Techniques

Here I am going to share some techniques I’ve learned, almost entirely by reading about them elsewhere, but maybe adding some value based on my still-meager experience.

HDR

From “High Dynamic Range,” this is not so much a “learned technique” as it is a capability built-in to many cameras, including smartphones. An Internet search on HDR will provide all the info one might wish for, and tons more. Until the capability was built-in to cameras, it was accomplished by processing multiple photos of the same image shot with different exposures, and required special editing software. I understand that PhotoShop will do that, but there are also free programs such as Luminance HDR.

Let me oversimplify here, and state that our monitors and camera display screens can show only 256 shades of brightness, where the world has, oh, about a bazillion shades. Our eyes distinguish little more than 256 shades of brightness at a time, but here’s the thing: when we look at a scene, our eyes adapt to the light not only generally, but also specifically to the small area on which we are focused. The effect is that we perceive the scene with vastly more shades of brightness than 256.

HDR combines several images shot with different exposures to get an image with 65,536 shades of brightness. But that cannot be displayed due to the limitations of monitors, printers, etc. So various algorithms have been developed that work on each small  area at a time, altering its average brightness such that in the end, the overall image looks like our eye would see it. That is, some algorithms do that. Others do about the same, but emphasize colors, maybe, such that the end result is somewhat psychedelic. The routines in cameras generally just make the photo the way our eyes see it.

The two photos below show what in-camera hdr can do, with the photo on the left being standard, the one on the right in-camera hdr:

Regular vs. HDR photo in Zion National Park (click to zoom photo)

Regular vs. HDR photo in Zion National Park
(click to zoom photo)

 

Macro Flash

That aluminum-foil lined dish monstrosity in the photo on my Gear page is the single best improvement I’ve made yet in my photographic capabilities.

Esperanza in our yard on a rainy day (click to zoom photo)

Esperanza in our yard on a rainy day
(click to zoom photo)

It seems to me that invariably when I want to shoot a flower, the wind is blowing. This particular photo is not strictly speaking a macro photo, therefore does not present quite as serious a depth of field limitation, but it did still need a small aperture. And if the wind had been blowing, I’d have had difficulty with shutter speed. A flash takes care of all that.

And a halo flash that fits around the lens allows the photographer to close in even to macro range, and the light from the flash will still reach the subject, without shadows generally, and specifically without a shadow from the lens, which would generally be a problem with a flash mounted on the camera.

The background with a halo flash is usually considerably darker than the object of interest, helping that object to stand out in the photo.

Just search the Internet for “diy halo flash” and you’ll find a bunch of variations on the basically simple construction. Or you can buy one, but those that do more than just shine some light from a few LEDs cost a bunch, compared to a couple of hours work and $5 worth of parts.

Here’s a comparison of a macro with and without the halo flash:

Halo01

Halo flash on left, no flash on right. (click on photo to zoom)

Both shots were at f22. The flash allowed ISO 100, vs 6400 with a cloudy day – but everyone knows that a flash helps with light. Of course, a similar effect of the halo flash can be had just by holding the flash unit off to the side of the camera. Sometimes the shadows cast by the subject in this way may even enhance the shot. But the halo flash is the only way to get the light on the subject and cast no shadows, or at least nothing much, on what is seen by the camera.

 

Butterflies

Everyone likes photos of butterflies, but the little scamps are difficult to get good shots of. A good shot calls for macro photography in order to fill the frame with the butterfly, but anything closer than a couple of feet will probably spook the target. One answer is to use an extension tube with a telephoto lens…

Fram-317

Butterfly photo with telephoto and extension tube (click to zoom photo)

 

The meta data on that photo says the photo was taken with a 200 mm lens. I’m sure I had an extension tube on, although I do not know now whether it was 12 mm, 20 mm, or 36 mm. I suspect it was either the first or the second.

