I was in Rome with a group and had the opportunity to see Pope John Paul II speak at St. Peter’s Basilica. I was in the front row in the back section and perfectly positioned as he was driven by to touch hands (FYI, yes, I touched the Pope’s hand). As he approached, I got a beautiful close-up portrait shot of him waving while looking right at me. Or, so I thought. When I picked up my pictures after processing (yes, this was in the days of film), I discovered that my prize-winning image was completely out of focus.

Now, before you rush to judgment and close my blog window, my ancient camera did not have autofocus and the Pope was in a vehicle driving straight at me. However, the point is, I’ll never get this shot back. Here are a few tips for avoiding missing the shot in situations where you are shooting a scene with a moving subject which you cannot control, such as a Pope driving by:

Tip #1: Keep looking through the viewfinder. This shot of the cormorant fisherman with his bird is one of my favorite images. I shot this in Guilin, China. The bird spread its wings like this for a split second. There is no doubt that I would have missed this shot if I wasn’t looking through the viewfinder and ready to shoot.

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The Fisherman's Bird : Prints Available

Chinese fisherman next to his cormorant bird

Tip #2: Pre-focus on your subject. I have my camera set up to lock in auto-focus at the press of a button on the back of the camera. In this case, I zoomed in, focused on the eyes of the fisherman, then framed the shot with the bird in it and waited. I didn’t need to worry about focusing after that since the fisherman was staying still. If the main subject is moving, you can use a focus setting which tracks moving subjects, such as AI Servo on Canon cameras. Or pre-focusing on a spot where you anticipate your subject will move to is a good strategy in some cases.

Tip #3: In some cases, use Program Mode. Many photographers prefer having independent control over aperture and shutter speed. However, in some cases, you just need to get the shot. Consider using Program mode. You don’t have to tell anybody you shot in Program mode. Heck, just tell your friends you got the shot in Manual mode and manually focused, too.

Tip #4: Don’t put your camera away too soon. I got this cool shot of a helicopter headlight trail over Chicago about an hour after the 4th of July fireworks had ended and most people were headed home. I noticed a helicopter flying around the city in the distance and saw a potential photo opportunity. After about an hour, the helicopter flew a cool “S” curve around the Sears Tower. (Yes, I know it is now the Willis Tower, but I am a long-time Chicagoan and will always call it the Sears Tower.)

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Helicopter light trail around Chicago’s Sears (Willis) Tower

Tip #5: Pay attention to your settings. This is especially important when shooting in aperture priority mode with moving subjects or when shooting handheld. Failing to pay attention to your shutter speed could result in a blurry image.

Tip #6: Check the image on the LCD display. For those shooting digital, take advantage of the LCD display. If you can afford the time, zoom up close in key parts of the image to check for sharpness.

Introduction to Neutral Density Filters

Whenever I want to impress somebody, I bring up the topic of neutral density filters. It sounds highly technical and makes me look smart. Truth be told, neutral density filters (a.k.a. ND filters) are just shaded pieces of glass or plastic that go over your camera lens. The fancy name is so that the suppliers can charge ridiculously high prices for them.

Although there are a variety of types, here are the most commonly used ND filters:

  • Solid ND filter This is a piece of glass or plastic with the same level of shading throughout. Using this filter is like putting sunglasses on your camera, but without a polarizing effect. The basic idea is to just reduce the light getting to the sensor. These are typically available in 1-3 stop varieties. A 2-stop ND filter will reduce the light by 2 stops. Now, why would you want to reduce the light reaching your camera’s sensor? One reason is to slow your shutter speed during the day in order to blur running water, as I did in the following waterfall picture.
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Panther Creek Falls Up Close : Prints Available

Sunlight hits a section of Panther Creek Falls

  • Extreme ND filter (a.k.a. “black glass”) These are solid ND filters on steroids. They reduce the light by around 10 stops, allowing for very slow shutter speeds. I really like these filters. You can get a night exposure quality during the day. This can result in cool effects, especially when a body of water is in the picture. The following picture of the Portland Headlight was taken in the afternoon (in the pouring rain, actually) using black glass.
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Clouds Over the Headlight : Prints Available

