Posts Tagged ‘Camera’

I have always been fascinated by lightning storms. I love the blindingly bright instant of each strike – and particularly love the patterns of each fork as it staggers its way across the sky towards civilisation and the Earth.

Capturing this beauty is a little more tricky than viewing it though. I currently live in Singapore, which has been reported in some sources as having the most lightning strikes of any country in the world. I do have a little moment of amusement when I see folk here trying to capture one of the many, many lightning strikes – by pointing their camera skyward, holding their breath and then pressing the shutter button as soon as they see a bolt, usually swinging their camera round to the strike area at the same time. The man (it’s always a man) then looks at their camera screen immediately, shakes his head and mutters under his breath, before repeating the process. Needless to say, he won’t get the shot with 10,000 or more attempts.

Lightning over the Bay

A purple tinged lightning bolt is reflected in the water of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

The trick is to accept that you cannot react faster than lightning. Don’t try to capture it when it strikes; you have to be aware of where it will strike, and then shoot the empty space in anticipation of the bolt.

This is where a camera with a manual mode is vital. Depending on how dark your scene is, you need to close your aperture down as small as you can get away with (high f-number), and leave your shutter open for as long as you can get away with. A tripod and a remote shutter release cable will be your bestest friends here. Once you’ve got the right combination of aperture and shutter speed (a minimum of 5 seconds, but preferably 30 seconds if it’s dark enough) you just need to compose the shot and fire away on continuous mode until you see a strike within your frame. As soon as you get a strike within your shot, release the shutter and review the image. If you need to recompose or re-expose, do so and repeat. Then, it’s very much a case of luck – but as all photographers know: you have to make your own luck, and without the preparation and patience, you won’t get the shot.

The shot above, of the lightning strike over Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, was captured after around 15 minutes of watching two storms approach from opposite directions. The tripod was setup on the deck of a small boat on which I slept for 3 days, and though the seas were calm and flat, there was still enough motion to prevent me from keeping the shutter open for long periods – even with the tripod. I watched the storms and deduced that most of the strikes were taking place over an area spanning roughly 90 degrees. So, using a wide angle lens to cover as much sky as possible, I pointed in that direction and simply shot frame after frame until I got lucky.

Lightning close by

A bolt of lightning strikes the apartment block opposite, clearly visible at close range.

This shot took around 5 minutes to capture, and was taken from my living room as I ate my dinner. With a minute or two to set the correct exposure (aperture and shutter speed combined), I simply munched on my pasta and kept an eye towards where my camera was pointed as my camera did the hard work of continuing to fire from my $20 remote cable. When I saw a strike that was within frame, I stopped and checked and saw I’d hit lucky with this bolt appearing to hit the apex of the block opposite mine. Had I bothered to remove the mosquito net from the window I may even have a shot worth tidying up and selling – such is the clarity and closeness of the lightning.

The point is, you will never be able to predict, control or react to lightning. So don’t bother. Notice where most of the strikes are happening, set up for that zone and let your camera fire away. Sooner or later you will capture a strike, and if you’ve planned your composition and exposure, it will be a clear and useable shot! My shots here were taken purely as afterthoughts, and without much time spent at all – so if I can do this and eat pasta at the same time, you can do this and capture a stunning landscape too, without much extra thought.

What is RAW?

Many cameras now offer this option: once the reserve of expensive SLRs, it is now available on mid-range compacts too. It is basically the setting that captures all data that the sensor ‘sees’ without processing or compressing into an alternative file format, such as JPEG. When shooting in a JPEG (also called JPG) mode, your camera takes all the data from the sensor and processes it before saving the file. In order to save on file size, this process cheats with colours, by merging adjacent similar colour pixels together into the same hue, saturation and brightness. Here’s 5 reasons why I use RAW, plus one reason why I occasionally don’t!

1. Edit the exposure, as though you were at the scene

Because the RAW file includes all data captured by the sensor, you can change the exposure on your computer at any time without degrading the quality of the image. When changing the exposure settings on JPGs, you are actually losing quality – especially if increasing the exposure. When doing so on a RAW file, you are effectively overwriting sensor information (on a copy of the file – not on your camera!) pixel by pixel, ensuring that degradation does not occur at post-processing level.

2. Edit the white balance, as though you were at the scene

If you’ve ever looked at a photograph and wondered why the colours were not how they appeared in real life, or that the deep blue sea has turned out a pale grey dishwater shade, or the snow is dull and flat – you were either looking at the original scene through eternally optimistic rose-tinted glasses, or more likely – you had the white balance wrong. Most modern cameras are pretty good at automatically guessing the white balance, so you can be absolutely forgiven when they occasionally get it wrong. If you shoot RAW – you can edit this later on the computer as though you were editing it at the scene. The beauty of doing it at your computer rather than at the scene is that you can take your time, and are not relying on the inferior camera preview LCD (which is often displaying a temporary JPG anyway).

