The Sharpest Tack in the Box [Encore Publication]: How to achieve sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

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

 

Top Tips for Great Travel Images [Encore Publication]: These five simple “hacks” will result in more professional images

Festivals and street fairs can be challenging to shoot due to backgrounds cluttered with people, buildings, and cars.  To make this portrait of grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco, I got down low so that most of the background was covered by the cloth of the costume, and I used a wide aperture to throw the hectic street scene into soft focus.  Buy this photo

The web is positively overflowing with “life hacks,” simple tips and tricks to save us all time and effort and to achieve better results.  Some lists are better than others, but it is in the spirit of these lists that I bring you this compilation of five simple travel photography hacks.  These techniques are not difficult and do not require expensive gear.  They work equally well for your photography whether traveling or at home.  And I promise that if you follow them, your images will improve.  The pros do these things almost automatically; to them, it’s hygiene, like tooth brushing.  If you read no other post about photography, read this one.

  1. Avoid cluttered backgrounds: So often the travel images of a professional stand out from those of amateurs simply because they took careful notice of what was in the background while composing the shot.  Try to frame your subject against a clean backdrop such as a dark-colored wall or the sky.  If there’s no way to avoid including some clutter in the background, at least use a wide aperture (low F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus.
  2. Watch your horizon: Frequently, we’re so intent on composing the main subject within our viewfinder that we forget to check whether the camera is level before firing the shutter.  An uneven horizon can give the impression of vertigo, like the subject is going to fall out of the frame.  Some cameras have a virtual horizon function to show you whether the horizontal and vertical axes are level, but whether you use it or not, be sure to check visually that the edge of the image looks correct.
  3. Achieve sharp focus: The one characteristic of an image that even the most inexperienced viewer can identify immediately, and one that’s almost impossible to fix in post-processing, is poor focus.  Today’s cameras are so easy to use that we often overlook this most basic element.  The camera can’t know for sure what subject you intend to have in focus; it can only make its best guess.  So take the extra fraction of a second while composing your image to move the camera’s focus point onto the main subject.  Or use a small aperture (high F-stop number) to provide a wide depth of field so that essentially everything is in focus.
  4. Choose the correct exposure: Another very basic element of any photograph, exposure can only be correctly chosen by the photographer, not by the camera.  Your camera’s Auto mode can be fooled very easily by many tricky situations, most commonly by backlighting of the subject.  It’s fine to use the camera’s guess as a starting point, but nearly every camera (including smartphone cameras) have a way to manually override this guess, so learn how to do this and add in about a stop or so of extra exposure if your subject is backlit, more if the backlighting is severe.
  5. Turn off the darned flash: Nearly every camera has a mode where it fires the flash automatically if it determines the extra light is needed.  This is rarely a good thing.  Far better to turn off the auto flash setting and make your own decision about when to use the flash.  Otherwise, your low-light images could end up with an eerie, unnatural color cast or your far-away subject could be underexposed (a flash typically lights an object only a few feet away from the camera, so why fire the flash when you’re photographing an object hundreds of yards or even miles away?).  Worse, if you are shooting through glass or another reflective surface, your flash reflects off the surface, ruining your whole image.  Worse still, your flash may blind everyone else near you in a very dim setting, damage sensitive artwork, or scare or anger nearby wildlife.  I’ve seen countless visitors ejected from museums, zoos and aquariums, and other wonderful destinations because they hadn’t figured out how to override their camera’s auto flash setting.  Just turn off the darned flash, and use it manually when appropriate.

Learn these simple techniques and follow them whenever you shoot, and you’ll start making images that stand out from the crowd.  Remember, you, and not the technology inside your camera, are the creative force behind your images.

While this image of a yurt in the remote mountainous region between China and Tajikistan succeeds in spite of (or perhaps because of) the off-kilter horizon, it serves as a good reminder to check the horizons at the edge of our photos.  Buy this photo

What are your favorite tips and tricks to ensure you make the best images possible?  Please share here!

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

Focus on How Weird Street Faire: A case study on simple techniques to capture winning images of festivals

As a professional travel photographer, I shoot regularly in nearly all genres of photography.  A typical day on the road might include shooting landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, action (sports, dance, performance), and nighttime photography.  While I enjoy all types of shooting, my great joy as a photographer is capturing portraits of the people I meet.  Whether close to home or halfway around the world, getting to know the people and learning about their culture through making portraits of them is a wonderful experience.  And there’s no better way to capture images of many amazing people in a short time than by attending local festivals.  People tend to be their best selves at special celebrations like festivals and street fairs.  They dress exuberantly, dance with abandon, make new friends quickly, and (nearly always) are overjoyed to pose for photos.

