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Wednesday
Jan022008

Looking at the world with open eyes


There are great opportunities for images all around us. So the key is to have a camera with you at all times. Jay Maisel, one of the titans of photography, is legendary for just that. And with ultra small point and shoot cameras, there’s no reason not to be prepared.

Over the holidays, we were fortunate to spend several days in a wonderful cabin high in the Colorado Rockies. One morning, just as a storm was breaking, I walked up to the kitchen window and saw this wonderful vignette.

Once captured, you could play with the image to create a mood. Here's the result of the photo filter adjustment found under Image-Image adjustment-Photo Filter in Photoshop. I used the 82 cooling filter.

Tuesday
Dec182007

Photographing Christmas Lights


Photographing Christmas Light displays can be lots of fun. There are lots of creative variations on a theme in play here, so go out and explore your neighborhood. Or, plan ahead for your next year’s Holiday card by shooting your own display. Here’s what you need to know.

Generally, people wait to shoot until it is dark out, but that is too late. The lights may reproduce well in the photograph, but all the other detail in the image will be lost. The goal is to match the correct exposure for the lights with the ambient light at dusk so there is detail in the lights, and detail in the buildings and sky as well. That means that you want to get to your location right around sunset, do your scout, and find the spot you want to shoot from. I’d suggest bringing a tripod, since the exposures can be from 1second to 5 seconds long, depending on the situation, with an ISO of 100. If you don’t have a tripod with you, you could hand hold, but be sure to use a high ISO so you keep your shutter speeds up above 1/60 second. Maybe look for a surface to brace your camera against, like a wall or tree.

Frame the picture so you include some environment. A snow covered lawn creates a wonderful foreground that can reflect color, and the sky can give you a wonderful rich blue to compliment the reds and yellows of the bulbs.

You have a couple of choices for setting white balance. You could go with daylight balance, and let the image take on a warm glow.

Or you could set the camera to tungsten balance, which would make the sky go much bluer. This is a time tested approach to shooting at dusk, most notably practiced by the legendary photographer, Pete Turner. Take a look at his classic image called Road Song to see what I mean.

Either way, start to shoot maybe ten minutes after sunset to see what the ambient light balance is. Look at your histogram to see how you are doing.

As it gets darker, increase the pace of shooting, as the window for when the correct exposure for the lights, and the correct exposure for the ambient light will only be about ten minutes at most.

You’ll know you are done when the sky is black, and the separation between it and the buildings are lost.

Sunday
Dec162007

Holiday Performances Part II


O.K. You’ve shot the pre-production pictures as outlined in the last article, your talent is headed backstage, and you are back to your front row seats. Here are the important things to remember. First, double check to make sure your flash is not going to fire. It’s dangerous for the actors, and in most cases the distance from the stage is greater than the range of the flash anyway, so it won’t add to the lighting in any case. Kind of like using your flash at a football game.

Next, if you are shooting with a digital camera, set your ISO to somewhere between 800 and 1600, based on the lighting in the theatre. As always, keep in mind that the higher the ISO, the more noise you will see in the images. I find that in most cases, I can use ISO 1250 as the highest acceptable speed. But that’s my camera. Test yours in advance so you know your limit.

Now set your camera to Shutter Priority (TV), and choose a speed that will not give you camera shake. My recommendation would be 1/125 or 1/160. If you have steady hands you might be able to go to 1/100 or 1/80. Some of the newer cameras have anti-shake mechanisms built in, and that could be a big help too. Testing in advance will create a sense of ease during the show, knowing in advance what the results will be rather than worrying about what could go wrong.

Finally, if you camera has the capability to shoot in RAW format, select that, maybe in combination with a mid-sized jpg. The RAW format is like a digital negative that gives you some additional flexibility to adjust the image beyond what you can do with a jpg. So I always recommend shooting RAW.

