Lesson 106: Canon DSLRs – Focusing in the Dark

 

Recently, I had a participant in one of my workshops ask about focusing troubles while shooting in caves.  It’s always difficult to diagnose a problem without actually being in the situation and knowing what the variables are and what the photographer has already tried and not tried, but here is a go at answering some of the questions that came out of that conversation.

Focusing at Infinity

Someone had suggested the photographer focus at infinity to solve the problem.  Focusing at infinity is something you can do when you can’t see to focus by turning your focus ring to the infinity symbol on your lens.  The problem with using this technique inside a cave is that the closest thing that will be in focus will likely be further away than anything inside the cave, leaving everything in view out of focus.  This can work well for very far away subjects at night, however, and is often used for lightening shots, for example.

In this particular instance, the photographer is shooting with a Canon 30D.  If he were shooting at 50mm and f/4.0 (the maximum aperture of his lens) and focused at infinity, the closest object that would be “acceptably sharp” would need to be at the hyperfocal distance, which is 108 feet away (per SetMyCamera App DOF calculator).  I haven’t been in many caves where what I wanted to shoot was 108 feet away, so this is not likely to be a workable solution.

While focusing at the hyperfocal distance (108 ft) instead would make things 54 feet away “acceptably sharp”, that’s still quite a distance inside a cave and is not something you can set blindly on a lens without a distance meter (his does not have one).

This means the only way to get sharp focus inside the cave is to actually find focus either automatically or manually.  Manually is tricky because it requires him to have someone else shine a flashlight on the subject while he focuses; autofocus is preferred.

So, if you’re doing a lot of shooting in dark scenarios and autofocus is really important to you, here are a few things to consider:

AF-Assist

This (other than using a flashlight) is the cheapest solution if you have a built-in flash.  Even the 30D has a built-in AF Assist beam with a few constraints:

  1. You must be in Single Shot or AI Focus focusing mode (not AI Servo)
  2. It only works up to 13.2 feet away
  3. Ken Rockwell (a great resource for to-the-point info about gear and photography in general) said this about the AF-Assist on the 30D:  “This is a trick: the 30D has NO AF illuminator! Sadly, the 30D instead fires off the flash numerous times, blinding your subjects. My wife kicked me out when she thought I was going to blind her dogs. The little light near the shutter button on the front of the body is only for the self-timer, not the AF illuminator. Sorry.”

For the 30D, to turn AF-Assist on, refer to page 169 in the 30D user manual:

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 5.09.02 PM

To prevent the flash from then firing, you’ll also need to turn it off, which is on page 170:

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 5.09.17 PM

If blinding the bats and your caving cohorts is not acceptable, the next choice would be to use the AF-Assist on a Speedlite.  As it turns out, the aforementioned photographer owns two and they both have AF-assist that uses a much less annoying red grid to provide something to focus on.

The AF Assist setting is in the Custom Function menu for each of these flashes and you will want to set the C.Fn-05 setting on the camera flash menu to 2 (see the first excerpt from the manual above).

The next step is to disable the flash from firing, which is going to be in the camera menu for External Speedlite control on newer Canons and C.Fn-07 in the 30D the photographer is using (the same setting shown above for the built-in flash).  This will allow use of AF assist without using the flash if you prefer to avoid flash.

“Faster Lenses”

People usually associate having a “fast lens” with getting faster shutter speeds because they can open up the aperture further.  However, an additional benefit of fast lenses is the amount of light they make available for focusing.  This can make a big difference when focusing in dimly lit settings.

When a camera is focusing, the aperture opens to its maximum size regardless of what aperture value you’ve set for exposure.  For this reason, even if you’re exposure setting is f/5.6, your lens will admit 4x as much light during focusing if it has a max aperture of f/2.8 vs f/5.6, 2x as much with an f/2.8 max aperture vs f/4.0.  Once you find focus (or release the shutter in continuous focusing mode), your camera stops the lens down to the f/5.6 setting you chose for exposure if you’re using an f/2.8 or f/4.0 lens and doesn’t change the aperture if you’re using an f/5.6 lens.

This can help with low-light focusing scenarios.  A larger max aperture also allows your camera to use its better focusing capabilities.  The Canon 30D manual says the following (p. 78):

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 5.14.18 PM

This means that if you have a smaller max aperture than f/2.8, your camera is unable to take advantage of its higher precision focusing capability.   All cameras have different focusing capabilities with different max apertures, but as explained here (“Canon EOS DSLR Autofocus Explained”), these capabilities have less to do with finding focus and more to do with refining focus.

