How to Photograph Frozen Bubbles in the Cold

The post How to Photograph Frozen Bubbles in the Cold appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

Bubbles in the Air

I live somewhere that gets pretty cold in the winter, and occasionally it gets super-cold. Alright, discussing cold is always a relative measure depending upon where you live, but I may be understating a bit to say it gets pretty cold, when actually, it gets freezing by pretty much anyone’s measure. Fortunately for my family and me, it only gets challenging for about a week or two in the depths of winter.

In the hardest times, temperatures reach around -30C (-22F). At these temperatures, there is very little moisture in the air, and it is just plain cold. Extra layers only help a little bit. Frostbite is a very significant risk for any exposed skin, particularly if there is any wind (times to freeze exposed skin are less than a couple of minutes).  Many people here wear the temperatures they endure almost as a badge of honor.

So cold we can freeze bubbles before they pop

It gets really cold here

At these temperatures, everything freezes here – even things you probably didn’t think could freeze. The large river that goes through my city freezes for the entire winter. Starting sometime in November until breakup in April, eyelashes and beards freeze, camera lenses freeze (aperture blades and shutters won’t move) and cars require block heaters to keep the oil in the crankcase warm enough so that you can start the engines.

There are colder places on earth, but not that many.  During our recent cold snap from the polar vortex (very cool name but I’m not sure its a real thing), people compared it to temperatures in Antarctica (it was slightly colder here than there).

It gets pretty cold here

So what, who cares?

Realistically, apart from complaining about the weather (a common national pastime for Canadians… look it up) you don’t want to spend much time outside at these freezing temperatures. So why tell you about crazy frigid temperatures? Because there is something that you can do at these temperatures that you can’t really do if it isn’t cold enough. You can blow bubbles and take pictures of them freezing before your eyes. The effect is remarkable, and it happens very fast. Frozen bubbles! If you can blow bubbles, you can watch them freeze before your eyes.

The process is pretty quick. The ideal temperature to do this is when temperatures dip below about -20C or -4F. At temperatures higher than that, the bubbles don’t freeze the same way. Blowing bubbles at these subzero temperatures can be challenging, but if you take the time, you can get some amazing results.

Bubbles on a bubble wand

The science of bubbles

Bubbles are common phenomena that kids love playing with. They seem very simple, but the science behind them is quite complicated. Bubbles are made up of two soap films – inside layer and outside layer – holding and trapping a layer of water between them to form the bubble. When you blow the bubbles through a wand or a straw, the air you introduce expands the inner film layer to create the bubble. As the water evaporates, the bubble eventually bursts. The bubbles stay together based upon the surface tension (the tendency to stick together) of the soap film, but the film is, in general, very thin.

In warm weather, soap and water are all you require for making lots of bubbles, but at colder temperatures, the soap film needs to be stronger. By adding glycerine or corn syrup, you make the bubbles stronger. By adding a small number of sugar crystals, the bubbles will show crystal patterns in the bubble walls as they freeze. The main ingredients you need access to are water, dish soap, glycerine, and some sugar.

Ingredients to make frozen bubble images

The 3 W’s and 1 H

In preparation for shooting bubbles, the key questions before you start are WHERE, WHAT, HOW and WHEN. Because the temperatures are so cold, you need to plan everything in advance because you can’t spend that much time in these temperatures trying to guess what you are going to do next. You need to pick a spot to set your bubble down (this is not a floating bubble exercise). This is the WHERE. Preferably it is someplace convenient, at a reasonable height and near a source of warmth (like somewhere near a door or running car to get you inside).

You then need to decide on the WHAT, is there a particular look you are going for? Is there an effect you are trying to achieve? (Night shot? Candles?)

Next, you need to think about HOW. How are you going to compose the shot? How are you going to blow the bubbles? What is the background like (this is a key aspect)? How are you going to manage both focusing, bubble making and shot taking? Are you going to need a tripod?

Finally, the WHEN is the last part to consider. You need to pick a time of day on a day that is cold enough to create the effect, that has great light and when there is little to no wind (this disrupts the bubbles). Wind will quickly destroy any efforts to blow bubbles in the cold.

Bubble frozen solid with corn syrup


So let’s consider the WHERE.

It will be cold, so you will need to scout a location that is easy to get to, at a reasonable height to photograph preferably from a tripod (to free up your hands) and is relatively near warmth.

These are normally close-up images, so it presents some similar challenges as macro photography. You really can be just about anywhere as long as you don’t have distracting shapes, colors or patterns in the background. Ideally, if you choose a reasonable aperture, the bokeh will have the background blurred but significant shapes, colors or patterns will be apparent.

I used the snowy railing on my back deck as a place I would set up for my shots because it was close to my house, at waist height and I can control the background.

Frozen bubble with a dark background


Regular bubbles don’t really work in super cold temperatures. The bubble mixtures that work in the summer struggle in super-cold temperatures and tend to just burst before freezing. In cold temperatures, bubbles can be more difficult to generate. Even if you do, they often just fall to the ground.

If you search the internet, you will get lots of clear advice but little in the way of explanation. I found and tried multiple recipes for bubbles and discovered that some of the recipes don’t work all that great. All generate bubbles, but some work better than others.

The general objective is to get bubbles with thicker films that tend to stay together. Also, by adding some sugar, you can get cool crystalline patterns as the bubbles freeze.

The recipe I settled on (as it worked fairly reliably) was 1 cup of water, 4 tablespoons of dish soap (not dishwasher soap), 3 tablespoons of glycerine and 2 tablespoons of sugar. I saw many recipes that used corn syrup, but they didn’t seem to work as well as the glycerine and made for sticky bubbles. However, corn syrup does work – just not as well. The glycerine strengthens the bubble, and the sugar helps with the crystalline patterns in the freezing bubbles.

To blow the bubbles, you will need a straw and some patience. Preferably you use a reusable straw (which I have a bunch of).

Regular Bubble solutions don’t really work for freezing bubbles


Once you have figured out your location, you need to compose your shot. Plan on a bubble being about 3 inches in diameter (could be bigger but probably won’t be smaller). Set your camera on a tripod, pick the spot where you are placing the bubble and set your focus manually.

You can set the bubble on snow, or if you use the bottom of a cup or glass, a small amount of solution on the base helps place the bubble easier and without it popping. It is also useful to have your camera set up to take multiple shots (slow burst) without recomposing or refocusing.

Bubble with focus on the back wall rather than front wall

Once set, use a straw in the solution and slowly blow the bubbles. You will need to keep the bubble on the straw, place the bubble and slowly extract the straw from the top of the bubble. This technique worked best for me. Remember it is cold, and blowing bubbles is not that easy when it very cold.


Okay, you are all set…but is it cold enough? You need -20C (-4F) or the bubbles don’t freeze properly. Ideally, you want it sunny as the light hitting the bubbles really makes them pop. The good news is that generally when it is really cold, there is so little moisture in the air that it is often sunny.

Finally, you want there to be as little wind as possible. The wind will cause the bubbles to move unpredictably and cause them to burst. Try to find a location sheltered from the wind.

Using a candle to illuminate a bubble at night

The Shoot

Once all the preparation is complete, and you are ready to go, you may realize that it is difficult to blow bubbles, wear gloves, stay warm and shoot at the same time. Once the bubbles start to freeze, they freeze fast. You will want to place the bubble and then watch for it to begin to freeze and then take multiple images in a short burst.

If you can have someone blow bubbles for you, this helps because getting the bubbles to form, place them and then hope they stay together long enough for the images to turn out can be a bit of a challenge. It is a little finicky to get the bubbles to stay where you want them but if all the stars align the results are great and fun.

Mostly frozen bubble

The Results

If you get everything working, you can get pretty amazing results.  Whether for still images or video, bubbles freezing are really interesting to see and photograph. If you plan out the images, you can get great results.

Not quite frozen bubble


The post How to Photograph Frozen Bubbles in the Cold appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

Have Digital Filters Replaced the Need for Physical Lens Filters?

The post Have Digital Filters Replaced the Need for Physical Lens Filters? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

Do you need filters for beautiful pictures?

If you are old enough to have used a film camera, you know why people needed lens filters in order to accomplish visual effects in their images.  Back in the film days, you had limited control over white balance or ISO. Once you selected your film from the available film stock, and put it in your camera, you were stuck with a roll (24 or 36 exposures) of single ISO negative or slide film that was probably daylight balanced. In order to not waste money, you did everything you could to carefully mete out your images and make the most of them.

Most film was daylight balanced so getting it right in-camera was critical

Back in the day

To help you make great images in the film days, you needed certain filters to help fix your white balance, and neutral density (ND) filters to allow you to slow your shutter speeds down. That was then, this is now. With the advent of digital cameras and the high-powered abilities of most image editing software, you can accomplish digitally much of the work that filters used to do.  Is there still a place in modern digital photography for optical lens filters?

The answer is yes, but only for a few specific types of filters. In fact, you may find it difficult to get many filters in your local camera store that would have been readily available in the film camera days.  Most bricks and mortar camera stores carry few filters. The more unusual filters might be found in the bargain bin section, next to the books on how to use your new Canon 5D mark 1 (hint: that is an old digital camera).

Some filters have to be really large to accommodate wide angle lenses

Types of Optical Lens Filters

I find that optical lens filters break down into six general types: UV/skylight filters, color modifiers, special effects, specialty filters, ND filters (including graduated), and circular polarizers. Most optical filters can be replaced by digital processes, either in the camera itself or in post-production. Some optical filters are really big and all take up space in your bag.

Ultraviolet (UV) or Skylight filters

Let’s consider UV or skylight filters. Film stock was often sensitive to UV light so it was important to protect your film by using a filter so that UV light wouldn’t make the images hazy.  Modern digital cameras are not susceptible to UV light interfering with their sensors as there are already UV and IR filters built into the cameras (we will discuss the importance of this later). Today, UV or skylight filters serve a completely different purpose: many photographers use them to protect the front element of their lenses.

A UV or Skylight Filter will protect your lens front element

UV/Skylight filters as lens protection

As an aside, there are two schools of thought regarding UV or skylight filters. Some argue that putting a cheap filter in front of a really expensive lens significantly degrades the optical properties of your lens and that most good quality lenses have great coatings and are quite robust.  Alternatively, others would prefer to replace a $100 filter than replace a $2000 lens. While I agree you should never use cheap filters, I do tend to think that if you use good filters they do protect your investment in much more expensive lenses. I have replaced lots of filters that were shattered from an impact. In all of those cases, the front lens elements were protected from contact by the filter. I am not sure that would have occurred without the sacrificial filters.

Regardless, since these UV/skylight filters don’t cause any significant changes to your image, they really are only useful for physical lens protection.

A warming filter to adjust white balance

Color filters

Color filters were another common filter used with film cameras for simple color correction. Back in the film days, the film stock was mostly daylight balanced so if your images were taken in non-daylight conditions, you would need to use a color filter to correct your white balance. Although film processors had some ability to adjust the white balance in the lab, back then – today too, for that matter – it was always easier when you got things right in camera. Color filters are still available but are more of a novelty item, used for a specific effect, often in concert with gelled flashes and strobes. They are also still used for film cameras, instant cameras, and for specific applications like underwater photography.

Special effects filters

Once upon a time, there were lots of special effects filters that would produce in-camera special effects like grids, streaks, and starbursts. These all still work on digital cameras, however, most of these effects can be digitally produced, reducing the need for the optical filter. Many film shooters will take their images and then scan them to edit them, so the extra effort and cost of using special effects filters seem unnecessary. They are also difficult to find.