I shoot about a hundred festivals and other special events every year, so I’ve learned a few tips about how to make the best images during these occasions.  In today’s post I share some simple but effective techniques for capturing great portraits at festivals and other gatherings, using San Francisco’s recent How Weird Street Faire as a case study.  How Weird is a vibrant and colorful, only-in-SF, annual celebration of individuality, tolerance, music, art, and hula hoops.  Read on to see some of my favorite images from this year’s festival, presented along with some discussion of how they were made.  To view more of my images, or to buy some, check out this gallery: How Weird photo gallery.

I see a lot of fellow photographers at events like How Weird shooting with huge telephotos and even tripods, like they’re after images of wildlife on a Kenyan safari.  In my opinion, they are missing the point.  We’re making portraits of people here, so use a normal or moderate telephoto portrait lens, preferably a fast prime lens, ditch the tripod and monopod at home, and get in close to chat with and get to know the people you’re photographing.  When you interact with people, you get a sense of what makes them special, allowing both you and them to capture that special trait in your photos.  Random sniping from far away with a long telephoto will yield far more bland and generic photos.  All of my images at How Weird Street Faire were made with a single camera body and one lens, my trusty 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.  Sometimes simple is better, especially when it comes to capturing people at fast-moving events.

Larger groups can be challenging to capture in portraits, particularly in bustling spaces like those of a festival.  When they couple I was chatting with suddenly ran into a friend and they had a group hug, I quickly stepped back a few paces and made this expressive and engaging portrait.  It’s okay to break the rules sometimes–here, one of the subject’s faces is completely obscured and another’s is partially obscured, yet the portrait works because it captures the energy and affection of the moment.

When photographers argue that the “street photography” approach (candidly sneaking images of people who aren’t aware they’re present) is the best for capturing people’s true essence, I show them images like this one.  This wholly genuine and unguarded moment of the girl dancing was made with her full knowledge and permission.  The trick is to chat with the subject and get their permission for photography first, then to lay back for a while and let them go back to what they were doing.  After a few minutes, they’ll nearly forget you’re there and they will reveal their true selves.  But unlike shots you sneak without permission, now you have a subject happy to have you photographing them, and you can take your time and not have to rush your work in order to hide your shooting from them.

Often we see only the most obvious subjects at crowded, chaotic events like festivals.  It’s easy to spend all our time shooting people dancing, partying, and displaying their costumes, but I try always to look for the more hidden people and infrastructure that support the event.  This DJ was partially hidden atop the big dance stage and behind the banks of speakers, but she made a fun subject for this portrait.

Don’t be afraid to get in close.  This portrait really pops because the tight composition allows us to focus our attention on the symmetry and color of the subject’s hair and costume.  

The interactions between people are at least as much fun to observe and capture as the individuals themselves.  I had chatted with and photographed a group of people for a few minutes when I observed this fun interaction, so I stepped back and framed some shots of the two young people together.

While post-processing my images after the shoot, I decided to render this one in monochrome to achieve a gritty urban street scene sort of feel.  Often color can distract from the power of an image, so always consider which of your images could benefit from conversion to black-and-white.

In ordinary daily life, I find that perhaps two-thirds of people are willing to have their portrait made if the photographer spends some time getting to know them first and then asks politely.  But at a festival, nearly everyone is excited about posing for portraits.  The trick is to capture scenes where they show you their underlying personalities a bit, rather than just striking a cliched pose for the camera.  To achieve that here, I spent a few minutes shooting, asking the couple to pose in different styles and have fun with it.

Putting it all together.  Here’s a summary of the basic techniques I use when shooting portraits at festivals:  1) Use a fast prime normal or portrait lens.  2) Set your camera for a fast shutter speed (1/500 second or faster is good for dancing and other fast action), wide aperture (f/2.5 or wider is ideal except for large groups) to isolate the subject, and an ISO appropriate to the lighting of the scene (I used ISO 100 the whole day due to the bright outdoor light).  3) Get to know your subject before shooting, let them relax, and capture them during an authentic moment.  4) Try to compose the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible; of course, this is often difficult at crowded festivals.  5) During post-processing, crop to clean up the scene and then vignette just a touch to further clean up busy backgrounds.

I hope this discussion of techniques to capture portraits during festivals has been helpful.  The best way to learn these techniques and to find your own style is to shoot and shoot some more!

Please leave a comment with your own thoughts and tips about how to make great images of people at celebrations.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about 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!

 

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 2018
Shower Radiant and direction Morning of maximum Best hourly rate Parent
Quadrantid* Draco (NE) Jan. 4 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 29 20 96P/Machholz
Perseid Perseus (NE) Aug. 13 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. 18 10-20 55P/Tempel-Tuttle
Geminid Gemini (S) Dec. 14 100-120 3200 Phaethon
Ursid* Ursa Minor (N) Dec. 22 10 8P/Tuttle

* 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.

