Camera Basics Refresher

Family Fishing Photo

Camera Basics Refresher

Well, it’s a new year and Christmas has come and gone. With the popularity of photography lately I’m sure that there will be some readers who have received the gift that they wanted, a new digital camera. Because of this I have decided to brush up on how to use it to more of its potential. So let’s talk about manual camera operation.

You have a new camera that, unlike your phone’s camera, was designed exclusively for making photos. I am going to assume that the reason that you wanted your new camera was to make photos that are even better than you could with your cell phone. To do this you will need to move away from the point and shoot mindset and decide to be the computer that controls the camera instead. Switch to Manual Mode.

Let’s start with the “Big 3”. Exposure time - Aperture Setting - ISO/Film Speed. When you’re taking a photo you will want to understand what all three are, how to control them and how they affect each other.

Shutter Speed - Your shutter is a gate that opens and closes to allow light from the outside to come inside of the camera and fall on the film/image sensor. The longer your shutter speed is the more light that’s allowed in and, conversely, how much can be stopped or blocked from coming inside. Consequences of both being a twofold. The first is the exposure of the image, or how bright or dark that it is. The second being the allowance or elimination of movement in your photo. The primary concern typically is to get a photo that’s bright enough without movement being blurred, but there are times when you will want to show movement or blur in your photo such as a waterfall. A fast shutter speed freezes movement while a slower one will blur movement.

Aperture setting - The aperture is a mechanism in the lens that you can adjust to vary the size of the hole that the light goes through as it passes through the lens and into the camera. The larger the hole the more light that can come through in a set amount of time (shutter speed). You can have the same shutter speed but control the amount of light with the aperture. The second consideration when adjusting your aperture is how it affects the depth of field, or how deep the focus is in the photo. When you choose a larger hole, which is represented by a smaller f/stop number, it will give you a smaller or shallow depth of focus, whereas a smaller hole with a larger f/stop number, will give you a larger or deeper depth of focus. One will realize that with a smaller hole for the light to come through a longer shutter speed will be needed to get the same light inside. With a longer shutter speed you will have a chance to blur, as mentioned previously, which will require you to use the third setting in our big three adjustments to further affect the exposure.

The third and last adjustment that we will add to the formula is what was once called “film speed” in film photography, which is indicated by the ASA rating of the film, whereas in digital photography, where there is no film, we adjust the ISO. The film speed indicated how sensitive to light the film is. A lower rating such as 400 ASA will be less sensitive to light than a film rated at 1000 ASA. When the film is more sensitive to light it takes less light to expose the film so you can use the film in darker light or it will allow you to use a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture opening. With this understanding we can translate the application of this information to digital cameras easily. In digital cameras the film is the image sensor and the film speed is translated to the ISO setting of the camera. The ISO setting varies the sensitivity to light of the image sensor. The beauty of shooting with a digital single lens reflex camera is that you can vary the light sensitivity of the camera using a dial, whereas in film you had to change the whole roll of film. The one consideration when setting the ISO is that the higher the ISO the more grain/noise that you will have in your image.

Let’s summarize what has been covered. You have three settings, shutter speed, aperture opening, and ISO or light sensitivity. All three will affect the each other so you will usually need to adjust another, or both, when one is changed. We can now use this knowledge to set our exposure considering movement, depth of focus and acceptable image noise.

Next, to know how close your exposure is to proper your digital SLR camera comes with a built in light meter. As you set your camera you can keep an eye on the light meter and balance it in the center. Once you have your shutter speed, aperture and your ISO set according to your light meter take your shot.

Once you take your photo you will have a display on the back that will show you a preview of the image. You can check your focus and your composition with this preview of the photo, but you can’t get a real indication of the exposure therefore, the next and last step is to check the exposure with the histogram. The histogram is a graphical representation of the range of light that was captured in your photo. If the histogram doesn’t show automatically with the preview you can find a setting that will allow it. The histogram will look like a rectangular box with a bar chart inside. The left side will be the dark part of your photo such as shadows while the right side will represent the highlights. What you will want to attempt is to balance the highlights and the darks with your “Big 3” adjustments using your histogram as your way of verifying your success. If the settings were a little off, make an adjustment and take another photo. Film is cheap when you’re shooting digital.

All of this may sound a bit confusing at first but the confusion leaves with practice. Like I mentioned previously film is cheap when you’re shooting with a digital camera so go out and take a lot of photos. Therein lies the secret to improving your photography. Practice and experimentation.

