Saturday, December 12, 2009

Jazz Things Up This Christmas

Here’s a quick tip to get a really cool background for your Christmas photos this year:

Use your Christmas tree.

Wow. Never done that before. I know, I know, if you’re like me all your childhood Christmas photos have you holding that really cool whats-it that Santa brought you, with you standing in front of… what else, the Christmas tree.

So here’s the twist: simply throw that evergreen beauty way out of focus and you’ll get that lovely, translucent orbs-of-light look that you see in the photo above. The subject matter here is the product of my wife's very creative crafting, a seashell Christmas tree topped with a starfish. Ok, that’s it, see you next time.

Well, alright, let’s make it a little more technical. You have to REALLY get that thing out of focus. Here’s how:

· Place your subject as far from your tree (or any other Christmas lights for that matter) as possible.

· Get as close as possible to your subject with your camera.

· Use the longest focal length lens you have, something at least as high as 100mm if you have it.

· Use the smallest f/stop your lens will allow, hopefully something approaching f2.8.

Now, you’ll have to experiment with your exposure to get your Christmas lights bright enough for the effect. For a starting point, try 800 ISO at 1/60 sec at f2.8

Just for demonstration purposes, the following 3 photos were all shot exactly the same (same distance, shutter speed, f/stop, lens, etc) with the exception of the focus. Each successive exposure below is more and more out of focus than the previous one.

So I hope this gives you a little inspiration for this the most inspiring season of the year! Blessings and peace to you, your loved ones and your enemies as well!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

First Take On the Sundial Bridge

So here's my first stab at shooting the very photographed Sundial Bridge in Redding, CA. Well, OK I have photographed it before, but just snap-shot stuff with the family. And then there was Chris & Stephanie's engagement session, but I was photographing them, not the bridge - it was just kinda there in the background. So cut me some slack.

Actually, I was driving around downtown Redding at dusk looking for something stock-worthy to shoot, nothing was jumping out at me so I thought, what the heck, I'll give the bridge a try even though the sky didn't look so great. Well, I get there and I'm walking all over the place, looking, looking for a decent angle, all the while the light is quickly slipping away (kind of like my youth - wait, that slipped away a long time ago, never mind). I finally take off way down stream & find two of the things I'm looking for: A cove-type area where the water is still & I'm able to get a nice, smooth reflection off the Sacramento River and an angle where I can get some rocks in the foreground.

Bad thing is by now, it's practically dark - not the situation I wanted to work in. I'm actually having to use a flashlight to set this shot up. So I grab my Manfrotto 055XB tripod which I love, because I can pull the center shaft, spread the legs straight out, and I'm just a few inches off the ground - just call me a low-rider at this point. Here's the other equipment used: Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 16-35 2.8 L lens (zoomed to 24mm), RS-80N3 cable release, 580 EX flash with a Wescot 43" double-folding umbrella, and a couple of Pocket Wizards.

GEEK WARNING: The rest of this is a little on the techy-nerdy side, so if you're into that sort of thing, read on. If not, just know that this was not a set-it-on-auto-and-see-what-happens kinda of shot, which brings me to one of my soap box things: Learn what you need to know so you can create whatever photo your creativity dreams up. It's a shame to have a vision for something and then not be able to pull it off. Believe me, I'm constantly learning so I can do tomorrow what I couldn't do yesterday. OK, off my box now.

Because of the lighting hand I was dealt, I knew I would have to do something creative to record & merge the different tones in this scene. I decided to go with 3 different exposures, shown below, and then merge, mask, ect. in Photoshop. The following photos are straight out of Lightroom with no editing, just the way I pulled them into Photoshop:

This shot was to record just the bridge itself. It was sooooo bright in comparison to the rest of the scene, I knew it would need its own exposure. I wasn't sure how much of the fore-ground would show, so I went with a high f-stop to get all the depth of field possible. Exposure was 81 seconds at f22.

Second shot was to record the sky. I needed a LOT more exposure to pull up some color in what looked to the naked eye to be a black sky. I wasn't concerned about foreground & didn't want to be waiting on what would have been a 16 minute exposure at f22, so I went with a 16 sec exposure instead at f2.8.

