Thursday, November 1, 2012

All Pros Shoot Only During The Magic Hours

Ah, the magic hour. That time of day that comes twice a day when the sun is low in the sky and the light is at its sweetest. Early morning and late afternoon sunlight is quite magical indeed. It is a well known fact that most pros shoot either only or mostly at those hours of the day. They get up early to climb mountains in the dark or suffer through camping outdoors just to be in position for the early morning sun. Photography books all recommend shooting at those hours. And for good reason, the sun is low in the sky and produces pleasing long shadows. The light is at its lowest contrast ratios and the light seems to have a magical quality about it.

But, wonder if you are like me, most active and motivated in the noon to mid afternoon hours? Or if you are on vacation and can not waste time sitting in your hotel room waiting for the magic hours to arrive? If you have limited time at your location, you may find yourself needing to shoot in less than ideal lighting conditions or miss out on having photos of some of the places you visit during the midday hours. You can either give up and accept the fact that you will come back with nothing more than mere snapshot during those times, or you can choose to work with what you have and make it work for you. I choose the latter option. In this post I give you some tips to make lovely images during the midday hours.

Bright autumn color set against a clear blue sky.
Mid afternoon light worked well for this subject.
Embrace The Lighting Conditions

Bright sunlight with short dark shadows and high contrast is typical of sunny days during the midday hours. So why fight it? Look for interesting shadows and subjects that look great in such bright and harsh conditions.

Use A Neutral Graduated Filter
Use A Neutral Gradated FilterNeutral Grad filters are optical

Here I used my neutral graduated filter to

position the gray portion over the sky to preserve
some of the details in the storm clouds. I also used
fill flash to brighten the foreground wildflowers.

filters that are half clear and half gray. They are available in either square or standard circular shapes. I recommend the square type as you can move them up and down (or side to side) and decide exactly where to position the transition area between the gray and clear parts of the filter. If you choose the round filters, you will be stuck framing your images in unflattering compositions due to the need to place the filter effect where you need it. What this filter does is to help lower the brightness of the part of the image covered by the gray part of the filter. Typically these are used in situations where the sky is so much brighter than the foreground that the digital sensor (or film) can not record detail in both areas of the image without losing detail. It is frequently used with the gray portion of the filter positioned to cover the sky. But it can also be used in a reversed position as well, such as when shooting a snowy landscape. Place the gray part of the filter over the snowy foreground and it will help to record some detail in the snow without having to underexpose the sky. These filters also come in color versions in addition to varying densities of neutral gray. They are fun to experiment with, but if you are only going to buy one filter I recommend getting the gray one as it can be used in all situations.

Use of a polarizing filter darkened and saturated the colors here.
Use a Polarizer Filter

Polarizer filters help to remove reflections and deepen colors. It can remove surface reflections off of water or glass, and deepens the colors of foliage by removing the bluish cast from the sky. Under the right conditions, it can also deepen the color of the sky and make clouds really stand out. The basic rule is to point one finger at the sun and the other 90 degrees away, like making an "L" with your fingers. The finger will be pointing to the part of the sky that will demonstrate the strongest effects of the polarizer. Rotate the filter and watch the filter do its thing. If you are using a wide angle lens it may not be your best option to use a polarizer as the sky will not be evenly polarized and parts of the sky may appear darker than others.

I photographed this toad in the shade where he was hiding.

The soft and even lighting help me capture subtle patterns
 and color in the toad and his beautiful eyes.
Seek Shade

Take a look in the shady areas for suitable subjects. I particularly love to shoot flowers and nature macros in the shade. Light in the shade is generally still bright enough to work with handheld but without bright sunlight to cast distracting shadows. Many other subjects also look wonderful shot in the shade. The flat lighting works well with subjects where dark shadows may be distracting and with subjects that have subtle gradations of color that would be washed out by bright sunlight.

I used a flash set to –1.7 exposure to insure that the image

was mostly exposed by natural light with just a slight hint of
flash to openup the shadows on the front of the bird’s face.

Bring Your Own Light

Use flash to help fill in some of those dark shadows cast by the sun. This tip is particularly useful for portraits and flower and macro images. If using the fill light for portraits it can be done two different ways. One is to just use fill light to lighten the shadows a bit. The shadows will still be there, just softened. So be careful with your posing to assure pleasant facial modeling. When using this technique, set the flash to underexpose by about –1.7 to 2 stops less than full exposure. This can be done by setting the flash compensation either on your camera or on the flash. Read your equipment’s manual to find out how to do this.

Another way to use flash outdoors is to overcome the sun and use the flash as the main light source. Use a professional flash unit and set it to overpower the sun ad set the exposure to expose for the flash. You can also choose to underexpose the background, turning day into night which can be fun to experiment with. There are many tutorials online to show you how to do this.

Here I placed my subject in the shade and let the direct sunlight

act as a hairlight. The reflector acted as a light for her face. I
exposed for the face and let the background details
and sunlit hair blow out.

Use a Reflector

You can use a reflector as fill light instead of flash. Same as with using flash though, you will need to mind your shadows as you will only be softening the shadows and not getting rid of them. Another alternative reflector technique is light your subject with light bounced off of the reflector. Put the subject in the shade and place the reflector in the sunlight and bounce the light onto your subject. A shiny gold or silver reflector is best used for that technique as a white reflector is usually not powerful enough.


These small flowers were in shade with a bright

patch of sun lit grass in the background. I exposed
for the flower and let the background overexpose a bit.

Be Careful With Your Exposure

This is always good advice but it is even more important in situations where the light is very contrasty. In a situation where the dynamic range, the range of tones from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows, is beyond what your camera sensor (or film) is capable of recording it is important for you to decide which part of the image is most important and expose for it. Generally most sensors can only capture 5-8 stops of brightness levels. In a case like this you must decide whether it is more important to retain detail in either the shadows or the highlights. Expose for the most important tone and let the others fall where they may. You can also opt to chose a median exposure, and try to post process the image to bring back as much detail throught the image as possible. It doesn’t always work, but is an option. I recommend shooting a few different exposures, either manually or by using the auto bracketing feature on your camera if it has one, to give yourself as many options as possible later on.

I photographed this delightful scene on an overcast day.
There wasn’t much color or detail in the sky but I was
able to enhance what was there in the computer.


Fix It In The Computer

You can try to enhance your capture later in the computer. It doesn’t always work but is worth a shot if you captured an image that has potential but falls flat for some reason. As long as the image is somewhat properly exposed and it is well composed, there is hope. I recommend reading my blog post "You Can Always Fix It In The Computer Later" as well as my future blog post "JPEG Adventures In New York City" where I do exactly that.

This flower was lit by harsh afternoon direct sunlight. Being

a semi translucent flower, the harsh lighting made the flower
glow and pop right off the cluttered background which
photographically rendered as near black due to the strong
lighting ratios between the flower and the background elements.

Shoot Details And Telephoto Images

When shooting a small detail or a long distance shot, many times you will find the issue of contrast is no longer an issue. For example, there may be a big difference in the exposure values between the top of a building and the shady street in front of it. But if you use your telephoto lens and zoom to capture either just the top of the building or street details, then you won’t have that problem anymore. You may not be able to capture that wide angle shot you wanted, but you may find yourself capturing something even more interesting. Give it a try.

I set up this still life scene indoors during one of our many
cold winter days when I didn’t feel like venturing outside to
capture photos.
Shoot Indoors

If you are not on an exclusively outdoor expedition, why not take a break and capture some indoor images. Go to a museum, a zoo, or some other venue that allows photography and has exhibits indoors. This can fill up many hours during midday and by the time you are done the magic hour may have already begun.

I hope this post gives you some ideas on how to deal with some of the issues faced during midday shooting. Don’t give up, go out there and push yourself beyond the limitations of harsh lighting. Enjoy!

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Monday, September 3, 2012

From RAW To Fully Cooked: How I Develop My RAW Image Files

The RAW format is a favorite choice of pros for many reasons. It indisputably offers the best and highest quality images that your camera has to offer along with flexibility in processing. The images are more "elastic", you can change things like color balance and saturation without degrading the quality of your images. The RAW files can also be processed to either offer more detail in either the shadow or highlight areas of your images. Processing an image both ways, you can later combine those 2 images in a photo editing program to create one image that has more detail in both the shadow & highlight areas of a scene than you would with just a single capture alone. Not as much detail as you could obtain by using fancy HDR (high dynamic range) programs and combining a series of 3 or more separate image captures, but still an improvement over a single processed image alone.

I often choose the RAW file format for several reason. One reason is because I prefer to shoot handheld and often deliberately underexpose my images a touch for reasons explained in past blog posts. I find that brightening a slightly underexposed RAW images result in less digital noise than lightening a similarly underexposed jpeg image. Another reason I often prefer RAW is because I like the extra control I have over color. I can change color balance more easily and accurately with a RAW file than with a JPEG image. I do also notice a particular increase of quality as far as color is concerned in my images that are processed from RAW files. They seem to have more pop and intensity than the jpeg versions. This is especially true with my floral photography.

Of course it is not always possible, or even necessary to capture all your images in the RAW format and there may be reasons you prefer or must capture a jpeg image. I discuss the subject matter of file formats in greater depth in my past blog post: "RAW, JPEG, or TIFF? "

Like my JPEG workflow, my RAW workflow and adjustments are pretty simple. Some people process their images and save the RAW file for later use. This is a good practice. But for myself, I have never wanted to go back and reprocess an image. I found that I was using up a great deal of media to save files that I am not likely to go back and redo. So for this reason, I no longer save my unedited RAW files except for a few select images. Whether you do or not is up to you. You also have the option of just saving the RAW files of select images that you feel you may want to reprocess in the future as software improves. Again, it is up to you. You can read about general workflow in my past blog post "Go With The (Work)Flow."

I process my RAW files in Adobe Camera RAW, which is part of my Photoshop Elements program. The version of this program that comes with Adobe CS offers more features than my version, but I find that the simpler version works fine for my needs. You can also process your RAW files in Adobe Lightroom or any one of numerous programs that are available. Many of those programs offer similar features to the ones I use and review here in this blog post.

Here are the adjustments that I typically make when processing my RAW files. The order does change from image to image, but I do generally go from top to bottom as they are presented in the program and will go back to adjust a previously adjusted setting if necessary.

The image as captured in camera is on the left. The bluer,
cooler imageon the right is my preferred color balance for
this image. Some may prefer a warmer,more natural color balance.
That's the wonderful thing about photography and RAW capture.
Choose your own preference or develop several versions if you wish.
Your art, your choice.
Color Balance
If the image needs some color adjustment this is my preferred place to do it. Sometimes an image will need to be "warmed" up or "cooled" down, I adjust the blue/yellow slider to adjust as necessary. Occasionally an image will also have either a magenta or green cast to it. Adjusting the magenta/green slider will fix this color cast.
There are times when I find myself an image that I can’t seem to place what exactly the color issue is. When that happens I will choose "auto" or one of the standard color temperature options from the pull down menu and then adjust from there.
And from time to time, I will also choose to process an image with two different color balances when I can’t decide which one I prefer or when I like both a warm and a cool version of the image.
Color balance, like all things photographic, is really a subjective preference more than an exact science. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different color balances other than the "correct" one.


Brightens or darkens an underexposed or overexposed image. I do find that when brightening an image via "Exposure", it can add a bit of contrast. When that happens I pull back the setting and choose to further lighten the image using "Brightness." instead. I have had good luck saving overexposed images via the "Exposure" adjustment. As long as the image is not too overexposed, it works well.

When shooting through glass to capture my backyard birds,
I often find the need to increase the black setting for a clearer
image. I also adjust the clarity setting as well.

Adjusting the blacks in the image not only darkens the blacks but it also deepens color and adds a bit of contrast to the image. I like this adjustment feature and use it often.


I like using this option to lighten and brighten my slightly underexposed images without adding contrast, as adjusting "Exposure" often can. I do not like using it on overexposed images though. I find that when using this option to darken an image, it makes it rather flat and muddy looking. I prefer to adjust overexposed images using "Exposure" instead. I will often adjust the "Brightness" option in conjunction with "Exposure" adjustment, but at a very low setting if fixing an overexposed image.


This adjustment adds apparent sharpness by using an algorithm that increases contrast selectively to parts of the image. This is not quite the same as sharpening an image using sharpening commands. It is much more subtle, and when used at a very low setting is a good tool to use. As I have already mentioned in past blog posts, I prefer to sharpen just right before publication to avoid artifacts. I have not had any issues with artifacts with any of my images that have had clarity adjusted though. As long as used at a low setting, I recommend it.


Adds or subtracts color saturation in images. Not quite as strong as adjusting color saturation by using "Saturation." It is subtle and it is my preferred way of increasing color saturation in my images.

Fill Light

I occasionally use this adjustment to recover image detail in darker parts of an image that may be in shadow. Care needs to be taken though, as if you adjust too far the image will look unnatural and have a lot of digital noise.


The opposite of "Fill Light", this allows you to recover detail in the bright areas of an image. Again care needs to be taken as banding and unnatural color can result if the sliders are pushed too far. Some highlight detail just can not be brought back. I will occasionally use this adjustment in conjunction with adjustments to "Exposure" and "Brightness."

I rarely apply this adjustment to my RAW files unless contrast is a problem in the image. I instead prefer to adjust contrast using the "Exposure" and "Blacks" adjustments as they are a subtle way of doing so. If I want to add contrast to an image, I usually do so later in Photoshop when I am finishing off the image.

And there you have it, my favorite adjustments to make to RAW files. There are many adjustments available as well, but I don’t use them. One thing I never do is sharpen an image during RAW conversions for reasons I cover in my previous blog post. Also, if an image has a lot of digital noise I do those adjustments later in Photoshop with Imagenomic’s Noiseware Pro plugin. I hope reading about my RAW techniques have given you some good ideas to use in your own RAW processing adventures. Don’t be afraid to experiment and develop your own techniques and style of processing your own images.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

You Can Always Fix It In The Computer Later

"You Can Always Fix It In The Computer Later" is a phrase that is all too common these days amongst all different experience levels of photographers. Casual shooters and non photographers believe it to be true. Amateurs rely on it. But experienced and professional photographers know exactly what can really be fixed and the techniques to get it done. Before you rely on the computer’s ability to save a poorly captured image, let me remind of another expression: "you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear." If the image is really poorly captured, no amount of computer work can save it. Period.

Regular readers of my blog know how I feel about this subject. I refer you to my former blog post "Why I Like To Get It Right In Camera" to learn why I feel that way along with some tips to ensure that your in camera capture is as close to "finished" as possible. Over the years I discovered some mistakes that I was making while shooting and learned to avoid those mistakes in the future to save myself time at the computer.

But there are also some things that can be done in the computer that can’t be done in camera. The computer is a powerful tool and when used correctly it can help shine up images that just need a bit of help. Also there are special effects and tools that can be used as part of your signature style. In this post I discuss things I regularly do in the computer to take my images from original capture to final vision.

Here are the things that I regularly do in the computer to finish my images:

First, I do my Raw Processing. This is something that is done in the computer but is something that I consider to be part of the in camera technique. Between what I do in camera and the RAW processing, it will take an image from 95 to 100% finished for me.
The subject of RAW processing really deserves a post all its own so I will post about that next. In the meantime if you want to learn about when and why I choose to shoot RAW, read my older post entitled "RAW, JPEG, or TIFF?"

In these 2 photos you see an image I RAW processed twice. The image at right is the more natural version. The image at left is a cooler, bluer rendition.

JPEG & Tiff adjustments:

After converting a RAW image and saving it to either JPEG or Tiff I then take the image the rest of the way in Photoshop Elements. Other imaging software also offer similar features. While the order of the techniques do vary from image to image, I have arranged them in the order I most often use. This is not detailed tutorial on my techniques, but more an overview of my post processing workflow with a few tips thrown in.

Because I shoot with a low pixel count camera, I often try to frame the image as close to perfect in camera. But this is not always possible either because I can not get close enough to the subject or because I later see a better cropping option once the image is on the computer screen. When cropping an image, you should also save an edited but uncropped version in your files in case it ever becomes necessary to have extra room around the subject. For this reason you may choose to do the cropping as one of the last things you do to the image. I usually prefer to do it first however, but that is just a choice based on my own past experiences.

The "Brightness" adjustment command can be used to increase or decrease brightness. I usually use this command to increase brightness and not to decrease it as I find that decreasing brightness with this option makes images appear muddy to my tastes. I like using this command to increase brightness as it will brighten an image without increasing contrast unlike "levels." I don’t generally use the "Contrast" slider, I prefer using "Levels" to increase contrast. If an image does have too much contrast I may use the "Contrast" slider to decrease it a bit.

To adjust brightness and contrast I choose the "levels" command. The left slider adjusts image shadows, middle slider adjusts midtones, and right slides adjusts the highlights. This tool will not help you recover lost details, but helps to darken or lighten tones and make the image pop. It also adds contrast while adjusting the tones, so be aware of that fact when using this option.

Color Adjustment
I prefer to make my color adjustments in RAW processing, but if I capture in JPEG or if a RAW converted image still needs further adjustment I will do so using Photoshop’s filters. There are many other ways of adjusting color but the filters seem to work for me most of the time. Other ways to adjust colors can be via levels, curves, and a few other ways. Read your software’s manual to discover its features and then experiment to decide what works best for you. After adjusting color, you may need to readjust brightness or levels again.

Here I increased the saturation a bit to more clearly

reflect what I saw when I photographed this building.

I rarely use this comand but when I do I am very careful in using restraint with them. With "Saturation" you can make colors appear more or less saturated than they already are. But be careful as if you go too far with adding saturation, the colors can become posterized and look unatural. With "Hue" you can alter the colors but this can lead to unnatural looking results and sometimes banding and posterization can also appear. If you like your images look like real photograps, then restraint is necessary. But if you are going for a far out arty effect, then go wild!

I used the clone stamp to get rid of the distracting line in the
background. It took a lot of effort to get rid of it, no easy task
and one that took me 4 years of getting my cloning skills up
to par to finally do it. My first attempt 4 years ago did not
work out well for me. I also cropped the image.

Cloning And Healing
Sometimes it becomes necessary to clean up background distractions or flaws on the subject. I fix them using either the "Stamp" or "Healing Brush" tools in Photoshop. Results vary, and it can be time consuming so I recommend that you try to avoid those problems before pushing the shutter button if possible.

Selective Darkening & Vignettes
This is one of my favorite postwork techniques to finish off my images. Much like classic portrait and landscape shooters who would add vignette filters or burn in selective parts of the background in the darkroom to make the subject pop, I like to selectively burn or darken parts of the image in the computer. For many of my flower images I often selectively darken parts of the background and edges of the image to make the flower pop off the page and keep the viewer’s attention where I want it. I also use this technique with some of my landscapes by darkening the edges or around certain parts of the image to make the main focal point of the landscape pop off the page. I will also occasionally, but much less frequently, use the dodge tool to lighten certain features.
There are many different ways to do this. I generally prefer to use the dodge and burn tools in PSE. But you can also use levels or brightness commands with layer masks or combine duplicate layers with different layer blending modes such as lighten or darken. There are many tutorials on line on how to do this. All methods work well and it’s just a matter of experimentation to find the one(s) that work best for you.

I selectively darkened parts of the background to make the flowers pop off the page better.

Noise Reduction
I use Imagenomic’s plugin "Noiseware Pro" to eliminate or lessen digital noise as necessary. I refer you to my past blog post
"What’s All The Noise About Noise"
to learn about digital noise and ways that I deal with it.
This is the one thing that should always be done in the computer rather than in camera. Digital images by nature are slightly on the soft side. This is a fact that is independent of what brand or type of camera you use. Yes, camera sensors, lenses and general shooting technique also do play roles on how soft the image will be. But even if you do capture the sharpest images that your camera is capable of, your photos will still need some sharpening before printing or publishing to the web.
I recommend that you do this sharpening in the computer because you can optimize the sharpness for multiple sizes or needs such as print or web. If you do this in camera and you decide to resize your image later, either larger or smaller, you may find some digital artifacts in your photos. This is also the reason I avoid sharpening my images during RAW conversion.

There are many different ways to sharpen an image. My preference is for Photoshop’s "Unsharp Mask" too. Yes, the name sounds counterintuitive, but it is named after an old darkroom technique that was used to sharpen film prints back in the day. There are three separate sliders that are used in conjunction to sharpen the image which give you control on how much sharpening is applied. That is why I prefer this method as opposed to just using the "sharpen" or "sharpen more" options available in Photoshop. I apply the sharpening to images just after resizing the image. This sharpened image is then saved as a new file. I save a copy of the original unsharpened file for future resizings.

In addition to Photoshop’s standard sharpening tools, there are also many 3rd party software plugins and programs that also offer advanced sharpening and resizing options. There are also other sharpening techniques that can be done in Photoshop, such as using the "high pass" filter and using layers, but I don’t use that technique. I recommend doing a search online for articles on the surprisingly complex subject of sharpening images for more information and options.

Those are my standard techniques that I use on most of the images I shoot. It is most likely that it took you longer to read my descriptions of them than it takes for me to actually apply them to an image. I like to keep my computer work to a minimum if possible. Occasionally I do like to play around with a few other techniques.

Here are a few favorites that I use less often than the above techniques, but do apply from time to time to selective images:

Bring Back Detail In Shadows & Highlights
Using the Shadows/Highlights command can sometimes help to bring back some detail that has been lost in shadow and highlight areas in high contrast images. But keep in mind it does not always help and sometimes create over the top, overly processed looking images. Trying to bring back detail lost in shadow areas can result in shadows with lots of digital noise. Trying to bring back detail lost in the highlights can render areas with unnatural color and banding. It is best used with restraint. I also recommend viewing your images at 100% zoom after using this technique to check for problems with digital noise and banding. If you are capturing images where there is a lot of high contrast that is beyond the capability of your digital sensor to record, it is best to capture a few different images and use HDR techniques as briefly discussed next.

Here I used a combination of the shadow/highlight command along with a bit of burning and dodging to bring out some of the lost details in the image. I also bumped the saturation up a bit. Levels and Brightness commands helped brighten and add a bit of pop to the image as well.

HDR Processing
HDR, or high dynamic range, processing is a technique that blends several different exposures into one image with a high dynamic range from shadows to highlights. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, a brief internet search should bring up several examples as well as tutorials on the subject. Basically, you expose for different exposure values of a scene ranging from the brightest highlights (such as the sky) and the darkest shadows (in the foreground usually) and then bring them all together using either a special program. Or you can combine them in Photoshop and use layer masks to selectively paint in the parts of the image you either want to be hidden or revealed. It can be a time consuming process and hit or miss, but when done well it can render some very stunning images. It can also make for some highly unnatural, over the top imagery. How much restraint you use with this technique is up to how natural or unnatural you want your photography too look. Many HDR images can appear to be more like a painting than a photograph.
Black & White Conversion
I rarely create black and white images, but when I do I prefer to use the "convert to black and white" option in PSE rather than use Hue/Saturation to desaturate the image as I find I have more control over the way the final conversion looks. There are also many other options available in different programs as well as plugins that are also available. If you do a lot of black & white imagery, you should look into the various black and white software that is available as they offer the greatest control and highest quality conversions for serious b&w photographers.

Composite image of the two images below. Took some time do blend the images well, but well worth the effort.

Art Effects
I admit, these days I don’t bother much with them. Composites, special filters, enhanced colors or lighting effects, and more. There is nothing wrong with it really, but for my own work I generally prefer a more natural photographic look to my images. I do experiment with it from time to time though. There are lots of books and articles on the complex and varied subject though, and if you are interested in computer effects I recommend exploring them. Check out articles online and various books.
This image was created by adding a layer of clouds and adjusting color and contrast selectively. Part of my original "Dreams" series.

So there you have it, my favorite techniques for computer post processing. As you can see I prefer to keep it simple. You may prefer more arty effects, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as you are doing it as a form of self expression and not as an attempt to disguise sloppy photographic technique. You should always start with a well composed, and ideally well exposed image and then take it from there. Don’t waste time trying to sew with that sow’s ear, go out and shoot some "silky" images and work those instead. And most importantly, have fun!

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Tripod Hater’s Tips For Sharper Handheld Images

Spring blossoms captured with a telephoto lens. I used the 1/focal length rule and "anti shock" techniques for this one as well as choosing a high ISO and a wide aperture.
I am not a big fan of tripods. Not because they are not great. For the sharpest images, tripods can’t be beat. They aren’t perfect, you will still need to use good technique to obtain the sharpest shots from a tripod as it is possible to obtain fuzzy images on a tripod if you use improper technique. But under most circumstances you will obtain sharper shots with the tripod supported camera than with a handheld camera. But you can obtain acceptably sharp images with a handheld camera if care is taken.

I am not one for tripods because I don’t like carrying them. I also don’t like being locked down into one space for shooting, I often prefer the most freedom of movement. While most pros do prefer to use a tripod, many also feel the way I do. About the only time I really use a tripod is for my moonscapes. I’m not saying that there are not other times I could really use it, but that seems to be the only time I am motivated enough to use one. It is up to you to decide whether handheld shooting is for you or not. Or, sometimes it is really up to the place you are shooting, as some places do not allow tripods to be used. In this blog post I give you some helpful tips on obtaining acceptably sharp images while using a hand held camera.

First of all, what is acceptable sharpness you may be wondering. Acceptable sharpness is simply an image that looks acceptably sharp while on display to most viewers. It may not appear perfectly sharp upon inspecting in a magnified view, but on display it appears sharp to most people. If you print small images 11x17 or smaller, an image with some slight blur is likely to still look acceptably sharp on display. If you print larger images, you may find it a touch harder to achieve acceptably sharp images. Also, acceptably sharp is an objective term. Some people prefer razor sharp images with absolutely no softness. Others don’t mind a bit of softness.

Beauty Queen
I wanted the center of this cosmos flower
to be the sharpest part of the image. So I
choose a wide aperture and focused carefully
on the intricate center and let the rest of the
image soften. Careful handholding technique
rendered the center beautifully sharp.

Here are some of my favorite techniques to obtain the sharpest possible images while shooting handheld:

1. Support your camera as sturdily as you can. I try to keep both my arms pressed against my chest for the most stability. I have the right hand supporting the camera and the left hand under the lens as far out away from the camera body as the lens is for maximum stability. This position does not work well for all shooting situations, but it is the most stable one. I also press the camera against my face for additional support and have my legs has solid as possible.

 2. Remember the classic rule for handheld shooting that dictates that the lowest possible speed for sharp handheld shots is 1/focal length. For example, if shooting with a 300mm lens you should not go below 1/300 of a second shutter speed. It is a loose guide, some people can shoot at lower shutter speeds and other photographers may require a faster one but it is a good starting point to work with. Also keep in mind that the focal length you should use is the 35mm equivalent version. If you are using a digital camera with an cropped sensor, you will need to take that into account. For example, I shoot Olympus and a 300mm lens gives me a 600mm angle of view in standard 35mm equivalent. Thus ideally I should not go below 1/600 a second when shooting with that lens. Of course, I do go lower but I realize that when I do that I am taking a chance.

3. If your camera or lens has an image stabilization feature, use it if you are shooting at shutter speeds that are approaching speeds below the recommended shutter speeds using the above rule. You can usually then shoot at lower shutter speeds than typically considered safe. You can often go as much as 2 stops lower than the recommended safe handheld shooting speed with image stabilization.

4. The "rule" and image stabilization can only help you if your subject is a still one. If you are shooting a moving subject, the rules no longer apply and you are then working with a whole new set of rules. And windy days may cause some natural still subjects such as flowers and tree limbs to move.

I captured these beautiful Sopraono
Daisies with my Lensbaby for an image
in my signature soft style. But even when
I do choose to capture a dreamy image
such as this one, I still like at least one
sharp feature. The intricate center of the
foremost flower was my focal point.
5. Realize and accept that when handheld shooting you may need to make adjustments to your other settings to obtain the fastest possible shutter speed. You may need to use a higher ISO or a wider aperture. These changes can result in higher digital noise and shallower depth of field. If you like to shoot landscapes with deep focus and no noise, especially in low light, you may need to invest the money and effort into the tripod.

6. Shoot with a delay. This technique can be hit or miss, especially when shooting with shallow depth of field. But it is a useful one that helps occasionally. On my camera, the setting is called "anti shock." I set it to 1 second, and then after pushing the shutter button the viewfinder goes dark as the mirror moves out of the way (the "shock" that the setting attempts to offset) and then one second later the image is recorded. If shooting a shallow focus image, you risk moving after the button is pressed and your shot may not be in focus. This technique is not recommended for images with moving subjects for obvious reasons. When I use this technique with my shallow depth of field images, I usually shoot a few frames to make sure that I obtain at least one sharp image.

7. Which leads me to this tip: shoot a few frames. You can shoot them one by one, or you can even set your camera to sequential shooting to take a few shots in a row in quickly after pushing the shutter button only once. The first shot is likely to be the blurriest as the mirror may vibrate the camera as it moves out of the way for the first shot, and shots following are likely to be a bit sharper. Read your camera manual to find out about that setting.

8. Shoot only when ready. Once you have yourself completely steady and feel that you are rock solid, only then push the shutter button. I even take that one step further and often try to shoot in between my heartbeats. And don’t jab at the shutter button, that will shake the whole camera resulting in a less than sharp image. Gently squeeze the shutter button in a nice smooth motion.

9. And don’t forget your compositions. Just because you are shooting handheld doesn’t mean you should be a sloppy shooter. As part as the above tip, be sure to check the edges of your frame and backgrounds for unwanted distractions. Then steady yourself. Then shoot!

10. Look for improvisational tripods and supports. Sometimes a railing, table, or flat service can work as an tripod. Just make sure you don’t lose your camera by having it fall off an unsteady surface. Also you can use trees and walls to lean against to make your body sturdier and less shaky when shooting handheld. Just make sure that what you are leaning against is really sturdy and you leaning on it is not going to cause more problems than it solves.

So there you have it, the tripod hater’s tips for sharper handheld images. I hope some of these tips help you on your own tripod free adventures.
Foxglove flowers captured in a shady part of my garden.
Careful handholding technique while using my telephoto
lens was necessary to keep the image as sharp as I wanted
it to be. Most images in my blog are shot handheld using
the techniques outlined in this blog post.

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why I Like Getting It right In Camera

I photographed this flower using an old film technique to manipulate the color in this image. I used an orange colored filter over an on camera accessory flash and set the color balance of the image to tungsten to render the background blue in tone while keeping the color of the flower fairly accurate. Effect done in camera.

The camera never lies, or so they say. Well, in reality the camera is a bigger lier than most professional politicians are. It reveals or hides whatever the photographer wants it to, and manipulates the viewer’s perception in the process. This is part of what drew me into photography in the first place. I have always enjoyed the escapism of viewing a photograph and feeling like I’ve entered into a new dimension. Letting go and allowing myself feel what, hopefully, the photographer intended me to experience. Pure fantasy.

From an early age, I enjoyed viewing photographs and art. I had a particular love of fashion, nature and architectural images. Back in the late 1970s through early 1980s, when my photography interests were just blooming, digital photography was not yet being used. All those early photographs that enthralled me so much were captured on film. With negative and print retouching being costly and time consuming, most photographers would choose to get it right in camera. With the exception of burning and dodging in the darkroom, most photographers’ effects were done in camera.

I was given my first camera when I was fourteen years old. It was a simple compact film camera, with no manual controls. I used to love to try and manipulate it into creating the types of images that I wanted. I developed ways to make it use long exposures so that I could capture more color in my concert photographs. I also used to like to arrange still lives and use a combination of fill flash and tungsten lighting for those images.

But it was when I got my first "real" camera, a Yashica 35mm film slr, at eighteen that things really took off for me. It was then that I discovered Cokin’s line of optical filters and it was pure love and magic! Oh what fun to experiment with those magical squares & discs made of resin. Soft focus, dreams, cosmos (rainbow streaks – OMG magic), colors, graduated filters (especially the colored ones), and even bicolored polarizers. Wow! I could play for hours, only limited by the cost of film, processing, and my imagination. Oh, how I loved it!

Then I started buying photography books and magazines and started to learn advance techniques. All in camera magic. Filtering flash and using multiple light setups, painting with light, mixing light sources of various color temperatures, slow shutter speed motion effects, and so much more. When I got my first professional slr camera in 1988, a Minolta Maxxum 9000, I made another creative leap in camera magic. I learned how to use off camera flash and would set up still lives with my boyfriend’s collection of toys as props. All the while still using my Cokin filters, of course. The staff at the local photo lab used to enjoy when I would bring in my film for developing. They enjoyed viewing the photographs that were more than just the usual family and vacation snapshots. And all of my effects were done in camera.

Fast forward to 1998 when I got my first "serious" computer. My first computer was a black & white notebook used for word processing and when I finally had a computer that could actually handle color photographs things took off once again. I had been seeing some very interesting computer manipulated imagery in my photography magazines and I was excited to finally be able to experiment with it myself. Once again I went filter crazy, this time in the computer. I would scan my slides and negatives and then experiment with various Photoshop filters. Oh the tacky images I would make. All those effects were brand new to me and also still relatively new to most of the viewing public. I admit some of the images that I created back then make me laugh now. But some of them I do still like. But as with most novelty effects, it got old fast. Afterward, there was a brief period of time that I sort of lost interest in photography. I would mainly shoot concerts and wrestling, and wasn’t doing much scenic or still life work anymore. It was an in between period for me creativity wise. I was using digital cameras but they were not dslr cameras with interchangeable lenses. The magic was temporarily gone for me.

But that changed once again in 2006 when I bought my first dslr, my Olympus E1, which I still use for reasons that I have discussed in past blog posts here. That magic feeling was back. Building on my past skills and learning new ones, it was magic once again. My skills still needed to be improved and I felt that I wasn’t achieving the particular style that has since become part of my signature style. I love shallow focus imagery and just couldn’t figure out how to do it. So once again I resorted to using the computer to enhance my images. Well, let me tell you, I wasn’t achieving my vision that way either. While I did create some images that have held up to the test of time most of them just don’t measure up now.

I captured this image digitally in color & later
 converted it to black & white in the computer.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of effects that can only be done in the computer. I love images that have texture overlays, some HDR (high dynamic range) images, color manipulations, and composites. Digital black and white photography is often best done in computer, you’ll have more control when converting a color image and you’ll also have a full color original as well – it’s the best of both worlds. I often burn and dodge in computer to enhance my images. Occasionally it is also necessary to clone out spots or distracting elements in an image. I also have a preference for using the RAW digital file format, for reasons I have explained in a past blog post and will further elaborate on in a future post.

After a long journey of experimenting with computer effects, getting it right in camera is still my game of choice. I’m not against computer manipulations, far from it. It’s just that I personally experience pure joy when I can capture an image that requires minimal computer work and matches my original vision right out of the box. I am a photographer, not a computer operator, and I enjoy being outside creating the images. Experimenting and playing with my camera settings and different lenses. Just like when I was younger. Some things never change. And yes, I still enjoying using those Cokin filters, even if I don’t use them as much now as I did back when I first discovered them.

Want to get it right in camera? Here are some of my favorite tips and techniques:

There are a few in camera techniques being
used here in this image. A firm knowledge of
exposure meant I knew how to expose for the
flower while letting the darker background go
dark. I also chose this attractive and beautiful
flower as being perfect enough to photograph.
I also used shallow depth of field and paid
attention to the background and any potentially
distracting elements in the frame. I did also take
advantage of some help from the computer by
removing digital noise and darkening the edges
of the frame a bit to draw further attention to
the beautiful flower.
1. Get a firm knowledge of exposure. Knowing how and where to meter will help you to avoid having to "fix" exposure errors. And not all exposure errors can be fixed, even if shooting RAW.

2. Pay attention to your composition. Make sure that there are no distractions in the background or edges of the frame before you press the shutter button. Remove distracting elements either by hand if possible, or change camera position.

3. Choose the best possible subject possible. For example, if shooting flowers look for the flower with the least amount of marks, browning and other flaws. If capturing images of people, make sure they look their best (neat clothes, perfect makeup and hair.) That way, you’ll have the least amount of retouching to do later. Of course, it is not always option but if it is use it!

4. Get a firm knowledge of depth of field. Some background distractions can’t be removed by hand or by moving the camera. That’s when shallow depth of field can help. Use the widest aperture your lens offers and move as close to the subject as you can for the most minimal depth of field and softest backgrounds. And if you don’t know how to do that or what I am talking about, I refer you to the next tip.

5. Learn as much as you can about photography. Having a firm knowledge base will help improve your photography. Buy books & magazines, and read articles online. But don’t just read about it, go out and practice, practice, practice.

6. Use optical filters. I have already expressed my love of experimenting with filters. In addition to Cokin, there are many different brands available. Some filters render effects that can be duplicated in the computer, such as color filters, but some can’t. In particular, I recommend experimenting with polarizer filters. They deepen colors and remove reflections in a way that can not be replicated in the computer.

7. Experiment with shutter speeds. Using a slow shutter speed can add motion blur. Yeah, you can do those corny motion blur effects in the computer. But they are much cooler when captured in camera. Trust me.

8. Experiment with lighting. Mixing available light (daylight, moonlight, room lamps etc.) with a flash can render some interesting effects. Especially when you also experiment with shutter speeds and colored filters.

9. Try different lenses. Lenses are the photographer’s paintbrushes. Different lenses can render many different effects. From wide angle to telephoto lenses and novelty lenses like a Lensbaby, there are many different effects that can be had just by the simple act of changing a lens. That is part of the reason I felt creatively stifled by using cameras with no ability to switch out lenses. If you are lucky enough to be using a dslr or film dslr camera, don’t just stick to using one lens all the time. Take advantage of all the "photographer paintbrushes" that you have in your current kit and regularly add new ones.

10. Have fun! Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn new techniques. The best artists and photographers experiment throughout their whole lifetimes. Enjoy!
Captured this bubbly effect in camera. I used my Lensbaby lens which turned the highlights in the background into "bubbles" and then moved my camera around until the bubbles appeared in just the right places for my composition.

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