Rectangular Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Neutral Density Filters – Graduated

The next filter type to consider is the neutral density filters, commonly used by landscape photographers (both film and digital). These divide into two groups: graduated neutral density filters and overall neutral density filters. Acting like sunglasses for your camera, graduated neutral density filters are all neutral colored – they should impart little color change – and darken only part of the image. Graduated filters help deal with the dynamic range of your sensors, particularly when shooting into scenes that are very bright and very dark in the same view. Most modern digital cameras have a dynamic range of about 10 – 14 stops whereas your eyes are more like 20 stops. Keep in mind that this is not really a fair comparison because our eyes work quite differently from camera sensors. Graduated neutral density filters can usually be applied in post-processing. Although, if the dynamic range is really huge, it often means you can take one image rather than multiple images that need to be composited (this is what HDR images really are).

The left shows the image normally processed with the right having a digital neutral density filter

Neutral Density Filters – Non-Graduated

A neutral density filter (non-graduated) is the first optical filter type that does things that cannot be easily duplicated, either in camera or in post-production. At least not all of its functions. While it is certainly possible to darken your images digitally in post, a non-graduated neutral density filter allows you to take images that your camera would not allow you to take in full sunlight. In full sun, it may be so bright that you may not be able to stop your lens down and slow your shutter down sufficiently to get motion to blur. Non-graduated neutral density filters allow you to slow your shutter speed down in the field when conditions are bright. You will be able to take images of moving subjects in bright locales and blur the motion to create interesting effects.  For example, waterfalls are often shot using a non-graduated neutral density filter. Neutral density filters are often measured in stops to indicate the number of stops you can slow things down. At the extreme end of the non-graduated neutral density filters are the specialty filters used for photographing solar eclipses. Without these strong filters, the sun can permanently damage camera sensors.

Neutral Density Filters on the front element of the lens

Smooth water motion with a non-graduated neutral density filter for longer exposures

Specialty filters

The second optical filter type that cannot be duplicated in post-processing or in-camera are specialty filters related to UV and IR light.  By default, cameras have filters on their sensors that cut UV and IR light out so that only visible light is recorded. However, it is possible to get these filters removed (you have to send your camera body away) to allow you to shoot UV-only, full spectrum (which includes UV, visible and IR), or IR-only images. Once this is done, your modified camera is generally limited to that particular use, but the images it produces can be quite interesting. By using specialty filters on a modified camera body that allows for full spectrum, you can control what portion of the spectrum is visible in your images. There are cut filters that allow full spectrum sensors to only see UV, visible light or IR spectrum. These filters cannot be duplicated in post-processing.

Slight neutral density cast for a circular polarizer

Circular Polarizers

The final optical filter type that cannot be duplicated in post-processing is a circular polarizerThere are actually two types of polarizers, linear and circular. They both cut the same light out but circular polarizers can rotate an allow you to find the optimal orientation whereas linear polarizers are fixed (you should only use circular polarizers unless you know what you are doing). Circular polarizers do two things: cut down reflections and increase contrast. Some also act as a weak neutral density filter. When light hits a metallic or watery surface, the reflected light tends to be polarized (all the light is vibrating in the same direction). The circular polarizer lets you filter out this polarized light. You do this by turning the filter.  The change can be quite dramatic, and it cannot be achieved in any practical sense through post-processing. In addition, because there is always some polarized light in the atmosphere, the filter will make the colors in your images punchier. This is a secondary feature of polarizers but adds to their use. Colors just pop more.  Different brands and types alter how much this occurs. In general, you can’t go wrong using a circular polarizer, particularly for landscape photography.

Circular Polarizers help control reflections


Many filters that were used with film cameras are not really required anymore because of the ability to control white balance and ISO. Other filters created effects that can easily be duplicated using image editing software like Photoshop. Despite this there are a few filter types that cannot be replaced by processes applied in post, thus they remain vital tools in your photographer’s toolbox.

Do you use filters? Share with us in the comments below.



The post Have Digital Filters Replaced the Need for Physical Lens Filters? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

Photographing Small Things – A Personal Voyage

The post Photographing Small Things – A Personal Voyage appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

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Souvenir Mask

When you photograph an item for a marketing campaign, or to record its physical condition, it’s called product photography. This is a very specialized type of photography. While you may never be commissioned to photograph a commercial product, some of the techniques used in product photography may have relevance to your personal life.

Perhaps these techniques offer a solution to a problem many people don’t recognize – hanging on to reminders of people, places or events from the past.

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Ostrich Egg on a pedestal

A collection of small things

My wife’s uncle Larry recently passed away. Larry was an incredible guy and was a man of good taste. For a period of about 10 years during his late 60’s and 70’s, he traveled to many far-flung parts of this blue orb we call home. During his travels, he acquired an extensive collection of items that I reluctantly call souvenirs.

To Larry, these items represented mementos, memories and valued objects from his travels. Now that he has passed, any monetary value of these objects is unknown. The stories of their origin, that ultimately made them of personal value to Larry, have been lost. It is left to us to figure out what to do with his extensive collection. There are boxes and boxes of these things, most of which are unlabeled.

Going beyond Larry’s collection, when I look around my house, I see pieces of furniture that remind me of my long passed parents. Most of these are not functional, nor do they match my personal taste. I keep them around because they evoke memories. My wife came up with a novel idea that seemed to resonate with everyone: create a photographic series to preserve the memories that the collection of material objects represents. Perhaps more correctly, for me to create this collection. This digital photographic record would certainly occupy less space than the physical objects.

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Small figure on a black background

Combining approaches to product photography and archival photography

For this project, I am combining the approaches to product photography and archival photography. I am photographing the objects as though I am going to sell them, and recording the images from many perspectives so that the record of their existence is complete. We may also be able to use the resulting images to figure out if the objects have any value outside of our family. From there, we can decide what to sell, what to give away, and what to keep for ourselves and other family members.

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African Mask, a larger piece on a black background

To give you an idea of the project scale, I have 15 boxes containing between 10 and 20 objects each. So we are talking about 200 – 300 objects. Although I have made a dent in the collection, at the time of writing, I still have a long way to go. However, my workflow and objective are solidifying.

In doing product or archival photography, you need good, controlled light with limited shadows. Shadows are great for portraits and drama, but they detract from an image captured for archival purposes where you want to capture the object’s details. You also need to control reflections and ensure that the light appears to come from everywhere.

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This glass bowl with gold leaf gilding was highly reflective


I considered using a studio strobe setup. It’s a great way to light things, but it can get complicated when dealing with smaller objects. It also takes up a great deal of space. It’s generally intended for bigger objects in larger spaces. I needed a more compact footprint that would allow me to do the photographs in my home when it was convenient for me.

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A small 24-inch lightbox for product photography

The collection I’m photographing contains objects ranging from 1 cubic inch to large, skinny objects that are almost 18-inches long. I decided it was worth investing in a small portable lighting cube designed for product photography. The 24-inch portable cube has reflective walls, LED lights, and a selection of backgrounds. It packs up into a skinny portfolio sized carrying case and provides flexibility to accommodate all of the objects in a relatively confined space.

I use the cube in conjunction with a small card table and my tripod. There are many brands of this type of set up, but for my purposes, I used the Promaster Still Life Studio 2.0.

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Lightbox interior with a black background and small box to elevate objects

Right from the start, a few challenges presented themselves. Some objects don’t stand well on their own, and some objects really benefit from sitting off the background to make them stand out more. Finding interesting supports or display blocks all of a sudden seemed important.

White balance

In addition, I discovered that I needed to get a baseline for white balance. When you use Auto white balance in this kind of environment, even if you are using a white background, color management becomes problematic. By establishing a baseline white balance, you can color correct all the images in post-production (provided you shoot RAW files) or in camera if you use and set a custom white balance.

Be careful when you use custom white balance settings on a camera that you use for other purposes. If you’re like me, you may forget that the white balance has changed which only creates problems with the other work.

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Some objects have their own stands

The portable studio has a set of LED lights at the top of the cube, a diffusion panel underneath the lights to make a bigger light, highly reflective side panels, and a set of backgrounds in white, black, grey, and light blue/grey. When you take a photograph there is a small hole (either in the front or the top) where you insert your lens, so the lighting is fairly even all around. It works pretty well. Most items are lit well right out of the gate.

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Choice of colors for backgrounds

Depth of field and exposure

Once you’ve set your white balance (either by using a grey card or a custom white balance), you need to consider the depth of field and exposure. The cubes are very well lit, so there’s plenty of light. This light dominates, and you don’t have to worry much about ambient light interfering with your white balance or exposure.

Because many of the objects I’m shooting in my project are small, I need to be close but not quite at a macro scale. Due to this factor, the depth of field becomes a big issue. If I shoot wide open, part of the object is out of focus. Shallow depth of field is necessary when you need to create separation from the background. In this project, the background is akin to seamless paper, which means I don’t need to create that separation. Instead, I can choose a wider depth of field to ensure that the entirety of the smaller object is in focus.

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To get a complete record of an object you need to see it from all sides

I come from a background in forensic engineering investigations. Here, I photographically documented objects to ensure the preservation of as much visual information as possible.

To capture your items, reasonable depth of field (maybe around f/8) should give the right amount of depth of field without diffraction effects. Of course, this depends on the size of the camera sensor.

Because I set the portable studio on a small card table, I can elevate all items I am photographing. When shooting stationary objects, use a tripod to set up the shots, and move the object relative to your camera. Due to the items being three dimensional and digital images are flat (2D), you need more than one image to capture each object adequately.

To be thorough, it is a good idea to capture around ten images. One from the front, back, two sides, four corners, top, and bottom. Depending upon the nature of the item or how complex it is, sometimes it’s fine to take fewer images. In this case, it works best to keep the camera in a great position, set for white balance, depth of field and exposure, and then to turn the item around.

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The depth of field helps show the incredible details of the objects

Labeling the items

In the next step, I labeled my items. You don’t want to photograph an item, only to never be able to find it again! My items were bubble wrapped, so I labeled the boxes with a letter and gave each bubble wrapped item a number. To keep track of all the items and their associated numbers, photograph the letter/number then photograph the item, labeling it with the number when finished with it. By putting an identifier at the beginning of the series of images for that item, you can easily see the name of the images plus the images together.  I have used this technique frequently for event photography as well.

Once I had all my images, I corrected the white balance and then ran the images through a batch process droplet to get the images the way I like them.

In the end, I have a great collection of images, and you can too. You can use either a website or a proofing gallery to look and share all the images. It makes it easier to manage all the images for all of the items.

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Lots of detail in this mask


Taking this approach to photographing meaningful objects from life seems like a way to preserve the memories of meaningful objects without retaining the physical objects. Sometimes I hang onto things because they mean something to me or remind me of people or happier times. However, I don’t have space or need the items, and I don’t want them in my life other than to remind me of others.

For instance, I have a small french provincial style buffet that I have had for as long as I can remember. It was important to my parents and reminds me of them. They passed away many years ago. Through objects like this, I connect to my past when they were here. As a consequence, while it is a meaningful object that connects me to my parents, it’s of a style that doesn’t fit into my house, and it’s large and impractical.

In the end, maybe just a photographic record of the furniture, without keeping it, is all I need. I just need to make sure that the images of all the items both large and small are reasonably accessible for those moments I want to remember my parents or uncle Larry.

Feel free to share your comments below.

The post Photographing Small Things – A Personal Voyage appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

How to Choose the Right Photography Backdrop

The post How to Choose the Right Photography Backdrop appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

So, you’ve picked up some strobes to help light your subjects and are in the process of setting up your studio. This is a very exciting time: so much to photograph, total control of the lighting, what an opportunity…. but how to choose the right photography backdrop? How you shoot and what you shoot will affect your decision, as will your budget.