 

Please Join Me for a Hands-on Portraiture Workshop: Learn to make beautiful portraits using natural light

Dear Readers,

If you’d like to learn how to make beautiful portraits using just natural light and a few simple techniques, then please join me for a 2-hour hands-on workshop/class that I’ll be teaching several times over the next few weeks. Held in a scenic location in Mountain View, CA, these classes will cover the basics of techniques and tools, and then we’ll practice by shooting in the field with a wonderful model. Learn more or register for a session here: Kyle’s workshop on portraiture using natural light.

In today’s post I am sharing a few favorite images that we shot during a recent session of this workshop.  Working with our wonderful model Roxy, I walked students through the entire process of creating stunning headshots, full-body and action portraits, and environmental portraits, all using only natural light and with a minimum of gear, fuss, and bother.  Students learned how to configure their cameras, what lenses to choose for different portrait situations, where to shoot, how to pose and direct the model, how to use light modifiers (reflectors and diffusers), and much more.

Learning to capture flattering and eye-catching headshots is a basic requirement for portrait photography.

We will also learn to make full-body and action shots that bring out our subject’s true personality.

Always be on the lookout for special and playful moments.

I emphasize the artistic as well as the technical aspects of portrait photography.

Roxy really went the extra mile by climbing a tree wearing heels and a red dress!  In my hands-on portrait workshops, we will collaborate with fun and creative models.  Students will gain skills and a comfort level in directing models, even if they have never worked with a model previously.

You can see more details and book a session of the class here: Kyle’s workshop on portraiture using natural light.  More dates will be added soon. Hope to see you at one of these sessions!

 

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.

 

Please Join Me for a Hands-on Portraiture Workshop: Learn to make beautiful portraits using natural light

Dear Readers,

If you’d like to learn how to make beautiful portraits using just natural light and a few simple techniques, then please join me for a 2-hour hands-on workshop/class that I’ll be teaching several times over the next few weeks. Held in a scenic location in Mountain View, CA, these classes will cover the basics of techniques and tools, and then we’ll practice by shooting in the field with a wonderful model. Learn more or register for a session here: Kyle’s workshop on portraiture using natural light.

In today’s post I am sharing a few favorite images that we shot during a recent session of this workshop.  Working with our wonderful model Roxy, I walked students through the entire process of creating stunning headshots, full-body and action portraits, and environmental portraits, all using only natural light and with a minimum of gear, fuss, and bother.  Students learned how to configure their cameras, what lenses to choose for different portrait situations, where to shoot, how to pose and direct the model, how to use light modifiers (reflectors and diffusers), and much more.

Learning to capture flattering and eye-catching headshots is a basic requirement for portrait photography.

We will also learn to make full-body and action shots that bring out our subject’s true personality.

Always be on the lookout for special and playful moments.

I emphasize the artistic as well as the technical aspects of portrait photography.

Roxy really went the extra mile by climbing a tree wearing heels and a red dress!  In my hands-on portrait workshops, we will collaborate with fun and creative models.  Students will gain skills and a comfort level in directing models, even if they have never worked with a model previously.

You can see more details and book a session of the class here: Kyle’s workshop on portraiture using natural light.  More dates will be added soon. Hope to see you at one of these sessions!

 

Please Join Me for a Hands-on Portraiture Workshop: Learn to make beautiful portraits using natural light

Dear Readers,

If you’d like to learn how to make beautiful portraits using just natural light and a few simple techniques, then please join me for a 2-hour hands-on workshop/class that I’ll be teaching several times over the next few weeks. Held in a scenic location in Mountain View, CA, these classes will cover the basics of techniques and tools, and then we’ll practice by shooting in the field with a wonderful model. Learn more or register for a session here: Kyle’s workshop on portraiture using natural light.

In today’s post I am sharing a few favorite images that we shot during a recent session of this workshop.  Working with our wonderful model Roxy, I walked students through the entire process of creating stunning headshots, full-body and action portraits, and environmental portraits, all using only natural light and with a minimum of gear, fuss, and bother.  Students learned how to configure their cameras, what lenses to choose for different portrait situations, where to shoot, how to pose and direct the model, how to use light modifiers (reflectors and diffusers), and much more.

Learning to capture flattering and eye-catching headshots is a basic requirement for portrait photography.

We will also learn to make full-body and action shots that bring out our subject’s true personality.

Always be on the lookout for special and playful moments.

I emphasize the artistic as well as the technical aspects of portrait photography.

Roxy really went the extra mile by climbing a tree wearing heels and a red dress!  In my hands-on portrait workshops, we will collaborate with fun and creative models.  Students will gain skills and a comfort level in directing models, even if they have never worked with a model previously.

