Try this DIY Neutral Density Filter for Long Exposure Photos

The post Try this DIY Neutral Density Filter for Long Exposure Photos appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

You could buy an expensive ND filter to make a long exposure image like this. Or, you could do it “on the cheap” with the trick you’ll learn in this article. 162 seconds f/8, ISO 100

You’ve seen those landscape photos where the water has been rendered silky smooth, ocean waves look more like fog, or the clouds have streaked motion effects?  How are they done?  They are long exposure photos. The shutter speed often measured in full seconds rather than fractions of a second.  Some even measured in minutes of exposure.  In low light, you can sometimes slow your shutter speed by decreasing the aperture size and setting the ISO as low as it can go.

Of course, if you’re working in bright light, you may find that even with the smallest aperture and lowest ISO you still can’t get the shutter speed slow enough to produce the effect you want while still maintaining proper exposure.  What can you do then?  It’s time for a Neutral Density Filter.

So what are they, how do they work, and how can you achieve a similar effect without immediately laying down about $100 U.S dollars for one?  Read on my friend.

This one was done with a variable ND filter. With a 30-second exposure, whatever moves will blur. Note the water and clouds.

What is ND and why use it?

On a bright sunny day, you may reach for a pair of sunglasses to reduce the amount of light coming into our eyes.  A Neutral Density (ND) Filter is much the same for your camera.  The “density” part of that term refers to how dense or dark the filter might be.  The “neutral” portion of the term refers to the coloration the filter might add to the image.

If we’re making color images, we’d like a filter that would help reduce the amount of light while remaining neutral in color and not putting a color cast on our images.  So we want a neutral filter that can cut the light in situations where the ambient light is too bright to get a slow shutter speed beyond that obtainable with a combination of the lowest ISO and smallest aperture.

A 6-stop ND filter was used here. 30 seconds, f/20 ISO 100

Types of ND filters

The DIY approach to long exposure photography to be discussed here uses a method never initially designed for photography but will allow you to give this technique a try “on the cheap.”  Rather than spend around $100, it’ll cost you a tenth of that.  Before I reveal the “secret,”  let’s first talk about the commercial photographic ND filters you might buy.

Camera filters typically fall into two types:

Screw mount – Those that screw into the filter threads on the front of your lens

Square filters – Those that are mounted to the lens with a filter holder.

Both are available in varying degrees of density.  How dark the filter is, is typically described in how many “stops” of light it reduces compared to an exposure without the filter.

For example, if you made a proper exposure at ISO 100, f/5.6, 125 seconds, and then after the filter was mounted, you needed to slow the shutter speed to 1/2 second to get the same exposure, (assuming you left the ISO at 100 and f-stop at 5.6), that filter would be a 6-stop ND filter.  (1/125 – > 1/60 -> 1/30 – 1/15 -> 1/8 -> 1/4 -> 1/2 second ).  The density of the filter would have reduced the amount of light by 6-stops.

You can purchase both screw mount and square filters in various “strengths” or number of stops they reduce the light.

For example, this 77mm screw-mount 6-stop ND filter made by B&W runs about US$71, while this popular 10-stop square mount ND filter, the Lee “Big Stopper” is at this writing US$129.00.

A variable ND might work, but take it too far…

…and you’ll get weird artifacts.

Variable ND Filters – Another type of ND filter uses two polarized filters mounted together so they can be rotated in a way that produces variable density.  One might think this is a better solution than a fixed ND filter, allowing the photographer the means of adjusting the desired stops of reduction.

That would be ideal, and it works – to a point.

The problem with variable ND filters is sometimes they can produce nasty “artifacts” that spoil the image, especially on wide-angle lenses at higher density settings with less expensive variable ND filters.

More expensive variable ND filters will be better, but of course, cost even more.

The “One Weird Trick” ND filter

You’ve seen that “one weird trick” phrase used on the web before, right?  Usually, it’s for a gimmick that is less than a quality product.  I confess, what I’m going to suggest here is a bit of a gimmick and no, won’t deliver the results of the pricier dedicated photography ND filters.  You have to perform a few workarounds to get it to produce decent results and mounting it to your camera will be a little… “funky,” shall we say?  The upside is, it will probably cost about 1/10th of what a true photographic ND filter.

So, it could be a nice introduction to long exposure photography, while allowing you to explore this technique on a budget to see if it’s for you.

So here’s the big reveal…

What you are going to use is a piece of welder’s helmet glass.

You’ve seen welders wearing helmets while they work and perhaps noted a glass “window” they look through to observe their work?  The intensity of arc welding is so great that without a way to darken the welding spark the welder would be blinded.  So, a piece of very dark glass, a “density filter,” is what they have in their helmets.  The common denominator is the welder wants to darken the welding arc and you, as a photographer, want to darken the light coming into your lens.

These aren’t spacemen. They are welders and that piece of glass you see in their helmets is what you need for this “weird trick.”

What and where to get it

What you are looking for is a piece of welding glass used in a helmet.  Pieces can be purchased alone, (as replacements for the helmets) and in various sizes and “grades.”  You might have a local welding supply shop where you can get these or purchase them online.  Here is a link to an example. The glass measures 4.5″ x 5.25′ (114.3 mm x 133.35 mm) which is large enough to cover most camera lenses.  It comes in grades 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, and 14 with the higher numbers being darker/denser.

This chart may help you in determining the conversion from “grade” to the amount of f-stop reduction:

To keep it simple, most often you will use a 6-stop or a 10-stop ND filter.  One popular brand of ND filters is Lee. Their “Little Stopper” is a 6-stop filter, and their “Big Stopper” is a 10-stop filter.  So consulting the chart, if you wanted a 6-stop welding glass filter, get a Grade 6, and for a 10-stop reduction, get a Grade 8.

The left half of this shot shows how the uncorrected image looks due to the heavy green color of the welder’s glass. The right has been white-balanced using the custom white balance method discussed.

Density Yes, Neutral… not even close

This is probably the biggest drawback to using a piece of welding glass as an ND filter.  You can get very dark pieces of welding glass, so density isn’t a problem.  The problem is that most welding filters have a very pronounced green, or in some cases, gold color cast.

Dedicated photography ND filters may have a little coloration, but try to come as close to neutral as possible.  You will pay more for more neutral filters as you’d prefer to get darkening without coloration.  So what to do when using a welding glass filter?

Three options to dealing with the color cast

There are three things you can do to help reduce the distinct coloration a welding glass filter causes:

  • Shoot in Raw, (which you do anyway, right?) and adjust your white balance when editing to compensate.
  • Set an in-camera Custom White Balance
  • Plan to make your images monochrome where color casts won’t be a problem.

Let’s discuss these options.

The first is simple enough.  Yes, when you review your images after shooting on the camera LCD they will look very green.  (I’ve only used the green welder’s glass, not the gold).  Just know you will be adding lots of magenta, (the opposite of green), to your white balance when you edit.  Even then, good color may be a struggle.

Rather than fight the color cast, maybe monochrome is the ticket when using the welder’s glass ND trick.

The second option, setting a custom white balance, is a good idea.  To do so, mount your welding glass filter, (more on that in a minute) and make an exposure of the sun or bright sky.  Then, using the custom white balance function of your camera, (consult your manual on how to do this), store that image and white balance on it, creating a custom white balance you can use to shoot with when using your welding glass filter.

The advantage of this is image playback on your LCD will be closer to a normal color.

Additional tweaking will likely be needed in post-processing, but this may help you a bit when shooting.

The third option, (and to me maybe the best) is not to fight the color cast and plan to make your welding glass filter shots monochrome.  Long exposure images have an “ethereal” look often enhanced in a monochrome image.  So, rather than fight trying to restore good color from that alien green image, embrace monochrome.

If you decide you love long exposure photography, you will then likely buy a photographic ND filter which will make much better color shots.

Calculating your exposure

Before mounting your welding glass on your lens, you will want to compose your shot as usual.  You will also want to obtain good focus.  Do this first, because you won’t be able to see much of anything with the welding glass mounted.

Once focus has been obtained, switch the focus to manual.  Consider putting a piece of tape on the focus ring so it won’t move later.

Now make a shot with good exposure without the filter.  You will be changing your shutter speed once the filter is mounted, so choose an aperture and ISO.  What setting you choose will depend on the depth of field you require and also how long you’d like your exposure to be.  The slower the shutter speed you set here (while still getting a proper exposure), the longer your exposure can be with the filter.

Your subject will largely dictate your desired exposure length and the look you are trying to achieve. A silky waterfall might only require a 2-second exposure while smoothing ocean waves could take 30 seconds and streaking clouds in the sky a couple of minutes.  There is no formula here – trial and error will help you learn what works right.

The monochrome version of this shot above was done with the welders’ glass and an exposure time of 1.6 sec. This shot was taken later when the last rays of sun lit the turbines and also used 1.6 seconds. Too short a shutter speed and the blades were frozen. Too long and they disappeared. 1.6 seconds was the “sweet spot.”

Using an app to calculate shutter speed with the filter

Your meter will likely be useless once you mount the welding glass ND filter so you will need to calculate shutter speed yourself using the previous exposure information as a starting point.  There are numerous smartphone apps available to help you.  I like the one made by Lee Filters (Android / iOS ). Made for use with their Little (6-stop)/Big (10-stop)/Super (15-Stop) filters, you will need to tweak a bit when using it with your welding glass. However, it will get you in the ballpark, and you can adjust from there.

Let’s use an example:  You’ve made a shot without the filter and with the ISO set at 100 and the aperture at f/22 you can get the shutter speed down to 1/15th of a second and make a proper exposure.  You bought both a Grade 6 (6.67-stops) and Grade 8 (10-stops) pieces of welding glass.  What will your new shutter speed need to be with each filter installed?  Using the Lee app, we can see the 6-stop reduction would put us at between 4 and 8 seconds and the 10-stop reduction at 1 minute.