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Model with a black seamless paper backdrop

Photography backdrops make your photographs pop

If you haven’t figured it out already – you soon will – most photographers realize that one of the essential features of a good photograph is the thing that nobody notices: the background. When it works, people “oohh” and “aahh”. However, if it doesn’t work, people can’t figure out why they don’t like your image. One of the secrets of any successful photographer is paying attention to what’s behind your subject. This applies to any photograph, not just those taken in the studio. You might want to consider purchasing commercial backdrops that can significantly improve the quality of your shots.

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Model with a white seamless paper backdrop

Beyond lighting

Assuming you already know what’s involved in lighting a studio (if not check this out), the next question is what to use as a backdrop. There are multiple types and sizes with pros and cons for each. Backdrop mounting and portability are also necessary.

It is one thing to have a backdrop for use in your studio, but what if you are asked to set up somewhere else? How do you make your backdrop portable? What goes best with the subject? If you are shooting a white subject, you probably don’t want a white backdrop because the white may disappear into the background (same with black on black). The color doesn’t need to be complementary (although it helps if it is) but should provide contrast. Lighting tricks can alleviate some of this, but sometimes it’s just easier to use a contrasting backdrop.

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Model with a white seamless paper backdrop


There are multiple types of backdrops but they all function similarly. They all tend to be relatively thin and only intended as backgrounds (not designed for subjects to interact with). Then can be constructed of seamless paper, muslin, hand-painted canvas or vinyl. The most expensive, least flexible, and the fanciest backdrop is the cyclorama or cyc studio.

Seamless paper

Seamless paper is a versatile and inexpensive backdrop and is a staple for many studios. They are available in many colors, with the most common being black or white. You can produce gray from white backdrops by altering your lighting setup, so a dedicated gray backdrop isn’t necessary. You can also modify white backgrounds with gelled lighting to created colored backgrounds.

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Product photo on a seamless white paper backdrop

There are pros of using seamless paper: the look is clean, you can modify the background colors with lighting, and the images can be cut out for background replacement. The cons of using seamless paper are: the rolls can be awkward to transport if a wide size (even just from the store to the studio), the paper can be easily damaged, and the backgrounds have no texture. In addition, if you have colored paper, the background colors can seep into the edges of your subject.

Seamless paper provides flooring as well as the backdrop without a visible interface between the floor and the background. This makes it ideal for product photography as well as studio shots. The lack of a seam makes the image appear to float with an infinite background.


Muslin backdrops are constructed from a cotton fabric. They come in various weights and sizes and can be dyed in a single color, have color splotches, or be hand painted. Because muslin backdrops have been in use for a long time, some photographers don’t pay much attention to them. They are, however, very portable and generally look good. Another great feature is that you can easily wash them if soiled. However, you may need to clean larger sizes in a commercial machine. Muslin backdrops can look modern or retro, depending upon the style of lighting. They are a great addition to every photographer’s arsenal of backdrops.

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Model in front of dyed muslin backdrop

Similar to paper, you can use longer muslin as flooring for the subject. Solid colors function much like seamless paper, but you need to be cautious about folds in the muslin as they can be distracting from the subject. Muslin backdrops produce many of the same effects as a seamless paper but are much easier to transport.

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Dog in front of muslin backdrop showing flooring

There are a few downsides to muslin backdrops. Depending upon how you light them, you may see folds in the fabric behind your subject. As your subject moves, the backdrop may also move, disrupting your background. People may even trip over the material as they walk across the muslin. If you are not careful, solid colored muslins will wrinkle, detracting from the appearance of the background. Because muslins were popular for so many years, certain styles appear particularly old or dated. Photographers need to take care in choosing the style of the muslin backdrops.

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Dog in front of muslin backdrop

Hand-painted canvas

If you have ever flipped through a copy of Vanity Fair or seen images from Annie Leibovitz, you know the look of a hand-painted canvas backdrop. They look amazing. These studio backdrops are hand painted onto large sheets of canvas. The paint is done in multiple layers to give the perception of depth and texture. The ones used in many of the fashion or movie-star photoshoots tend to be specialty canvases that are custom made. The effort to paint the backdrops, and the large space required to create them, tends to make these expensive.

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Cat in front of hand-painted canvas backdrop

Hand-painted canvas backdrops provide a vibrant appearance. A lighting change does not generate this richness, but purely because of the reflective surfaces on the backdrop. The paint adds texture, and the various layers of the paint add depth and tonality you cannot achieve with seamless paper. Because they are hand-painted, each canvas tends to be unique.

9 - How to Choose the Right Photography Backdrop

Hand-painted canvas backdrop

The downsides of hand-painted canvas backdrops are cost and care in handling. You don’t want people stepping on your canvas backdrops because they are easily damaged and difficult to clean. That said, the visual effect of a hand-painted canvas backdrop can be stunning.


Vinyl backdrops consist of large images printed on pliable vinyl. Many images are suitable for a vinyl backdrop, but this form is limited to the vertical surface in the background. Flooring is separate. You can purchase separate vinyl sheets for flooring to simulate flooring (such as hardwood floors).

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Unimpressed dog in front of a vinyl backdrop

Vinyl backdrops can feature unusual or creative backgrounds. They are great for children, parties or events and are washable, so they work for different types of cake smash, food fight or spray images (be careful about the rest of your studio). Also, they are quite pliable so they can be moved about without much difficulty. Finally, they can feature images that appear three dimensional (like a bookcase).

On the other hand, vinyl backdrops are a little reflective, so you need to be cautious about how your lights are set up. You also need to be aware that the backgrounds are two dimensional even though they can appear to be three dimensional.

Cycloramas or Cyc Studios

A cyclorama or cyc studio is a fixed (built in place) backdrop consisting of two intersecting wall sections that have been curved seamlessly into one another and the floor so that there are no visible corners. By curving the corners, the background flows from wall to wall to floor.  A cyclorama is a practical and durable backdrop. However, it is also the least flexible (it won’t move) and is only one color (usually white). It makes the subject appear to be floating with an infinite background and is a great way to create cut outs to modify your background.

This type of backdrop takes a lot of space, time and effort, but makes for great photographs.

Sizes and handling

Seamless paper doesn’t usually have any texture. It comes in large rolls of varying widths, with 53 inches and 107 inches being the two most common sizes. Seamless paper also provides the flooring in front of the background without a corner edge. Because it is paper, you need to be aware of dirty or wet footwear because they leave marks and can damage the paper. When the paper is too damaged, you roll out more paper and discard the dirty or damaged section. The rolls generally have lots of paper, somewhere in the range of 9-12 yards (27-36 feet). White seamless paper is often ideal for a studio set up when you want to cut out the background and replace it with something else.

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Santa in front of black muslin backdrop

Muslin backdrops come in different styles: standard, washed, crumpled and hand-painted. Standard sizes are 10 feet wide by 12 or 24 feet long. They can be challenging to manage but cover a wide area. Ideally, they come sewn with a pocket at the top that allows you to run it on a rod. Folds in the backdrop can evoke an older photographic style, so most contemporary photographers try to flatten out the muslin. Wrinkle elimination sometimes requires a steamer.

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Model with a large muslin backdrop

Because canvas is a much heavier material, these backdrops typically come on rolls. If you don’t manage them as rolls, they can be difficult to handle. Standard sizes are about 6 feet wide by 8 feet tall. Most suppliers have a range of sizes. Canvas tends to hang in stretched out to avoid any folds. If you are doing full-length photographs, you will need to consider what you are using for the floor.

Vinyl backdrops vary in size. Similar to canvas, you need to stretch them to eliminate folds. Some vinyl backdrops come with printed flooring (such as hardwood floors) and can be used together, provided you deal with the interface. Stretching the vinyl on the mounting allows for the image to present well. When shooting with vinyl, you need to ensure that the lighting does not reflect into the camera lens. If you’ve used a backdrop with a three-dimensional image, a reflection will make it clear that the background is not real.


There are a few options for mounting backdrops. The determining factor tends to be the size and type of backdrop you are using, as well as the frequency with which you plan on changing them. In general, you want some ability to change and mix up the backgrounds.

The basic options for mounting are fixed bars or portable stands. If you have a permanent studio and never plan on taking any of your backgrounds on the road, fixed bars or rollers are ideal. You mount them on the ceiling or wall so that they are suitably high, and allow the paper or fabric to roll off. Mounting on the ceiling means the backdrop will be high enough for your tallest subjects. Framing can be done merely with conduit and small size piping. There are also large electrically controlled rollers available. The costs can range from very cheap to very expensive.

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Stands, allow for flexibility of the configuration. Some stands are intended for backdrops and often come as a set with clamps included. With portable backdrops, clamps play an integral role in making the background smooth and even. It is particularly the case with muslin or canvas backdrops, but seamless paper also benefits from strategic use of clamps to ensure that it does not keep unspooling as you hang the rolls.

There are also pop-up stands that you can use for canvas or vinyl backgrounds. You simply clamp the background to the edges of a springy stand. There are multiple systems for this, and many come with their own backgrounds as a complete set.


Regardless of your backdrop choice, keep the subject at least 3 feet away from it to avoid casting shadows onto the backdrop. This all ties to the strategic use of lighting setups. Your goal is to have the backdrop disappear behind the subject, making it the center of attention.

Some backdrops, particularly white seamless paper, may need to be lit separately. If you don’t light the backdrop you may have uneven colors behind the subject that detract from the image or prevent the easy masking of the backdrop.

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Dog in front of muslin backdrop

In general, keeping backdrops clean can be a challenge. Some are easier to clean than others. However, hand-painted canvas and paper backdrops can’t be cleaned without damaging the surfaces, while muslin and vinyl backdrops are easier to clean. You may need to wash large muslins commercially. It is also important that any washing gets done in such a way that the fabrics don’t become altered or damaged.


Choosing the right studio backdrop can affect the mood and overall feel of your images. My personal favorite is hand-painted canvas, but I have used them all (except a cyclorama) effectively. The use of backdrops work hand in glove with your chosen lighting setup, and you should consider both together. If used well, you can make your images pop by having the backdrops pull focus onto your subjects.


The post How to Choose the Right Photography Backdrop appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

How to Deliver Digital Images to Your Clients

The post How to Deliver Digital Images to Your Clients appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

Whether you are an enthusiast, beginner photographer or an established professional, all photographers produce images. Regardless of whether you are sharing or selling images, or working on a commission, you need to get your image to the destination. Beautiful images need a delivery method in a format that people can use. That’s where things can get technical and a bit tricky.

Santa’s little helper


There are many considerations to factor into how and what you provide to your client, including how to get them into your client’s hands as quickly as possible. Everyone has busy lives and getting together can be difficult.

For the image itself, you need to consider format, file size, resolution, and color space. Are you sending proofs? Are you using a watermark?

Once you have decided that, the next question is the delivery method. For people selling their images, consider what you want to happen after you send your client their images. Do you want to sell prints or albums after an initial proof set? What about images for social media?

Christmas is often a time crunch for delivery of images

So many details

In this age of digital media, it seems easier than ever to deliver digital media. But, is it? Nowadays, modern digital cameras create high-resolution images anywhere from 16-megapixels to 50-megapixels. Larger megapixel images correspond into larger file sizes. The problem with higher resolution image files is it taxes our ability to send and receive the images. So, where do you start? Let’s consider the file size and space followed by delivery options.

Modern digital cameras produce high-resolution images

File size and format

There are many file formats: jpeg, tiff, png and more. As you advance as a photographer shooting in RAW becomes commonplace. RAW shooters often dismiss shooting in jpeg. However, the reality is jpeg is probably the number one format people consume digitally. It is important to remember that most people consume images on digital platforms (few people print images anymore).