As soon as the curtain goes up and the lighting is at production levels, shoot a picture, and check your histogram. As shown in earlier articles, the key is to make sure the shadows and highlights are not clipped. If the camera is doing a good job of metering, great. If histogram is not what it needs to be, use your exposure compensation button to make an overall adjustment. Then shoot another test image and check that histogram to see if the results are better. Continue to adjust until you have what you need.

If you are shooting film, go for a film with an ISO rating in the 800-3200 range. I would suggest a negative fim because it will have more exposure latitude than slide (transparency) film. Set your meter for matrix or evaluative metering, and off you go.

If your favorite actor is a principal player, great. There will be lots of opportunities to get close ups of them alone. But even if that is the case, I like to tell a story, and show some of the other action. So I would suggest shooting pictures that give a sense of the production itself.

Shoot some images that incorporate a group of the actors and shows the set, then move in closer by zooming in or changing to a longer lens. Now you can shoot images of just a couple of the players. And finally, do get those tight in shots that you know you’ll want to put in a frame and put on the wall or mantel.

Once you’ve covered the key elements of the story, and have your beauty shot, experiment! Try shooting with a slower shutter speed, maybe in the 1/8 to 1/30 range, to give a sense of the movement. Blurred images can have romantic, more unique look.

Wednesday
Dec122007

Holiday Performances Part I

‘Tis the season for school performances, so here are a few tips for getting the best photographs of the little ones.

First, unless your kids are performing at Carnegie Hall or The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where sears are reserved, you’ll want to get to the performance hall early to stake out a seat. The reality is that because you are not going to be allowed to use a flash (check you manual as to how to shut it off before you get to the hall), you are limited to shooting hand held. As a result, you need to shoot with as short a focal length lens as you can to minimize camera shake. The rule of thumb here is that you would set the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the lens focal length. So if you are shooting with a 200 millimeter lens, you would shoot at 1/200 of a second. All well and good if you are shooting outside. But shooting with the available light of a performance, even with a high ISO setting, it will be almost impossible to get to a 1/200 shutter speed. So that means you want to shoot with a 100-135mm maximum focal length. And that means you have to be pretty close to the stage to get close in a your favorite actor. So stake out your seat as close to the front as possible but above stage level so you can see the actor’s feet. And try to get as close to the center as you can. Volunteering to shoot another parent’s kids when they have the seat you want could be a great negotiating strategy. Have someone guard the seat for you so you can go to a great opportunity for images--make-up and wardrobe.

Assuming you’ve called in advance (or you are a major donor to the theatre department), you should be able to get access to the staging area. I recommend this highly, because there is a wonderful sense of vitality and spontaneity to this environment, and there are abundant opportunities for candid, journalistic images. Try taking close ups of makeup being applied, wardrobe going on or being adjusted, and the actors strutting their stuff.

Here are a few examples of this kind of image from a performance I shot recently.

In the next entry, I’ll talk more about shooting the actual performance.

Thursday
Nov292007

Exposure Compensation in Snow

As a more detailed explanation of the need to compensate when shooting in snow, here’s a good example.

Remember that all light meters give you an exposure that would place whatever is covered by it as 18% grey. So if the scene is mostly snow, the exposure will be underexposed significantly. The solution is to use the exposure compensation feature of your camera. On a point and shoot, it may be a little button you push on the back of the camera, and then rotate a dial. On a DSLR, like the Canon 40D the shutter button pushed half-way down, you simply rotate the dial on the back of the camera.

If you are shooting with film, you can start with a minus one stop setting and bracket a stop in each direction. If you are shooting with a digital camera, simply check your histogram to make sure the highlights don’t blow out. Experience will help guide you once your done this a bit.

Above is an example of what happened by just letting the camera decide exposure in shutter priority mode. The accompanying histogram below shows loss of detail in the shadows (whenever your histogram butts up to the left edge), and that the snow will appear grey (the highlight value is far away from the right edge).

Now here is an example increasing the exposure 2/3 of a stop. Notice in the histogram that all the shadow detail has been held, and the highlight values have increased to make the snow near white.