Maine’s beautiful Portland Headlight lighthouse on a cloudy day

  • Graduated ND filter. The graduated ND filter has a transition line in the middle, with half the filter clear and half shaded. These are available with both hard and soft transitions. The hard transitions go very quickly from clear to fully shaded, whereas the soft variety blends the transition more slowly. The most common use is when you are shooting a landscape shot which includes the sky. The sky is typically brighter than the land, so without the filter you might either blow out the sky or the land goes dark. You simply set the filter so the sky is behind the shaded part of the glass and it reduces the contrast between the sky and the land. Generally, if you only buy one of these, get a 2-stop soft graduated ND filter. If you can buy two, get a 2-stop soft and a 3-stop hard.

All of the above filters come in two main varieties:

  • Filters that screw onto the lens. So, if you have lenses with different diameters, you would likely need one for each diameter. Screw-in graduated ND filters make no sense to me. That’s because the transition line is fixed right at the center, so they won’t work if you want the transition anywhere but the center of the frame.
  • Flat pieces of glass or plastic (mostly plastic) which go into a holder. The holder either screws onto your lens or gets pushed onto the outside of the lens, depending upon the holder. You can then position the filter however you like. These come in different sizes. I use 4×6 inch filters, which is the most common size used for digital SLR cameras.

As for brands, the highest end (and most expensive) are the Singh-Rays. If you don’t like spending $160 on a 4×6 inch piece of plastic, but like the idea of spending $80 or $90 for a piece of plastic, then Lees are also known to be excellent. There are other cheaper brands available.

So, why not just make the adjustments in Photoshop, or blend exposures using HDR or Photoshop layers? A few issues here:

  • Depending upon your camera and software, it is difficult to handle extreme contrast in a single shot. You either blow out the highlights are get digital noise in the shadows.
  • Blending two or more pictures with different exposures using layers adds to your post processing work.
  • HDR is cool, but it doesn’t always look natural and generally requires multiple shots.
  • Conventional wisdom says to get the picture as right as you can when you press the shutter, rather than fixing it later.

There’s a lot more to say on the topic, but I hope this brief intro helps explain the basics.

Image De-Stabilization

Some time ago, I spent a day at Kruger National Park in South Africa. I was fortunate to have three lion sightings in a day.

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Male lion resting on the ground

I was in a truck and hand-holding the camera. I set my Canon 70-200 lens (with a 2x extender) to “image stabilization” (IS). This turned out to be a big mistake.

The conventional wisdom is to turn IS off when using a tripod because your pictures may come out blurry. This is because the IS doesn’t like a very still camera and tries to account for camera shake. However, prior to the trip I read an article on a website which (in theory) should have been the definitive source on the subject. This article stated that this doesn’t really happen with the newer lenses and that you can pretty much leave IS on all the time. Well, from my experience on that trip and from the experience of others, this simply is not true.

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Two gazelles at Kruger

When I was shooting, I used a reasonably fast shutter speed and rested my left arm on the edge of the truck and then my right arm and camera on top of my left arm. My technique effectively created a tripod and the result was a number of blurred pictures due to IS being on, including some hyena pictures that would have been quite cool otherwise. Unless, of course, you like your hyenas blurry.

My suggestion is to not believe everything you read (except for this post) and to leave IS off unless you are shooting still subjects hand-held and shutter speed is a concern. If you are forgetful like me, you might also want to leave a note for yourself to turn IS back off when you are done shooting, too.