Final one, to have the rocks looking good in the shot I did an exposure with my strobe fired into an umbrella (for soft, twilight looking light). 1/60 sec at f22 for sharp focus.

Now to Photoshop. I stacked these three photos into one psd file, applied a layer mask to each and "erased" the parts in each shot I wanted to "go away". Then, I applied a couple of layer adjustments (saturation, +59 and levels for an overall exposure tweak). Next, I took this back into Lightroom and did some local exposure correction with the Adjustment Brush, lightening the tree line and toning down the bridge a little. Crop, vignette and I call it done.

I kind of rushed through that last bit, so if you'd like more of an explanation, let me know.

My bottom line on all this, go ahead and shoot, even if you think the light won't work out, include some foreground in your landscape photos, and keep looking for the cool angles even if it takes a while. Happy shooting!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An Improvised "Tripod"

Sometimes you just don't want to hassle with a tripod, know what I mean?

That was case for me a couple of days ago on a quick rockclimbing outing. I was planning to just shoot some casual candids of my kids climbing until I saw this great scene waiting to be photographed.

A scene like this begs to be shot with a slow, draggy shutter speed to get that great blurry water effect. So when you don't have a tripod, what do you do? Grab whatever's handy! In my case it was one of my funky smelling climbing shoes (this has no effect on your photos, trust me) and my hippy-colored bandana. So here's the setup:

Now this photo was taken with my cell phone, so cut me some slack on the lousy quality. Anyway, the point is, lock your camera down so when your rolling at a 2-second exposure your photo comes up looking tack sharp. Unless of course you're going for the fuzzy-blurry thing in which case, just forget this whole post :).

Another point to be made here is keeping your eyes open for big things in small places. Check out the actual scene I was shooting in:

So, the little red box is the actual area I photographed. I almost overlooked this spot because it was so unimpressive. No great, huge boulders or mighty rushing water here, just a little trickling stream. But, with a little cropping & the right angle, it comes across looking pretty decent.

The bottom line - keep your eyes open & make sure you have your stinky climbing shoes handy! :)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Making The Most Of Inconvenience

Sometimes as photographers we find ourselves in situations that are just totally inconvenient. Like this wedding from a couple of weeks ago in Northern California. Great location, awesome bride & groom, the families all got along, lots of love all around, yadda, yadda. But the rain. Oh my word, the rain.

Arriving about 2 hours before the rehearsal to scout locations – rain, then the rehearsal itself, more rain and by now, totally soaked shoes. I try to travel light, which means no spare shoes, so by the time the rehearsal was over the only store open was Wal-Mart, so $20 shoes for the wedding the next day.

Day of the wedding and, you’re beginning to see the trend, right? Yea more rain. Did I mention this was an outdoor wedding? There were so many great locations just totally unusable at this point and I’m feeling a little ripped-off, I mean inconvenienced :) . Well, I’ve never had a more laid-back couple and it’s no big deal to them, so they grab an umbrella, hop in his dad’s truck & off we go.

Well, I learned an important lesson that day – be happy when you’re thrown a curve. I had some really interesting light to work with, all the rain had really greened up everything & the umbrellas gave us some great compositional elements.

Take this photo for example. Without that umbrella, this photo would just be so-so, IMHO. With it, interest was added and the compositional flow was “capped” so that the viewer’s eyes are kept in the photo & directed back to the main subject – the couple.

Sometimes an inconvenient situation can conveniently provide us the push we need to add creativity to our photos.

At the end of day, the couple ended up married (always a good thing), and I had some images I felt pretty good about.

So, am I hoping for rain at my next wedding? Not exactly, but I will be ready for what ever curve is thrown my way & I’ll be excited to see how I’ll spin it around for some fun photos. Here’s to inconvenience!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Some Tips For Creating Photos With Depth

As photographers we face a unique challenge – take a three-dimensional world, squeeze it down and re-present it in just two-dimensions. Do this with skill and the viewers of our photographs are transported to the place we stood when we clicked the shutter.

