Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Recommended Reading: Evidence of my Existence

I love biographies / autobiographies and while searching for something to read while on vacation I ran across "Evidence of my Existence" by Jim Lo Scalzo. It's an amazing account of how one person got into photojournalism and includes many stories of the adventures he's had on assignments and personal projects. The official description on all the sites that promote his book says:

He’s been spit on by Mennonites in Missouri, by heroin addicts in Pakistan, and by the KKK in South Carolina. He’s contracted hepatitis on the Navajo Nation, endured two bouts of amoebic dysentery in India and Burma and four cases of giardia in Nepal, Peru, Afghanistan, and Cuba. He’s been shot with rubber bullets in Seattle, knocked to the ground by a water cannon in Quebec, and sprayed with more teargas than he cares to recall. But photojournalism is his career, and travel is his compulsive craving.
...and he does a great job of describing these experiences so you feel like you were there and understand his reasons for going and the importance of what he was doing. The struggle for Jim, however, is his real NEED for travel and photography and his attempts at balancing that with his wife and longing to make a family. This theme is woven throughout the book as well, but doesn't detract from the photographic interests like I was worried they might.

Anyway, I've enjoyed this book greatly and wanted to share it with anyone else who may be interested in photo-related reading. One big thing to note about this book, though, is the fact that there are NO PHOTOS. Seems strange for a book that's centered around photography, but I found that reviewing Jim's photos on the book's website gave me enough of a glimpse into his art and the fruits of all his adventures, so I didn't mind so much. This really is more of a biography than a book about photography anyway, but it was of interest to me just to find out how people get into photojournalism and what life might be like if one were lucky enough to be employed as such.

Here's some links for more info:
Book website w/ pictures (contains much flash)
Book trailer -part 1 (video on
Book trailer -part 2 (video on

Saturday, November 10, 2007

One way to keep track of your memory cards.

DIY Double-sided memory card labels

I just bought 2 more 2GB memory cards, which means I now have 4 cards to keep track of. It used to be easy when there was one card in the camera and one in the bag, but now it's going to be a bit trickier. I thought of a nice way to keep track of which ones are empty and which ones are full and figured I'd share...

I simply took a pieces of scrap paper and cut it into memory card sized pieces, then wrote "Full" on one side and "Empty" on the other side. Then, I used packing tape to sortof laminate them so they'd last longer. (The reason I made 3 instead of 4 is because one card will always be in the camera.)

On a similar note, I think it's important to be able to tell your cards apart in case you have a problem with a card -then you'll be able to tell which card it is. Or, if you have multiple problems with a card, you'll be able tell if its the same one each time. So, each time I buy a new card I mark it with the date and year (plus "1" or "2" if I buy more than one in a single month/year).

So, that's my tip for today...

Monday, November 5, 2007

Lens test: Sigma 30mm f/1.4 VS Canon 100mm f/2.8

Okay, so I did a TON of research before buying my newest lens, a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 "fixed" or "prime" (meaning it doesn't "zoom", its always at 30mm). But, in all my research I read over and over again that this lens was "L series" sharp in the center, but it's corner and edge performance was poor. The unanswered question was -where's the "center" VS the "edge"? Where does the sharpness fall off? How big of an area will be "L series" sharp? There seemed to be no answer to that question, but I bought it anyway based on a lot of SQF and MTF data as well as lens tests others have done (all archived and/or linked to on this page).

Now that I've had the lens for a couple weeks, I decided to run my own lens sharpness tests. This was my first attempt, so I wasted a whole day doing tests by taking pictures of a newspaper ad taped to the wall. After taking shots with EVERY LENS I OWN (and at several focal lengths for the zoom lenses!), I converted the resulting photos (over 250 of them) from RAW to jpeg, then started comparing them. It was then that I realized that my tests were flawed. The camera was not always exactly perpendicular to the wall, so the edges on many shots were blurry -not because the lens was flawed, but because they weren't in the plane of focus! (GRR!)

So, last night I re-did the test, but only with my Sigma 30mm f/1.4 and my Canon 100mm f/2.8. This time I laid some paper with printing on it on the floor, then used a level to make sure the camera's LCD screen was level before taking the photos (straight down). I had to redo these several times to try to get the framing of the photos to be roughly the same at both focal lengths, but I finally got it right.

All photos were taken on a tripod, using a remote shutter release, with mirror lockup enabled to get the most sharpness possible from each shot. Also, 2 photos were taken at each focal length so that if camera shake was an issue it'd be obvious when the 2 shots were compared.

After the photos were taken, the two versions were compared to make sure they were the same, then they were converted to jpeg. Now, because what I wanted to see when I was shopping around was an entire, full-resolution shot, I uploaded all the shots to flickr, they are in this set.

Then, I opened all the shots at once in Gimp, found the exact center of the photo, and then expanded them all to 100% so that they'd show the same area. Next, I arranged all the windows in order and in such a way that the shots with both lenses at each focal length were together for easy comparison, and then I took a screenshot and uploaded that photo as the "center crops" photo.

Then I looked for the clearest edge for both lenses , and took a crop from as close to the middle of the bottom and right-hand edges as possible, and with them arranged the same as the were for the center crops, I took another screenshot and uploaded those photos as the "bottom edge" and the "right edge" crops. And lastly, I did the same thing for the "corner crop" photo.

All the photos were added to a set which can be seen here:

I'm not going to dwell on results here, because you can see them for yourself. I do feel that it's really important to put this data in perspective, though, so here are some tips for using these test shots in the way they were intended:

If you compare the two lenses, you'll see that the Canon 100mm is much sharper through to the edges and corners than the 30mm. This isn't much of a surprise and does NOT say anything bad about the Sigma 30mm f/1.4. This dramatic difference is due to the focal length -it's much easier to get clear edges and corners with a longer focal length. My suspicion is that even the Canon 35mm f/1.4L lens isn't completely sharp in the corners!

These tests show black and white text to maximize the lack of sharpness. In the real world the difference in sharpness that you see here will almost be imperceptible. The differences will never be this clear in a real photo.

This is a fast lens who's use at low-numbered apertures (which is kindof the point of having it) will yield a very shallow depth of field. When you have a shallow DOF, your subject is usually not right on the edge or in the very corner of the frame anyway, so edge and corner performance isn't really all that important on this type of lens.

Keep in mind that none of these shots were sharpened at all, they are straight RAW files, converted to jpegs.

Don't fall into the trap of obsessing over numbers. I obviously have to an extent, but you have to be able to take a step back and see the whole picture. These tests may be flawed and the results may not apply in real world situations. Use at your own $risk$.

Perhaps one day I'll try to rent a Canon 28mm f/1.8 and re-do the tests so they can be compared more directly. But, I find it interesting to see how much of a difference aperture can make in the sharpness of your photos. In fact, I think I'm going to test the rest of my lenses as well, then label each lens with it's sharpest apertures and some indicator of where the sharpest part of the frame is as well.

As close to a conclusion as I'll get for now:
Last night I was asked if I was happy with my purchase or if I regretted it. I must say that I've already gotten use out of it in low-light situations where I never would have been able to manage a picture before, so I am finding it useful. As far as sharpness goes, I think it's acceptable in the center, and I know, now, how to get the best photos from it. But, not having other similar lenses to test, I cannot say for sure if I'd be happier with another (similar) lens. -I guess time will tell as far as how well it does in real-world situations. I have been impressed with it's use, like I said, but I haven't really had a photo yet that puts it to the test as far as sharpness goes. I do intend to use this lens a lot in my home studio, though, so I'll definitely post another review whenever I get around to getting a really good real-world picture with it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Getting sharp photos in low light

The gorilla's hand

(Click on the photo for a larger version, the EXIF data, etc)

On Saturday I met Mike (ndisgr8) from my yahoogroup at Brookfield Zoo and we spent the whole day taking pictures. It was overcast in the morning, which made many of the indoor exhibits, which are largely lit up via skylights, very dark. As a result, it was extremely difficult to get high enough shutter speeds to get a decent photo in there. I figured this was a great example of low-light photography which everyone seems to run into as a problem from time to time, so here's a write-up about how I dealt with the situation and managed at least a couple decent pics from the ape house...