 If you decide to look at a new lens, here is another article from the same site that might be helpful on choosing lenses:  http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Canon-Lenses/Aperture.aspx

Upgrade the Camera

Since the photographer having this issue is currently considering purchasing a 5D Mark III, I thought it worth mentioning that this may help quite a bit.  The 5D Mark III claims it can autofocus down to EV -2.  The 30D, by comparison, claims it can autofocus down to EV -.5.  This means the 30D needs 3x more light to find focus than the 5D Mark III.  Add a fast lens, making more of the available light also available to the focusing system, and you’ll find you can focus in more low-light conditions.

That said, no matter what, a certain amount of light must reach the lens for the camera to find focus.  Total darkness, obviously, won’t allow for focusing (or capturing an image) regardless of your equipment.  But, if our caving photographer points the light on his helmet at what he wants to focus on, it might be enough, for example, with one camera/lens combination and not enough for another.

If you found this article interesting or helpful, please like and share.  If you have photography questions or challenges you’d like help with, please comment and I’ll see what I can come up with.  🙂

Lesson 105: All Cameras: Planning for Wildlife

We often approach photography from the perspective of capturing the moment as the moment occurs. While on vacation, for example, unless we are specifically on vacation to shoot, we rarely plan our activities around the best opportunity to make images. Instead, we plan our activities as they best fit in our schedule and capture images whenever the opportunity occurs.

Sometimes, however, getting the photos we want requires a little planning. In lessons 16 and 17, we talked about timing outdoor photography around the golden hour (or magic hour) to get the most appealing light. Wildlife photography is another type of photography that requires planning.

While I do not recommend using an iPhone for wildlife smaller than buffalo, regardless of which camera you’re using, if you want to capture wildlife, there is significantly more planning involved than for most subjects. Predictably, sometimes the best laid plan goes awry and, conversely, sometimes the best wildlife shots happen by accident. But, most of the time, having a plan helps.

Time of day. Many wildlife are most active around dawn and dusk. This works well since it usually corresponds with the best light. Knowing if the wildlife you seek falls into this pattern and planning to arrive at the best time increases the odds of not only seeing wildlife, but also seeing them do interesting things. Checking to see when the sun will rise and set on the day you’ll be shooting will help get your there on time.

Location, location, location. This is the real trick. Knowing where to find the wildlife you seek can sometimes seem like magic. In the days of the internet, it’s gotten a lot easier to get tips on locating popular hangouts for your favorite critters and even what they’re up to (like hatching eaglets, birthing elk, migrating rare birds). Sometimes the best source of this information is from posts by other photographers on Facebook or Flickr. There are also organizations who provide updates: for birds, check out a local chapter of the Ornithological Society and/or Audubon Society–ebird.org also provides migration hotspot updates; park websites often mention wildlife viewing areas; and the National Wildlife Federation seems to be trying to use social networking for sharing sightings via their Wildlife Watch program.

The Weather. Birds are tricky. During migration, they will move when winds are favorable and hang out in appropriate habitat along their migration route when winds are not. Here’s an article that explains the basics of weather and bird migration. My best birding day ever was in high winds and misting rain. Many types of Warblers had moved into a migration hotspot and then hunkered down in the understory of the woods for protection from the weather. Large mammals will move from higher elevations to lower ones as the seasons change, but day-to-day weather tends to affect how active they are more than where they’re found. However, the weather, especially in mountain areas, can have a very big impact on whether you can access the location you’re trying to get to or not. If you’re counting on driving to a wildlife viewing area in the winter in the Smokies, for example, check the road status. In the more South-Eastern mountains of the US, there is little snow clearing equipment and remote roads remain closed for much of the season. Additionally, rain, snow, and overcast skies will change the light and may even affect your subjects’ behavior. The less intense sunlight behind clouds means even, gray light all day long (which is not as nice as golden light, but means you can shoot in the middle of the afternoon without the harsh effects of overhead sun). Additionally, cooler, cloudy weather may increase the level of activity of the animals at times of day they might otherwise seek shade.
Luck. No matter how you study your subject, figure out where to find them, time your visit, plan around the weather, there is still luck involved. I have given up on carrying telephoto lenses while hiking on more than one occasion only to get my best view of wildlife when my telephoto lenses were back in the car. In fact, I’ve come to believe that leaving your telephotos behind guarantees you will see great wildlife. This does not, however, result in great photos.

