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WHAT'S A GREAT SKY GOT TO DO WITH IT?

Visitors to Colorado are often taken aback by our common stunning blue skys.  I've lost count of the times I've observed someone at one of my public exhibitions commenting "the sky is never that blue!".  People from other parts of the country are accustomed to grayer skies.  When guiding my field workshops I often try to get the student photographer to capture less sky in their composition.  This is especially true if it's a clear blue sky.  The fact is that a clear blue sky is not very interesting.  I watch the weather constantly and I'd much rather be out on a partly cloudy day or even a day when storms are coming or going than would when the forecast is "sunny and clear".

If you are lucky enough to find yourself out in the magic hours around sunrise and sunset... get busy!  If there is not an interesting foreground in front of you search one out.  Work quickly.  You may have only 15 to 20 minutes to search around and get set up.  Now that you're set up make the best of it!  Polarizers will enhance the colors and graduated neutral density filters will help balance the light between the sky and the foreground.  Then remember the rules for all good images:  look for interesting shapes, shoot both vertically and horizontally and try varying focal lengths.

 

STUDY WHAT'S IN YOUR VIEWFINDER

Most people I observe while guiding photo tours or photography workshops, myself included, shoot too big an area for their image.  It's so common with me that I now use the crop tool first in my post processing workflow.  While this may seem harmless, the pixels you throw away could have been used to increase the sharpness and detail in your final image.

I've tried this experiment with a few of my workshop students:  I let them compose their image in their viewfinder and then ask them to step back and tell me what is in their image.  I pick things in the periphery of the shot and ask if those things are included in the image.  In 100% of the cases where I've tried this nobody has been able to answer my questions.  Why?  Because they are so focused (no pun intended) on the main feature of the image they haven't bothered to look around the edges of the viewfinder.  A few times I even placed a beer can in the foreground and no one noticed it while composing their image.

In the image above of St Malo Chapel outside Rocky Mountain National Park I repositioned myself about 4 times before I successfully blocked out a huge power pole with transformer and a distracting white Jesus statue in the upper right.  I wanted the beauty and simplicity of the building to stand on its own.

I try to follow this rule of composition:  Study the scene.  Compose.  Step back and study the scene again.  Study the entire viewfinder to see if I'm really shooting what I want to.  THEN press the shutter.

 

PROBLEMS PROCESSING NIGHT SHOTS?

I love doing night photography.  I find the odds of getting a stunning shot are far greater at night because of the unusual aspect of whatever light is out there.  When I open them in Photoshop, though, I often find that the colors aren't true.  I was recently shooting at the Winter Festival in Mesa Verde National Park, where one night a year they light up Spruce Tree Ruin with about 6000 luminaria and use Coleman lanterns placed inside the rooms to cast orange glows from the window.  Since there was no rush to this shoot I spent time experimenting with the white balance in my camera and thought I had achieved some pretty good color matches.  Still, when I opened them in Photoshop they didn't look right.

I had spent quite a bit of time doing color adjustments in PS and getting nowhere.  Finally, I reopened the images in Camera Raw and did the adjustments there.  CR has many more selections for color adjustments and I was able to get pretty close to what I wanted.  What made the biggest difference, though, was when I boosted the exposure level and decreased brightness.  As odd as that sounds, the end result boosts the colors in the night shots and adds depth to the image.

 

BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE EVERGLADES

A lot of photographers start out shooting landscapes.  Landscape photography can be simple if you know some basics of composition.  Shooting birds adds a challenging dimension to your photography.  We go to the Everglades Naional Park and Sanibel Island (Ding Darling) for a 5-day photo tour and photography workshop every year in March.  My typical participant is an advanced beginner who's ready to add bird photography to their portfolio.  Now we're adding motion to the puzzle.  Adding motion by photographing wildlife is one thing, but almost nothing moves as fast as birds.  There are quick head movements, blinking eyes, wing flaps, etc., that need a fast shutter speed.

As with most things in cameras, there are multiple was to get a high shutter speed.  The most obvious is to open up your aperture.  That means go to a high f-stop number.  Don't go beyond f-16, though.  F-stops above 16 tend to lose detail and color saturation.  In bird photography a high f-stop often isn't enough.  We're looking for shutter speeds between 1/1200 and 1/2000.  This means you're also going to have to raise your ISO.  If your camera is less than 3 years old you can probably shoot up to ISO 1200 with acceptable graininess.  I little noise reduction in your post processing will clean it up nicely.  I use Noiseware Professional from Imagenomics.  It helps, too, if you have a lens with a low f-stop rating, like a 2.8.  If you're shooting in the Everglades with a zoom rated at 5.8 it's going to be a bit difficult.  Not impossible, just difficult.

Tomorrow I'll talk about how to set you camera so you get the fast shutter speed you want with the lowest ISO to get that speed, WITHOUT having to think about it.