I was using my Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 lens because this zoo gives the apes a lot of space to roam around and play, so I needed all the "zoom" I could get. For those who aren't familiar with the "f numbers" on lenses, it's included in the description of the lens for just this purpose (low light photography). The lower the "f numbers", the better the lens performs in low light. When you have a range of f-numbers like for this lens, it means that at the wide end (50mm) , 4 is as low of a number as you'll be able to choose for your aperture. At the long end (500mm), it's 6.3.

The reason this matters is as follows: The lower the aperture number, the faster your shutter speed can be. This is because as the aperture numbers get lower, you're letting more light into the camera, with more light via aperture, you can get faster shutter speeds (which allow less light to get in because the shutter doesn't stay open very long). -It's all a matter of balance.

Step 1: Aperture
This lens (the "Bigma") is not very "fast" (meaning it has relatively high f-numbers), so it really limits me when there's not much light. Because of this, I immediately put my camera on aperture priority mode and set it for it's lowest aperture number so I could get the most light possible via aperture (which would, therefore, allow the fastest shutter speeds possible).

Step 2: ISO
Before even bothering to begin looking for photo opportunities, I also set my ISO to 800. The higher your ISO number, the faster your camera will record the light when you take a picture. So, in low light you want to choose a high numbered ISO.

The cost for using high ISO numbers, however, is noise. Most noise can be removed in software later, but there's always an effect on picture quality. You should, therefore, always shoot in the lowest possible ISO setting for the lighting conditions you are in. In other words, remember to set it back down to 100 when you're shooting in daylight again.

Each camera is different as far as how much noise it produces at different ISO's, so it's a good idea to experiment and know how your camera behaves and how well you can remove the noise it produces at each different setting. This way, you'll know not to go above (in my case ISO 800) or you're risking not being able to remove the noise from the photo effectively. -I did end up moving to ISO 1600 later on in the ape house as a last resort because I wasn't getting any clear shots at ISO 800.

Step 3: Check your shutter speeds
Next, I lined up a shot and checked my shutter speed. With most SLR's you can see the shutter speed in your viewfinder. In this case, I was seeing shutter speeds ranging from 1/10 to 1/60 most of the time.

Remember, the rule of thumb is that you need a tripod if your shutter speeds are faster then the reciprocal of your focal length. That's just a fancy way of saying that if you're shooting with a 500mm lens like I was, your shutter speeds should be faster than 1/500th of a second. If you're shooting at 300mm, they should be faster than 1/300th of a second, etc. (Although 1/60th of a second is as slow as you should go with any lens because it's hard to hold the camera steady enough when your shutter speeds are slower than that regardless of how wide the lens is.)

So, I needed shutter speeds that were up to 50 times what I was getting!

Step 4: Put your camera on a tripod
I had a monopod with me just because my lens is so heavy, but I didn't have a tripod. So, I leaned the monopod against the railing and steadied it further by bracing it against side-to-side movement with my foot. A tripod would have made it more steady.

Of course, the monkeys and apes were rarely perfectly still, so even with a tripod, you'd still get blur unless they happened to stay still during the shot.

Step 5: Use burst mode
If you've done all you can with settings and steadying the camera, but your shots are still coming out blurry, your best bet is to take as many shots as possible. Many people aren't aware of it, but they jerk the camera a bit when pushing the shutter button to take a photo. That may be contributing to the blur, so if you put your camera in burst mode you can hold the shutter button down and it'll take several shots one after the other. Even if you're sure you don't jerk the camera, just by shear volume, this will increase your chances at a clear shot.

Step 6: Get creative!
I was doing all of that as well as trying to concentrate only on the apes that were in the best light and I was still having trouble getting clear shots. So, for a few shots I decided to try something different. I was shooting in RAW, so I knew that I'd have a good chance of getting most of the data out of a photo even if it was severely under-exposed (dark), so I intentionally under-exposed several photos as a last resort.

Your camera should have an exposure meter that looks like this: [-2...-1...0..+1..+2] and there's a small indicator that shows you your current exposure setting. "Zero" is normal exposure, but if you use exposure compensation to move the indicator towards the positive numbers, you're telling the camera to over-expose the photo by that amount. When you move the indicator towards the negative numbers, you're telling it to make the photo darker (under-exposed).

Darker photos are a result of letting less light into the camera, so when you move the exposure down into the negative numbers you should get higher shutter speeds. When you're shooting in RAW you're often able to lighten up the photo by up to 2 stops (which correlate with the numbers on that exposure graph on your camera).

So, I moved the exposure meter down to -2 and took a shot. I reviewed the photo on my LCD and turned on the option to view the image's histogram. I made sure the data didn't run off either side of the graph (because that indicates that you're missing data, which you can't get back even in RAW). The photo was very dark, but the histogram looked ok, so I tried a few shots like that and hoped I'd be able to "save them in software" later.

The photo above is one of the ones I took on ISO 1600 and under-exposed by 2 stops, then "saved" in the RAW software that came with my camera (Digital Professional Pro). The "right" solution to this kind of a problem is a "faster" lens (meaning a lens with lower f-numbers), but everyone eventually finds themselves in a situation where they didn't expect to have a low-light issue and they need to do what they can with what they have. Hopefully, this write up has given you some ideas for the next time you're shooting in low-light.

Extended reading / other resources:

Monday, October 22, 2007

Choosing a normal prime lens for a Canon mount.

I just purchased a new normal prime lens for my Canon 30D and it took a lot of research to decide which one to get because there are a ton of them on the market ranging from $75 to $1300 or more. If you're in the market for such a lens, I hope my research can benefit you as well.

First, let's define the terms "normal" and "prime" for those who may not be "hip" to the "lingo" (I'm cool like that).

"Normal" lenses are usually 50mm lenses. This is the sweet spot between wide angle lenses and telephoto, hence, they're called "normal". There's one caveat these days, though, and that's the crop factor of your camera's sensor. Make sure you take that into effect. If you have a cropped sensor Canon camera, you'll most likely be looking for a 28mm - 30mm lens in order to get as close to normal as possible.

"Prime" means the same thing as "fixed" and all that means is that it's not a "zoom" lens. You can't zoom in or out with it. It has just one focal length, so you have to "zoom with your legs". Prime or fixed lenses are usually cheaper and sharper because they are more simple to manufacture and compromises don't have to be made so that they can work at sometimes dramatically different focal lengths (I have a 50-500mm lens, for example!).

The research:
There are many options out there for Canon mounts. If you're looking for a 50mm prime there's 3 main choices including the Canon 50mm f/1.8 which goes for $75 or so new! It's surprisingly sharp as well and many people are very happy with this lens. The downside seems to be bad bokeh (background blur) and the build quality isn't great (it's fragile and very plastic-y). Still, for $75, it'd be a nice first prime if you're just wondering what they are all about!

50mm choices include:
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 USM L
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
  • Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II
30mm / 35mm choices:
  • Sigma AF 30mm f/1.4 EX HSM DC (EF-S mount)
  • Canon EF 35mm f/2.0
28mm / 24mm choices:
  • Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM
  • Sigma 28mm f/1.8
  • Canon 28mm f/2.8
  • Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L USM
  • Canon EF 24mm f/2.8
  • Sigma 24mm f/1.8 EX Aspherical DG DF Macro
Prices, MTF Sharpness test results, Vignet or light falloff test results, chromatic aberration test results, distortion, SQF ratings, plus comparisons, sample images, lens tests, and lens reviews can all be seen side by side here in my online spreadsheet:

And for those who are interested, I ended up purchasing the Sigma AF 30mm f/1.4 EX HSM DC -I'll post a review soon!

Cropped sensor cameras -what's a "cropped sensor" and what effect does it have?

What's a crop factor?
Most film cameras are 35mm, and that refers to the size of the recorded image on the film. Professional-level ($$$) digital cameras have "full frame" sensors that are 35mm, and therefore replicate film exactly. So-called "Pro-sumer" DSLRs usually have smaller sensors in them because they are cheaper to manufacture. The smaller sensor obviously doesn't impact the image resolution much (DSLR's with cropped sensors are now being made at 10MP or higher resolution), but they do impact the way your lenses work.