Again, plan on using these adjusted settings as starting points.  Try them and adjust your shutter speed (or possibly other settings) as needed.  Definitely plan on taking multiple shots as you get things dialed in.  Long exposure photography is not something you do in a hurry.

It’s funky, but it works. Reverse the lens hood and use rubber bands to attach the welder’s glass filter.

Attaching the welding glass filter

You’ve set up the camera, composed, focused, locked everything in, calculated your new shutter speed and are ready to mount the welding glass ND filter.  I think I used the word “funky” earlier in the article to describe how you will attach your DIY ND filter to your lens.  The photo here, showing how reversing the lens hood on your lens and then using rubber bands pretty much depicts the technique.

Something to improve it a bit – put some black gaffer tape on the edges of your piece of welders glass.  This will give the rubber bands a surface with more friction to grab onto.  (It also helps you in hanging onto the glass).  I’m not sure if the edges of the glass would transmit light onto the image, but the tape will also prevent that should it occur.  If your lens doesn’t have a hood to reverse, try larger bands which will allow you to stretch them back around the camera body.

Try not to disturb the focus ring as you mount the filter.  You will not be able to check focus again once the filter is in place.

Set your focus BEFORE mounting the filter and turn the switch to Manual focus (MF)

Making the shot

With the welder’s glass filter mounted, you will pretty much be “flying blind.”  You will not be able to see anything through the viewfinder, and maybe, if your filter isn’t too dark, you might be able to see just a little bit using live view if your camera supports that.  You better have composed and focused before mounting the filter as you can’t see to do it now.  Your meter will also not work with such low light.

While you could use the 2-second timer to trip the shot, I’d suggest a remote release.  You will also definitely need one if you’ll be making exposures over 30-seconds (on most cameras) in which case you will be putting your camera in Bulb-Mode.

A release that allows you to lock the shutter open during the exposure will help a lot here.  The Lee exposure calculator app also has a countdown timer.  Activate it when you open the shutter and it will countdown and beep at the end of the calculated exposure time telling you when to close the shutter.

If your shutter speed will exceed 30-seconds, you will probably need to use bulb mode. A remote release is a good idea in such cases.

You may also want to consider using the noise reduction feature of your camera.  Noise can be a problem with long exposures.  The noise reduction feature will make a second black frame image the same length as your first shot and then subtract any random noise or hot pixels from your image using the black frame as a reference.

Keep in mind, however, that the black frame exposure will be as long as the original shot so if you are, for example, making a 2-minute exposure, your camera will be busy for four minutes.  I told you, you don’t do long-exposure photography in a hurry.

No filter. A straight shot – 1/25 sec. f/8 ISO 100

Back in post-production

You edit your long exposure images much as you do with any regular shot with the big exception of that crazy color cast.  There are lots of web resources that tell you how to help correct for that cast so I won’t spend time on that here.  Just know that with this welding glass technique you will never get the color as good as you would without the filter.  I still believe that monochrome is the way to go here.

Using the welder’s glass ND. Custom white balanced in the camera, color corrected again in Lightroom and Photoshop. 162 seconds, f/8 ISO 100. The monochrome version is at the top of this article.

Frustrations and limitations

I’ve since bought a real ND filter, the 6-stop B+W I mentioned, so my welding glass hasn’t seen much use until I got it out to make this article.  In making the wind turbine shots, I found what I think, (after some comparison testing), is a Grade 10 glass, very dark but still not dark enough to make even a short 1.6 second shot, (the shutter speed I determined was best to get the hint of motion I wanted on the turbine blades.)  Longer exposures simply caused the blades to disappear entirely.

A side note here: long exposures can be a great way to make a crowd disappear when photographing a busy cityscape.  The people move and so disappear during a long exposure while the static buildings and such stay put and show up in the photo.

Trying to darken the shot further, I put a polarizer on the lens, (dropping the exposure 2-stops), and then stacked the welder’s glass ND over that.  It wasn’t a good combination.  Too much, as the British say, “faffing about,” and I likely knocked my focus off slightly.  Also, shooting through both the polarizer and the welding glass put too much “cheap glass” between the camera and the image, so the sharpness suffered.

A straight shot with no filter. 125/sec. f/22 ISO 100

A second trip to the Boise River provided an opportunity to see how a long exposure would depict the fast-moving spring runoff.  I was able to use much longer exposures here, a few just over two minutes.  I also made a 30-second exposure with the sun in the shot, something that wouldn’t have been possible with no filter even with the minimum ISO of 50 and the smallest aperture of f/22.  Shooting long exposures in bright light is a big reason for using an ND filter.

A shot directly into the sun, and a shutter speed of 20 seconds, probably isn’t possible without a strong ND filter. I calculate the Grade 10 welder’s glass used here to give about 13-stops of light reduction. 20 seconds f/14 ISO 100

When to buy a real ND filter

You may find the welder’s glass technique a fun way to dip your photographic toe in the waters of long exposure photography.  If you find you enjoy it and like the kinds of images you can make, save up and buy a good ND filter.  However, if the technique is interesting, but not really your bag, then you will have discovered that having only spent a few dollars on your welder’s glass DIY version.

Either way, you will learn much more about creatively using your camera controls to make exciting photos and that’s what it’s all about.  Learn and enjoy!


The post Try this DIY Neutral Density Filter for Long Exposure Photos appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

How to Put Some “Sparkle” in Your Photos with Sparkler Photography

The post How to Put Some “Sparkle” in Your Photos with Sparkler Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

Sparklers are fun, festive, and can add, well…Sparkle to your photos! Getting good sparkler shots will test your skills too, teach you new ways of operating your camera and allow you to make some “hot shots” people will admire. So let’s look at the tools, techniques, and tips for sparkler photography as well as give you some ideas to try.

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4 seconds, f/11, ISO 100

Playing with fire – Safety First!

If you play with fire, __________________ (complete the rest of that common saying). You’ve heard that, right?

“Play with fire and you’ll get burned.”

That’s NOT what we want to happen! So, Safety First!

These things ought to be common sense, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t list some precautions. After all, you are playing with fire.

  • Sparklers are HOT! The best sparklers for photography, (those with metallic nature and metal wire handle), burn between 1000 and 1600 degrees Centigrade, (that’s 1,800-3000 F)! Even after they burn out, the sparkler will be red hot for some time. Use them with great caution.
  • Flying sparks can burn you and your photo equipment. I have pitted glasses used as props in my shots with the sparks and the same can happen to your lens if too close. Stay back and zoom in, keeping your camera out of the range of flying sparks. Put a UV filter on your lens for extra protection.
  • Make your shots in a safe area with no flammable materials nearby. Sparkler photography is best done outdoors with cement, pavement, or other non-flammable surfaces underneath. I have read too often of photographers setting areas on fire (even historic sites!) by improperly using fireworks. I have also read of weddings where the bride’s dress was set on fire with a sparkler and all kinds of other sad and ugly stories. Don’t be that idiot! Have a bucket of water, perhaps even a fire extinguisher, nearby just in case. A water bucket can also be useful for disposing of expended but still hot sparklers.
  • Be careful when lighting sparklers. Often they take a bit to light, and standard paper matches could burn your fingers as they burn down. A long fireplace-style lighter works well. Light one at a time, never a bundle of them.

I could go on and if you search for “sparkler injuries” you might decide not to try this at all, but the point is, be smart, be safe, and above all…be careful!

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What you need

Camera – Full manual control of exposure and manual focus is pretty much required. Automatic modes won’t cut it for good sparkler photography and autofocus will cause much frustration.

Tripod – You will be shooting long exposures, often several seconds, and you can’t possibly hold your camera still enough for that time. Also, unless you have an assistant, you will also be busy with the sparkler. Your camera needs to be on a stable tripod.

Sparklers – I’ve found the best sparklers for photography are the metallic type with wire handles. Those with bamboo handles and a paper end produce a different-looking spark pattern, a lot of smoke, and are not well-suited to photos. You can also buy sparkers of different sizes.

Consider the amount of time it will take to make the shot you want as well as the distance you will be from the camera. Standard size (#10) sparklers work fine for shorter effects up close. Consider the bigger ones if you need more time or will be far away. I stock up during the Fourth of July season here in the U.S. If you have to buy online in the off-season, search for “Smokeless Sparkers” and you will find sites that sell the proper type in various sizes.

Props and People – The right props in a photo can help “tell a story” which the sparklers enhance. (See the shots in this article). Have those ready and be sure to consider their flammability. If you will have people in your shot, especially if they are children, be sure you carefully instruct them in the safe use of sparklers. Their safety is your responsibility! Also, consider the clothing people wear. Obviously, easily flammable clothing is a big NO. Dark colors will help them “disappear” in the shot if that’s what you want while lighter colors will help them show up. Again, if you have any doubts about being able to use sparklers in your photography and doing it safely, just don’t do it – period.

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4 seconds, F/14, ISO 400 – Flash Fill light was also used here

Remote trigger for your camera – If you are any distance from your camera, (especially if you are working alone), you will need a way to fire the shot remotely. You might get by with the timer, tripping the shutter and then running into the shot, but I like to be able to do multiple shots using just one sparkler. (They are hard to extinguish and re-light. If you need to run back to the camera to make another exposure, your sparkler will likely burn out by the time you can do that.)

I use a Yongnuo RF602C radio trigger with my Canon 6D and so can work from a distance, repeating the shot several times in the duration of just one sparkler. A wired remote could work too, depending on the length of your cord and distance from the camera to subject.

Flashlight (aka “Torch”) – You will most likely be working in the dark, so being able to set your camera, adjust focus, and do what you need to without too much fumbling will require a flashlight. We also discuss other uses for the flashlight along with Flash below.

