Some of the Pros of Using Micro Four-Thirds Cameras for Wildlife Photography

Micro four-thirds (MFT) cameras have been on the market for 10 years now and have grown to be a preferred option for professionals and amateurs alike. The small camera bodies (you might even say tiny) house high-quality features including high dynamic range, high ISO sensitivity, and 16mp (or greater) sensors.

As the MFT format has gained popularity a range of professional-quality lenses has also been developed. I have been shooting the Olympus Em5 and Em5II since they came on the market in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Throughout my travels shooting wildlife across the U.S., I have been shooting this system with great results.

There are many aspects that micro four-thirds cameras great for wildlife as well as a few drawbacks. I will walk you through my impressions of this system for wildlife photography, both the pros and the cons.

humpback whales - Pros and Cons of Using Micro Four-Thirds Cameras for Wildlife Photography

I took this image of bubble-net feeding Humpback Whales with an Olympus OMD E-M5. All of the images featured in this article were captured using the MFT system.

Intrinsic Advantages (Pros)

The micro four-thirds system has some advantages for wildlife photographers due to the nature of its sensor and technology. These “intrinsic advantages” as I’m calling them are inherent to the system and can assist in your wildlife photography. In the next few sections, I will walk through how a 2x 35mm equivalency, quiet camera, high ISO range, high shutter speed, and high-resolution.

I will also review some features specific to the Olympus E-M5 Mark II system that you may find beneficial.

Micro four-thirds for wildlife - caterpillar

Here I have used MFT to photograph all forms of wildlife. From coastal brown bears to insects.

Pro – Get Closer with the 2x Crop Factor

Everyone who shoots wildlife photography wants to get closer to their subject and this is one way in which micro four-thirds sensors shine. When talking about how a sensor’s size affects the final zoom of your lens, the photography industry standardizes to “35mm equivalency”.

Without diving into the ins-and-outs of that means, here’s the bottom line: if you have a 100-300mm lens the micro four-thirds system effectively makes it a 200-600mm lens. The camera intrinsically doubles the length of your telephoto lens – you can likely appreciate how that doubling of focal length will help you get your wildlife shots!

Micro four-thirds for wildlife - portrait of a deer

2x equivalency is a big deal! You can get closer to wildlife with your enhanced telephoto lens.

small bird with a berry - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

As an avid birder, I appreciate the 2x equivalency to get closer to small birds.

Pro – High Maximum Shutter Speed

The micro four-thirds system is capable of really fast shutter speeds. As a wildlife photographer, it can give you a leg-up on fast-moving animals such as small birds or even insects.

The Olympus OMD E-M5 II is capable of shutter speeds up to 1/8000th of a second! In bright lighting conditions, you can use the fast shutter speed to stop water droplets of an animal walking in a river or the fast pulse of the wings of a hummingbird.

hummingbird in flight - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

Fast shutter speeds will help you stop the wings of a bird even as quick as that of a hummingbird’s!

Pro – 40MP High-Resolution Mode

A feature specific to the Olympus OMD E-M5 II is the 40-megapixel high-resolution mode. Sensor shifting-technology allows the camera to increase the resolution of the image.

One restriction of this process is the subject or animal has to be completely still. However, if you know you have the right conditions and a shot for which you need high resolution, you will find this mode convenient if your goal is to make large prints later.

owls in a tree - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

These great horned owl chicks were sitting so still that I was able to use the high-resolution feature of the Em5II to create a 40-megapixel image of them.

Pro and Con – ISO, and Light

The micro four-thirds system is capable of using high ISO settings to boost your camera’s sensitivity to light. However, high ISO values can create image noise (graininess in the image), and this is one area where the MFT systems fall much shorter than full-frame systems and DSLRs.

You will find that you can comfortably shoot up to ISO 800 or 1600 and be able to post-process out the noise. However, at ISO 1600 you will notice the noise if you crop the image, so be aware of that. Low-light conditions are common for wildlife photography, so consider that this system will not give you the performance of full frame cameras.

great horned owl eyes closed - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

This great horned owl was photographed in low light, so I needed to increase my ISO to capture it.

Pro – A Stealthy Camera

This camera contains no mirrors or moving parts inside the camera – every process occurs digitally. That makes the camera extremely quiet when you press the shutter button and it will not disturb the wildlife you are watching. This helps you keep the animal in range and also be an ethical wildlife photographer that does not negatively impact the wildlife you are shooting.

dragonfly damselfly - Micro four-thirds for wildlife

A quiet camera is very important for capturing skittish animals such as this damselfly!

Pro – Flexibility

This camera can provide incredible flexibility to your kit. In the next sections, I will review some features that I find helpful for wildlife photography.

Pro – Light Body

All of the mirrorless cameras are light which makes them ideal to transport. This is due to the lack of moving parts within the camera such as mirrors – which allow the cameras to be smaller. The lenses native to micro four-thirds cameras are also generally light.

Reiterating my point about 2x equivalency, you can get a 600mm equivalent telephoto lens that only weighs a few pounds. As a traveling wildlife photographer, you will appreciate the light weight in your backpack, carry-on luggage, or strapped around your neck.

micro four-thirds for wildlife - olympus camera

This is the Olympus Em5II body and Lumix 100-300 that I use for wildlife photography. You can see how small the body and lens is!

Pro – Fast Autofocus

The autofocus system on this camera is very fast and is useful for inflight shots of birds and general wildlife photography. Upgrades to the autofocus systems in the Olympus E-M5 II have provided accurate focus points giving you the ability to target an exact spot in your frame to focus.

