DSLRs: Photographing Fireworks

It’s that time of year again here in the US. The 4th of July promises 2-3 days of fireworks displays in many areas. For photographers, that means lots of opportunities to get shots of fireworks.

Having shot more fireworks than I know what to do with the past few years, I have several tips you may find helpful.

Here’s the short form:

  1. Pick a location upwind and preferably high enough to get a view above the crowd and the trees.
  2. Use Manual or Bulb exposure. Don’t worry much about depth of field. Keep ISO low and shutter speed long. Use primarily Aperture and/or secondarily ISO to brighten or darken the fireworks if they’re getting under or overexposed.
  3. Use a wide angle zoom lens (16-35mm works well if you’re close; 24-70mm if your further away; if you’re really far away, you might need a telephoto lens) on a tripod and a remote to release the shutter.
  4. Setup with a wider angle than you think you need–this will help you catch fireworks that go off in different positions more easily.
  5. Manually focus on infinity unless you’re closer than 2 football fields and using a telephoto lens.
  6. Speed up your shutter a lot for the finale when many fireworks go off at the same time.
  7. Try to let your camera have a short rest between shots when you can–this will help it keep up with writing image files, preventing it from not firing when you least expect it, and help keep it cooler, reducing noise.

Planning Tips:  Location, Location, Location

Find out where and when the fireworks will start. Look at the location on Google Earth. Even better, go to the location and check it out ahead of time. Look for a good vantage point that will give you a view of the fireworks and, preferably, the ground–you may need to get yourself invited to a rooftop party for the best view. 🙂 If you have trees between you and the fireworks, you will be limited to shots of the fireworks above the trees.

Alternatively, look for an interesting foreground subject you can put fireworks behind. Check out this famous photo by Jim Zuckerman of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by fireworks for inspiration.

Additionally, consider smoke when choosing a location. Check the weather forecast for the wind direction and speed. Hopefully there will be a light breeze that will dissipate the smoke. You want to be upwind of the fireworks with the hope that the wind will carry the smoke behind the fireworks and keep your photos clean.

Have an idea of how you’re going to get to your chosen location, how bad traffic will be, and when you will need to get there to ensure a place to setup a tripod. You will need a tripod.

Exposure Settings

Shooting fireworks is similar to shooting lightening except it’s easier because you can predict fireworks better. (See Lesson: 109 Long Exposures and Lightening).

There are two methods I have used with success. I prefer the second one, which is how I shoot lightening, but it requires imagining how much you’ve captured, so you might find the first one easier.

Method One: Manual Shooting Mode

In this method, you choose an aperture, shutter speed, and ISO setting that you think will give you good exposure of the fireworks. You then adjust your shutter speed longer or slower to get what you want and adjust aperture and ISO accordingly.

Most of my single-firework examples (in the gallery above) are ¼ to 1/13 of a second long using this method, but how fast or slow your shutter needs to be is partly dependent on how large the fireworks are in your frame, partly dependent on personal preference, and partly dependent on whether you want to get multiple fireworks in the same shot. Most people shoot fireworks with much longer shutter speeds.

You will likely want shutter speeds of 5-15 seconds or even longer to get multiples, but this is, of course, dependent on how frequently fireworks are being fired.

Note that you will not be able to use your light meter. You can meter while a firework is firing, but the brightness of one firework to another is quite variable and the percentage of the sky that is firework vs dark may make your meter reading deceptive. Also, during the finale, you will need a much shorter shutter speed because many fireworks are going off simultaneously–you may end up with a massive jumble with a very slow shutter.

As far as aperture goes, for fireworks it is more a factor of getting the exposure you want than getting depth of field–you are likely to have all the DOF you need (if you’re shooting wide and not too close). Because fireworks are a lot like light painting, the maximum amount of light you can capture is determined more by how long the firework is glowing, how wide your aperture is open, and how high your ISO is than what you’re shutter speed is. The one thing to be cautious of is if you use a very slow shutter and one firework goes off after another in the exact same spot, not only will they not look so good together in the same frame, but you will probably blow out the highlights where the brightest part of each firework ended up overlapping. This is one of the reasons I prefer using the bulb mode.

