How to Reverse-Engineer a Photo

Although it sounds like a highly technical term, ‘reverse engineering’ is something you’ve done many times. Any time you’ve asked questions like “What camera did you take that with?”, “What settings did you use?” or “Where was this taken?”, you’ve been trying to reverse engineer a photograph.

lake how to reverse engineer photos

We’ve all looked at a photo and tried to figure out how it was created. I do it every day. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, when you see a photo you admire you try to analyze it. You’re asking, “How do I take photos like that?”

The truth is, if you ask the photographer about their camera or settings you’re asking the wrong questions. By all means, ask questions. After all, that’s how we learn. But you can also learn a lot from studying an image – if you know what to look for. When you can visually deconstruct an image, you’re one stop closer to being able to create something similar.

This isn’t a lesson in plagiarism. It’s simply a way to learn from other photographers whose work you admire. No successful artist would be where they are today without learning from the works of others they look up to.

Light and Shadow

The most important photographic lesson I ever learned is that it’s all about the light. Reverse-engineering photos is no different. Analyzing the light in an image is the simplest and most effective way to learn how a photo was made.

When you look at the image, ask yourself a few questions.

  • Which direction is the light coming from?
  • Is there more than one light source?
  • Is the light hard or soft?
  • Is there reflected light in the photo?
  • What about the color temperature? Is it warm or cool?

Sometimes the answers will be obvious. Sometimes they’ll be impossible to answer. But the more often you ask them, the better you’ll get at answering them.

If you’re looking at a landscape photo, you can almost always assume there’s only one light source – the sun. But that doesn’t mean you can’t deconstruct the light. The direction, hardness and temperature of the light will tell you a lot about the conditions the photo was taken in. Even though beautiful landscape lighting isn’t as technical as portrait or product lighting, you can still learn a lot from analyzing it.

aerial how to reverse engineer photos

The sun striking this landscape, along with the warm light on the right side of the image, clearly show where the light is coming from.

If you’re reverse-engineering a portrait, it’s more likely to have more than one light source, as well as reflected light. When a photographer starts balancing multiple light sources, reverse-engineering a photo can become more difficult. But there are still ways to analyze the light if you know what to look for.

Start by asking yourself, “Where are the shadows?” It may seem a little backwards, but one of the best ways to analyze light is to look at the darker parts of the image. Where is there no light? Do you see any hard shadows? Are there areas where you can see the light dropping off gradually? Studying the shadows will tell you about the direction of the light as well as how large it is relative to the subject.

bear how to reverse engineer photos

The illuminated fur around the outside of the bear show that this image was backlit. And its shadow on the ground shows the exact direction the light was coming from.

Interpreting a photograph’s light becomes more difficult as the lighting gets more complex. As more light sources or reflectors are added, the shadows become less obvious. If the shadows are very light or non-existent, it likely means either the light is very diffuse and bouncing all over the place, or there are multiple light sources.

If you’re lucky, you can sometimes see exactly what light source was used by looking for reflections. Look at the eyes, glasses, windows, water surfaces, and anything that reflects light. Sometimes you can see a perfect reflection of the light source, but at the very least you’ll be able to see its direction.

cabin how to reverse engineer photos

The soft light on the subject, combined with the reflection in her glasses, show the window as the light source. The very dark shadows tell us there are no other light sources.

Gear and Settings

In many cases, you don’t need to ask what equipment or settings were used to create a photo. With practice, you can learn to guesstimate the technical details such as focal length, aperture and shutter speed.

Figuring out what focal length was used isn’t too difficult once you know how focal length affects a photo. As a general rule, the shorter the focal length (wider angle), the more distortion you’ll see and the more of a scene will fit in the frame. As the focal length gets longer (normal or telephoto), you’ll see more compression in the image and less of the scene in the frame.

car how to reverse engineer photos

Only a very wide-angle lens can capture everything in a scene like this from the ground to the sky. The lens distortion makes closer objects like this car look much bigger.