One disadvantage is I find that the autofocus hunts in low-contrast situations. So you should be prepared to manually focus in low-light shooting conditions such as at dusk or in a heavy forest canopy.

micro four-thirds for wildlife - eagle in mid-air

A fast autofocus system will help you a lot with in-flight images of birds.

crane in flight - micro four-thirds for wildlife

I relied on the autofocus to capture this sandhill crane as it flew by.

Pro – High Resolution

Almost all micro four-thirds cameras come with a high-resolution (16mp or greater) sensor. The 16mp sensor on the Olympus E-M5 II gives plenty of resolution for enlargements. This is useful for printing and also gives you the ability to crop a shot and maintain sharpness.

I have made canvas prints up to 36” with images from this camera and found the resolution was ample for that as long as you have a sharp shot.

owl in Lightroom - micro four-thirds for wildlife

Here is a 1:1 crop of an image of a great horned owl. You can see that the image maintains decent sharpness even at a large crop.

Pro – Native Lenses and Adapting Lenses

If you are willing to shoot with manual focus it is possible to adapt nearly any brand of telephoto lens (Canon, Nikon, Sigma, etc.) to your MFT camera using an adaptor. This is thanks to the small flange distance of the MFT format. I have had success adapting long telephotos, old Olympus OMD lenses, and even old screw-mount lenses such as a Takumar 35mm that I have.

Why does that matter? Adaptors are cheap ($25 – $50 generally) and allow you to utilize glass that you may already own bringing down the price-point of your system.

olympus camera and adapted lens - micro four-thirds for wildlife

You can adapt almost any lens to the MFT bodies. Although I do not use this Takumar portrait lens for wildlife, it shows off the ability to adapt even a screw-mount lens such as this one built in the 1960s.

Pro – Sealed Bodies and Lenses

The body of the Olympus E-M5 Mark II is sealed from dust and water. Although that is not the case with all MFT cameras, as long as you do your research you’ll find other camera bodies that are sealed and well-built too.

This is invaluable to a wildlife photographer! I am sure you can think of times that you needed to shoot in the rain, the dust, or perhaps the mist of a waterfall. Having a sealed body will protect your camera and investment.

breaching whale - micro four-thirds for wildlife

On a boat or on land, you need to be able to count on a sealed body to protect your camera.

The Bottom Line

You may have found the features above appealing for your photography needs, so let’s look at the bottom line and the value-to-cost of this system.

You can find micro four-thirds cameras starting at $200 and going up to about $1,000. For those prices, you are getting a camera capable of shooting high-resolution images with excellent quality. With practice and patience, you can take beautiful images of wildlife and not break your back (or your bank) while doing it.

As I like to say, “pixels are cheap”, so I hope you make lots of them photographing wildlife with a micro four-thirds system.

The post Some of the Pros of Using Micro Four-Thirds Cameras for Wildlife Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

Every photographer’s kit needs to include both a wide and ultra-wide lens. These lenses provide the flexibility to shoot a variety of subjects such as portraits, landscapes, astrophotography, and food. Wide lenses provide a unique and fresh way to portray subjects and are a great way to shoot contextual scenes that emphasize foreground elements. New to the market in 2018 is the Sigma 14-24mm f2.8 DG Art Series Lens.

It provides a constant fast f/2.8 aperture and a zoom that transforms your field of view from wide (84.1 degrees) to ultra-wide (114.2 degrees).  I took this lens for a test-drive to give you a glimpse of its performance.

I will save my very positive overall numerical rating for the end. So let’s get into some of the nitty-gritty findings of this functional and flexible piece of glass.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG Art lens on a Nikon D800.

First Impressions

There’s always a thrill the first time you unroll a lens from its packaging and lift it from the box. I immediately noticed the weight of the lens (officially ~40oz; 1,150g) giving it a quality feel. The metal construction of this lens is on display and the only plastic parts are the lens cover and lens hood.

I was struck by the large size of the lens – it is much larger than my Sigma 24mm f/1.4. However, this makes sense as the extra size is necessary to accommodate the zoom from 14-24 mm. Overall my first impressions on the look and feel of this lens were excellent.

Sigma 14-24, Nikon D800 - Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

I tested the Sigma 14-24mm f2.8 on a Nikon D800 and Nikon 810 body. It fit that body well and has a good feel on the full frame body.

Build Quality

Sigma did not cut any corners when constructing this lens. The all-metal build gives it a sturdy feel and results in the weight I eluded to in my first impressions.

The metal construction includes the rear mount to give the lens longevity and life. The zoom ring and focus ring are textured for a solid grip and operate very smoothly. I was happy to note that the construction of this lens is dust and splash resistant which are valuable traits to me as a landscape and nature photographer.

The lens cap has a snug fit and amply covers the aspherical lens.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

The outer element of the Sigma 14-24mm f2.8 lens has a aspherical, dome-shaped glass.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

The lens is large (5.3 inches long) and well built. Texturing on the focus and zoom rings provide a good grip.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - rear element

Metal mounts will provide longevity for this lens. A large rear element helps with light collection .

Image Quality

In the Lab

To conduct sharpness tests, I took the lens into a variety of conditions both indoors and outdoors.

Let’s first take a look at the results of a traditional test using the pages of a book to determine sharpness and chromatic aberration. For that test, I adjusted the camera to Aperture priority mode and adjusted the aperture throughout its range (f/2.8 – f/22). All images were shot with a tripod with the exact same lighting in a lightbox.

Individual results for each setting are available below showing a 1:1 ratio crop of the same numbers at the edge of the lens. I found the lens too soft when wide open at f/2.8. That is an expected result, but the softness was very noticeable. It was very sharp all the way to the edge of the image at f/8 and f/16. Sharpness declined at f/22. Image sharpness was maintained to the edge of the lens – impressive for an ultra-wide lens.