 

Birds, Especially Flying Birds (such as Bald Eagles!)

eagles

Llano eagles during winter nesting season (click to zoom photo)

 

I learned some stuff, on my way to getting some photos of the American Bald Eagles that were, until this last fall (2014), nesting just off Hwy 29 seven miles east of Llano. I needed extreme telephoto (300 – 500 mm zoom plus a 2x), and a fast shutter speed. At least in this case I did not need a small aperture, although I also could not count on shooting wide open because the distance to a bird was likely to vary at least a little.

I learned the hard way, of course, by many unsuccessful shots. I figured I needed continuous mode on shooting, because I was unlikely to catch it just right with a single shot. But if I kept the camera on an eagle that was likely to fly, and as soon as I saw movement that indicated take-off, held the button down for a burst of photos, then I had a decent chance at maybe a couple of good flying shots. I learned that I needed to set the camera to manual focus, or it would waste all my opportunities in trying to optimize the focus; so set it manually and leave it alone. I learned that my tripod with the ball joint head was too unwieldy, so I switched to the monopod – which made a fast shutter speed all the more important. And as with much else that I do, I learned that luck is an important factor.

Here are the camera settings: 560 mm, f/13, 1/500 sec, ISO-400 (left photo) ISO-250(right photo)   ISO probably on auto…

 

Fireworks

It is easy to find out on the Internet how to shoot fireworks, and it is generally pretty simple. This is largely because the balls of fire do a good job of showing up, almost no matter how the camera is set, and they do not stand still, so tend not to wash out. A tripod or other steady rest is necessary, but everything after that is easy. A middle aperture setting such as f8 or f10, ISO 100, and a shutter opening of about 8 seconds will get you in the ballpark. Adjust the aperture according to whether the colors seem too dim or too white, but stick with a shutter speed of 8 or 10 seconds, or longer, so that the fireballs make tracks – but not so long that the sky looks gray. Consider turning off anything that might delay taking another shot, such as Long Exposure Noise Reduction, which on my camera takes as long as the shot itself, doubling the delay before you can shoot again. Consider turning off any stabilization, and you’ll probably want to use a cable release, if you have one. Use manual focus.

Among the mostly minor difficulties are that you do not get to aim the camera to frame any one firework. You have to hope you have the camera pointed right. If you wait until you see the firework, you’ve missed the best part of it, so you’re mostly shooting blind, in hopes that something will show up in the field of view while the shutter is open. Which leads  to –

If you do not zoom in, you have a better chance of capturing the firework, maybe even several of them. But if you zoom in and get lucky, look what you can get:

From the 2014 Georgetown 4th of July Fireworks Display (click to zoom photo)

From the 2014 Georgetown 4th of July Fireworks Display
(click to zoom photo)

 

Telephoto Lens

In the section on butterflies I suggested the use of a telephoto with an extension tube in order to get a close-up without actually getting close. Well, there is another use for a telephoto, other than the obvious one of shooting something at a distance: use the decreased depth of field to advantage.

Telephoto lenses decrease the apparent distance between objects (foreshortening) and this is probably related to the apparent narrowing of the depth of field for any given aperture. Most of my photography consists of landscapes where I want everything in focus, often necessitating the smallest aperture for any given lens. But sometimes a particular object of interest may be emphasized by being the only thing in focus, and a telephoto lens may improve this effect. See what you think:

wf50

Only the red poppy and some greenery are in focus. (Click to see larger version.)

 

Underexpose!

I attended a photo workshop given by Kevin Vandivier in Marble Falls in early April, 2015. He offered a different take on photography from many, in that they emphasize getting the photo right in the camera, and he says to ignore the histogram. Well, not exactly, but you’ll see. Those who emphasize getting the photo right in the camera will say that it is simpler that way, and besides, if you get it right in the camera you know you have a good photo, instead of having to wait to see whether you can “save” it. But Vandivier’s workshop was partly on the creative use of artificial light – indirect, off-camera flash, and “light painting” with a powerful flashlight – and post-processing is going to be required, anyway.

And the techniques Vandivier proposed were interesting and useful, and I figure to be doing some of that in the future, on my own. But this particular hint is something I picked up along the way, and maybe it will be new to you, too, and useful.