ISO can be minimized to reduce noise in most cases, although ISO 800 works for me when shooting single fireworks at shorter shutter speeds. But, bear in mind the longer the shutter speed, the more noise you will have.

Method 2:  Bulb Shooting Mode

Bulb simply allows you to manually open and close the shutter instead of setting the shutter speed ahead of time. Some cameras have an actual “Bulb” shooting mode (“B”) on the shooting mode dial. If yours doesn’t, bulb is probably selected by being in Manual Shooting mode and changing the shutter speed–it’s usually the one after 30 seconds.

I prefer this method. The advantage is that it allows you to control the shutter speed based on how bright particular fireworks are, how many have gone off, etc. Instead of guessing ahead of time what’s going to be fired, you can imagine how much light has reached your sensor and how many individual fireworks have been included in the shot.

Use your eyes and brain to “measure” the amount of light that has been produced by the total number of fireworks that have gone off since you opened your shutter. Mentally picture the combination of fireworks that have gone off in the image. This takes getting a feel for when to close the shutter, but isn’t that hard to do because each firework fades rather than continually adding light, meaning there’s a lot of leeway from an exposure perspective as long as ambient light from sources other than the fireworks is minimal.

To maximize the length of time you can leave your shutter open, you can set your ISO to 100 and stop down to f/22. However, you may find the fireworks look at bit dim. Each firework only emits light for so long, so you want enough light to reach your sensor to record each one brightly. For these examples, I used ISO 100 and f/16.

If you have a remote for your camera, this is a good time to use it. Pressing the shutter button can introduce vibration into your shot, which may cause some blur. In fact, it’s preferable to use a remote even if you’re not in Bulb mode. But it’s doubly important when using bulb mode.

Focus

The short answer is manually focus your lens at infinity (there should be a mark on your lens that is an infinity symbol with a line showing you where to turn the focus ring to). This will yield sharp fireworks the vast majority of the time.

If this makes you nervous, you can refer to Lesson 106: Focusing in the Dark. Or, you can point your camera at a bright object that is about the distance you expect the fireworks to be, if your lens has a distance meter you can look at the distance meter to see how far away that is and if your lens is focused at infinity. If you are shooting wide, you may be surprised to discover how close a subject can be and still result in focusing at infinity.

If there is nothing bright enough to focus automatically on, you can focus on infinity and check to make sure the first image you take is sharp.

If you are very close to the fireworks and using a lens that is longer (where infinity focus is much further away) you can autofocus on the first firework itself.

Realistically, you are likely to have so much DOF that accurate focusing is less important. I cannot say I’ve ever had a problem with focus, but then, I typically shoot wide. Focusing at infinity at 16mm, for example, with my full-frame camera at f/16 everything will stay in focus from less than 2 feet away to infinity. I have no desire to be that close to fireworks!

By comparison, if everything were the same except my focal length, at 100mm, I would need to be at least 70 feet from the fireworks. We are not usually that close either, so focusing at infinity will usually work. But, if you’re using a 300mm lens, you’d need to be over 600 feet away for infinity focus to work well. This is still pretty darn close for fireworks, but just keep in mind that if you’re using a 300mm lens and are less than 2 football fields away from the fireworks, that might be a time to worry about this–you might also want to keep a fire extinguisher handy.

Focal Length and Framing

Fireworks are a good time to have a zoom lens on your camera in my opinion. Especially if you are in close proximity. The first time I shot fireworks, I put my 100mm prime lens on my camera and was surprised when the fireworks didn’t fit in my frame–they were much larger than I expected shooting from about a quarter mile away. I ended up scrambling to change lenses.

Using a zoom gives you room to adjust for such misjudgments since you can’t tell how big the fireworks will be until they start going off.