I found there to be a limited chromatic aberration that is easily correctable in Lightroom. Particularly in the corners of the image there was distortion at 14mm, but that is a common result in ultra-wide lenses.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

Here is a test of the lens for sharpness at f/2.8 at the edge of the image. You can see blurring along the edges of the numbers which is expected at the edge of an ultra-wide lens when shot wide open.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

The lens became much sharper at f/8. You can see clear, crisp lines out to the edge of the image.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

At f/16 I found this lens to be even sharper than f/8. Very crisp lines out to the edge of the image.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

At f/22 the lens lost some of its sharpness. This is not unexpected with a lens fully stopped down.

In the Field

Similar to the lab test results above, I cropped images at 1:1 taken in natural lighting conditions to look at the sharpness of this lens. The results showcase sharp images even when taking hand-held photographs.

In particular, you can see the lens is extremely sharp in the middle and how the stars become distorted at the edge of a crop after a long exposure.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

Stars shot with the Sigma 14-24mm. This is a crop at the edge of the lens and you can see due to the long exposure that some star trails are seen. This is due to the distortion that occurs to the image’s edge at 14mm

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - sharpness test

This 1:1 crop is at the center of the lens and shows off how sharp this lens is in the middle.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - zoom showing image sharpness

This 1:1 crop of an eagle passing overhead shows good sharpness in the wing edges – even at the edge of the image.

Focus, Accuracy and Speed

As is my experience with other Sigma Art Series lenses, the autofocus is fast, accurate, and does not produce much (if any) noise. This lens integrates a hyper sonic motor (HSM) to pull off the noiseless focus.

A huge benefit of the lens is the small minimum focusing distance of 10 inches. That gives you, the photographer, unlimited options on what foreground element to leave in focus. In low-contrast situations such as a cloudy day the autofocus did not hunt for the subject, and focusing from 10 inches to infinity was very fast.

Shots from the Field

The images below are meant to show off the flexibility of this lens ranging from 14-24mm, the shallow depth of field you can achieve with an open aperture, and its usefulness for different subjects. I’ve featured some landscapes, people, and food that I was able to photograph.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - sun burst between wooden pier

I was really happy to have the maximum f/22 aperture to create brilliant starbursts. This is a nice creative technique for landscapes, and the ability to stop down to f/22 gives flexibility for shooting flowing water as well.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - sunset through a metal ring

The ultra-wide angle and close minimum focusing distance allow you to put foreground elements in perspective.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - b/w photo of a tree

This tree is nearly 50 feet (15m) tall and I needed a wide angle to capture the whole thing. The ultra-wide lens tilted the tree creating a slight distortion which is characteristic of ultra-wide lenses.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - logs near the water

Using the wide-angle to capture a whole scene along the beach. I took this image at 14mm and stopped down to give sharpness to the logs and distant mountains.

sunset over a hill and wooden walkway view - Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

A ship, sunset, eagle, and beach house captured in a single frame thanks to the wide-angle lens.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - low light photo at a dance

The wide aperture helped me shoot this shot in low light during a local dance.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - food photo

The minimum focusing distance is helpful for food photography and the shallow depth of field can draw your eye to foreground elements.

food shot with beer - Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens

Increasing the f-stop can capture the depth of an entire scene. I found this useful in this food scene to emphasize the food and show off some Alaskan Brewery products, too.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - blue hour

This image was captured at 14mm. The next image was captured at 24mm with the camera mounted in the same position. These images give you insight into the field of view at a wide and ultra-wide focal length.

Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens - blue hour 24mm

This image was captured at 24mm to compare to the 14mm image above.

Pros and Cons of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Lens

Pros:

  1. Close minimum focal distance – I found the 10″ focus distance to be very helpful in creating interesting landscapes and in scenes where a foreground element needed to be emphasized and placed in context with its surroundings.
  2. Fast and accurate autofocus – A solid autofocus system can be a photographer’s best friend!
  3. Flexibility – The 14-24mm zoom range gives you the flexibility to transition between a wide and ultra-wide lens. Effectively replacing two lenses is a huge benefit.

Cons:

  1. Large size – I was pretty surprised at how big the lens is, and it’s worth noting that it will take up quite a bit of space in your kit as well. Fortunately, it can replace an ultrawide and wide lens perhaps saving you space in the longrun.
  2. Lack of sharpness at wide open apertures – The weakest part of this lens is the softness at open apertures. Fortunately, it is a very sharp lens when stopped down.
  3. Aspherical glass – As a landscape photographer I like to use neutral density filters and polarizers to make the most of a scene. The aspherical dome of glass requires carrying a separate filter set.

Final Rating and Product Value

Sigma 14-24m, Review

Overall Rating : 9 out of 10 – this lens provides some excellent features, great build, and overall quality. Sharpness in the center of the image is excellent and the edges maintain sharpness as well.

My main reason for pulling this lens down to a 9 is the size of it. Those looking for a concise and smaller kit may benefit from a prime ultra-wide to decrease the lens bulk in their kit.

The value of this lens on Sigma’s website is $1,199 USD (check here for pricing on Amazon). Although that figure seems a bit high, the build quality warrants the price. You also have peace of mind knowing that the lens is effectively replacing the value of two other lenses in your kit.

The post Review of the Sigma 14-24mm F2.8 Art Lens appeared first on Digital Photography School.

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

In today’s world, digital camera technology continues to improve and get lighter. A plethora of systems offer lighter camera bodies with more technology bundled into them. There are many photographers transitioning to these systems to lighten their gear and are selling off their old equipment. However, I cannot help but be attached to the reliability and familiarity of my full frame DSLR bodies.