While this won’t tell you the exact focal length used, it will give you a ballpark figure. With practice, you’ll be able to tell if a photo was taken with a wide-angle (<35mm), normal (35-85mm) or telephoto (>85mm) lens. The exact number doesn’t matter. What does matter is getting a rough idea where your focal length needs to be to create the same look.

As with focal length, you can figure out roughly what aperture was used by understanding how it affects an image. As the lens aperture opens and closes, the depth-of-field (DOF) of the image changes. The wider the aperture (smaller f-number), the narrower the DOF.

Again, the exact number doesn’t matter. What matters is understanding how aperture affects DOF and how to interpret the DOF of a photo. If the image is sharp and in focus from the foreground right through to the background, a smaller aperture (f/11-22) has probably been used. If everything but the subject is soft and out of focus, a larger aperture (f/1.4-5.6) has probably been used. If the DOF is somewhere in between, the aperture is probably around f5.6-11.

Finally, these principles can also be applied to shutter speed. You probably know that shutter speed affects the way movement appears in an image. If objects you would expect to see moving are frozen still, you know a faster shutter speed was used. If there’s some motion blur in the image, you know the shutter speed was slower.

bay how to reverse engineer photos

You can see that a longer shutter speed has been used here to create the milky water effect, common with long-exposure photography.

With a landscape photo, any time you see silky-smooth water or clouds common with long exposures you know it has a shutter speed of at least a few seconds. If you’re seeing some movement, it’s more likely to be less than one second. To freeze movement, you’d expect shutter speeds of at least 1/100th of a second.

rocks how to reverse engineer photos

Very short shutter speeds are required to capture moving water, as in this seascape photo.

If the photo doesn’t include any moving objects, it’s much more difficult to figure out the shutter speed used. But if there’s no movement then shutter speed doesn’t really matter. It just needs to be fast enough to avoid any blur caused by camera movement to ensure a sharp image.

Post-Processing

Reverse-engineering the post-production that’s been applied to an image is the trickiest part. There’s almost no limit to what can be done in Photoshop today, which makes it difficult to figure out how a photo has been processed.

You can get a rough idea of how much post-processing has been applied by looking at the photo. Does it look realistic? Do the colors and tones appear the way you’d expect in real life? Is the whole image well exposed from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights? Are the light and shadows consistent across the image as you’d expect? Do the people look real, or impossibly perfect?

Asking these kinds of questions will help you know what to look for. It’s easy to look at the image as a whole and get frustrated trying to analyze it. As you break it down and look at the individual details of a photo, it becomes easier to see the edits that have been applied.

I’ll admit this isn’t exactly my strong suit, being colorblind. Picking out the color grading or effects that have been applied is never easy for me. But with practice I’ve become much better. And if I can do it, so can you.

london how to reverse engineer photos

You can see by looking at the church that extra warmth has been added in post-production to emphasize the warm late afternoon sun.

Keep in mind that photographers and retouchers that are highly skilled in Photoshop, are very good at making their images look natural and unedited. Just because an image looks real doesn’t mean it is. A photo that’s been edited by a Photoshop ninja will be very difficult to reverse-engineer.

Exif Data

When all else fails, and you desperately want to know the settings used to take a photo, you may be able to access the image’s exif data. When a digital photograph is created, a bunch of data is embedded into the file. This includes focal length, shutter speed, aperture, camera model, and often a bunch of other information.

A photo’s exif data is often stripped out by the photographer or the website it’s uploaded to. But if it hasn’t been stripped, you can easily access the data by either:

  • downloading the image and reading the data on your computer
  • using one of the many websites that will analyze a photo’s exif data for you.

Some websites, such as exifdata.com, can even analyze a photo from the image’s URL.

cuba how to reverse engineer photos

The shadow of the tree clearly shows the direction of the sun, while the light reflecting off the concrete has filled in the shadows on the subject.

Use Your New Powers Wisely

Now that you know how to reverse-engineer a photo, go and practice. The more you do it, the easier it will become. As a photographer, being able to analyze and deconstruct a photo is an incredibly valuable skill. You can learn a tremendous amount from other photographers by doing this.