Why might I want a full frame camera?
Full frame cameras have better high ISO performance.  This means, in low light when you have to increase the ISO to get a clear shot, you'll get less noise (that grainy, static-looking stuff in your photo) with a full frame than you will with a cropped sensor camera.  You may get a higher quality image as well, but you won't be able to tell the difference at normal print (11x14) or on-screen sizes.  As person who tries to buy the best all the time I held out for a full frame camera for a long time before deciding to go cropped instead.  I've found I have no need for a full frame and feel this is true for anyone who's not making enough money from their photography to cushion the extra expense.  I've sold photos taken with a point and shoot, so buying a crop sensor camera won't impact most sales if that's your aim.

How do we account for the crop factor when looking into buying a new lens?
Easy! Look up the crop factor of your camera. For most Canons (20D, 30D, 40D, 300D, 350D, 400D, Rebel, Rebel XT, and the Rebel XTi) it's 1.6. For other camera types, just google your camera's make and model along with the words "crop factor" and you'll probably get an answer right away.

Then all you have to do is multiply your crop factor times the focal length of the lens to figure out what the equivalent would be for film. So, if you're looking at a 50mm lens and you have a Canon 30D, it would act like a 80mm lens (50 x 1.6 = 80).

But if, instead, you're looking for a lens that ACTS like it's 50mm on your cropped sensor, then all you have to do is divide 50mm by your crop factor. 50 / 1.6 = 31.25. So something in the 30mm range would work out best.

Why does this matter?Most of the time it doesn't. You just use your lenses to get the photos you want. If your 100mm lens isn't long enough for you to photograph birds, you go look for a lens with a higher focal length, and you'll know that a 200mm lens will get you twice as close. None of that changes. And don't fear that your photos will be "cropped" from what you see in the viewfinder -they will not. What you see is still what you get. The only time this will matter is if you're getting advice from someone with a film or full sized sensor camera -or, if you're thinking of buying a full frame camera vs a crop. That's all no biggie :-)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Playing with histograms

First, you have to understand histograms. If you don't, read about them here:

Then, check this out 'cause it's quite cool!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


So, I decided to break away from my botanical shots and just do whatever comes to mind. On my way home from work, I saw that there were already some leaves turning color, so out of habit or inspiration (who knows?) I decided to do an "Autumn Leaves" shot.

My concept was something along the lines of the gods of autumn painting the leaves their colors. What I really wanted to do was take my leaf skeletons (seen here), possibly paint them green, and then pour red and yellow paint onto them, catching the paint pour in the photo. But, that was a bit complicated -I wasn't sure how to stage it. So, I painted the leaf skeletons red, orange, and yellow instead, and then staged a shot where the paintbrush hung over the leaves by a thread I could clone out. I tried it 2 ways -with the paintbrush still to show detail, and with the brush swinging to get some motion blur. Neither worked in my opinion:

I thought the paint was too much and the leaves just weren't right. And the idea of the paintbrush hovering wasn't coming through because there was little to hint at such a 3-D space. So the next day I gathered a few colorful leaves -there weren't many, but I found a few, and I tried again. I thought this time I'd do something similar, but make the leaves more central since they are the main idea anyway. Unfortunately, I failed again.

This one was getting a bit closer. It was less gimmicky, more about the leaves, but again -the paint buckets weren't showing up against the white. At this point, they were days old, the paint was dry, and they were very stuck to the white paper. I didn't really want to redo the photo with a black background and felt that the paintbrush would get lost if I did that anyway. So, I decided to lose the paint buckets. That left me with leaves and a brush. I arranged the items in several different ways, and eventually decided to simplify the shot by choosing just one leaf. As soon as I looked through the camera, I knew I was getting closer. Here's the end result:

Autumn's Painting

It looks quite nice large. I'm currently using it as my wallpaper and I think that although it underwent many changes, it still conveys the same feeling that I was hoping for when I first conceived of the project.

What do you think? Feel free to comment here, on the Photography_Beginners yahoogroup, or on Flickr.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Adjusting the use of this blog a bit

Trying to tie myself to a weekly article has been a bit overwhelming lately with all kinds of other stuff going on in my life and my sporadic posts are generating very little traffic anyway. So, I'm moving my content back over to and will use this blog for personal stories about how I've created photos, current projects, and first-drafts of articles for the website.

I'll also post links to new articles on the site here since it's easier to watch the blog for updates rather than comb through the site looking for what's new.

So, if you've been reading -thanks and don't worry. The content will remain online and I will also continue adding to it. Just at a pace that'll allow me to push out more meaningful information rather than just posting to post something.

Anyway, seeya around!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Botanical Bathroom Project

I'm in the middle of painting my bathroom right now and while trying to decide what theme I'd like to go with in there, my Mom asked me if I could take some botanical shots for her bathroom. Hmm... I thought -there's an idea. So now, I'm looking to take at least three good botanical shots for us to use for our bathrooms.

At first I thought it'd be easy. I mean, what's more cliche' than botanical shots? -I immediately went to Bed Bath & Beyond and Linen's n' Things to see what they had for inspiration. I didn't find much. Searching for "botanical" on Flickr and Google Images didn't result in much either. The one place I did find some inspiring photos is (that link will bring you to the botanical section).

So, I saved a few items that I liked from there:
* A set-up shot with twigs in a vase and a plate of rocks
* A set of 3 photos of curly things or 3 acorns (or anything of similar shape would work)
* A couple of pinecones in a comical arrangement
* A set of 3 matched studio shots of leaves

The most "doable" one is the last one. A kind of study of leaves resulting in a matched set of photos, all framed the same way. I think it'd be a nice clean look and it comes close to the photo that I took this weekend (although I think I'd like more recognizable leaves -Oak (although that local itch mite breakout makes me not wanna go anywhere near an Oak tree right now), Maple, and I like the fern... Maybe I can get one cheap at a garden shop.

Anyway, this project is "in progress" -I'll update this blog entry when I have some final images.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Auto Modes

Just wanna take somme good pictures without having to learn a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo? Learning what the different auto modes on your camera really do can really help improve your photos.

  • Auto (green square): it just finds middle of the road settings as far as I know... It "just works" in most situations, so if you find yourself in a whirlwind of activity or otherwise just don't want to worry about it, this mode will work. But you'll probably get better shots in other modes.
  • Portrait (woman's head): blurs distracting backgrounds in front of and behind your subject -works well for a variety of shots, but your focus must be right on or your subject may be blurred as well. (For maximum background blur, the person or object you are focusing on should be within 20 feet of the camera.)
  • Landscape (mountains): the opposite of Portrait, it makes sure the parts of the photo that are beyond whatever you are focusing on are in-focus as well
  • Night (stars, moon): this mode tells the camera that it's flash won't reach far enough to illuminate everything you want to show up in the photo, so it'll use a longer shutter speed as well in order to get everything to show up in the photo. A tripod is a must in this mode.
  • Macro (flower): tells the camera you need to focus much closer than usual. This mode usually results in a lot of foreground and background blur just like Portrait mode does, so be extra careful that your focus is correct!
  • Sport (stick figure, running): the camera will choose a high shutter speed to freeze action. This will result in a short depth of field, much like Portrait Mode, so be careful of the focus! Sometimes its actually better to get a bit of blur in action shots to show movement. You may want to give the green square a try for sports. If you don't get any blur with the green square, you can try Landscape instead.
All modes are a balance between the two settings you control in Manual Mode: Aperture and Shutter Speed. To get faster shutter speeds, you'll get a more shallow depth of field. To get more depth of field, you'll get slower shutter speeds.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Rule of thirds -the short version

I know I've already done this, but I've made a little drawing that may help people "get" the rule of thirds thing a little quicker than my previous full-page article did. It is here: link.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Photos coming out too light or too dark?

The "problem" is probably your camera's exposure meter.

Cameras are simple devices and one of the assumptions they make is that the overall tone (how light or dark the overall photo is) will average out to a set medium tone (~18% gray, which is about the same tone as the skin on the palm of your hand). If large portions of the photo will be darker than the assumed tone, the camera will think the reason for that darkness is lack of light and it'll brighten it up to make up for it. And the opposite is also true -with extremely light-colored scenes, the camera will think that the lightness is due to too much light, and it'll make them darker so they come out gray.