Skilled painters have been doing this successfully for generations. So what do they know that we as photographers don’t? Three specific techniques that you can use in your photography: lighting, foreground/background placement and selective focus.

The photo I’m showing on this post, a classically styled outdoor portrait of 1-year-old Millie, illustrates these techniques.

Lighting. Use lighting to give shape and dimension to your subject. Lighting that is not flat but that is directional, reveals the form, shape and texture of your object. By directional I mean that when you look at the shadows you can figure out where the light is coming from. If there are no shadows, there’s no direction to your lighting and your object is going to look flat. In this photo, I had open sky to the right of the camera and supplemented it with a portable flash unit bounced into a large white umbrella. You can see the soft shadows on the girl’s face, arm and dress giving her dimension.

Foreground/background placement. Whenever you can place your subject behind a foreground element that partially blocks the subject and in front of a background that is partially blocked by the subject, you send cues to the viewer’s eyes that they are looking at a three-dimensional world. When things overlap, your brain translates what the eye is telling it as: “there are things at different distances out there in front of you”. Even on a two-dimension medium, your brain is going to interpret this overlapping information as “there is depth happening here”. Notice how the purple flowers, grass and trees all work together to make this happen.

Selective focus. Our eyes are amazing things, but they can only focus on one specific distance at a time. Try this: hold your right hand at arms-length and your left hand about half way out. Now concentrate on your right hand. Your left hand and whatever is beyond your right hand is kind-of discernable, but everything other than your right hand looks fuzzy, right? When you can reproduce this effect in a photo, again, your brain says, “I recognize depth!” In this photo, you’ll notice the purple flowers close to the camera and further behind our subject have that “fuzzy” look.

To achieve this effect, simply use the smallest number f/stop your lens is capable of when setting your exposure (like 2, 2.8 or 4). If you’re new to your camera, simply set your auto exposure to the “A” setting (for Aperture) before setting your f/stop and let your camera’s light meter do the rest! You can also use Photoshop to “blur” these areas, but why not nail it when you create the photo?

Good luck in creating your own photos with depth!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Digital Storage Questions

Here are a couple of questions posed to me recently by a family member:

Memory cards - is there a best brand or are they pretty well all the same for quality?

Stay with a name brand and you should be fine. The brands I’ve used are Lexar, SanDisk and Kingston and I’ve literally put thousands and thousands of images through these with out a single card failure that I can remember. From a preventative standpoint I do pitch them after about 2 years of use - maybe that’s why I’m so “lucky”. Every time I get a new card I write the date on the back of the card with a permanent marker (as seen in the photo here) so I’ll know when its time is up.

If you ever do have an issue with a card, there are a variety of image recovery software products out there. If you keep your eyes out, some manufacturers package their versions of this kind of software with their cards. I’ve gotten SanDisk and Lexar’s version at no charge this way. If you ever format a card (“erase” it) with images on it before you have a chance to download it, image recovery software will be your knight in shining armor!

What do you think is the best long-term storage for these digital files, so years from now I don't have a mess and they will still all be viewable?

So your options are basically:

  • Leave your images on your hard drive. Not a great idea – you could end up with a drive full of photos with no room left for anything else – that is if it doesn’t crash first.
  • Burn them to CDs/DVDs. When I first made the switch to digital I went this route. Boy, what a hassle. The time it took to burn the CD/DVDs, file them, retrieve them later, etc., I’m glad I’m past that now. Add to this the arguments of short life span & the potential short life of the technology (hello, VHS?) - pass on this option, believe me.

  • Upload to an online/offsite storage service. Do you really want to trust a DotCom somebody in who-knows-where with your precious work? Not me.
  • And finally, external hard drives. This is what I’ve been using for over 3 years now and here’s why:

They’re easy to use. Plug ‘em in to a spare USB or FireWire port & you’re ready to upload tons of images. Your photos will be there whenever you need them and you won’t have to go looking through pages of CD’s to find that one photo of Uncle Frank that everyone wants.

They’re cheap. For the amount of storage you get, it’s crazy how low the prices on these things have dropped.

