Here, the tree still looks pretty sharp and the lights have the star shape. The flower looks much sharper as well.

Christmas Time

The only thing that changed in this shot from the previous was the aperture is now f/2.8 and the shutter speed is 1/5 second. Notice how little of the tree remains in focus around the ornament.
The only thing that changed in this shot from the previous was the aperture is now f/2.8 and the shutter speed is 1/5 second. Notice how little of the tree remains in focus around the ornament.

A few tips for the best Christmas photos ever:

  1. Don’t try too hard to get great photos during intimate family gift exchanges. Seriously. There are times when being in the moment not as the observer behind the camera but as a fully present participant in the event is more important than getting pictures of it. If you must take pictures while the people most important to you are opening presents, put your camera on a tripod with a wide enough lens to cover the room, add a remote, and click the button when you think about it. Or, even better, use your iPhone to trigger your camera at set intervals and forget about it. Triggertrap is a great tool for that. Sometimes, it’s better to just remember a moment than to have a picture of it. If you’re too intrusive with your camera, those moments won’t happen.
  2. Find a neighborhood with luminaries Christmas Eve. Take a walk with your loved ones and enjoy how beautiful the luminaries are and the beauty of what they symbolize. And I’m not talking about their religious significance here—regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, a secular holiday, or not at all, luminaries are the result of a group of people who are normally too busy to do more than wave at each other actually organizing their efforts just to create something beautiful. That’s worth appreciating. After you fully absorb it and enjoy the time with your loved ones, then you might get your camera out and experiment with both close ups and wide shots of the luminaries.
  3. After everyone has gone to bed one night, spend some time shooting the Christmas tree. This part I will give you some tips for in a moment.
  4. Breathe. And breathe again. Breathe deeply and slowly. You will think more clearly and take better pictures and you will be less stressed in general. But more importantly, remember that as long as you can take a breath, there is hope. And hope is all we really need to have a great holiday.

Time with the Tree

I frequently get asked how you get “twinkle lights” in photos of the tree. I’m not exactly sure whether “twinkle lights” means star-shaped lights or soft, circular lights, but I will show you both. No special tools required (unless you think a tripod is a special tool).

First, use a tripod. It will yield much sharper images in the typically low-light situation of a Christmas tree and the tips below will not work without one.

Second, for even more sharpness, set your camera to a self-timer (2 seconds is good if you have that option) or use a remote so you’re not bumping the camera and introducing vibration pressing the shutter button.

Third, try this experiment. With the exposure type set to “M” for manual:

  1. Using  a longer lens, get up close to the tree and choose an ornament.
  2. Focus where you most want it sharp, and frame your image (without changing the distance to the subject after you’ve focused), locking your camera down on the tripod.
  3. Now, try setting your Aperture to f/22, ISO to 400, and then adjust the shutter until your meter reads 0 (or is right in the middle if you’re meter doesn’t have a 0 on it).
  4. Take a picture.
  5. If the image looks too dark, repeat only make the meter read +1. If it’s too light, -1. Repeat and adjust until you get the exposure you like.
  6. Now, don’t touch anything else, but change the aperture to the biggest aperture you have—f/5.6 on some lenses, f/4.0, f/3.5, f/2.8, f/1.4 are all common maximum apertures. So, just keep turning the dial until the f/number won’t get any smaller.
  7. Then adjust your shutter proportionally to get the same meter reading that you had in the previous picture. (If you prefer to shoot in Aperture Priority and know how to use exposure compensation, you could also do that and let the camera change the shutter for you.) 
  8. Now compare the effect you get:

You can do this same experiment with subjects that are further from the tree, like this poinsettia:

You can also do the same thing further away from the tree. Notice the effect on the lights in the background, both reflected in the glass next to the tree and shining through the glass from outside:

If you want star bursts for lights, you need a very small aperture (e.g., f/16, f/22—the biggest f/number where your images still look really sharp). The other effect of a very small aperture is that the depth of field becomes very large.

If you want big soft, round lights, you need a very large aperture. However, only the lights that are outside the depth of field will have this effect. Additionally, you will only have a very short depth of field, meaning some subjects don’t lend themselves well to this effect (e.g., wider shots of the tree can look weird with the majority of the tree soft).

Generally, I like a shallow depth of field for shots like this:

The flower begins to fall out of focus rapidly, but the sharp center holds the image together and the big out-of-focus lights in the background add interest.
The flower begins to fall out of focus rapidly, but the sharp center holds the image together and the big out-of-focus lights in the background add interest.

But more depth of field (and “twinkle lights”) in shots like this:

We're back to star-shaped lights, although it's harder to see. Notice how much smaller the reflected and distant lights look in the window.
We’re back to star-shaped lights, although it’s harder to see. Notice how much smaller the reflected and distant lights look in the window.

Although in this case I’d like to mix the sharp tree with star-shaped lights with a soft background with big round lights–and attempt to lose the distracting elements in the reflection in the process. While you can’t combine the two extremes shown here in a single image (unless you take two and combine them in Photoshop), you can experiment with an aperture value somewhere between wide open and stopped way down to get a sharp enough tree and somewhat softer background lights. Experimentation is the name of the game!

Happy Holidays and have a wonderful new year!

Same grass, same lens with the same dirt, but shot at f/5.6 and 65mm and with a different angle to the sun.  I did not remove any flare spots in post processing--there was only one and it disappeared when I converted to B&W

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:

AU0A7331

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.

The inside of the dandelion (f/2.8)

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.

iPhone 5S Apple Camera App

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).

This is not an iPhone shot, but it's a better example of light trails.

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.

 

 

 

The sheets of ice hanging from the fence more immediately grab my eye in B&W

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?

Canon 5D Mark III

iPhoneography Lesson 99: Christmas Eve and the iPhone

Just a quick tip that Christmas trees work well with Hipstamatic as well as more traditional camera apps.  Also try including reflections of the lights in the windows in the frame if you want something a little different from the traditional Christmas tree.

Have a wonderful day tomorrow whether you celebrate Christmas or not.  Peace on earth, goodwill to all, and good night!