Fellow journalist Ashlynd Huffman texted me recently asking how to create a silhouette. It occurred to me that it would be worth it to have my own tutorial about it.
Silhouettes are essentially lithographs, and are usually created with a bright background that is correctly exposed, with something underlit or unlit in the foreground that forms a shape without having much detail.
Most of my silhouettes are happy circumstances of natural light, but it doesn’t take a lot to construct one. Throw some light on a background, and leave your foreground figure in the shadows.
If you are shooting in manual exposure mode, move up and down the exposure scale until you get the background about right, and the foreground item, person, or figure, very dark or black.
If you are shooting in an automatic exposure mode like Program, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority, use exposure compensation aggressively to get the look you want. Green Box Mode usually won’t let you control your exposure.
If you are shooting film, bracket: shoot a series of frames at widely different exposure settings.
Silhouettes imply shape and anonymity.
Silhouettes should never take the place of strong narrative, but if used correctly, can contribute to a strong narrative.
Kodak Alaris, the film and paper division of the bankrupt Great Yellow Father, Kodak, announced recently the reintroduction of Kodak P3200 35mm film. I consider this an odd move – and probably a mistake – because this film, first introduced in the 1980s, was a solution to the problem that existing films weren’t adequate for very low light situations.
In 1985, I was working for the Associated Press and, by November, a newspaper, and with the inherent need to cover sports in very low light – football, basketball, volleyball – found myself trying to figure out all the schemes my fellow news shooters and I were using to get existing films to act with more sensitivity to low light. We shot Kodak’s Tri-X, a great film in the 1960s and 1970s, but long in the tooth by the 1980s. We used all sorts of tricks and schemes to get more sensitivity out of Tri-X, from snake oil products like Crone-C developer additive, to relatively obscure chemistry like Accu-Fine and Diafine, to time and temperature experiments with possibly my favorite black-and-white developer, HC-110. None of it got Tri-X above about ISO 2000.
Technology needed to step in, and Kodak needed to bring it.
Enter Kodak T-Max P3200, a very high speed film that could be “push processed” into the ISO stratosphere, which I did all the time. I used Kodak’s T-Max developer and regularly exposed this film at ISO 6400. It was a game-changer. For more than a decade, I relied on this film for imaging, especially sports, in all manner of low-light, almost-no-light venues.
Then in 2001, my newspaper bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D1H. From almost exactly that day, my use of P3200 stopped. Color film lingered a while longer, but by the end of 2004, I was done with film.
My wife Abby likes to tell me that her photography was reinvented by digital, and she could finally express herself without the hassle of film – processing, printing, archiving, and especially paying for film and prints.
I, too, was very happy when I could leave film behind and shoot my low-light stuff digitally. Digital solved every problem with film: toxic silver-based chemicals, grainy images, time-consuming printing and/or scanning, and, possibly most significantly, a very limited number of frames.
Sure, a good print or scan from a P3200 negative is good, but the same shot with a modern DSLR is amazing by comparison.
Also, think about what almost always happens to a film frame in the latter day: it gets scanned to make it digital, and from there makes its way to a print, a publication, or a web site. It does not get printed onto photographic paper using an enlarger, which, in the end, is the only true path to analog photography. Adding film to a digital workflow is like recording your phonograph albums to 8-track tape then ripping those tapes to MP3.
I can almost get interested in a super-low-ISO, super-fine-grained film for fine art, but on the grainy end? Did we not just spend a trillion dollars to get rid of grain and noise?
Also, if you thought dust on your digital sensor was a problem in the early 2000s, you are in for an unpleasant surprise: the cleanest negatives from the cleanest darkrooms have a ton of dust on them, and every speck shows up when you scan.
So what might Kodak be hoping with this move? To light a fire under a previously unknown revenue stream? To be the next big retro thing? To pander to the 1% of millennials who both regard film as edgy and retro and are actually willing to use it? Kodak certainly showed us how to navigate a corporate juggernaut right into the ground, and this idea seems like more of that same thinking.
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.
It Does Happen
Years ago I was standing in my garage trying to photograph lightning when a bolt hit a tree across the pasture. Not only was it insanely loud and bright, a feeder of it made it to the garage. I was leaning on the metal door track at the time, and electricity passed through it into my right arm. I was lucky I wasn’t injured or even killed.
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.
As I was writing a post for my social blog, The Giant Muh, I needed some images. I scrolled through the folder of stuff from our October anniversary trip with my wife Abby, The Endless Sky, and found an image I thought would be worthless because I overexposed it…
When I shot it, I was disappointed, but I kept the frame in-camera and continued my Canyonlands hike with longtime friend Scott Andersen. As the light matured and the day went on, we made many successful images, and had a great time.
I didn’t give the image much more thought.
Today when I saw the image, I attempted to get some detail out of the moon using Adobe Photoshop’s recovery slider, without much effect.
Then I rather whimsically thought, “I’ll run it through my Nik Collection’s single image tone mapping high dynamic range (HDR) filter (which is free – read more here [link]) and see what happens.”
Honestly, I didn’t think there was much detail in the image – the blacks looked black and the moon looked white. I was amazed, then, when the Nik filter was able to extract a very interesting and detailed image…
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.
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?
JPEG, Joint 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…
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…
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.
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.
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 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.
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…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.