Flash and Orange (CTO) Gels – This is optional, depending on the shot you’d like to make. We’ll get into using flash with your shots a bit later.

Bucket of Water and Fire Extinguishers – I discussed why previously but will repeat it. Have a place to put still hot sparklers after they burn out and also a means to quickly douse a fire in the chance things go bad.

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2.5 sec. f/11, ISO 100

Long exposure and camera settings

You will want full control over all your camera settings, so Manual Mode is a must. You will also want to be able to set and lock focus, so Manual Focus is needed. Shooting Raw (not .jpg) images will free you from having to worry about white balance and also give you greater latitude for adjusting exposure in editing if you aren’t right on.

As for the specific camera settings, that will take some experimentation. Start with ISO. You’ll be taking long exposures and keeping the ISO low. ISO 100 is fine and will help limit image noise. The desired depth of field will help determine your aperture, and that in combination with your shutter speed, (which will need to be long enough to accomplish whatever action you’ll be capturing) will determine your exposure. Sparklers are brighter than you may think and I achieved many of my shots with the light of the sparkler alone.

Take a look at the sample photos included in this article for which I’ve listed the camera settings. Note that ISO is almost always 100, aperture between f/8 and f/11 with the shutter speed determined by the duration of the action I’m capturing. Sometimes, rather than guessing how long you will need, it might be a good idea to use the Bulb mode for your shutter. Click the shutter once to open it as you start the action, then close it when finished.

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0.5 sec., f/8, ISO 100

Use with still-life photography

Your imagination is your only limit to how you can use sparklers to put some pizzaz in your shot. I am a fan of using them in Still Life photography for several reasons:

  • Use the sparkler to contribute to the theme and story you’re telling with a photo. Note the images in this article where sparklers add to the festive or holiday feel of the image.
  • Consider how the light of the sparkler plays with the other props or people in the scene. Glass which allows the sparkler light to shine through. Reflective objects or things that might look good backlit can make for interesting shots. You will often be able to make the shot with the light of the sparkler alone.
  • Back to the safety factor – With still-life images, you can be more in control of the situation, the location, and the other variables when working with inanimate objects. Working with people increases the hazard.
  • If an object moves, (and is lit well enough) during a long exposure, it will be blurred. I like the sparkler to be the moving object while the other objects in my scene are static and thus sharp even with a longer shutter speed.
  • Multiple takes are usually necessary to get a “just right” shot. I often make multiple shots even during the duration of one 35-second burn of a small #10 sparkler. After it’s exhausted and I toss it in the water bucket, I chimp my shots, decide what I might do differently or better, adjust and make another series. Still-life subjects don’t care while your model might not be as patient with many multiple takes.
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1/160 sec, f/3.5, ISO 800 – The sparkler was added with the technique described below

Use in wedding photography

Using sparklers in conjunction with wedding photography has become popular and can make for some nice images. A personal confession here – I’ve done wedding photography and find it scary enough. Add fire to the mix – as well as some potentially inebriated guests wielding that fire! – and the fear-factor goes up exponentially for me. I’m not saying don’t do these kinds of shots if that’s something you’d like to add to your wedding photography repertoire. Do your homework and read up on how other wedding photographers are using sparklers. Then, as you should with all wedding photography, do it with due diligence and the safety of your clients utmost in mind.

That said, read on in the Special Effects Section below to learn how you can include sparkler effects in your wedding images through some creative editing while not having to have them physically present during the wedding shoot.

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This sparkler shot was done independently – 14 seconds, f/11, ISO 100, and then layered over the dance shot below

Writing with fire

Another popular effect done with sparklers is to “write” or “draw” with the light trail created when a sparkler moves during a long exposure. (Interesting that in the Greek roots of the word “photography,” Phos means light and graphi means writing.) During a long exposure, a sparkler can be used to “write” words, draw pictures, or trace the outline of an object. A tip when writing letters or words; usually the subject doing the “sparkler writing” will be facing the camera and for them, (so the letters appear proper to the camera), they would need to form backward letters. Make it easier for them by letting them write as they normally would and then flipping the image later in post-production.

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I’ve also made some fun shots, such as that of the bicycle in this article, by “outlining” the basic shapes of the object with the sparkler during a long exposure. For this kind of thing, you might want to look into longer-burning sparklers such as #20 types which burn for about 2 minutes. They even sell extra-long #36 sparklers which will burn for up to 3 ½ minutes. Get what you need to accomplish the shot you’ll be making.

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80 seconds, f/11, ISO 100. I probably could have traced the bicycle just once to simplify the shot and use a shorter exposure

Mixing ambient light and using flash

What you want to show up in your shot will determine your exposure settings and other techniques. Sometimes, all you want to show up is the sparkler itself. If that’s the case, put your camera on a tripod, put the unlit sparkler (or a stand-in object) where you expect the sparkler to be, use your flashlight and focus on that spot. Then turn off the autofocus so the focus is locked on that spot. You will want to shoot in the dark, have a dark background, and wear dark clothes if you or your subject will be in the shot moving the sparkler. Make a shot without lighting the sparkler with the ISO at 100 and adjust the aperture, so the resulting image is totally black. Shutter speed will be dependent on how long you expect the action to take.

Now, leaving all the settings there, light the sparkler and make the shot. Evaluate the shot to see what adjustments might be necessary. Once you have it dialed in, repeat as needed with another sparkler. If you are shooting relatively short, say under 5-second exposures, you may get multiple shots during the 35-second burn of even a small #10 sparkler.

Now, say you want your subject to appear in the image with the sparkler. A still-life object might work just fine with a similar technique with the light of the sparkler enough to illuminate the subject. The cocktail glasses and flag shots here were done in that fashion. The bicycle shot was too, though a long 80-second exposure was needed to trace the subject fully.

The New Year 2017 shot needed a little help from a flash. The 4-second exposure was about right for the static sparkler placed behind the glasses, but it’s placement behind the glasses, and the amount of light it cast, wasn’t enough to illuminate the other objects in the scene, so some fill-flash was used.

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2.5 sec, f/16, ISO 100

Say you want to see your subject holding the sparkler, perhaps drawing with it, or maybe show a wedding couple in the shot with sparkler effects in the shot too. Set up the shot as before with enough shutter duration to capture whatever motion you want with the sparkler. Then, just before completing the exposure, pop a flash on your subject to illuminate and freeze them.

If your camera and flash support second curtain sync, that’s a great way to do this as the flash will be automatically triggered just before the exposure is completed. If not, or if perhaps you want to put the flash off camera, you can also manually trigger it with the test button. It takes a bit more timing and luck, but being able to put the flash where you want it and timing the flash to your action might be worth it.

Another option, since you will be making a long exposure, is to use a flashlight to “light-paint” your subject. As with the flash, if you want the sparkler to produce a trail but the person or subject to be frozen, illuminate them with the flashlight at the end of the exposure.

I mentioned the use of a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gel with your flash. Because most sparklers burn with a warm gold light the much bluer light of the flash won’t match them. Putting a piece or two of CTO gel over your flash allows its light to better match that of the sparkler. Carefully crafted, you will be able to make it look like it was the sparkler lighting the subject when in fact the flash was doing the work.

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1 second, f/11, ISO 100

Special effects with sparkler shots

I mentioned a wedding shot where it had the sparkler effect but without actually having the sparkler there. Here’s how you do it:

  • Shoot your sparkler shots on a dark background. Then in post-production, adjust the black so the only thing visible is the sparkler and light trail itself.
  • Open the image you want in Photoshop, say the wedding shot.
  • Open the sparkler shot as a separate image. Then “Select All” and “Copy” that shot.
  • Go to the wedding shot and then “Paste” the sparkler shot over it on a separate layer.
  • Change the blending mode on the sparkler layer to “Screen.” The black will become transparent, leaving the sparkler trail over your wedding shot.
  • Adjust the placement, size, and so forth on the sparkler overlay to put it where you like.
  • Using masking tools on that later, mask out any of the sparkler effects you don’t want to show.
12 - sparkler photography

Sparker effected added using Screen Blending mode with the sparkler on a separate layer.

The beauty of this technique is you can make your own “stock images” with various sparkler effects and have them available later when you might want to add them to other images. The other advantage is you don’t have the hassle and risks of using sparklers around your subjects.

If you don’t want to mess with sparklers at all but still want the effects, you can also buy “sparkler effects” packages and alphabets which you can use with this same technique.

So, have fun, be safe, and put some sparkle in your photos! Then, be sure to share them with us in the comments below.


The post How to Put Some “Sparkle” in Your Photos with Sparkler Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

How to Make Interesting Abstract Smoke Photos

The post How to Make Interesting Abstract Smoke Photos appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

How would you like to learn a little “photo magic?” A magician not wanting to reveal his secrets might tell you his trick was all done with “smoke and mirrors.” The expression speaks of a kind of deception used to fool the viewer. No fooling here though, as you’ll learn the technique. You really will photograph smoke and later, mirror your image to add even more interest. So it really is smoke and mirrors. Shall we begin?

Abstract smoke photography - Firebird

Can you see the Firebird? How was this done? Read on for the tricks to this abstract magic.

Tools for the trick

Here’s what you will need to create your photo:


Most cameras will work for this kind of photography. Being able to use manual control and manual focus will make things easier. You will also need to be able to fire a flash mounted off-camera using either a wired or wireless method. A lens which will allow you to focus on an object a few feet away will be best. The shots shown here were done with the Canon “nifty fifty”, a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens mounted on a Canon 50D camera. For a relatively inexpensive lens, it is very sharp.

Abstract Smoke Photography - Use stick Incense

A package of 40 incense sticks from the dollar store is probably enough for a lifetime of smoke photography.