But again, this isn’t a lesson in plagiarism. It’s about growing as a photographer by learning from other people’s photos, not recreating or cloning them.

Now, go and find some photos you love and deconstruct them using your new-found powers.

The post How to Reverse-Engineer a Photo appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Add More Interest to Your Astrophotography With Light Painting

Photographing the night sky is a lot of fun and can result in some stunning photographs. You don’t need to look far to find some incredible, out-of-this-world astrophotography.

As the low-light performance of cameras continues to improve, astrophotography has come within reach of more photographers.

joshua tree astrophotography light painting

You may have tried your hand at photographing the stars and the Milky Way, or you may be fantasizing about going out to play while the world sleeps. If you aren’t new to astrophotography, you’ve likely found that it isn’t as easy as you might think. Even with the right gear, it takes a lot of practice and can be incredibly frustrating at times.

Even if you’ve managed to come home with some sharp, well-exposed images of the stars, you may be wondering what’s missing. What are so many night sky photos missing? It’s easy to get so focused on photographing the sky that you can forget that it’s the earth that makes them interesting.

Adding Interest to Your Night Sky Photos

One of the best things you can do to add depth to a landscape photo is include some foreground interest. Astrophotography is no different.

This is why you’ll find that some of the most stunning astrophotos include natural or man-made elements like rock formations, lighthouses, or old barns.

beach astrophotography light painting

BEFORE: A 20-second exposure using only ambient light.

beach astrophotography light painting

AFTER: The same scene with the sand illuminated by light painting with the screen on my phone.

You may have already tried including some foreground interest into your night sky photos. The problem is that the best places for astrophotography are the darkest places. As far away from light pollution as possible, with little or no moonlight. Unfortunately, this means there is very little ambient light to illuminate the foreground that you’re trying to include.

One simple solution is called light painting. It comes in many forms and can be done using many different techniques. The basic principle is that you add light to parts of the scene to illuminate them. It can not only transform your astrophotography, it’s also a lot of fun.

The best part is that you don’t need any fancy or expensive gear. All you need is a light source. You can use anything you have lying around. A flashlight, light bar, camping lamp, your phone, or your car’s headlights. I’ve even seen people using a drone. I always take a headlamp so I can see what I’m doing so that often does the trick.

How to Paint With Light

Light painting isn’t difficult, in fact, it’s really easy. Once you have your camera set up and ready to go, take a photo of the scene with ambient light to make sure you’ve exposed for the sky and stars.

When you’re happy with your settings, either you or a buddy will use the light source to paint light onto the foreground elements that you want to illuminate. Start by painting a small amount of light into the scene, then check the image. You’ll rarely get it right the first time.

camping astrophotography light painting

BEFORE: A 25-second exposure of a camping scene with the light of the fire and an LED placed inside the tent.

camping astrophotography light painting

AFTER: The same scene with the vehicle illuminated by my headlamp to the right of the scene.

Take multiple exposures, slowly painting in more light as necessary. Try experimenting with painting from various angles to see how it changes the way the foreground looks. Don’t be afraid to walk into the frame. With exposure times of 20-30 seconds, you won’t be visible as long as you keep moving. Just be careful not to shine the light source into the lens. I find wearing black helps you stay invisible.

As you’re photographing tiny amounts of ambient light, you’ll find it’s easy to overdo it with the light painting and overexpose the foreground. Less is more with this technique. If you find the foreground is too bright, paint less light in or use a light source that isn’t as bright. I find the light from the screen on my phone works well. It also allows you to choose the color of the light.

As with any form of photography, don’t forget that off-camera light (light coming from the sides of the scene) gives a much more pleasing look and creates depth in your photos. Instead of standing behind your camera and light painting while the shutter is open, move off to the side or walk through the scene to vary the angles of the direction of the light. Just be sure to check where you’re walking first!

tree astrophotography light painting

BEFORE: A tree silhouetted against the light of the Milky Way.

tree astrophotography light painting

AFTER: I used a camping light to paint the edge of the tree with light, helping to give the scene some depth and lead the viewer’s eye into the stars.