I do not like to compromise on image quality and feel most confident making quality images in spur-of-the-moment wildlife activity or in difficult lighting with my full-frame camera. Are you the same as me? If so, does that make us a little crazy?

Pelican case - DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

The Pelican case gives me space for a couple of bodies, a 200-500 mm telephoto lens, and two shorter ones. Lots of space to pack a full kit!

Well, in truth, it is a bit crazier than that, I am most comfortable when I have two camera bodies with me at all times. I also carry a telephoto lens, 50mm, and wide-angle lens with me along with cleaning equipment and filters, and I like to do so at all times. In other words, I carry a full kit. I do my best to carry a full kit when hiking 10 miles into the backcountry, floating a 5-mile river trip, or walking to a local beach to watch a sunset.

If you are like me you are constantly looking for ways to safely haul your gear from Point A to Point B while also protecting your investment during your adventures. Through experimenting and modifying a Pelican 1510 case I have found a solution that works for me. In this article, I will demonstrate that system for you. I hope my DIY camera bag for DSLR storage and transportation works for you and inspires you to get more creative in hauling your gear!

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

I customized this Pelican 1510 case to provide waterproof and shockproof protection for my DSLR bodies and kit. Thanks to the modifications I have made, I now transport this kit everywhere.

What you’ll need

  1. A hard case – I use a Pelican 1510. The case is TSA approved as a carry-on size, meaning you’ll never have to check your camera gear to baggage claim. I pack non-critical, lower-cost items in the modular pack (see below in #4) and check those in my bag. Then I carry on the rest of my kit.
  2. A drill, 3/32 drill bit, and 3/8 drill bit – You’ll need a high-speed drill and a sharp bit to do some customization of the Pelican case. Make sure the 3/32 bit is wide enough diameter to put the eyebolt through.
  3. Eyebolts (2x) with nylon locking nuts (2x) – These will be used to secure the luggage straps to the Pelican case in the front.
  4. A secondary “modular” case for the outside – You can choose any case that is the same size or smaller than the Pelican case. Think about the gear you are using and tailor it to fit your needs. I make sure my modular case can hold my filter set, cleaning equipment, batteries, and other photography knick-knacks.
  5. Velcro – This will be used to secure the secondary modular case to the outside of the Pelican case. Get Velcro strapping that has sticky sides.
  6. Adjustable luggage straps (2x) – make sure the straps have good clips. I prefer a 1” wide webbing for the strap.
  7. Carabiner clips (2x) – These will be used to secure the luggage straps to the Pelican case in the back.
  8. Backpack straps – I use the Pelican 1510 backpack conversion straps offered by RUCPAC. I have been using their system for about two years now and find it durable and comfortable. If you are a true DIY-er you could modify the straps of an old backpack.

Modifying the Pelican 1510 Case

Pelican 1510, DSLR Storage, Camera, Modification

Step #1 – Drill holes near the latches

Close the lid and use the 3/32 bit to drill through the plastic to the inside of each latch. You’ll need to go through both layers so the extra length of eyebolt has a hole to pass into. Once you have drilled the hole, open the case and use the 3/8 bit to bore into the plastic so that the nylon nut recesses into the case and allows it to close. Repeat on both sides of the case.

drill holes - DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

You can see here that I bored through both sides of the Pelican case with the 3/32 bit to allow the eyebolt to pass through. I bored with the 3/8 bit into the top layer to allow the nut to recess so that the top can close

Step #2 – Drill holes through the fins (back hinge)

Use the 3/32 bit to drill through the “fin” on the backside and pass a carabiner through the hole. The fins are the rigid plastic ribs that stick out to hinge the lid and bottom of the Pelican case together.

Repeat on the other side.

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

I drilled through the “fin” of the back with the 3/32 bit and threaded the carabiner through. I did the same thing to the other side of the pack.

Pelican 1510, DSLR Storage, Camera, Modification

Step #3 – Apply the Velcro

Apply the Velcro to the back of the modular case and then line it up accordingly on the front of the Pelican case.

Tip: Stick the hook side and the fuzzy side of the Velcro together on your modular case, peel the paper off to expose the sticky surface and then press the modular case onto the Pelican case to get a perfect alignment of your Velcro.

Pelican 1510, DSLR Storage, Camera, Modification

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

Attach Velcro to the top of the Pelican case and make sure that it aligns with the modular case. It is easies to make sure that the Velcro is aligned by sticking it together, applying it to the Pelican case, and then pressing the secondary modular case onto it.

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

Attach the Velcro.

Pelican 1510, DSLR Storage, Camera, Modification

With the Velcro attached to the Pelican case and the modular case, you’ll be able to open and access the case without it falling off the larger Pelican case. That’s a huge perk!

Step #4 – Thread the luggage straps onto the system

Thread the luggage straps through the eyebolt and the carabiner. Adjust it to a length that fits around the modular case, and then tie a good knot – I prefer two half-hitches.

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

Make sure the luggage straps are long enough to wrap around the modular case. Tie the ends securely to the carabiner and eyebolts.

Step #5 – Install the backpack straps to the Pelican case

Next, install the RUCPAC straps to the Pelican case. This is very simple – you’ll attach it to the top handle and thread the straps through the bottom wheels. Instructions to install the RUCPAC come with the product.

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

RUCPAC straps attached to the Pelican 1510 case.

There you have it!

This DIY camera bag solution has grown with me and my kit and worked for me the last two years. I find this pack very comfortable to use and wear. I am 6’3” and would be interested to hear if it fits shorter torsos as well.