You will want an external flash you can mount off-camera. The pop-up flash on the camera won’t work for this. You will be mounting the flash off to the side of your shot so it illuminates the column of smoke pointing perpendicular to the direction you’re pointing the camera. Having a light stand on which you can mount it will be helpful. You also don’t want any of the light to hit the background or flare into the camera, so a snoot which will direct the beam of the flash at the smoke column works well. You may also be able to fashion a “barn-door” arrangement with cardboard (or even tape). Whatever works to keep the light only on what you want – the smoke column.


The flash will provide plenty of light and also freeze the action, so you really aren’t concerned about motion blur. The advantage of a tripod is simply to help you compose and frame the shot and provide some consistency.  If you don’t have a tripod or simply prefer to handhold your camera, that’s okay too.

To better see the smoke and also give you more flexibility later in editing, a black or very dark background will work best. Black posterboard, black cloth, the black side of a reflector, or whatever you have should work. Because the column of smoke you’ll be photographing will be relatively small, you won’t need anything very large.

Smoke-producing object

Incense, the kind that comes in stick form, works very well for this kind of smoke photography.  It’s cheap, burns for a long time, and produces just the kind of smoke needed.


Unless you have an absolutely calm day with no wind, shooting outdoors probably isn’t going to work. Even the slightest air currents will affect your smoke pattern. Shooting indoors, particularly in a modern home, might be a good way to test your smoke detectors but having the alarm go off just as you’re getting started with your work is rather disruptive.  I found shooting in the garage to be a good option. It was dark, the air was still, and after the session, it was easy to open the door and clear the smoke. Just be aware of the requirements needed; still air, no smoke detectors, (or at least temporarily disarmed ones), the ability to make the room dark, and a door or window you can open afterward to clear the smoke afterward, and you’ll be set.

Abstract Smoke Photography - Setup diagram

Setting up

The diagram above shows a basic setup. Put your camera on a tripod a couple of feet from where you will place the incense stick.  Taping the stick to light stand may allow you more flexibility in positioning it in the frame, but whatever you use, you will want to frame the shot so you put just the tip of the stick at the bottom of the frame, leaving a couple of feet above for the column of smoke. Whether you use a portrait or landscape orientation with your camera is up to you, just remember the smoke will drift around. Being a little loose with the framing isn’t a bad idea, you can always crop later.

The background should be a couple of feet behind the incense stick. If you light properly, it won’t show anyway so this isn’t crucial.

Position the flash on a light stand so it’s to the side of the camera and points perpendicularly to the camera angle. You will be side-lighting the smoke. Some photographers also put a reflector on the opposite side to bounce a little light on the other side of the smoke. You can experiment and see if you like that.  The shots here use only the one flash. As mentioned above, what is crucial is that no light fall on the background nor flare into the camera lens. A snoot is the easiest means of achieving this.

Abstract Smoke Photography - smoke photo straight out of camera

The smoke patterns are constantly changing and no two will be alike.

Camera and flash settings

In the darkened room where you’re working, use a flashlight or other dim lighting so you can still see the incense stick and do your framing. Focus on the tip of the stick, then turn off the autofocus so the focus stays locked.  Leaving on autofocus will almost guarantee frustration, as while shooting, the camera lens may hunt, trying to find and focus on the drifting smoke.

Shoot in Raw mode, (which you usually do, yes?) Doing so will allow greater editing flexibility later.

Set your camera around ISO 200, f/8 and about 1/60th of a second for starters.

Leave the flash off.

Make a shot before lighting the incense in the darkened room.

You should get a totally black frame and that’s what you want with no flash.

Now put the flash in manual mode and set it to about half power. You should have already connected it to the camera with a cord or perhaps set up a radio trigger so it will fire when the shutter is tripped.

Make a shot with the flash on and you should be able to just see the tip incense stick.  If so, you’re now ready to get smokin’.

Abstract Smoke Photography - The Seahorse

This image is straight out of the camera. Note the tip of the incense stick at the bottom right.

Making your photos

Light the incense stick, blow out the flame and a thin column of smoke will rise from the tip.

Make a shot and check it. Is it focused?

Be sure, as you don’t want to make a whole series only to later find out they aren’t sharp. If you need to adjust your focus or perhaps go to a smaller f/stop for more depth of field, do so now.

Also, check the exposure. If things are too bright, drop the flash power or reduce the ISO. If the smoke is too dim, do the opposite. You want to clearly see the smoke, but nothing else.

If all looks good, keep making shots. Occasionally wave your hand near the smoke column or gently blow on it to vary the smoke pattern. You will want some variety so you can later choose your favorite shots.

Abstract Smoke Photography - Smoke photo mirrored and colored with a gradient

This is the same image as the one before it, but horizontally mirrored and colored with a gradient.

Basic editing

What program you want to edit with is up to you. You will want to adjust the blacks so as to leave only the white smoke details. Then adjust the whites, highlights, shadows, exposure, and contrast by eye, tuning the shot to your liking.

If there are elements you wish to eliminate, paint them out with a black adjustment brush or use layers and masks in Photoshop if that is your preferred technique.

Abstract Smoke Photography - horizontal and vertical mirroring

The Gordian Knot – This image was mirrored both horizontally and vertically and then colored with a gradient.

Mirrors and colors and abstracts, oh my!

You got the smoke, now what about the mirrors? Yes, the white smoke patterns on a black background are interesting but you can take this much further. I used Corel Paintshop Pro, but Photoshop would work too. Or for that matter, any photo editor that supports layers will work. (Keep in mind Lightroom does not support layers so while you can edit, colorize, and do other things with it, the mirroring part is beyond its capabilities).

Here are the basic steps:

  • Open in your basic edited smoke image. Select the entire image and copy it.
  • Paste the copied image on top of itself as a new layer.
  • Mirror (flip) the upper layer horizontally or vertically. (In Photoshop, Edit, Transform, and Flip Horizontally or Vertically).
  • Change the blending mode on the upper layer to Lighten. You will now see the upper layer mirrored and superimposed over the lower layer and some interesting patterns will be created.
Abstract Smoke Photography - Alien Gas

Alien Gas – A straight smoke shot later colored green.

Abstract Smoke Photography - Negative version of smoke photograph - Purple Haze

Purple Haze – Now, take the image above, reverse it so it’s a negative, (the black becomes white and the green becomes purple), then mirror it both horizontally and vertically.

You can move the layers so they overlap each other in various ways and change the pattern. You might want to make the canvas larger and put the mirrored image next to itself or even have multiple layers with the image flipped both horizontally and vertically.

You’ve now entered the realm of abstract art and anything goes.

Maybe you’d like to add some color?

Create another layer at the top of the stack and fill it with a gradient.  Now use the Overlay or Soft Light blending mode and watch your smoke take on the colors of the gradient.

If you’d like to hand-paint the smoke,  create a blank layer at the top. Turn the blending mode to Overlay, and using the Brush tool (and a color of your choice) to paint the smoke, watching the white smoke take on that color while the black is left untouched.

Try putting a photo on the upper layer and switching the blending mode on that layer to Overlay.

Abstract Smoke Photography - The Witch Doctor

Like Rorschach inkblots, what you see is very individual. I call this one – The Witch Doctor

Something I find fascinating with these abstract smoke compositions is that they resemble Rorschach InkBlots. Everyone interprets them differently and can see different images in what are, after all, just random patterns of drifting smoke. The titles on these shots are what I interpret.

What do you see?

Smoke in other photos

You may have reasons to want to include smoke in your photos that is not an abstract interpretation. The same basic technique can work with side lighting.

The “Smokin’ Hot Peppers” was lit with two flashes, one on either side of the vase and an incense stick placed in and behind the peppers in the vase.

Abstract Smoke Photography - Smokin Hot Peppers

A flash on either side of the subject was the only difference here, otherwise, this image uses the same technique.


Here’s one last trick that could work for you when you want something that looks like smoke but you’re in a no-smoking workspace.

Get some dental floss, fray it a bit, and tie it to a penlight or small flashlight letting the light shine down the length of the floss and onto your subject.

Now make a long exposure during which you keep the floss constantly moving. Smokeless smoke, just another option to have in your bag of photo tricks.

Abstract Smoke Photography - Pseudo Smoke Effect - Simulated Smoke

Looks like smoke, but it isn’t.


You’ll find that photographing smoke is all about the lighting. Side or backlighting will work best and a dark background helps the smoke show up better. Beyond that, it’s simply a matter of experimenting.

Give it a try and make a little photo magic. And share with us in the comments below!



The post How to Make Interesting Abstract Smoke Photos appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

A Beginners Guide to Auto ISO and other Camera Modes

The post A Beginners Guide to Auto ISO and other Camera Modes appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

The What, When, Why, and How of Auto ISO

So, you understand how to interactively use Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO settings to achieve proper exposure. You know how to control things like depth-of-field and the freezing or blurring of motion. Perhaps you also understand the camera modes: Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual and know when using them which settings are fixed and which can fluctuate. But how often do you adjust ISO adjustment? The idea that you might let the ISO speed “float” with each shot is alien to many photographers. So what is Auto ISO? When and why might you want to use it, and how can you set it up to make better shots?

Fast action in changing light conditions is a good reason to use Auto ISO.

Back to basics – the Exposure Triangle

From the dawn of photography and the simplest pinhole camera to the most sophisticated modern DSLR, there have been three constants – Aperture, Shutter Speed and what we now measure with ISO – the Light Sensitivity of the media onto which the image gets recorded. All cameras are essentially boxes with a hole in them. The size of the hole (aperture), the length of time the hole is opened (shutter speed), and the sensitivity of the recording medium (ISO). When we allow light into the box to create an image on the sensitive media, we are making an “exposure.” It makes up the “Holy Trinity” of photography – The “Exposure Triangle.” Perhaps you knew all this? If so, feel free to skip ahead in the article, otherwise, keep reading.

