Archive for the ‘The Basics’ Category

Have you ever got home after taking some photos, really looking forward to seeing your images, only to find that they’re either really dark or almost white, with very little detail left?

underexposed flowers

Yuck – too dark

overexposed flowers

Eww, too bright

Bali Flowers

Just right! A correctly exposed pair of Balinese flowers

It’s a case of exposure

It really is that simple. Exposure. That term crops up a lot, in this blog and in others. There is a dedicated post on the three main points of exposure coming up to help beginners or those of you who are beginning to get serious about your photography, so I won’t go into detail about that yet. Just know that one of these images is too dark (underexposed), one is too bright (overexposed), and in the immortal words of Goldilocks, the last one is just right – though as a digression, this is entirely subjective: I tend to prefer my shots a couple of stops darker than the cameras’ suggestions, and so this one is perfect for me, but maybe not for you. Exposure is, simply, brightness.

So what is Bracketing?

This is the name given to hedging your bets when it comes to exposure. You take your shot, then you take another one a stop brighter, one a stop darker, or maybe 2 or 3 either way. The idea is that when you get home, you have multiple shots of the same scene, each with a slightly different exposure. You can then judge which one is correctly exposed and discard the rest. You give yourself more of a chance to get the shot right.

Auto Bracketing

Whilst anyone with any camera can bracket manually, simply by taking identical shots with different exposures, many digital cameras and most DSLRs now offer an Auto Bracket feature. Recent Nikons, such as the D800, even promote this feature to the top dial, putting it right under your fingertips. That’s how useful they think it is. You can select how many bracket shots the camera will take, as well as how varied the exposure compensation should be. Be careful when using this feature though – in single shot mode, if your camera thinks you’re taking 3 bracketed shots, then that’s 3 presses of the shutter. A bit of a pain when you suddenly see a different shot, or forget and come back to it later only to take an overexposed or underexposed shot without realising.

What’s the point?

Well that’s the question I’m asking here. Whereas I don’t doubt the usefulness of bracketing when taking High Dynamic Range shots (that’s HDR – several shots of different exposure layered one upon the other to improve visibility in bright bits and shadows together; I’ll post a separate guide about this), any other time is bracketing not just taking up valuable room on your memory card? And taking up valuable time out in the field? Here’s my reasoning:

Bracketing has been around as long as cameras have. In the days before digital cameras, there was no way of previewing a shot in the field. A photographer would take shots until the film was full, and not see those shots until the film was developed some time later. For professionals without previews, I accept that it can be too risky to rely on one shot that someone is paying for. But I (and most of you) have preview screens. We have light meters built into our cameras. I shoot RAW 90% of the time (reasons for doing so in another guide to come). With RAW I can edit the exposure on my computer, as though I’m changing it on my camera. That’s right – upping or reducing the brightness of an image doesn’t cost me any detail. Secondly, I have missed shots because my camera still wants to shoot the bracket shots for something I can easily change the exposure of later. Thirdly, my memory cards are precious. My time is precious. I don’t want to spend four times as long in processing at the computer, to get fewer shots at the end of it because my card filled up too soon. But mainly, I just don’t need to bracket as a matter of course. 90% of the time, I get it right before I press the shutter. That isn’t bragging, or indeed special in any way. I just know my meter, and know when not to trust it, and by how much. Most of my images don’t even need brightening or darkening in post-process because they were shot right in the first place. It has taken me time to get to this point, sure. But over the coming weeks and months (and hopefully longer), I will explain how you can too.

So, I have reached my conclusion. Bracketing: useful when you’re producing HDR; necessary when you’re shooting on an old film camera; a waste of time and memory anywhere else. Controversial? Please share your thoughts below!

It’s a basic of using your camera, but there’s nothing wrong with a little help in making a good shot become a little bit better, if not unique.

It’s all about your shutter speed. You’ll need a camera with access to the shutter speed, but this isn’t just fancy SLRs: my wife’s new point and shoot compact camera has a manual mode, and a shutter priority mode, and fits in the mysterious little pocket inside her handbag flap (Nikon P7700). Even an iPhone camera can be made to use slower shutter speeds (take a look at Slow Shutter Cam app for iOS).

This is how it works, ignoring the other two points of the exposure triumvirate – aperture and sensitivity:

Your camera’s shutter can be open for a given length of time, ranging from extremely fast (maybe 1/8000th of a second depending on your camera), to extremely slow (30 seconds, minutes, hours – potentially as long as you want). Simple physics means that the longer a shutter is open, the more light enters into the chamber, or onto the sensor. So a slower shutter speed makes for a brighter exposure. But it also means that the sensor (or film) will “see” any given photon of light in every location it is present whilst the shutter is open. In simpler terms, any object that moves will imprint its movement onto the sensor for the duration of the shutter being open. In baby terms; motion is blurred. The longer the shutter is open, the more movement is recorded, so the more blur.

Using long exposure to include motion blur into your image works best when there is also something static in the image to contrast with and further highlight the motion. This can be pretty strong contrast, like when photographing waterfalls:

Motion Blur in Waterfall

Slowed down, flowing waterfall tumbling over large rocks and granite, with a fallen tree and other debris in this Tasmanian river.