You can see more details and book a session of the class here: Kyle’s workshop on portraiture using natural light.  More dates will be added soon. Hope to see you at one of these sessions!

 

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.

Capturing the Creative Process [Encore Publication]: How to document an artist’s work using your own artistic vision

Capturing images of the performing arts is a specialty of mine, as well as one of my absolute favorite genres of photography.  But as gratifying as I find documenting live performances of dance, music, or theater, there’s a whole higher level of photographic joy available from capturing the artist’s creative process before their work reaches a public audience.  Today’s post focuses on a recent behind-the-scenes shoot that I did for a friend and longtime collaborator, Arina Hunter.

I arranged to shoot her dress rehearsal just before the first of two public performances as part of San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Arts RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) program.  Arina was preparing to perform an untitled work-in-progress which was quite complicated technically, so it was fascinating to watch her process of making artistic decisions and readying herself and the technical crew for the evening’s show.

Read on to see some of my favorite images from the rehearsal, accompanied by a few thoughts about my own artistic and technical process that went into the capture of Arina’s work.

All of these images are available for sale on my website.  Just click on any image to view them in the online gallery.

The creative process is about more than just practicing for a performance.  Try to include some wider views depicting the artist’s full environment including equipment, sets, and performance space.

The flip side is that it’s also important to get up-close and to capture the physical work that goes into preparing for a performance.

Shoot plenty of frames to maximize the chances of capturing the “decisive moment” when the artist’s work comes together as an integrated whole.

Typically there are several different moods evoked in a single piece of art.  This image captures a vulnerability and poignancy that informed Arina’s work even as much of her physical performance exudes strength.  Finding the right perspective to convey each mood is key to making successful images.

When post-processing my images, I ask myself how can my own technique best convey the artist’s intention.  For this image I decided a monochrome conversion would best render Arina’s physicality at this precise moment during her process.  Freeing the viewer from the anchor of color perception, a black-and-white image is graphic and timeless and allows us to focus on what is elemental: form, contrast, shadow, and light.  

I shot this image from a low perspective near the ground so as to juxtapose Arina’s body with the projected video image on the wall.  Always look for a different perspectives while shooting that can create compositions to get across your intent.

Another example of perspective: To make this image I climbed on top of a chair and shot down on Arina in her performance space. 

Sometimes the details convey the story better than the whole.  This closeup of Arina’s paint-covered hand framed by colorful canvas makes a powerful summary of her performance piece.

Today’s post has been a bit more conceptual and less technical than most of my posts.  The purpose is to get you thinking about how our own art of photography can be harnessed to capture the creative process of other artists.  The next time you are privileged to get to shoot an artist at work, think about how you can apply elements such as composition, perspective, color, texture, empty space, motion, and stasis to capture compelling images of the artist’s own vision!

Do you have techniques you’ve used to document other artists’ creative process?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

How Do I Shoot Thee? Let Me Count the Ways! [Encore Publication]: Professional tips for capturing couples

One of my favorite photographic genres is capturing images of couples.  Whether it’s a pre-wedding shoot to make images for use in the couple’s wedding invitations or a holiday or anniversary shoot for use in cards and social media, these assignments are great fun because each is as unique as the couple themselves.  Today’s post is a case study of couples portraiture based on a recent pre-wedding shoot I did for Gayathri and her fiance Abhishek.

Many photographers make the mistake of assuming they need a lot of cumbersome and expensive gear to make professional images of couples.  In fact, in most of my couples photo sessions I use only two DSLR bodies, each fitted with a different fast prime lens (in this case, a 50mm f/1.4 and an 85mm f/1.8), and a set of inexpensive reflectors and diffusers.  A speedlight or two can also be helpful, but for on-location couples shoots there is rarely any need for studio lighting.  Keep it light and simple, and stay open to the special moments that truly show the couple’s distinctive style and love for each other.

Gayatrhi and Abhishek were great fun to shoot because of their distinctive, dynamic, and theatrical style.  With the rental of a tandem bicycle and the addition of a simple floral bouquet prop, we were ready to capture amazing images of the two of them interacting.  A fast prime lens allows quick and easy shooting, the choice of a wide range of apertures to control depth-of-field, and the option to freeze action with a fast shutter speed.

Not all couples shots have to be posed and static.  I love capturing the couple in motion to get a sense of the thrill and excitement they feel by being together.  Here I panned the camera while they rode past to keep sharp focus on the couple while blurring the background.  The sense of motion and tight crop lend this image a dynamic feel.

Get creative during post-processing to lend your images a distinctive look.  Here I retained richly saturated colors for the couple on their tandem bike, while rendering the background in black-and-white.  This juxtaposition gives a magical, Wizard of Oz-like feel to the image.  Gayathri and Abhishek are riding into their future together, bringing all the colors of the world with them.