From the simplest to the most complex camera, three things – Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO are the factors affecting Exposure.

A “correct” exposure

There are two basic things to consider when making an exposure:

  1. What is the correct amount of light to let into the “box” rendering all tones in the subject and capturing everything from the blackest shadows to the brightest highlights, and
  2. How can we use the three components of the triangle most creatively?

The first consideration is technical, the second creative.

A histogram shows us the 256 shades of gray for a given image. At the far right are the shadows, on the far left, the highlights. In theory, an image which stays “between the goalposts” such that none of the tones go off either edge is a “correct exposure.” In editing, we can redistribute the tones so long as they have not gone to “0” which is total black, or 255 which is total white. At those extremes there is no detail to recover; it is either totally black and “blocked up,” or totally white and “blown out.”

Learning how to interpret a histogram will greatly aid you in your growth as a photographer.

Creatively using the controls

How to use the elements of the exposure triangle creatively brings in some secondary considerations of how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affect our image. Aperture is the hole in our “box” while the f/stop is the term we use to define the size of the hole. A good way to remember which is the “bigger hole” is is to think about any f-number as a fraction. If you like pie, would you rather have a ½ pie or a 1/16 slice?

Therefore, the bigger f/numbers like f/22 represent smaller apertures (holes), while the small f/numbers like f/2.8 or f/4 represent the larger apertures.

Creatively, we can use smaller f/stops to increase depth-of-field and larger ones to limit it. In a portrait, we might want an unfocused, simplified background with a limited depth-of-field, so a large aperture would be a good choice. In a landscape photo where we want front-to-back sharpness, a small aperture may be better.

The shutter speed you choose also offers creative possibilities. Remember, shutter speed is represented in whole or fractions of as second. A shutter speed of 1/2 second is a longer time the shutter remains open than 1/250th of a second. You might think of the shutter speed as the “slice of time” we expose the light-sensitive medium to light. Short (faster) shutter speeds will help us freeze motion by capturing a “thinner slice of time.” Longer (slower) shutter speeds can allow us to “stretch time” and cause moving objects to blur.

Adjustable ISO? What a concept !

Of the three components of the triangle, ISO choice has implications, but probably less so than the others. Like an audio amplifier, lower settings keep the background “noise” less while higher settings which amplify the signal also introduce more noise and distortion. ISO measures how sensitive we make the sensor in a digital camera. In the film days, film sensitivity was fixed. Put in a roll of ASA 64 film and that was what you lived with for the whole roll. It had less grain than did an ASA 400 roll, but it was also less light sensitive.

In the digital world, ISO can be changed whenever we like, even from shot to shot. Now making an exposure truly becomes a “three-ball juggling act.” We can change Aperture, Shutter Speed, or ISO with each shot if we like. We still must use those to make a “correct” exposure, but we can also better consider the creative implications of our choices. We can also choose which controls we want full control over and which we might relinquish to the camera. Auto ISO coupled with newer, better, and “less noisy” sensors has changed the ballgame. Let’s go back to our three-ball juggling analogy.

Which of the three “exposure balls” will you choose to “let float?”

Learning to juggle

Watch a video clip of a juggler throwing three balls, and you will see at any given time, one ball is in the air, and the other two are in each of his hands. He has “control” of two of them, and the third is in “float.”

Now, when you use Auto ISO, it becomes that “third ball,” the component you let be in “float.” Fortunately, ISO has the least creative potential, and with modern cameras, the least penalty of choice. So it often makes sense to let it be the “ball in float.”

Let’s bring this back to the practical. You’re shooting dancers on the stage in an auditorium. The stage lighting varies with each scene and even as the dancers move to different spots. They are not allowing flash here, so you must live with the lighting conditions.

You want a reasonably high shutter speed to freeze the motion and a moderately small aperture so you have sufficient depth of field. Which of the three “balls” makes the most sense to let “float?” Auto ISO to the rescue! Situations where lighting changes quickly and the action you’re capturing won’t wait while you manually adjust settings is perfect for using Auto ISO.

Setting things up

I shoot with a Canon 6D most of the time so I will use that as my point of reference and for the menu shots below. How, (or even if your camera supports Auto ISO at all) will vary between make and model so you will need to dig a bit deeper to learn that. You might even have to get out your camera manual! The method may differ with your camera, but if you can grasp the general concept, the rest is simply navigating your camera’s menus.

Setting up Auto ISO on a Canon 6D.

Usually, there will be a button or menu where you can set Auto ISO. If you go to the low end of the scale, past the lowest (smallest) numbers of ISO you will likely find “A” for Auto ISO. Set the camera there.

Now you will want to set some “boundaries” as to when and how Auto ISO will be implemented and how high you will allow it to go. You should know that the higher ISO settings may allow you to shoot in very low light but may also introduce more image noise. How much is too much noise and what settings are impractical will depend on your camera and you. Shoot some high ISO images and evaluate them, so you know how much is too much for your liking.

With this information, you will want to find the menu item where you can set the specifics for how Auto ISO behaves. On my Canon 6D, I tap the Menu button and then roll the small top dial to the third camera menu icon from the left. I then roll the larger Control dial down to the second item, ISO speed settings, and hit the Set button to get to the menu below.

Again, your camera may differ, but you will set several things here:

  • Confirm the camera is in Auto ISO – ISO Speed
  • Set the full ISO speed range the camera will use – ISO Speed Range
  • Choose the lower and upper limits of ISO you will allow – Auto ISO range (you will usually enter the lowest ISO as the minimum and the highest as that ISO you think will not have excessive noise). For my 6D, I typically enter 100-3200 here.
  • Choose the minimum shutter speed you will allow before Auto ISO changes the ISO setting – Min. shutter spd.

Setting limits on how Auto ISO operates.

For this last setting, whatever you enter here is the slowest shutter the camera will allow before jumping to a higher ISO setting.

You will note “Auto” is an option here. If you pick this, your camera will detect the focal length of your lens when the image is about to be made and use the formula 1/focal length to set the minimum.

The idea here is you should not shoot slower than this (especially if handholding your camera) if you want to prevent camera shake blur. For example, let’s say if you are shooting a 24-105mm zoom lens and are zoomed all the way in. If Min. Shutter Speed is set to Auto, your camera will start to increase the ISO if the required shutter speed drops below 1/100th.

How it works in each mode

So you have this all set up. Now how will it operate? It depends on what camera mode you are shooting in. Let’s look at each.

Full Auto (Green) Mode

What you Can Adjust – Nothing, in Full Auto Mode the camera adjusts Aperture, Shutter Speed, and is in Auto ISO.
What the Camera Adjusts – Everything. This is a true “Point-and-Shoot” Mode with the camera making all adjustments.
Exposure Compensation Possible? – No
Pros/Cons – You are letting the camera make all your exposure and creative decisions. You are in Auto ISO and perhaps didn’t know it!

Program (P) Mode

What you Can Adjust – Everything, but as you adjust one item, the others will change too depending on lighting.
What the Camera Adjusts – Everything. The camera will seek to maintain proper exposure.
Exposure Compensation Possible? – Yes
Pros/Cons – This can be confusing when used with Auto ISO. I don’t recommend it.

Aperture Priority (Av or A) Mode

What you Can Adjust – Aperture. Lock in your Aperture setting and Shutter speed will adjust to maintain exposure. If the required shutter speed is lower than your minimum, ISO will increase up to the maximum you have set.
What the Camera Adjusts – Shutter Speed and then ISO
Exposure Compensation Possible? – Yes
Pros/Cons – If control over depth of field is your priority, this is the best option. Used in combination with the minimum shutter speed setting, it allows you to lock in the Aperture, set a base for the shutter speed, and have the camera adjust ISO increase when light goes below the shutter speed minimum you set.

Shutter Priority (Tv or S) Mode

What you Can Adjust – Shutter Speed. Lock in your Shutter Speed setting and Aperture will adjust to maintain exposure. If the required aperture is more than the maximum for the lens used, ISO will increase up to the maximum you have set.
What the Camera Adjusts – Aperture and then ISO
Exposure Compensation Possible? – Yes
Pros/Cons – If control over shutter speed is your priority, this may be the best option. Used in combination with the minimum shutter speed setting, it allows you to lock in the Shutter speed. The camera will adjust the aperture as needed and call on an ISO increase when you reach the maximum aperture of the lens used.

Full Manual (M) Mode

What you Can Adjust – Shutter Speed and Aperture. Lock in both your Shutter Speed and Aperture settings and ISO will adjust to maintain exposure. The exposure display will stay centered and ISO increase or decrease as needed to maintain proper exposure. If the required ISO exceeds the minimum or maximum set, the indicator will move off center showing an under or overexposure.
What the Camera Adjusts – ISO
Exposure Compensation Possible? – Camera Dependent
Pros/Cons – This gives maximum creative control to set both shutter speed and aperture and thus control both freezing/blurring of motion and depth of field simultaneously. ISO will “float” to adjust exposure up to the limits set. With some cameras, no exposure compensation is possible in this mode. However, with newer cameras, the “center point” may be adjusted thus supporting compensation.

When to use Auto ISO

When you have time to be a bit more leisurely with your image making, you can slow down and think through each of your settings. What are your objectives? Freezing action? Increasing or limiting the depth of field? Is the light changing?

When time permits, and you have a good understanding of each element in the exposure triangle, use full manual and set your ISO to the lighting conditions, staying as low as possible to limit noise. For landscape, portrait, still life, architecture, or other kinds of work where time permits and lighting is reasonably constant, Auto ISO isn’t much additional help. Ditto if you’re doing long exposures on a tripod where shutter speeds will be longer.

Shooting these ballet dancers under frequently changing stage lighting without flash is a challenge. Auto ISO helps tremendously.