 

BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY PART II

I'm going to talk about my preferred method of bird photography, but I think I need to begin with this WARNING:  For good results using this method you need to have experience on YOUR camera shooting at high ISO settings.  You need to know what the highest ISO setting is that gives acceptable results.  Remember, the higher the ISO the more grain and noise.  You will also want to have experimented in your post-processing with noise reduction so you have confidence that you can end up with an image quality that is acceptable.

Most DSLRs today have a menu setting under ISO SENSITIVITY SETTINGS that will allow you to fix the ISO at a given value, say 200, OR to select ISO SENSITIVITY AUTO CONTROL.  Once you have turned on the ISO SENSITIVITY AUTO CONTROL you now need to set the MAXIMUM ISO SENSITIVITY.  This is where your experience with high ISOs in you camera will come in handy.  Select the highest ISO that you are comfortable shooting with.  Some people go as high as 6400.  I prefer to stay at 3200 or below.  Now you need to set the MINIMUM SHUTTER SPEED.  For birds this needs to be at least 1/1200.  I usually go with 1/2000 if I can get away with it.

Here's how it works... If you are in Aperture mode the camera will decide the lowest ISO it can shoot at to achieve a properly exposed image using the minimum shutter speed you set.  The camera knows you always want the lowest ISO you can get.  If there is so much light that the ISO want to be below 200, the camera will automatically move to a faster shutter speed.  What could be simpler?

 

 

This Reddish Heron had just pulled it's head out of the water and didn't know we had slid silently closer in our canoe, hence, the surprised look.  IF I had my camera settings done as described above I probably would have frozen the movement of this bird.

 

HOW HIGH SHOULD I SET MY CAMERA?

Camera height makes a big difference between an ordinary image, a good image and a great image.  A lot of photographers think about moving side to side or further and closer away while composing their images, but not so many think about looking for completley different places and angles to shoot from.  Can you shoot from a nearby hill, the second floor of a nearby building or from just above the tips of the grass?  The more unique your position the more likely your are to get a unique, great image.  With animals, it generally works best to try to be at their eye level.

 

SHOOTING PANORAMAS

Exposure Considerations

When making exposures for a panorama, there are some important factors to consider.

  • Set camera to manual exposure. Determine what is the most important area of the panorama and set the camera to expose this area properly. Use this exposure setting for all the images. By doing this, it should mean that all the exposures will match during the stitching process. If parts of the final image are under or over exposed, this can be dealt with in Photoshop later.
  • Set the cameras White Balance to match the light source, not Auto. If left on Auto, slight color changes may occur between adjacent images, causing difficulty in stitching.
  • At some point in the rotation, the camera will be facing into the sun. Be sure to put a lens shade on the lens. Alternately, place the camera in a shaded spot, make the exposures when the sun is highest in the sky and not in any of the images, or wait for an overcast day (not long in Ithaca).
  • You can usually leave Autofocus on but be prepared to switch to manual focus if a foreground object you wish to be in focus doesn't fall in the Autofocus sensing area.
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PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS FOR MOAB, CANYONLANDS AND ARCHES

The Moab area is one of the most-photographed places in the country, and deservedly so.  People come from all over the world to do photography here.  A lot of the columns I see frown on shooting the iconic shots like Mesa Arch and Dead Horse Point.  I disagree with them.  One of the best ways to learn photography is to shoot an image that has already been done well and see if you can make yours look like theirs.  This involves everything from picking the right lens to getting the composition right to learning the right moves in your post-processing.  These exercises will increase your ability to see other shots that you might have overlooked before; in other words, it's a great method for developing "an eye".

The most important rule for photographing around Moab (and anywhere else, for that matter) is to get there early, take a break during the mid-day, and get back out there late.  And by early I mean REALLY early!  You need to be at the site, set up by Civil Twilight.

"According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, civil twilight is defined to begin in the morning, and to end in the evening when the center of the Sun is geometrically 6 degrees below the horizon. This is the limit at which twilight illumination is sufficient, under good weather conditions, for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished; at the beginning of morning civil twilight, or end of evening civil twilight, the horizon is clearly defined and the brightest stars are visible under good atmospheric conditions in the absence of moonlight or other illumination. In the morning before the beginning of civil twilight and in the evening after the end of civil twilight, artificial illumination is normally required to carry on ordinary outdoor activities. Complete darkness, however, ends sometime prior to the beginning of morning civil twilight and begins sometime after the end of evening civil twilight.

Sunrise and sunset conventionally refer to the times when the upper edge of the disk of the Sun is on the horizon, considered unobstructed relative to the location of interest. Atmospheric conditions are assumed to be average, and the location is in a level region on the Earth's surface."         Planet Ultra

Civil Twilight is about 20 to 30 minutes prior to the posted sunrise time.  Personally, I tend to start shooting well before other photographer around me do and stop shooting beforre they do.  This is most important in Moab, Canyonlands and Arches.  There are dramatic color differences in the rock between early morning light and mid-day light.  If you're doing a photo tour with me you'll be leaving your hotel at least an hour and a half before sunrise.  Most of the sunrise destinations are a one hour drive, then we have to allow time to walk into the site and be set up 30 minutes prior to sunrise.  95% of my shooting is done plus or minus 30 minutes of sunrise or sunset.