The luggage straps give you the flexibility to attach a tripod or any other gear on to the outside. You can choose the size of modular case you that use to accommodate the gear you have.

This pack also provides a portable chair for those long days or nights shooting photography and can act as a tripod in a pinch. In fact, having the pack available has saved my shoot on several occasions when I needed stabilization but did not have a tripod.

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle

The DIY camera bag case can function as a spur-of-the-moment tripod. I’ve used it for shooting the Northern Lights and time-lapses.

DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle - northern lights

I took this image of the Aurora Borealis with my camera stabilized on my Pelican case. It saved the night since I did not have a tripod along with me!

Conclusion

What I’ve shown you here could be just a jumping off point for you. Use this concept to expand and create your own DIY storage solution that works for the gear and kit you have, and your needs.

Once you are done get out there and shoot lots of images. As I like to say, “pixels are cheap”, so go make a lot of them!

The post DIY Camera Bag Modifications for DSLR Storage and an Active Lifestyle appeared first on Digital Photography School.

7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

Have you ever looked at an image of the night sky where the stars leave long, arching trails? These images, called “star trails”, record the movement of the stars as the earth spins around its axis. This is a compelling way for you to capture a phenomenon not observable to the human eye.

As with many creative photography techniques, there are can be a steep learning curve for shooting star trails. A basic understanding of the night sky, knowing the impact of focal length, and composition can help you maximize a night out with the goal of shooting star trails.

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This star trails shot adds to the native art of the Hoonah Tlingit.

Some fairly simple post-processing techniques can help you perfect your shot once home. I will walk you through the basic technique of photographing star trails, help you think about how your gear affects the outcome, and highlight two post-processing techniques that I find useful.

1 – Basic Technique for Shooting Star Trails

The concept of the shooting star trails is actually pretty simple. Set up your camera on a tripod and then compose the shot. I recommend disabling autofocus at this time. Once you have your composure right, set the exposure on your camera. In general, you will want to expose the shot for as long as possible without over-exposure. You can check the histogram of your image to decide if it has been overexposed or not.

On dark nights without a moon or light pollution, you can start in Manual Mode, ISO 800, f/2.8 (or lower/wider), and 15-seconds. Modify these settings to best capture your scene. Once you are happy with the exposure, you will need to set your camera to take pictures at a steady interval. You can do this by setting your camera’s internal interval meter or by attaching an external intervalometer.

Each camera model has different intervalometer connections or internal settings (or may not have this feature), so consult your camera’s manual to get this set up correctly. As you set up your camera, think about the number of shots you want to take. The more shots you take the more the stars will move – with many lenses you will start to capture significant movement in about 8 minutes.

Below I will go through a couple scenarios where fewer or more shots may be better. As a rule of thumb, I shoot for a minimum of 45 minutes and as long as several hours. Let your camera shoot and enjoy the night sky!

Processing or Stacking the Star Trails

Once I am done with the shoot, I import the photos to Lightroom and Photoshop (using Adobe Bridge). There are other star-stacking programs that you can experiment with, but I like Photoshop for this task. To import the photos from Adobe Bridge open the program and then navigate to where the photos are stored. Highlight the photos you want to include in the star trail and then go to Tools –> Photoshop –> Load Layers into Photoshop As Layers.

Once the layers have loaded into Photoshop you may want to use the Auto-align feature (disregard this if you are certain your tripod did not shift) by highlighting the layers in the right panel and then going to Edit –> Auto-Align Layers –> Auto. The final step is the use the “lighten” blend mode in the Layers panel and apply it to all the layers.

The lighten function examines all of the overlapping layers and then keeps only the lightest pixel. Keep that in mind as you can use it to your advantage (examples of that below). To complete the image export it to a lossless format (I like TIFF). You may then continue to edit the new TIFF in Lightroom or Photoshop.

2 – Shooting Tips

Know the North Star

Having a basic understanding of astronomy will aid you as you compose your shot. The North Star is often the focus of star trails because it does not move in the sky as the earth spins on its axis. To find it, locate Ursa Major (e.g., The Big Dipper) and then follow the line created by the stars at the end of the dipper to locate the North Star.

Star apps on your phone are also a great way to locate the dipper or the North Star. Once you know where it is, you can use it in your shot. I often like to bury the North Star behind a piece of a foreground element giving the final image a pinwheel effect.

Polaris, North Star - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

Knowing the north star will help you with your star trails! In this image of Ursa Major, I have circled the stars of the constellation in red and the north star in green.

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

I buried the north star behind this black spruce and shot for nearly three hours to make this shot. The resulting image has a pin-wheel effect.

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

I put the north star behind a Sitka Spruce and shot this image at 14mm providing many stars in the shots and a pinwheel effect.

3 – Find Some Foreground Elements

Foreground elements are always important for landscape photography. When shooting star trails, think about foreground elements that capture the essence of the scene or that you can place prominently and by themselves.

By this, I mean objects that stand away from the background of the image. You may also want to choose elements that can be lit by the light of the moon or by using light painting. I like to think of star trails as telling the story of the night and the objects that you include in that frame will aid you in that storytelling.

Star Trails old barn, Minnesota, Tutorial, Starlapse - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

I chose this old barn because the moonlight helped light up its character and I felt it captured the essence the Minnesota field in which it stands.

4 – Use Light Painting

Using Adobe Photoshop’s Lighten blend mode provides a lot of options for creativity when shooting star trails! Remember, that Lighten only keeps the lightest pixels in the whole stack of images. So by using light painting, you can selectively lighten objects in the frame.