3. Non-destructive editing

When you open a JPG and re-save it, you are also degrading the image a little bit. If you make changes to that JPG, the changes themselves degrade the image quality, and of course cannot be undone once the JPG is saved (copies of files aside). With RAW files, any opening, saving and re-opening does not result in any quality loss – and any changes you make to the RAW file don’t actually overwrite anything on the original file; they are simply instructions on how the next export to JPG or whatever should be handled. At any time, these changes can be reset to revert to the original file.

4. Finer colour handling

RAW handles many more colours than JPEG – with many more levels of brightness within each tint. For each colour tint in JPEG, up to 256 levels of intensity can be applied. With RAW, there can be up to over 16,000 levels of intensity. This means that banding and streaks (called posterisation – often seen in low quality skies) are far less common, and certainly infinitely easier to treat, with RAW. This is a hugely important consideration when printing images.

5. Raw is Power!

For two reasons. Which is cheating slightly, I know – but 5 was a nice round number. Firstly, if you hold the RAW file and only display and distribute exported JPEGs or whatever other image files in public, you have a clear ownership claim should you ever need to – special software is required to view RAW files, and so they cannot be used as images embedded within a webpage. Secondly, if you are lucky enough to be selling the rights to your image to a publication – a picture editor may wish to use your RAW in order to get the best output for the page they want to print. If you’re selling the exclusive rights to an image permanently, the RAW files are kind of like the title deeds to your house. Your buyer will certainly appreciate the raw sensor data rather than yours or your camera’s interpretation of how that sensor data should be processed and presented.

1 Reason not to use RAW

OK, I am being a little biased here, as there are a few reasons why you would not want to use RAW, but then there are a few other reasons why you would want to, so there.

RAW takes up a lot of room on your SD, CF, HD, SSD or whatever other acronym you’re using to store files. Because it takes up a lot of room, it takes longer to deal with them; from how many shots per second you can fire off on the camera, to file transfers, to loading an image to tweak on your computer. Because RAW files have to be processed using software before they can be shared or displayed on the web, there is another necessary step in the workflow. If you are taking lots and lots of shots in a day, or need to quickly get the images to a client (I’ve had weddings where I am leaving the country the following day, and so simply did not have the time to process RAWs) – JPG may be the only possible option.

Unless I’m firing off tons of action shots, or need to turnaround a large number of images extremely quickly, I shoot RAW – and you should too.

Carrying the Dead - Photography Wall Art

An art installation at the Gallery of New South Wales depicts the voiceless masses living on helplessly through a violent regime.

I’m talking about a fixed lens here – otherwise known as a prime. I can personally recommend the Nikkor f1.4G 50mm – but the 1.4D is just as good, as I’m sure the Canon equivalents are. The wide aperture (small f-number) makes shooting in low light much faster than the cheaper 3.5s or 5.6s – and gives you strikingly shallow depth of field. So… Here’s my 7 reasons:

1. Prime lenses are better quality.
OK, not a 50mm only reason, but you do get sharper and clearer images out of a prime lens, compared with a zoom.

A 50mm lens doesn’t stick out like a male compensation tool, meaning more honest candid shots.

3. Light.
A catch-all zoom feels heavier and heavier by the hour. Pop a 50mm on and you’ll appreciate the lighter load. Lighter loads make for happier photographers, who are more inclined to stay out longer – and not miss the shot!

4. Forces Creativity.
While any prime lens forces you to move around to get the composition right, thus presenting new angles and opportunities you would otherwise miss, a 50mm is perfectly poised in between an easy wide that captures large swathes of the scene, and the telephoto that excludes all the fluff. It forces you to think about framing, and to move that little bit more often. And we all need more exercise, right?

5. Cheap!
My f1.4 50mm by Nikon is rated as one of the best lenses of any length/speed – and yet cost under £200. They are not expensive to make at high quality levels!

6. Perfect Focal Length.
This one feels like a swizz – like defining a word by using the word – but it’s true: On an FX or 35mm camera, 50mm is as close as you can get to the view of the human eye. Great for street shots, or other candids where you simply want to record what you saw. On a DX format camera, the 75mm equivalent is ideal for portraits – though to be honest I have gotten to really like using my 50mm prime on a DX for street photography. It forces me away from lazy shoot-what-I-see and also brings an immediacy that a slight telephoto offers.

7. Faster.
Whilst many prime lenses can offer fast apertures – down to f2, f1.6 or even f1.4 – the 50mm can do so cheaply. By having such a fast lens, I can shoot hand held in lower light, with the 50mm also forgiving more camera shake than its longer length cousins. More light into the lens + shorter lens = sharper and less noisy image. Double bonus!