Best times of day and sky conditions for outdoor pictures

As a photographer who likes to shoot outdoor color images, I don’t get too excited about sunny blue skies in the afternoon. In fact, I whine about them. This is because I consider sunny afternoons to be some of the worst conditions for shooting pictures for several reasons:

  • First, our eyes and cameras see things differently. Our eyes can process more contrast in light than our cameras can. The harsh shadows created by direct sunlight may not look as distracting to our eyes as they will later in our pictures.
  • Second, colors wash out under bright conditions. This is why the three dozen pictures you took from scenic viewpoint highway pull-offs during your summer vacation look hazy and ugly. Overcast conditions, on the other hand, will bring out deeper and richer colors in pictures.
  • Third, patchy light is generally distracting. Our eyes tend to go to the lightest part of the picture. Distracting light spots in the background pull the viewer’s attention away from the subject.

I find the following times and conditions to be much better for shooting outdoor pictures:

  • Sunrise and sunset. Everyone appreciates a great sunrise or sunset, especially over a landscape or body of water. Notice the warmth of the light in the picture below. You can still get that same warm, angled lighting for a short while after sunrise or before sunset.
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Grace and Beauty : Prints Available

Silhouette of an elegant woman putting her toe in the water during sunset

  • Twilight. Twilight is the time between dawn and sunrise or between sunset and dusk. Depending on the conditions, you usually have around 15-20 minutes during which the sky turns a deep, cobalt blue. This is a great time for city shots. The blue sky looks much better than a black sky which would have been the case 20 minutes after I took this shot.
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Chicago skyline and the Bean just after sunset

  • Cloudy conditions. Remember, clouds are your friends (sometimes) because they diffuse direct sunlight, eliminating harsh shadows. However, if you are including the clouds in the image, you need clouds with texture, such with storm clouds. Otherwise, you’ll have a washed out white sky in your picture which usually ruins the image. In that case, you are better off excluding the sky from your composition.

Although there are exceptions to every rule in photography, my experience is that the above holds true in most cases for outdoor color images.

Do What It Takes to Get the Photo

Based on the title, you are probably getting ready for some kind of pep talk. Kind of, but not really. This blog is to help give newer photographers some ideas on the types of things they should be doing in order to get great pictures. Here are a few suggestions:

First, get used to laying on the ground or floor. Low perspective creates cool images. I took the next picture while laying on the floor. Don’t be afraid to lie on the ground if it will result in a great photo (yes, even in the snow or dirt).

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Gorgeous Carnival model in red inside a Venetian palace

Second, don’t put your camera away in bad weather. Bad weather often leads to cool skies. This picture of the Portland Headlight in Maine was taken during heavy wind and rain. I was sitting in my car waiting for the rain to die down and then realized I was basically being a wimp. So, I got out of the car and got my best shots during the rain storm. I was soaking wet and cold, but still had fun and it was worth it.

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Clouds Over the Headlight : Prints Available

Maine’s beautiful Portland Headlight lighthouse on a cloudy day

Third, get up early. Some of the best lighting happens around sunrise. This can mean forcing yourself out of bed early, often to be disappointed. This shot of Chicago at sunrise was taken on my 8th attempt. I went to that same spot on the lake for seven dull sunrises in the middle of winter in Chicago before getting this amazing sky.

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Beautiful red sunrise over Lake Michigan

Fourth, make whatever logistical arrangements are necessary. You won’t get great images by following the crowds of tourists around. This picture below in Namibia took careful research and planning. I had to make sure I stayed at the only lodge which allowed guests to get to the dunes at least an hour before everyone else. Then I had to make arrangements with the lodge for a driver. Then, I be-friended that driver and made sure to be the first one to the dunes and the last one out. I had this amazing place all to myself on several occasions (except for a swarm of very mean bees).

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End of Day at Deadvlei : Prints Available

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

Fifth, get used to hiking. The image below is of a place known as The Subway. To get to it, the easiest route is about 9 miles roundtrip, mostly spent scrambling over large rocks, walking through streams and climbing up and down small hills. It is tiring (and hazardous) getting there, but an incredible place to photograph. Many of these types of beautiful outdoor locations require effort to get to.