Illuminate the foreground with your phone, headlamp, or another light source. You can light up the whole thing or selectively light elements of it. Experiment with lighting angles, intensities, and colors. If you don’t like the lighting of a certain exposure simply remove it from the layers that you import into Photoshop. I usually spend the first 10-20 frames lighting the foreground to make sure that I capture the lighting that I want and then let the camera take the rest of the shots.

Star Trails, Alaska, with american flag - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

Here I used light painting to illuminate this flag that I placed in the foreground. I lit the flag in several different ways and then chose the best frame to include in the final shot.

Star Trails, Alaska, evergreen trees - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

In this image, I used light painting the softly illuminate the snow-covered trees in the foreground of this shot.

5 – Pick Your Lens Focal Length Wisely

Focal length will strongly impact the amount of time it takes for the stars to move in your shot. Shorter focal lengths (e.g, 14mm) will take longer for the stars to have trails than longer focal lengths (e.g., 50mm). Knowing this will help you plan your shot. The three images below emphasize this effect.

MThe wide-angle of my 14mm wide-angle lens allowed me to capture the North Star and a distant mountain landscape, but I stood there for three hours to get the amount of movement in the stars that I wanted. The second shot was taken at 50mm and only 45-minutes elapsed before significant movement in the stars occurred. The third shot is an extreme example, shot at 300mm. The green streak is Comet Lovejoy and shows only a couple minutes of movement.

Star Trails North Star - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This image was shot at 14 mm, full frame and captures about three hours of star movement.

Star Trails landscape night - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

Shot at 50mm, this image took 45 minutes to capture the star movement.

Star Trails 300mm lens - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This image was captured at 300mm on a crop sensor (effective 600 mm) and shows only a couple minutes of movement. The green streak is Comet Lovejoy.

6 – Play with Exposure Times

The length of your exposure will strongly influence the final image that you create. There are no guidelines to what is the right length, instead, you should be guided by what looks good to your eye. As a tip – you can always choose to use fewer shots than you captured so by default I would take as many images as you think you’ll need and then modify the amount once you import them into Photoshop.

Which of the images below do you like better? The longer exposure or the shorter one?

Star Trails, Alaska, - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This image captures about 45 minutes of star trails at 50mm and I like how the falling arc of the stars lead my eye to the subtle mountains in the background.

Star Trails, Alaska dock - 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails

This image captures 30 minutes of star trails at 24mm. I felt that including any more stars would take away from the dock in the foreground.

7 – Compositing Tips

Photoshop gives you a lot of flexibility to mask and preserve or remove elements of the shot. Since star trail shots are composite images and thus art, I do not worry about these alterations from an ethical standpoint. The two techniques below may help you improve the final shot. They assume you are familiar with masking and healing in Adobe Photoshop. If not you will find the linked articles helpful!

Masking a Foreground

Once you compile the images you may find elements that draw your eye away from the phenomenon you are trying to capture. Since the horizon and foreground are the same for all of the images you can choose which foreground looks best to you. Use that foreground to create a selection and convert the selection to a mask.

You can use that mask and exported TIFF file to maintain the foreground you like. In the images below, I wanted to remove the hikers that walked up to the lava flows in Volcanoes National Park and the bright highlights of the lava which became overexposed as the lava moved. I used a mask to preserve the foreground elements I liked.

Star Trails, Hawaii, Tutorial, Starlapse

Editing out Planes and Satellites

Almost all dark nights will have a plane or a satellite come through your frame. Fortunately, these are very easy to remove! Use the Healing Brush tool and set the tool to replace and content aware. You can draw a linear line with the tool over the track of the satellite or plane. Voila! The offending track will disappear.

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse

Star Trails, Alaska, Tutorial, Starlapse

I used the healing brush to remove the satellites and planes from the final image above. Can you tell the difference?

Summary

So there you go! I hope this article can help you get out there on your first night of shooting star trails. Remember, knowing your stars, picking a foreground and playing with exposure length will help bring the shot you imagine to reality.

Once you process the stacked images you have lots of flexibility in Photoshop to fix parts you do not like. As I always say, pixels are cheap. So make lots of them as you learn to shoot and process star trails.

The post 7 Tips for Shooting and Processing Star Trails appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Tips for Light Painting and Some Common Pitfalls to Avoid

In this article, I will focus on light painting objects in night scenes during a single long exposure (rather than multiple exposures combined in Photoshop) and some of the pitfalls I have experienced. I hope you will gain an understanding of how different light sources, intensity, and warmth can illuminate your foreground elements in a balanced way to provide a creative twist to your shot.

A beautiful night sky filled with stars is often laced with compelling foreground elements that can provide context and intrigue to your shots. You have likely seen many examples of these things in other people’s work such as a saguaro cactus under The Milky Way in the middle of the desert, a homestead cabin in the middle of an old pasture, or a boat floating on a still lake.

Light painting DSC 1215

This single exposure captures The Milky Way over a field of yellow wildflowers in central Minnesota. I used light painting to emphasize the flowers which were an important part of the scene.

I am positive you can think of foreground elements in your personal environment. Although silhouettes of those foreground elements can provide you with stunning imagery, you may consider using light painting techniques to emphasize the foreground elements of your shot.

What is light painting?

Light painting is a night photography technique where you use a light source to illuminate an object (in other words you “paint it”). The digital camera era has made light painting much more common as it is easier to check and compensate for your exposure of the shot. Because light painting provides so many creative options there are many forms it can take.

In order to do light painting, you will need to carry a little bit of extra equipment and have some basic knowledge about your camera’s manual settings. A grasp of these basic camera settings will increase the enjoyment of your night out by helping you make beautiful imagery.