Where Auto ISO really shines is in conditions where the action is fast, the light is changing or particularly low, and you are blasting away without time to think through each setting.

In that case, Auto ISO may be the helping hand you need. If lighting permits and your camera supports exposure compensation in Full Manual, this could be the ideal method. Lock in both Shutter Speed and Aperture where you like and shoot, counting on Auto ISO to handle any fluctuating exposure conditions.

Sometimes Auto ISO in combination with Aperture Priority will be a good choice. I work part-time at an auto dealership photographing cars for the web. Set up like this, I can go from shooting the exterior of the car in bright sunlight to the much darker interior with no adjustments, letting Auto ISO kick up the speed for the darker interiors.

Being able to move from a bright outdoor shot to a much darker interior shot and letting Auto ISO adjust the exposure speeds up my work in this situation significantly. On the older Canon 50D I use, I’m in Aperture Priority, my f/stop is at 4.5, and Auto ISO handles the rest.

Sports and Action can be an excellent time to use Auto ISO, especially in changing lighting conditions. It was a mixed cloudy day, and the light on the river where these kayakers were running was changing. I wanted to be sure my shutter was fast to freeze the action. Shutter priority plus Auto ISO was the ticket.

A mixed-light day with the kayakers moving from sun to shade, and fast action. With the need for servo focus, and shooting with a long telephoto in continuous mode… it was a challenge! I let Auto ISO handle exposure allowing me to concentrate on following the action.

What if Auto ISO goes wild?

Some photographers, especially those trained with the mantra “Auto Anything is Bad,” have a hard time invoking Auto ISO. Good photographers control everything, right? What if the camera goes up to a crazy high setting and all my images are too noisy?!!

It could happen. But, then again, remember you can limit the upper end of the ISO setting.

Also, newer cameras have such good sensors that your “upper limit” may be much higher than you think. Finally, what if you shoot at too slow a shutter speed and get blurry shots or don’t get the depth of field you wanted? There are many good noise reduction programs, but no apps I know of to fix a blurry, out-of-focus, shot with insufficient depth of field. I’ll take a noisy image over an out-of-focus image any day!


If you’re an old film guy like me and Auto ISO feels funny, or you’re worried about what it will do, or just haven’t been able to fully get your head around it, I suggest you relax and give it a try. Take your camera out on a non-essential shoot, turn on Auto ISO and just play. I’m going to bet you might just come away with a new trick.

The post A Beginners Guide to Auto ISO and other Camera Modes appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

Making the Shot: Your Guide to Creating Stunning High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash

The post Making the Shot: Your Guide to Creating Stunning High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

1 - High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash - Rick Ohnsman

The making of one of my most successful shots started with a little photo play on a hot summer day, and a try at some high-speed splash photography.

The image above, “Red Bell Splashdown,” went on to win first place in the Corel International Food Photography Contest.

Let’s take a look at the “making of” methods used to create the shot so that you too can have fun with this quite simple technique.

Freezing motion

There are essentially two ways to freeze motion with a camera:

  1. Use a Fast Shutter Speed such that the “sliver of time” you are capturing is very short and the object being captured moves very little, if at all, during the extremely short duration the shutter is open, or
  2. Use the very Short Duration of a Flash so that the object you are photographing gets illuminated for a very small sliver of time. The duration time of an electronic flash can be extremely short. For example, a Speedlight like the Canon 580EXII at 1/128 power is less than 1/19,000th of a second!

I’ve used the flash method, and indeed it can produce some dramatic results. I will perhaps show that process and the results in a future article. For my splash photos, however, I wanted to keep it simple and do it outdoors where water splashes wouldn’t require any clean-up or endanger my photo gear. When I did these shots, I was using my Canon 50D which has a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second. I figured this should be enough to get the job done.

2- High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash - Rick Ohnsman

Let the sun shine in

Obviously, getting a proper exposure with a very high shutter speed would involve several possibilities:

  1. Use a fast lens with a wide aperture – I was shooting with a Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, so a wide aperture was possible. However, I still needed a decent depth of field, so opening it up all the way wasn’t a good option.
  2. Use a high ISO – Cranking up the ISO can aid in getting a fast shutter speed but at the penalty of more image noise. I didn’t want that if I could avoid it.
  3. Shoot in very bright light. Normally, shooting under mid-day summer sun would not be something a photographer would do, but in this case, blazing sunlight (and lots of it) was the perfect solution.

3- High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash - Rick Ohnsman

The set-up

I wanted to use colorful subjects for the shoot. Bell peppers – easily found at the supermarket in red, yellow and green – seemed a good choice. I also picked up some other colorful fruits – strawberries and limes. To accommodate the size of the objects and also give me a flat glass “window” to shoot through, a 10-gallon aquarium was just right.

Wanting to get light not just from above but from below as well, I put a large 5-in-1 reflector on the table where I wanted to shoot, silver side up. I placed the aquarium on top of that out in the bright noon sun. I filled the tank with water about halfway and allowed the bubbles to settle out while I set up the rest of the equipment.

4- High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash - Rick Ohnsman

I put a pepper in the water and let it float while I took a look through the camera to frame the shot. I could see I would need a plain and preferably dark background, so I put a piece of black paper behind the tank. The paper was still too bright with the direct sun on it, so I used another reflector, black side down, at the back to the tank to shade the paper backdrop. I had my camera on a tripod and moved it to get as much of the front of the tank in the frame as I could, being sure I could focus that close.

5- High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash - Rick Ohnsman

To be able to drop my subjects into the tank and also trigger the shutter, I rigged up a Youngnuo RF-602C radio trigger so that I’d be able to fire the camera remotely. A wired remote with a long enough cord could have also worked.

Camera settings

I put the camera in Manual Mode. To get a good combination of the fast shutter speed needed, decent depth of field, and not too high an ISO, I found that shooting at ISO 400, F/6.3 and the key – fast shutter speeds between 1/2000 and 1/3200th of a second was about right. Letting a pepper float in the tank where I anticipated it to be when dropped, I set the focus and then locked it in manual. I also put the shutter in high-speed continuous mode so for each drop I’d get a burst of about 5 shots.

6- High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash - Rick Ohnsman


So, good to go, I dropped the peppers, strawberries, and limes, trying to fire the bursts in synchronization with my drops. My wife Kathy came out to join in the fun and did some of the drops. We quickly found it was necessary to squeegee and wipe the front of the glass between shots to clean the drops off the front of the glass from the previous shot. So it went: drop, shoot, squeegee and repeat. For each drop, one frame of the 5-shot burst might be good, but often not. Timing is crucial. With practice, while we gained some skill, luck was still a huge element. There was lots of shooting to get the keepers. We tried it with the peppers and fruits in different combinations too. I easily made over 200 shots that afternoon.

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Cleaning up your act!

Straight out of the camera, the raw shots were less than impressive. Of course, Raw files look flat, and so I knew they’d improve greatly with a basic Raw edit. There were also more drops, splashes, bubbles and other particles in the water than I wanted. However, the important thing – the action – was properly frozen and sharp!

My Red Bell Splashdown image used settings of ISO 400, f/4.0, 1/3200th sec. The rest was using editing tools to adjust the exposure, get good rich color and deep blacks, and eliminate distractions. My editing tool of choice is usually Adobe Lightroom. With the Adjustment Brush and the Spot Removal Tool, I was able to clean up the image to create the impact I was after.

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Other considerations and possibilities

With any photo shoot, it’s always a good idea to critique your work and consider, “What might I have done better? Differently? What variations might I want to try?”

Seeing I had used a shutter speed of 1/3200th for my splash shots, I was curious how much difference there might be at the maximum shutter speed of my Canon 50D which is 1/8000th. I didn’t want to set up the fish tank and all of that for this second experiment, so I tried something simpler.

This time, I poured liquid into glasses in the bright summer sun. This process was simple enough. I clamped the glasses in a stand, put up a black backdrop behind them, set up the camera in a similar fashion to the previous splash shots, and did the pours. This time my settings were ISO 400, f/3.5, 1/8000th of a second.

When checking the shots afterward, it was apparent that the freezing effect was even more pronounced. However, at such a wide aperture, my depth of field was much more shallow.

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What might I try next time?

I’d like to give different color backgrounds a try. Using black made editing much easier, and when cleaning up the shots, it was simple to “black out” any distracting elements. I’m not so sure that would be as easily achieved with a color background. Trying it with a white background for a high-key look might also look interesting.

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Of course, using different objects for the splash photos is also fun. In fact, we did do that when during the splash photo session my Mini-Schnauzer, Schatzi, wanted to play and decided to bring us her favorite ball. Looking at the “face” on the ball, I thought it might be fun to try it in a splash drop as we’d done with the peppers. When seeing the result – which looked like the “creature” was exhaling bubbles during a dive – it made me laugh.

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So, give this high-speed shutter technique a try. Take it outside in the bright sun, crank up the shutter speed as high as you can and have some fun. It’s a great way to improve your camera skills, learn the relationships between ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed, and then test your editing skills when tuning up your shots. I’m confident you’ll get some images of which you’ll be proud.

The post Making the Shot: Your Guide to Creating Stunning High-Speed Splash Photos Without Flash appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

Reverse Lens Macro – How to Make Macro Photos with “Backward Thinking”

The post Reverse Lens Macro – How to Make Macro Photos with “Backward Thinking” appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

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Occasionally a little “backward thinking” can be a good thing, especially when it comes to coming up with an economical way to do macro photography. Sure, you can shell out a few hundred dollars for a nice macro lens. You might give extension tubes or bellows a try, or even buy some closeup diopter lenses. But what if I told you how you could use that old film camera lens and an adapter easily purchased for under $15 to make some nice macro images? Might that not be a great and inexpensive way to explore the macro world? Great… now get ready to “think backwards.”

