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 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 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?