Size is the enemy of large-scale delivery

Although RAW is a preferred file format for shooting because of the flexibility it offers in post-processing, it is an impracticable format for digital delivery. Firstly, RAW images need a RAW processor to be able to view them. Secondly, RAW images record exactly what your camera sensor sees. They require some form of post-processing to make them look finished. Finally, the file sizes are enormous.

JPEG at quality level 10

JPEG at quality 2

Not all professional photographers avoid JPEG images. Some high-volume photographers often shoot only in JPEG and many photographers shoot in both RAW+JPEG. School photographers, for example, deal with the logistical nightmare of taking very few images of uncooperative children intended for parents with high expectations. In these cases, the logistics of image delivery is the ultimate priority. If image ordering and delivery are too complicated, there are no orders. Shooting in JPEG mode allows photographers to address this issue. Similarly, some sports photographers shoot in JPEG to allow for quick delivery.

Image consumption

The first step in addressing digital delivery is to consider the end use of the images. If the images are for social media distribution, small file sizes are your best option. If the images are too big when used on a website, the images load too slow, damaging the site speed, and ranking. These limits change with time and technology. However, for the time being, there are reasonable limits to image size you need to work within.

Similarly, many social media platforms (like Facebook or Instagram) automatically downsample your images to a manageable size. Meaning, larger images are unnecessary because that extra data gets discarded.

Instagram is where many images will end up being posted

The format


When you are printing images, you should consider your image size in both dots-per-inch (DPI) and width and height resolution (pixels). Printers generally use 300dpi (or ppi) as their resolution for printing to paper. This guide is the actual printer resolution which prints in dots, rather than pixels. A handy guide to figure out your photo resolution for printing is this: if you would like to print your photo at 8″ x 10″ at 300dpi; your photo needs to be 2400pixels x 3000pixels (8 x 300 = 2400, 10 x 300 = 3000). You take your size dimensions and times them by 300 (dpi), to come to your pixel size. That means, if your photo is 2400pixels x 3000pixels and only 72dpi, it is fine for printing at 8″ x 10″ at 300dpi. The file size of an image at this size can range from 3-7megabytes, depending on the amount of detailed information in the image. The more fine details it has, the larger the size.


For digital delivery for social media consumption use JPEG. While it is an old standard, it is the most reliable and compatible image format for all computers (Mac, Windows, and Chrome). It is a compressed format so you can make small file sizes. However, you should be aware that jpeg is a lossy format, which means that every time you edit and resave the image, you lose data in the image. As a final product, this isn’t a problem as long as you don’t edit the image.

There are other formats, that may be technically better; however, they are not as well used or practical. Most cameras offer JPEG as an image file format.

For most social media platforms, the maximum size you really need is 1500 pixels on the long edge. If someone decides to print your image, at the 300 dpi printing resolution, it is relatively small at only 5 inches (remember, 1500 divided by 300 is 5″). When saving your JPEG images, to reduce your overall image file size, reduce the quality number. The quality number is between 1 and 12. 1 is the lowest quality, and 12 is the highest.

Physical media

Gone are the days of recording CDs and DVDs for clients. Most computers aren’t equipped with readers anymore, and both mediums don’t offer much storage. What’s worse is that writable CDs and DVDs are not a permanent medium and degrade over time.

USB memory sticks are smaller, offer larger storage capacity and are more flexible. Memory sticks can be personalized to your brand and allow you to physically hand over the fruits of your labor to your client. Not the fastest delivery mechanism, but the one-on-one contact is excellent for further sales or connections with your client.

USB Media

Basic digital delivery

If you are only sending one or two images, attaching them to an email is an option. However, there are limitations to the size of an email you can send. Email can be unreliable because each email provider and ISP has different attachment limits and they change from time to time. Some platforms allow you to send large files (up to 10-megabyte files), but your recipient’s email provider may not accept the image and often has limits. Emails not received may take a while to bounce back, and your client won’t even know you tried to send them something.

Email as a delivery mechanism

Digital document delivery

Digital delivery of electronic files is not new and has been problematic for many businesses. These businesses need to send documents in digital format to their clients, but these documents are not necessarily image-specific. They are broadly divided into two methods – FTP links or document repositories.

Digital File Repository

FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol and is intended for transferring digital documents. There are many free services for transferring documents, however, you don’t see the images until after they are completely received.  Some examples of FTP services include Sharefile, WeTransfer, TransferNow, and Send Anywhere.

WeTransfer allows for digital file sharing

Some services allow a cloud-based location for your digital files. From the cloud, they can be used to create links for people to pick up documents. Some examples of these services include Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive. These services are great but sometimes require logging in or creating accounts on the platform to allow you access to the images. Often they have a limited amount of space for free, or you can upgrade to more space for a fee.

These services work well, but they aren’t just geared toward photographers solely for image delivery. They transfer documents, and images are simply a type of document.

Photography-specific image delivery

For image specific delivery methods, there are two different approaches.  Firstly, you can use a customized website that allows for a gallery to be set up with your website.  This feature is set-up in the back-end of your website. Secondly, you can use a photography-specific gallery system. These systems allow for the delivery of images with lots of bells and whistles.

A photographic website from Format

Using the back end of your website to create galleries can be a great way to deliver but can be complicated to set up and maintain. Custom-built websites are costly, and any changes usually result in extra charges. More recently, there are some excellent website builder services such as Squarespace, Format, Smugmug, WIX, and WordPress that all provide great pre-made templates for websites that allow you to create galleries for your clients.

I have personally used Squarespace, Smugmug, and Format, however, there are many great platforms. However, you may also be limited to the amount of space you have with your web hosting, and storing large printable files may fill this space quickly.

Pixieset Website Gallery

Another option is photography-specific image delivery systems. These delivery systems are designed with the needs of wedding photographers in mind. There is a need for digital delivery of images in a slick, easy to use and easy to navigate website. Additionally, wedding photographers want a proofing gallery that allows visitors to select favorites, download images for social media, purchase high-resolution images or get prints.

These image-proofing services include such brands as Pixieset, Shootproof, PicTime and Pass Plus. I personally really like this method because it allows for the simple uploading of images into pre-configured galleries that simplify the delivery of images to clients. They look slick, and they let your clients see the images, all while letting you control what they download and how they download. You can also set up galleries for clients to see photos but not necessarily download them. These are all paid services, but if you are frequently delivering images, this method is excellent. I use Pixieset, but Shootproof and PicTime are also good services.


Taking beautiful photographs is often what most photographers focus on; however, the final product is the image delivery. With digital images, there are lots of technical considerations regarding the delivery of images to your intended recipients.  Knowing the format, size, and delivery mechanism simplify your ability to deliver your photographs quickly and efficiently.

What systems have you tried out? What works for you? Let us know in the comments below.




The post How to Deliver Digital Images to Your Clients appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Mark C Hughes.

Making Photoshop Luminosity Masks Easy with Lumenzia

As you advance with your photography, you may want to edit your photographs with more precise control. In this article, I discuss how to use Lumenzia Luminosity Masking Panel to easily edit sections of your image using Luminosity Masks in Adobe Photoshop.

These masks allow you to control different aspects of your image without affecting others. You can manually create these luminosity masks, or you can use a product such as Lumenzia to make them for you automatically, as well as applying many commonly used adjustment layers in Adobe Photoshop.

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Hoar Frost on a River Stone after Using Luminosity Masks

Lumenzia is a luminosity masking panel that is an add-on application that works within Adobe Photoshop. It allows you to quickly create and efficiently use a wide range of luminosity masks for your image editing. To understand how Lumenzia works, because it is a little technical, you need to understand how Photoshop layers work.

Lumenzia, in its most basic terms, is used within Adobe Photoshop to allow you to manipulate images with layer masks. For this article, all the references and images are for Lumenzia V6.0.  Lumenzia appears as a panel within Photoshop.

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Lumenzia Panel

Luminosity Masks

Luminosity masks, also known as Luminescence masks, are a way of making advanced selections in Photoshop based on luminosity values. This method is particularly useful for images with a high dynamic range.

For example, let’s say we are looking at the hoar frost ice ball image. It is a bright object on a dark background, where the exposure is likely to have been selected for the darker areas rather than the ice ball, making the ice ball more gray than white. The image is uneven because the white section (the ice ball) is underexposed. We could make a second exposure, this time exposing to account for the ice ball and then smoothly blend the area of the ice into the darker background.

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Underexposed Original Hoar Frost Ice Ball

There are many ways to make selections in Photoshop, but in this particular example, Luminosity Masks would allow us to select the over-exposed area because it targets luminosity values (i.e., the brightness of an area), and smoothly blend in the darker exposure. The image below shows the luminosity histogram for this image.

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Ice ball histogram

Luminosity masks are incredibly powerful because you can manipulate specific parts of your image. As with all masks, the key to remember is that white reveals and black conceals. There are multiple uses for these types of masks including fine-tuning images, highlight recovery, HDR images, black and white imagery, and general masking uses.

Lumenzia is an add-on product for Photoshop CC that allows for the automation of using Luminosity Masks. The limits of what you use this tool for is related to your imagination and how far you want to manipulate images.

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Bonavista Harbour at Night – High Dynamic Range

What is a Luminosity Mask?

In general, there are two fundamental characteristics of the data contained in the photographic information in digital form: Chromatic (color, hue, and tint) and Luminosity (brightness). Luminosity masks focus on using the brightness of the information contained in the image data to allow you to manipulate portions of the image selectively.

There are some other great articles on dPS regarding Luminosity Masks. This being a fairly advanced concept, understanding how layers work in Photoshop is vital, or you may not understand much of this article.

Why use Luminosity Masks?

In times past and to this day, many photographers use techniques such as a white seamless background behind a portrait subject to allow for the background to be changed in post-production. Some other photographers use color to allow the background to replaced.

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Cute Puppy on White Seamless Background

The distinction between the two backgrounds is that the white background has different luminosity levels, making it easier to mask out the background manually. Colored backgrounds can create problems due to the color of the clothing worn and color from the background affecting the edges of the subject in the foreground. The lighting on the subject can also affect this. The colored background is a chromatic mask rather than a luminosity mask. Luminosity masks are used to solve this issue.

Again, layer masks always work on the premise that white reveals and black conceals.

Let’s look at three masks for the Ice Ball image:

  • ‘Lights’ (L2) Mask (just from the high end)
  • ‘Mid-tone’ Mask (just from the middle)
  • ‘Darks’ mask (just from the darker end)

It’s the same image using the different masks. By using these masks, you can modify the image in those specific areas. The white areas are the selected areas of the histogram and the further you get from the selection, the darker the mask is. For the ‘Highlights,’ only the light values are white. For the ‘Mid-tone’ selection, only the mid-range values are white, making the highlights dark as well as the dark range. Finally, the ‘Darks’ selection shows the dark range in white.

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Lights 2 Mask

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Mids 2 Mask

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Darks 2 Mask

How do you create Luminosity masks?

There are three ways to create luminosity masks. Firstly, you could create your own (time-consuming) and then automate this process. Secondly, you could purchase Lightroom or Photoshop presets that have someone else create an automated process for you. The third way is an add-in product that works within Photoshop. Lumenzia is an add-in product that works well.

There are two issues with the first two methods of generating Luminosity Masks; the time it takes to set up and automate them and the size of the files that have them applied with layer masks. Using presets or actions to generate Layer Masks can significantly increase the size of the files within Photoshop because each layer is effectively an image. This process takes up hard drive space and can place extra processing power on your computer.