Yes, literally… You will need to think backward to take advantage of what is called “Reverse-Lens Macro Photography.” You will be mounting a lens backward on your camera so what is normally the front of the lens is the part that attaches to your camera. Before we look at how to do this, let’s first define “macro photography.”

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The Reverse Lens Macro Technique is a great way to enter the world of macro photography economically.

What is “true” macro?

Many lens manufacturers indicate their lens has “macro capability” and they might even put the word “macro” on the lens. These lenses indeed allow you to focus closely on your subject. However, in the true sense of the term, a macro photo is one in which the size of the image recorded on the camera sensor is the same size (or larger) than the physical object photographed – a 1:1 magnification ratio or greater.

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This might be a close-up, but is not a “true” macro photograph.

Here’s a practical example: A U.S. Quarter is 0.955 inches (24.26 mm) in diameter. A full-frame digital camera sensor measures 24mm x 36mm. So shot with a true macro lens on a full-frame camera, the uncropped image below represents a 1:1 magnification ratio or a true macro photograph. On a crop sensor camera where the sensor is 14.9×22.2mm (Canon) a 1:1 shot of a quarter would more than fill the frame. So, if the lens you’re using cannot focus close enough to fill the frame with a quarter, it might be a close-up lens but isn’t a true macro. Don’t be fooled by cropped images either. An image can be cropped tighter in editing, but that alone does not make it a “macro” photo.

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This is a full-frame shot. Notice the width of the shot is about 36mm, the size of the camera sensor. This is a true 1:1 macro shot.

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I shot this image with the reverse Pentax 50mm lens. It’s not giving “true” macro magnification

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This Is how close I could get with the reversed Vivitar zoomed out to 28mm. Remember, the wider the focal length, the closer you can get to your subject.

Does it matter? No, not really. The fun is getting close to your subject. Close enough to see things you might not be able to see with your unaided eye. Whether it is a “true macro” may not matter unless you are entering a contest where only true macro shots are allowed. How close you can get depends on the equipment you have. How close is close enough? Well, that’s an artistic judgment.

Before we start… some cautions

Anytime you take the lens off your digital camera you expose the sensor and the insides to dust. You will be taking your lens off for this procedure. If you aren’t placing another (reversed) lens onto the camera, use a body cap to keep dust out until you are ready.

When you do put the reverse lens on your camera, know that the back end with its associated controls, connection pins, rear element and such will also be exposed. Use a rear cap on it when you’re not working with your set-up. Practice the same cautions you use with regards to dust and all will be fine.

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Ordinary objects like this set of keys become subjects for interesting photos when viewed as macro images.

Macro options

There are several ways to make macro photos.

These include:

  1. A Dedicated Macro Lens – The easiest but the most expensive
  2. Extension tubes or a bellows which increase the distance between the lens and the sensor
  3. Magnifying lenses (diopters) put in front of an existing lens
  4. Reversing a lens on the camera – This is the technique we’ll be teaching here.

What lenses work?

Almost any lens can work for this technique including those you usually use on your digital camera. Do you want to see? Take the lens off your camera, hold it backward and tight to the camera body, turn on the camera and get close – very close to a subject. Move very slightly toward and away from the subject to focus. The focus ring has little impact.

You can see this technique shown on numerous online videos and while it may give you a macro in a pinch, it’s not very practical. Trying to hold the camera with a loose lens and adjusting focus might be okay if you’re in the field and have nothing better, but it’s hardly optimal.

You’ll also note that once you disconnect the lens from the camera, you no longer have autofocus or aperture control. The camera may show a blank where the f/stop would typically be. I’ve seen the technique where you set the aperture with the lens on the camera, push the depth-of-field preview button and then disconnect the lens, so the aperture stays fixed at that setting. Right… funky at best. Let’s teach you how to do this right.

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Old film camera lenses are perfect for this technique as they usually have an aperture ring on the lens.

Got an old film camera lens?

If you’re an old guy like me, you remember film. You might even have your old film camera and a few lenses for it kicking around. If not, film camera lenses are cheap at pawn shops, online, or even at garage sales. For this technique, lens brand or mount type doesn’t matter since you’re not going to be connecting the lens to the camera in the usual way. Almost ANY lens will work so long as it has filter threads on the front.

The lenses I used with my old Pentax ME Super film camera are a 50mm Pentax lens with a 49mm filter ring and a Vivitar 28-105mm zoom with a 72mm filter ring. The thing to remember when using reversed lenses is the wider the focal length, the closer you can get to your subject. A zoom lens gives you a “variable macro.”

The biggest reason old film camera lenses work best for this is, unlike most digital lenses, they have aperture control rings on the lens. You won’t have aperture control from the camera, so having it on the lens is perfect.

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Reversing rings are what you need to mount your lens backward on your camera.

Setting it all up

Here’s where the “backward thinking” comes in. To mount your lens to your camera you need to attach it backward. You need to use an adapter with male threads on one end and the proper mount type for your camera on the other end.

In my case, I used a Canon EOS mount so I could attach the lens to my Canon 6D. I bought two Reversing Ring adapters, one with 72mm threads on one end and a Canon EOS mount on the other. The second, with 49mm threads and a Canon EOS mount on the other. Mine are cheap Fotodiox rings, at $7.95 US each for the 49mm, and 72mm from Amazon. The things to remember when buying these is to get the proper filter thread size and camera mount type.

They are available for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Panasonic, and many other camera mount types.

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This, shot with the reversed Pentax 50mm might be a close-up, but is not a “true” macro photograph.

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This is shot with the reversed Vivitar at 28mm giving even more than a 1:1 macro magnification. Note how sliver-thin the depth-of-field is

The mechanics of making your macros – a step-by-step approach to making this work

Mount the lens

Screw the adapter to the lens filter threads and then mount the lens (backward of course) to the camera. Choose the lens you want by considering how much magnification you want – Shorter focal lengths allow you to get close to the subject with more magnification, longer focal lengths allow you to be further from the subject.

With my lenses, the 50mm Pentax prime gave a little more than a 1:1 ratio. The Vivitar 28-105mm zoom at 28mm was almost a 2:1 ratio. At 105, it was more a “close-up” rather than a macro lens and around 70mm was 1:1.

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This is the Vivitar 28-105 reverse-mounted on a Canon 6D.

Use a tripod

The magnification of macro greatly amplifies any camera movement and, with very limited depth of field, trying to work handheld will be frustrating, if not impossible. If there’s any wind, shooting outside probably won’t work either.

Subject Selection

Your depth of field with this technique will be sliver-thin, sometimes only a few millimeters. Beginners might want to start with subjects with minimal depth and shoot them, so they lie in the same “focal plane” as the camera. Stamps, coins, paper bills, or other flat objects are great, especially when you’re learning the technique.


You’ll often be really close to your subject and in your own light. You’ll also be wanting to use smaller apertures to get more depth of field, further reducing light. Get creative with how you light your subject.

Camera settings – Use Manual Mode

You will be able to control ISO and Shutter Speed, but not Aperture. Remember, that’s on the lens ring.

Open the Aperture Ring all the way while you focus. Move the camera or subject in tiny increments to get focus (the focus ring won’t have much effect.) If you’re using a zoom, you can use the zoom feature to help you focus. If your camera has Live View, use that. Use the Zoom feature of Live View to magnify your image and check the critical focus. If not, you’ll have to use the viewfinder. Also, remember that autofocus doesn’t work here and so LCD screens where you touch to focus aren’t going to help.
Stop down the Lens with the Aperture Ring once you’ve focused. Smaller apertures (like usual with all photography) give greater depth of field.

You will usually be struggling to get more depth of field in macro photography! Also know that as you stop down the lens, things get darker. It’s sometimes hard to adjust the aperture ring without bumping the focus slightly, so be prepared to refocus.

Making your shots

Shoot, “chimp,” adjust exposure, and repeat. To control exposure typically adjusting shutter speed on the camera should be the easiest. Expect to make LOTS of shots, making adjustments as you go to get that “perfect shot.” Macro photography can be “fiddly,” so get used to it.

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A focusing rail, like this one from Neewer, can greatly aid you in making very fine focus adjustments.

Taking it to the next level

If you decide you like macro photography and want to make things a little easier and more precise, you may want to invest in a Focus Rail. Mount this device to your tripod, and mount your camera to it. Using a system of fine gears and adjustment knobs, you can move your camera in tiny increments. Macro is a game of millimeter movements and obtaining more precise control can be a huge help. Taking it up even more, one can buy very sophisticated rails, some with motorized, computer-controlled movement. If you’re ready for that, you’re not as likely to be using the reversed lens technique. I’m quite happy with my Neewer Macro Focusing Rail which cost under US$30.00.

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Even at f/22, the depth of field is very limited. Focus stacking would need to be used to get this whole image in focus.

Focus stacking

Sometimes more is better, right? When you can’t get enough depth-of-field with one shot, taking multiple shots (each focused to a just slightly different point), and combining them in editing to get a front-to-back depth of field, may be the answer. Photoshop has focus-stacking capabilities and for a beginner is a good place to start. When you’re ready to dive deep into focus stacking, programs like Helicon Focus or Zerene Stacker are what the pros use.

I have a friend in our camera club who decided to pursue macro photography in a big way. He purchased a motorized, programmable focus rail, a nice macro lens, bellows, extension tubes, and then uses Zyrene Stacker to assemble what are often dozens of images into a single spectacular macro. I’m happy at the moment to use my reverse mounted film camera lenses, (though I did purchase a dedicated Tamron 90mm macro lens too).

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A member of my camera club made this shot using the technique of focus stacking. This shot, razor sharp through the shot, (tough to do in a macro image!) is actually 118 shots combined with the program Zerene Stacker. This online image doesn’t do it justice. As a print, it is absolutely stunning! – Photo by Robert Riddle.