So, if you have a dark scene that you're shooting and you want to tell your camera that the scene should be darker than that "average tone", you have a few choices: #1. If you want accuracy, you can buy a "gray card" to calibrate your camera to the lighting conditions, set the exposure, and take the photo. #2. To get pretty close, you can meter off your hand. Or, #3, you can use trial and error like I do most of the time -just use exposure compensation in whatever mode you're shooting in:

Exposure compensation uses the exposure graph you see and use in manual mode or the "priority modes", it looks like:


..(Note that on Nikon's it's reversed and the positive numbers are on the left). There's usually a small marker under the numbers that indicates where your exposure is on the graph using whatever settings the camera is on. The "0" on the graph indicates what the camera thinks is proper exposure (assuming that "average tone"). Setting the exposure towards positive numbers means you're telling the camera to add light or brighten the photo as compared to what the camera would usually choose. And negative numbers, then, darken the photo as compared to what the camera would choose to be correct.

So, if the camera is making your snow scene turn out gray (it's coming out too dark), you need to brighten the photo, or expose more towards positive numbers. Try exposing at +1, then adjust up and down from there until you get the result you desire. On the other hand, if you're taking a photo of your black cat lying on a dark blanket, it'll likely come out too light, so you'll have to expose towards negative numbers to darken the photo. Try -1, then adjust up or down from there.

If you want to see just how wrong your camera's meter can be, find an all white subject (a wall or your ceiling should work), and an all black subject. Take a photo of each. Lighting shouldn't matter, but you can try adjusting the lighting to prove that it has no effect -just make sure the lighting is consistent over the entire area that you'll be taking a photo of. You can add subjects to your photo as long as they too are 100% white or black (you'd want to take a photo of a white subject against a white background, then a black subject against a black background). If you want to take it even further, you can switch subjects and backgrounds and take 2 more photos (white subject on black background and vice versa) -those should come out mostly correct since the two tones (one dark, one light) will average each other out. My photos are here if you wanna cheat ;-)

Your 100% white and 100% black photos should all come out almost the same shade of gray no matter if your subject was all white or all black. -That's what your exposure meter is designed to do! Most of the time it works just fine, but when you have a scene that's made up of extremely light or dark tones, remember this and use exposure compensation to make the photo come out as you see it instead of all gray.

Friday, August 24, 2007

In the Chicago area? Join the club!

I've decided to start a photography club in the Chicago area. No meetings or dues or anything, just fun photography outings -at least one a season or more as interest grows. The idea is, that we'll just all get together at Starved Rock as the fall colors peak, or during winter maybe we can go to the butterfly exhibit at the Nature Museum. Other ideas: skyline photos at the Planetarium, or maybe even a camping trip to practice light painting shots. Events like Starved Rock would be free -it'd just be a chance to get to know fellow photographers and practice together so we can learn from one another. If you are interested, I've started a Yahoogroup so that I can post dates and times for our events:

Thursday, August 23, 2007

DIY Stealth Camera Bag

There are several reasons I've been looking to replace my Tamrac Velocity 7 sling style camera bag. Don't get me wrong, I love this bag. It's a perfect size and I love how accessible it keeps the camera. But, I carry it with me every day and, well, it LOOKS like a camera bag. -There's 2 downsides to that. One is, it's not all that fashionable (not that I'm all that "fashionable" anyway, but why be dragged down further by my camera bag?). Two is, everyone knows what's in the bag, which makes me a walking target for theft.

In fact, I'm my own worst enemy sometimes; a few weeks ago I went to lunch with my husband, then we walked a few doors down to get coffee. In the middle of my latte, I realized that I had left my camera bag in the sandwich shop! Luckily, it was still there, but I know next time my luck may not be as good...

So, I started looking at "stealth" camera bags. From what I saw, there are only a few options. The only one I liked, and one of the cheapest, was the Crumpler bags, which would cost anywhere from $105 to $128 depending on which model I wanted. One was a bit shorter than my current bag, so I was worried that my camera with my 75-300mm lens attached wouldn't fit. The other one was a bit too big -I don't know if I'd want to carry it around everyday. I also didn't like the idea of shelling out over $100 for a BAG!!!

I googled some more, and stumbled upon a blog post someone made about a camera bag they put together from various parts. It wasn't as compact as I'd like and the insert the guy used moved around in the bag unless it was held in place with more stuff, like a sweatshirt, books, etc. -I didn't want to deal with all that since I really wanted to keep my bag about the same size as the Tamrac bag I'm used to carrying. I needed just enough room for my camera and an attached lens (stored lens-down for accessibility), then compartments for 2 more lenses, one on each side. The insert he used was perfect, but the bag was much too big for my needs.

I took down the info about the insert, then searched for a bag that it'd fit more snuggly in. I probably searched for over an hour, then decided to give it a rest for the day. Later on I got to thinking -I had bought a bag that was about the right size from an Army Navy Surplus store locally years ago and I had never used it. I ran upstairs to my closet and dug it out. I measured it and it seemed perfect, so I coughed up the $20 for the insert and waited for the Fed Ex truck to arrive. When it did, cardboard and packing peanuts flew as I unpacked the insert, and then stuck it in my Army bag. It was a perfect fit!

Now I have a new $20 stealth camera bag :-) . It's just a tiny bit bigger than my Tamrac was, so now I don't have to use force to fit my Canon 10-22mm in the bag anymore ;-) There are all kinds of nifty pockets all over the thing, and the strap's wide enough that it was quite comfortable to carry it around all weekend at the Shootout!

Here's some pics of what it looks like, click on the photo to go to my Flickr page where you can see larger versions of it:
DIY Stealth Camera Bag ~$35

And here's the info if you want to make one for yourself for about $35 (the bag's about $15):
  • The insert is made by Domke, search google for for "Domke FA-230" and you should get some results. I bought mine at Adorama (link), but B&H also has them.
  • The bag can be found by searching google for "urban explorer bag". Since I got mine locally a few years ago, I can't really recommend a site to buy that part from.
Like I said, though, it fits my 30D + a Canon 75-300mm lens (attached), with a Cannon 100mm fixed on one side and a Canon 10-22mm on the other. Plus, I carry a remote shutter release cable, two polarized filters in the boxes they came in, an extra battery, an extra memory card, extra lens caps (one for the rear, one for the front), my business cards (in a medicine bottle LOL), a plastic garbage bag (I'll get to why in a sec), a keychain LED flashlight, Sharpies, a pill box, my wallet and phone in a velcro side pocket, and the front velcro pockets are still available for snacks and stuff.

The downsides of this bag: The lens insert doesn't have as much padding between the lenses as my old bag. That's just those 2 interior walls, though. I find that the lenses are snug enough in there that I'm not concerned about them at all. The front velcro pockets have big gaps where stuff can fall out, so I don't use them much -just for snacks and other stuff that I could get by with loosing. And the last issue some may have with this bag is that it's not waterproof. In fact, it's canvas. I'm sure it'd soak up water nicely... That's why I have the plastic bag in the big back pocket, permanently. If I get stuck in a downpour, my plan is to just stick my camera bag in the plastic bag and run for it!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Planning for an Event (Part 3) -Results

Well, planning only goes so far. The race on Sunday was rained out. But, the car show did happen on Saturday, so lets back up to the previous topic, "Research", for a sec...

While researching drag racing photos, I took the time to look up some car show pics as well. Here's one that really stuck with me as one that I liked and would like to replicate:

Now, back to Results:
On, Saturday, while driving to the car show I couldn't get over the sky. It was perfect for photos and I knew I'd want my polarizer out to enhance the blue sky and pop the white puffy clouds out even more. -Good photos often rely on the surroundings just as much as the subject. A great sky can make or break an image. I was in luck!

When we arrived, I walked around looking at cars for my own interest for while, then broke off from the group to walk around on my own. I started walking towards the field because I liked the idea of grass under the car like the photo I saw and liked previously. As I walked, the first thing I noticed was an old barn / warehouse building that I've used as a backdrop before. I love it's weathered wood look and kept it in mind as something to use in a photo again. The only thing I needed was a nice looking car in the right spot...

The problem I often run into with car show photos is that interesting cars, according to the laws of averages, often have cars parked beside them. Then, you're left zooming in, using a head-on shot, or otherwise compromising the angle of the photo to eliminate or hide the other cars. ...Part of what I like so much about the photo I found on Flickr is the simplicity. One car, alone in the grass, a nice blue sky. That's about it. Nice lighting, a nice angle, that all helps as well, but the hardest part is finding a car with enough space around it to single it out like that...