Or it can be a really subtle contrast, like this night shot where everything is in focus, but a moving plane creates a light trail:

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night with light trail from moving plane

The world-famous sails of the Opera House puncture the night air, with a passing jet leaving a trail overhead as it approaches Sydney Harbour Bridge.

This contrast between the sharp static objects and the blurred moving ones is key. But because your shutter will allow every moving object to record its blur, it’s vital that you don’t allow the static objects to move. In short, you mostly need to USE A TRIPOD! A previous post talks about the huge impact of the inexpensive polarising filter: the tripod is a similar piece of kit that will have a huge impact on your images. An easier-to-carry option is the Gorillapod, which can stand or wrap itself around whatever is handy at the scene, whilst still fitting in a coat pocket or a carrier bag. For very long exposures, or night shots, you’ll need a cheap cable shutter release button to prevent your button-pressing on the camera from shaking it and causes unwanted blur. Using the self-timer option is another way round this.

There are times when you don’t have to use a tripod of course. Inverting the motion blur effect so that everything but the moving object is blurred requires you to track the object as the shutter is released, like this:

Saigon Motorbikes

Tracking Shot of two motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. Night shot, with motion blur background and frozen-in-action bikes.

Using a tracking shot like this means a tripod is likely to get in your way.

Whilst the classic long exposure shot blurs running water in rivers and waterfalls, you can also use it to capture light trails, moving vehicles, the stars – in fact, anything at all. I’d love to hear of your exploits with long exposure, especially if they’re different.

Surfer Looks On In Envy

A surfer in a wet suit, carrying a surfboard, runs toward the water as he watches fellow surfers ride impressive waves off shore.

The most vIewed Image of the last few days is…

So from time to time – as often as I can – I will poll my photo views on Flickr, and give some background info on the most viewed shot of the last week or few days. Today, such a look at the stats shows that ‘Surfer Looks On In Envy’ is getting a lot of hits. Now this actually comes as a surprise for me, as I had only taken this image off sale from a few days ago as I thought it wasn’t good enough to be displayed. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but first – the story behind the shot:

Cape Bridgewater Beach

I’d been driving for a few hours on the coastal road between Adelaide and Melbourne, in Southern Australia – before it comes to the official ‘Great Ocean Road’. This road is stunning. This whole coastline is stunning actually, and I’d managed to get quite a few decent images before the tedium of inland roads behind a tractor took over. When the tractor finally pulled off the road into a field, the crest of a hill appeared in front of me. As I very quickly reached the top of the hill, one of the most spectacularly beautiful scenic sights unravelled before my eyes. A deep and endless blue sea stretched towards me from a clear but distant horizon, wrapping itself around unfolding green-topped craggy rocks. In between two of these rocky headland points, a stunningly beautiful golden sand beach swept across the landscape, offering a great contrast between the deep blue and the luscious greens.

The huge, empty expanse of fine sand, blue sea and sky, and approaching wispy cirrus cloud at Cape Bridgewater, Australia, was a real tonic after hours of driving.

I drove down to the beach and found it almost completely empty. That’s the thing that gets me most about Australia: they are blessed with not just one beach that is amongst the world’s best looking, but thousands. Thousands and thousands of huge, golden fine-sand beaches that seem to cover 99% of the vast continent’s coastline. And 99% of these have nobody on them. There were so many of these really pretty beaches that I had all to myself.

Cape Bridgewater beach wasn’t entirely all mine that day. There were a smattering of surfers in the water, and one more on the beach, sat on the sand struggling to pull his wetsuit on. I watched him looking forlornly out at the waves, feeling every missed ride, as he bumbled and fumbled to get himself out there as fast as he could. After one failed attempt to run towards the water without his board, I snapped him on his second attempt, managing to capture him looking out to see another surfer getting the waves he was missing, as he ran out to enter the water away from the submerged rocks.

Why I took the photo off display

There are many basic “rules” in photography. None of these “rules” are really rules – they are merely guidelines. But one of them is that objects in the foreground shouldn’t be out of focus, as it distracts the eye. I’ll paste the photo here again, so you can see what I’m talking about without having to scroll up and down:

Surfer Looks On In Envy

A surfer in a wet suit, carrying a surfboard, runs toward the water as he watches fellow surfers ride impressive waves off shore.

My decision at the time was to highlight what the surfer was looking at, so the breaking wave and second surfer riding that wave, is in focus (and further highlighted by the sun making it the brightest part of the image, thus further drawing in the eye). I could have used a smaller aperture (bigger f-stop) to increase the depth of field and have them both in focus, but this would have slowed down the shutter speed so much that the main surfer’s motion blur would have been so much so that he’d have morphed into an unidentifiable splodge of ink.

So my reason for writing off this image is the foreground main object being distractingly out of focus. I was then pretty surprised for this image to get as many views as it did, leaving me asking the question: am I being too rigid with these “rules” of photography?

I’d love to know your thoughts on it!