Post-Processing Astrophotography Images

When it comes time to edit your photos, the more frames you have to work with the better. You may find that there’s one exposure where you nailed the exposure and light painting in one frame, in which case you can go ahead with post-processing it.

In the more likely scenario that you like different parts of different frames, which you can easily blend together in Photoshop to create a composite.

This is where your base exposure with no added light will come in handy. Go through and select the images that you want to create the composite with, including the base exposure, then use this digital blending technique to combine them in Photoshop. I like to do a basic edit to the images in Lightroom before exporting to Photoshop, then I add final touches after blending them into one image.

joshua tree astrophotography light painting

BEFORE: Rocks and Joshua trees are slightly illuminated by the ambient light pollution.

joshua tree astrophotography light painting

AFTER: The same rocks and trees painted with light from my flashlight as I walked through the scene.

It’s easier than you think

Light painting may seem like a complex photographic technique, but it’s actually quite simple. It can take your astrophotography from good to great, and you’ll find the process is very enjoyable, even addictive!

Next time you head out into the night with camera in hand, pack an extra flashlight and give light painting a try. You’ll be glad you did.

The post How to Add More Interest to Your Astrophotography With Light Painting appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Boost Your Post-Processing Skills With a Graphics Tablet

During the course of your love affair with photography, you’ll use many different pieces of equipment. Some you’ll purchase, some you’ll beg, borrow, or steal. They will all serve one purpose or another. Some you may love so much that you keep forever. Most you won’t.

You don’t hear me talk about gear often. Over time I’ve worked hard to simplify my gear, and as a travel photographer, I’ve had to be ruthless in shedding excess size and weight. Every now and then, however, you come across a tool that is so valuable to your workflow that you can’t imagine working without it. One of those tools for me is a graphics tablet.

step up your post-processing with a graphics tablet

Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash

I’ve been using a tablet for quite a few years now, and it’s totally worth the extra weight in my bag. When I sold everything I owned and bought a one-way ticket to travel the world with my camera, I found space for my tablet. It has revolutionized my post-processing, and it can revolutionize yours too.

What is a Graphics Tablet?

A graphics tablet is a device that allows you to use a stylus instead of a mouse to control the cursor on your computer screen. They come in many sizes and offer a variety of features. They work by pointing at or drawing on the surface of the tablet with the stylus, which transfers your movements onto your screen. Most come with buttons on the stylus and on the tablet, which you can configure to act as mouse buttons or keystrokes.

They range from small tablets with no buttons all the way up to huge displays where you can draw directly onto the screen, much like an iPad. They often include features like pressure-sensitivity, allowing extremely precise controls that come in very handy when drawing.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Why Use a Tablet?

You might be asking yourself what’s so special about a tablet. What’s wrong with a good old mouse? I used to feel the same way until I tried using one. The humble mouse works fine for everyday computer usage, but it’s severely limited when it comes to photo editing.

Have you ever found yourself getting frustrated while trying to edit some fine details in a photo and having to go back over and over again? When you use a mouse, you’re relying on the movements of the large muscles and bones in your arm and hand to move it around your screen. It’s incredibly cumbersome. Your arm works great with big movements, but not so much with small, precise ones.

Now think about the precision and fine motor skills required to draw with a pen. Every tiny muscle in your hand is used to control the movements. I like to think of it this way: a toddler can use a mouse, but there’s no way they could use a tablet. They can’t even write their own name. A tablet will allow you to use those fine motor skills that you developed all those years ago.

step up your post-processing with a graphics tablet

Photo by Josefa nDiaz on Unsplash

How Do You Use a Tablet?

You may have seen tablets being used in Photoshop tutorials and wondered how they’re used. You don’t need to be a professional retoucher or illustrator to benefit from using a tablet. Even if you do all your post-processing in Lightroom, you will likely still find that a tablet will make the process much more precise and enjoyable.

step up your post-processing with a graphics tablet

ExpressKey menu in the Wacom setting panel.

