Meteoric Rise [Encore Publication]: How to shoot the Perseid and other meteor showers

While the Geminid Meteor Shower in December and the Perseid Meteor Shower in August are the best-known, each year there are quite a few major meteor showers that afford great opportunities for seeing meteor activity.  Here is a partial list, courtesy of Sky & Telescope:

Major Meteor Showers in 2017
Shower Radiant and direction Morning of maximum Best hourly rate Parent
Quadrantid Draco (NE) Jan. 3 60-100 2003 EH1
Lyrid Lyra (E) April 22 10-20 Thatcher (1861 I)
Eta Aquariid* Aquarius (E) May 6 20-60 1P/Halley
Delta Aquariid Aquarius (S) July 30 20 96P/Machholz
Perseid* Perseus (NE) Aug. 12 90 109P/Swift-Tuttle
Orionid Orion (SE) Oct. 21 10-20 1P/Halley
Southern Taurid* Taurus (S) Nov. 5 10-20 2P/Encke
Leonid Leo (E) Nov. 17 10-20 55P/Tempel-Tuttle
Geminid Gemini (S) Dec. 14 100-120 3200 Phaethon

* Strong moonlight will interfere with these showers.

Source: Sky & Telescope

While it’s still technically tricky to make great images of a meteor shower, today’s technology certainly makes it possible for those of us without astronomical budgets to do so.  I shot some nice images of last summer’s Perseid shower and would have been out there shooting the Geminids last December except that the cloud cover here in the San Francisco Bay Area was 95-100%.  Here’s a composite of several images I shot last August of the Perseids.

A composite image made up of one long exposure for the lake, mountain, and trees, plus several 25-second exposures capturing the individual meteors I observed over a 2-hour period.  Buy this photo

Most of the techniques you need for capturing a meteor shower are the same as for capturing the Milky Way.  Review my post from a few weeks ago for a refresher course: Post on Milky Way Photography.

The special challenge when shooting a meteor shower is that meteors can occur anywhere in the sky.  Even with a very wide-angle lens, such as a 14mm or 16mm lens on a full-frame camera, only a small portion of the sky can be covered.  As we are limited to a maximum exposure time of about 25-30 seconds with a 14mm or 16mm lens so as to avoid blurring the stars into star trails, it’s clear that we have to shoot a lot of consecutive images to be likely to capture several meteors throughout the night.  We then use software such as Photoshop to combine the images in which meteors are visible into a single composite image showing all of the meteor activity we captured during the night.

A good tutorial on shooting meteor showers, illustrated with amazing images by Glenn Randall, can be found here: Glenn Randall post on photographing meteor showers.

Have you photographed a meteor shower?  What techniques did you use?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

Focus on Las Migas Quartet [Encore Publication]: Indoor concerts can be challenging to shoot, but these techniques will help

Last night I had the opportunity to shoot the wonderful and vibrant flamenco quartet, Las Migas, at the venerable Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.  Las Migas is a Barcelona-based band comprised of four young women from different regions of Spain who came together over their love for traditional and modern flamenco music and dance.  They’re in the middle of their first US tour, and being a lover of flamenco, I made sure to attend their only SF Bay Area concert.

Shooting from the audience in a crowded hall with dim lighting is a challenge.  To make this image of all the members of Las Migas together, I used a fast normal lens nearly wide open with a high ISO setting in order to allow a reasonably fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo

Shooting indoor concerts near home and while traveling is a special joy of mine, but it poses some very real technical challenges.  Today’s post offers a host of tips and tricks to help you get the best images possible under these challenging conditions.

  1. Planning: Before you arrive at the concert venue, learn as much as you can about the performers and the space.  What are the policies of both the performers and the venue regarding photography?  Sometimes one or both of these entities may not allow photography at all, but other times discreet photography is welcome.  Of course, flash photography ordinarily will not be allowed, as it disrupts both performers and audience.  What is the layout of the venue?  How many performers will be on stage and in what configuration?  Can you shoot from your seat, from a special area designated for photography/video, or from some other location (a balcony, for example)?  Where should you sit to get the best images without bothering other patrons or the musicians?  For this particular concert, I knew the venue’s policy was to defer to the wishes of the performers.  Upon arrival (and you should always arrive early), I spoke with the house manager to confirm their policy, and she introduced me to the band.  I learned that Las Migas were eager to have some professional-quality images made at this event.  The next order of business was determining where to shoot from.  Because the hall was fairly crowded, and there was no designated photography area, I chose a seat in the center of the second row, close enough to get some close-up shots of the musicians but without disturbing them or the other audience members.
  2. Gear: A concert is not usually the time to bring a lot of bulky kit.  Think “light and mobile.”  Remember that even after securing permission to shoot the event, you still want to remain inconspicuous.  Tripods and monopods are not suitable for most concerts, and flash is out of the question.  A fast telephoto can be useful if you are far away from the stage, but it’s hard to handhold a long lens in low lighting conditions.  For the Las Migas concert, I brought only the camera body with two small fast prime lenses, a 50mm “normal” lens and an 85mm portrait lens.
  3. Shot List: What shots are on your or your client’s must-capture list?  Do you or they want close-ups of the individual band members, small group shots of two or three musicians interacting, shots of the full band, and/or panoramic views that include the audience?  For this concert, I wanted to capture a mix of close-ups, small group shots, and full band images.
  4. Shooting: The Golden Rule of concert photography is to be courteous and not to disrupt the event.  Since lighting levels are often very dim at concerts, and because the use of flash is out of the question, it is important to have a fast lens or two and to use a high ISO setting on the camera.  Vibration reduction in the lens or camera body can be helpful to avoid camera shake, but because musicians and dancers are usually moving rather quickly, the bigger problem is subject motion blur.  For this reason, I used fast prime lenses (f/1.4 and f/1.8, respectively) and ISO settings ranging from 1200 to 3200.  To avoid disrupting the musicians or other audience members, I used the quiet setting on my camera’s shutter and turned off the LCD display on the back of the camera.  There is always the opportunity to take a quick peek at your images during downtime between songs.  I try to compose and shoot through the gaps between the audience members in front of me, but sometimes the seating configuration will limit the workable shooting options.  There can be times, such as when the audience gets up to dance or during standing ovations at the end of a set, when it’s okay to stand up for a moment to shoot a few quick images, but in general I try not to stand out from any other audience members.
  5. Post-processing: There are three special challenges in concert photography that can be addressed, to a certain degree, during post-processing of your images.  First, there’s color balance.  The lighting in many concert halls imparts a strange color cast on the musicians.  To fix this, I adjust the white balance in Lightroom until the subject appears as natural as possible.  Obviously, it is important to shoot in RAW format so that white balance can be adjusted later.  Even after adjusting during post-processing, there will often be mixed lighting or very strangely colored parts of the image that cannot be made to look fully natural.  Accept this as an occupational hazard.  Second, there’s the issue of noise in the images.  Because high ISO settings are usually required to achieve motion-freezing shutter speeds under dim lighting conditions, noise reduction must be performed in post-processing.  I find that with my camera (a Nikon D810) and with Lightroom’s noise reduction capabilities, I can usually shoot at ISO settings up to 3200 and sometimes even higher before noise because unmanageable.  Your mileage may vary.  And third, there’s often a need to crop the image in order to yield the most powerful composition.  In general I like to compose my images in the camera and leave cropping to a minimum, but at most indoor concerts the restrictions on shooting location and the need for fast prime lenses mean that cropping will often be necessary during post-processing.
  6. Sharing: Always honor the policies and requests of the venue and the band before sharing or selling your images.  While the specifics vary according to the event, in most cases I will offer the band and/or the venue a license to use a few of my images free of charge for their publicity or communications, with the condition that they credit me as the photographer wherever the images appear.  That way, the band is usually happy for the free use of the images, and I get free word-of-mouth and perhaps sell some prints to the band’s fans.  It’s a win-win.

Part of the fun of shooting a concert is capturing the interaction between two or more of the performers.  I used a normal lens shooting slightly upwards from my seat to make this image of violinist and guitarist playing together.  Buy this photo

To make portraits of the individual performers on stage, I like to use a fast prime portrait lens.  Cropping can be performed during post-processing to yield the most effective composition.  Buy this photo

Shooting live music and dance performances is challenging but is also a real treat.  I hope the techniques outlined in this post will help you with your own concert photography.

Have you photographed memorable concerts?  What tips and tricks do you use to get the best images?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

Followup–To JPEG or Not to JPEG [Encore Publication]: For many RAW shooters there is no need to use RAW+JPG

A few months ago, I published the following post in which I explained why I was transitioning away from shooting RAW+JPEG to shooting only in RAW format.  Just a quick follow-up to share that since then, I have executed several dozen photo shoots in RAW mode only, and I also have gone back to nearly all my archives of older shoots and deleted all the JPEG files where the same image was also stored in RAW format.  What are the results so far?  I’ve recovered about 20% of my hard disk drive’s space, so everything now runs faster on my PC and I’m not always struggling to free up enough space for each day’s new shots.  Furthermore, my shoots are going more smoothly because I don’t need to wait for the camera’s buffer to clear as it attempts to write both RAW and JPEG versions of each image to the memory card, and because I don’t need to change memory cards nearly as often.  And I’m happy to report that thus far I have had absolutely no issues as a result of making this major change to my workflow.  If you’re still shooting RAW+JPEG, now may be a good time to examine whether the extra burden is worthwhile in your own workflow.  The original article from two weeks ago follows.

=======ORIGINAL POST FROM FEB. 4, 2017=======

Regular readers of To Travel Hopefully already know that I always shoot in RAW mode, and most likely you do, too.  I’ve written repeatedly about the major advantages of RAW vs. JPEG format.  For a refresher, here’s a good summary post on the topic: Post on RAW Mode.  I concluded this previous post with a recommendation to shoot in RAW+JPEG mode, where the camera writes out the image data in both its native RAW format and in the familiar but problematic JPEG mode.  Here’s the relevant paragraph from that older post:

I recommend shooting in RAW+JPEG all the time, unless you know you will need the slightly faster shooting speed or extra storage space of JPEG alone.  Doing so will give you the best of both worlds: a quick and easy JPEG to share right out of the camera, and the much more detailed data in the RAW file from which to bring out the nuances in color, texture, and exposure later during post-processing.  If you use JPEG alone, you’ll be throwing away image information you may wish you had later.