As an example of using a 50mm in low light, inside a cramped museum space which forced me to really think about the composition, see the photo of the stone statues in this post.

Have I missed anything?

Rows of Stone Men

An art installation at the Gallery of New South Wales depicts rows of stone figures marching onwards.

Our 10,000th image view last week! This came from a visit to the art gallery in Sydney, Australia. There was a room full of these life size stone statues – all naked – and all carrying bundled children. The room was lit in subdued, soft lighting from above only, and isolated to small pools which then reflected off the glossy floor – making the act of taking this photograph very tricky. In fact, I had been carrying round an 18-200 zoom lens for versatility in tight corners and for getting intricate details, but that only stopped down as far as 3.5-5.6 (higher number = smaller aperture = less light getting through = slower shutter speed needed/higher iso = camera shake/digital noise). When I saw this dark room with these imposing statues laid out in rows and columns (see this photo for a slightly wider view of this) I just had to capture the atmosphere. I had to go back to the bag check area and sign out my bag, rummage around for a fast 50mm lens (f1.4) that did away with my ability to grab the wide scene, but let in enough light to really do this soft scene justice. The fixed lens also forced me to be particular about the shot – they are great for forcing you to think about things!

The artwork had particular meaning to the original artist, and it had an impact on me too. But what does this image say to you?

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!

Snow on Roof at Sunset

A roof-side view of the setting sun, with perfectly smooth snow sitting in the foreground of the roof.

Why am I posting a picture of a snow-covered roof in August, when it’s 32 degrees centigrade outside? Firstly, it’s because I long for the cool touch of snow and ice, and secondly; it’s snowing somewhere in the world right now.

Thirdly, this photo was recently ‘faved’ on our Flickr feed, and so I thought I’d give a little background on how the shot came about and was put together.

Story behind the shot

It had been snowing in this little corner of Lancashire, UK, for about a week. Being a semi-rural area, the landscapes were simply stunning under endless blankets of white carpet, which rolled and bumped with the steep valley and vanishing foothills. I took heaps of shots of snowy fields, snowy trees and snowy sheep – some of which made the grade for the Wall Art collection at – but I wanted a different angle on the pretty snowscape. Our house in Lancashire is an old stone terrace with fields front and back, and the loft has been converted into a bedroom, with a wide opening window in the roof – perfect for poking your head out like a meerkat from the middle of the roof. And so when I opened the window to have an unobstructed view of the snowy hills behind the house (and covered the carpet and bed in snow), I caught this angle by accident really, and was drawn to the perfection of the snow: level, even, crisp, with the low sun catching individual crystals of snow, transforming them into diamonds upon the tiles. Once I’d seen it, I had to get the camera and make the shot work, technically.

Getting the shot right

Shooting into the sun can be tricky. Your camera’s light meter will be overwhelmed and may result in a shot exposed for the sun, leaving everything else in the frame in complete darkness with no detail visible. There are two ways round this, but by far the easiest way is to ensure you are ‘metering’ for the area of detail you want exposed correctly. DSLR cameras have a little metering switch. On the Nikon, this is a little 3-way switch on the back (on most, near the viewfinder at the top), with 3 little symbols.

Centre-Weighted Metering

The setting with a little white dot with brackets around it will meter weighted to the centre of the frame – meaning whatever is in the middle is what your camera thinks you want exposed correctly, with other parts of the frame not completely ignored, but given less attention. The weighting is roughly 75% to 25% in favour of the centre area, whose size you can usually change.

Matrix (or whole-frame) Metering

The dot inside a rectangle refers to Matrix metering, which (simply put) tries to meter correctly for the whole frame by analysing everything and comparing it to a database of images – pretty useless in this kind of shot, where you have massive dynamic range (big differences in brightness within the frame).

Spot Metering

The third option on the metering switch, and the winner for the snowy roof shot, is the lonely dot. This dot setting denotes spot metering, and means that whatever is in the small AF square in the viewfinder (which can be moved around on DSLRs) is what the meter reports exposure for. Put the square on the bit that needs correct exposure, or focus and lock exposure on that bit and then recompose the shot, and you should be fine. It isn’t just DSLRs that have the ability to expose on a particular part of the frame – even the iPhone camera is able to expose on wherever you tap – if you tap and hold it will lock that exposure setting and let you move to reframe the shot. Magic.

The final piece of advice, or rambling – depending on your viewpoint, is to say that this shot came about as an alternative to the usual snow landscape shots you get. With anything – not just snow – there’s nothing wrong in taking what might seem like standard shots. But please do try to get a different perspective on something. This could be simply kneeling down, lying down, or standing on a chair. Or, like here, sticking your head out of a roof window. It might not work, but more often than not it gives something quite interesting.

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.