In my case, the car show was packed. There were no cars that could be singled out. But, I did find an interesting car, on the end of a row, in the perfect spot in front of the barn, while the sky was still looking good, and I took my opportunity: (click on the photo to view larger versions and EXIF data).

Car Show

I'm very happy with this shot. I like the angle, the colors, the background, the sky... So many things came together just right -and not much of it was technical. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time and be looking for such an opportunity. I was primed to see this shot, and that's the frame of mind you have to be in when you're at an event to come away with images. Many times I find that I have to choose between being a participant in the event (looking at the cars for my own enjoyment, looking at people's setups, talking with friends, etc) or taking pictures. I can't do both at the same time. So, I often break off from our group for stretches of time to "be a photographer", then I rejoin the group later.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Planning for an Event (Part 2) -Research

After you have a general idea of what to bring, it's time to start thinking about the kinds of shots you'll want to take. My subject this weekend will be cars. The event I'll spend the most time on is the drag racing on Sunday, so how will I capture the action?

If it wasn't a closed track (and a very relaxed event), I'd think about calling to see if I could get an access pass. But, I've been there before and don't feel this is necessary.

So, I reviewed last years photos. Most of the drag racing photos I took were taken from above, up in the stands. This makes me, as a viewer, feel disconnected with the racing that's going on. I feel like a spectator instead of "part of the action". So, this year I want to get closer. ...Last year my biggest telephoto lens was a 300mm. This year, I have a 500mm, so that'll help. I can stand way down the track and still get some close-up photos so the car will fill the frame. -A couple years ago, reviewing my photos revealed that empty stands behind the cars made it look like it was a small event (everyone tends to sit on one side of the track because the other side is hard to get to). So, last year I made an effort to take photos from the other side so you could see the crowd more and it worked out well.

When I'm done critiquing my own previous work, I want some new ideas. I know I've seen good drag racing photos in the past, but I can't remember the specifics of how they looked: the angle they were taken from, what lens may have been used, etc. So, it's time to do some searching. I'm a member of the P.O.T.N forums, and I know they have some talented motor sports photographers, so I hit them first and searched for posts within the "motorsports" forum, and with the word "drag" in them to eliminate photos of other kinds of racing: rally, road racing, etc. I came up with a few really good photos: 1, 2, 3 -some of which also had details about lenses, apertures, etc. Usually, however, I just search Google Images or Flickr.

...however you go about it, this prep works means you won't be wasting time thinking about angles, etc at the event. Now I know that the photos _I_ like of drag racing usually show the car head-on or sometimes from behind, but always filling the frame and shot fairly level with the car, not from above. Also, from the forum, I know that for burnout pics my 100mm macro lens set at f/2.8 is probably a good choice. -Got it. I know just what to do when I arrive!

Having an idea of the outcome you are looking for is one of those things that can improve your photography 100% overnight. And this, of course, goes for any kind of photography including portraits, kids soccer games, birthday parties, whatever!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Planning for an event (Part 1). -Gear preparation.

This Friday I'm leaving for an annual car event my husband and I attend every year. Aside from the fun of friends, our cars, and the racing, I also enjoy the event as a chance to take some pictures. ...I don't often get a full day's worth of photography in, muchless an entire weekend! So, today (Wednesday) I'm starting to prepare for the photography part of the event, and I thought I'd share my planning with you. Perhaps you can use some of it for your own outtings, or perhaps it'll prompt you to share your ideas in the comments section. So, here goes:

I have a formal checklist I've made that contains all of my photography equipment and other items I've found useful to have in my photography kit. You don't have to make a formal checklist if you aren't a "checklist" kind of person, but you should at least have an idea of what gear you'll be bringing.

Basic questions to ask yourself:
* Which camera body/bodies will you take? (Sometimes it's nice to have both an SLR and a point and shoot)
* Which lens(es) will you need? (Remember you can often rent lenses for Nikons and Canons relatively cheaply if you wish!)
* Accessories? (Filters, extra battery, extra memory, remote shutter release, flash(es), cleaning cloth, rocket blower, whole cleaning kit, props, ???)
* Will you need a tripod? Monopod? Table-top tripod? Gorrilapod?
* Do you need your laptop? (Remember: power cable, network/wireless card, USB cable, memory card reader, memory card adapters, ???)
* Do you need your battery charger as well?

Other things I like to have with me:
* A garbage bag to stuff my camera equipment in if I get stuck in a downpour unexpectedly.
* A piece of black and white cloth to use as backgrounds for macros.
* A pieces of tinfoil, folded up -to use as a reflector for macros.
* A flashlight for seeing camera settings at night (also useful for light painting!)
* Etc. -After I get back from an outing, I usually write stuff down that I wished I had so I can remember to bring it next time.

I have two camera bags right now -one is a Tamrac Velocity 7 sling bag that holds my camera with an attached lens plus 2 other lenses and most of my accessories. I carry this bag daily, it's compact and not too heavy, yet holds enough for me to capture most anything I come across. My other bag is a photo-backpack that will hold my Bigma (50-500mm lens, weights 6lbs by itself!) as well as all my other gear and it also has places on the sides and bottom for tripods, etc.

For this extended weekend trip, I'll be carrying my sling bag most of the time: during the drive there (we caravan with friends), at the car show on Saturday, for the party Saturday night, and for "walking around time" at the track on Sunday. I do plan to spend a good amount of time Sunday with my Bigma on a tripod or monopod, though, so I am bringing my whole kit. -I'll just have to switch out the Bigma and tripod/monopod with my sling bag at the track as needed.

I will also be bringing my laptop for instant viewing as well as for dumping photos onto when I fill up my memory cards. Last year I know I filled up a card a day at least, but I was shooting on RAW + jpeg. Lately I've just been shooting RAW. Still, though, when entire days are potentially filled with photo ops, it's best to be able to dump a card when you need to (or at least have a backup card at hand). I never want to miss a shot because I'm being conservative with the shutter button. The more photos you take, the more chances at a winner. Good photography does take skill, but there are often elements of luck as well no matter how good you are!

So, my planning for what to bring is rather simple, then. I'm bringing everything. :-)

Monday, August 13, 2007

"What kind of camera should I get?"

This is the most popular question that I get on my photography list. The answer, as you might suspect, is "it depends".

Are you happy with your current camera? If yes, then stop here -there's no need to upgrade! But, if there are things about your current setup that annoy you, then you may want to look into purchasing something that suits you better. -Read on!

First, I suggest making a list of things that you need out of a new camera. For example: Faster boot-up time (the time it takes from when you turn the camera on to when you can take the first photo, less shutter delay (the time it takes from when you push the button to when the camera actually takes the photo), or even stuff like a flash hot shoe, the ability to change lenses, an available underwater housing, etc. Whatever you feel your current setup is lacking and you NEED to have in your next camera -write it down!

Second, take a look at where you think this photography hobby of yours is going in the next 3 - 5 years (or however long you'd like to stick with your new camera). If you know you're serious about it and you'd like to become a pro (or achieve professional results), make sure the camera you choose will fit those goals or else you'll end up upgrading again much more quickly than you anticipated, which just wastes money in the long run!

Third, take a look at your budget and try to strike a balance between cost and features. Start looking at cameras in your price range, and actually go to a store and pick them up to make sure they feel good in your hand. People with large or small hands in particular need to do this to make sure that all buttons and dials can be reached easily or else you'll end up frustrated with your purchase down the line. You should eventually be able to use all the camera's features intuitively and without moving your eye from the eyepiece.

After getting an idea of cost, brands, and models, go to the following websites to read reviews so you can be assured you're making a wise investment in your new equipment:
* Steve's Digicams
* DP Review
Optionally, read user reviews as well for more information:
* Epinions
* Amazon
* ...and you can always google the camera brand, model, and the word "review" to get even more feedback on the cameras you are interested in

Once you have gone through all of that, you should be able to make an informed decision. If you choose to buy online, be very careful of some retailers who use deceptive practices like calling you to verify your order, then giving you the hard-sell on warranties and accessories (some of which should already come with your camera!). If you are unsure of the vendor you're thinking of buying from, read reviews for the vendor at or Or, do business with vendors who are known to be both fair and have decent prices as well, such as B&H Camera, Adorama or Amazon.

