Photography for the sole purpose of expressive myself and the moment… all these images were made with my AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 at about f/2.2…
Basketball season is in its peak, and my newspaper and I cover a lot of games. We have a great sports scene in our area, competitive and exciting.
I wondered as I was photographing one of those games last week, a tournament-heavy week with lots of games, how many photographers face the same thing I do all the time: overwhelming color casts in certain gyms.
In fact, there were at least six other photographers in last week’s mix: Steve Sisney, Josh Clough, Jeannie Neal, Courtney Morehead, Glen Bryan, and Lonny Dorman. I am always glad to see them.
The lighting problem comes from a combination of lights that are designed to be efficient (instead of color-neutral), and floor and ceiling colors that create a sort of color feedback loop. For example, several of the gyms I photograph have yellow school colors, painted on courts that are finished in yellowing varnish, reflected by yellowing ceiling tiles.
These are nice places to work, and I love the opportunity to work at these schools, but the color balance in my photographs requires some very aggressive correction. How do I do this?
- I always, always shoot raw files. We in the photographic community probably preach about this too much, but it really is a game-changer. Raw files contain thousands or even millions of times more color values than standard JPEG files.
- I don’t bother adjusting white balance in-camera, because…
- I will use Adobe Lightroom to fix the color, first with the eyedropper tool, which I click on a neutral spot; sometimes this is all the fix I need. It’s pretty dramatic, actually, sometimes accompanied by the word, “wow.”
- I use additional color adjustments in Lightroom’s excellent Hue/Saturation/Luminance (HSL) dialog, which allows me to change not only the amount of the offending color, but also the brightness and the hue of it. I can use this to take a bright lime green basketball court and make it appear a very natural pale tan.
- The most important aspect of this, of course, is to create normal-looking skin tones of the players and fans. This can sometimes requires some very aggressive application of color sliders in Lightroom or Photoshop.
- As tempting as it is to use the pop-up flash instead of existing light at these venues, you will always be happier with existing light for sports.
I see other people’s image from some of these places, and they all exhibit a common thread: difficult color balance. Take it from me: raw files plus aggressive editing can fix these problems, and result in very satisfying images.
Two rounds of thunderstorms rolled through our home in Byng, Oklahoma last night. The first one skirted us to the north, so from our point of view, we had an excellent view of the right flank of the storm. It was the first time in the last couple of years that all the factors came together for me to make good lightning photos: little or no rain at my site, a very electrically-active thunderstorm, a lack of obscuring rain on my side of the storm, and no danger of being struck by lightning.
So, if we see a thunderstorm like this and want to photograph it, what do we need, and how do we do it? We need…
- A camera with manual controls of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus
- A sturdy tripod or other way to hold the camera rock-steady
- A lens that will fill the frame with what we want to shoot (I know that’s vague, but stay with me.)
- The patience of Job
Last night my wife and I saw and heard an approaching thunderstorm. At first I went out onto the back deck, but only made a few frames there and decided the storm, moving from my left to right looking north, was about to be hidden by the house, so I relocated to the front deck.
Using my Nikon D700, a 36x24mm sensor DLSR, I started with my 20mm, a very wide angle lens. Mounted on a tripod, I set the ISO at 400, my aperture at f/8, and my shutter speed at 20 seconds. My 20mm has a hard stop at infinity, which is where I set focus. (Don’t try to use autofocus – it will never bite on anything in the dark.)
At that point, the patience plays a big role. Unlike fireworks, traffic, or Christmas parades (all of which are photographing lights) thunderstorms are irregular and unpredictable, so by the time you get set up, it could be too late, or the timing could be just right. Last night was such a “just right” night.
Within five minutes I felt the storm had moved away from me sufficiently to warrant switching to a 50mm lens, and I felt I wanted a slightly darker product than I was seeing on the monitor, so I changed to f/11 at 30 seconds. The 50mm filled the frame with the densest part of the lightning, and I felt several images looked good.
With the recent addition of the handsome AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 to my bag, I noted that this new lens features an aperture with nine rounded blades, unlike its predecessor, the AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D, which has seven straight aperture blades. The reason this matters to me is that I like to use sunstars in some of my imagery to create the impression of brightness in light sources.
To test the sunstar capabilities of the new 50mm, I grabbed some Christmas lights from the rafters in the garage. With my camera on a tripod so everything would be the same except the lens, I shot some test images, all at f/16 at about 1 second, and made a direct comparison between the new f/1.4 and the older f/1.8.