Lumenzia uses Vector Masks instead of Layer Masks to rapidly create the Luminosity Masks. It allows for the rapid manipulation of images and discarding of masks is easy. All while keeping the image size smaller and more flexible.

How does Lumenzia work?

Lumenzia is an exciting product on its own as it allows you to efficiently control and automate many tasks related to Luminosity Masks. It integrates into Photoshop CC as a panel with simple button commands – many of which have instructions as you hover over them.

It is a powerful tool, and while the initial concepts are simple, the learning curve for using the product efficiently may be steep for some. Luckily, there are also integrated video tutorials that are launched from within Photoshop directly from the panel (you require an internet connection for these to function). The purpose of this review is to give you a bit of an overview of how it works so you can see if it’s right for you.

The Lumenzia Panel

The majority of the panel shows the selections of the luminosity ranges you need – once you understand how to select the various luminosity levels. To illustrate, consider a standard histogram for an image.

The RGB histogram shows the distribution of all the luminosity levels from pure black on the far left and pure white on the far right. The Lumenzia panel is divided up into sections. The top portion of the panel is the luminosity mask selection and preview area that allows you to see what you have selected.

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Selection Portion of Lumenzia Panel

This top section divides up the luminosity ranges based on the ranges you are looking to use. Visually, the buttons give you a clear idea of the luminosity range that the buttons select. The buttons can be combined and inverted.

Once you press a selected range, a temporary selection appears and the layer buttons show.

Look at the luminosity histogram and notice the buttons visually show (on the same horizontal line) an approximate distribution of the luminescence values being selected.

The line of numbers (0-10), just above the bottom, is the zone values that Ansel Adams made famous as part of his processing technique.

Once you select a range, a preview appears with a set of orange tabs. These are just temporary to show you how the mask looks.

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Orange Preview Tabs

The second section is the ‘Apply Panel.’ This panel allows you to use the mask on a common set of adjustment layer commands within Photoshop, such as curves, levels, contrast, brightness, HSL, and selective color. It applies the masks you have selected by creating an adjustment layer with the layer controls set up from the mask. The properties of the adjustment layer can then be modified.

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Lumenzia Apply Panel

The third section is the ‘Refine Panel’ for refining the mask you have selected. It allows you to group and combine your selections as well as work with edge refinement. This section of the Lumenzia panel is suited for more advanced users.

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Refine Panel


Once you get familiar with Lumenzia, creating adjustment layers that work on your images with precision is fantastic. The online tutorials provide a wide array of examples of how to control all aspects of your images. The panels mentioned come with the full add-in program ($39.99 US), but there is also a basic free panel that helps you get a feel for how it works. The Lumenzia website can be found here.

Using Lumenzia to control your images can help you produce dynamic results for your images.  Happy processing!

Have you tried Lumenzia? What results have you had with it? Please share with us in the comments below.

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Wansford Bridge


The post Making Photoshop Luminosity Masks Easy with Lumenzia appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Improve Low-Light Performance by Increasing Your ISO

Low-light Images often have noise issues, particularly in the dark areas.

So you’ve decided to take night time photographs. But the light is so low you’re worried about noise. You want the image sharp and the blacks to be black. And noise reduction reduces sharpness, so it’s going to be a problem. (Noise is always a problem with low-light images.)

In these situations you should always shoot at your camera’s lowest ISO setting and increase the duration of the exposure, right? Well, maybe not. The counterintuitive solution might be to increase the ISO and take multiple images of the same subject.

Single image at ISO 1600 and cropped showing lots of noise.

Increasing ISO Increases Noise

Hang on a minute. If increasing the ISO increases noise, how will reshooting the scene at a higher ISO improve low-light performance? Won’t it just increase the noise?

Conventional approaches to noise reduction reduce the sharpness of the image, making them soft or blurred. And blending multiple images won’t reduce the noise. Or will it?

Cropped image of stacked and blended images at ISO 1600.

Some Low Light Images Need Short Exposures

The other potential problem is that long exposures don’t always work. Some night photography involves taking images of objects that move, and shorter exposures can help control that movement.

Low-light image at ISO 1600 (single image).

Photoshop to the Rescue

Adobe Photoshop has powerful tools that let you blend multiple images, but most of these blend modes won’t help. However, there is a way to blend images in Photoshop to reduce noise. The key to shooting with a higher ISO to improve low light performance is to shoot multiple images of the same scene using the same settings (i.e. white balance, focus, aperture and shutter speed).

While the technique is fairly straightforward, it does take some discipline.

Stacked and blended image of six images at ISO 3200.

Understanding Noise

The key is understanding what causes noise. In general there are two types of image noise – chromatic and luminance. Chromatic noise is color aberrations where there are none, while luminance noise is variance in light levels where there is none. Both are instances where the sensor has registered some data that isn’t there. (It’s common in sensitive electronic equipment such as digital sensors.)

If you take a single image, the noise is part of that image. But if you take a second image in the same location, chances are the noise won’t be in the same spot (unless you have a bad sensor). The noise actually moves around.

If you think about exposure in simple terms, it’s the amount of light that hits the sensor or film. Changing the aperture from f/4 to f/2.8 doubles the amount light hitting the sensor. Similarly, if you decrease the ISO from ISO 400 to ISO 200 you need twice as much light for the same image.

But taking a properly exposed image and then blending a second properly exposed image doesn’t actually improve your exposure. Is there another way?

Cityscape at ISO 400 (single image).

Noise Moves

The short answer is “Yes”. This technique relies on the fact that the noise moves around on the sensor. You can take one image at ISO 400, or you can take two images at ISO 800. As long as the total length of exposure (assuming the same aperture) is similar, while the noise will have gone up you’ll effectively have the same image. That’s because you’re simply doubling the amount of light on the sensor at ISO 800, and there’s a proportional increase in sensitivity. Similarly, if you take four images at ISO 1600 you should end up with the same exposure.

But what if I use ten images?

Ten images at 1600 blended.

You may be thinking, “So what? At ISO 1600 I now have ten noisier images than my image at ISO 400. How does it improve my camera’s performance and reduce noise?”

The answer is to stack them, and then blend them together using a particular method in Photoshop.

Multiple Images Can Overcome Noise

By importing the images as a stack of layers in Photoshop and blending the stack together, you can improve your image quality. Using my earlier example, if you use ten images at ISO 1600 you effectively have an image comparable to an ISO 400 image.

Single image at ISO 400 with a tight crop.


Ten stacked and blended images at ISO 1600.

As I said earlier, while this technique is pretty straightforward it’s not exactly obvious. Following the steps is critical.

You don’t get extra resolution. But you do get less noise, and the image seems sharper.

The Setup

Pick a subject (not the night sky) that’s under low-light conditions and take multiple images of the same perspective at a higher ISO than you’d normally use – 1600, 3200 or even 6400. (Don’t use ISO values in the extended range because they’re not native to your camera’s sensor.)

Manually set your focus so it doesn’t change between shots. You should either shoot the images in RAW format or make sure all the White Balance settings are the same. Using RAW lets you edit the white balance later, but fixing it before you taking the shots will also address the issue. Take one image at a lower ISO value (probably with a long shutter) and many at the high ISO value. This will allow you to compare the results.

The Process

Step 1: Ensure all the images have the same White Balance. (You can correct RAW images together if you shoot in RAW.)

Use a RAW Processor to match the White Balance and Exposure

Step 2: Import the images as layers into Photoshop. (Bridge and Lightroom both can do this).

Step 3: Highlight all the layers in Photoshop.

Step 4: From the Edit menu, choose Auto-Align Layers.

Align the images.


Auto-Align works well.

Step 5: Crop the image to eliminate any missing parts of the image.

Sixth step: Highlight all the layers, and then from the Layers menu choose Convert to Smart Object.

Convert the Layers into a Smart Object

Step 7: Click on the Smart object, and from the Layers menu choose Smart Objects -> Stack Mode -> Median.

Use the median stack mode to blend the layers.

Step 8: Look at the result. (It’s pretty dramatic.)

Single Exposure at ISO 1600.


Stacked images at ISO 6400.


Cropped image at ISO 1600.


Cropped image at ISO 6400 (stacked).

What just happened?

Photoshop blended all the (now aligned) layers together, looked at where most of the images showed the same data and decided that data was correct. It then discarded any data that didn’t match. Because chromatic and luminance noise varies from image to image, blending multiple images like this eliminates the pixels showing incorrect color or luminance.

Stacked and Blended Evening Image

As you can see, it significantly reduces noise without losing sharpness or introducing unwanted artifacts. So the next time you’re shooting in low light, why not give this technique a try?

The post How to Improve Low-Light Performance by Increasing Your ISO appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Understanding Sensor-Shift Technology for High-Resolution Images

rock silhouette sunset - Sensor-Shift Technology

Georgian Bay – Summer Landscape

Changing How Photographs are Taken

In recent years, a number of manufacturers have produced cameras that are capable of producing higher-resolution images through something called Sensor-Shift Technology. This technology has been made possible with the advent of in body image stabilization (IBIS). Camera designers have used the IBIS as a way to get incredible increases in image resolution or to improve the color information for the images that are taken.

There are a number of names for this technology including High-Resolution Mode, Pixel Shifting Resolution System, Pixel Shift Multi Shooting Mode or the more generic names of pixel-shift/sensor-shift but in the end, the concepts behind this technology are all the same. Multiple images of the same view are taken in such a way that the images are stacked and blended to create a single, usually large, high-resolution image.

There are strengths and weaknesses of this new technology and understanding how it works can help you make better images yourself if you have a camera that is capable of doing this.

NOTE: Because websites use lower resolution images, the images used in this article have been downsized and modified to simulate the differences between the high-resolution images and the standard output from the cameras. When looking at the images in full, the images look similar but when you get closer to the details in the images that is when you start to see the differences.

gerbera daisies - Sensor-Shift Technology

Gerbera daisies indoors, regular resolution (20 MP) Olympus OMD EM 1 Mark II

Gerbera daisies - Sensor-Shift Technology

Gerbera daisies indoors, high-resolution (50MP) Olympus OMD EM 1 Mark II

Many Approaches to Sensor-Shift Images

Sensor-shift image capture has been transformed from expensive specialty cameras to become an increasingly available feature on newer, resolution-oriented cameras. Today, in addition to Hasselblad’s monster H6D-400c (400 Megapixel images), there are offerings from Olympus, Pentax, Sony, and Panasonic.

These versions generally use the same conceptual approach but at much more accessible prices.

Sensor-Shift Technology diagram

Sensor-Shift Movement

Who Uses Sensor-Shift?

Regardless of the manufacturer, the basic action of sensor-shift image capture remains the same. Take multiple images but move the camera’s sensor slightly for each image to capture more image data and then put the image together.

By moving the sensor around, the image color data improves allowing for more detail to be resolved by overcoming the inherent problems with color specific photosites. Ignoring the Hasselblad, the systems that use this technology include cameras such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II (Micro Four Thirds), Pentax K-1 Mark II DSLR, Sony a7R III, and Panasonic Lumix DC-G9 (Micro Four Thirds) although there are others from the same manufacturers.

Three of these lines are mirrorless cameras with the Pentax being a crop sensor DSLR. It is interesting to note that the Panasonic/Olympus cameras take one approach and Pentax/Sony take a different approach to the same concepts.

The Olympus/Panasonic systems use an approach that makes very large high-resolution images whereas the Pentax and Sony systems use the sensor-shift to improve the color information of same size images. Both the Pentax and Sony systems also allow for the separation out of the individual sensor-shifted images whereas the Olympus and Panasonic blend the stacked images into a single photograph.

Sensor-Shift Technology Olympus camera

Olympus OMD EM5 Mark II has the sensor-shift technology.

How does sensor technology work?