...I'll continue this topic with a post about point and shoots vs DSLR's soon!

If you want further help, feel free to post a comment here or join my Photography_Beginners
Yahoogroup and ask for help. It'd be helpful to know what kinds of photography you're into as well as your budget and any specific brands and/or models you're particularly interested in.

Friday, August 3, 2007


Filters are thin, round pieces of glass surrounded by a threaded ring that allows it to be screwed onto the front part of a lens. They are usually used with SLR-type cameras, but are becoming more and more available for point and shoots and video cameras as well.

Many filters that were popular for film cameras can now be effectively reproduced in common image editing software such as Photoshop, Gimp, Adobe Elements, Paint.NET, etc. But, other filters' effects cannot be reproduced and you may, therefore, wish to carry some or all of these with you in your camera bag:


UV filters are clear and often have no effect on your photos other than maybe reducing haze a bit. So, why use them? Most people who use UV filters do so only to protect their lenses. If you may be shooting in rough conditions, it's a good idea to use a UV filter on your lens. A scratched UV filter is much cheaper to replace than it would be to repair your lens! I, like many others, use UV filters on my lenses most of the time. The argument against using UV filters is that many people opt for the cheaper ones, and are therefore buying expensive glass, only to put another element of cheap glass in front of it, therefore reducing the quality of the photos as a result. For this reason, when I'm shooting important shots, I remove my UV filters "just in case".

Neutral Density (ND):

These filters are basically sunglasses for your lens. All they do is remove light. -You may think you can do that with exposure compensation, but in really bright conditions, when you want a long shutter speed (say, for taking photos of waterfalls), a neutral density filter will allow you to use a much longer shutter speed than you otherwise would be able to -even with your ISO on it's lowest setting. If you plan on taking slow shutter speed shots during the day, this type of filter is definitely recommended.

Graduated Neutral Density (GND):

Big name, I know, but an easy enough concept. This filter is split down the middle (often half and half) -part of it is clear, the other part is gray (just like the neutral density filter). The purpose for this is apparent as soon as you run into the following problem: When you're shooting a landscape where the sky (and perhaps the background too) is very bright, but the foreground is either in shadow, or just darker. In this case you're often left sacrificing the sky by exposing for the foreground or taking 2 shots and combining them later. With this filter, you can use the ND part to tone down the sky, while placing the clear portion of the lens where the foreground is so that it gets exposed properly. The problem is, these filters are often split 50-50, so your horizon must be placed in the middle of the shot for the filter to work. You can, of course, get around that by going a bit wide and planning on cropping, but it's kind of annoying. (You can sometimes overcome this exposure issue with a polarized filter instead.)

Circular Polarized / Polarizing Filter:

This filter is slightly different from the others in the fact that it has a freely rotating front element on it. When you screw the filter on the front of your lens, you'll then need to rotate the ring on the front of the filter in order to control the effect of the polarizer. So, what's it good for? -It's used for many reasons: It will make a blue sky bluer (although this works best when you're shooting 90 degrees from the sun), it can enhance or eliminate reflections on water or glass, it can enhance the colors in a rainbow, and sometimes it can even out the exposure as in my example above for the graduated neutral density filter. The reason it can do that without being split down the middle like the GND is this: A polarizer can darken a blue sky to make it bluer, but it won't effect the grass and other objects in your photo. So, if you use a polarizer to darken the sky, often photos come out evenly exposed. An example of this is shown below:

The photo on the left was taken without a polarizer, the photo on the right was taken with a circular polarizer. -See how because of the overly bright sky, the camera doesn't expose the foreground properly? The foreground is properly exposed when you tone down the sky with the polarized filter (like I did on the photo on the right).

In my opinion other filters such as star filters, softening filters, warming, cooling, and other "color filters", as well as many special effects filters like spot-focus, etc can all be achieved in software quite easily. You're free to use them, but many people choose to free up that bit of room in their bag instead.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

TV: Travels to the Edge With Art Wolfe on WTTW

This show is on at 10:30 CST on WTTW where I live (near Chicago). Art Wolfe is a professional wildlife and nature photographer and this show follows him on his outtings. He doesn't go into technical details about settings or anything, but rather allows you to explore the chosen location with him. For non-photographers, there's plenty to interest them in the landscapes or wildlife that is being talked about (usually by him through a local guide). But, for photographers, you get to see his process of looking for photos and he speaks about why he's chosen a certain location or lens once in awhile. He also talks about the quality of light, texture, color, etc. -Like I said, it's more of a nature program with photography thrown in rather than the other way around, but I get a lot of inspiration and the occasional idea from this program, so I wanted to share it with you.

Here's a link to the show's website.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Studio photography on the cheap

The Purple Pill

(Click on the photo to see a better version of it. Blogger is re-sizing it poorly, so it looks a little funky here...)

For "proper" studio photography, most people purchase light tents and photography lighting in order to get that soft light that eliminates harsh reflections as well as harsh shadows. But, I want to demonstrate how I get studio shots without any special equipment.

For those who are not interested in studio photography, note that the goals in studio work are the same as for portraits. It's just that for portraits, the subject's a bit bigger...

So, here's a walkthrough of how I took the above studio shot McGyver-style.

Equipment and supplies that I used:
* Camera
* Tripod
* Shutter release cable (a self-timer works if you don't have one)
* 2 pieces of copy paper
* A white plastic garbage bag
* A 5-foot piece of wire, bent
* A paper towel
* A drinking glass and empty boxes for propping stuff up.
* A bright lamp (a halogen desk lamp is perfect)
* At least one other lamp (another desk lamp, a clamp light, or a floor lamp -whatever you have around)

I set up under a halogen spot-light that's in the ceiling above my kitchen counter. (I've also set up in the bathroom successfully -under the lights above my sink.)

I propped the copy paper up against the drinking glass so it was sitting at a 90* angle. This created the white below the bottle and pills in the picture as well as the white in the background without creating a "seam" between the two. (This works well with white poster board as well when you're shooting larger items.)

I then set the bottle on the paper, and arranged the pills around it in a non-centered way so the overall shape of the subject was more interesting -it also gave the pills a more hap-hazard look I think.

Next I needed something to filter the light through to spread it around. This is what the walls of a light tent do, so I looked around for something that'd work similar to that. What I ended up doing is taking a white plastic trash bag and some wire to make a frame to keep it flat. You could just as easily tape the corners of the bag to 4 boxes or something to keep it flat. It doesn't have to be perfect, and you don't need to cut the bag either -double-thickness (at least for the brand I'm using -regular Hefty bags) seems to work just fine. (Of course, if your light is significantly brighter or more dim, this may not be the case.

I propped my trash bag light filter up so it's middle would be over the bottle and under my halogen desk lamp. -I then turned the lamp on and checked how the lighting looked from the perspective I'd be shooting it from.

I ended up with a lot of glare on the label because it's glossy and I also had 2 bright spots on the bottle. This meant that the light was too bright. I placed a paper towel on top of the trash bag and moved it around until the highlights and hot-spots were gone.

The next thing I noticed was that, while my "trash bag light filter" made the shadows fuzzier, the shadows were still more noticeable than I liked. I grabbed a fairly dim floor lamp and propped it at a 45* angle against a chair, and aimed it directly at the bottle (from the front so that it eliminated the shadows in the front where they'd be visible in the photo).

I checked the view through my camera once again and found that this created more hot-spots, so I lowered the floor lamp until it's harshest light was below my subject, leaving it's softer (more diffused light) to fall on my subject and eliminate much of the shadows that I had a problem with earlier.

At this point, the setup was done. I was happy with how the scene looked, and the next thing to think about was exposure. -I had a fairly dark subject on a very light background which is always tricky. I knew the camera's light meter would see all that white and would try to tone it down, which would my my photo darker than it should be. -On top of that, my goal was to over-expose the background so it ended up looking all white! (but not so much that it over-exposed the white label on the bottle.) I decided I'd start with exposing the scene 1 stop above normal or at +1.