During all my photoshoots, I like to capture multiple locations (and preferably multiple outfits) in order to give my clients a varied portfolio of images spanning different moods and backgrounds.  Finding a miniature pumpkin patch by the shores of a sailing lake gave us a playful prop for a new series of images.

An 85mm portrait lens set to a moderately shallow depth-of-field allowed me to capture this playful scene.  I wanted the couple to be pin-sharp while the background was slightly soft but still recognizable as a lakeside setting.  Just remember when shooting groups of people that you need a deep enough depth-of-field to ensure sharp focus on all of their faces; for that reason, I don’t usually recommend shooting wider than about f/2.8 for couples or about f/4 for larger groups.

While I may suggest a few poses or ideas to my clients, I’m not a fan of staged poses.  Instead, I like to let the couple interact as they naturally do.  This priceless moment captures their sense of fun and their flair for the dramatic.  A wide aperture allows for sharp focus on the couple while softening the background to keep the emphasis on them.

I always ask my clients to bring a few props with them that represent something they love to do together or reflect their interests.  Because Abhishek is a huge cricket fan, he and Gayathri posed with bats and balls while wearing shirts emblazoned with his name and number.  These kinds of shots emphasize what is unique about the couple.

Remember to shoot from all angles: above, below, front, back, left, and right.  Sometimes the best images are not shot from the conventional perspectives.

If possible, try to include time for the couple to change outfits at least once during the shoot.  This allows for more styles and moods, and provides images that can be used for more purposes.

The grounds of a lovely Victorian mansion provided a great backdrop for another shooting locale after an outfit change.  Both Gayathri and Abhishek have dance experience, so it was natural they would want to perform for the camera.  Whenever the action is fast-paced, be sure to shoot with a fast shutter speed and the appropriate focus settings, and keep shooting continuously to ensure you catch just the right moments. 

I often try to schedule shoots for just before sunset when the “golden hour” lighting is soft, flattering, and evocative.  My favorite technique for portraits is to shoot with the sun behind the couple.  This provides lovely lighting on the hair, a beautiful saturated background, and a relaxed squinting-free pose.  To make this technique work, I meter off the subjects’ faces to avoid their becoming silhouetted, and I often use a reflector to shine some of the sunlight back onto their faces and fill in the shadows.  An assistant can be very helpful for holding the reflector.

Parting shot: This lovely capture was made by spot-metering off the couple’s skin and having my assistant aim a gold reflector onto their faces.  

Do you have tips and techniques for shooting couples?  Please share them here.

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

Note: These private client images are not available for purchase.

Capturing the Creative Process: How to document an artist’s work using your own artistic vision

Capturing images of the performing arts is a specialty of mine, as well as one of my absolute favorite genres of photography.  But as gratifying as I find documenting live performances of dance, music, or theater, there’s a whole higher level of photographic joy available from capturing the artist’s creative process before their work reaches a public audience.  Today’s post focuses on a recent behind-the-scenes shoot that I did for a friend and longtime collaborator, Arina Hunter.

I arranged to shoot her dress rehearsal just before the first of two public performances as part of San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Arts RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) program.  Arina was preparing to perform an untitled work-in-progress which was quite complicated technically, so it was fascinating to watch her process of making artistic decisions and readying herself and the technical crew for the evening’s show.

Read on to see some of my favorite images from the rehearsal, accompanied by a few thoughts about my own artistic and technical process that went into the capture of Arina’s work.

All of these images are available for sale on my website.  Just click on any image to view them in the online gallery.

The creative process is about more than just practicing for a performance.  Try to include some wider views depicting the artist’s full environment including equipment, sets, and performance space.

The flip side is that it’s also important to get up-close and to capture the physical work that goes into preparing for a performance.

Shoot plenty of frames to maximize the chances of capturing the “decisive moment” when the artist’s work comes together as an integrated whole.

Typically there are several different moods evoked in a single piece of art.  This image captures a vulnerability and poignancy that informed Arina’s work even as much of her physical performance exudes strength.  Finding the right perspective to convey each mood is key to making successful images.

When post-processing my images, I ask myself how can my own technique best convey the artist’s intention.  For this image I decided a monochrome conversion would best render Arina’s physicality at this precise moment during her process.  Freeing the viewer from the anchor of color perception, a black-and-white image is graphic and timeless and allows us to focus on what is elemental: form, contrast, shadow, and light.  

I shot this image from a low perspective near the ground so as to juxtapose Arina’s body with the projected video image on the wall.  Always look for a different perspectives while shooting that can create compositions to get across your intent.

Another example of perspective: To make this image I climbed on top of a chair and shot down on Arina in her performance space. 