If you like to include the landscape in the shot, you will definitely want to shoot wider. The other thing to be aware of is that you are setting up on a tripod and you will not have a lot of time to adjust between shots. In fact, my preference is to shoot wide enough that I never change the camera position once the show starts. I prefer not to miss shots by fussing with the tripod.

I do miss shots when the fireworks suddenly get fired in a different direction or the wind blows them out of the frame. But, this happens infrequently when I’m shooting wide.

Cautions

If you are firing off a series of long exposures one after another, there are a couple of things to be cautious about. First, you can fill your memory buffer in your camera. This is a little hard to predict when you are doing long exposures. For example, my camera can shoot 6 frames per second but if I fire 18 shots in 3 seconds, the memory buffer will fill and I will have to wait for the camera to catch up writing the images to the memory card. Theoretically, one would think if you are firing off a long exposure followed by another the camera would be able to write the first image while exposing the second and keep up. However, I have run my camera out of memory right before the finale and missed the entire finale while it was catching up. I was not happy.

Just pause every once in a while to see how long it takes for the busy light to go off–if it’s a really long time, you might want to space your shots a bit more.

The other thing to be aware of is that long exposures produce a lot of heat in your camera. This is why long exposures tend to be noisier than short exposures. Giving your camera a little time between shots may also help keep it cooler, keeping noise to a minimum.

Post Processing

Smoke is quite detrimental. You can use curves and levels in Aperture or Lightroom to darken the smoke and make it less obvious to the eye. However, you also loose some of the light in the fireworks in the process and can substantially change the texture of the light trails.

Here’s an example of before and after:

I like the way the fireworks look better in the before image, but the smoke is distracting and lowers the contrast.

Sometimes, a puff of smoke in the wrong place ruins an image no matter what you do in post-processing (well, what I do in post-processing; Photoshop gurus may be able to deal with this). And sometimes the smoke is positioned so that you can still enjoy the image (even if you’d like it better without the smoke):

Conclusion

Do not stress about shooting fireworks. It’s not hard and you’ll get a better view of the fireworks if you plan ahead a little bit whether your images turn out or not. Just don’t forget you’re having fun!

Lesson 110 (DSLRs): How Clean Does Your Lens Need to Be?

For those of you who don’t have time to read a long post, here’s a summary so you can decide what’s relevant to you:

  1. Don’t clean your lens unless you’re actually seeing spots, areas of low contrast or fuzziness in your images.  The first part of this post provides an example and links to other examples on what it looks like when stuff on your lens shows up in your images.
  2. If you do clean your lens, be gentle to avoid doing more harm than good.  Take the time to go to the second part of this post and read the referenced article before you start cleaning.
  3. Before you have your sensor cleaned, make sure your problem really is dirt on your sensor.  The last part of this post provides a tip and a link to step-by-step instructions on testing whether your sensor is dirty.

Recognizing When You Need to Clean the Lens

It always amazes me how much debate there can be over seemingly simple topics in photography.  However, most experienced photographers tend to agree on this one:  your lens doesn’t usually need to be all that clean.

I confess, I hate to clean a lens.  I don’t do it unless I really have to.  When it comes to my lenses, when I first started getting “serious” about photography, one of my mentors warned me that cleaning a lens too vigorously could damage the coatings on the lens and cause more problems than the dirt.

This made me so paranoid that I was afraid to clean my lenses.  What I discovered was that the crud on my lens didn’t show up in my images, so I was convinced it really wasn’t worth risking damaging the lens to clean it.

Then, a few years ago, I found myself shooting outdoors in the middle of the day a lot more frequently than I would prefer.  When this led to experimenting with more shots that include a lot of bright sunlight, I suddenly started getting images with blurry flare spots all over the place.  Advised that I had a dirty sensor, I took my camera in and had the sensor cleaned.  But that didn’t solve the problem.  My problem was the dust on my lens.