To understand how sensor-shift technology works you need to also understand how a sensor generally works at a very small scale. In the good old days of film photography, cameras used light-sensitive film to record images. Digital cameras use a very different approach to record light.

Digital cameras use light-sensitive photodiodes to record the light striking the sensor. In most digital cameras, each photodiode has a specific color filter (red, green, or blue), forming a photosite. These photosites are arranged to allow the light to be blended to see the color from the image coming onto the sensor.

The red, green, and blue photosites on a sensor are generally arranged in a specific pattern known as a Bayer array (a.k.a. Bayer matrix, filter). There are also other configurations such as the Fuji X-Trans sensor (used on several of their camera models) or Sigma that uses a Foveon sensor.

With a Bayer arrangement, there are twice as many green photosites as red or blue because human vision is most attuned to resolving detail in green. This arrangement generally works well but if you think about it, on an image, a color pixel is created by blending these photosites together.

The sensor does not know how much red there is on a green sensor location or a blue sensor location so interpolation is required. This can create some artifacts in photographs if you look very closely and tends to mean that RAW images have an ever so slightly soft focus. All RAW images need some sharpening in post-processing (the green, the red and the blue for a pixel are blended together).

Sensor-Shift Technology

Bayer pattern of photosites

Static Sensors

In a regular camera without IBIS, each photosite only records the light from one color in that one spot, so the data that it records is technically incomplete. It is like a bucket that only collects light from a particular color. A cluster of light buckets in the Bayer pattern is used to create a single pixel in the digital image but within that pixel, there are two green buckets, one blue and one red.

To meld the image together and put a single color into that one pixel, the signals from the cluster of photodiodes are resolved together. The collected data is interpolated via a de-mosaicing algorithm either in-camera (jpeg) or on a computer (from a RAW image), a process that assigns values for all three colors for each photosite based upon the collective values registered by neighboring photosites.

The resulting colors are then outputted as a grid of pixels and a digital photograph is created. This is partly why RAW images have a slightly softer focus and need to be sharpened in the post-production workflow.

Moving Sensors

IBIS means that the sensors now move ever so slightly to adjust for subtle movements of a camera to keep the image stable. Some manufacturers claim that their systems are capable of stabilizing the sensor and/or lens combination for an equivalent of 6.5 stops.

Sensor-Shift Technology

Moving the sensor allows all the color photosites to record the data for each location on the sensor.

This stabilization is accomplished by micro adjustments of the position of the sensor. For sensor-shift images, those same micro adjustments are used to have each photosite exposed to the light from the single image recording. In essence, the sensor is moved around not to adjust for external perturbations but to have each portion of an image contain full-color information.

Photosites Rather Than Pixels

You may have noticed the term photosites instead of pixels. Cameras are often rated by their megapixels as a measure of their resolving power, but this is confusing because cameras do not have actually have pixels only photosites.

Pixels are in the image produced when the data from the sensor is processed. Even the term “pixel-shift” which is sometimes used, is misleading. Pixels don’t move, it is the sensors that have photosites on them that move.

In single-image capture, each photosite records data for red, green, or blue light. This data is interpolated by a computer so that each pixel in the resulting digital photograph has a value for all three colors.

Shifting Sensors

Sensor-shift cameras attempt to reduce the reliance on interpolation by capturing color data for red, green, and blue for each resulting pixel by physically moving the camera’s sensor. Consider a 2×2 pixel square taken from a digital photograph.

Conventional digital capture using a Bayer array will record data from four photosites: two green, one blue, and one red. Technically that means there is missing data for blue and red light at the green photosites, green data and red at the blue photosites and blue and green at the red photosites. To fix this problem, the missing color values for each site will be determined during the interpolation process.

But what if you didn’t have to guess?  What if you could have the actual color (red, blue and green) for each photosite?  This is the concept behind sensor-shift technology.

Sensor-Shift Technology

A normal resolution image.

Diving Deeper

Consider a 2×2 -pixel square on a digital photograph that is created using pixel-shift technology. The first photo begins as normal with data recorded from the four photosites. However, now the camera shifts the sensor to move the photosites around and takes the same picture again but with a different photosite.

Repeat this process so that all the photosites have all the light for each exact spot on the sensor. During this process, light data from four photosites (two green, one red, one blue) has been acquired for each pixel, resulting in better color values for each location and less of a need for interpolation (educated guessing).

Sensor-Shift Technology

A high-resolution image at the same ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

The Sony and Pentax Approach

Sony’s Pixel Shift Multi Shooting Mode and Pentax’s Pixel Shifting Resolution System operate in this manner. It is important to note that using these modes does not increase the total number of pixels in your final image. The dimensions of your resulting files remain the same, but color accuracy and detail are improved.

Sony and Pentax take four images moved one full photosite per image to create a single image. It really is simply improving color information in the image.

The Olympus and Panasonic Approach

The High-Resolution Mode of Panasonic and Olympus cameras, which both use Micro Four Thirds sensors, takes a slightly more nuanced approach, combining eight exposures taken ½ pixel apart from one another. Unlike Sony and Pentax, this significantly increases the number of pixels in the resulting image.

From a 20 megapixel sensor, you get a 50-80 megapixel RAW image. There is only a single image with no ability to access the individual images of a sequence.

What are the Advantages of Using Sensor-Shift?

Using sensor-shift technology has several advantages. By taking multiple images, knowing the color information for each photosite location and increasing the resolution you accomplish three main things. You decrease noise, reduce moire, and increase the overall resolution of the images.

Noise and Improved Resolution

By taking multiple images with a subtle change in position of the sensor, the resolution of the image goes up but so does the color information in the images. This allows similar images to allow for a greater drilling down into the image with smoother colors, less noise, and better detail.

Sensor-Shift Technology - pink gerbera daisy

A normal resolution image.

Sensor-Shift Technology - flower

A high-resolution image.

Sensor-Shift Technology

Cropped in tight to the normal resolution image, you start to see noise showing up like grain and color variation.

Sensor-Shift Technology

Here is the same crop on the high-resolution version, the color and detail are better with less noise.

Less Moire

Moire is the appearance of noise or artifact patterns that appear in images with tight regular patterns. Newer sensors tend to have fewer issues with Moire than in the past but it will still appear in some images.

The cause of the moire tends to be related to the tight patterns being recorded and the camera having problems resolving the pattern because it is having problems with the sensor photosite patterns. The color information for the Red, Green and Blue photosites have troubles with edges in these tight patterns because not all the color for a single location is recorded.

With sensor-shift, all the color for each location is there, so moire tends to disappear.

Sensor-Shift Technology

Normal resolution image.

Sensor-Shift Technology

High-resolution Image with crop area highlighted

Sensor-Shift Technology

The cropped area on the standard resolution image – noise starting to appear (the scratches on the paper were there before).

Sensor-Shift Technology

The higher-resolution image has less noise and more detail.

So Why Not Use This for Every Image?

Well, the main reason is that you have to take multiple images of a single scene. This means that this really doesn’t work well for moving subjects. The process requires, at a minimum, four times the exposure time of single image capture. This translates into four opportunities for a part of your composition and/or your camera to move during image capture, degrading image quality.

Such constraints limit the technology’s application to still life and (static) landscape photography. Any movement in the scene being captured is going to create a blurry or pixelated area. This is a problem for landscape photography if there is a wind moving plants or clouds as well as areas where running water is present.

This also means that usually, you need to be very stable and use a tripod, although there are some clear intentions from manufacturers to make available versions that will allow for handheld shooting of the camera (Pentax has this feature).

Sensor-Shift Technology

High-resolution image shot on a tripod.

Sensor-Shift Technology

Movement artifacts are visible when viewed more closely.

Quirks of some of the systems

As sensor-shift technology has been implemented in different ways and depending upon the system used, the problems are a bit different. The main quirk is that you generally need a tripod, so no run and gun.

The Sony system has other limitations that you cannot see the image until you process the four separate images together. This means you cannot review your resolved image on the camera. In addition, due to the high pixel count on the A7R mark III, any subtle movement of the tripod is particularly noticeable on the resultant image. In order to edit the images, you also need to use proprietary Sony Software to merge the images together.

Pentax has some interesting features. Using the software application that comes with the camera allows for addressing movement by using an algorithm within the software for removing movement artifacts. This works better than software commonly used for image manipulation such as Adobe.

The Olympus system has been around a while and in the most recent iteration on the Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II, any detected movement will have those affected pixels replaced with parts of one of the single regular resolution images in areas of movement. This creates uneven resolution but makes the image look better for things like wind. It also limitations particularly if there is a lot of movement. Often the images look a little pixelated.

trees - Sensor-Shift Technology

Standard resolution image of a tree – everything is sharp.

Sensor-Shift Technology

A high-resolution image of the same tree but it was windy… Cropped area is shown in the yellow box.

Sensor-Shift Technology

Cropped area expanded – the wind movement generated some artifacts on the image.


The greatest challenge facing sensor-shift image capture is moving subjects. Additionally, trying to pair a strobe with a camera using pixel-shift image capture can be complicated by the speed of image capture, flash recycle limitations, and general compatibility problems. Manufacturers are aware of these problems and are working to resolve them.

Overall the Technology is Only Going to Get Better

More and more systems are using algorithms to produce these higher resolution images. As the technology matures, the implementations will get better and better results, potentially able to deal with movement and handheld conditions.

The advantage to manufacturers is that better quality images are produced without the need for really expensive high pixel density sensors (cheaper). The advantages to the user are that the images can have better noise and color information for better final results.

Happy hunting for that perfect high-resolution image!

The post Understanding Sensor-Shift Technology for High-Resolution Images appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Pet photography is both challenging and extremely rewarding. You may really enjoy taking pictures of your own pets but if you apply some of the general rules that apply to all pet photography with studio lighting, you can really help you up your game.

The key to all pet photography is to get what appears to be an emotional connection with the animal being photographed. If you don’t do that, all the photographs will look more like snapshots and less like portraits.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Upping your game.

The Setup

You do not need to be huge space but you do need some room to work. Ideally, a studio setup includes:

  • Lighting
  • A backdrop
  • Flooring
  • Elevated furniture or a platform
  • Remote triggers

You will need enough space to get in front of the dog or cat such that the backdrop fills the background. You also need to consider that animals move and will not stay still in a very small confined area. Ideally, you need at least about 10 feet wide by about 25 feet depth. You will also need some space between your subject and the backdrop.

This arrangement will accommodate most pets except larger dogs. Large dogs need a lot more space. The larger they are, the more space you need. You also need to think about what they will be stepping on and if their paws are clean. Seamless paper is a great backdrop but is it not a great material for animals to step on as they leave footprints.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Setups for pet photography can be just this simple.

Be Prepared for Accidents

With any pet photography, you have to anticipate accidents. Appropriate cleaning supplies are a must. Be prepared for both #1 (urine) and #2 (feces) accidents. Dogs are much worse than cats. Older dogs tend to have fewer accidents than younger dogs, while puppies frequently have accidents.

If you are dealing with multiple animals (at different times), you need to also consider cross-contamination control measures. Good antiseptic cleaners with some bleach will work well. You will need cleaners with enzymes to break down pet urine for the occasional territory markers. Harder surfaces are easier to clean than soft surfaces.


Backdrops are useful and you can get creative with what you use. Seamless paper is a great option but you will go through it relatively fast and animals that walk on seamless paper will often scare themselves with the noise from the paper moving.

You also need to consider what the animals will stand or sit on. Melamine surfaces are great for flooring options but some animals don’t like being on melamine and the seams may need to be edited out in post-production if they are too visible.

Toys and treats for cats and dogs.