Sometimes the details convey the story better than the whole.  This closeup of Arina’s paint-covered hand framed by colorful canvas makes a powerful summary of her performance piece.

Today’s post has been a bit more conceptual and less technical than most of my posts.  The purpose is to get you thinking about how our own art of photography can be harnessed to capture the creative process of other artists.  The next time you are privileged to get to shoot an artist at work, think about how you can apply elements such as composition, perspective, color, texture, empty space, motion, and stasis to capture compelling images of the artist’s own vision!

Do you have techniques you’ve used to document other artists’ creative process?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Mardi Gras SF 2018 [Encore Publication]: A case study on shooting action in low light

San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event.  The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras.  I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues.  Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.

Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement.  Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.

The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking.  A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.

Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject.  Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.

For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly.  Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots!  Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people.  Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.

Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques.  Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera.  Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.

By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.

Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about techniques.  And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.

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.

Mardi Gras SF 2018 [Encore Publication]: A case study on shooting action in low light

San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event.  The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras.  I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues.  Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.

Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement.  Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.

The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking.  A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.

Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject.  Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.

For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly.  Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots!  Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people.  Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.

Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques.  Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera.  Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.

By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.

Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about techniques.  And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.

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.

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.

 

How Do I Shoot Thee? Let Me Count the Ways! [Encore Publication]: Professional tips for capturing couples

One of my favorite photographic genres is capturing images of couples.  Whether it’s a pre-wedding shoot to make images for use in the couple’s wedding invitations or a holiday or anniversary shoot for use in cards and social media, these assignments are great fun because each is as unique as the couple themselves.  Today’s post is a case study of couples portraiture based on a recent pre-wedding shoot I did for Gayathri and her fiance Abhishek.

Many photographers make the mistake of assuming they need a lot of cumbersome and expensive gear to make professional images of couples.  In fact, in most of my couples photo sessions I use only two DSLR bodies, each fitted with a different fast prime lens (in this case, a 50mm f/1.4 and an 85mm f/1.8), and a set of inexpensive reflectors and diffusers.  A speedlight or two can also be helpful, but for on-location couples shoots there is rarely any need for studio lighting.  Keep it light and simple, and stay open to the special moments that truly show the couple’s distinctive style and love for each other.

Gayatrhi and Abhishek were great fun to shoot because of their distinctive, dynamic, and theatrical style.  With the rental of a tandem bicycle and the addition of a simple floral bouquet prop, we were ready to capture amazing images of the two of them interacting.  A fast prime lens allows quick and easy shooting, the choice of a wide range of apertures to control depth-of-field, and the option to freeze action with a fast shutter speed.

Not all couples shots have to be posed and static.  I love capturing the couple in motion to get a sense of the thrill and excitement they feel by being together.  Here I panned the camera while they rode past to keep sharp focus on the couple while blurring the background.  The sense of motion and tight crop lend this image a dynamic feel.

Get creative during post-processing to lend your images a distinctive look.  Here I retained richly saturated colors for the couple on their tandem bike, while rendering the background in black-and-white.  This juxtaposition gives a magical, Wizard of Oz-like feel to the image.  Gayathri and Abhishek are riding into their future together, bringing all the colors of the world with them.

During all my photoshoots, I like to capture multiple locations (and preferably multiple outfits) in order to give my clients a varied portfolio of images spanning different moods and backgrounds.  Finding a miniature pumpkin patch by the shores of a sailing lake gave us a playful prop for a new series of images.

An 85mm portrait lens set to a moderately shallow depth-of-field allowed me to capture this playful scene.  I wanted the couple to be pin-sharp while the background was slightly soft but still recognizable as a lakeside setting.  Just remember when shooting groups of people that you need a deep enough depth-of-field to ensure sharp focus on all of their faces; for that reason, I don’t usually recommend shooting wider than about f/2.8 for couples or about f/4 for larger groups.

While I may suggest a few poses or ideas to my clients, I’m not a fan of staged poses.  Instead, I like to let the couple interact as they naturally do.  This priceless moment captures their sense of fun and their flair for the dramatic.  A wide aperture allows for sharp focus on the couple while softening the background to keep the emphasis on them.

I always ask my clients to bring a few props with them that represent something they love to do together or reflect their interests.  Because Abhishek is a huge cricket fan, he and Gayathri posed with bats and balls while wearing shirts emblazoned with his name and number.  These kinds of shots emphasize what is unique about the couple.

Remember to shoot from all angles: above, below, front, back, left, and right.  Sometimes the best images are not shot from the conventional perspectives.

If possible, try to include time for the couple to change outfits at least once during the shoot.  This allows for more styles and moods, and provides images that can be used for more purposes.