It’s my hope for you that your new camera, or your old one for that matter, will provide you with as much fun and life enriching experiences that mine has for me.

Happy New Year.

Fort Rock Night Photography

The Milky Way at Fort Rock Oregon
Fort Rock Before and After
Fort Rock Night Photography Before and After

Fort Rock Night Photography - After a drive from my home here on the south side of Mount Hood to Central Oregon for some Fort Rock Night Photography. I and my friend Rob arrived at the Fort Rock Museum, what's left of the history of this little town, and the geologic feature it's named for. It was a little after midnight when we arrived. The old buildings at the museum were our goal for the evening, although it was our third stop on the two day trip, and we were excited at our chances at photographing the Milky Way in the sky above.

As a photographer I understand that, no matter how much I try to prepare it seems that there's always some sort of unforeseen situation that pops up. In this case the complication came in the form of a huge invasive orange street light illuminating the scene. This actually created two complications. The street light created a huge range of light from the buildings to the dark sky which wouldn't allow a longer exposure which is required to allow the sky to be exposed properly. When the sky was exposed properly the buildings were overexposed and vice versa. The second complication being the hot orange white balance of the light. Sodium lights produce a very narrow spectrum of light, meaning that it's basically a monochrome image, kind of like a black and white but orange. No other color is represented and so it's near impossible to correct for this type of light. To say the least I was a bit disappointed. Never one to just give up I decided to shoot the area nonetheless.

After we were done at Fort Rock we wrapped up the trip with a sunrise at the Christmas Valley Sand Dunes. It was a long trip with no sleep but an excellent adventure. We returned with photos from Smith Rock, Sparks Lake, Fort Rock and Christmas Valley all in a matter of about 24 hours.

Once home and after downloading my photos the realization that all of my photos from Fort Rock were affected by the aforementioned sodium street light started to sink in.

Sodium Light in France
Sodium Light in France

I've had to photograph under sodium lighting in the past but I just rolled with it, either that or I converted  them to black and white. Many of the photos that I made in France were under this same orange light. In this case I didn't want to roll with it. I wanted to take some time and process the photos into the images that I drove so far to create. I had to decide what approach that I would take.

While I was at the location I decided to take two photos for each final photo that I would make. One would be exposed for the sky while another was exposed for the buildings. After some thought I decided on a workflow that included the following:

  • Import into Lightroom for basic adjustments and then import both photos into Photoshop as layers
  • Convert the building layer that was bathed in the orange glow to black and white and do finished contrast adjustments
  • Adjust the sky layer with the Milky way
  • Create a mask to bring the sky into the black and white building layer
  • Create a 50% grey layer with Soft Light blend mode and select a brown color and paint the buildings and adjust opacity until it looks right
  • Create a 50% grey layer with Soft Light blend mode and select a drab green color and paint the sagebrush and adjust opacity until it looks right
  • Make final separate adjustments of separate layers
  • Merge layers and create final adjustments
  • Size and sharpen

It's always my goal to get my photos in a single exposure and I try my best to make my processing as simple as possible to get the best effect but there are times when one must push the envelope and salvage a long drive to the middle of nowhere. In this case my creativity and knowledge of Photoshop was tested. Although it wasn't exactly what I went for I think that the final images were salvaged, at the very least.

What Lens Should I Use?

Mt Hood at 20mm lens

What Lens Should I Use? - The most asked question of me is typically advice in what camera that one should get. I have addressed this in a previous blog post. The second most asked question may be what lens to choose.

In SLR (single lens reflex) photography there are basically two types of lenses that one can choose. Fixed focal length (prime lenses) and zoom lenses. It was common back in the old days when I first started for photographers to have a whole set of fixed focal length lenses. A full set typically consisted is a 20mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm macro. Beyond those focal lengths one bought large telephoto lenses such as a 200mm or a 300mm. We had zooms back then but they were of poor quality. After the 1970’s zoom lenses became much better and eventually became the choice of most photographers, especially hobbyists. Today the quality of a zoom lens is fantastic.

Mt Hood at 20mm
Mt Hood at 20mm lens

A zoom lens allows you to magnify the scene that you’re photographing, enlarging an area to give a closer view. It will also help in aiding your composition. You can start wide and zoom in until you have removed all that you don’t want in the shot creating a much more solid and stronger composition. A zoom lens is very handy as it allows you to have one lens instead of a set. Zooms are available that will allow a range from 28mm-300mm in one lens.