But right now, I’m in the middle of making a major transition in my workflow.  I’ve stopped shooting in RAW+JPEG mode and am now storing my images only as RAW files.  Moreover, I’m cleaning up my PC’s hard drive by revisiting many of my directories from shoots over the past few years and deleting all of the original JPEG files (obviously, I am keeping the JPEGs that I exported from Lightroom after post-processing the original RAW files).

Why would I do such a thing, you may ask?  There are several major reasons:

  • I don’t end up using the JPEG files: Shooting in RAW+JPEG had become a crutch for me.  I had been using this mode because I was afraid of not having JPEG versions of all my images, in case I decided post-processing the RAW files was too much work or if I wanted to share certain images right out of the camera.  But I’ve been realizing that I never share JPEGs right after shooting.  They just don’t look good enough for most professional work, so I need to post-process the good ones before delivering them to anyone.  You may have clients who need to see some rough JPEGs immediately after the shoot.  I know some wedding photographers who promise this immediate preview to their clients.  But I don’t have this requirement, so the JPEGs were just sitting on my hard drive, unused, forever.  And it’s so easy to export quick-and-dirty JPEG files from Lightroom shortly after the shoot.
  • Duplicate JPEG files slow down shooting: The RAW+JPEG mode tells the camera to write out two different formats for every image you shoot.  This slows down your shooting by bogging down the camera’s processor, and it also fills up the camera’s buffer more quickly, requiring a disruptively long wait to resume shooting.  It also fills up memory cards more quickly.  While JPEG sizes vary from image to image due to compression algorithms, I find they average about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of my camera’s RAW files.  That’s a lot of extra space on the memory card, so I have to stop shooting to change cards more often.
  • Duplicate JPEG files take up a lot of disk space: Even though my main laptop PC has a 1.5 TB hard disk drive, I find it is always filling up, which considerably slows down workflow and requires bothersome housekeeping to clean up.  Storing unneeded JPEG versions of my many tens of thousands of images wastes a lot of disk space.
  • Those JPEGs slow down workflow: Even though Lightroom has a useful option to import only the RAW version into your catalog, and it keeps track of the duplicate JPEG version of the same image, having both files on your hard drive still slows down post-processing and image maintenance tasks.

I know that some photographers really do need to have JPEG files of their images.  They may be delivering images right out of the camera via a wireless connection to a cloud server that supports only JPEG format.  They may not get to post-processing for some time after the shoot and want to remember what the image looked like with the camera’s settings applied (although here one should note that Lightroom and other RAW viewers will access your camera’s settings via the thumbnail image embedded within your image’s RAW file).  They may really love their camera’s black-and-white conversion tool or other in-camera editing tools, which work only with the JPEG format.  There are quite a few situations in which you may truly require a JPEG version of your images.  But I haven’t encountered these situations in my own recent work and don’t expect to in the foreseeable future.

So, that’s the backstory on why I’m moving from shooting RAW+JPEG to RAW only.  I’m even taking the drastic step of going back to recent shoot directories on my PC and deleting the original JPEG versions of the images.  I’ll report back in a few weeks to provide an update on how this works out for me.  In the meantime, if you’re shooting in RAW+JPEG mode, you may also want to think about whether doing so genuinely helps your workflow or simply is wasting your resources.

Do you shoot RAW+JPEG, RAW only, or some different format?  Why?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

The Great American Eclipse [Encore Publication]: How I captured the recent total solar eclipse

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph four total solar eclipses all around the world.   A few weeks ago, I drove with my family to Salem, Oregon to photograph the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.  I delivered a lecture on eclipse photography before an audience of about 400 eclipse chasers and scientists, and I was also interviewed by the New York Times.  But most important, I was able to capture some amazing images of the big event!  In today’s post, I share a few of those images and discuss how they were made.

For tips about how to make close-up portraits of the sun during an eclipse, check out this post: Post on Eclipse Photography.  My best advice is to use a very sturdy tripod, turn off vibration reduction or image stabilization on your longest telephoto lens, manually focus before the start of the eclipse (and use a piece of tape to hold your lens’ focus ring in place), use ISO 400 and f/11, and bracket your exposures to ensure you’ll have some that are well exposed.  Of course, you will need to use a proper solar filter over the front end of your lens for the entire eclipse except during the brief period of totality.  Buy this photo

As totality approaches, the sun becomes much less bright and your exposure will change dramatically.  You may have to boost your ISO setting and/or open your aperture to capture these last partial stages before totality.  Buy this photo

It’s important to know exactly when totality will begin.  Set a timer to be sure you don’t miss it.  I like to remove the solar filters from all my lenses about 1 minute before the start of totality.  Then I am ready and waiting for the diamond ring effect to signal the beginning of totality, and I’m ready to shoot and capture this beautiful moment.  Just be sure you don’t look directly at the sun through your lens after removing your filter until the diamond ring effect has taken place, or you could damage your eyes or your camera’s sensor.  Buy this photo

It is especially important to bracket exposures during totality, because the range of brightness values between the bright inner corona and the dim outer corona is too great for any camera’s sensor to capture in one image.  By shooting a series of several different exposures, you can combine them during post-processing using HDR (high dynamic range) software, allowing for all the subtle beauty of the corona to be captured.  This favorite image of totality shows colorful prominences, ethereal streamers, and the rarely seen “earthshine effect” whereby the surface detail of the moon is lit entirely by sunlight reflecting off the earth.  Buy this photo

The second diamond ring effect occurs moments after the end of totality.  This HDR image combines seven of my bracketed exposures, yielding an image of breathtaking beauty.  Buy this photo

Get creative about displaying your images after you get home.  This montage was made from 15 of my favorite images to show the progression of the eclipse from partial stages through the diamond ring effect, into totality, and back again.  Buy this photo

I used a second camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on a tripod and controlled by an intervalometer (timer) to shoot a bracketed set of exposures every 30 seconds during the whole eclipse.  In post-processing, I combined the images into a time lapse montage showing the movement of the sun across the sky in different stages of the eclipse.  Note that I am standing in the foreground operating my other camera, the LCD screen on which clearly shows a closeup image of the sun during totality.  Buy this photo

Did you observe and/or photograph the Great American Eclipse of 2017?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

Purple Mountain’s Majesty [Encore Publication]: Including mountains in your images

Whether we’re traveling halfway around the world or just a few miles from home, we travel photographers get excited about including mountains in our images.  Mountainous landscapes can provide so many of the most basic elements we look for in a great photograph: beautiful light, compelling composition, exquisite textures, and an authentic sense of place.  In this post we will cover some of the fundamental techniques for capturing great images of mountains.

As with most kinds of photography, it all begins with beautiful light.  Whenever possible, try to shoot mountain landscapes near sunrise or sunset, or when something interesting is happening with the weather conditions.  The quality of light tends to be best during these times.  You’re more likely to capture lovely colors on the peaks and in the sky, and the image is more apt to give a sense of depth and drama than during the middle hours of the day.

Shooting from the deck at our lodge in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, I had to miss most of an excellent dinner to capture Lago Grey with its mountains and glaciers during the “golden hour” just before sunset.  The lovely interplay of colors and textures, from the sky to the peaks and to the icebergs and water, made the resulting image worth the effort.  Buy this photo

When shooting mountain landscapes, it is usually a good idea to bracket your exposure.  With the camera fixed on a sturdy tripod, compose your scene and then shoot a series of images, each with a slightly different exposure.  Many cameras have settings to automate the process of bracketing.  The two main benefits of exposure bracketing are raising the odds you’ll have a perfectly exposed image and allowing you to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image from several different exposures.  See this post for a refresher on how to use exposure bracketing: Post on Exposure Bracketing.

This HDR image of Yosemite National Park’s peaks reflected in the Merced River was created from a series of different exposures made using bracketing.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I made a series of seven shots, each one exposed 2/3 of a stop brighter than the previous one.  Buy this photo

I’m often asked how to make mountain images that really “pop”.  Why are some photographs of mountain landscapes so dynamic and compelling, with intriguing contrast between the peaks and the sky?  Of course, there are many elements that go into the making of an excellent image, but there is a “secret sauce” that can dramatically improve many mountain images: the polarizing filter.  Properly using a circular polarizing filter on your lens can emphasize the contrasting parts of the rock, snow, and/or ice on the mountains and can also add drama to the clouds and sky.  Every image shown in this post was made with a polarizer.  Be sure to adjust the filter by turning its outer ring until you see the effect you want to achieve.  Usually this involves rotating the filter’s ring until you see the maximum polarizing effect possible and then dialing it back a little (or a lot) until you achieve a balance between added drama and a natural look.  Experience helps here.  Check out this post on the use of filters, including polarizers: Post on Filters.

This image of a rare lenticular cloud forming on the summit of Osorno Volcano in Argentinian Patagonia was made using a polarizing filter to bring out the cloud formation and darken the sky.  Buy this photo

Mountain colors can be glorious, but also consider converting some mountain images to black-and-white during post-processing.  Rendering in black-and-white can emphasize the textures on the crags and peaks of a mountain and can also lend drama to the foreground and sky.  Shots captured with a polarizing filter will usually result in more intriguing monochrome images.  When converting to black-and-white during post-processing, be sure to play around with the contrast and individual color channel sliders until you achieve the result you want.  For more info on black-and-white photography, check out this post: Post on Black and White Photography.

This shot of a rock dome in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows area is striking when rendered in black-and-white.  Buy this photo

Sometimes when we’re traveling we don’t have the option of returning to a gorgeous mountain location when the lighting is perfect.  Don’t let the flat lighting of a bright mid-day sun stop you from shooting the local peaks.  Great images can be made at any time of day.  Just make sure to follow the main techniques outlined in this post: compose well, use a polarizing filter, and bracket your exposure.

Patagonian peaks captured on our way out of Torres del Paine National Park.  Because we didn’t have the option of returning at the golden hour, I made this image in the harsh mid-day sun.  With careful attention to composition and the use of a polarizing filter and exposure bracketing, I was able to make a favorite image in spite of the less than perfect lighting conditions.  Buy this photo

What are your go-to methods when shooting mountain scenery?  What are your favorite mountain locations?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box here.