The grounds of a lovely Victorian mansion provided a great backdrop for another shooting locale after an outfit change.  Both Gayathri and Abhishek have dance experience, so it was natural they would want to perform for the camera.  Whenever the action is fast-paced, be sure to shoot with a fast shutter speed and the appropriate focus settings, and keep shooting continuously to ensure you catch just the right moments. 

I often try to schedule shoots for just before sunset when the “golden hour” lighting is soft, flattering, and evocative.  My favorite technique for portraits is to shoot with the sun behind the couple.  This provides lovely lighting on the hair, a beautiful saturated background, and a relaxed squinting-free pose.  To make this technique work, I meter off the subjects’ faces to avoid their becoming silhouetted, and I often use a reflector to shine some of the sunlight back onto their faces and fill in the shadows.  An assistant can be very helpful for holding the reflector.

Parting shot: This lovely capture was made by spot-metering off the couple’s skin and having my assistant aim a gold reflector onto their faces.  

Do you have tips and techniques for shooting couples?  Please share them here.

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

Note: These private client images are not available for purchase.

Mardi Gras SF 2018 [Encore Publication]: A case study on shooting action in low light

San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event.  The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras.  I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues.  Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.

Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement.  Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.

The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking.  A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.

Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject.  Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.

For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly.  Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots!  Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people.  Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.

Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques.  Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera.  Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.

By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.

Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about techniques.  And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.

Focus on ODC Interspaceology Dance Pilot [Encore Publication]: Capturing the new work of six inspiring choreographers

This past weekend I had the privilege of capturing the new work of six inspiring San Francisco Bay Area choreographers as the official photographer for ODC’s 69th dance pilot program.  Because the six pieces differed substantially in their style, content, dance technique, lighting, and staging, this dress rehearsal shoot makes a good case study in live performance capture techniques.  In today’s post I share some favorite images of each of the pieces along with some brief notes about how they were made.

“Ofrenda” by Carmen Roman:

Performing arts photography need not always show the performers.  Sometimes it adds depth to a performance capture to include some images of costumes, props, venue, or lighting without the performers.  This image shows the altar-like centerpiece, including the Peruvian folkloric masks, before the dancers entered.

This piece was performed outdoors on the street in front of the theater.  It was natural to use some street photography techniques, such as waiting for the people to interact with the setting in an interesting way.   

Because it was held in near-darkness, I had to use some flash to capture the piece.  In these situations, I use an off-camera speedlight, handheld, and attached to the camera with a flash cord.  I nearly always dial down the flash output by one stop so the lighting appears more natural.

“work/force” by Katelyn Hanes:

Try to capture moments when dramatic tension peaks.  In this image, the viewer can feel the conflicting pull that is central to the piece.  Using a fast shutter speed is essential with fast-moving performances, and since lighting is usually dim and available light must be used with no supplemental lighting, it is helpful to use a fast prime lens at a wide aperture and a high ISO setting on the camera.

In post-processing, I look for aspect ratios that best tell the story for each image.  Sometimes that means changing from a landscape to a portrait orientation or vice-versa, and/or cropping to a non-standard aspect ratio.

“Engineering Ephemeral” by Alexandre Munz:

There can be drama in stillness as well as in motion.  This emotional piece had some contemplative moments that tell the story as well as the more active portions.

Dance is about gesture and facial expression, too.  This image captures the choreographer/dancer in a reflection of emotional pain, which to me speaks to a strong storyline.  

“Interbeings” by Carly Lave:

This piece treated the interaction between a human and an artificial intelligence, so I wanted to document their initial encounter.  The dramatic lighting of a single spotlight splits the frame into portions of light and shadow.  To capture the image I had in my mind, I had to move to the center of the stage (made possible because this was a dress rehearsal, not a live performance with an audience) and to lie down on the floor to get a low shooting angle.

Most of the time, performing arts images should be tack-sharp, but for artistic effect it is sometimes desirable to give a sense of the motion by blurring the performer using a slow shutter speed.  To make this image, I switched to a slower ISO setting and a narrower aperture in order to obtain a very slow shutter speed (1.6 seconds).  Because it was shot handheld, I had to hold the camera very steady so as not to blur the background too much.

“Confab” by Arina Hunter:

I’ve worked with Arina several times before and so I have a good feeling for her style.  To capture her new piece, I knew I’d need to have two camera bodies at the ready, one with a 50mm lens and the other with an 85mm lens, so that I could switch between expressive close-ups and exciting action shots.  This image hightens the drama by combining a moment of tension with beautiful lighting and a clean black background.

The best technique for capturing exciting, fast-moving performances is to shoot plenty of images.  I shot a series of images in rapid succession to catch this perfect moment in one of them.  A very fast shutter speed is required, so I used a high ISO setting and a fast prime lens at a wide aperture.