The most valuable tool in my bag is the right lens for the right purpose. In landscape photography the most common lens used is a wide angle lens. A focal length range from 24-70mm on a 35mm camera or a full frame digital camera, or 18-55mm on a cropped sensor camera, is the most effective and most used range for landscape work. Although it’s the most commonly used range it’s certainly not the only one that a landscape photographer can use. I love to use my 70-200mm zoom to get some details of the scene of more abstract interpretations of the

Mt Hood at 50mm
Mt Hood at 50mm lens

scene as well as my 14mm and 20mm ultra wide angle lenses, both being “fast” prime lenses.

The next consideration in choosing a lens is how fast the lens is. Fast meaning how wide that you’re able to open your aperture. The most common maximum aperture setting is f/3.5, but better lenses typically will allow f/2.8 to f/1.8. This means that you can use a faster shutter with more light coming through the lens at the maximum aperture setting. The wider the opening the more light that’s able to make it inside the camera. Another consequence of the wider maximum aperture opening is a narrowing or decrease in the depth of field which will allow one to separate the subject from the background by keeping the subject sharp while blurring the background. The better lenses will usually have a wider maximum aperture but with the quality and extra feature comes an increase in cost.

I have been talking a lot about landscape photography but the same principles apply in all forms including portraiture, for instance. A typical prime focal length for portraiture is 85-105mm. When you own a zoom lens, you have that range. A note concerning portraiture use a wider aperture to narrow the DOF to separate your subject from the background by blurring the background as described above.

Mt Hood at 85mm
Mt Hood at 85mm lens

For those who don’t own a camera with removable lenses, all of this applies to your camera as well. A typical prosumer camera will have a built in zoom as well as the ability to switch to manual and set your aperture. Learn to manually adjust your camera and use the aperture to control the DOF to allow you to enhance the look and quality of your photos.

It’s easy to complicate photography in one’s mind with the perception of mathematical complication. I leave the math to the engineers and learn simple practical application. Experiment, practice, make mistakes, experiment more and in time it will all come together into an instinctual understanding. In this day and age of digital photography film is cheap. Take a lot of pictures.

Photographing Lightning

Lightning at Simnasho Oregon

Photographing Lightning - With Spring and early Summer comes transitional weather that will cause some amazing photography opportunities. Everything from blue skies with majestic thunderheads, rainbows and lightning. It is photographing lightning that I’m asked about how to capture the most. 

A lightning bolt typically lasts about 10 to 50 microseconds (0.000050 sec). That’s a lot faster than your ability to react to it so we will need to discuss methods and conditions that must be understood prior to going out into the field to get that awesome photo of a bolt of lightning, but I must preface the information with a warning about safety.

Standing in the rain with a lightning rod in your hand

Of course when we're trying to get our lighting photo we’re venturing out into a storm. Be prepared for the weather. Dress appropriately, of course, but also remember that you are standing out in the storm with a tripod and a camera. One can’t help but be reminded of the fellows who are struck by lightning on the 18th hole as they celebrate a great putt with a golf club in their hand.

When the storm is surrounding you, go inside. Do not stand in the middle of a thundering tempest and think that you’ll come away with something more than a quick trip to the hospital, if you’re lucky, to treat you for the effects of a 100 million volt electrical shock. Your best photos of lighting will be when the storm is in the distance.

Equipment

You will want to use a camera that you are able to control manually. Many cameras will allow you to switch to Manual Mode to allow you to control your shutter speed, the duration of the exposure. You will also want to use a tripod to establish a platform for you to put your camera on. It’s easier than trying to hold your camera while you’re working and a necessity for a longer exposure photograph.

Additional gear which will improve your chances of success are a 10 stop Neutral Density Filter (ND filter). And another piece of gear that can be handy is a Lightning Trigger. I will cover the use of both of these pieces in the text of this article.

Daytime or Nighttime

When photographing lighting there are two basic conditions that will require different methods to be successful. Daytime with a lot of light and darkness with little or no light.

It’s easier to capture a lightning strike during the night than during the day. At night time it’s easy to set your camera to make a long exposure, sometimes as long as 30 seconds. Because the light is dim or even completely dark your photo won’t be exposed unless there’s a lightning strike during your exposure. I set my camera up on the tripod and point it in the direction of the storm, set my exposure to 30 seconds and click the shutter and wait for a lightning strike while hoping that it will happen in the direction that I have the camera pointed. If, once you’ve captured some lightning, your photo is too bright make your exposure a little shorter or stop down your aperture (smaller hole, bigger number) and try again. The lightning becomes it’s own flash bulb.