Want to see more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Under the Milky Way Tonight [Encore Publication]: How to make great images including our home galaxy

Not too long ago, making images of the Milky Way was not practical for most photo enthusiasts.  Only astronomers and a handful of professional astrophotographers had the expensive equipment required to capture sufficient light from the cluster of quite dim stars that we refer to as the Galactic Core in the night sky.  Shooting with a very long exposure didn’t do the trick for the Milky Way, because leaving the camera’s shutter open for more than about 15-30 seconds would blur each star’s image due to rotation of the Earth.  These blurs, called star trails, could make for striking images with the stars appearing to streak in circles across the sky, but the subtle beauty of the Milky Way would be lost with these long exposures.

But in the last five years or so, camera sensors have become much more sensitive to light, and now it is possible–indeed quite easy–for photo enthusiasts to photograph our home galaxy without expensive specialized equipment.

Here’s how:

You will need a camera with a sensor that can gather a lot of light and with a shutter that can be kept open for a long time.  These requirements limit the range of suitable cameras to full-frame DSLRs and advanced interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras.  You will also need a fairly fast wide-angle lens: I recommend a zoom or prime (fixed focal length) lens with a focal length of 14-16mm on a full-frame camera, and a maximum aperture of f/4 or faster.  For astrophotography I most often use the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens.  It’s got great image quality and is well built, and of course it is wide enough and fast enough for the purposes of capturing the Milky Way.

You will also need a heavy, solid tripod.  I’ve been successful using a lighter weight tripod for Milky Way shots while traveling, but a good professional tripod is better.  I use the SLIK 615-315 with a ball head.

Finally, you’ll want to have a remote shutter release, either a hardwired cable release or a wireless remote release.  This is to trigger the camera without touching it, so as to avoid blurring the image from the vibration of your touch.

Once you have the right equipment, it’s fairly straightforward to photograph the Milky Way.  Choose a dark sky area, far away from the light pollution of any cities or other sources of stray nighttime light.  Shoot toward the Galactic Core where the stars of the Milky Way appear brightest and most colorful.  To plan for where the GC will be on any given date and time and at any given location, I use a smartphone app called PhotoPills: PhotoPills in App Store.  Try to include foreground and/or middle-ground subjects to add interest to your composition.  The image below, made at Yosemite National Park, is appealing because the Milky Way is seen rising above the iconic peak known as Half Dome.

The Milky Way is seen arched through the sky above Half Dome and other landforms in Yosemite Valley.  Careful composition adds drama to your Milky Way images by including Earth-based subjects as well as the sky.  Buy this photo on my website

With your fast wide-angle lens on your full-frame camera, all mounted on your stable tripod, you are ready to shoot.  Remove any filters on the lens, set your camera on full manual mode, select a fast ISO (I usually start at about 3200 and sometimes have to go even higher) and a wide aperture (f/4 or wider), and choose a shutter speed of 20-25 seconds (shorter if your lens is longer than about 18mm).  You can use the 500 Rule, which states that shutter speed should be approximately 500 divided by the focal length of the lens; for example, for a 16mm lens you can use a shutter speed of not longer than about 31 seconds.  Turn off your autofocus on your lens or camera, as it will not work in so dark a setting; instead, manually set your focus to a point near infinity where the stars appear sharp in your viewfinder (or better yet, on your live-view screen).  I like to tape my lens to this setting before it gets dark, so I know the focus won’t change while I’m out in the field in the dark.  It’s also a good idea to turn off your camera’s long-exposure noise reduction feature, if it has one, as this wastes time in the field and it’s equally effective to reduce the noise in Lightroom during post-processing.  Of course, you want to be sure you are shooting RAW files.

Go ahead and shoot a lot of frames, experimenting with different ISO settings and compositions.  It is often a good idea to get a very long exposure, sometimes several minutes long, so that your foreground subjects will be properly exposed.  The frames with the foreground well exposed can later be combined in Photoshop with the ones in which the night sky is properly exposed.

This image was made from several frames: one long exposure for the lake, trees, and mountain in the foreground and middle-ground, and several different 25-second exposures that each captured a different meteor during the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower.  The resulting image shows all of these objects quite prominently, along with the Milky Way.

You may want to combine several different images to see all the features of the night sky and the terrestrial objects clearly. Buy this photo on my website

With practice, you’ll find that capturing the Milky Way is within your reach, so long as you have suitable equipment and the patience required to compile enough images that a few will turn out to be successful.  I believe it’s well worth the effort because a good Milky Way shot is so subtle, colorful, and strikingly beautiful.  Good shooting!

Have you created a Milky Way image that you love?  What were the key components to your success?  What were the challenges you faced?  Please share your thoughts and experiences here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Getting Oriented [Encore Publication]: Shooting vertically as well as horizontally expands your artistic vision

Who says a portrait image has to be shot in portrait orientation, or that a landscape photo must be shot using landscape orientation?  Rules are meant to be broken, and they call it “artistic license” for a reason.  I would estimate that a third of my people images are shot in landscape (horizontal) orientation, and that a third of my landscape images are shot in portrait (vertical) orientation.  It’s always a good idea to shoot at least a few frames in both orientations so you can decide later which ones work best for your artistic vision.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Laura is one of my all-time favorite models (she also creates all her own costumes and does her own hair and makeup), and she looks great framed in any orientation, but I think her remarkable inventiveness is shown to good advantage in this composition using landscape orientation.  Buy this photo

It’s a cliché that people pictures should be composed vertically, so that we can fill the whole frame with the model’s head or full body.  A lot of the time this portrait orientation works well.  But there are some good reasons to shoot people images using landscape orientation as well as portrait orientation.

First, sometimes the model’s pose or the environmental elements around the model favor a horizontal image.  When traveling, I like to shoot environmental portraits that show us more than just the person by including elements of his or her home, livelihood, or lifestyle.

Second, we need to think about how the image will be used.  If I’m shooting publicity photos for musicians, for example, I know they need horizontal images at least as often as vertical images, so as to meet the requirements for the venues and promoters with whom they work.  Magazines and billboards often require landscape orientation, as well.  Even more prosaic uses of our photos, such as Facebook or LinkedIn cover photos, must be oriented horizontally.

Third, some portraits just cry out artistically to be framed in landscape orientation.  The image of the model Laura, above, for example, just works better to my eye in horizontal format, because the negative space behind her leads the viewer’s eye to admire her remarkably creative style, and leaving the lower part of her body and her dress out of the image allows us to focus on her expressive face.

By the same token, there are some good reasons to shoot landscape images in portrait orientation.

First, there could be some limitations to the left or right of the frame that, when shot horizontally, could distract from the power of the image we want to create.  Think about a coastal landscape with a glorious sunset sky and delightful foreground elements such as rocks with water flowing around them, but to the left of our vantage point there’s an unattractive pile of litter.  Frame the image in portrait orientation and avoid the problem.

Second, there are publication media where portrait orientation is required.  Knowing where the image is likely to be published will dictate the orientation in which we shoot.  A card or trifold brochure, for example, will likely require a vertical shot.

Third, again, consider your creative vision.  This night landscape of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome also worked beautifully in the more traditional landscape orientation, but here I shot the same scene using portrait orientation to frame the granite mountains with a circle of trees and to create a leading line using the Milky Way’s galactic core to bring the viewer’s eye around the valley’s landforms and the night sky.

This night shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley works especially well in portrait orientation because the pine trees create a frame around the leading line of the galactic core.  Buy this photo

Whenever possible, remember to mix it up and shoot with the non-standard orientation for at least a few frames.  You may find your best shots–and the most marketable ones for placement in certain forums–are the ones you make using the unconventional orientation.

Do you have a favorite image that you shot using the opposite orientation from the expected one?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to learn some more photographic techniques?  Here’s a list of all my posts dealing with the technical aspects of travel photography: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/

 

A Shot in the Dark [Encore Publication]: Night photography opens up a whole new world of image possibilities

The state of the art in photography gear has improved to the point where creating breathtaking nighttime images is now within the range of most enthusiast photographers.  Until recently an expensive and technically complicated ordeal, making images in very low light can now be done quite easily and with reasonably priced gear.  Today’s post discusses what you need and how to do it.

This image was made at the outskirts of Svalbard’s only population center, Longyearbyen, several hours after sunset.  To capture the scene in nearly total darkness, I used a sturdy tripod, a relatively wide aperture (f/4), and a long shutter speed.  Buy this photo

Because nighttime scenes feature very dim lighting (typically coming from the moon or stars, or occasionally from a bit of reflected ambient sunlight or city lights indirectly illuminating the scene), it is usually essential to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod and to use a high ISO setting.  Sometimes a fast lens can be used to obtain a wide aperture (low f-stop number), in order to reduce the length of the required exposure time.  I like to bracket my exposures (shoot multiple images, each with a slightly different exposure) for most night scenes, so as to maximize the chance of obtaining just the right exposure.  You can read more about exposure bracketing in this post: Post on Bracketing.  To minimize camera shake during these long exposures, use a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer to trigger the shot.  My go-to shutter release is inexpensive and very reliable:

To make this image of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park, I used a very long shutter speed and very high ISO setting.  Both long exposures and high ISO sensitivities will tend to introduce digital noise to the image file.  Fortunately, these sources of noise can usually be effectively controlled during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Night photography requires special attention during post-processing.  Because long exposure times and high ISO sensitivity settings tend to introduce digital noise (random errors in the brightness and/or color rendition of pixels in the image), it is important to pay careful attention to these effects while working in Lightroom, Photoshop, or other post-processing software applications.  I find Lightroom’s tools to be very effective in reducing both sources of noise.  In Lightroom’s Develop Module, play with the Luminance slider under the Noise Reduction tools area until the noise is just controlled, but not so far as to cause unrealistic rendition of color or sharpness.  Note that some cameras also allow you to reduce high ISO noise and/or long exposure noise via menu settings in-camera.  I tend not to use these tools because they slow down the shooting process, and their effect can be replicated easily in post-processing.  Post-processing is also the time to adjust the color rendition and sharpness/contrast of the Milky Way or other stars appearing in the image to make these astronomical features really pop.