One of the attractions of photography is that it teaches you to see and then share through your photos, things people don’t ordinarily notice or see. Macro photography takes that a step further, opening up a tiny and incredible world of detail. The reverse lens macro trick is one that allows you to get a glimpse into this new world with minimal expenditure. I hope you’ll give it a try!

The post Reverse Lens Macro – How to Make Macro Photos with “Backward Thinking” appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

How to Light, Shoot, and Edit for High-Key Photography

The post How to Light, Shoot, and Edit for High-Key Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

High-key lighting originated in the early film and television days. Early cameras and film with limited dynamic range, forced lighting techniques to reduce contrast intentionally. Today, with its use of bright light and an emphasis on whites which give an almost ethereal feel to a photo, the high-key look has become the desired style for some photographers. Let’s explore when you might want to choose the high-key photography style and how you can achieve it both when shooting and in editing.

Emulating the look of early television was the goal for this photo and a high-key monochrome was a great way to do it.

As with all art, individual interpretation plays a big part in what photographers consider a “high-key” image and how the technique should be used.

A few things that typify a high-key photo:

  • Bright lighting that greatly reduces and sometimes eliminates shadows
  • A dynamic range that is predominately toward the right side of a histogram.
  • Images where the “mood” is typically upbeat, light-hearted, ethereal, “airy” or beautiful.
  • Typical uses are in high-fashion, product, or studio-produced images. Lesser so, but not totally non-existent, are high-key outdoor and landscape photographs.
  • Lighting where the ratio between the key and fill light is very close, thus the root of the term “high-key.”
  • Distracting elements in the background get eliminated, and typically high-key images contain only the main subject. High-key images are often Minimalist. Many times, the background is entirely white.
  • Monochrome high-key is more prevalent, and when there is color used, it is typically subdued or used as an accent.

Images of babies and children often benefit from the bright, happy feel of high key.

Two basic approaches to creating high-key images:

1) Light, expose and shoot the photo with high-key in mind from the beginning, or
2) Rework a photograph in editing so that it takes on the attributes of the high-key style.

Often the final image, even if initially shot with high-key in mind, may still require some post-processing to achieve the best result. So let’s first look at how to light and create a high-key image.

Creating the high-key look in the studio

I use the term “studio” here to reference the use of artificial lights in an indoor environment where you can control lighting. This may be but is not restricted to a traditional studio. For smaller still-life subjects, the kitchen counter works just fine. How you light the subject is what creates the high-key look.

The background

The first objective is to light the background in such a way that it is entirely white with no detail. The choice of background material is up to you. If you are shooting a model full-length in a studio, you might traditionally use something like a large piece of seamless paper. A plain white wall can work too. In fact, you can use most light-colored backgrounds if you can put enough light on it to bring the levels up to a “255” totally white level. The lighting diagram below shows how you can set up for a high-key shot in the studio.

Two lights to light the background and two softboxes or other modified lights to light the subject is how high key portrait lighting might be traditionally used in a studio

Once you have your lights set up, make a shot and adjust your exposure so that the background goes as close to all white as you can make it. Sometimes, depending on the lighting equipment you have available, you may not be able to get even lighting across the background. Getting it right in-camera is, of course, optimal; however, you can clean things up in post-processing.

Professionals who make many high-key shots during a studio session may take the time, and have the equipment, to light the background evenly, thus avoiding extensive editing of each shot later. If you are a beginner though, lack of more expensive lighting equipment should not prevent you from giving high-key lighting a try.

Lighting the subject

Lighting the subject is done in the same kind of standard style you might use when doing portrait photography with a key and fill light. You’ll see from the diagram above the key and fill lights have been placed on opposing sides of the subject. For traditional portrait or studio still-life shots, the fill light is typically slightly dimmer than the key light. This allows some shadows to create modeling and depth to the image. (The difference in intensity between lights is called the “lighting ratio.”) In the high-key lighting style, the key and fill lights are usually closer in intensity with the objective being to lessen shadows and give a “flatter” look, minimizing contrast.

In the first diagram above, the background is front-lit with light shining on the background. An alternative is to back-light the background, placing whatever lighting device you’re using, (studio strobe, continuous light, flash or whatever) behind a translucent background so the light shines through and illuminates it. As before, you should light this to be even, and bring its brightness as close to full white as you can get. Take a look at the diagram below to see this alternative lighting method.

Another often used variation of this style is to use a large softbox behind the subject and pointed at the camera.

Here is an alternative that uses just one light. The light source is placed behind the subject and diffused through something translucent. I used a white shower curtain here. Reflectors are used for key and fill.


This lighting style brings in another option of how you light your subject. Because the light used to illuminate the background is pointed at the camera, it might be possible to substitute reflectors for the key and fill lights, bouncing that backlight back onto the subject. This technique can work well for smaller subjects where the distances between the background, subject, and reflectors can be smaller and less light is required.

It may be possible to create the entire effect using just one light source. The photo below was done using this technique.


Using window light

Understanding the concepts above can help you create high-key images using window light and a reflector or fill-flash. Portrait and wedding photographers often take advantage of this style of creating high-key shots with a minimum of lighting equipment. The same principals apply – overexpose the background and light the subject with fill lighting.

An easy way to make a high-key shot at a wedding is to put your subject in window light, overexpose the light coming in the window and fill the subject with your Speedlight.

This was done using the same technique with the backlit shower curtain, but a Speedlight was used to fill the subject.

High-key in landscape photography

High-key images are relatively easy in an environment where you have full control of the lighting. Being able to make high-key shots outdoors with only the available light is more of a challenge. You have to work with the light that is available, have an eye for subjects that lend themselves to the high-key look, and then use your camera settings to get the best in-camera shot you can. Also know that almost always, you need to do some extra work in editing to achieve a good high-key look with your landscape images.

This bitter cold day in Yellowstone National Park had a high-key look already, and minimal editing was needed. High-key needn’t always be monochrome.

The look that typifies high-key photography

Consider the look that typifies high-key photography and what subjects and conditions in landscapes might lend themselves to that look:

  • Bright, white backgrounds – Snow and bright sand often work well, as do flat cloudy skies
  • Low contrast lighting – Cloudy, foggy, flat-light days are a good time to consider making high-key shots
  • Back-lit subjects where you can overexpose the background and fill in the subject with fill-flash or reflected light
  • Consider spot or center-weighted metering of the subject, allowing good exposure of the subject but a blown-out background.
  • Using the Live-view feature of your DSLR or mirrorless cameras can be your friend as you can see your exposure and lighting effect before you make the shot.

Snowscapes Can take you most of the way to a high key image right out of the camera.

Editing high-key images

While it’s always a goal to get images that are perfect Straight-Out-Of-Camera (SOOC), editing can be used to fine tune an image. Even when you shoot in the high-key style, additional editing can be used to clean up problem areas, lighten up and even out the background, and enhance the look and feel you are striving for. Take a look at the image below.

Straight out of the camera, this shot needed to be white balanced and there were portions not evenly lit.


Turning on the Highlight Clipping feature in Lightroom allowed painting in more brightness with the Adjustment Brush and Auto Mask turned on. It was an easy way to get a completely white background when the lighting wasn’t even enough

Sometimes you might have an image that you did not consider making a high-key photo when you shot it. However, while editing, you may decide the mood you are seeking would is best suited to a high-key look. Such was the case with the “Angels Dance” image below.

The music and mood of the dance when I captured the shot of these ballet dancers was free, light, and airy. It created a mental image of angels dancing for me. So later, I used the tools in Lightroom to get the look I was after. Following the method used may give you insight into how you can create high-key images in post-processing.

This shot was going to need some work to give it the high-key mood desired.

Post-production technique

The Raw color image out of the camera was underexposed, and the stage lighting had introduced some unusual color. This did not start out looking like a high-key candidate, but here are the steps taken in Lightroom to produce the final result:

  • There were two dancers in the shot with good form, but two others who needed to be cropped out.
  • I used a basic editing workflow – Exposure brought up to +1.00, Highlights brought down to -100, Shadows opened up to +100, the Whites brought up to +44, the Blacks brought down to -56.
  • To deal with the color problem, and also be more compatible with the high-key look, I converted the image to Black & White. Next, I opened the Black & White Mix dropdown and used the Targeted Adjustment Tool. Here, I sampled different spots in the image and brought up the luminance of those colors. Further manual tweaking of the sliders helped bring up the brightness of each color.
  • Then I readjusted the Exposure to +1.46, the Contrast to +38, brought the White down slightly to +38, the Clarity to -7 and Dehaze down to -9.
  • To make the background full white, and also lose some distracting elements, I used the Adjustment Brush tool. The Exposure was turned all the way up to +4, checked the Automask checkbox, and carefully used the brush to “white out” the background.
  • To further give the “heavenly effect” I used a brush with -50 Dehaze to brush in some light “clouds.”

This high key version much better captures the mood of the dance.


The numbers and precise steps used for this image are a guide rather than an exact “recipe.” They are intended to show you the general idea for creating the high-key photography look with Lightroom and the tweaks and tools to get there. The main point is, even if you have an image that does not immediately look like a candidate for the high-key look, some knowledge of what constitutes that look, and how to use your editing tools to get you there, can create some magic.

It’s okay to have some darker tones in your high key photos.

Good photographs communicate to the viewer, tell a story, convey an emotion, or take the viewer to a time and place. Using the technique of high key is one more way to use your images to speak to your viewer. Learn the techniques both to shoot and edit a high-key shot, and you can not only grow your lighting, camera, and editing skills but add a new means of communicating with your images to your bag of photo tricks.

Please try this technique out and share with us in the comments below.

The post How to Light, Shoot, and Edit for High-Key Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.