All-in-all, knowing a lot about your subjects, where and when to find them, and what the weather will be like all increases the odds that you’ll have some luck and get a great shot. Some photographers like to stack the deck and hire guides who bait wildlife. Baiting wildlife teaches them to come out into the open and tolerate people standing around pointing objects at them. While cameras may be harmless, hunters are not. I am not opposed to hunting when it is practiced skillfully and prey is fully consumed, but I believe it should be fair. Animals that have been baited for photographers are at greater risk of falling prey to hunters, so I choose not to participate in such practices.  This may explain why I so often go out to shoot wildlife but come home with landscape images. 🙂

Lesson 104: Bird Photography Tips, or When Not to Use an iPhone

In Lesson 26, we looked at trying to get wildlife photographs with an iPhone.  Specifically of a Great Blue Heron hanging out by a bike path.  Today, I am sharing a few images from a recent river cruise in a wildlife preserve during Sandhill Crane migration.

All of the images in this post were taken with a DSLR.  In fact, I used two different DSLRs, each with a telephoto lens to take these images.  If your an iPhoneographer, I’m sorry, but here are the reasons why I left my iPhone in my pocket:

  1. Focusing while tracking a bird in flight with the iPhone may be possible, but if it is, I haven’t mastered it.  While I’ve gotten good images of a bird flying directly toward me with the iPhone, I’ve not been able to get images worth keeping of a bird flying across the field of view.
  2. The super-wide lens on the iPhone means that unless you can get within a few feet of a bird, you’ll end up with tiny bird spots instead of recognizable birds.
  3. The timing of when you click and when the image is made can be quite delayed in the iPhone–not ideal for a moving subject.
  4. Getting the exposure right for a small bird in a big sky is trickier than what can be accomplished quickly on the iPhone and speed is imperative when shooting moving birds from a moving boat.
  5. The resolution is too low to do a lot of cropping, which number 2 makes necessary.

So now you know why I didn’t use my iPhone.  Here are a few tips for photographing birds with a DSLR:

  1. Unless you’re going to be very close to large birds (like in our Raptography workshop), use the longest lens you own.
  2. If your lens has Image Stabilization, turn it on and select the type for panning (IS 2 for Canon, Active for Nikon).
  3. Use the continuous focusing setting on your camera (your camera will keep focusing as long as you keep the shutter button half pressed) in AI Servo mode for Canon or AF-C for Nikon.
  4. If you have tracking settings, set a choice that will stay with the subject and not refocus on new subjects entering the frame.
  5. If you can pick how many focus selection points are used, try using 8.  If you can’t keep up with a bird in flight or if you’re on a boat that’s bouncing a lot, you might want to expand to more.
  6. If your camera allows you to manually select one focus point but still uses the additional points when tracking motion, manually select the center focus point.  In all cameras, the center selection point has the best focusing sensitivity (although in some cameras, other selection points do as well).  For most people, using the center focus selection point also makes panning more intuitive.
  7. Panning with birds takes eye-hand coordination and becomes more difficult for your brain to adjust to when you’re on a moving vehicle (like a boat), so start practicing as soon as anything flies your way even if it’s not exciting.  Better to get bad shots of crows than when the elusive Whooping Crane suddenly appears on the scene.

Your Assignment:  For iPhoneographers, I’d love to see your bird images!  If you’ve managed to get a bird photo you’re proud of with your iPhone, please post it on our Facebook page:  facebook.com/snapgreatphotos!

For other shooters, get out and try these settings on robins and pigeons before you go on a birding excursion.  Everyone has different preferences and different camera features, so you may find different settings work better for you.

Lesson 103: Sunrise and the iPhone

The greatest thing about an iPhone (or any smart phone, for that matter) as a camera is that most of us don’t go out the door without it.  It takes forethought and extra effort to pop a lens on my DSLR, check to make sure it has space on its memory card, check the battery charge level, and look at what settings are on it.  I don’t think about photography at all when I grab my iPhone before I head out the door.  In fact, I have to remind myself that I have a camera with me because I carry my iPhone for so many other reasons.