Camera Settings

Manual Mode will be necessary to shoot your long exposures. You should be aware of how to switch to Manual Mode and then adjust your aperture and shutter speed. For night photography, you will want to use a large aperture (e.g., f/2.8) and slow shutter speeds of often 5 seconds or more.

ISO changes will be necessary in order for your camera to pick up the most amount of light possible. I recommend beginning at ISO 800 and then adjusting accordingly as you learn about your particular scene and shooting conditions. It is important to remember that a really high ISO will require you to post-process out digital “noise” and each camera model has a range of ISO values it can shoot at before it will become very grainy.

White Balance adjustment is critical to shooting at night and for light painting. Look in your camera’s manual or play with your camera settings to ensure you can access manual White Balance and you can create lower or higher White Balance values. White Balance is measured in Kelvin and most cameras will represent it with “K” after the White Balance value (e.g. 4500K).

I bounced the light off the snow to light this shot because direct light caused the totem to become too bright and out of balance.

Equipment

An appropriate light source is necessary to do light painting. You should consider bringing multiple light sources that have both wide and narrow beams as well as multiple color temperatures. You may consider things such as a headlamp, cell phone, flashlight, or professional lighting as these have different beam widths and intensities.

To determine the warmth of your light source, check the box as it may tell you the temperature rating. For instance, many lightbulbs from the store will say 4500K on the side of them. Some professional lighting sources will allow you to adjust both the temperature and intensity of the light, so you may consider those as you progress and become more proficient at light painting.

Beyond the camera and a light source, a tripod is the next most important thing you can bring when shooting long exposures. Ensure your tripod can remain stable for long (up to several minutes occasionally) exposures.

A friend is a great addition to a night of light painting! Your friend can help sidelight objects while you take the photos, provide for creative solutions to problems, and keep you safe as you move around in the dark.

Light painting 0314181950b

I use this LED light panel which allows me to control the light intensity and color.

Basic Light Painting Techniques

Each night has unique conditions that need to be accounted for, but I like to begin each night with a familiar set of steps. Set your camera up on a tripod and take a few test shots. I usually start at f/2.0, ISO 800, 10-15 seconds, and 4500K.

From those base settings, you can experiment with ISO, shutter speed, and set a White Balance that looks good to you. Once you have the settings for the scene right, set up a composition you like and which ties together the necessary foreground elements. Begin your exposure then use a light source to paint the foreground in front of you.

Light painting DSC 5562

This image of the Aurora Borealis captures the beauty of the boreal forest and the subtle aurora behind it. I used standard settings (ISO 2000, f/2.2, 20 seconds) and a light panel to make this image.

Selecting a light source is important. Its qualities will determine how it can be used. There are three considerations you should think about:

  1. What is the intensity of the light?
  2. How wide is the beam?
  3. What is the color temperature of the light?

Keeping these things in mind will help you immensely when you go out to shoot. A wide beam can help you light close objects while a more focused beam can light a more distant one. I often use a professional light panel because it gives me control over the beam intensity, width, and warmth.

A good light source will help you get over the pitfalls identified below.

Pitfall #1: Not matching the color balance

When I first began doing light painting, I had a really hard time matching the color of my light and the context of my scene. Your camera will key in on bright objects in the shot such as the moon, a street lamp, or the Aurora Borealis which will become the dominant temperature in the shot.

Keep this in mind as you take your test shots because you will need to adjust your White Balance according to those light sources. If the White Balance of your light source is adjustable set it to the same as the camera. If you cannot control the temperature of your light source (e.g., a cell phone) then consider adjusting the White Balance of your camera to match the light source. You will know the light source and camera are calibrated together properly when the color of your foreground elements look natural (neutral) to your eye.

I’ve provided some examples of images below which came out well and some that did not (according to my eye) due to incorrect White Balance calibration. You should be able to spot images demonstrating the matching warmth pitfall that we just reviewed. I’ve left some thoughts in the captions of the images to reflect on each further.

Light painting DSC 7887

It is not too hard to diagnose what’s wrong with this image – I did not properly calibrate the temperature of my camera and light source. The light source is too cold compared to my camera’s settings.

Light painting DSC 2136

The calibration of camera and light source were close on this one, but the temperature was a bit too cold on the light source as evidenced by the bluish tinge to the tree on the left.

Light painting P3090697

A good match! I was able to use the white of the American Flag to calibrate the light source and camera to get good colors from both the flag and the aurora.

Light painting DSC 9355

This is a good match on the color balance. There were a moon and aurora on this night, so I only used a headlamp to softly light this sled dog that appears to be watching the aurora.

Pitfall #2: Not balancing the light in your scene

Choosing the right beam width and intensity will help you balance the lighting of the foreground elements to the rest of the scene. A digital camera set at ISO 800 or above is incredibly sensitive to light and it is very easy to “blow out” a shot by overexposing the foreground elements. Here are a few tips to help balance the light in your scene.

  • A broad beam will help evenly light an entire scene and a narrow beam can light specific aspects of the scene. I have provided thoughts and examples below about when my light source width was appropriate and when it was incorrect.
  • If you have close foreground elements consider bouncing your light source. I often use reflective surfaces like snow to indirectly light the foreground through bouncing. If you cannot bounce the light, try side lighting or lighting the object from behind.
  • You can decrease the exposure by closing down the aperture. I have found increasing the aperture (say from f/2.0 to f/4.0) and increasing the exposure time make it dramatically easier to create a balance of light in the scene.
  • It stands to reason that if you paint an object for a long time with the light it will show up brighter. You will find that duration is critical when light painting and often less is more. Try light painting the object in a short burst of one half, to one second of light and see if it adequately lights the object.
Light painting P9110093

Blowout! I was light painting these autumn aspens to capture the fall colors with the Aurora Borealis. However, my beam was too narrow for the work I wanted to do.