Next, I had to decide what setting to use on the camera. For studio shots I tend to go with Aperture Priority so that I can control the depth of field without worrying about the shutter speed because it really doesn't matter much in still-life photos like this one. Generally, an aperture of f/8 to f/16 is the sharpest part of any lens, so I try to keep within that range if I can. -I wanted a fairly shallow depth of field, though, so I decided to try f/8 to start with.

Last, I turned on mirror lockup. -Not all cameras have this option, but if yours does (on my Canon 30D it's Custom Function 12, for other makes and models, check your manual). Mirror lockup can help you get sharper photos when you're using slow shutter speeds and here's how it works: When you take a photo what happens is the mirror that allows you to see the image through the viewfinder flips out of the way so that the image can get through to your film or sensor. When the mirror flips up it causes the camera to vibrate ever so slightly. Mirror lockup creates a delay between when you click the shutter the first time (and the mirror flips up), then you wait and click the shutter a 2nd time to take the picture (after those micro-vibrations have probably stopped). You can get sharp photos either way, so if your camera doesn't have mirror lockup, don't worry about it; but if you do, I think it's worth playing with.

At this point I was ready to take my first shot. From start to finish I arranged the photo 2 different ways and I took about 25 shots total. -I had to play with the exposure compensation and aperture just a little bit each time before I got it to come out how I wanted.

After I was pretty sure I got a "keeper", I connected the camera to my computer, downloaded the photos, and opened it in Gimp. I used the "Levels" tool (Auto) to fix the white balance (I compensated for the warmth of the incandescent lights in the camera, but not quite enough.). After that, I used curves to just slightly adjust the darkest and lightest portions of the photo. Then, I cloned out the dust that was on the bottle. (I'm a dork -I missed the most important part of studio photography -preparing your subject to be photographed!) When I was done cloning, I applied a slight Unsharp Mask, cropped the photo to a square, and saved it.

I am pretty happy with the above photo as it stands right now except that I think as a result of editing it on my LCD laptop screen, it appears that it looks a little washed out on my CRT (work) monitor. If this were a commissioned work, I'd go back and fix that, but...

Monday, July 23, 2007

ISO -What it is and when to change it.

If you owned a film camera, you may remember going into the camera shop and having a bunch of different film speeds to choose from. Most of the time people stuck with 400, or turned the package over to find out which one was right for the conditions they'd be shooting in. There was 100 speed film for "sunny days", 200 for outdoors/cloudy, 400 indoor with flash, and 800 was for "low light". Digital cameras retained the idea of film speed in a setting called "ISO".

Either way, "film speed" or "ISO" is a measurement of how fast the film (or your digital camera's sensor) will record the light that makes up your photo. The faster it records, the higher the number, and the better it'll perform in low-light situations. -Have you ever tried taking photos inside and they came out blurry? If you would have used a faster speed film or a higher ISO, you'd get less of that blur because the camera would have been able to record the image faster.

Of course, you don't get something for nothing. There's a tradeoff for choosing a higher ISO, and that's image quality. With film, you get graininess. With digital, you get noise (those grainy, multi-colored specks that you sometimes see in digital photos). There are programs out there, like Noise Ninja or Neat Image that can help reduce the noise in your photos, but generally it's best to keep the ISO as low as you can for the conditions you are in.

(Below is an example of a noisy image:)

So, if you see that your low-light photos are coming out blurry on your camera, try raising the ISO number to the lowest number that gets you clear, unblurred photos. (Then remember to put it back to 100 when you're done so you don't end up taking photos in daylight at ISO 800 and get unnecessarily noisy photos as a result).

This is one of the 3 things you can adjust when using your camera in Manual Mode. So, if you are wanting to learn Manual Mode, this is an important concept to understand. -With ISO, a bigger number means more light can be recorded in a given amount of time.

**NOTE** Film speed and ISO are not exactly the same, but they are close enough that for our purposes and, especially in this intro, you can treat them as if they are 1 to 1.

If you don't understand something or have trouble with any of my tips, feel free to contact me via a comment on this (or any) article, or see my website for my email address and I'll be happy to help you out!


Friday, July 20, 2007

An introduction to histograms...

Does your camera have an option to show a photo's histogram? (If you aren't sure, check your manual.) If so, and you don't know what it is, read on! You're missing out on a very powerful tool!

It's nearly impossible to tell if a photo you've just taken is too light or too dark (or "exposed properly") on your camera's LCD screen. In bright sunlight you have to shade the screen with your hand, then squint and zoom and in the end you really have no idea until you view it full size on a screen. Even under the best lighting conditions it's difficult to evaluate exposure on the LCD screen because the brightness on the screen itself can be adjusted -so is it right? or just right on your tiny LCD screen? This is where your histogram comes in handy!

Before we get to what the histogram is, let me break down the term "tone" for you (sometimes people get confused by what a color's "tone" really is). By tone, I mean how dark or light a color is. Any color. In other words, if you converted the photo to black and white, it's all the shades of gray between black and white.

So, your histogram will show all the tones in your photo in a graph that goes from black (usually on the left) to white (on the right). You can think about it like this: it converts your photo to black and white, then takes all the pixels and lines them up on the graph -all the black ones are on the far right, then 99% black, 98% black, etc all the way down the line to pure white on the right.'s an interesting but abstract thing to do, right?

So, here's why it's useful... If your graph shows a lot of data on the far left (black) side of the graph, you have no detail there. That means, no matter how much you lighten it in post-processing you'll never be able to get anything out of those areas -they are pure black.

Of course, a lot of black isn't bad for all photos. -If we're talking about a photo of a person with a pure black background a lot of pure black would be expected. But, if it's a photo of a bird up in a tree, it's probably under-exposed.

Likewise, if the histogram shows a lot of data on the far right side (towards white), then you have very little detail in the highlights of the photo. But, again, if you took a photo with a pure white background that would be expected. If you wanted detail in the white areas of the photo, however, you'd want to re-take the photo so the data doesn't run off the right side of the graph. (It should peak, then go back down before the graph ends on the right-side.)

It's difficult to understand the idea of using these graphs unless you see them, so here are a few examples of some photos and their histograms. The first 3 are kindof extreme examples, the 4th is a more normal photo. Note that on that one the data runs off the right-side of the graph (I overexposed it a bit!).

(Click on the photo for a larger version and an explanation of what the histogram shows.)




Full spectrum histogram

If you don't understand something or have trouble with any of my tips, feel free to contact me via a comment on this (or any) article, or see my website for my email address and I'll be happy to help you out!


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Giving directional subjects "room to move"

There's a general rule that when you have a subject that could be said to be facing left or right, you should leave some space in front of it so it has "someplace to go". This goes for any person, animal, car, flower, etc that you shoot in "profile" (or from the side).

The effects of this should be fairly obvious in the photos below:

The photo above makes most viewers a bit uncomfortable although they may not be conscious of why. Most of the time this is not a good way to crop or frame a subject that you've shot in profile. It's much more desirable to leave some empty space in the direction that the subject is facing so they don't seem "trapped" in the frame. The photo below seems more "comfortable" to most viewers.

Like most "rules" in photography, this one can be broken effectively from time-to-time. When framing a photo in a way that breaks this rule, just make sure you know why you are doing it. Sometimes backing up or zooming out a bit so you can get space on both sides of the subject (especially if it's moving) is a good idea so you can play with the crop later in software.

If you don't understand something or have trouble with any of my tips, feel free to contact me via a comment on this (or any) article, or see my website for my email address and I'll be happy to help you out!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Making backgrounds blurry

Sometimes, when we want to take pictures of something, the background is rather ugly or maybe it's too complex and overwhelms the viewer. In these cases, if we can get the background blurred, the subject stands out better and the photo looks more professional. Some examples: Taking a picture of a person in front of a city street or taking a closeup of a flower without having mud or weeds showing in the background. A blurred background will lead to a much nicer photo in both of these cases as well as many others.

For Beginners:
If you are using auto modes, try the two below. They'll both lead to blurred backgrounds in most cases.
  • Portrait Mode: For people pictures, monuments, and other work where your subject will be fairly large ("person-sized" plus or minus a few feet), "Portrait Mode" works well. The icon for this mode usually looks like a woman's head.
  • Macro Mode: For smaller subjects, like flowers, where you'll be pretty close to the subject when you take the picture (within a foot or so), use Macro Mode. The icon usually looks like a flower.
For Intermediate Photographers:
Aperture is the setting that controls "depth of field" or how much of the photo is in-focus. Low numbers (up to about "8.0") will create more background blur than higher numbers (around "16" and above). Try putting your camera in "Aperture Priority Mode" (usually marked with an "A" or "Av"), select an aperture, and the camera will automatically choose the shutter speed to match it so your photos will come out properly exposed. (This mode may take some experimenting with to get used to, but it's really quite easy and it's a great way to get familiar with aperture before moving into learning full Manual Mode!)