The main benefits of editing with a tablet are speed and precision. As I mentioned earlier, most tablets will have some extra controls on the stylus and on the tablet itself. These controls can be customized to do pretty much anything.

This means that you can replace your most commonly used keystrokes with a single button. The touch ring can be set to adjust things like brush size and hardness, or scroll and zoom. These controls can speed up your post-processing dramatically.

step up your post-processing with a graphics tablet

Touch Ring options in the Wacom settings panel.

Where a graphics tablet really shines is when you want to apply local adjustments to your photos. Whether you’re making selections, drawing, painting, erasing, or dodging and burning, you’ll find that it’s far easier with a stylus than a mouse. It feels more natural and you’ll make a lot fewer mistakes.

If you don’t currently make a lot of local adjustments to your photos, I highly recommend taking some time to learn how. Learning basic dodging and burning is one of the best things you can do to take your post-processing skills to the next level. Do it with a tablet and you’ll be amazed what a difference it makes to your workflow.

There are many great resources available online for free that will teach you the basics of dodging and burning in both Lightroom and Photoshop. Likewise with setting up and using a tablet. There is a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never want to edit with a mouse again.

Choosing a Tablet

As I’ve mentioned, tablets range massively in price, size, and features. What you need will depend on a few factors like your budget, how much space you have on your desk, and how you like to work.

You can spend anywhere from $25 to $2000, so there is something that will suit your needs. You should be able to find a decent tablet under $100 that does the job.

step up your post-processing with a graphics tablet

Wacom’s high-end Cintiq tablet.Photo by Norbert Levajsics on Unsplash

Choosing the right size can be tricky. On one hand, the larger your tablet, the easier it is to use. You won’t find yourself having to move around the screen as much with a larger tablet. On the other hand, it will take up more space on your desk or in your bag. I personally like using a tablet that’s smaller than my laptop, that way they both fit nicely in my bag when I’m on the road.

In terms of features, you don’t need a lot of the more advanced features. My older Wacom Intuos doesn’t feature pressure sensitivity, and I don’t miss it. I would recommend using a tablet with at least a few control buttons, as they can speed up your workflow quite a bit.

Don’t stress about getting an expensive, high-end tablet, though. You’ll likely find that a basic model or a cheaper brand will suit your needs just fine. If you have an iPad lying around, there are apps available that allow you to connect it to your computer and use it as a tablet.

Beg, Borrow or Steal

Well, maybe not steal, but ask around and see if someone you know has a tablet you could borrow or rent to try for a week. If you can find one to test out, give it a chance. As I’ve said, it takes a while to get used to it, so don’t give up too soon.

I’m sure that once you get your head around it you’ll be wanting one of your very own, and you’ll never look back.

The post How to Boost Your Post-Processing Skills With a Graphics Tablet appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer’s Eye Through Your Photographs

There are many different elements of photography that can affect how the viewer perceives an image. The more you learn to understand how various elements affect an image, the more you can learn to take control of them. Great photography doesn’t happen by chance, it’s crafted and pieced together. If you follow these composition tips they will have you do just that.

joshua tree at night brightness drawing the eye - Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer's Eye Through Your Photographs

One of the most important elements of photography to understand is how the viewer’s eye is drawn through the image. You may think that when you view a photograph you see the whole picture as one. In one sense this is true, as you can absorb much of an image in a millisecond. At the same time, your eye moves through an image in a way that you’re usually completely unaware of.

The reason why it’s important to understand this concept is that if an image has a natural path for the eye to follow and a strong subject to focus on, it’s far more satisfying. An image that’s too busy and doesn’t have a clear subject isn’t as appealing and the viewer will not linger long.

As the photographer, you can be intentional about how you craft your image so that the viewer’s eye moves through it the way you want.

The Human Eye

Our eyes are bombarded by so many different sights every day that we have to be selective about what we look at and what we ignore. This is usually a subconscious decision that happens as our brains try to filter the information that is passed from our retinas. Much study has been done into what visual elements draw our attention, which is super helpful for those of us that create visual art.