Arina’s gestures and facial expressions are varied and compelling.  To obtain this personal perspective, I shot from her level flat on the floor, and to ensure sharp focus on her whole body I used a moderate aperture setting (f/2.8), requiring a very high ISO setting (6400).  

“ReeLs” by Dana Genshaft:

It can be a challenge to capture multiple dancers moving rapidly in a small space.  Rather than always compose so that the performers are all lined up in a single row like a picket fence, I like to compose images where they are layered.  This image creates a sense of the tension between the dancers by showing the foreground dancer in fast motion, slightly blurred, offset against the background dancers in an instant of stasis.

This image is composed with the dancers all in a row, but the composition works well because the lines of the performers’ bodies leads the viewer’s eye from one side of the frame to the other. 

So, there you have it.  It was a true joy documenting this ODC dance pilot program and getting to know the talented choreographers and dancers.  I’ve described a number of different techniques that can be used, among others, to capture images as vibrant and varied as the performers themselves.

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your favorite techniques for capturing live performances at home or while traveling.

Remember that you can see any of these images in a larger size on my website by clicking on them and that they all are available for purchase there.

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

The Raw Truth [Encore Publication]: Why you should always shoot in RAW mode

Editor’s Note: Since publishing the original version of this post several months ago, I have made a major change to my workflow and now shoot in RAW format only (i.e., with no JPEG version saved in addition to the RAW version of each image).  Shooting RAW+JPEG was a crutch that I used for a couple of years as I transitioned from JPEG to RAW format, but I realized I never use the JPEG files right out of the camera, and saving duplicate JPEG files takes a lot of disk space and time.  Please read my update in this recent post: Post on RAW vs. RAW+JPEG.  The original post on RAW mode follows:

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For many years after I took the plunge into digital photography, I had my camera set to store image files in the JPEG format only.  I now realize that during those years I was throwing away a lot of very valuable information with every photo I made.  There are two main reasons for this information loss.  First, the JPEG format does not store the detailed data for each pixel in the camera’s sensor but instead does some processing according to your settings and then saves only stripped-down information from each area of your image.  Second, the JPEG standard is what’s referred to as a “lossy” format; every time it is opened and resaved, the image loses more detailed data.  Once your image data is thrown away, you cannot retrieve it.

By contrast, the RAW file format keeps all the data your camera’s sensor “sees” for every pixel in the image.  Yes, RAW files are bigger and take a bit longer to store on your camera’s memory card than JPEG files, and yes, they take up more space on the memory card and on your PC’s hard drive later.  For those early years of digital photography, I avoided shooting in RAW mode because I was concerned about having reduced shooting speed and storage space for these monster-sized files.  I also was concerned that it would be too much work to shoot in RAW mode because RAW images require post-processing in order to look their best.  I now realize that I had been making a big mistake.  Shooting in RAW all the time, even when high speed is needed for action shots, ensures that you’ll always have the most image data to work with later.  You will be able to crop your images more tightly, print them to larger sizes, and especially important, refine the exposure and color with far more control if they were shot in RAW format rather than in JPEG or other compressed formats.

I now shoot nearly exclusively using my camera’s setting to save files as both RAW and JPEG.  Having the JPEG version of each image can be helpful if I want to share the photo right out of the camera.  It will look pretty decent without any post-processing because the JPEG file is stored with all of the camera’s settings for white balance, sharpening, and so on.  But when I come home from a trip, I always do my post-processing on the best images using RAW files exclusively.  Because the RAW format stores so much more information about the color and brightness of every single pixel of the image, I have much more freedom in how I choose to develop the image using my editing software (typically Adobe Lightroom, but occasionally I also use Adobe Photoshop).

Below, I show two files of the same image of my wife and me by a “fairy chimney” rock formation in Cappadocia, Turkey, both processed in exactly same the same way in Lightroom, but the first one was originally saved by the camera as a JPEG while the second was originally saved in RAW mode.  While the differences may be subtle at the size and resolution shown in this post, you can still make out more details in the RAW file, especially in areas shrouded in shadow.  The color of the sky is deeper.  Colors and shapes are rendered with more accuracy.  And of course, if we needed to crop or enlarge these images to a much bigger size, the quality of the JPEG file would deteriorate much sooner than would the RAW file.

 The JPEG version of this image.

 The RAW version of the same image.

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.

Do you shoot in RAW mode?  If so, what do you like about it?  If not, why not?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Mardi Gras SF 2018: A case study on shooting action in low light

San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event.  The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras.  I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues.  Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.

Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement.  Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.

The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking.  A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.

Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject.  Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.

For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly.  Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots!  Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people.  Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.

Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques.  Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera.  Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.

By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.

Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about techniques.  And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.