I found out on an early morning shoot, when it was still dark enough to be messing around with the light painting via flashlight, that my camera had ample light for decent photographs, and further, that it may help, especially with skies, to underexpose. Look at these two examples of underexposed photos:

DSC04072 houseDark

And here they are brightened up in post-processing, with the same brightness increase over the entire photos:

lighter houseLight

And here, with the skies brightened less than the ground, and with a little additional tweaking:

mid houseMid

Note that I did all the photo tweaking in Lightroom. The brush adjustment tool allows selective brightening, and these photos did not require detailed adjustments with layers and masks such as might be done with GIMP or Photoshop. It is important to note that raw photo files are tremendously more likely to have recoverable info in over- or under-exposed areas than are jpegs. By something like 65,000 to 256.

My two main take-aways from these two photo sessions during the workshop were that there can be good light and good color in what looks to be underexposed areas (much more so than in overexposed areas, I think), and that skies may often be greatly improved by lower exposures. (And a third take-away is that if you have enough light to see where you’re walking, you probably have enough light for photography, especially if you’re using a tripod.)

 

Zoo Photography

Zoos offer terrific opportunities for good photos, whether of the animals or of the people there to see the animals. As with other genres, the best rewards go to the patient and to the lucky, but also as with landscape photography in scenic settings, it is not generally difficult to get some good shots.

One learns early in photography that it is the photographer who makes photos good, the camera only makes them possible. While good zoo photos might be taken with any camera, even a smartphone, the zoo photographer will appreciate telephoto capability, a large aperture, and the photographer might also find it useful to have a camera that will autofocus only within an adjustable range. You’ll see why later…

How much telephoto do you need? You need all you can get, although you may not use more than 300 – 400 mm very often, and if you do not have more than that, well, you will still be well-equipped 95 percent of the time. All my recent zoo photography has been done with my “auxiliary” camera, the Panasonic Lumix covered on the Gear page. It has a 24 – 400 mm (equivalent) zoom, so allows me to walk through a zoo without carrying tons of gear (at a price, on the autofocus deal, which I will get to, I promise). Here’s a photo of a mama gibbon and her baby, taken at the 400 mm setting.

wacozoo-40

A mama gibbon carries her baby across a span. The baby was swinging between tree limbs on its own a few minutes before, but I guess mama is in a hurry. (Click to zoom.)

Sometimes the animals are close enough for a 50 mm lens, or even a wide-angle:

wacozoo-3

A tiger about 4 feet away, just the other side of the wire screen that was keeping me safe. (Click to zoom.)

Here’s that same tiger about 40 feet away, calling for some telephoto, and a wide-open lens:

wf-50

The tiger relaxes. The wire mesh shown in the first photo is still there, between the camera and the tiger. (Click to zoom.)

With the lens wide open to minimize the depth of field, when the tiger at that distance is in focus, the wire mesh a few feet from the camera can disappear! It helps if the wire, or bars, or whatever, is in the shade, or dark. If it is light, and especially if it reflects sunlight, it is still likely to show as bright, blurry bands across the photo.

So what’s the deal about the autofocus and range-limiting? For a still animal such as the tiger in the above shot, it is relatively easy to focus manually, which is just about necessary because with the camera on autofocus it tends to fix on the wire mesh a few feet away, and won’t get off of it. My Sony camera (the other camera on the Gear page) allows me to restrict the autofocusing range so that it cannot focus on the cage, which means it will focus on the animal I’m trying to photograph, and do it quickly, even if the animal is pacing.

Many zoos have indoor exhibits, and these are generally poorly lit for photography. But if you boost the ISO to very high levels (and clean up the noise later in post-processing) and use a tripod or monopod, it is possible to get some good photos even in those indoor areas. I chose to leave this photo tinted by the incandescent lights, because that was how it was lit. It’s easy enough to change, if you wish, in the camera beforehand or in post-processing.

wz-16

Think this is an iguana. Anyway, the lighting was truly terrible, and the shot turned out well anyway. I was using a monopod, and boosted the ISO to 3200, for 1/20 sec. (Click to zoom.)