Daytime is a bit more challenging. It’s much more difficult to set your camera up to make a long exposure when there’s so much light that you will need to use a Neutral Density (ND) filter. An ND filter is like sunglasses for your camera. It blocks light allowing you to extend (make longer) your shutter speed which will allow you to photograph the scene using the same method as at night. Make your exposure as long as possible, click the shutter cross your fingers and wait.

High Tech Toys

Of course there’s always the easy way. Technology is your friend when it come to photographing lighting. Many people are just hobbyists and don’t want to spend a lot of money on a toy that they would rarely use, but there is that option.

A lightning trigger is the solution. A lightning trigger can react to the flash of the lightning and click the shutter in time to capture an image. The mechanism mounts to the hot shoe flash connection on top of your camera.

Although handy a lightning trigger is certainly not required to capture lighting.

Have Fun - Be Safe

The most important part of capturing lightning in a photograph for me is the experience. I love being outside and watching sever weather. To be able to make a beautiful and dramatic photo is a bonus.

I can’t stress enough the safety aspect of doing this. Please be safe and don’t put yourself in any dangerous situation to try to make any kind of photograph. There will always be more opportunities in the future.

Give these methods a try. Good luck and as always, have fun with your photography.

Mount Hood Oregon
Mount Hood Oregon

 

Mount Hood Oregon
Mount Hood Oregon

An Introduction to Lightroom

An Introduction to Lightroom

Hi folks.

I have been asked by a lot of people to create a video introduction to Lightroom. I stayed up late last night and put together an informal video explaining Lightroom's basics.

This should get you started. I hope that this helps to get you motivated to start shooting raw and processing your own photos instead of relying on your camera's automatic settings.

I promise that the videos will improve in time. 😉

The Perseid Meteor Shower 2016

Perseid Meteor Shower 2010

This is a composite that took 360 images taken as 30 second exposures over a three hours period of time layered over a single 30 minute exposure.

The secret to this shot was to be patient for three hours as the camera snapped away its 30 second exposures first, and then in post processing the additional patience to sort through the 350+ images to separate the frames that held a meteor, and then to mask out all but the meteor in the shots prior to layering them onto the base image. But that wasn't the end of the process. Once the meteors were layered over the base image I had to rotate them to align with their point of origin. Over the course of three hours the Earth rotates and so the point of origin changes. To correct for this I had to use Polaris as a pivot point and then to compute the time in relationship to the position and then rotate the meteor to correspond with that position. In all there is over 8 hours of time spent to create this image.

The point of origin is close to the position of the galaxy Cassiopeia and Perseus, thus the name of the meteor shower. When you go out to get your meteor shot make sure that you have a clear view to the northeastern sky that's not affected by the lights from a city. The meteor shower will be the most intense during their peak August 11-12 after midnight. It is estimated that we could expect up to 200 or more meteors per hour this year, but one never knows until it happens.

To get your photo set up your tripod and mount your camera. Use a programmable shutter release and set it to take 30 second exposures one after another. This will allow you to be able to capture every meteor that will fall within the frame of your camera in that three hour period of time. Don't move it while you're getting your shots. You want all of your frames to be the same. I chose to shoot for three hours but you can shoot as long as the sky is dark and your battery and memory lasts.

Remember when you are shooting 30 second exposures that you will need to open your aperture and raise your ISO to allow you to expose the night sky. When shooting the 30 minute exposure you will be lowering your ISO and stopping down to about 5.6 or so. It all varies on how much ambient light in the sky.

Once you return home you will need to use Photoshop to allow you to import the photos with the meteors in as layers, and mask out all but the meteor. Sometimes changing the blend mode will help to blend them more naturally over the base image. For the base image choose one of your best ones for static stars or create a single star trail photo for a different effect, like I did with this one. Once they are all masked and layered over, locate the pivot to the center of the rotation of the Earth which is Polaris. Rotate the layer until it is moving away from the northeast sky and the Perseus galaxy. I used a formula that allowed me to determine how many degrees that it had moved in the time that it was taken and move it roughly that many degrees. If that's all just a little too much, just layer them and call it good. It will give you a chaotic display as if they are coming from all points of the sky, but it's still very cool.

I hope that this helps. Even if you don't get a photo it's such an amazing experience to be able to go out into the night and stare at the sky and count falling stars.

Thank you for your support and thoughtful comments.

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