This image of Pigeon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California combines many of the night photography techniques discussed in this post.  The lighting here was tricky because the brightness of the lighthouse beacon was much greater than the available light on the foreground and background objects.  Bracketing exposure helps in these situations.  Buy this photo

I hope this post inspires you to make your own nighttime images.  With a decent DSLR or mirrorless ILC camera, a relatively fast lens, and a tripod, every photographer can now be equipped to shoot in very low light.

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your own experiences with creating low-light images by leaving a comment here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

The Great American Eclipse [Encore Publication]: How I captured the recent total solar eclipse

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph four total solar eclipses all around the world.   A few weeks ago, I drove with my family to Salem, Oregon to photograph the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.  I delivered a lecture on eclipse photography before an audience of about 400 eclipse chasers and scientists, and I was also interviewed by the New York Times.  But most important, I was able to capture some amazing images of the big event!  In today’s post, I share a few of those images and discuss how they were made.

For tips about how to make close-up portraits of the sun during an eclipse, check out this post: Post on Eclipse Photography.  My best advice is to use a very sturdy tripod, turn off vibration reduction or image stabilization on your longest telephoto lens, manually focus before the start of the eclipse (and use a piece of tape to hold your lens’ focus ring in place), use ISO 400 and f/11, and bracket your exposures to ensure you’ll have some that are well exposed.  Of course, you will need to use a proper solar filter over the front end of your lens for the entire eclipse except during the brief period of totality.  Buy this photo

As totality approaches, the sun becomes much less bright and your exposure will change dramatically.  You may have to boost your ISO setting and/or open your aperture to capture these last partial stages before totality.  Buy this photo

It’s important to know exactly when totality will begin.  Set a timer to be sure you don’t miss it.  I like to remove the solar filters from all my lenses about 1 minute before the start of totality.  Then I am ready and waiting for the diamond ring effect to signal the beginning of totality, and I’m ready to shoot and capture this beautiful moment.  Just be sure you don’t look directly at the sun through your lens after removing your filter until the diamond ring effect has taken place, or you could damage your eyes or your camera’s sensor.  Buy this photo

It is especially important to bracket exposures during totality, because the range of brightness values between the bright inner corona and the dim outer corona is too great for any camera’s sensor to capture in one image.  By shooting a series of several different exposures, you can combine them during post-processing using HDR (high dynamic range) software, allowing for all the subtle beauty of the corona to be captured.  This favorite image of totality shows colorful prominences, ethereal streamers, and the rarely seen “earthshine effect” whereby the surface detail of the moon is lit entirely by sunlight reflecting off the earth.  Buy this photo

The second diamond ring effect occurs moments after the end of totality.  This HDR image combines seven of my bracketed exposures, yielding an image of breathtaking beauty.  Buy this photo

Get creative about displaying your images after you get home.  This montage was made from 15 of my favorite images to show the progression of the eclipse from partial stages through the diamond ring effect, into totality, and back again.  Buy this photo

I used a second camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on a tripod and controlled by an intervalometer (timer) to shoot a bracketed set of exposures every 30 seconds during the whole eclipse.  In post-processing, I combined the images into a time lapse montage showing the movement of the sun across the sky in different stages of the eclipse.  Note that I am standing in the foreground operating my other camera, the LCD screen on which clearly shows a closeup image of the sun during totality.  Buy this photo

Did you observe and/or photograph the Great American Eclipse of 2017?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

Focus on Tahiti Dance Fete [Encore Publication]: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Followup–To JPEG or Not to JPEG [Encore Publication]: For many RAW shooters there is no need to use RAW+JPG

A few months ago, I published the following post in which I explained why I was transitioning away from shooting RAW+JPEG to shooting only in RAW format.  Just a quick follow-up to share that since then, I have executed several dozen photo shoots in RAW mode only, and I also have gone back to nearly all my archives of older shoots and deleted all the JPEG files where the same image was also stored in RAW format.  What are the results so far?  I’ve recovered about 20% of my hard disk drive’s space, so everything now runs faster on my PC and I’m not always struggling to free up enough space for each day’s new shots.  Furthermore, my shoots are going more smoothly because I don’t need to wait for the camera’s buffer to clear as it attempts to write both RAW and JPEG versions of each image to the memory card, and because I don’t need to change memory cards nearly as often.  And I’m happy to report that thus far I have had absolutely no issues as a result of making this major change to my workflow.  If you’re still shooting RAW+JPEG, now may be a good time to examine whether the extra burden is worthwhile in your own workflow.  The original article from two weeks ago follows.

=======ORIGINAL POST FROM FEB. 4, 2017=======

Regular readers of To Travel Hopefully already know that I always shoot in RAW mode, and most likely you do, too.  I’ve written repeatedly about the major advantages of RAW vs. JPEG format.  For a refresher, here’s a good summary post on the topic: Post on RAW Mode.  I concluded this previous post with a recommendation to shoot in RAW+JPEG mode, where the camera writes out the image data in both its native RAW format and in the familiar but problematic JPEG mode.  Here’s the relevant paragraph from that older post:

I recommend shooting in RAW+JPEG all the time, unless you know you will need the slightly faster shooting speed or extra storage space of JPEG alone.  Doing so will give you the best of both worlds: a quick and easy JPEG to share right out of the camera, and the much more detailed data in the RAW file from which to bring out the nuances in color, texture, and exposure later during post-processing.  If you use JPEG alone, you’ll be throwing away image information you may wish you had later.

But right now, I’m in the middle of making a major transition in my workflow.  I’ve stopped shooting in RAW+JPEG mode and am now storing my images only as RAW files.  Moreover, I’m cleaning up my PC’s hard drive by revisiting many of my directories from shoots over the past few years and deleting all of the original JPEG files (obviously, I am keeping the JPEGs that I exported from Lightroom after post-processing the original RAW files).

Why would I do such a thing, you may ask?  There are several major reasons:

  • I don’t end up using the JPEG files: Shooting in RAW+JPEG had become a crutch for me.  I had been using this mode because I was afraid of not having JPEG versions of all my images, in case I decided post-processing the RAW files was too much work or if I wanted to share certain images right out of the camera.  But I’ve been realizing that I never share JPEGs right after shooting.  They just don’t look good enough for most professional work, so I need to post-process the good ones before delivering them to anyone.  You may have clients who need to see some rough JPEGs immediately after the shoot.  I know some wedding photographers who promise this immediate preview to their clients.  But I don’t have this requirement, so the JPEGs were just sitting on my hard drive, unused, forever.  And it’s so easy to export quick-and-dirty JPEG files from Lightroom shortly after the shoot.
  • Duplicate JPEG files slow down shooting: The RAW+JPEG mode tells the camera to write out two different formats for every image you shoot.  This slows down your shooting by bogging down the camera’s processor, and it also fills up the camera’s buffer more quickly, requiring a disruptively long wait to resume shooting.  It also fills up memory cards more quickly.  While JPEG sizes vary from image to image due to compression algorithms, I find they average about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of my camera’s RAW files.  That’s a lot of extra space on the memory card, so I have to stop shooting to change cards more often.
  • Duplicate JPEG files take up a lot of disk space: Even though my main laptop PC has a 1.5 TB hard disk drive, I find it is always filling up, which considerably slows down workflow and requires bothersome housekeeping to clean up.  Storing unneeded JPEG versions of my many tens of thousands of images wastes a lot of disk space.
  • Those JPEGs slow down workflow: Even though Lightroom has a useful option to import only the RAW version into your catalog, and it keeps track of the duplicate JPEG version of the same image, having both files on your hard drive still slows down post-processing and image maintenance tasks.

I know that some photographers really do need to have JPEG files of their images.  They may be delivering images right out of the camera via a wireless connection to a cloud server that supports only JPEG format.  They may not get to post-processing for some time after the shoot and want to remember what the image looked like with the camera’s settings applied (although here one should note that Lightroom and other RAW viewers will access your camera’s settings via the thumbnail image embedded within your image’s RAW file).  They may really love their camera’s black-and-white conversion tool or other in-camera editing tools, which work only with the JPEG format.  There are quite a few situations in which you may truly require a JPEG version of your images.  But I haven’t encountered these situations in my own recent work and don’t expect to in the foreseeable future.

So, that’s the backstory on why I’m moving from shooting RAW+JPEG to RAW only.  I’m even taking the drastic step of going back to recent shoot directories on my PC and deleting the original JPEG versions of the images.  I’ll report back in a few weeks to provide an update on how this works out for me.  In the meantime, if you’re shooting in RAW+JPEG mode, you may also want to think about whether doing so genuinely helps your workflow or simply is wasting your resources.

Do you shoot RAW+JPEG, RAW only, or some different format?  Why?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

The Great American Eclipse: How I captured the recent total solar eclipse

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph four total solar eclipses all around the world.  This past weekend, I drove with my family to Salem, Oregon to photograph the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.  I delivered a lecture on eclipse photography before an audience of about 400 eclipse chasers and scientists, and I was also interviewed by the New York Times.  But most important, I was able to capture some amazing images of the big event!  In today’s post, I share a few of those images and discuss how they were made.