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A flood in the Subway leaves the formerly turqoise pools filled with sand

Sixth (and almost last… trust me), stand in the water. I learned this one from Marc Adamus. If you are doing seascape shots, the better vantage points are usually from in the water, not on the shore. This isn’t always fun. Do remember that salt water kills cameras and also waves and undercurrents can be dangerous. My lawyer made me say that. Okay, I lied. I don’t really have a lawyer. But, if I did, he/she would have charged me $250 to insert that into this post. So, I just saved $250.

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Wave Crash at Oceanside : Prints Available

A wave crashing on the rocky shore of Oceanside, Oregon is frozen in time

Lastly, be persistent! Just fifteen minutes before I took the following picture, my good friend Dusty Doddridge and I were sitting in the car while it was raining sideways. We had checked weather.com and noticed a potential break in the clouds, even though it didn’t make sense looking outside. We decided to take a chance and made the drive. The weather did break for 30 minutes and we got some gorgeous sunset photos. Nobody else was in sight, except a couple frustrated photographers showing up after it was too late. Persistence paid off this time.

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Sunset Over the Watchman : Prints Available

Brilliant light hits the Watchman after an intense rainstorm

Focusing Strategies for Moving Subjects

Moving subjects are more challenging to focus on than still subjects. In fact, no focusing strategy will get you guaranteed good focus for a subject moving quickly towards the camera. Depending on the circumstances, there are three strategies I use to focus on a moving subject. These options aren’t available for all cameras. I doubt any point-and-shoot cameras have the necessary features.

One option is to anticipate where your subject will move to, lock your focus on that location (using autofocus lock or manual focus) and then shoot the picture when your subject (hopefully) arrives in the right place. This is a good strategy when it is clear where your subject will be, such as a race car moving around a track. I used this strategy for the jumping lynx shot below. However, because I was laying on the ground and the lynx was jumping up in the air, I had to account for the additional vertical distance. So, I chose a location several feet past the jump-off point of the lynx and focused on that spot in the ground.

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Caracaol (lynx) jumping to catch a piece of food

Secondly, if your camera has the option, you can use an auto focus mode which continuously tracks a moving subject and keeps it in focus. On Canon, this is called AI Servo. On Nikon, it is called AF-C. After setting the camera to the continuous focusing mode, you hold the shutter down half-way and keep the moving subject over the active focusing point in the viewfinder. The camera will continually keep the subject in focus. I used AI Servo on the cheetah shot below. Check your camera’s instruction manual for full details on this.

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Close-up of a cheetah in a field in Namibia

Third, for slower moving subjects moving across the scene (rather than towards the camera), I often keep the camera autofocus mode set to the standard one shot (Canon) or AF-S (Nikon) and simply shoot right after locking focus. This is not a good strategy for fast-moving subjects, though.

Natural Looking Adjustments in Photoshop Using Channel Masking

We’ve all seen them… awful, unnatural looking transitions between foreground and sky or subject and background. Light “halos” at the edges which serve as indisputable evidence that you’ve Photoshopped the image. In most cases, quick selections resulting in hard-edged masks are the culprit. Feathering helps, but only so much.

I’ve gotten great results working with a technique called “channel masking” (a.k.a. luminosity masking). Using this technique, I can make natural looking adjustments without even touching a selection tool. This blog is a quick introduction to the technique (and nothing more) and assumes you have at least intermediate skills with Photoshop. The applications of channel masking are pretty extensive. With that in mind, let’s darken a sky.

We’ll start with the following image of Deadvlei in Namibia. I know this blog is not about Deadvlei, but I have to say it… Deadvlei is super cool.