Since then, I’ve learned a few things about troubleshooting spots in your images.  First, there’s lens flare, which can occur regardless of how clean your equipment is.  But, when you have dust on your lens, if light strikes the front lens at the wrong angle, the dust can also contribute to seeing lots of flare spots in your image.

In the following example, some of the flare is not attributable to dust, but the large number of large, bright blurry spots indicate there was dust on my lens and the sun was hitting them just right:

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One of the challenges of this problem is that it may occur quite infrequently.  This was shot at 28mm and f/20–both the wide angle and the stopped down aperture make it more likely that flare will turn up in the image.  The inclusion of the sun in the image also meant my lens hood wasn’t going to block direct light from hitting the front lens element, which is the root of flare problems.  However, in this case, I wanted lens flare to show in the image.  I wasn’t, however, bargaining for an entire sky full of blurry bright spots!

Since cleaning the lens, the problem has been reduced to “normal” lens flare.

But the caution I received so many years ago remains true–over cleaning your lens is more damaging than under cleaning–you really only need to clean the lens if your images are affected.

Here is an amazing article that shows just how little stuff on your lens may show up in your images–it’s definitely worth the read:  Dirty Lens Article.

In spite of what the Dirty Lens Article demonstrates, this is not a justification for abusing your lens.

First, just like the dust on my lens did not show in my images the vast majority of the time, damage to the lens will also show up under different circumstances.  Note that Munger’s examples with named aperture settings were all at f/5.6.  As mentioned earlier, flares are more likely to show up when you’re stopped down.

Second, even if you don’t care if your lens is in pristine condition, should you ever want to sell your lens, your buyer probably will.

How to Clean the Lens

When you do clean your lens, remember that less is more.  You don’t want to rub at the lens like you’re cleaning a window.  Instead, try starting with a fun little toy called a blower.  I particularly like the Giottos Rocket Air Blaster.  It doubles as a fascinating conversation piece should you decide to keep it on display in your living room.

By using a blower, you can shoot dry air (unlike when you blow with your mouth) across the lens to blow away any loose dust on the lens.  Dry air does a better job lifting away dust than moist air.  Plus, do you really want to know how much spit you spray when you blow on something?

Some people like to use a very soft brush after the blower to brush away more stubborn dust.  The idea is to remove anything that might be abrasive gently so that it doesn’t scratch the lens or the coatings on the lens.  When you start rubbing at the lens with a cloth, you can effectively turn dust particles into sand paper, abrading those special coating that do things like reduce flare.

I skip the brush step and do the next step very, very gently.

When I first attempted lens cleaning, I bought fancy lens cleaning fluid and cleaning papers.  I put a few drops of cleaning fluid on the paper and gently wiped the lens.  Later, I adopted Ken Rockwell’s approach of breathing on the lens to fog it up instead of using cleaning fluid.  (That article is still available and includes additional tips for using methyl alcohol to clean stubborn spots:  How to Clean Lenses, Monitors, Filters and CCDs.)  I also switched from using cleaning papers to microfiber chamois clothes–the main problem with the paper for me was gently getting rid of streaks without having my fingers slip off the paper and create new fingerprints.  But then, I have below-average coordination.

If you are going to go to the trouble of cleaning your lens, clean the back element as well as the front (at the end that attaches to the camera).  According to Nasim Mansurov, rear element dust shows up as dark specks in the out-of-focus portions of the image. He shows an example in this article.

Dust on the Rear Element vs Dust on the Sensor

Since dust on the sensor also shows up as dark spots on images, it’s probably worth cleaning the rear element before having your sensor cleaned (or cleaning it yourself).  If you want to be positive whether it’s the lens or the sensor, take test shots using two different lenses based on the instructions in this article from Jeff Guyer, Got Sensor Dust?  Check.  See if the spots show in the same places even when you switch lenses.  This will guarantee there’s no confusion between lens dust and sensor dust.