For tips about how to make close-up portraits of the sun during an eclipse, check out this post: Post on Eclipse Photography.  My best advice is to use a very sturdy tripod, turn off vibration reduction or image stabilization on your longest telephoto lens, manually focus before the start of the eclipse (and use a piece of tape to hold your lens’ focus ring in place), use ISO 400 and f/11, and bracket your exposures to ensure you’ll have some that are well exposed.  Buy this photo

As totality approaches, the sun becomes much less bright and your exposure will change dramatically.  You may have to boost your ISO setting and/or open your aperture to capture these last partial stages before totality.  Buy this photo

It’s important to know exactly when totality will begin.  Set a timer to be sure you don’t miss it.  I like to remove the solar filters from all my lenses about 1 minute before the start of totality.  Then I am ready and waiting for the diamond ring effect to signal the beginning of totality, and I’m ready to shoot and capture this beautiful moment.  Just be sure you don’t look directly at the sun through your lens after removing your filter until the diamond ring effect has taken place, or you could damage your eyes or your camera’s sensor.  Buy this photo

It is especially important to bracket exposures during totality, because the range of brightness values between the bright inner corona and the dim outer corona is too great for any camera’s sensor to capture in one image.  By shooting a series of several different exposures, you can combine them during post-processing using HDR (high dynamic range) software, allowing for all the subtle beauty of the corona to be captured.  This favorite image of totality shows colorful prominences, ethereal streamers, and the rarely seen “earthshine effect” whereby the surface detail of the moon is lit entirely by sunlight reflecting off the earth.  Buy this photo

The second diamond ring effect occurs moments after the end of totality.  This HDR image combines seven of my bracketed exposures, yielding an image of breathtaking beauty.  Buy this photo

Get creative about displaying your images after you get home.  This montage was made from 15 of my favorite images to show the progression of the eclipse from partial stages through the diamond ring effect, into totality, and back again.  Buy this photo

I used a second camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on a tripod and controlled by an intervalometer (timer) to shoot a bracketed set of exposures every 30 seconds during the whole eclipse.  In post-processing, I combined the images into a time lapse montage showing the movement of the sun across the sky in different stages of the eclipse.  Note that I am standing in the foreground operating my other camera, the LCD screen on which clearly shows a closeup image of the sun during totality.  Buy this photo

Did you observe and/or photograph the Great American Eclipse of 2017?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

I See a Little Silhouetto of a Man [Encore Publication]: Intentionally underexposing your subject can create dramatic images

A silhouette is an image rendered as a solid shape of a single color with its edges showing the outline of the subject.  In photography this is a rather easy effect to achieve.  Simply by underexposing the subject by several stops, all the shadow detail is lost and the subject will appear as an outline in black.  This technique can yield dramatic, powerful images if used properly and sparingly.

When the subject is already backlit, just expose for the background and then dial down the exposure by approximately two stops.  This image of a man fishing off the seawall at the Malecon in Havana, Cuba works effectively as a silhouette.  The subject was strongly backlit by the late afternoon sun reflecting off the ocean, so I exposed for the water and compensated by another two stops.  The resulting photo is more evocative of the mood of quiet contemplation than it would be had I exposed for the fisherman.

This shot of a man fishing off a sea in Havana is rendered more powerfully with the subject in silhouette.  Buy this photo

During a studio shoot with a yoga and fitness model, we decided to try something different.  We turned off the main light and the fill light that ordinarily illuminate the model, and instead turned up the intensity of the lights on the white backdrop.  The resulting images showed the model in full silhouette as she dances and performs yoga poses.

In the studio, turning off the primary lights and increasing the brightness of the back lights yields a true silhouette.  This image is striking because it reduces the model’s form to an outline, emphasizing her motion.  Buy this photo

The silhouette is a simple technique you can use to get creative in your photography.  Experiment away–memory cards are cheap!

When do use the silhouette as a photographic technique?  Please share your tips here.

Want to see more posts on techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

Focus on Tahiti Dance Fete [Encore Publication]: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Meteoric Rise [Encore Publication]: How to shoot the Perseid and other meteor showers

Dear Readers,

Tomorrow night (August 12) will be the peak of this year’s Perseid Meteor Shower.  Weather permitting, I plan to be outside in a dark-sky location shooting away at this amazing celestial event.  I’m republishing this popular post as a tutorial for those of you who are new to meteor shower photography, or as a refresher for those who have shot these events before.  Enjoy!

Kyle Adler

=======

While the Geminid Meteor Shower in December and the Perseid Meteor Shower in August are the best-known, each year there are quite a few major meteor showers that afford great opportunities for seeing meteor activity.  Here is a partial list, courtesy of Sky & Telescope:

Major Meteor Showers in 2017
Shower Radiant and direction Morning of maximum Best hourly rate Parent
Quadrantid Draco (NE) Jan. 3 60-100 2003 EH1
Lyrid Lyra (E) April 22 10-20 Thatcher (1861 I)
Eta Aquariid* Aquarius (E) May 6 20-60 1P/Halley
Delta Aquariid Aquarius (S) July 30 20 96P/Machholz
Perseid* Perseus (NE) Aug. 12 90 109P/Swift-Tuttle
Orionid Orion (SE) Oct. 21 10-20 1P/Halley
Southern Taurid* Taurus (S) Nov. 5 10-20 2P/Encke
Leonid Leo (E) Nov. 17 10-20 55P/Tempel-Tuttle
Geminid Gemini (S) Dec. 14 100-120 3200 Phaethon

* Strong moonlight will interfere with these showers.

Source: Sky & Telescope

While it’s still technically tricky to make great images of a meteor shower, today’s technology certainly makes it possible for those of us without astronomical budgets to do so.  I shot some nice images of last summer’s Perseid shower and would have been out there shooting the Geminids last December except that the cloud cover here in the San Francisco Bay Area was 95-100%.  Here’s a composite of several images I shot last August of the Perseids.

A composite image made up of one long exposure for the lake, mountain, and trees, plus several 25-second exposures capturing the individual meteors I observed over a 2-hour period.  Buy this photo

Most of the techniques you need for capturing a meteor shower are the same as for capturing the Milky Way.  Review my post from a few weeks ago for a refresher course: Post on Milky Way Photography.

The special challenge when shooting a meteor shower is that meteors can occur anywhere in the sky.  Even with a very wide-angle lens, such as a 14mm or 16mm lens on a full-frame camera, only a small portion of the sky can be covered.  As we are limited to a maximum exposure time of about 25-30 seconds with a 14mm or 16mm lens so as to avoid blurring the stars into star trails, it’s clear that we have to shoot a lot of consecutive images to be likely to capture several meteors throughout the night.  We then use software such as Photoshop to combine the images in which meteors are visible into a single composite image showing all of the meteor activity we captured during the night.

A good tutorial on shooting meteor showers, illustrated with amazing images by Glenn Randall, can be found here: Glenn Randall post on photographing meteor showers.

Have you photographed a meteor shower?  What techniques did you use?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright [Encore Publication]: In search of the elusive royal bengal tiger in India’s Ranthambore National Park

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it requires some special knowledge and gear, plenty of time, and lots of luck.  I’ve posted on this topic before, specifically about wildlife photography gear (Post on Wildlife Photography Gear) and about sensitivity to the wildlife we’re shooting (Post on Approaching Wildlife).  Today’s post is a case study on my recent wildlife safari in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India.  The park is famous for its population of wild royal bengal tigers, but even with its high concentration of the big cats, it is rare to see them.  We were fortunate to encounter two tigers during our game drives, one a female who was stalking prey at some distance from us across a meadow, the other a large male who was close to us but obstructed by dense jungle vegetation.

I was rewarded with a few marvelous images of the female tiger, my favorite of which is this one:

The money shot!  After weeks of planning, days of travel, hours of driving on rough tracks, and minutes of shooting, I had bagged several hundred images of this remarkable female tiger.  A few of the images had the required combination of tack-sharp focus, uncluttered background, and appealing view of the animal.  Buy this photo

Making an image like this requires careful planning to be in the right place at the right time.  In our case, our travel company lined up the logistics and hired an expert guide and driver, which certainly helps, but it is still necessary to prepare for a photo safari like this.  It requires some knowledge of the behavior of the wildlife you are seeking.  It calls for having the right gear and knowing how to use it under time pressure and without hesitating.  And it requires shooting a whole lot of frames in rapid succession, because most will not turn out perfectly.

To capture most wildlife, a long telephoto lens is a necessity.  My go-to long lens for wildlife photography is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

Stability is very important when shooting a moving subject far away using a super-telephoto lens.  During most game drives around the world, a tripod or monopod cannot be used due to space constraints in the vehicle.  I will often use a beanbag to support the camera and lens, but on our canter (a large open vehicle that seats more than 20 people) in Ranthambore National Park, even that could not be used, as there is no surface to support the beanbag.  So the only option here is to shoot handheld.  Fortunately, the lens has good image stabilization built in, but it is also important to use good shooting technique and a very fast shutter speed.  Remember to keep one hand under the lens to support it, the other hand on the grip of the camera, and both elbows firmly pressed against your sides.  Gently squeeze the shutter release.  I recommend setting your camera to continuous shooting mode if it has this feature, as this will maximize the number of images you can capture as well as avoiding the camera shake from having to press the shutter release repeatedly.

To control exposure when shooting wildlife, I usually use Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  This little-known but extremely useful exposure mode allows you to set both shutter speed (which needs to be fast enough to avoid camera shake and to freeze the animal’s motion) and aperture (which I like to keep close to wide-open in order to soften the background), while adjusting the ISO to keep the exposure correct during changing lighting conditions.  To learn more about this technique, read this post: Post on Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

Shoot many images while encountering the animal in the field.  Keep them all on your memory card (which, of course, you should back up to another medium) until you have the opportunity to carefully cull them down to the ones that are technically adequate.  Finally, during post-processing, you can select the few images that are both technically acceptable (tack-sharp focus, proper exposure) and artistically appealing (the subject looks great, the background is uncluttered and attractive).  These selected images should then be carefully cropped and adjusted for exposure, contrast, and color balance.

There you have it.  The effort that goes into making just a handful of really excellent wildlife images is disproportionate to the workload involved in most tasks we do, and the frustrations are many, but the rewards when it all goes well and we have a wonderful portrait of the animal in hand make it all worthwhile.

What are your favorite wildlife photography techniques?  Please share them in the comment box.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

I See a Red Door and I Want to Paint It Black [Encore Publication]: When a black-and-white image is better than color, and how to convert to B&W

Back in the day, a photographer had to choose in advance whether to shoot with color film or black-and-white film.  Conversions from color to B&W were cumbersome and expensive, and conversions from B&W to color were essentially impossible.  During the film era, I typically shot exclusively using color transparency film while traveling, and reserved B&W photography for particularly artistic shoots near home.

Thankfully, in today’s digital world, we no longer have to commit ourselves in advance to monochrome vs. color images.  It’s now a simple procedure to convert our color images to B&W during post-processing.  And that’s a great blessing, because there are plenty of times when a black-and-white photo is better than a color photo.

Consider the image of the alligator at the start of this post.  One of my favorite photos, this one works just fine in color, too.  But the real power of the image is revealed in B&W through the striking textures of the alligator’s skin as seen above the water and as reflected off the water’s surface.  The background above the water fades to a deep, nearly true, black, with the background of the water itself rendered slightly less darkly and showing some nice ripples of motion.  Black-and-white photography is especially powerful when there are contrasts of pattern, texture, and background as in this image.  Buy this photo

When else might we want to render an image in B&W?