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End of Day at Deadvlei : Prints Available

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

For this image, I’m happy with the sky as it is, but let’s pretend I’m not. Let’s darken it. With the image open in Photoshop, click on the channels tab as seen in the lower right-hand corner. You’ll see the RGB channel as well as the individual red, green and blue channels.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 7.00.45 PM

You’ll notice I’ve clicked on the blue channel which is now active. The blue areas of the image are lighter in tone, indicating that blue is stronger in the blue channel (imagine that!). The color blue is weaker in the darker areas of the channel. If the red channel was selected, the dunes will appear lighter. Let’s stay with the blue channel because we are darkening the blue sky.

You will recall that, with masks, the lighter areas are more affected than darker areas when making an adjustment. We are going to turn this amazingly detailed channel into a mask that you could never create using any brush or selection tool in Photoshop. To do that, hold down Command (Mac) or Control (Windows) and click on the blue channel layer. The “marching ants” appear around the 50% brightest pixels in the image, as in the following screenshot:

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 7.02.33 PM

Now, in this example, I will just keep the 50% brightest pixels selected for my adjustment. However, if you hold Command-Alt-Shift (Mac) or Control-Alt-Shift (Windows) and click again on the blue channel, you will cut the % in half each time you click (1st click means 25% brightest pixels, next click 12.5%, etc). The more times you click, the more your adjustment will be limited to the lightest pixels in the image as they appear in the blue channel.

After your selection is created, click on the layers pallet and create a curves adjustment layer. (We won’t actually be modifying the curve here). Change the blending mode to Multiply to darken the image by one stop. The light areas of the mask are darkened most in the image and dark areas the least. Below is the result, which you can compare to the first image in the blog. Notice the sky is darkened, but the rest of the image is not as affected. No ugly halos. Perfect transitions. You can now adjust the opacity to control the amount of darkening.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 7.07.07 PM

For more control, you can create a new folder with a mask and drop the adjustment layer in that folder. Then, paint on the folder mask to limit the adjustment to the lighter areas of the folder mask. With this image, it would be easy to paint gray or black over the ground to limit or eliminate any adjustment to that part of the image. Also, keep in mind that darkening the selection is not the only option here. You can lighten, add saturation or make other adjustments.

Again, that is just a very brief introduction to the technique. If you want more info on channel masking, you’ll want to learn from a real master. I’d recommend checking out Sean Bagshaw’s video series “Extending Dynamic Range” or “The Complete Guide to Luminosity Masks”.

Smoke Photography Composites

A number of people have asked me how I created the image below. This is obviously a composite, but there is actually less Photoshop work involved in this one than you might think:

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Skeleton holding torch made using smoke photography

First, I had no plans of creating the final image above. However, below is the primary shot exactly as it came out of the camera. You can see that the “skeletal figure” (a.k.a. creepy looking guy) appeared naturally in the smoke. I shot around 40 or so pictures and came out with two or three that had odd looking characters like this to start with. So, I’d recommend shooting a lot of pictures and seeing what you get.

IMG_2610 temp

In terms of the set-up of the shot, here is what I did:

– As you can see, I used an incense stick for the smoke.
– I kept the room dark, except for a desktop lamp pointing at the smoke from one side. This was to create enough light for the camera to focus.
– I used a black background.
– I set my camera to manual and used F11 at 1/200.
– I used one off-camera flash from the other side (pointing at the direction of the lamp, with the incense in between the flash and lamp). I set the flash to manual and zoomed the flash in a bit to narrow the light beam. I also blocked the light from hitting the background and entering the camera using some make-shift “barn doors,” which were a couple of pieces of back construction paper on each side of the flash.
– I left the white balance on auto (resulting in the blue tone), but you can adjust this however you want in the camera and/or in post-processing.
– You will want to wave your hand to stir up the smoke now and then to create interesting shapes.
– In Photoshop, I pieced together a few parts from the other smoke pictures to create the torch and the beam. I had to re-size the flame and torch and then colored the torch pieces using a Hue/Saturation layer.

These are really fun images to create, especially when you end up with something completely unexpected like the image above. The key is to take a lot of pictures and you will hopefully find something interesting to start with in at least one of them.

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.