When the clouds look interesting, it’s hard to resist getting a shot, even if the colors aren’t unusual.  The iPhone, for better or worse, makes it possible to capture all of the sunrises I happen to see.

On this particular morning, the bank of clouds in front of the sun caught my eye.  As usual, I was out walking my dog.  This means I was at the mercy of his bladder, trying to get to a position where I had a view of the bridge and river before the sun got too high, but not wanting to rush him through his morning routine.  There is a reason you don’t see professional photographers toting around their gear while holding a leash with a dog at the other end.

I used two different apps for these images.  First, I used the Apple Camera App (the one that comes installed on your iPhone) for this image:

Then, when I finally made it down to the river, I used it again for this image:

But, I switch to Pro HDR for this image:

Here are the two different exposures Pro HDR used to combine them into the final image above:

The result is better exposure of both the water and the sky in the same image without looking over-processed.  This is one way to deal with the bright sun–I’ve covered the Pro HDR app in earlier lessons.  See Lessons 9, 18, 20, and 66.

A word about composition:  Compare these two images side-by-side:

Notice that in the one on the left, the sky takes up the majority of the frame.  The clouds in the foreground at the top enter the frame.  In the image on the right, the water occupies the majority of the frame.  The sunlight reflected in the water adds more depth to the image and the clouds seem secondary to the composition.  While one isn’t necessarily preferable to the other, in this particular example, in spite of my obsession with clouds, I prefer the one on the right.  The reflection in the water helps draw my eye into the bridges, sun, and clouds more than the extra clouds add to the image on the left.  Which framing do you like better?

Your Assignment:  The next time you’re out at sunrise or sunset, remember that you have a camera in your pocket.  Try taking a few shots with the default camera.  Try turning on the HDR feature in it as well (for a comparison of with and without HDR in the Apple camera app, see Lesson 72).  Then try Pro HDR and see if you like the results you get–remember you have to hold still until it takes both exposures (watch the screen prompts).

Lesson 102: DSLR Macro Photography

Since I answered a question about macro photography with the iPhone on our Facebook page yesterday, thought I’d do a more detailed follow up on macro with a DSLR version–my apologies for using the iPhoneography blog for a DSLR example.  For the iPhone version, check out Lesson 37:  Small Subjects.

Macro (in Canon terminology; micro if you’re a Nikon shooter) photography is probably best understood as getting really close-up to small subjects.  So close that the subject is life-sized or larger on your camera’s sensor.  It allows us to capture details that are often surprising to those of us who can’t see that well without our reading glasses.

The challenge is that all lenses have something called a minimum focusing distance.  Macro (or micro) lenses have short enough minimum focusing distances to allow you to get up close and personal with a 1:1 ratio, meaning if the subject is 10mm wide, it occupies 10mm on your sensor.

If you don’t have a macro lens, you can use extension tubes to make your minimum focusing distance much smaller, allowing you to get much closer.  Extension tubes can also be used with a macro lens to get larger than a 1:1 ratio.  Extension tube sets run from about $20-200 with the low-end being full manual and the high-end supporting the lens electronics.  With the low end version, you are likely to be stuck with a wide open aperture as the camera and lens won’t be talking to each other.

Since this blog is normally used to post simple lessons on photography you can do with your iPhone, I’m going to try to minimize the tech talk here.  But, depth of field is important in macro photography.  Depth of field refers to how much of the image is acceptably sharp in the 3rd dimension of your image–that is, front to back of the scene.

Getting up close to a subject means your depth of field is minimal even with the aperture stopped all the way down.  Sometimes backing up a bit and going more for a “close-up” shot vs a true macro image yields a more pleasing image as a result.  I frequently use a very small aperture opening (f/22ish) and opt to go “close-up” rather than true macro to increase depth of field.

Your Assignment:  I’ve included some examples of my own experiments.  There are many better examples out there from serious macro photographers.  Google macro photography in Google images and see what you get–it’s like a whole new universe living right under our lenses.  Check it out and see if this is a form of photography you’d like to experiment with.  If so, for iPhone shooters, consider getting a macro attachment lens (see Lesson 37).  For DSLR shooters, check out extension tubes as a cheap way to turn a lens you already have into a macro lens.  If you have an advanced point-and-shoot, you may also want to check out whether a macro attachment is available for your camera.