Portraits made in monochrome have a timeless look that evokes the earlier years of photography, and this rendering can also bring out the true nature of the subject.  There’s a lovely look to the skin tones and hair when displayed in B&W, and there are fewer distracting elements from the color of clothing or background objects.

This portrait takes on a vintage, timeless look when shown in B&W.  Our eye can focus on the model’s face and hair without the distractions of the colors in her sweater or the building.  There’s almost a street photography kind of documentary quality to this image in monochrome that is lost when viewed in color.  Buy this photo

Color can be distracting in an image where we want to emphasize the essence of a person or place.  In this portrait I made recently for a couple who are fellow musicians and friends of mine, we had beautiful “golden hour” light to work with, and the background and clothing worked well in color.  But converted to B&W, this image really places the emphasis on the couple without the distractions of the color cast in the reflections off the eyeglasses or of the mixed lighting in the background.

In this portrait, black-and-white presentation places the viewer’s attention squarely on the the couple and their instruments, without distractions from the multiple colors of the clothing and background components.  (Client photo not available for purchase.)

When you’re shooting under “mixed lighting”, which means there are multiple light sources with different color temperatures (i.e., some light sources are warmer and others are cooler), converting the image to B&W can be a real problem solver.  Consider the image below, made in Bruges at night.  The light from the street lamps was warmer than the light coming from the spotlights on various buildings, and there was also a bright moon that night, so when seen in color the photo would look less appealing due to the contrasting of the color temperatures in the different parts of the image.  But viewed in B&W, it brings out the grandeur of the old buildings and the beauty of the reflections in the waters of the canal, without the distractions of the color casts.

This image of Bruges at night, when processed in B&W, removes the contrasting color temperatures of the multiple different light sources and allows the viewer to enjoy the stately old buildings with consistent tone and texture.  Buy this photo

Now that we’ve covered a few of the many situations in which a black-and-white image is preferable over a color image, let’s look at how to convert from color to B&W.  There are many ways to perform this conversion, but I recommend it be done using the Color Adjustments settings in the Develop module of Adobe Lightroom.  Here’s how:

Click on the “B&W” tab above the individual color channel sliders, and then adjust the mix of how the colors are blended by increasing or decreasing each color’s slider to see how the black-and-white image looks.  I find that I often have to readjust the contrast slider at this point to get the image looking its best in black-and-white.

For more on using Lightroom to post-process your images, check out my previous post: Previous post on using Lightroom to post-process images.

I do not recommend using your camera’s built-in black-and-white mode, as you will then lose the color information in the image file.  I also do not suggest using the settings some cameras have to make a copy of the image in B&W, because in most cases the camera’s built-in software will not do a very good job of rendering the image in monochrome.  For the best results, either use Lightroom or a dedicated black-and-white conversion application such as Silver Efex Pro 2 from Nik Software, which is available as a plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop.

Want to read other posts about travel photography techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/

What do you love about a black-and-white image?  When do you convert an image to B&W rather than share it in color?  Any tips or tricks for how to make great B&W photos?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box!

 

Total Eclipse of the Heart [Encore Publication]: Techniques for photographing solar eclipses

Dear Readers:

With the Great American Eclipse coming up in just a couple of weeks (it’s on August 21, 2017), I am republishing this popular post on how to shoot a total solar eclipse.  If you have not yet booked your trip to a spot along the path of totality, now is the time to do it!

Kyle

Prof. Jay Pasachoff and his student set up scientific gear for observing the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015.  Buy this photo

If there’s a more thrilling experience anywhere on our planet than observing a total solar eclipse, I’ve not yet found it.  The experience of observing the moon slowly move in front of the sun, obscuring our view of the sun one nibble at a time until day turns into night, the temperature drops, the stars come out in the middle of the day, and the delicate corona of the sun is exposed, is like nothing else we earthlings can feel.  An eclipse is a singular event, each a bit different from any other that has ever occurred, and an exclusive event that often can be observed only from a narrow swatch of land and in very remote corners of the planet.  I’ve stood in the umbra (shadow) of the moon during three total solar eclipses thus far in my life: first in Virginia Beach in the USA when I was 7 years old, then in the mountains above Anji in China in 2009, and most recently in 2015 in Svalbard well above the Arctic Circle.  I plan to be in Salem, Oregon in the USA on August 21, 2017 when the next total solar eclipse occurs.  These events are truly life-changing, and once you’ve experienced an eclipse you will want to seek out others.

Photographing an eclipse takes all of the normal challenges of travel photography and throws a few special ones into the mix.  To start with, an eclipse can take place anywhere on the planet, and often the best location from which to view one is very remote with little or no travel infrastructure.  The eclipse I experienced in 2015 in Longyearbyen, high in the Arctic on the island of Svalbard, was a transformative event, but the extreme cold coupled with the lack of infrastructure made getting there and photographing the eclipse a special challenge.  And of course, during an eclipse the already challenging conditions are stressed even further due to the tremendous crush of visitors who rush in from all over the world to try to view the solar event.

I recommend you travel with an expert in managing the complicated logistics required to stage a successful eclipse trip.  I always go with A Classic Tours Collection (https://aclassictour.com/solar-eclipse-tours/).  Run by travel logistics guru Mark Sood and with scientific consulting from Professor Jay Pasachoff, a world expert in eclipses and the human being who has stood in the shadow of the moon more times than any other, this company has delivered an unprecedented track record of successful eclipse trips since 1980.

Special challenges in photographing a total solar eclipse, like this one in Svalbard in 2015, include remoteness, lack of infrastructure, extreme conditions, the risk of poor weather, and the need for specialized photographic gear.  Go with an expert or risk missing the action.  Buy this photo

Assuming you are able to get all the right gear to the best possible location to observe the eclipse, and then the weather cooperates, the actual technique required to capture remarkable images of this phenomenal event is fairly straightforward.  Here’s what you need to do:

Gather the right gear.  You will need at least one (and I prefer to have two) DSLR or mirrorless ILC camera bodies with a long telephoto lens or two.  I use a Nikon D810 with a Sigma 150-500mm super-telephoto zoom lens.  For each lens you will need a specialized solar filter to block 99.999% of the sun’s light to enable you to shoot the sun safely during the partial stages of the eclipse.  The solar filter blocks much more of the sun’s light than a standard photographer’s neutral density filter, so don’t try to find this item at your local camera shop.  Instead, you will need to order it from a specialized astronomy company such as Thousand Oaks Optical (http://www.thousandoaksoptical.com/solar.html).  Be sure to order a black polymer threaded camera filter in the proper diameter for your specific lens.  Without a properly fitted solar filter on each lens you plan to shoot with, it is not safe for your eyes or for your camera’s sensor to attempt to photograph a solar eclipse.  You will also need a heavy-duty professional tripod with a good ball head and mounting plate to hold your camera and lens steady during the eclipse.  Also be sure to pack a remote shutter release with extra batteries (if required), the tripod collar that came with your lens (if included), a mini flashlight for checking your camera’s settings, extra memory cards, and extra batteries and chargers for your camera.

Super-telephoto zoom lens with tripod mounting collar.  Don’t forget to order a solar filter to fit your lens(es).

 

Heavy-duty professional tripod.

 

Remote shutter release.

Test your gear.  Before the trip, test your full setup at home by shooting the sun with your solar filter on the lens, and by shooting the full moon without the solar filter.  These two scenarios will allow you to test your gear in conditions similar to the partial stages of the eclipse and to totality, respectively.

Prepare your gear the evening before the eclipse.  Charge all batteries, format all memory cards, make all camera and lens settings (per my instructions below), and check all your equipment.  Remove the UV filter you ordinarily keep on your lens(es), because they will interfere with the solar filter you will use during the partial stages.  On eclipse day, have in your pocket your flashlight, extra camera batteries, extra remote batteries, and extra memory cards.  It will be dark during totality and you will be excited, so best to have everything well planned in advance and within easy reach on eclipse day.

Configure your camera’s and lenses’ settings in advance of the eclipse.  Shoot in RAW mode (or RAW + JPEG mode if you must have JPEG versions of  your images) using the highest quality setting available on your camera.  I recommend using an ISO setting of 400, and be sure to turn your camera’s Auto ISO setting off.  The exposure changes constantly throughout the eclipse, so I do not recommend manual exposure mode; instead, choose aperture priority mode with the aperture set at f/11.  You may want to choose highlight-weighted metering if your camera has this option; otherwise, select center-weighted metering.  Choose single-frame shooting mode.  I recommend using exposure bracketing to shoot bursts of about 7 frames, each 1 stop (or even 1.3 stops) different from the previous one, so as to capture more of the huge dynamic range in a solar eclipse; this is especially important to do during totality.  Turn off vibration reduction (also referred to as image stabilization), as your camera will be on a sturdy tripod throughout the eclipse.  Set your focus mode to manual, because autofocus will not work during or near totality.  Tape your lens’s focus ring to infinity to be sure it won’t move during the eclipse.  Take a deep breath.  You’re almost ready for the eclipse.

Set everything up at the eclipse viewing site.  Place your camera on the heavy-duty tripod and install your remote control.  Remove your regular UV filter and attach your special solar filter.  As the first contact between sun and moon occurs, start to shoot.  Remember to shoot in bursts of 7 (whatever number of exposure levels you have selected) if you have turned on exposure bracketing.  Due to the rotation of the earth, you will have to recenter the sun in your viewfinder periodically (unless you are shooting through a telescope with an equatorial mount).

This image shows the early partial stages of the Svalbard total solar eclipse.  Shoot periodically during all the partial stages, and remember to reposition your shooting angle so the sun remains in the center of your field of view.  Buy this photo

Remove your solar filter only during the period of totality.  When the diamond ring effect signals the start of totality, and the world around you is suddenly plunged into darkness, quickly take off your lens’s solar filter.  You won’t need it during totality.  The brightness of the sun during totality is similar to that of the full moon, so viewing and photographing the sun during totality will not be dangerous.  This is the most exciting time, and it will last for only about 1-4 minutes, so enjoy the spectacle of the sun’s corona revealed!  Remember to spend some of the time just looking and not shooting.  This is an experience you will want to remember not only through your camera!