They’re reliable. I own nearly 20 of these things and have had only one ever go south on me. That being said, they are capable of failing (everything is for that matter) which is why the next point is important:

They’re easy to back up. Whatever your method of archiving, you need some kind of redundancy. Hey, if it’s good for NASA, it’s good for me. I’ll discuss in detail in a future blog how I organize and archive my images, but here’s a preview: While a job is still active (the finished photos haven’t been delivered to the client yet) I’ll have copies of those images on my main hard drive and on 2 separate external hard drives.

Keep it secret, keep it safe. Good advice for getting the One Ring to Mordor AND for protecting your images. Whenever I’m away from my main computer, one of those two external drives I mentioned goes in a waterproof, shockproof case that gets stored in a separate location. Again, I’ll share more on that in a future blog.

If you’re saying to yourself by now, “wow, that Bret guy is really paranoid”, you could be right or it could just be me protecting my livelihood. Either way, I’m gonna have all my images at the end of the day and I hope you’ll still have yours too. I may need that photo of Uncle Frank some day.

One last thing on external hard drives – they come in basically 3 different flavors:

The small, portable variety that gets powered off your USB or FireWire port (I love my LaCie Rugged Hard Disks, pictured here. When I travel, I have two that go with me).

The larger book-sized type that requires an AC adapter to power them (Western Digital’s My Book series are a good value & have worked great for me).

The multi-hard drive RAID versions like Drobo’s (This is going to be my next external drive purchase!).

More on the pros/cons of these 3 later but in the mean time, if you’ve used one or more of these, how did they work out for you?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Some Thoughts On Lighting

What a wonderful thing we photographers do! We get to re-present the best of what the Maker has created and we get to expose the worst of world’s injustice. When you boil it down, that’s pretty much what we do.

HOW we do it has really gotten cool lately. The world of digital has brought a huge amount of change. It’s made photography so accessible for so many people in creative ways that couldn’t be imagined just a few years ago and that’s AWESOME.

One thing that hasn’t changed though is the language we speak. As photographers we speak the language of light - the original language of the universe.

Think about it, the earth was formless and void until BAMMO! “Let there be light!” and that, my friends, was the very first thing that the Lord said was “good”. He created the heavens and the earth, but it wasn’t called “good” until He properly lit His subject. He’s been doing that ever since, placing His creation in the best light possible. Adulterous, lying, murdering King David is “lit” by God and called a “man after His own heart”; Sarah laughs at God and is called “faithful”; you and I have our own history, yet He calls us “His beloved”.

A classically trained portrait photographer is taught to use light to draw out the subject’s strong points while using selective shadowing to de-emphasize the parts that are best left in the dark, if you know what I mean. A landscape photographer will be in place long before the sun comes up so the light will be perfect and is rewarded with an image that inspires “ahhs” from all who see the final print. A commercial photographer sculpts and crafts light for hours with scrims, snoots, gobos, flags, spots, softboxes, reflectors… and the client has her $5 product looking like a million bucks. What do all these photographers have in common? They’re all playing God, speaking His language, making His creation look its best.

Physicists are even making the case these days that we, the earth and everything that we see & touch, is composed of nothing more than light itself. That’s way over my head, but it sounds really cool.

My point in all this is (yes, I really have a point!) is that as photographers, wouldn’t it be awesome for us to really master our language? The better our vocabulary, the more eloquent our speech becomes. The better our speech, the more clearly we’re understood, and that’s really all we want, right?

Now I’m not down on all the jazzy Photoshop actions, plugins, filters, etc, etc – I love ‘em all, in fact I’m pedaling hard to learn them all! But what I’m dying to hear in conversations between photogs is “how’d you light that?”, “what time of day did you shoot that?”, “was that a fill-flash or a reflector?”… you get the point.

So, maybe we can have some of those conversations right here – I’d love to learn some of YOUR vocabulary. What do you think?

- Bret never seems to get up early enough for the killer landscape shots, never seems to have enough lights, gobos, etc. for the commercial shoots, and can never figure out why his portrait subjects always want to look like someone else! :)