Some things to watch out for:
  • Overly dark photos: This will happen if there's not enough light and you're trying to use too big of a number for the aperture. You can lower the aperture number or increase your ISO number (for example, if you were using ISO 200, turn it up to 400 or 800), or move to an area where there's more light (if possible).
  • Overly bright photos: This will happen if there's too much light and you're trying to use too small of a number for the aperture. You can increase the aperture number, or decrease your ISO number (for example, if you were using ISO 400, try turning it all the way down to 100), or move to a less bright area (if possible).
  • Weird or blurry photos: This happens when you choose a high numbered aperture in conditions that are too dark. The camera had to use a slow shutter speed, so if you move the camera at all you get a blurry mess. Either put your camera on a tripod or use one of the tips for an overly dark photo: choose a smaller aperture number, increase the ISO number, or you'll need to find a way to get more light on your subject.

For Advanced Photographers:
Once you spend a little time using different apertures in different conditions, you'll notice that using an aperture of "8.0" might result in a lot of blur in a flower photo, but almost no blur in a photo of a mountain range. This is because aperture isn't the only thing that determines depth of field. The other conditions that effect how much blur you'll get are:
  • Distance to subject: The closer that you are to your subject (the thing you are focusing on), the more blurred your background will be.
  • Your lens: The longer your lens is, the more blur you'll get. (A "long lens" means one with more "zoom" -more technically, a long focal length, as in a 300mm lens rather than a 28mm lens)
For Photo Geeks:
For more information, see my depth of field tables below:
(* Again, by "subject", I mean "what you are focusing on".)

You can print those tables and keep them with you to get an idea for how much blur you'll get with a given lens, and a subject a given distance away, or you can just experiment. An interesting thing to note is that the change in distance and focal length go hand-in-hand. In other words, if you want a photo framed a certain way, you can't use a longer lens to get more background blur -you'll have to back away too far and those two changed conditions will cancel each other out so that you'll get about the same amount of background blur either way. The only way to get more blur in these situations is to use a smaller aperture.

This is one of the secrets of pro photographers -be aware of your background. If it's ugly or busy and you can't change it, do what you can to take the viewer's attention away from it by blurring it (or in more technical language, using a shallow depth of field). ...and (hopefully) now you know how to do it too!

If you don't understand something or have trouble with any of my tips, feel free to contact me via a comment on this (or any) article, or see my website for my email address and I'll be happy to help you out!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Removing the gray cast or "flatness" in your photos

This article uses an old version of Gimp so the instructions are no longer valid due to some menus changes. An updated article was written here for the new version of Gimp (2.6.x): Using Auto-Level to fix dull gray-ish photos.

Last post I showed you a photo that was awesome except it had a slightly gray or "flat" look to it and hopefully you saw how dramatically you can improve a photo by removing it. I also told you that the real reason for that gray look is the lack of a "true" or 100% black and/or white area in the photo. So, now we'll talk about how to go about fixing this issue with photos you may have that suffer from the same problem...

Did you download Gimp? If so, awesome, you can follow along with me here. If not, I'm guessing you have Photoshop or some other software that you use and you've decided to stick with what you have. That's cool, your program will probably have the same tools, you'll just have to find where they are in your menus on your own. ...ready?

Step 1. Find a photo with a gray cast that you'd like to remove, then open it in Gimp.
(if you can't find one, download this one to use as practice by right-clicking on the photo and choosing "Save Picture As")

Once you have the photo you want to use, right-click on it and choose "Open With" > "The Gimp".

**NOTE:** If "Gimp" isn't on the list of programs, click on "Choose Program" and find "Gimp". Or you can also just find "Gimp" in your Start Menu under "Programs" and open it from there, then go to "File" > "Open" and browse to the photo you want to open.

You'll notice that Gimp doesn't quite work like Word or other programs you are used to. It has 2 different parts that open in separate windows -one is a toolbox that has a bunch of icons in it, and the other window has your photo in it. Don't worry about the window with all the icons in it, we won't be using it this time around.

Step 2. Using "Auto Levels" to remove the gray cast.

In the window that has the photo in it, click on the "Layer" menu. When it opens, click on "Colors" > "Levels". The "Levels" window will then be displayed. -We'll go into Levels more in-depth later, but for now, just click on the button that says "Auto".

If you're using the photo I linked to in Step 1, you'll notice that doing just that improved the image greatly. If you are using your own photo, there's a good chance it fixed it, but sometimes "Auto Levels" can make it worse. No biggie. If you like it, click "OK", if not, click "Cancel".

That's it! You're done!
Assuming you like the result, just go to the "File" menu and choose "Save As" in order to save the changes you've made to the photo. If you didn't like what "Auto Levels" did to this particular photo, stay tuned, we'll talk about other ways to fix such problems soon.

For simple, minor gray-cast or "flatness" issues, the "Auto" button in "Levels" works great! It's definitely something you should try whenever you have an image that seems to suffer from this problem.

If you don't understand something or have trouble with any of my tips, feel free to contact me via a comment on this (or any) article, or see my website for my email address and I'll be happy to help you out!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Photo Critique #1: An unsuspecting contributor, my Mom!

My Mom has never really been into photography. It's always been my Dad's hobby and my interest. To my Mom, it's never really been more than a way to document a period in time. Until recently...

Out of the blue, she asked me for advice in buying a camera. She ended up with a Canon Powershot A530. Shortly after purchasing it, she wondered out loud why she had spent the money. She's pretty much tied to the house taking care of my disabled father, so she doesn't have any trips coming up where she'd want to take pictures... So, the camera sat there for a few months. Then, she sends me this: (click on the photo to view a larger version , EXIF data, etc).

My Mom has a beautiful garden in her backyard. She told me that she was out in the garden when she spotted this butterfly, and ran inside, got her camera and took this picture. It's beautiful!

Because I know the submitter, I can tell you that this photo is uncropped and hasn't been touched up in software because, well, she just got the hang of transferring photos from her camera to her computer, and then uploading them to Flickr. -All that's still a challenge for her, so we're going to wait awhile before teaching her about photo editing. But people with her experience level is exactly who I'm targeting with this blog, so I figured this would be perfect.

The photo itself, as is, is absolutely fabulous. I'd consider hanging it on my wall if I were her. The framing is excellent -the butterfly fills the frame from one side to the other, and the background is simple, but colorful -it doesn't overwhelm the subject (the butterfly), but rather compliments it. -I think my mom has an advantage since she's an excellent painter. She probably knows that purple and yellow are opposite colors on the artist's painting wheel, and setting one upon the other in this way adds a lot of interest to the photo.

I have 2 minor things that in a perfect world might be different in this photo. #1 is that I wish the butterfly's left wing "tail" hadn't been cut off. -It's not too big of a deal because the other one doesn't stand out much anyway being black on purple, but still... I said "perfect world", so I had to mention it. The other thing I'd do is get rid of the slight gray cast in the photo.

This happens a lot. Photos come out just slightly "gray" looking. Many times if you were shooting film, the developer would automatically adjust to get rid of the gray, but in the age of digital you have to do it yourself.

The real cause of this "greyness" -what some people refer to as the photo looking like it has a film on it that makes it look "muddy" or "flat". Areas in the image that should be black fall short of being 100% (or "true") black and/or "true white" in the photo. In this case, it's the fact that we don't quite have an area of true black in that butterfly that makes the photo seem a bit dull.

So, how do you fix it? Well, we can't all afford the $600 for Photoshop -me included. But, that's fine. There's a FREE program that does almost everything Photo$hop does, it's called "Gimp" and you can download it here:

After some minor touch-ups, which I'll teach you tomorrow, the photo looks like this:

So, go download and install Gimp, and tomorrow I'll teach you how to use it to get rid of that "gray" cast that you get in some photos!