Equip your space with lots of animal-specific toys and treats available and ready to reach. Cats and dogs are not interested in the same types of toys or treats. Always ask if an animal has allergies before giving them any treats or better yet, ask the owner to bring some treats that their pet likes.

Camera Equipment

Most modern digital camera equipment will work for pet photography but you need to think about a few things.

Ideally, your camera needs to focus fast, preferably with a reliable continuous autofocus ability. If you are using strobes, you will be focusing under lower lighting conditions than the eventual shot. Slow focusing or inability to shoot quickly will mean you miss the shot or have lots of images out of focus.

You have limited time, so you need to be cognizant of your animal. In general, you will need a wider lens (you should probably start with a fast zoom lens), particularly if you are using a smaller space but wider lenses can mean your image is wider than your backdrop. Long lenses will compress features but unless you have an assistant to help wrangle the animal, you will likely need to be close enough to reach the animal to do it yourself.

gear for pet photography - Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Basic camera gear for pet photography – camera, flash, and triggers.

Lighting is key and unless you are looking at using continuous (LED) lighting, you will also need a reliable way to trigger your lights. In your space, you should be able to control your lighting to get the desired effect. If you are using strobes or speedlights, you need a way to trigger the flashes.

Radio controls (most expensive option) are significantly easier to use than either optical slaves (speedlights) or cables (tripping hazard). Make sure you are familiar with your equipment before the animal to be photographed shows up.

Basic Rules for All Pet Photography

There are a few basic rules for pet photography that apply to all types not just in the studio, but become more important when you have pets in your space. You generally have more control over your environment in the studio. Because you are in your own space, you can plan to address each item for the animal before they arrive and adapt your environment for the particular requirements of each animal.

Be Calm

white dog - Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Calm person = calm dog.

Relax, pets feel your energy. If you are nervous or talk too much, they will feel it and become nervous as well. If you are calm, they will be calmer (NOTE: I did not say they would be calm).

Never assume a dog or cat will be calm, but you don’t want to make it more difficult for you for the pet. They can often be scared or anxious about new surroundings or that machine you keep putting up to your face between you and the animal.

Whatever you do, don’t yell or strike at the animals. They don’t speak languages you easily understand. Make sure you understand the warning signs from animals when they are nervous. With dogs, yawning is often a sign of anxiety and can be a warning just as it is with low growling. With cats, ears back is usually a sign of a cat feeling quite threatened.

dog with red bandana - Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Older animals tend to be calmer.

Get to Their Level

It is really important for all pets, no matter what size and shape, that you get down to their level. You can take a few different approaches to this but in the end, you need to find a way to be at the eye level (not below) of the pet you are photographing.

Many beginning photographers take pictures of their pets from a standing position and after looking at their results, they can’t figure out why they are unsatisfied with their images. Getting to eye level is a relatively universal requirement for all animal photographs, not just for pets.

grey cat - Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Get down to their level.

Getting to their level can either mean you go down to their eye height or they get up higher, closer to your height. The best thing to do is to get down and dirty at their level, particularly with larger animals.

But with smaller animals, you can also bring them up to a higher level with ottomans, tables, and chairs. With higher surfaces, you then need to worry about wrangling the animal so they don’t fall or jump off the table or chair. Puppies and kittens will often fall off tables.

Get Their Attention and Their Eyes

In order to connect with an animal, you need to be able to see their eyes and in particular the catchlights in their eyes. No eye contact means no connection, but you don’t only need the animal staring at you.

Animal eyes are shaped differently than human eyes so the catchlights will have a slightly different appearance than those in people’s eyes. There are two schools of thought regarding pet eye catchlights (i.e. one versus two catchlights). In human portraiture, typically it is taboo to have two catchlights in the eyes, but some pet photography works well with two catchlights because of the different eyeball shape.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography - black and white kitten

Having two catchlights in some pets eyes, like this little kitty, is okay.

Some pets may watch you when you photograph them but most don’t. Eye contact can be aggressive to them. In addition, as soon as you put the machine (camera) up to your face, you will no longer be visible to them. As soon as your face disappears, usually so does the animal’s attention. Getting an animal’s attention is usually a function of the type of animal.

For cats, laser pointers, toys, and strings can help focus their attention, treats less so. Some cats also will be focused on treats but this usually shouldn’t be your first choice. For dogs, squeakers, toys, and treats are always a good approach, so is making strange noises. But don’t give them the toy unless you want it in every shot. Again use treats as the last resort but they work well with many, but not all, dogs.

Different animals are motivated by different attention-getting devices. Treats will get them to move and often makes for interesting action shots, although I find treats work better for dogs than for cats. Remember to check for allergies before giving treats. Always use very small sized treats otherwise the animal will fill up on your treats and you will lose their attention.

Editor’s note: An even better idea is to get the owner to bring some treats that their pet likes, and which they approve of giving to their animal.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Move Quickly

All pets have a limited attention span, typically 15 minutes is the maximum time you’ll get from start to finish. It is best to move quickly and try to get your best photographs early in the shoot because as time passes, the attention-getting-object, toy, or treat will wear thin and they will become disinterested.

Planning is the best way to set up and get the shot the way you want. So plan your shoots and think about how to best highlight the animal. Props sometimes work, like baskets for cats (above) or feather boas for dogs (below).

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Keep the Speed Up

You need to set your shutter speed to something relatively quick. If you are using strobes or speedlights, you will need to use the best speed that works with your equipment.

With speedlights, you won’t be able to shoot in bursts because of the recharge or recycle time. Even with strobes, you need to ensure your strobes can take multiple shots in quick succession. Typically for studio work and strobes, a shutter speed of 1/160th or slightly faster is the limit of your camera (flash sync speeds vary, check your camera user manual).

Even if you are using continuous lighting you will need to get your shutter speed up just to freeze the image because animals can move quickly.

grey and white cat - Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

A fast shutter speed will freeze movement of the animal.

Use Continuous Tracking Focus

Pets move quickly, so focusing is tough, really tough. Single shot focusing regardless of how quick your camera focuses will likely mean that most of your shots will miss. Often after getting a focus lock, pets will move away from your focused location by the time you take the image.

Many modern cameras are now capable of tracking objects and focusing on moving targets. Continuous tracking allows for adjustments as the pets move. If your camera has continuous tracking focus you need to use it. Otherwise, most of your images will be out of focus.

Shoot in Short Quick Bursts


Spray and pray is generally a terrible way to take photographs. It usually implies a photographer didn’t take the time to set up a shot, but in the case of pet photography, it is usually the opposite.

dog in a basket - Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

As you are watching for the decisive moment, you take a short burst of images (provided your lighting can keep up) because you will likely have several images in a sequence that are good. However, with pet photography, judicious use of rapid-fire bursts can lead to stunning images. The secret is to anticipate the moment and get a good focus lock. I personally use back button focus specifically to hold the continuous focus independent from the image taking.

Tips and Tails

With pets, if you are taking an image of the entire body, you need to include the tips and tails of that animal. You want the entire animal within the frame. You can intentionally crop for a close up of their face, but you lose something if you are missing the tips of their ears or the end of their tail.

Missing body parts make for incomplete looking images. The best way to approach the images is to remember the catchphrase, “Tips and Tails”. Always try to get the tips of their ears and the end of their tail within the frame. In addition, the same basic rules for human portraiture also apply to pets, specifically for tighter shots where you should never crop an image on the subject’s joints.

German Shepard puppy - Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Tips and Tails – I just got the end of this puppy’s tail in the shot. Cropping off part of it gives the tail an amputated look you want to avoid.

Also, unlike humans, most pets have longer noses, so it is generally better if you get their entire face in focus. Wider apertures will end up with the nose out of focus which is much more noticeable with pet photography as opposed to human portraits.

Get the whole face sharp. This image doesn’t work because of the cropped of paw and out of focus nose. 

Studio Lighting

Lighting in a studio means controlled lighting. Before you start using strobes, you will need to find out if the animal is sensitive to flashes. While strobes are the brightest lights available, that brightness can be a problem if the animals are sensitive and hate them or get easily startled.

The easiest way to see if they react negatively to the strobes is to manually fire the strobe while setting up before the animal is in place. It will be really obvious if the animal reacts to it. You’ll need a backup plan if they are scared of the flash.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography - grey kitty

Strobes are best.

Shooting in the studio allows you to control the light but you need to assess the best kind of lighting for your needs. There are generally three options, speedlights (the portable ones that go on the hot shoe on your camera), strobes (dedicate studio flashes that usually plug into an outlet), or continuous lights.

Strobes provide the most powerful lighting for the lowest cost but some animals are really sensitive to the flashes from strobes or speedlights. Continuous lighting has been really advancing lately but in order to be able to use them for pets, you need a fair bit of light to keep the shutter speed up. Continuous lights that are really bright are very expensive.

Lighting Setup

Lighting a pet in the studio is different than lighting people. Often you can light a person and get a decent image with only one light. You can create drama with shadows using long and short lighting techniques.

With pets, you are better off lighting them with a key and fill light in reasonably even proportions to one another with a much smaller difference in the intensity of the two lights (light ratio). Pet photography benefits from the super sharpness of being able to see all the details in a pet’s fur. Deep shadows tend to hide those details. Portraiture techniques such as butterfly lighting and Rembrandt lighting just don’t really work for pets.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Basic pet lighting setup.

A great lighting setup uses three medium softboxes: a key light and main light at 45-degrees on either side of the pet, and a hair light coming from above and behind the animal (see lighting diagram above).

Why? This set up works well because you can light the animal relatively evenly. Remember you are lighting an animal that is much shorter than you. Using this setup gives you room to get between the key and the fill light that are quite low to the ground. Generally the key and fill lights are centered about 4-5 feet off the ground.

The hair light provides some separation from the background and is generally not set at a high power. Separation is important, particularly if the animal has a dark coat and you have a dark background. I often use the key light at about 25% more light than the fill light, but the setup works even if the lights are close to the same power.

Using Strobes Usually Means Manual Mode

While there are TTL strobes available, they are quite pricey. Manually triggered strobes are readily available and can often be purchased used for very reasonable costs. In general, for pet photography, you can shoot entirely in manual mode with manually triggered strobes and get great results.

Because pet photography tends to use a simpler lighting setup, by using manually triggered strobes, once your lighting is set up you can simply focus on wrangling the animal and getting the best shots. The rule of flash or strobe photography is that shutter speed controls the background exposure and aperture controls the flash. In manual mode, you can set the power of the strobes and shoot.

Color cast

When you are shooting with strobes, depending upon how expensive your strobes are, there can be a fair bit of range for color temperature from your lights. You want to ensure the only source of light is your strobes because other lights, including tungsten and fluorescent lights, will create a color cast and your image that is difficult to remove.

It is best to set up and do a gray card test before you start shooting to get your white balance right. You can either use a customized white balance for your camera or if you are shooting in RAW, you can manually adjust the images later in your RAW processing software.

Often letting your camera choose by using Automatic White Balance, with strobes means that the color will vary from image to image. Setting it ahead of time with a custom white balance or a gray card calibration means that you can focus on the image rather than changing white balance in your images. It means less processing work to do later as well.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography - black dog with a red collar

Be aware of color casts.

Background Color Versus Animal Color

When you take pictures of animals it is always good to consider the dominant color of the animal’s coat relative to the background. It is best not to have the same color for both, although it can work out.

What this means is don’t use seamless white paper as a background for a white dog or a black background for a black cat. You need to be able to adapt on the fly and sometimes you can’t avoid it with animals that are mixed in the color of their coat (e.g. a black and white cat).

It is also good to ensure the color of the material that the animal is sitting on during the session works with the color of their coat and that of the background.