Readers might recall the formula for sunstars: even-numbered aperture blades make sunstars points of that number, while odd-numbered aperture blades make sunstar points equal to twice the number of aperture blades…
I was quite pleased with the result. In recent years, rounded aperture blades have become increasingly common in an effort to give lenses the ability to create more pleasing out-of-focus areas, but this often sacrifices the crisp sunstar effect I love. But I found that while the effect using the 50mm f/1.4 wasn’t quite as dazzling as it was with the f/1.8, it still expressed the feeling of brightness.
While I had everything set up for sunstars, I thought I would experiment with a funny little do-it-yourself trick that can sometimes be useful: shaping your out-of-focus areas. It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to screw up. In its simplest iteration, you cut a small shape into an opaque object and fit it to the front of your lens.
I used aluminum foil for my experiment, but it made the bokeh a bit too edgy. There are kits available, but part of the fun for me is doing it with household items. This was shot at the largest aperture setting available, in this case f/1.8…
Those who follow me on social media might recall that my current batch of students were disappointed that it rained during last week’s class, forcing us inside.
Tonight’s forecast is more likely to produce a sunset opportunity.
All photographers with any experience know that a good sunset can be difficult to pin down, and it’s always a smarter move to be ready to shoot sunrises and sunsets when they come to you, not when you come to them.
Readers also know that I like to use the sun itself as a compositional element, often trying to emphasize its brightness by choosing a lens that makes good “sunstars” at small apertures.
Judicious use of exposure compensation can make a huge difference, since your camera doesn’t know if you are going for shadow detail or highlight detail, and will often split the difference. Don’t be afraid to crank in +3 or -4 or any other value to tell the camera what you want. I’ve seen too many disappointing sunset attempts by photographers with disappointed faces asking me, “What did I do wrong?”
There is a lot to be said for sticking around after the sun dips below the horizon as well. The so-called “blue hour” can sometimes offer amazing color values as the sun’s light strikes clouds high in the atmosphere.
The light changes quickly at sunrise and sunset, so we need to be ready to change quickly as well.
As with any photograph endeavor, the best results are achieved through a willingness to explore and experiment, and the realization that not every evening will deliver magic, but with persistence, we can eventually capture magic and share it with our audience.
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…
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.
By now we should all be getting comfortable with concepts dealing with color, like white balance and saturation. If not, and I don’t mean this sarcastically at all, go back and look at your pictures of people, and ask yourself why most of their faces are too orange or too blue, which, in all honesty, they are. I say this based on the enormous number of images I see every day with bad flesh tones.
When you’re done with that, read on.
The other day I was scavenging an abandoned office at my workplace. I came across some Kodak Wratten filters (colored gels) in that search. These 3×3-inch plastic filters were originally used in by the production department to control the various renderings of the halftone products used to reproduce images in our newspaper. Despite the fact that they were damaged and obsolete, I decided I had a use for them: to change the color of light.
I brought them home and cobbled them together with clear tape. I was able to assemble a blue filter and a red-magenta filter, and I taped each one on a flash in my home studio.
I made a few images, and found I was glad to have this tool in my tool kit. Of course, you don’t necessarily need Wratten filters to change the color of the light. One excellent way to achieve this is by bouncing a flash into something colorful. Often one of the best items for this is the shiny foldable sunshade you see occasionally covering dashboards of parked cars on hot days. You can buy them with the other side in various colors, like red, gold or purple.
Altering the color of portions of your light can fundamentally change the look of your images, and the ability to do so is an excellent item to have in your bag. It can be a lot of fun, and it can throw some fuel on the embers of your creativity.
Two nights ago as I mowed, I watched, as I always do, the maturing light. About 20 minutes before sunset, with bands of clouds on the horizon, the sun peaked through and struck an early stand of my wife Abby’s favorite flower, Indian Paintbrush, in the pasture. I ran inside to grab a camera with my new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8, and scampered back out to find that the bands of clouds had covered the sun and muted the light. I made a few images under the soft light, but really wanted the bright amber hues of the setting sun behind those flowers. Another day, maybe.
Then last night, I got an earlier start, and planned ahead by having my camera in the garage, readier to go. As sunset approached, I was able to make the image I originally pre-visualized.
As you can see from the results, both images are beautiful, but very different. They are both shot with the same camera, from the same spot, at the same time of day, with the same settings. The only difference is the light.
Like most professional photographers, I like equipment that is transparent. No, I don’t mean I want my cameras to be made out of clear plastic, though that might be really interesting. I mean that I want my equipment to get out of the way, do it’s job, and allow me to concentrate on the real meat of photography, the moment. I don’t want to worry about or struggle with my gear while the action and the intimacy and the light come and go. One lens I bought in 2011 in hopes of working within this paradigm is the Sigma DC 17-50mm f/2.8 EX HSM for use on my Nikon DSLR cameras with their 15x24mm-sized sensors. I originally picked up this lens just prior to my sister’s wedding (link.) Since my wife and I were traveling to New Orleans for just the weekend, and since the wedding was entirely at night indoors, I wanted a lens that would fill my needs for that event: it would have to be fast-focusing, sharp wide open (f/2.8), have optical image stabilization, and be reasonably well-constructed.