For the brief but exhilarating period of totality, remove your solar filter.  This image captures the diamond ring effect that ushers in the period of totality.  The sun’s delicate corona can be seen around the edge of the photosphere.  Buy this photo

Put your solar filter back on after totality.  The partial stages that follow the period of totality, just like the partial stages that came before totality, are not safe to view or photograph without the special solar filter.  Keep shooting those later partial stages because you will want a complete record of the eclipse to show a compelling narrative and to create montages of the images.

Shoot some landscapes and people images, too.  Don’t forget to use a second camera–either a second DSLR or mirrorless ILC body you brought for the occasion or your smartphone’s camera–for landscape and people shots during the eclipse.  You don’t want all of your images to be close-up portraits of the sun and moon only.  You will need a solar filter on the second camera, too, if you plan to include the sun itself in these shots.

Remember to shoot some images, with a second camera, of yourself and your travel companions during the eclipse.  Here’s a shot of my family standing in the umbra during totality at the China eclipse of 2009.  Buy this photo

Return all settings to normal after the eclipse.  You will have made quite a few special adjustments in order to capture the eclipse properly.  Don’t forget to restore your usual settings after the eclipse has ended.

Get creative with your eclipse images once you return home.  There are many ways to compile and share your images to give the world a sense of the thrill you experienced while in the shadow of the moon.

Once home from the eclipse trip, get creative about how to share your experience.  Here I have put together a montage of some of my favorite images from each stage of the Svalbard eclipse.  Using Photoshop, I created a composite image showing the sequence of stages from partial to total and back again.  Buy this photo

This image is a composite of three bracketed exposures combined using High Dynamic Range (HDR) software.  Without HDR techniques, it is impossible to capture in a single image the huge variation in brightness between the sun’s inner corona and outer corona during totality. Buy this photo 

Have you experienced a total solar eclipse?  Photographed one?  Please share your tips and tricks.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

The Best Auto Mode You’ve Never Heard Of [Encore Publication]: What is manual mode with auto ISO, and when should you use it?

I’ve written often in “To Travel Hopefully” about the importance of learning to go beyond your camera’s full “Auto Mode,” in order to be able to control the exposure of your images.  Frequently I like to shoot in full “Manual Mode” so as to be able to choose both my shutter speed and my aperture for full creative control.  But in rapidly changing lighting conditions, it is a real challenge to stay in full manual mode, and it’s a big help to allow the camera’s exposure programs to choose the best overall exposure from image to image.  There are a few ways to do this.  In between the full auto mode and full manual control, there are two common semi-automatic exposure program modes that most photographers are aware of, namely Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes.  In today’s post I introduce another exposure mode that few photographers are aware of, but that can give the best of both worlds: automatic exposure setting while retaining full manual control over both aperture and shutter speed.  This exposure mode is called “Manual Mode with Auto ISO.”

It’s important to be able to control shutter speed because that’s the mechanism by which we can freeze action or allow it to blur for creative effect.  It’s equally important to retain control over aperture because this is the means by which we can increase depth-of-field to keep everything in focus or decrease depth-of-field to soften the background.  But there’s a third side to the exposure triangle beyond shutter speed and aperture.  This third parameter is our ISO setting.  Several years ago, most camera sensors weren’t very good at handling noise at very high ISO settings, so we took a risk of ending up with very noisy images if we used our camera’s Auto ISO setting.  Not so today.  Many modern sensors are quite adept at capturing nearly noiseless images at ISO settings up to at least 3200 and often to 6400 or even a lot higher.  So the stigma that “serious” photographers have historically attached to using the Auto ISO setting should really be laid to rest.

That happy development allows us to use a mode called “Manual Mode with Auto ISO,” in which we set the camera’s exposure program to “M” or full manual mode but also enable the camera’s Auto ISO setting.  By doing so we can preserve full control over both our shutter speed and our aperture, but also allow the camera to choose the best ISO setting to give a good overall exposure as lighting conditions change.  Making this mode even more appealing, most cameras let us select the highest ISO setting (say, 6400) that we’re willing to allow.  So if the lighting level gets sufficiently dim, the ISO won’t go so high as to introduce a lot of noise into the image; instead, we just select a slower shutter speed and/or a wider aperture.

A good example of when it makes sense to use Manual Mode with Auto ISO is when shooting a street fair or an outdoor sporting event.  In these situations the lighting can change quickly depending on the cloud cover, what direction we’re shooting, and the subject and type of image we’re making.  The following three images were all shot at last year’s Carnaval San Francisco, a big street festival and parade.  It was a sunny day, but much of the parade route was in open shade, and depending on the subject there were times when I wanted to use some fill flash.  To freeze the motion, I needed a fast shutter speed, and to isolate my main subject I usually wanted a wide aperture.  Using Manual Mode, I could choose both of these settings.  But because the light conditions were ever-changing, coupling the use of Auto ISO with Manual Mode allowed the camera to adapt the exposure to the light levels for each image.

Full direct sunlight on the main subject made for very bright lighting.  Buy this photo

Open shade with a touch of fill flash required slightly different settings.  Buy this photo

A close-up portrait made in cross-lighting needed yet another exposure level.  Buy this photo

The next time you’re shooting in a shifting lighting environment yet also want to preserve full control over both shutter speed and aperture, try Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  It’s not covered in most cameras’ instruction manuals, but it can be a big problem-solver in many situations.

Do you use Manual Mode with Auto ISO to control exposure?  Do you have other tips for how to adapt to changing lighting conditions without handing over the creative control to your camera?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

Decent Exposure [Encore Publication]: Mastering exposure is key to getting great images

Of all the primary elements a photographer controls–composition, focus, the moment the shutter is released, and of course the choice of the subject–none is more critical to making a great image than setting a proper exposure.  Some corrections to a poorly exposed image can be made in post-processing, and there are occasionally good artistic reasons to override the norms of exposure in order to evoke a certain mood in an image by making it darker or brighter than usual, but before we can effectively make these exceptional choices it is necessary to learn the basics of setting an appropriate exposure.

Let’s begin by defining exposure and the elements that comprise it.  Simply put, exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor and therefore how light or dark the resulting image will appear.  Four components together determine the exposure: 1) the brightness of the light reflecting off the subject and reaching the front of the lens, 2) the aperture setting on the lens (how wide or narrow is the opening of the lens), 3) the shutter speed setting (how long is the camera’s shutter open to allow light to strike the sensor), and 4) the sensitivity setting of the camera’s sensor.  We don’t always have control over the first component, but the other three are within our control using our camera’s settings.

Many photographers simply set their camera on Auto mode and let the camera’s built-in meter make its best guess as to how the image should be exposed.  That method can work well under certain conditions, but it is highly prone to errors.  For example, if your main subject is strongly backlit, the camera’s meter will expose for the average brightness in the scene and will underexpose the subject.  This is why so often we see underexposed photos of people standing outside in bright sunlight.

Although I compensated for the strong backlighting in this image of a Tibetan family enjoying a midday picnic, their faces are still quite shadowy, indicating a bit brighter exposure would have been better still.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are several easy methods to achieve a correct exposure even under challenging lighting conditions.  Here are a few that I use frequently:

  1. Set the camera’s metering mode to Spot Metering: By default most cameras’ metering systems use a sophisticated pattern-matching algorithm that measures how bright or dark each area of the image is and makes its best guess about a workable exposure based on similar scenes in the camera’s database.  Most cameras allow you to select a simpler metering mode called Spot Metering, that just measures the light at the central point in the image or another point that you select.  If you choose Spot Metering and select the measuring point to be right where your main subject is, you should get just the right exposure.
  2. Dial in some exposure compensation: Most cameras let you override the meter’s exposure setting by dialing in a compensation setting to lighten or darken the image.  If your subject is backlit, you will likely want to increase the exposure by one to two stops (each “stop” of additional exposure represents a doubling of the amount of light reaching the sensor).  The camera’s display should show something like “+1 EV” to alert you that you’ve dialed in 1 extra stop of exposure, and the number changes as you change the compensation setting.  Just be sure to set the exposure compensation back to zero when you’re done using it.
  3. Go fully manual: To gain complete control over your camera’s exposure settings, choose the meter’s Manual mode.  Then you can change all three exposure elements (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) until the image appears properly exposed when you review it on your camera’s display.
  4. Use flash to increase the lighting on your main subject: One good way to achieve proper exposure with a backlit subject is to increase lighting on the subject itself, so that there is no longer such a difference in brightness between the subject and the background.  Your camera’s built-in flash may be strong enough to pull off this trick, but it often helps to have a more powerful flash unit with you.  There are some other reasons why you may not want to use flash as a main source of light on your subject, so this method should be used sparingly.  A reflector can be used instead of flash to reflect some of the sun’s light onto the front of your subject.

For this photo shoot with a musician friend, I shot into the light so she wouldn’t have to squint into the sun and also so that we’d have a beautiful rim light from the sun around her hair.  To pull this off, I used manual mode and selected the proper exposure for her face.  I employed a reflector to bounce some sunlight back onto her face and trumpet.  [Client image not for sale.]

Similar methods can be used for other challenging lighting conditions besides backlighting.  If the subject is a brighter or darker color than the “neutral gray” your camera’s meter uses for a standard, then you need to dial in more or less exposure as appropriate.  My black cat Dragonfly, for example, requires an especially dark exposure to override the meter from thinking he’s a gray cat and choosing too bright an exposure.  Similarly, a white polar bear will need additional exposure to stop the meter from underexposing what it assumes to be a gray bear.

When photographing a black subject, reduce the exposure to compensate for the light meter’s mistaken assumption that the subject is a neutral gray color.  Buy this photo

Whatever method you use to choose your exposure, be sure to take a look at the resulting image using your camera’s monitor.  Does the main subject appear to be properly exposed, or is it still too dark or perhaps too bright?  If your camera offers a histogram display, learn how it works and use it to check your exposure in tricky lighting conditions.  I’ll write a future post specifically about the histogram, as it is a very useful and often overlooked feature.

With some attention to the exposure of your images and use of some of the techniques described here, you can achieve a correctly exposed image nearly all of the time.  After mastering the essentials of exposure, you will have more keepers and fewer images in the virtual trash can, and you can even begin to break the rules for artistic effect.