 

 

iPhoneography Lesson 101: Slow Shutter App and a Highway Bridge

I introduced the Slow Shutter app several posts ago, but this time, I dug out my iPhone tripod and found a view of a highway bridge over a river so I could demonstrate this app creating light trails.

3GSphoto of 5S

First and foremost, this requires a tripod.  Here is a shot taken with an iPhone 3GS of my iPhone 5S in its nice little tripod courtesy of Photojojo (they have crazy accessories for iPhoneography that will make you feel like you’re buying Barbie photography gear).  The one I have came with a telephoto attachment and works fine on flat surfaces, but if I had no interest in the telephoto attachment, I would go for the $15 Gorillapod.  Just something to keep in mind for the post-Christmas shopping frenzy.  🙂

If you decide to buy something, Photojojo is offering $5 off to both you (if it’s your first-time order) and me if you use this link to go to the website:  http://photojojo.com/r/afvu–a win-win deal!

To create the Slow Shutter images, I used an 8 sec exposure under the light trails settings.  Below, find the two steps required to set this up plus what to do after you shoot:

Once you get your camera set up and going, you can keep adding to the exposure.  In this example, I did a series of 4, 8-second exposures over top of each other before saving the final image.  The key is not to move the iPhone at all when you do this.  Any vibration from tapping the phone or in the tripod it’s sitting on shows up in the image.  The problem I experienced was that I couldn’t tap the screen firmly enough without moving it to get the camera to focus on the subject, leaving me with soft focus on the distant bridge.  Here are two images on the tripod, both with soft focus:

All-in-all, I’d have to say that Slow shutter is a great idea, but probably not a useful app if you just want to pull the camera out of your pocket and start shooting.  In case you’re curious what it would do if you just hand held the iPhone, here’s the best I could do hand-holding:

Your Assignment:  Do you have an interest in being able to capture light trails at night?  Is it worth it to you to have a tripod for your iPhone to capture such images?  If so, Slow Shutter is a great app to experiment with.  We’ll also take a look at using Slow Shutter with panning in future lessons.  In the meantime, give it a try with cars driving by and see if you can get the results you’re seeking.

 

 

 

iPhoneography Lesson 100: Hipstamatic on Ice with iPhoto on the Side

One of the great things about the iPhone as a camera is that it is virtually always with you.  Being able to pull out an iPhone versus missing a shot is a great option.  The only downside, for those of us who have invested heavily in prosumer DSLR equipment, sometimes we find ourselves opting for the more convenient iPhone, even when we could pull out the big guns with a little extra effort.

For example, today, I was wandering around a parking lot in a cold wind somewhere in Indiana or Kentucky, allowing my dog to stretch his legs after several hours of riding in the car.  A small drainage ditch ran around the parking lot, which bordered a farmer’s field.  It appeared the water had dropped several feet after freezing, leaving sheets of ice hanging from trees and fencing along the drainage ditch.

The bright afternoon sun glared off the ice, giving the whole scene less than ideal lighting, but interesting glare.  So, what did I do?  Did I return to my car, dig my camera bag out from its hiding place, unzip all the zippers required to get out my camera and a lens and then dig up my tripod and go back and shoot in the sub-freezing temperatures?  Well, I thought about it for a moment.  Then, I reached into my pocket, pulled out my iPhone, opened up the Hipstamatic app and grabbed as many shots as I found interesting.

Yes.  Sometimes I choose to be lazy.  Sometimes I choose to save time.  Sometimes I choose both.

To further complicate things, I didn’t have my glasses.  When I opened up Hipstamatic, I thought it was on the BlacKeys ultrachrome film.  It was actually Blanko film.  Blanko film is color film and I really wanted black and white.  So, it was iPhoto iOS to the rescue.  I did a quick auto-enhance + black and white effect to get the black and white look I’d envisioned.  These steps are covered in detail in Lesson 96 (I did not use the Sepia button in today’s examples, but otherwise the steps are the same).

Your Assignment:  Check out these earlier lessons on lighting:  Lessons 16, 17, and 67.  Sometimes, bright afternoon light can add interest to an image even though we normally think of it as being too harsh and creating strong shadows and contrasty images.  In the winter months in particular, the sun is lower to the South and the angle of the light gives it a very different look from a straight overhead sun in the summer.  Can you tell that the sun in these images is very bright?  Does the black and white version look more or less appealing to you?