Lesson 109 (DSLRs): Lightening and Long Exposure

Since I promised more examples of things you can do with long exposures in Lesson 108 and then we had a storm that offered a great opportunity to shoot lightening, here’s the first follow-up example.

Before we go into how to shoot lightening, let’s start with a little background on the shutter setting I prefer for this.

For lightening shots, I think it’s easiest to use that mysterious shutter speed called “Bulb.”   The first step is to find how to turn it on.  In some cameras, the shooting mode dial on the top of the camera has a “B” for Bulb and turning the dial to B is all you need to do.  In other cameras, “bulb” is at the end of the shutter speed options just past the setting for 30 seconds.  In this case, turn the shooting mode dial to “M” (for Manual) and then set the shutter speed to “Bulb.”

So now you’re in “Bulb” and you may be wondering what the heck that means.  This setting let’s you to open the shutter and keep it open until you decide to close it.  To do this, you either have to hold the shutter button down the entire time you want the shutter opened or you need to use a remote.

I am currently using a Pixel Pro Oppilas wireless remote, which was amazingly cheap.  In fact, I accidentally ordered 2 and decided for the $20 price tag, it was worth keeping the second one as a backup.

In any case, whether you choose a cheap 3rd party wireless remote, a wired remote, or a high-end wireless remote, you will definitely want a remote for bulb exposures.  There are two reasons for this:  1)  It’s very annoying to have to stand around holding the shutter button down for extensive periods of time, and 2) It’s extremely difficult to hold the shutter button down without introducing camera shake, which will cause blur in your images.

So, you’re in bulb mode and you have a remote attached to your camera.  You will also need to put your camera on a tripod.  This is a must.  And a solid tripod that won’t allow your camera to vibrate helps tremendously.  Alternatively, you need a really solid place to set your camera.  A fellow photographer friend says setting the camera on a large bean bag will help keep it stable if you have a flat surface to put it on.

Next, you need a safe vantage point to shoot from.  A safe vantage point is not, for example, the middle of an open field, under the one tree in said open field, on a roof top, or anywhere above timberline on a mountain.  A safe vantage point generally means that you are indoors.  Some folks shoot lightening through car or home windows using a polarizing filter to remove glare from the glass.  This is definitely the safest thing to do.  For recommendations on lightening and safety, go here:  http://www.lightningsafety.com/nlsi_pls.html

I will make no recommendations and I am not going to tell you where I shoot from because I don’t want to be responsible for anyone besides myself when it comes to lightening safety.  🙂

That said, let’s assume you’ve found a good, safe place to shoot lightening from.  Now that you’ve found your place, you next need to be there at the right time.

Since night time lightening is more dramatic, if you are at home in the evening, having a spot you can get to on a moment’s notice increases the odds that you will be able to capture some great shots.  Otherwise, watch the weather forecast and be prepared to go to your favorite location only to be disappointed.

Let’s say all has aligned and now you have your camera in Bulb, with a remote, on a tripod, in a safe location, and there is lightening!  You are 90% of the way there!

There are lots of different opinions on what to do next.  This is my personal preference:

  1. Use the widest focal length you’ve got.  It greatly increases the odds that lightening will be captured inside the frame since you cannot predict where it will strike.  The examples for this post were shot at 16mm on a camera with a full frame sensor (meaning 40% wider than if you’re using a crop-sensor camera).  Images were then cropped in post-processing.
  2. I use one of two options for focusing.  If there is enough light to focus either automatically or manually, I like to focus on an object in the landscape that will result in getting everything in the frame sharp.  I like to include foreground objects (like buildings) for scale.  If it is too dark to find focus, I set my lens to manual focus and then turn the focusing ring until the mark aligns with the infinity symbol (this is called focusing at infinity).  If everything in the frame is at the hyperfocal distance or further from the camera, this will keep everything sharp as well.  (If you don’t know what hyperfocal distance is, it just means from that point on, everything to infinity will be acceptably sharp.  You can use a Depth of Field calculator to get an estimate of this distance.  See Lesson 106 for more info on calculating this.)
  3. Stop down the aperture to something around f/16ish.  I like f/16 because it gives me so much depth of field that I don’t have to worry about everything being sharp and, more importantly, allows for very long exposure times without overexposing the image between lightening strikes.  That said, when you are shooting with a very wide angle focal length and your subject is far away, you don’t need to be on f/16 to get a lot of DOF, so feel free to try opening up the aperture if you find that works better for you.
  4. Set the ISO as low as you can.  I started with ISO 400, over exposed a strike that was very close, turned it down to 100, under exposed several strikes that were further away, and then turned it up to 200.  This is not an exact science, but be aware that long exposures, especially at night, tend to get very noisy (speckled and grainy).  Setting a high ISO will also add noise, but decreases the length of time the shutter needs to stay open.  In this case, what we’re trying to do is keep the shutter open as long as possible with the least exposure until lightening actually strikes.  So, we really want just enough light amplification (what the ISO setting controls) to allow for a great exposure during the lightening strike.
  5. Get your camera all set and pointed at the sky (don’t forget to level it) and then take a comfortable seat.
  6. Some people claim they can sense lightening before it strikes.  I suggest that if you find your arm hairs standing on end or have some sense of an electrical charge, it’s time to move–quickly!  I open the shutter with my remote and watch and listen.
  7. I leave my shutter open for a while and watch how many flashes there are in the sky and how bright they are.  If they are not very bright, I will wait through several flashes and then close the shutter (by pressing the remote shutter release a second time). 
  8. This next step is critical:  look at the exposure you got.  I do not have a scientific way to predict what exposure you will need for lightening.  This is very much a feel thing.  The longer you sit there watching the storm, guessing at how much light has reached your sensor and checking to see if you guessed right, the better you will get at this.  The important thing to bear in mind is that when lightening strikes, if it’s very bright, it’s time to close the shutter and start the next exposure.  Conversely, if you’ve been getting lots of flashes in the clouds but no bright strikes and you’ve had the shutter open for a while, it’s probably time to close the shutter and start over.  If the sky gets too exposed before the lightening strikes, the lightening will not show up as well.

One word of caution:  leaving your shutter open for extensive periods of time will drain your battery quickly.  Make sure you have a fully charged battery (and a spare if you have it).

In a nutshell, my approach to get lightening shots is to have the right equipment, show up in the right place at the right time, get ready, and then open my shutter and adjust as things happen.  Kind of like life.  🙂

Lesson 108 (All Cameras): Long Exposures

Note for iPhoneographers: the SlowShutter app will allow you apply this information to the iPhone, although stabilizing the iPhone (even in an iPhone tripod) can be challenging.  See Lesson 101.

When I teach beginning photography workshops, one of the things I spend a lot of time working with students on is the relationship between exposure and artistic expression.  Shutter speed is one of the big ways in which we control both exposure and motion showing in our images.

Slow shutter speeds leave the shutter open for longer periods of time, allowing more light to reach our sensors for exposure.  They also allow any motion in the subject to blur.  Most of us strive for tack sharp images, so why would we ever use long shutter speeds?

First, sometimes you have to use a slow (long) shutter speed if you’re shooting in low-light conditions.  Second, allowing motion to blur can create some cool artistic effects.  And third, if you need lots of depth of field, you’re going to need a small aperture.  The age-old analogy for the relationship between the shutter speed and the aperture size is to think of a water faucet.  How long you turn the water on is like your shutter speed.  How wide you open the valve is like your aperture.  If you turn a water faucet on wide open for a split second, you can get the same amount of water as if you turn the water on at a trickle but let it run for a much longer time.  That’s how aperture and shutter speed work together to control the total volume of light that will reach your sensor and why using a small aperture usually means a slower shutter.