Want to see more posts on photographic techniques?  You can find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

What lighting situations do you find the trickiest?  What techniques do you use to ensure properly exposed images?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

Focus on Tahiti Dance Fete [Encore Publication]: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright [Encore Publication]: In search of the elusive royal bengal tiger in India’s Ranthambore National Park

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it requires some special knowledge and gear, plenty of time, and lots of luck.  I’ve posted on this topic before, specifically about wildlife photography gear (Post on Wildlife Photography Gear) and about sensitivity to the wildlife we’re shooting (Post on Approaching Wildlife).  Today’s post is a case study on my recent wildlife safari in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India.  The park is famous for its population of wild royal bengal tigers, but even with its high concentration of the big cats, it is rare to see them.  We were fortunate to encounter two tigers during our game drives, one a female who was stalking prey at some distance from us across a meadow, the other a large male who was close to us but obstructed by dense jungle vegetation.

I was rewarded with a few marvelous images of the female tiger, my favorite of which is this one:

The money shot!  After weeks of planning, days of travel, hours of driving on rough tracks, and minutes of shooting, I had bagged several hundred images of this remarkable female tiger.  A few of the images had the required combination of tack-sharp focus, uncluttered background, and appealing view of the animal.  Buy this photo

Making an image like this requires careful planning to be in the right place at the right time.  In our case, our travel company lined up the logistics and hired an expert guide and driver, which certainly helps, but it is still necessary to prepare for a photo safari like this.  It requires some knowledge of the behavior of the wildlife you are seeking.  It calls for having the right gear and knowing how to use it under time pressure and without hesitating.  And it requires shooting a whole lot of frames in rapid succession, because most will not turn out perfectly.

To capture most wildlife, a long telephoto lens is a necessity.  My go-to long lens for wildlife photography is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

Stability is very important when shooting a moving subject far away using a super-telephoto lens.  During most game drives around the world, a tripod or monopod cannot be used due to space constraints in the vehicle.  I will often use a beanbag to support the camera and lens, but on our canter (a large open vehicle that seats more than 20 people) in Ranthambore National Park, even that could not be used, as there is no surface to support the beanbag.  So the only option here is to shoot handheld.  Fortunately, the lens has good image stabilization built in, but it is also important to use good shooting technique and a very fast shutter speed.  Remember to keep one hand under the lens to support it, the other hand on the grip of the camera, and both elbows firmly pressed against your sides.  Gently squeeze the shutter release.  I recommend setting your camera to continuous shooting mode if it has this feature, as this will maximize the number of images you can capture as well as avoiding the camera shake from having to press the shutter release repeatedly.

To control exposure when shooting wildlife, I usually use Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  This little-known but extremely useful exposure mode allows you to set both shutter speed (which needs to be fast enough to avoid camera shake and to freeze the animal’s motion) and aperture (which I like to keep close to wide-open in order to soften the background), while adjusting the ISO to keep the exposure correct during changing lighting conditions.  To learn more about this technique, read this post: Post on Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

Shoot many images while encountering the animal in the field.  Keep them all on your memory card (which, of course, you should back up to another medium) until you have the opportunity to carefully cull them down to the ones that are technically adequate.  Finally, during post-processing, you can select the few images that are both technically acceptable (tack-sharp focus, proper exposure) and artistically appealing (the subject looks great, the background is uncluttered and attractive).  These selected images should then be carefully cropped and adjusted for exposure, contrast, and color balance.

There you have it.  The effort that goes into making just a handful of really excellent wildlife images is disproportionate to the workload involved in most tasks we do, and the frustrations are many, but the rewards when it all goes well and we have a wonderful portrait of the animal in hand make it all worthwhile.

What are your favorite wildlife photography techniques?  Please share them in the comment box.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Bracketing: Hedging Your Bets [Encore Publication]: In challenging shooting conditions, exposure bracketing is a great insurance policy

In the old film days of photography, it would be days or even weeks after shooting before we could see the results.  I would routinely use a procedure called “bracketing” to make a series of shots, each at a slightly different exposure, to increase the odds that one would come out decently exposed.  Even today, when digital photography allows us to see the results immediately, there are two good reasons to employ the exposure bracketing technique: 1) it can be hard to assess on a small LCD screen in bright daylight and while in the excitement of shooting whether the exposure is really correct, and 2) when the contrast between the brighter and dimmer parts of the scene is high we may want to stitch several different exposures together using software to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image later.

Tricky subjects, like this tiny Svalbard reindeer against a glacier background, benefit greatly from exposure bracketing.  From a series of 5, 7, or even 9 images shot at slightly different exposures, you can choose the one with the correct exposure for the conditions.  Buy this photo

So there are still good reasons to use exposure bracketing, and fortunately, it is quite easy to employ this technique.  Here’s how.

If possible, mount your camera on a tripod when using bracketing so it won’t move between exposures.  Then you can combine several of the exposures into an HDR image later if desired.

If your camera has a bracketing button or menu item, use it to specify how many shots you want to take (I usually shoot 5 or 7 different exposures when bracketing) and how much you want to vary the exposure between each shot and the next (often I choose a 1-stop difference).  If your camera lacks this feature, you can still use bracketing by manually adjusting the exposure between each shot and the next; just use your camera’s exposure compensation control to dial in first -2 stops, then -1 stop, then 0, then +1 stop, and finally +2 stops.

I like to set my camera for continuous shooting while bracketing.  That way, I just hold down the remote shutter release and the camera shoots all 5 or 7 exposures in rapid succession.  But it’s fine to shoot each frame individually in single release mode, if you prefer.

There are some subtleties to think about when employing exposure bracketing.  Some cameras let you choose whether to vary the aperture, the shutter speed, or the ISO setting, while holding the other two settings constant.  In most cases, I prefer to vary the shutter speed and hold the aperture and ISO settings constant, because changing the aperture affects the images’s depth-of-field, and changing the ISO setting can affect the noise in the image.

Later, during post-processing, you review the images and choose the one that is properly exposed.  Or if the scene is very high contrast, you can use photo editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop to stitch several frames in your series together into an HDR image, which ensures good exposure from the brightest to the darkest tones in your photo.

Several exposures were shot using bracketing and then combined in Photoshop to create this HDR  image.  All tones from the darkest shadows on the mountain walls to the brightest highlights on the icebergs and lake are properly exposed in the final image.  Buy this photo

Have you used exposure bracketing techniques?  What are your best practices?  Do you use this process mostly for selecting the best exposure or for creating HDR images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Are you interested in learning new travel photography techniques?  Follow this link to see all the posts on techniques: Posts on Techniques.

Focus on Tahiti Dance Fete: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

Cool, Calm, and Composed [Encore Publication]: All the technology in the world can’t replace your vision when composing images

Photographic composition is the process of determining which elements to include in the image and how to combine them in an artistically pleasing way.

What makes a great photograph?  You’ll hear many different answers to this question from different people, but to me a great photograph needs to integrate at least three of these four elements: compelling subject, beautiful light, flawless technical execution, and thoughtful composition.  Assuming we can find a great subject and either find or manufacture lovely lighting, the technology in modern cameras can assist us in certain technical matters such as exposure and focus.  But even the best of today’s AI technology can’t replace the artist’s vision when it comes to photographic composition.  For more of my musings on the application of AI to photography, see yesterday’s post: Post on AI and Photography.

Today’s post presents a quick primer on some of the guidelines that can help us compose our images.  But keep in mind that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to composition.  The photographer must choose which “rules” to use when composing, and when to break some rules.

      • Rule of Thirds: One of the first compositional tools most beginning photographers learn is the so-called Rule of Thirds, which states that strong composition is achieved by placing key elements along the imaginary lines that divide the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally; better yet, try to place the most important parts of the subject at the intersection of a pair of these lines.  This portrait I made of two sisters in Arusha, Tanzania, places each sister’s dominant eye at an intersection point of two of the imaginary dividing lines.

Tanzania Buy this photo

          • Leading Lines: Another tool to aid in composing strong images is using the natural lines in the image to draw the viewer’s eye into the frame.  This landscape made while hiking part of the Sheep’s Head Way in southwestern Ireland incorporates the leading lines of the ancient stone wall, the rainbow, and the coastline to draw the eye down to the sea, over the rainbow, and across the coast.

 Buy this photo

          • Framing Elements: Using natural frames within the image to set off the main subject can be a useful technique.  Look for doors and windows in a population center, or for natural arches, trees, and other landforms in a natural setting.  This night landscape made in Yosemite National Park frames the Milky Way within a ring of trees and granite walls.

 Buy this photo

          • Point-of-View: Think about how the different elements in the image will appear in the perspective of your location.  I could have shot this portrait of a man with his duck at a street fair in San Francisco straight on with them both looking into the lens.  Instead, I chose a viewpoint that was very close to the duck’s head, shooting up from its perspective and relegating the human to the background and edge of the frame, nearly out of focus.  This changes the nature of the portrait to a more humorous and offbeat tone, which matched the occasion of the How Weird Street Faire.

USA Buy this photo

          • Background: Always be at least as aware of your background as your foreground subject matter.  Careful choice of background to support your image’s overall theme is one of the surest ways to elevate your image.  In many cases it is desirable to have a clean, uncluttered background, but for this image of the San Francisco Pride Parade, I wanted the background to support the theme of solidarity and strength in numbers.  While the main subject in the front is the only element in crisp focus, the layers of marchers with flags behind him supports the concept he is not alone.

 Buy this photo

        • Patterns: Composing an image around a recurring pattern can add considerable dramatic impact.  I framed this image of miners’ cottages in Svalbard, Norway by isolating the repeating pattern of houses, each in a different vivid color, against the stark white of the snow and bleak sky.

 Buy this photo

  • Symmetry: Images with symmetry along one or more dimensions are often striking and artistically pleasing.  The subject can have natural symmetry, such as in a face, or can be framed with its reflection to create symmetry.  I framed this image of a resting alligator with its reflection in the Louisiana bayou waters to create a dramatic symmetry.

 Buy this photo

Keep these guidelines in mind as you choose how to compose your images, but remember that which one(s) you apply will depend on the image, that its okay to break the rules, and that ultimately you are the artist and what you envision, not what the rules state, is correct for you.

What guidelines help you compose your best images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.