The Gift of Aperture

Someone asked me the other day which shooting mode I use most, and I told them 90% of the time I shoot in Aperture Priority.
Someone asked me the other day which shooting mode I use most, and I told them 90% of the time I shoot in Aperture Priority.

It’s Christmas time again, and with it we photographers find ourselves photographing something very pure to our imaging instincts: Christmas lights. Beautiful and dazzling to the eyes, we love photographing them for several reasons. They are everywhere, they are fun to shoot, and they summon the children inside us who looked on them with amazement all those years ago.

I think about this as I photograph lights for a living, and last night as I photographed the Christmas tree and lights at home. I did a fun little experiment that illustrates the value of mastering aperture: shooting the same scene at apertures through the entire range. It is powerfully illustrative of the effects of aperture…

Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/1.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/1.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/2.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/2.8.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/22.
Christmas Lights on the Front Porch, f/22.

Made with my 50mm f/1.8 lens, one of the best and most affordable lenses in anyone’s bag, these three images are identical except for aperture, which, as you can see, makes a huge difference. Wide open, the out-of-focus highlights are round, at f/2.8, they take on the heptagonal shape of the aperture blades, and at f/22, each bright point of light takes on the classic “sunstar” look.

All three of these unique looks has a place in our photography, and all are right there at our fingertips.

1+

The Raw and the Cooked

This is how my images looked straight out of the camera at a Roff Tigers basketball game recently. As you can see, they are contaminated with a ton of yellow-green light that is hard to dial out.
This is how my images looked straight out of the camera at a Roff Tigers basketball game recently. As you can see, they are contaminated with a ton of yellow-green light that is hard to dial out.

I am in the middle of teaching another Digital Photography for Beginners class at the Pontotoc Technology Center. It’s a good group.

As my readers and students know, I am an advocate of the RAW file format. I feel that while JPEG is a robust and easy to use format, it can, in many situations, cheat us out of the imaging potential of our expensive, sophisticated camera.

What's the Difference?

JPEGJoint Photographic Experts Group, is a a lossy compression file format that almost every computer in the world can read. It is the default file format for nearly every new camera. It makes files with 8-bits of data per color per pixel, meaning each color is expressed by a number from 0 to 255. Additionally, too much JPEG compression can create JPEG artifacts, which can’t be easily fixed or removed.

RAW is a proprietary file type unique to each digital camera, that requires special software to access. It is a lossless, sometimes losslessly compressed, file format that creates up to 16-bits per color per pixel, meaning that each color is expressed by a number from 0 to 65535 or higher. Since RAW files don’t use the lossy compression that JPEGs use, it does not create compression artifacts.

One situation where shooting RAW is indispensable is sports in low light, particularly in weird low light. I was in that situation last week in Roff, Oklahoma, a small high school with a cozy gym that is always packed with fans. With lights that have a yellow-green spike, and yellow floor, chairs, uniforms and fan clothing, the yellow quickly overwhelms any effort to pick a correct in-camera white balance. The only solution I’ve found is to shoot RAW, then aggressively dial out the yellow-green in Adobe’s Camera RAW dialog. There’s just not enough color data in an 8-bit JPEG to accomplish this.

As you can see, between click-balancing with the eyedropper tool, and active correction and desaturation of the yellows, it is possible to convert a yellow mess into a very usable image…

Human at last: after using the eyedropper tool to set basic white balance, I then dug into the hue and saturation dialog and aggressively dialed down the yellow. RAW to the rescue.
Human at last: after using the eyedropper tool to set basic white balance, I then dug into the hue and saturation dialog and aggressively dialed down the yellow. RAW to the rescue.

 

0

Single-Frame High Dynamic Range

This is my source image, a late afternoon shot at central New Mexico's Camel Rock. It's not a bad frame, but I wanted more out of it. The shadows in the rock face are too dark, but increasing the exposure would destroy the deep blues of the sky.
This is my source image, a late afternoon shot at central New Mexico’s Camel Rock. It’s not a bad frame, but I wanted more out of it. The shadows in the rock face are too dark, but increasing the exposure would destroy the deep blues of the sky.

As my readers know, I recently enjoyed some rather spectacular success photographing Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch using a technique called High Dynamic Range, or HDR. The technique usually involves shooting an image a number of times (I usually make five) at different exposures (called bracketing), then blending them together using software to create an HDR image. The program I use is called Photomatix Pro, but there are many available.

What some photographers might not realize is that it is possible to create HDR-like images using just a single frame and a blending method called tone mapping.

Instead of telling the software to blend three or five or ten images, we tell it to tone map one, and it offers us various settings we can apply to create the look we want. I used it recently on some stubbornly contrasty iPhone images, and just today I was able to extract a much more interesting and inviting image out of a single frame that I would have been able to just using Photoshop. Have a look…

This early evening shot at Camel Rock shows how a fairly dull image can be punched up using software techniques like tone mapping.
This early evening shot at Camel Rock shows how a fairly dull image can be punched up using software techniques like tone mapping.
0

Dancing with the iPhone

While my Nikon D7100 was making a 10-minute video clip at Delicate Arch in Utah's Arches National Park in October, I made this image of it with my iPhone 5. I later used Photomatix Pro to improve the shadow detail and control the highlights.
While my Nikon D7100 was making a 10-minute video clip at Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park in October, I made this image of it with my iPhone 5. I later used Photomatix Pro to improve the shadow detail and control the highlights.

A longstanding (and often over-cited) maxim in photography is, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” It’s not a great maxim, since it can become an excuse for not bringing the right camera for the right imaging task.

Abby shops at Madrid, New Mexico. This is the image as my iPhone originally rendered it, with way too much contrast.
Abby shops at Madrid, New Mexico. This is the image as my iPhone originally rendered it, with way too much contrast.

On the other hand, having a camera of some kind is always better than having no camera, and in the smartphone era, most of us have a fairly decent point-and-shoot built into our lives. That was the case for me last October when my wife Abby and I wanted to take a “day off” from our usual vacation itinerary of exploring photo ops and just walk around the small town of Madrid, New Mexico with our dogs. Madrid is, by the way, one of the dog-friendliest towns we’ve ever experienced.

Abby shops at Madrid, New Mexico. I used Photomatix Pro to play around with the tones, and ended up saving this one because it illustrates how much you can do with the app. Some will find this look neat, and some will find it garish. I think it's a little of both. In any case, it certainly improved the contrast problem with the original iPhone image.
Abby shops at Madrid, New Mexico. I used Photomatix Pro to play around with the tones, and ended up saving this one because it illustrates how much you can do with the app. Some will find this look neat, and some will find it garish. I think it’s a little of both. In any case, it certainly improved the contrast problem with the original iPhone image.

Additionally, I wanted to play around with the WordPress app on my iPhone 5 and post a few of my iPhone images from the trip on PhotoLoco, our shared experimental photography gallery.

The resulting images were predictable: I got passable point-and-shoot images right out of the camera, but in order to be of any use or interest to me, I would need to punch them up a bit. In the field for the WordPress posts, I used a free app in my iPhone called Photoshop Express. I was able to use a couple of the built-in filters to play around with color and tone, and ended up remotely posting something I genuinely liked.

I shot this image of Utah's Wilson Arch with my iPhone for the sole purpose of posting it to PhotoLoco. I used Photoshop Express to punch up the colors and darken the corners, which gave the image a far better sense of drama.
I shot this image of Utah’s Wilson Arch with my iPhone for the sole purpose of posting it to PhotoLoco. I used Photoshop Express to punch up the colors and darken the corners, which gave the image a far better sense of drama.
This is a screen shot of the Photoshop Express app for iPhone.
This is a screen shot of the Photoshop Express app for iPhone.

I should note that this activity differs markedly from the typical Facebooker/Instagrammer/Tumblrer/Twitterer, almost all of whom post overwhelming numbers of very similar, and therefore boring, images.

Another tool I use to enhance my iPhone photos, especially the ones in which contrast was overwhelming, is Photomatix Pro. In addition to being an excellent app for blending several bracketed images together to form one High Dynamic Range image, it also allows single-image enhancement, including contrast management.

Not every photo made with the iPhone needs to be heavily edited, but it’s nice to experiment with the tools available and have another avenue of expression at my disposal.

This image of small statues for sale at Santa Fe, New Mexico's Historic Plaza is pretty much as the iPhone rendered it originally, with excellent color and sharpness.
This image of small statues for sale at Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Historic Plaza is pretty much as the iPhone rendered it originally, with excellent color and sharpness.
0

What the Camera Sees vs What We Want It to See

Much of the time photography is about capturing what we see – not necessarily what is real or correct – and delivering that to our audience. There are many variables, including composition, lens selection, aperture and shutter speed, focus point, position with regard to the background, position with regard to the light, and so on.

One aspect I keep emphasizing is exposure, or more simply, the apparent brightness or darkness of an image. One reason I keep hitting this point is that it’s one thing our cameras can do without any input from us. Our cameras can’t tell the model to smile, they can’t tell us where to stand, they can’t decide for us to be at a cliff at sunset, but they can determine how bright an image appears.

Brightness values come into play more than ever now, during the holiday season, when we are dazzled and amazed by Christmas trees and lighting displays, and are eager to photograph them. The trouble crops up when our camera sees bright lights and says, “Oops, the scene is too bright. I better make it darker.” Camera exposure algorithms are biased to protect highlights (since a pure white tone from a digital sensor contains no detail), so often a camera will, by default, pick an exposure like this…

100mm @ f/16, 1/3 of a second
100mm @ f/16, 1/3 of a second
I tell my photography students that in my day-to-day shooting, I use exposure compensation to finesse brightness for pretty much every image.
I tell my photography students that in my day-to-day shooting, I use exposure compensation to finesse brightness for pretty much every image.

This is not how we perceive Christmas lights, nor does it express to our audience the essence of the scene, which, in my view, harkens back to our childhood perceptions of the beautiful, bright lights of the holidays. Since the camera, presumably, has neither the desire to express this brightness nor childhood experiences on which to draw, we the photographers have to step in with aggressive use of exposure compensation. In the image below, everything is the same except the exposure time; made in aperture priority at f/16, I went from 0.0 exposure compensation to +2.7, which told the camera to change the shutter speed from 1/3rd of a second to 3.6 seconds. As you can see, the image below is much more expressive of the beautiful brightness of holiday lighting.

100mm @ f/16, 3.6 seconds.
100mm @ f/16, 3.6 seconds.

 

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Exposure Compensation: What and How

This is the exposure compensation button on a Nikon camera. Different camera companies put it in different places, or embedded in menus, but they all work the same way: letting us fine tune the brightness values of our images. (Don't mistake this for a similar-looking control near the viewfinder, which is the diopter setting.)
This is the exposure compensation button on a Nikon camera. Different camera companies put it in different places, or embedded in menus, but they all work the same way: letting us fine tune the brightness values of our images. (Don’t mistake this for a similar-looking control near the viewfinder, which is the diopter setting.)
This is an image displayed on the monitor of a modern digital camera. The top frame is set to -1.7 exposure compensation, the middle to 0.0, and the bottom is set to +1.7 exposure compensation.
This is an image displayed on the monitor of a modern digital camera. The top frame is set to -1.7 exposure compensation, the middle to 0.0, and the bottom is set to +1.7 exposure compensation.

The fundamental look of our images is controlled by many factors: subject, composition, lighting, focal length, color. One element of our imaging that stands out as particularly important is exposure. Our images are made of light, so how much or how little light we show in them is at their heart.

I thought of this for two reasons. First, someone emailed me with an exposure question. Second, I happened across yet another raging debate on Photo.net this morning about “expose to the right,” a hot-button issue regarding exposure in the digital age.

Before we dive into exposure control, let me stridently assert this: exposure, like most factors in photography, is subjective. If anyone every tells you that your opinion about exposure is wrong, they’re wrong. We all have a unique perspective on imaging.

The email I received, however, was a fairly straightforward question from someone just learning about photography: “I think I have sufficient lighting but my pictures come out dark. Any suggestions?”

The answer is, thankfully, a reasonably easy one: learn how to use exposure compensation. Exposure compensation is the way we tell the camera to expose the sensor to more or less light. On many cameras, it is controlled by a button with a +/- on it. We push and hold the button and turn a dial (the main command dial on Nikons) left or right to change the amount of exposure compensation, usually by one third of an f/stop at a time. When you bought your camera, this value was set to 0.0. We can change it to values like +0.7 or -2.3, and so on. Plus makes the image brighter, while minus makes it darker.

Of note is that exposure compensation is usually disabled in “green box” auto mode or scene modes, so to use it, you need to be in one of three exposure modes, P=Program, A=Aperture Priority, or S=Shutter Priority (Canon cameras use Av and Tv for the last two). (See The PASM for more on these modes.) Also, note that exposure compensation has no effect in manual mode, because in manual mode, we pick all the settings.

I intentionally shot this image of a law ornament at "minus 2.3" exposure compensation to illustrate a genuinely underexposed image.
I intentionally shot this image of a law ornament at “minus 2.3” exposure compensation to illustrate a genuinely underexposed image.
This image of the same lawn ornament as above, was made at about +0.3, and looks about right.
This image of the same lawn ornament as above, was made at about +0.3, and looks about right.

I mentioned “expose to the right” earlier, so I should explain: there are those who believe, often very dogmatically, that the histogram (see the image of the display on the back of my camera; the histogram is that thing that looks like little mountain ranges) should be stacked to the right. “Expose to the right” is a worthless tome because it’s only effective some of the time, and treats us as robots who need rules to follow.

In my occupation, news, magazine and sports photography, human faces take priority over other shadows and highlights, so much of the time I try to expose so we can see who, not what.

Exposure can make or break certain images, like this wheatgrass at sunset down by our pond this evening. The camera sees the brightness of the sun in the image and might tend to underexpose it, but vigilant use of exposure compensation results in beautiful moments like these.
Exposure can make or break certain images, like this wheatgrass at sunset down by our pond this evening. The camera sees the brightness of the sun in the image and might tend to underexpose it, but vigilant use of exposure compensation results in beautiful moments like these.
0

Coming Soon to an America Near You

Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.
Adans watch fireworks from the banks of Wintersmith Lake.

I’ve been shooting various Independence Day celebrations for my entire career. Our community, Ada, Oklahoma, has a big day-long party in Wintersmith Park. It starts at 7 am with the Fireball Classic 5k/10k run, and ends 14 hours later with a fireworks display over the lake in the park. Many Adans set up tents and make a day out of it.

One slightly vexing problem for a lot of would-be photographers is the formula for photographing fireworks. Complicating matters is that many of today’s cameras have a not-very-effective “fireworks” mode on the exposure mode dial.

Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada's Wintersmith Park.
Three floral shells burst in the sky above Ada’s Wintersmith Park.

But I’m here to make it easy. You need…

A lens that focuses "beyond infinity" sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.
A lens that focuses “beyond infinity” sounds theatrical and impossible, but some are actually made this way because of differential expansion of some of the specialized glass elements inside.
  • A rock-solid tripod
  • A digital SLR or other camera with the ability to make manual exposures for up to 30-seconds.
  • A lens, probably a zoom, that can be focused manually and has either a focus distance scale or a hard stop at the infinity setting (some lenses focus beyond infinity, which is a place for another, more philosophical discussion.)
  • A spot about as close as you can get to the source of the fireworks.
Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.
Independence Day is more than just the fireworks show at the end of the day; have fun making pictures of the Americana.

Find your spot early enough that you don’t have people sit or stand in front of you. On top of a wall or at the edge of water might work. With the camera on the tripod, focus to infinity. Make your shutter speed “B” or “Bulb,” which allows the shutter to stay open as long as you hold the shutter release down. Make your ISO about 200, and your aperture somewhere around f/11.

Be ready to tweak these settings if they don’t give you what you want.

As the fireworks show starts, watch the floral shells lift into the air. Anticipate when they will burst, and try to open the shutter just before they do. Hold the shutter open as more shells burst. The longer you hold the shutter open, the more bursts will accumulate on the image. I find that two or three is enough, but your taste may vary.

Be aware that longer shutter speeds also accumulate more smoke and haze that is illuminated by the fireworks themselves.

There are other tricks of the trade. Some shooters will bring a black card (or a black hat or other black object), open the shutter, then move the card out of the way during the period of the motion of the fireworks that he wants to capture, then covering the lens again and waiting for the next chance to add to the image.

The true essence of photographing fireworks is to let your creative self have fun, both in the process and at the destination.

Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no "correct" image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.
Fireworks are extremely satisfying to photograph because there is no “correct” image, and they have the potential to dazzle the eye.
0

Commanding the Light: Polarizers

Over the years I have collected a number of polarizers, but you really only need one, big enough for your biggest diameter lens (in my case, 77mm) and a step-up ring which will allow you to put bigger filters on smaller lenses.
Over the years I have collected a number of polarizers, but you really only need one, big enough for your biggest diameter lens (in my case, 77mm) and a step-up ring which will allow you to put bigger filters on smaller lenses.
Now you see it, now you don't: the light emitted by computer monitors is strongly polarized.
Now you see it, now you don’t: the light emitted by computer monitors is strongly polarized.

In recent entries I talked about the use of filters in black-and-white film photography, and ways to emulate them using digital image files and editing features such as Adobe Photoshop’s channel mixer.

Unlike black-and-white filters, which pass their own color, but don’t pass opposite colors, polarizers pass light that is polarized in the same direction as the polarizer, and don’t pass light that is polarized at a 90˚ angle to the filter’s setting. I could go on about the mechanics of this process, but in photographic terms, results matter more than anything else.

The two main purposes of a polarizer are to control reflections, and to manipulate the blue part of the sky. There are other uses, but these are the reasons to carry a polarizer on a regular basis.

A polarizer can be used to suppress reflections, like this one of the street in my car window.
A polarizer can be used to suppress reflections, like this one of the street in my car window.
Polarizers can also be used to improve the appearance of sky areas in an image, since blue sky light is usually more polarized than clouds or objects on the ground.
Polarizers can also be used to improve the appearance of sky areas in an image, since blue sky light is usually more polarized than clouds or objects on the ground.

There are a couple of serious downsides to using a polarizer:

  • It absorbs between one and three EV of light, meaning one to three f/stops or shutter values, and
  • Light isn’t usually polarized evenly over the area of the image, which can result in a darker area of, for instance, the sky, which can be hard to fix in post-production

    Beware the "hot spot," particularly with wider-angle lenses, like in this 18mm image at New Mexico's Plaza Blanca. The uneven darkening of the sky from clumsy use of a polarizer can be difficult to remove.
    Beware the “hot spot,” particularly with wider-angle lenses, like in this 18mm image at New Mexico’s Plaza Blanca. The uneven darkening of the sky from clumsy use of a polarizer can be difficult to remove.

Using polarizers is pretty straightforward on a digital SLR: rotate the movable ring on the front of the filter until you see the result you want. On bridge/crossover cameras, it’s more complicated, since the exposure system of the camera will make the image in the viewfinder or display on the back of the camera lighter or darker to compensate for the action of the polarizer. With cameras like that (in my case, the Minolta DiMage 7i and the Fuji S200EXR and HS30EXR), I typically let the camera focus and set exposure, then I manually lock the exposure, then rotate the polarizer for the best effect.

Polarizers use a literal “rule of thumb,” meaning that if you point your thumb at the sun, and keep your index finger at a 90˚angle to it, anywhere your index finger can point will be the area of greatest polarization of the sky.

Also of note: when rotating your polarizer, turn it in the direction your would screw on a filter, or you might end up accidentally removing it while trying to use it.

In my day-to-day news and sports photography, I don’t use a polarizer very often, but in my travels, particularly in the American West, I find that careful use of this filter can dramatically improve my photographic expression.

A polarizer and careful attention to exposure can yield beautiful, dramatic skies like this one near Shiprock Peak in northwestern New Mexico.
A polarizer and careful attention to exposure can yield beautiful, dramatic skies like this one near Shiprock Peak in northwestern New Mexico.
0

Observations on Film, Filtration and Our Roots

Wall, branches and vines, Byars, Oklahoma, December 1999, made on 6x7 Verichrome Pan Film with a deep orange filter.
Wall, branches and vines, Byars, Oklahoma, December 1999, made on 6×7 Verichrome Pan Film with a deep orange filter.
This is my 105mm f/1.8 Nikkor near the end of its life. As you can see from the hood and the focus ring, I got a lot of use out of it.
This is my 105mm f/1.8 Nikkor near the end of its life. As you can see from the hood and the focus ring, I got a lot of use out of it.

I touched on black-and-white filters in an entry not long ago after a photographer webfriend of mine, Tom Clark, said he was returning to black-and-white film combined with one of his very favorite lenses, the Nikkor 105mm f/1.8. I had one of these jewels for most of my film-based shooting career, and it was an amazing piece of glass. I used it hard and eventually used it up, and got rid of it some years ago.

Tom’s post started me thinking about black-and-white and medium format imaging, but the fire was stoked a week later when a nice young lay named Michaeli came to my office to borrow a lupe so she could examine her medium format color slides. I showed her a few prints of some of my 6×7 stuff from back in the day, and she really enjoyed them.

Micheali, who preferred that I did not included her last name, looks over some of my 6x7 prints. I am very pleased when I learn that photographers from her generation are interested in film and medium format photography.
Micheali, who preferred that I did not included her last name, looks over some of my 6×7 prints. I am very pleased when I learn that photographers from her generation are interested in film and medium format photography.

I have no film cameras at the moment. I believe Robert still has a Nikon F4, but I don’t know if he ever shoots with it any more. Like most of us, the commerce of imaging has led us to think digital. All my work is digital now, and it is very rewarding, but I did some great work on film, and it’s fun to remember.

This is the original digital file, an image of the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, made in 2005.
This is the original digital file, an image of the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, made in 2005.

One aspect of shooting film that I was thinking about last night, and looking up extensively on my iPad as Abby and I watched television, is black-and-white filtration. As much as I tried, I never really mastered it, probably because I only had limited occasion to shoot scenics in black-and-white (see the 1985 through 2003 entries on The Traveller to see some of my attempts), and by the time I was making a point to travel and shoot the land several times a year, I was mostly shooting digital.

One thing I did create last night was a very dramatic example, using Adobe Photoshop’s channel mixer’s black-and-white presets, of red vs blue filtration.

This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated blue filter.
This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated blue filter.
This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated red filter.
This is Delicate Arch rendered with a simulated red filter.

As you can see, back in the day, a filter could make or break a black-and-white image.

The way we tell our stories in photography is often so much about how we render tonal qualities.

0

What’s All This About Aperture?

Of all the important options we have in photography, aperture selection ranks at or near the top.
Of all the important options we have in photography, aperture selection ranks at or near the top.

When I was a young teenager just learning about photography, I saw the word “aperture” in magazines like Popular Photography, but never heard it spoken out loud. I sounded it out in my head as ape (as in simian) + erture. My dad used to laugh at me about it. By the time I hit high school, though, I was saying it correctly.

I wasn’t using it correctly though, at least not all the time. I could tell just from using the stop-down lever that smaller apertures gave me more depth of field and large apertures made it shallow. But putting them into practice would take years to master.

f/1.8, f/5.6, and f/22.
f/1.8, f/5.6, and f/22.

In an optically-ideal world, one without limitations in budgets or physics, lenses are actually supposed to be their very sharpest “wide open,” meaning at their largest aperture settings. In the real world of photography, though, the truth is that most lenses tend to be their very sharpest at about two f-stops down (smaller) from wide open. A classic example is the ubiquitous 50mm f/1.4 lens. Wide open it will tend to be soft in the corners and littered with various aberrations. Two stops down, f/2.8, though, will make the lens absolutely dazzle with sharpness.

A few lenses, like the vaunted AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G, or the even more exotic Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, are designed specifically for use at that huge maximum aperture. Most photographers who use these lenses don’t use them for their low-light capabilities (though there is a dedicated following that does) but for the powerful selective focus ability of these apertures.

I’ve enjoyed the benefits of those big f-stops for years, and recently several of my students have “seen the light” and begin to explore their capabilities. All you have to do to begin to see what a big aperture can do is shoot something with a “kit lens” (like Nikon’s 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6) at 50mm at its largest aperture, then shoot it with a large-aperture 50mm lens at its largest aperture. You don’t have to take my word for it; borrow a 50mm f/1.8 or an 85mm f/1.8 and give it a try. It’s pretty amazing.

Take a look…

50mm at f/16
50mm at f/16

 

50mm at f/1.8
50mm at f/1.8

 

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Exposure Mode Control: Dial vs Button

Nikon's professional-level cameras control exposure mode by pushing the "mode" button and turning the command dial, selection P, A, S, or M, and resulting in an exposure mode than can't be accidentally changed. Next to it is exposure compensation (+ and -) which is one of the controls I use most often in my daily shooting.
Nikon’s professional-level cameras control exposure mode by pushing the “mode” button and turning the command dial, selection P, A, S, or M, and resulting in an exposure mode than can’t be accidentally changed. Next to it is exposure compensation (+ and -) which is one of the controls I use most often in my daily shooting.

I was shooting with a friend the other day. I was using my Fuji HS30EXR, and he was switching back and forth between his waterproof Nikon Coolpix AW100 and his bigger, heavier Nikon D7000. The HS30EXR and the D7000 both use an exposure mode dial on top of the camera to select the various methods for making exposures. (See The PASM for more details on these modes.)

During a break in our shoot, my friend said to me, “At some point, the mode dial on my D7000 got switched to manual, so some of that last stuff didn’t come out.”

Another potential lock problem: if the aperture ring on a Nikkor AF lens comes unlocked from its smallest aperture setting, the camera will display "fEE" on the top display and won't shoot. The tab at the upper right is the lock, but I've never gone a month without one coming unlocked.
Another potential lock problem: if the aperture ring on a Nikkor AF lens comes unlocked from its smallest aperture setting, the camera will display “fEE” on the top display and won’t shoot. The tab at the upper right is the lock, but I’ve never gone a month without one coming unlocked.

This is one of my gripes about the exposure mode dial: if you use your camera as actively as I do, it will probably, at some point, get dialed to some setting you didn’t intend. I’ve found this is especially common when I am going back and forth between two cameras aggressively, one with a wide angle and one with a telephoto. When I shoulder one to shoot with the other, friction against my body, the camera strap, or even the other camera has the potential to move the dial.

Many years ago, during the film era, I remember going to big-time college football games and seeing photographers from agencies like Sports Illustrated, The Miami Herald, and The Los Angeles Times, who had taken meter readings, set their aperture and shutter speed, then used gaffer tape to secure the shutter dial and aperture ring so they couldn’t be bumped off the correct setting.

Some of the newest Canon DSLRs, like the 70d, feature a button in the center of the dial that must be pressed in order to unlock the dial, but in my opinion, this is a bandage on a bandage. The exposure mode dial is a toy. Professional cameras, like the ones I use every day in my job, don’t have them, because professionals don’t need what they offer: scene modes and “green box” (all-auto) mode. Professional photographers need control of the exposure method and nothing else.

Ideally, no savvy photographer needs a camera to think for them in any of their iterations: scene modes, in-camera image editing, on-screen guides, and so on. In fact, I’d go a step further and say that those modes are really there just to make cameras seem like they would be more fun to use. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, since most people buy technology, and by extension cameras, as toys.

These are the exposure mode dials on the Fuji S200EXR and the Nikon D80. Both are in the open on top of the camera, and neither lock.
These are the exposure mode dials on the Fuji S200EXR and the Nikon D80. Both are in the open on top of the camera, and neither lock.
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The PASM

This is the control group of the Nikon D3000.
This is the control group of the Nikon D3000.

Many entry-level or mid-level digital single lens reflex (DLSR) cameras have a dial on top of the camera called the exposure mode dial. It directly controls how the camera and the user interface to expose the imaging sensor to light.

Sometimes the dial resides in the spot that in years past housed the film rewind knob, and as camera makers morphed from film to digital, placing a round dial where once was a round knob is, in my view, somewhat uninventive.

Other cameras, particularly the smaller DSLRs, make that area too small to house a control of any size, and moved the exposure dial to the right side. This also did away with the LCD display in top of the camera.

The exposure mode dial usually features an AUTO mode which literally takes over most of the camera’s functions. I like to call it Aunt Millie Mode, since if you wanted to let Aunt Millie take pictures for a while, you would set it to this mode.

I made this peach blossom image with a large aperture to isolate the background.
I made this peach blossom image with a large aperture to isolate the background.

AUTO has some kissing cousins on the dial, called scene modes. Represented by tiny pictograms, they are meant to hold your hand through specific kinds of photography, like sports, macro, portrait, low-light, and so on.

The four most important exposure modes, which are the only modes used by professional photographers, are represented by the letters P, A, S, and M. The letters are not always in that order, but it’s easier to teach with the word “pasm” than “maps” or, to really confuse things, “spam.” The letters represent basic exposure modes…

  • P  Program: The camera picks the aperture and the shutter speed for you.
  • A  Aperture Priority (Av for Canon users): You pick the aperture, the camera picks the shutter speed for you.
  • S  Shutter Priority (Tv for Canon users): You pick the shutter speed, the camera picks the aperture.
  • M  Manual: The most obvious of the bunch, and the one that has the best teaching potential; you pick shutter speed and aperture manually.
Wide-open aperture lets lots of light in, allowing the camera to pick a nice fast shutter speed for action photography.
Wide-open aperture lets lots of light in, allowing the camera to pick a nice fast shutter speed for action photography.

Of these four basic modes, professional photographers tend to gravitate to one or two of them, and for me, it’s aperture priority. For reasons that remain at least somewhat unclear to me, I have an awkward, difficult time expressing to students the way I use aperture priority, especially while shooting sports. Since I came up through the film era using cameras that offered aperture priority or manual exposure control, it seemed a natural extension in the digital era to take advantage of this mode.

Aperture priority is my way of maximizing the potential of the scene. If I am shooting sports, for example, I almost always set my aperture to the largest setting, thus letting the lens transmit the most light it can. This has the added advantage of rendering the depth of field as shallow as possible, a big plus for isolating subjects for greater impact. With the lens wide open, often f/2.8 or f/4, I can move ISO up and down to give me the best shutter speed for the lighting conditions. Baseball, for example, is usually in bright daylight, so with my 300mm f/4 wide open and a lowish ISO like 200, my shutter speed falls in the range of 1/1000th or 1/2000th of a second, which is nice and fast. Night football, on the other hand, might require an ISO like 3200 combined with an f/2.8 to give me something in the neighborhood of 1/500th of a second.

If, on the other hand, depth of field is a requirement, aperture priority is a good choice again. With a wide angle, for example, I can select f/11 and let my shutter speed fall somewhere in the 1/30th to 1/125th range, since I don’t need blisteringly fast shutter speeds for a lot of wide angle stuff.

So much of what I try to convey like this to my students really only comes to fruition with practice and experience.

In addition to the P, A, S, and M on this Nikon D80 exposure mode dial, there are a number of not very effective "scene modes," like sports, portrait, landscape, macro, and so-on. Professional digital cameras don't include scene modes.
In addition to the P, A, S, and M on this Nikon D80 exposure mode dial, there are a number of not very effective “scene modes,” like sports, portrait, landscape, macro, and so-on. Professional digital cameras don’t include scene modes.
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Bright Lights, Big Photos

Abby watches a performance of the famous Bellagio Fountains.
Abby watches a performance of the famous Bellagio Fountains.

My wife Abby and I have just returned from our annual anniversary vacation, our seventh. We usually head west, often to Moab, Utah, where we married. This year, however, we decided to try something different and sample the photographic fruits offered by Las Vegas, Nevada.

Neither Abby nor I gamble, but we both love to take pictures and it had been many years since either of us had been to Vegas.

Photographing the desert City of Lights, or any big city like New York or Chicago or Dallas, is harder than one might realize. It seems like you could just point and shoot your point-and-shoot camera in any direction and get instant results. The trouble is a place as complex and visually stimulating as Las Vegas has a tendency to overwhelm the senses and cloud the photographic eye.

The same rules apply to shooting a big city as apply to most situations.

The lights and traffic on the Las Vegas Strip fill the night with luminosity. It's easy for a camera to underexpose an image like this, yielding nothing but bright lights on a black background, but that misses out on the feel of cities like Las Vegas.
The lights and traffic on the Las Vegas Strip fill the night with luminosity. It's easy for a camera to underexpose an image like this, yielding nothing but bright lights on a black background, but that misses out on the feel of cities like Las Vegas.
  • Wide overview shots tend to bore viewers. If you shoot with a wide angle, try to explore near-far relationships, which will engage the eye and draw the viewer into the image.
  • Get high and low. We all know what a city street looks like from eye level. Show us how it looks from a glass elevator 55 stories up, or from the bottom of a subway station stairs. Keep us interested in your images.
  • Try to shoot when the light is nice. There are some shots you can make in the middle of the day, but for the most part, the best time to shoot a brightly-lit city is at dawn or dusk, when the lights from buildings and signs combine with amber hues of sunrises and sunsets or blue hughes before sunrise and after sunset.
  • If you are photographing your friends or relatives in a place like Las Vegas, try to photograph them engaged in some activity, even one as simple as walking down the street, rather than stopping them and making them pose. Some of my best, most natural images of Abby from last week were of her taking pictures on the street or watching the Bellagio Fountains.

    The angles on the walkways in this image bring the viewer's eye to the center of the image.
    The angles on the walkways in this image bring the viewer's eye to the center of the image.
  • You can do the “Party Pic” group pose if you must, but it shares little about the place you are visiting and the activities you are doing, so consider saving them for the living room when you get home.
  • Use the light from the city itself instead of the flash on your camera. This is especially effective if you have a lens with a large maximum aperture, like the venerable 50mm f/1.8. The flash on your camera will tend to overwhelm objects close by and leave the lights in the distance darker than your eye perceives them, robbing your images of the very “City of Lights” look you are attempting to capture.
  • Don’t let anyone bully you out of taking pictures in a public place (unless it puts you in danger). Public streets and the things that happen on them in plain view are not generally protected by privacy laws (the so-called “reasonable expectation of privacy’). If a security guard tells you you can’t photograph his building from a public street, he’s not only wrong, he’s interfering with your rights as a citizen. (If you are on private property, however, it is a very different matter.)
  • Abby and I saw a lot of people taking pictures and videos with their smart phones, but considering their limitations, I would recommend something more capable. A consumer-priced digital SLR is enough to photograph the bright lights and big city, in the right hands.
  • Don’t take any of this advice too seriously. They’re just tips after all. Go have fun.
I spotted this elegant stainless steel planter along a sidewalk at City Center in Las Vegas. Note how the lines from the glass rail on the left side guide to eye to the casino lights in the distance.
I spotted this elegant stainless steel planter along a sidewalk at City Center in Las Vegas. Note how the lines from the glass rail on the left side guide to eye to the casino lights in the distance.
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The Quick and the Dead

My blogging friend Steph emailed me today to ask, “How do I take a picture of my kids when they’re moving and not have it be blurry? Example: say they are jumping and I want to catch them in the air.  When I do it, they are blurry.” This entry is for her and those like her who need a primer in exposure time.

Baseball action, an example of a very short shutter speed, about 1/1000th of a second
Baseball action, an example of a very short shutter speed, about 1/1000th of a second

Short answer, and often the long answer: shutter speed. For the beginner, shutter speed is exactly what you would imagine, the amount of time the image sensor is exposed to light. When I am teaching, I try to give out a few guidelines when people ask me the same kinds of questions as Steph did. I explain that 1/1000th of a second is a very short amount of time, and 30 seconds, in photography anyway, is a very long amount of time.

I thought of this just last weekend when my wife Abby and I were shooting pictures together at a nearby spa that has been a client of ours for several years. We were in one of their elegant rooms, which is very quiet, and Abby started shooting with her D70S. Immediately I could tell that her shutter speeds were too long for her to hand hold her camera without a tripod. I could tell because I could hear two clicks. If you can discern more than a single click, the shutter speed is longer than about a 1/30th of a second, and that’s, well, a long time in photography. Over the years, I’ve gotten to where I can usually tell within a stop or two what your shutter speed is, if it’s longer than a 1/30th of a second.

Indoor image at a pow wow, an example of a somewhat long shutter speed, about a 1/15th of a second, used to illustrate motion
Indoor image at a pow wow, an example of a somewhat long shutter speed, about a 1/15th of a second, used to illustrate motion

So what does that mean in the real world? Well, Steph‘s kids move, in photographic terms, very fast, as do most kids. The benchmark for “fast” shutter speeds, ones that pretty much assure you of freezing the motion of human beings, is 1/1000th of a second. For you math nurds, that’s one millisecond, and it’s a pretty short period of time. Since it is such a short amount of time, an exposure like that simply doesn’t let all that may photons travel through and strike the sensor. Thus, some situations don’t allow us to use super-short exposures.

Thus begins the eternal compromise in photography. What can we do to “freeze” the action? On a sunny day, we can set the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second, set our ISO to 200 or so, and realistically get an aperture value around f/4 or f/5.6. But on a gloomier day, that combination of exposure settings will render an image that’s too dark. What do we do? Increase the ISO, open the lens aperture, lower the shutter speed, or some combination of all three. As things get darker, like when the sun goes down or we go inside, eventually we are going to run out of options; the lens is all the way open, the ISO is all the way up, and the shutter speed? Well, we can keep increasing the shutter speed indefinitely, can’t we? But of course, we are unable to freeze the action of our subjects.

One alternative for Steph might be to use flash. The duration of modern electronic flash hovers around a 1/1500th of a second, which is a very short amount of time. There are two disadvantages to flash. One is that your average flash takes four or five seconds to “recycle” and be ready to flash again. The other is the dreadfully unflattering look of direct flash. Thus enters bounce flash, which I discussed some here.

Point-and-shoot cameras have another factor that tends to complicate this formula, and that is shutter lag, the time that passes after you push the shutter release but before the camera takes the picture. Digital SLRs don’t have much shutter lag, but small cameras can lag up to as much as a second before taking the picture. Using them in the case of shooting action requires some mental calculation and anticipation.

I know this seems like a lot to someone like Steph who really just wants pictures of her kids having fun, but once you play around with shutter speeds enough, it will “click,” and suddenly a whole new world of imaging becomes possible.

Christmas parade floats glide past spectators, in this long-exposure image, about 15 seconds, used to illustrate motion over time
Christmas parade floats glide past spectators, in this long-exposure image, about 15 seconds, used to illustrate motion over time
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The Golden Moment

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2002; note pleasant but predictable mid-after light
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2002; note pleasant but predictable mid-afternoon light

Photographers who shoot outdoors a lot try to take advantage of what has become known as the “Golden Hour” or “Golden Moment.” In reality, this period of time during the first or last light of day can vary depending on what you are shooting and how you want to use the light. Essentially, this moment is when the sun is low in the sky, and providing desirable illumination, whether on human faces, or the landscape all around. It differs quite dramatically from the harsh glare of midday sun, and also from the soft light of cloudy days.

Light from the Golden Moment is generally warmer, meaning that it is rich in reds and yellows that convey warmth. An additional element of the Golden Moment is that the sky itself is often beautifully lit by the setting sun, though this often happens shortly after the Golden Moment on your subjects subsides.

I look at first and last light every day, and shoot using it when I can. The only thing a photographer can control about this light is where he is when he expects the light to be right.

Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2004, just before sunset; note dramtically warmer tones and a more inviting character of the image
Garden of Eden, Arches National Park, 2004, just before sunset; note dramtically warmer tones and a more inviting character of the image
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