 

CAMERA POSITION IS IMPORTANT

When you're composing your image think about more that moving forward and back.  Squat down to see what the scene looks like from a lower position.  If you're shooting animals always start by shooting a the eye level of the subject.  That may be standing up if you're trying to capture an image of an elk, but it may mean getting low to the ground for small critters.  Insects, particularly, are often best when shot at their level rather than shooting down on them.  Are you shooting an urban scene?  Try finding stairs or balconies that will get you unusually high above the subject.

I have a friend who bases her whole portfolio on images shot aiming at the rear view mirror on her car. 
The frame of the mirror is always in the picture.  Sometimes she combines what is in the mirror with the landscape surrounding the mirrow for some very unusual effects.  Be Creative!

FOG PHOTOGRAPHY

I leave tomorrow for my annual spring EVERGLADES AND THE FLORIDA GULF COAST 5-day workshop.  With luck we'll have the opportunity to do some great landscape shooting in fog.  Over the years I've found a lot of people don't go out and shoot in fog because they think of it as "Bad Weather".  On the contrary, foggy conditions can be ideal for photography, with even and flat light.  Images taken in fog often elicit emotional, moody and etheral senses.

In fog, objects in the foreground appear with more intensity than those in the background.  Contrast, color and shape fade into the distance.  If all you have in your image is the low contrast, color and shaped elements in the distance your image will lack focus and intrigue.  Place a dominant object in the foreground.  Go for a soothing feel.

Special Note:  Be careful about taking your gear from a well air conditioned home motel room into the warmer, foggy outdoors.  This will instantly fog your lens.  "Condition" your gear by having it open in the car on the way to your site.  Be well equipped with a lens cloth and don't leave you lens uncapped any longer than necessary.  DON'T CHANGE your lens in these conditions!

Be ready to do manual bracketing for proper exposure.  Having to go +1 or more f-stops is common.  Check your histogram after each shot.

PHOTO TOUR PRINCIPLES

One key to enjoyin your photo tour, whether it be the Everglades, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Cedar Mesa, Crested Butte or Rocky Mountain National Park is knowing what to expect and be prepared mentally and with the right equipment.  Creating memorable photographs isn't always as eay as pointing your camera in the right direction and pressing the button.  We will always work within these guidlines:

We GET UP EARLY AND STAY OUT LATE!  The easiest way to improve your photographs is to be out there in the right light... sunrise and sunset.  The richer colors and light caused by the low sun angle casts longer shadows and reveals detail not seen in the harsh mid-day sun.  Nearly 95% of my images are shot in this time period.

We TAKE OUR TIME SETTING UP THE COMPOSITION!  One of the hardest things to learn for beginners is to take your time.  Study the foreground, background and the in between.  Don't put the subject in the center.  Use the rule of thirds.  Find something that leades the eye from a corner of the image to the subject.  Use different perspectives... shoot high, low, off to the side, etc.

AVOID BLUE SKYS!  A lot of people have a hard time with this one, especially people unfamiliar with the stunning clear blue skies we have here in the west.  There is nothing interesting about a clear blue sky.  I've made countless trips, before sunrise, back to the same site trying to get a shot with an interesting sky.  Be out there before and after storms.

Be ROCK SOLID!  You camera is your most important piece of gear, but your tripod is the second most important.  The blunt truth???...... if you spent less than $300 on your tripod and a head it's not rock solid.  Mid-priced rock solid ones start around $600 for the tripod and head.  I personally prefer a geared head.  Once I get it close to where I want it I just have to do a few minor tweaks to get it exact.  With a ball head people are constantly tightening and loosening the head to get it set right.  Geared heads are heavier but I pack mine everywhere, even with a herniated disk.

 

PHOTOGRAPHING FLOWERS

It's February in Colorado.  For many it's hard to believe that we're only 4 weeks from when seeds will start germinating and this year's flowers will start poking out of the ground.  Time to get out the camera!

The rules for shooting flowers are no different than for shooting landscapes.  The best times are just after sunrise and just before sunset.  Shooting at times other than that will render images with too much contrast.  There are ways to deal with the too-much-contast problem:

1.  Use a diffuser. You can buy fancy diffusers, but often a white or off-white opaque shower curtain will do the job.  If you bought a fancy diffuser it probably also came with one or more reflectors.  You can use the reflectors to remove harsh shadows.

2.  Use fill-flash.  This will also remove shadow.

Get Down!  A flower shot from eye level seldom looks good.  Get down to eye level with the flower.  Can you get low enough to shoot the flower against the blue sky?  If yes, try it with a polarizer to darken the sky.

Experiment with your f-stop to create different depths of field.  If the air is dead-still, shoot multi focal point shots and process them through Helicon Focus.

Hint:  Lay some like-colored petals in front of your lens to change the hue of the foreground!