Let’s start with an example that was both low-light and a small aperture, but with no motion:

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This example was shot at twilight with a 1 second exposure at f/18.  F/18 is a small aperture opening and 1 second is a slow shutter speed.  By using a tripod and a 2-second delay on the shooting mode, I was able to keep the camera still and avoid introducing motion blur.  I got the exposure I wanted and kept everything from the rail in the foreground to the building in the background sharp.

Now let’s take a look at what happens if you don’t keep your camera still:

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In this example, I literally picked up my camera/tripod and moved it in about the last second of a 25 second exposure.  Because the building in the background is so much dimmer than the lights going up the path, the building did not blur while the lights, being so bright, created trails across the image.

Now let’s talk about using long shutter speeds to show motion in the subject itself.  Waterfalls are a popular subject for this technique.  By putting the camera on a tripod again, everything in the image that is still remains sharp but the moving water blurs to a soft “flow” through the image, visually communicating the movement of the water.

Compare this image (shot at ⅙ of a second) to the one after it (shot at 1/320 of a second):

The fast (1/320) shutter speed freezes the splashes of water while the slower shutter speed (⅙) allows the water to blur into softness.  Which one you prefer is a matter of taste (in this case, I like the faster shutter speed better, but that’s partly because it’s slightly less exposed and has less flare from the sun).

Now let’s look at an example of low-light, moving water, and lots of depth of field:

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This was a 20 second exposure shot at f/16.  The small aperture not only provides more depth of field, but it also turns the lights on the bridge into stars.  The slow shutter allows the water coming out of the water cannons to blur into soft streams.  Also notice the surface of the river–the splashes and ripples have also smoothed out into soft lines.

There are many more fun things you can do with a long exposure, but I’ll save those for future posts.  🙂

Lesson 107: Depth of Field Through the Lens

I taught a Beginners class on macro and close-up photography on Saturday.  Macro teaches us a lot of great skills as photographers.  Because shooting subjects life-sized or bigger magnifies the mistakes we might get away with if our subjects didn’t loom so large on our sensors, macro serves to remind us and help really bring home some basic photography concepts in a whole new way.

Depth of Field is of primary concern with macro photography.  When you’re shooting practically on top of your subject, DOF is reduced to fractions of an inch–sometimes DOF is so tiny that it’s easier to think of it in millimeters, even for metric-adverse Americans.

One of the things that often confuses beginning (and even more experienced) photographers is that the depth of field you see when you look through the lens is not the depth of field you’ll get when you create the image (unless you happen to be shooting with your aperture wide open).

For example, during class, I was shooting with the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens.  When I looked through the lens at a dandelion, this is what I saw:

The inside of the dandelion (f/2.8)
The inside of the dandelion (f/2.8)

Pretty cool, huh?  When you are looking through the lens, the aperture is wide open regardless of what aperture setting you have selected for exposure.  This allows the maximum light through the lens for you to see as well as for functions like autofocus to work better. 

Some cameras have a DOF preview button that stops the aperture down to what you’ve set it at so you can theoretically tell how much DOF you’re actually going to get.  I find this button to be only marginally useful.  I rarely can tell how much DOF I’m getting by pressing it, partly because of the loss of light.

Instead, I tend to take a shot and use a magnifying loupe to look at it on the LCD.  I may also zoom into the image to enlarge it for more careful viewing.  Then I decide if I like the DOF I’m getting and adjust if not.

In the next example, I shot the same dandelion at f/16 instead of f/2.8 (as in the first example).  Notice how we see the full ball of fluff instead of getting a horizontal view of the inside of the dandelion seeds?  That’s because there is enough DOF for the foreground portion of the seed ball to not blur completely out of view.

Same Dandelion at f/16
Same Dandelion at f/16

Personally, I find the very shallow depth of field more interesting in this case–it’s like having a view of the inside of the flower.  However, if I wanted a shot of dandelion that looked more like what we see in life, the second example would be my pick.  In fact, I’d probably want a little more depth of field to keep the tufts of the closest seen “fronds” sharp.

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. 🙂