Part of the reason I thought this Sigma might be a good choice was my success with a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX-DG I borrowed from Michael to shoot my step-daughter’s wedding in 2009 (link). I liked everything about the lens except that it wasn’t quite wide enough, and it wasn’t mine. It was sharp wide open, handled well, and made gorgeous 14-point sunstars when stopped down.
My very first field testing of the 17-50mm seemed to go well, but every lens is sharp at f/8. I didn’t spend $600 for this lens to shoot at f/8. I spent this money so I could take low light to its limits, and that would come just a couple of weeks later at the wedding.
Hosted by the New Orleans Athletic Club, the venue was gorgeous, but lit by just four incandescent chandeliers. I shot it all at ISO 3200, at f/2.8, which put me in the 1/60th to 1/125th of a second shutter speed range. This is the low-light margin that tests everything: sensor noise, optical stabilization, lens sharpness, and photographer’s skills. If any one of these factors falls short, image quality suffers, and this lens was the weak link. It just wasn’t sharp wide open, at f/2.8.
Michael and Abby were my second shooters, with the AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 and the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lenses respectively, and their stuff was very sharp at apertures like f/2.5 and f/2.0.
In the end, my images from New Orleans were great, and my sister and new brother-in-law were very happy with them, but I wasn’t pleased with the Sigma, which stood out as the weak link. I have since shot a couple more weddings with the 17-50mm, and while the images were acceptable, I want more from a big, heavy, expensive lens.
I will look at options. My instinct is to shoot with my 12-24mm f/4 Tokina on one camera, and my AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 on the other, but that still doesn’t give me a one-camera travel wedding solution. It will need to be a zoom, and it will need to be wide-to-portrait length. One possibility is picking up a 24x36mm sensor-sized camera on Ebay like the Nikon D700, and using something like my Nikkor AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8, which is heavy but absolutely dazzlingly sharp. The 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 24-105mm focal lengths on a 24x36mm sensor are approximately equivalent to the 17-50mm, 18-55mm lenses on a 15x24mm sensor. While this is a versatile field of view range, it also has the potential to be bland and boring, and requires us to push hard at the short and long ends to make our images really interesting.
In April 1979, I was quite proud to be selected to be on the Talon Yearbook staff the following year. At that time, I imagined I would be a writer. During the following year on the staff, however, I discovered that I wasn’t at all interested in writing feature stories, but very much was in interested in being a photographer. I actually wrote very little for the Talon in 1979-1980, but I hung out in the darkroom constantly.
Our yearbook advisor doled out film to us with the eyedropper of necessity. Film was expensive compared to the yearbook’s budget.
However, on a yearbook staff picnic, our advisor’s toddler daughter started chasing some bubbles, and all three of us photographers took pictures. It was a precious moment, but back in class on Monday morning he spent considerable time and effort shaming us about “wasting” film. Thirty years later when I sent him a scan of one of those frames, he was incredibly grateful for it. Ugh.
Anyway, the film we were issued was Kodak’s venerable Plus-X Pan Film, described in its day as a “medium-speed [‘speed’ referring to sensitivity] panchromatic film with fine grain.” It’s easy to look at its ISO of 125 today and express dismay that it was regarded as “medium speed,” but it was partnered with Panatomic-X at ISO 32 on the “low” side, and Tri-X at ISO 400 as the “high speed” offering. So yes, it was a medium speed film in the world of film, but in trying to capture the movement, motion and energy of high school, it was, in reality, quite slow.
I’m sure our yearbook advisor was attracted to the “fine grain” aspect of the film. Yearbooks are printed on glossy paper and with finer screens (higher resolutions) than newspapers, and there are times when the photos are used quite large. In recent years, I have quite a lot of experience with glossy, high-quality magazine printing as the editor and chief photographer of Ada Magazine, and every edition of our magazine has several images that are “full-bleed double-truck,” meaning they fill the two pages that face each other all the way to the edges of the pages.
These experiences, as well as many years in newspaper using film and later digital, has made it pretty obvious that our yearbook advisor couldn’t have been more wrong in making us use Plus-X. The biggest shortcoming of Plus-X is its ISO of 125. In the studio or in bright sunlight, that’s fine, but so many of the events in the lives of high school kids, their events and classes and plays and games, are at night, indoors, and otherwise in very limited light, and at ISO 125, our only option for shooting these events was direct flash.