Tips for Great Lighting for Pet Photography

Make sure you have contrast between the color of the animal and that of the background.


The last tip is a simple one but one that isn’t too obvious. When animals are stressed out they tend to shed. Animals get stressed when you photograph them. This means that there will be fur coming off them, sometimes in large amounts.

If you are using furniture to elevate an animal, just expect that their fur will get everywhere. Try to keep the furniture clean before you start and you may even want to touch it up as you go because removing the contrasting hairs from the furniture can be a tedious process in post-processing.


Studio shots of pet look awesome. With a bit of preparation, you can get high-quality images that show great drama and connection with the animal. The approach is the same as with any other animal photography but in the studio, you can control the light and the background much more allowing for better results.

If you have any questions for comments, feel free to drop me a comment below. Happy shooting!

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Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras

If you have been considering getting a new camera or have been considering upgrading a camera, you have probably heard all about crop sensor cameras but what does it mean? How does crop factor affect lens selections? When you are considering systems, often it is not just the camera bodies you must consider, but the selection of lenses for that system as well.

Sensor Optics and Equivalences

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - crop sensor optics

Crop Sensor Optics

Most new photographers often start out with crop sensor cameras because they are usually less expensive. But as you become more advanced does it make sense to upgrade to a full frame system? If you are thinking about upgrading is there a reasonable upgrade path?

For example, should you buy full frame lenses to use with your crop sensor body? It seems so confusing and to be fair, it is a little complicated and the simple rules of thumb don’t tell the whole story. Rather than look at the differences in camera sensors themselves (they are all pretty good), let’s try to make sense of the lenses themselves.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - different lenses

Similar focal length lenses – the Olympus micro 4/3rds 40-150mm f/2.8 (80-300mm equivalent) and Canon’s 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (for full frame).

Lens sizes

If you are looking at lenses you will see many different focal lengths and apertures. Even from the same manufacturer for the same camera body, there are often different aperture and focal length combinations. Since an important part of photography is optics, how can you begin to compare lenses for different size sensors? How do the lenses relate to the camera body you are looking at?

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - two lenses for comparison

Nifty 50mm (full frame on the left) and micro 4/3rds 25mm (50mm equivalent) on right.

Going further, how do different size crop sensors affect lens optics? Is an f/2.8 lens on a crop sensor camera actually f/2.8 lens or is it something else? What about bigger format cameras? Why do the smaller apertures (f-stops) seem so big but the images so gorgeous with great background separation and bokeh?

This all relates to lens optics and crop sensor equivalences, one of the great mysteries of photography that most photographers don’t really understand.

Lens Optics Basics

To understand lens optics you need to understand what a lens does to the light coming into it. The light coming through a lens actually inverts, flipping the image upside down. The light then projects onto the digital sensor after passing through the lens. 

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - diagram of lens focal length

Focal length and image flip onto the sensor.

Most lenses are defined by the focal length and maximum aperture. The higher the focal length, the closer distant objects seem. So, for example, sports and bird watchers typically want much larger focal lengths to get in close.

Lower numbers widen the field of view to make more things fit within the image (wide angle lenses) and are often the tools of the trade for landscape photographers. In 35mm equivalents, a 200mm lens is a long lens and a 20mm lens is a very wide lens.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - aperture diagram

Relative aperture size illustration.

The aperture f-stop number represents the size of the iris or hole in the lens. A lens will be rated based upon the largest aperture the iris can open. The more light you let in, the slower the shutter speed you will need. Because of this property, larger maximum aperture lenses are called faster lenses. For example, an f/2.8 lens is considered pretty fast and an f/5.6 lens (think kit lens) would be considered pretty slow.

Optical Math

Let’s keep the geeky math minimal, but it really helps understand lens optics. 

Focal length is not a measurement of the actual length of a lens, but a calculation of an optical distance from the point where light converges to form a sharp image on the digital sensor at the focal plane in the camera. Aperture, on the other hand, is the size of the hole created by the iris in the lens. Aperture is geometrically related to the focal length of the lens. For example, an f/2.8 lens on a 100 mm focal length lens is 100 divided by 2.8 = 35.7 mm. As the lens focal length dictates the size of the aperture, it is independent of the size of the sensor but dependent on the focal length.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - similar lenses

Utility lenses covering a similar range – the Canon 24-105mm f/4, and the Olympus 12-40mm Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras f/2.8 (24-80mm equivalent).

Zoom lenses may have more than one aperture because the iris doesn’t get bigger as the lens gets longer. Since it is a math relationship, the longer focal length with the same iris opening makes the aperture smaller. More expensive zoom lenses have the same aperture for the entire range but that is a bit of an engineering feat as the iris must get larger as the lens zooms to a longer focal length.

Camera Sensor Format Refresher

In the golden age of film photography, there were multiple formats dictated by film stock. One of the more common sizes was 35mm film dictated by sprocket film stock that was 34.98 ±0.03mm (1.377 ±0.001 inches) wide. Back in the film days, there were multiple formats too, with larger and smaller film stock available that also affected lens sizes and performance.

When digital sensors were originally developed for still cameras, larger sensors were prohibitively expensive, so smaller sensors were used. There is a wide range of sensor sizes and this variety of sensor sizes affects the mechanics of how lenses on cameras operate.

When a sensor is close to the size of 35mm film stock, it is called full frame. Anything smaller is called a crop sensor. Anything bigger is generally called medium format although there is a lot of variability in sizes larger than full frame. Sensors not only vary in size but also geometry.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - crop sensor sizes

Crop sensor relative sizes

Sensor sizes

Generally speaking, a full frame sensor is in the shape of a rectangle that is roughly 36mm x 24mm which is a length to width ratio of 3:2 covering an area of 862mm sq. Conversely, a micro 4/3rds crop sensor is 17.3mm x 13mm (ratio of 4:3) covering an area of 224.9mm sq. A Nikon/Pentax APS-C crop sensor is 23.6mm x 15.7mm (ratio of 3:2) covering an area of 370mm sq, whereas a Canon APS-C sensor is 22.2mm x 14.8mm (ratio of 3:2) but only 328.5mm sq. Larger formats (bigger than full frame) tend to be square.

Many times the crop factors are calculated by the size of the diagonal distance from corner to corner of the sensor.  For example, a full frame sensor is twice the diagonal as a micro 4/3rds sensor, therefore the crop ratio is 2x. For a Nikon APS-C crop sensor the ratio is 1.5x and for a Canon APS-C crop sensor, it is 1.6x.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - sensor footprints and sizes

Comparison of the sensor footprints

Square versus Round

Lenses are round whereas sensors are rectangular or square. So, all cameras cut off part of the image because the round lenses project a circular image on the sensor which is a rectangle. This means that the edges of the image circle are cut off.

Camera manufacturers design their lens/camera combinations so that the entire sensor gets great coverage from the image circle (this is called covering power). This can create problems when you have a mismatch between the sensor size and the size of the sensor for which the lens was made.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras -

Image circle with full frame and micro 4/3 frame overlaid

So, How Does Crop Factor Affect Images?

There are lots of factors that affect your images. The sensor size does affect images, but so does focal length and aperture size but those are physical properties of the lens and are not affected by the crop factor. At least not directly.

To illustrate the effect of crop sensors on light gathering and focal length, a series of test images were set up (these are not overly scientific but more illustrative). Using an Olympus EM1 Mark II (Micro 4/3rds sensor – 2 times crop factor) and a Canon 5D Mark IV (full frame).

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - Olympus camera

Olympus EM1 Mark II, micro 4/3rds camera

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - Canon camera

Canon 5D Mark IV full frame camera.

To illustrate the focal difference conversion and the light gathering conversion, the cameras were set up side by side using only the focal length conversion. The geometry of the sensors is not exactly the same so they have been cropped to match each other (8×10 ratio).

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - two cameras shooting the same scene

Camera size comparison (full frame on the left, micro 4/3 on the right)

Both cameras were targeted at the same vista.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - side by side cameras

Test setup side by side cameras.

Rules of Thumb Versus Reality

Focal lengths are commonly converted into equivalents for full frame sensors to give the same the field of view by multiplying the focal length by the sensor’s diagonal ratio. For example, a 25mm lens on a micro 4/3rd sensor is the equivalent of a 50mm lens on a full frame camera (crop factor is 2:1).

A Canon EFS (crop sensor) lens to match a 50mm lens is 31mm. This works in reverse too. If you put a full frame lens on a crop sensor camera body, the focal length is multiplied (the same 50mm lens becomes like a 75mm lens on a crop sensor). This rule of thumb works.

Editor’s note: The optics are not the same, but this is a generally accepted method of understanding crop sensors.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - two photos of a bridge

At 24mm equivalents – same shutter speed and ISO, full frame on left and Micro 4/3 on the right (both at f/4, ISO200, 1/160th).

Aperture and Depth of Field

Another rule of thumb that doesn’t work so great is to add a stop or two for the aperture (depending upon the crop). Why doesn’t it work? Well, there is more at play here.

The aperture affects the light gathering ability of a lens but with a crop sensor camera, the smaller sensor causes the depth of field (area in focus) to be larger.  What that means is that an f/2.8 lens at 200 ISO sensitivity should have very close to the same shutter speed on any camera body (there are variations in light meters from one camera body to another). So an f/2.8 lens is always an f/2.8 for light gathering.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras - two bridge photos side by side

At 70mm equivalents – same shutter speed and ISO, full frame on the left and Micro 4/3 on the right (both at f/4, ISO200, 1/80th).

To make things more complex is the look of an image. The bokeh on a crop sensor will never be quite as good as a full-frame sensor because the extra area of a full frame sensor changes the depth of field (the amount of the image in focus) relative to a crop sensor. This is not a function of the lens as much as the sensor size. This can be pretty subtle but it is a factor, particularly for portraits.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras

At 200mm equivalents – same shutter speed and ISO, full frame on the left and Micro 4/3 on right (f/4, ISO 200, 1/30th).

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras

At 200mm equivalents – same shutter speed and ISO, full frame on the left and Micro 4/3 on right (f/4, ISO 200, 1/40th).

Full Frame Lenses on Crop Sensor Cameras

Lenses tend to last much longer than cameras with good lenses lasting as long as two or three camera body iterations. So many people go by the adage of investing in glass. So if you are using a crop sensor body that will accept full frame lenses, why not buy full frame lenses until you are ready to buy the full frame body? The answer is not necessarily because it may not be as sharp as your crop lenses even if the lens seems nominally the same size.

Full frame lenses are more expensive than crop lenses but you are often paying for other features including weather sealing and better more durable construction. Because of large differences in sensor sizes, getting full frame lenses on a crop sensor means you are only using the very center portion of the lens but the detail is more concentrated on that area. This can challenge the optical quality of the full frame lenses.

They are often better quality but not enough better to account for the size differences between the sensors. So unless you know you are upgrading your camera imminently, you may not want to use the full frame lenses on crop bodies.

Another consideration is that you have to use the crop factor in reverse.  On a Canon crop body (1.6 crop factor) a 24mm lens becomes a 38.4mm lens. This means that you can’t get as wide of an angle of view on a crop body with wide lenses.

Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras

A full frame lens on a crop body will increase the focal length by the crop factor


There are lots of misconceptions regarding lenses when comparing them across sensor sizes. Understanding the basic function, light gathering capabilities, and geometric relationships can help you compare lenses within camera systems and across sensor sizes.

There are great lenses available for all camera systems that can produce fantastic results. Lenses are as important at the camera body. So when choosing a system, make sure you have the lens selection you need for your particular style of photography.

The post Making Sense of Lens Optics for Crop Sensor Cameras appeared first on Digital Photography School.

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