Brightness

Controlling the brightness of various parts of your image is one of the most powerful ways to control the viewer’s eye. You can use this to your advantage in a couple of ways.

Including or adding brightness to areas of an image is a great way to draw the viewer’s eye to that element. The other side of this is to limit brightness or darken areas of an image where you don’t want to draw attention.

sunset over water - Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer's Eye Through Your Photographs

How you add or subtract brightness to an image will depend a lot on your subject. If you have control of the light you can take control with the way you light the image. Even if you don’t have control of the light you may still be able to manipulate it somehow with neutral density filters or by framing the image differently.

Whatever your subject, you can always control brightness in post-production. Learning to dodge and burn is one of the most valuable skills you can have for controlling light in your photography. Even something as simple as a vignette can have a dramatic effect.

brick wall with birds in a window - Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer's Eye Through Your Photographs

Contrast

Areas of high-contrast draw the eye more than anything else.

A dull, flat image with no contrast has very little visual appeal. If you really want to draw the attention of your viewers to a certain element of an image, try to find a way to add contrast to the element, or to the area surrounding it.

contrast lines drawing the eye in sand dunes - Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer's Eye Through Your Photographs

There are many ways to do this. For example, you can overexpose the background to make it contrast with the foreground subject. Alternatively, you can underexpose the foreground to make a silhouette which contrasts with the background.

Again, you can also use post-processing techniques to further control contrast in your image to draw the eye. Adding contrast to areas where you want to draw attention, and removing contrast from areas that you don’t want to distract the viewer can go a long way to drawing the eye.

You can do this using basic tools in Lightroom like the Contrast and Clarity sliders. Control the areas you want to add or subtract contrast from others with the local adjustment tools.

contrast drawing the eye lady on a large sand dune - Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer's Eye Through Your Photographs

Color

You’re probably aware of how powerful color can be in controlling the mood of an image. The feel of an image with bright colors is very different from an image with muted, desaturated colors.

But what you may not know is that the human eye is strongly attracted to bright colors. Have ever seen the old “selective color” images that convert an image to black and white while leaving one element in color? Fortunately, the trend is long-dead, but it shows how powerful color can be at drawing the eye.

color drawing the eye brightly colored parrots - Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer's Eye Through Your Photographs

Adding color to an image isn’t always easy. You may be able to color elements of an image with colored gels if using flash.

Subtracting color from an image is often even more important if it’s distracting to the viewer. This is often the case when photographing people. Colorful clothing draws the eye away from the more subtle skin colors of faces. This is why portrait photographers often tell their subjects to wear plain black or white clothing.

Adding and subtracting color in post-production isn’t difficult, but takes practice and restraint. It’s easy to overdo it. You can do a lot with the local adjustment tools and the Vibrance/Saturation sliders in Lightroom. Remember, when it comes to adjusting the color or saturation of a photo, less is more, especially when skin tones are involved.

Sharpness

Have you ever noticed how a blurry image is very unpleasant to look at? Even if it’s only a little bit out of focus, your eye will detect it.

The human eye’s instinct is to adjust focus until what it’s looking at appears sharp. If it can’t find something sharp to rest on, you won’t like what you’re looking at.

sharpness drawing the eye small girl in colorful dress with blurry background - Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer's Eye Through Your Photographs

You can use this to your advantage in your photography. You probably know that a shallow depth-of-field when photographing portraits creates a very pleasing look. This is because the eye is naturally drawn to the sharp face of the subject while avoiding the other elements that are out of focus. The most obvious way to control focus is using large apertures and a small depth-of-field, but it isn’t the only way.

You could try playing with slower shutter speeds and motion blur. Panning with a moving subject and a slow shutter speed can blur the background while keeping the subject acceptably sharp.

You can also add blur in post-production. Moving the Clarity slider to the left will soften the selected elements that you don’t want to draw attention to. You can also add sharpness to selected areas, but be careful about trying to save an out-of-focus image by increasing sharpness (it doesn’t work!).

sharp rocks in smooth water - Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer's Eye Through Your Photographs

Take Control

As you learn these composition tips that can guide your viewers, you can start to take control of the process. Adding and subtracting these elements from your images can have a significant effect on how visually pleasing they are. Take some time to think about what you want your viewers to look at and then ask yourself what you can do to make that happen.