For those readers of the smart-phone-only ilk, direct flash happens when we put an electronic flash (in high school I had the ubiquitous Vivitar 283) on the hot shoe of our camera. It provides light that I have previously described as “worst light ever.” It didn’t take much of a search of my high school negatives to find examples that adjudicate this assertion.
Direct flash has that blacked-out-background look because light obeys the inverse square law, so each time you double the distance from the light source, it’s four times darker, and often the backgrounds are two or three times farther away than the subject.
Another downside to direct flash is that you have to wait, sometimes as long as eight seconds, for the flash to recycle and flash again, and eight seconds is an eternity when telling moments are happening in front of you.
There’s the rub. Using a 125 ISO film forced us to use direct flash. But in our yearbook advisor’s eyes, anyway, a higher ISO film like Tri-X would make our images “too grainy.” Our choices, then, were fine-grained, direct-flash non-moments, or grainier, better-lit images of real moments.
The choice to me, as a career photojournalist, is obvious. If I had it to do over again, I would load up with Tri-X, and for much of the night and indoor stuff, I would expose it at ISO 1600 and increase the development time, which is known as “push processing.” The results would be grainy moments, but there would be so many more moments.
In the end, of course, yearbook readers don’t care about fine grain, they care about their memories, and shooting like a photojournalist, not like a studio photographer, is the way to capture the best of them.
In my current class, Intro to Digital Photography, I teach a lot of basics. I point out the effects of changing this, changing that, chaining the other, and how best to take advantage of those effects. One thing we discussed last night was shutter speed, and everyone had fun waving their hands in front of each other at 1/8th of a second, then at 1/500th of a second, to get a clearer idea how shutter speed is one key component in building an image.
Since I live in the world of photographing people (mostly) for a living, I tend to come down on the side of faster shutter speeds. Lots of people are fast, from toddlers to professional athletes, and most of the time I try to freeze the action of their movements to illustrate what they are doing for our readers.
One of my students asked me last night, “Richard, what’s a good shutter speed if I want to show movement?”
It’s a great question with a not-as-great answer: practice. Every time we try to illustrate movement, the scene and subjects are a little different, so my advice is to keep experimenting, but with the notion in mind that in photography, a half a second is a really long time, and a minute is an eternity.
Then, as luck would have it, I was at Ada’s Wintersmith Park this morning looking for a feature photo, which I found (of a young lady doing her daily run up and down the steps of the amphitheater there), and noticed that the lake was high. Sure enough, the stream below the lake was flowing.
Anyone who has tried to photograph running water in daylight has experienced the same frustration: the relatively fast shutter speeds dictated by the brightness of the daytime light create an image that looks wrong. It is neither amazingly crisp, nor does it seem to express how water flows.
Knowing this, I made a plan to return to the park at dusk, and did so tonight. I set up my Nikon D7100 with the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm zoom on my best tripod as close as I could get without getting wet. I wanted to create as much blur as possible in the swiftly moving water, so I started at 30 seconds at f/22 and ISO 200, but that was entirely too dark. The only number I needed to keep was 30 seconds, so I bumped up to ISO 400 and f/11, and that was just right. The scene was illuminated by fading evening sky through the woods, and orange streetlights on the walking trail. To add an opposite color, I “painted” with my multicolor flashlight set to green.
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.
But I’m here to make it easy. You need…
- 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting.” ~Gloria Leonard
Wil C. Fry has recently discussed various flash options for his photography through some assignments he found on The Strobist, so I thought I’d weigh in on a point I try to make with my students over and over: there is really no way to light a subject worse than with direct flash.
Much of the time, beginner photographers don’t have any knowledge about their camera at all, and in particular they have no idea how to light something. Their cameras are usually set to “Green Box” (sometimes labeled “auto”) mode, which is fully automated. In addition to taking over most of the menu settings, this full-auto mode also pops up the on-camera flash when there isn’t, in the opinion of the camera, enough light.
I’ll grant you that the little flash that’s built into the top of many digital SLRs has probably made the difference between getting something and getting nothing, but I’ll also say that in my entire career, I’ve never seen an image I loved that was made with direct on-camera flash.
In my day-to-day news shooting, I carry two flashes. I typically put one on the hot shoe of my camera, which has a movable head so I can bounce the light off a wall or ceiling, and the other on a tiny tripod, which I can set somewhere or have someone (like a reporter) hold. The flash on the tripod has a small device called a slave, which fires the flash when it detects another flash, like the one from my camera. For as little effort and weight as this setup has, it can make a huge difference.
The game-changer recently is that the newest digital SLR camera have super-clean high ISOs available, such that you can almost shoot in total darkness. Thus, the pop-up flash is just about out of a job.