Light painting DSC 8007

A small beam allowed me to light up this “old man’s beard” hanging from spruce trees in Southeast Alaska. A wide beam would not have worked here as it would have lit the entire scene.

Light painting DSC 7085

Here I wanted to capture the glacier face and the aurora together so I placed my light panel behind a block of ice. This masked it from direct view and allowed me to bounce the light off the snow.

Light painting P9110170

A passing car provided the lighting for this shot, and I liked the warmth of the light a lot! The broad beam was most appropriate here.

Food for Thought and Wrapping Up

I hope this article can help you get over a couple of the steep learning curves of light painting. Remember, any light source at your disposal can be used to light your scene and each may have its own unique benefits. Experiment with headlamps, cell phones, car headlights, and professional lighting sources to see what each can provide to the shot.

I hope you enjoy your night out! As I always like to say, “Pixels are cheap”, so make lots of them as you learn light painting.

The post Tips for Light Painting and Some Common Pitfalls to Avoid appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Use ND Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

Photography is the art of capturing light. In many instances, harnessing the light and properly exposing a scene means controlling it first. This is necessary for many landscape scenes where contrast is high. You have likely seen high contrast many times: a sunset with dark foreground elements, a church with deep shadows, or a moonrise over a snow-filled background. Each of these situations (and many others like it) will present a challenge for you to overcome.

One of the tools that you have at your disposal to alter the amount of light hitting your camera’s sensor is neutral density filters (ND). These dark gray pieces of glass come in many styles (graduated, 1-stop, 2-stop, 10-stop, etc.) and do not alter the color of your image but do restrict the amount of light.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

I stacked a Graduated ND filter and ND Stopper for this image to control the gray sky and flatten the water around the island with a long exposure.

They provide an opportunity to control your exposure or create long exposures that emphasize static elements. This article will focus on Graduated ND filters that are clear on one half and dark on the other, as well as ND stoppers which are completely dark.

You can find more info here on dPS for learning about the fundamentals of using in ND filters. The rest of this article will focus on a few creative ways that you can experiment with ND filter angles, grades, and techniques to create unique shots.

Stack ‘em

You can easily combine ND filters to control more light in the scene as filter holders usually have more than one slot for multiple filters. Having multiple slots is a huge advantage because it allows you to stack filters on top of each other to control the light.

Be sure to think about creative combinations of filters to give you the most out of a scene. For instance, you may want to shoot a really long exposure to flatten out the water in a sunset, or you may want to control very bright highlights such as the sun. The table below outlines some of the possibilities that stacking filters can provide you.

ND GRADUATED ND STOPPER
GRADUATED FILTERS Graduated ND filters can be stacked on top of each other to control light and feathering at the horizon. Try stacking a hard-edged grad with a soft-edged grad to control more light high in the scene and then feather into a lighter foreground. An ND stopper filter will evenly stop out the light in the scene. You still need to control the highlights! Add an ND grad to control highlights in the scene and bring up the foreground shadows.
ND STOPPER You can combine an ND stopper with a flipped ND grad (i.e, put the dark side of the grad on the bottom). This approach is non-conventional but could be used if your highlights are at the bottom of a scene. See the Flip ‘em section of this article for more. Stacking ND stoppers on top of each other can give you very long (>1 minute) exposures even in the brightest conditions. This is a great tool for you to use to extend creativity mid-day.
How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

For this image, the boats in the harbor were important to complement the sunrise overhead. I stacked a Graduated ND filter and ND Stopper to control the sunrise and raise the foreground shadows.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

Preserving foreground highlights and shooting sunbursts can be difficult because of the extremely high contrast. I double-stacked graduated filters for this shot to give me a firm control of the highlights (the sun) and maintain the snowy landscape in front.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

This image was captured on a cold night in Minnesota (about -25F). At those temperatures, the sky after sunset has a purple hue, which was exacerbated by the double-stacked graduate filters that I used to control the light of the moon and allow you to see its craters.

Rotate ‘em

ND filter holders rotate easily around the lens giving you flexibility in the angle you choose. ND graduated filters are often aligned to the horizon by the photographer. This makes great sense if you have a flat horizon, but what if a mountain range is sticking up in front of you? You can take a little bit of creative license and easily align the ND filters to the angle of the mountains. Examine your scene and think about how the orientation and filters could emphasize foreground elements or draw the viewer’s eye.

In the images of Nugget Falls (below) in Juneau, Alaska I shot one image with a graduated filter flipped with the dark side of the sky and one over the falls. Although I personally prefer the images with the brighter falls, you can see how the lighter sky draws your eye to the mountain and glacier beyond the falls.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

Hold ‘em

Let’s face it, you are not going to have a filter holder for every lens in your kit. However, that does not mean you cannot use filters! You can also hand hold a filter in front of your lens in a pinch.

I recommend that you mount your camera on a tripod before trying to hand hold filters. It will make them the easier to handle and allow you to compose your scene before adding the filter.

How to Use Neutral Density Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene

I was not carrying a filter holder for a 100mm lens, but handheld the filter on this shot to raise the foreground shadows. Sometimes you have to make due with what you have.

Practicing in the Field

As you begin to use and experiment with ND filters you are going to grow as a photographer. Keep creativity in mind to give your shots a distinguished and unique look. As I like to say, “pixels are cheap” so be sure to make lots of pixels as you experiment with your ND filters.

I would love to hear how you have extended your photography through creative uses of ND filters.

The post How to Use ND Filters Creatively to Make the Most of a Scene by Ian Johnson appeared first on Digital Photography School.