Although the way you process your images is very useful, try to think about controlling these elements in-camera first. It isn’t always possible, but taking control over the brightness, contrast, color, and sharpness in-camera will give you better images to work with in post-production. Also, trying to save an image by pushing Lightroom sliders to their extremes usually isn’t a good idea.

As you get more intentional about what you add and subtract from your photography, you’ll start producing more engaging images. Your photography will also become more appealing to the viewer and yourself.

The post Composition Tips for Drawing the Viewer’s Eye Through Your Photographs appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Work a Location to Get More Great Photos

I wouldn’t be able to count the number of potentially great photos I’ve missed because I visited a location with only one image in mind. It’s easy to fall for the temptation to set up, get your shot, then pack up and leave. I’ve done it countless times, and I’m sure you have too.

How to Work a Location to Get More Great Photos- photo of a rocky coast and trees

Every location on earth has the potential for thousands of different images. Even a simple beach scene can be photographed in a huge variety of ways to create many beautiful images. You don’t need to have stunning scenery to come home with a collection of great images.

It only takes a little planning combined with the ability to improvise and adapt to the environment. Here are some tips to help you work a location to come home with more and better photos.

Step 1: Plan Plan Plan

I’m a huge advocate of planning your photos. In landscape photography, you’re at the mercy of mother nature, so the more prepared you are, the better your chances are of getting the shot.

How do the top landscape photographers in the world manage to consistently produce gorgeous images? They’re in the right place at the right time. Of course, there’s a bit of luck involved, but it’s largely down to a lot of careful planning.

How to Work a Location to Get More Great Photos - sunset and reflection in water

Once I’ve chosen a photography location I’ll almost always do some planning for the shots I want. This usually involves looking at satellite and topographical maps on Google Maps. This will give you an idea of the landscape and features of the location.

Consider the time of day

Once you have an idea of the photos you want to take, it’s worth considering the best time of day. Golden hour at either end of the day provide great light, but you also may need to consider other factors like the tide and travel time.

There are many tools available to help you research and plan your photos. My favorite by far is PhotoPills. It’s a paid app, but worth every cent. It includes too many features to list here, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Photo sharing sites like Flickr and Instagram are great for finding inspiration. Experiment with a variety of tools and find what works for you. Whatever you decide on, be sure to use them. Planning your landscape photos will dramatically increase your rate of keepers.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - overhead view of a rocky beach

Step 2: Work the Location

Once you’ve planned your photos, the obvious next step is to go and create the beautiful images you’ve imagined.

Make sure you’re well prepared. Nothing will ruin well-planned photography like flat batteries or full memory cards. Watch the weather forecast and get to your location with plenty of time to spare. Wear comfortable shoes because you’ll likely be doing some walking.

Get the shot, but don’t stop there. There are still many opportunities to get more great photos. Exploring on foot is the best way to find different and interesting photos that you may not have considered when originally researching the location.

Walk in the direction you just photographed and look back the way you came. Hike up to a high place. Walk up a river or climb some rocks. Move your legs. Very few incredible photos are taken from parking lots.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - empty beach and blue sky

Change it up

Other than finding different perspectives and subjects to photograph, there are a few other ways to get more out of a location. Try using different gear. A different focal length can open up a bunch of new possibilities for shooting the same scene.

If you’re used to photographing landscapes with a wide-angle lens, put a longer lens on your camera. It will not only allow you to create many more compositions from the same place, but it will also stretch you creatively.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - aerial view of coastline

Rent or borrow a macro lens and try taking a look at the smaller details of the location. You have almost limitless possibilities once you start looking at the grass, rocks, sand, or trees around you.

Light is everything

Another option is to wait for the light to change. Within the space of a couple of hours, you can photograph everything from daylight, through the golden hour, and into twilight. The same scene can look very different as the intensity, color, and direction of the light changes. