How To Articles

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FAQ: How Do I Copyright and/or Watermark My Photos?

I have been asked how to copyright photos about a dozen times now, so I thought it might be a good topic for a blog post.

Note: I am in the United States. If you are not, info about copyright laws may not apply. Also, I am not an attorney and this information is not meant to substitute for the advice of an attorney. I am telling you what I have learned, which may or may not be accurate. If you are curious about the law, please see a reputable attorney in copyright law who can advise you far more reliably.

Let’s tease the question apart a bit.

What is a Copyright?

Copyright is, literally, the right to copy something–in this case a photo. As it true for all written work (including this post), all photos are automatically and immediately subject to copyright protection the moment they are published. This is true whether you take any action to copyright your work or not.

This means any time you grab someone else’s photo off a website and share it on Facebook or print it or use it for wallpaper on your iPhone, or whatever, you are guilty of copyright infringement and you could be taken to court and sued.

If you are a photographer who cares about getting paid for your work, this works in your favor.

That said, you are not likely to get enough money if someone infringes on your copyright to make it worth taking them to court unless you have registered your images with the U.S. Copyright office.

As such, if you care or think you might someday care whether people are using your images without your permission, you might want to take a little time to learn about registering your images with the US copyright office. Here is another link that will take you directly to a tutorial on how to submit your images for copyright registration online:  http://copyright.gov/eco/eco-tutorial.pdf

What is a Watermark?

Sometimes people confuse a written copyright statement superimposed over an image with the copyright itself. This is called a “watermark” and looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 9.58.02 AM

An image is copyright protected whether it has a watermark or not. The watermark serves only as a reminder to others that this work belongs to someone and they should not use it without permission from the copyright owner.

The Professional Photographers Association recommends including the copyright symbol, year the photo was taken, name of the photographer, and how to contact the photographer in a watermark along with a message such as “all rights reserved.”

While the idea of including contact information sounds good, there are two issues with this.

First, watermarks rapidly start to detract from the image. Some people make them huge and centered on the image, which I find ruins the image to the point I don’t even want to waste my time looking at it. There is a delicate balance between protecting your work and having annoying images no one can see through your watermark.

Second, choosing a way to contact you that will neither make you subject to stalkers nor change in your lifetime (your copyright lasts your lifetime plus 70 years after your death) could be quite tricky. Including a website where your images can be ordered might be a way to keep the watermark smaller but still make it possible for people to obtain the right to use the image.

How to Add a Watermark

If you are going to process a bunch of photos at once, you will want to use software that allows you to add a watermark as part of your normal workflow. I use Aperture, but Lightroom will also allow you to do this.

The first thing you have to do is create an image file to apply as your watermark. The good news is that you only create the image file when you need to change the information it contains (e.g., ©2014 Dianne Blankenbaker would need to be updated each year).

Once you create your watermark image, you then apply the watermark at the time you export your images out of the Aperture library.

The following video demonstrates how to create the watermark in Photoshop CC 2014 and how to Apply it in Aperture 3.4:

Another alternative is to use an app that allows you to add watermarks to images. Some of these work such that you open the image file in the app and then create the watermark for just that one image. Each time you want to watermark an image, you have to repeat the process. This is quite tedious if you are processing large numbers of files and really only works if you watermark images only rarely.

Image Resolution

Additionally, posting low-resolution images can help limit what others do with you work. It’s hard to use a <100KB image, for example, for the wallpaper on a 27” screen–unless you find pixellation appealing. But, it might look OK on the much smaller screen of a smart phone.

As a general rule, the images I post on my website and Facebook are between 100-200 KB. These images full size are 24+ MB–that’s 120-240X bigger than what I’m posting. I sometimes break this rule when I really don’t want an image to start pixellating on a big screen–pixellation looks like this:Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 9.57.51 AM

It’s as annoying as a giant watermark over the center of the image to me–even worse because a low-resolution image can also appear out of focus.

42 second shutter speed (different subject)

Disappearing Act and Long Exposures

A while back, I posted a couple of long exposures on Facebook (see the post here) and asked if people could tell which one had been exposed for 1/30 of a second vs 29 seconds. It was a little confusing because the shot with the higher exposure value (that is, it was brighter) was the one with the 1/30 of a second exposure.

I thought I would explain the purpose of the exercise and talk a bit about how I achieved super long exposure times (shutter speeds) in bright sunlight.

First, if you know nothing about how a given exposure value was achieved other than the shutter speed, you cannot draw a conclusion about whether a brighter image has a longer shutter speed than the darker image. As a reminder, there are 3 settings that determine exposure: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. The same exposure can be achieved with vastly different shutter speeds by adjusting the ISO and aperture to offset the difference.

So, if all you know is the shutter speed, what differences can you see that will tell you which had the longer exposure time? From an artistic perspective, we choose shutter speed based on whether we want to show or freeze motion. “Showing motion” means motion blur becomes visible in an image. So, our first test is “how much motion blur do we see?”

However, with this particular subject, the clouds are not moving quickly. The clouds are our best clue as to how long the shutter was open. But the clouds moved slowly enough that the difference in motion blur between the 1/30 of a second exposure and the 29 second exposure is relatively subtle. When you compare the 1/60 of a second exposure to the 77 second exposure the difference becomes far more obvious.

Likewise, moving water is usually a great clue as to how long an exposure is. As the exposure gets longer, fewer ripples in the river show.

The third difference you might notice if you look very closely is that the highway that curves around the river has no cars on it in any of the images with a 29 second or longer exposure time (shutter speed).

This happens to be one of the cool reasons to do super-long exposures. It’s a way of removing traffic and crowds from a scene. “But WAIT!” you ask, “What happened to slow shutters showing motion blur?”

Disappearing objects are the extreme of motion blur. The moving objects don’t reflect enough light relative to the total light signal to register as part of an image. This is a big difference in how cameras “see” vs how we see. We do not have a time factor that increases or decreases the exposure of what we look at. A camera, however, continues to gather light, exposing the image for the length of time the shutter is open in a quantity determined by the aperture size. How much light is needed to get a given exposure is then determined by the ISO.

So, why does this make moving objects disappear? Well, let’s look at the trees in our long exposure examples. They’re very dark. They reflect back less light than the river next to them. But they are sitting still, standing in one place, reflecting back that little bit of light in the same location for the duration of the open shutter. It’s enough to register a dark image of a tree. By comparison, the cars on the freeway are driving through the frame. They reflect only a little more light than the trees, but only for a split second in each point along their trajectory–the accumulative effect of the open shutter is lost on them. They would have to be very bright to register in the image–which is how you create light trails when cars have their lights on.

So, the bottom line is that if you can get your shutter slow enough that moving objects can’t reflect enough light to show up in the image, you can make them disappear.

The next question is, of course, how do you get a super slow shutter in daylight? We can stop down the aperture as much as possible (to the point before diffraction causes our images to fall apart, but that’s another subject) and we can turn our ISO as low as it will go, but at 7:52PM in July (more than an hour before sunset), that only got me a 1/30 of a second shutter speed.

All of the example images have the same aperture and ISO settings. Having reached the limits of my camera’s ability to control exposure, my only other option to get a slower shutter was to block some of the light reaching my camera’s sensor. To do this, I used a Heliopan 10-stop neutral density filter.

So what is a Neutral Density (ND) filter? From a technical perspective, an ND filter is called “neutral” because it is designed to block all colors of light equally. In other words, the color of the light should not be affected by an ND filter, just less light should make it through the lens.

That said, 10-stop ND filters reduce the light that reaches your sensor by 1000x. Many result in a color shift. In the case of the Heliopan, it’s a red shift. The good news is that it is something easily corrected via white balance settings in the case of the Heliopan (not true of all ND filters). I personally like the color shift in these examples and didn’t bother to correct it–it was like sunset came early.

To get the identical exposure with a 10-stop ND filter, if you are changing only the shutter speed, you would need to multiple the shutter speed by 1000. So, 1/30 becomes  33.33 seconds. If you really want this shutter speed, you need to use the bulb setting on your camera with a remote and time how long the shutter has been open. I did successively longer exposures using the Bulb setting to see what I liked best.

Neutral Density filters give you more control over light. They let you use much slower shutter speeds or allow you to open up your aperture significantly in brightly lit conditions where this isn’t otherwise possible.

If you like playing with motion or shallow depth of field in bright light, neutral density filters are a great option to explore.

A 7-sec exposure captured a combination of fireworks that never appeared to the human eye

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!

And this is one of many shots of Osprey in flight that I did the crawl through poison ivy for

Recovering “Erased” Photos

Hopefully, you are all well-organized and have never gotten confused about which images on your memory card have been saved to your computer and which haven’t. In my case, I recently had a brain malfunction known as “brain flatulence” causing me to reformat a memory card containing about 1000 images I hadn’t uploaded yet.

It happened in a moment of distraction. I was checking to see how much space was left on the memory card in my camera in preparation for a shoot just to see if I needed to swap out the card before I started. I knew I hadn’t uploaded the images yet. I made several mistakes:

  1. I went to the format card menu to see how full the card is because it’s easier for me to see the big bar graph displayed on my LCD than the counter that tells you how many images you have room for. Putting on my reading glasses and looking at the counter would have been safer.
  2. I was sitting in my car waiting to meet someone with traffic zooming by and other distractions. In the moment when I should have selected “cancel,” a loud vehicle grabbed my attention.
  3. I use the format card menu every time I want to erase images. My muscle memory is to select “format card,” not to select “cancel”–I have to pay close attention when in the format card menu.

In the moment the loud vehicle captured my mind, my muscle memory took over and gone were all my images! Mind you, I had bushwacked through thick undergrowth, dragged myself through poison ivy, and braved the aerial version of a mine field walking under a heron rookery to get some of the images on that card. I was not a happy camper.

But, here’s the good news! When you delete images or format your card, no data is actually lost. Rather, the existing data is marked as eligible for being overwritten. This means that as long as you set that card aside and don’t write any photos on top of your “deleted” data, your images can easily be recovered with the right software.

The software I chose first was Lexar’s Image Recovery 4. My main reason for choosing this software was because it is a) available for a mac (and windows), and b) free because I own several Lexar memory cards. This software claims to work on all memory cards, but it was a Lexar card I used it with.

Unfortunately, Lexar does not have the best ordering process. You can download the trial version of the software for free, but you can only get a key by contacting support. Alternatively, you can pay $40 for their newest version, IR 5.

I recommend NOT scanning your memory card with the trial version–you can only restore one image. After I had successfully scanned my card and restored one image, I was stuck waiting for a license key. Support told me it could take up to 48 hours to get it. When I finally got the license key and rescanned the card, the software couldn’t find any images. Yes, I freaked.

Fortunately, support provided me with a key for IR5 because I had recently bought one of my Lexar cards. Once I had IR5, I had no trouble restoring all of the images. The interface is intuitive and although running the scan on a full 32GB card and restoring the images does take a significant amount of time to run, all I had to do was click a couple of buttons.

So, if you own a recent Lexar card, download the IR5 version and send support a request for a free license key (you will probably need to tell them what card you have that entitles you to the software). Wait to run the software until you receive the key and then you should have no problems.

If you don’t own a Lexar card, there are other software options out there. I was unable to find a reliable source I’m familiar with for reviews of these software options, so I went with Lexar. My logic was that they have a major stake in making sure I recover my photos successfully and they are a company I’ve already trusted with my images for many years. While they have logistics issues with giving out licenses, they were helpful and supportive, the software worked, and it didn’t cost me anything but time.

By the way, for iPhoneographers, I stumbled across software that is supposed to recover deleted data on the iPhone, including photos. I cannot vouch for the product, but here is a review on CNET: http://download.cnet.com/Data-Recovery-for-iPhone/3000-2242_4-75856767.html

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:

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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.

I used both the Noiseware and Nik Color Efex Pro plug-ins with some minimal post-processing adjustments in Aperture no this one to try to pull out the 3 dimensions of the clouds as well as eliminate noise.  Not quite happy with it, but the lightening strike was amazing.  16mm (cropped), 9.8 seconds, f/16, ISO 200

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.  🙂

The water cannons at night at Coolidge Landing in downtown Chattanooga, TN

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.  🙂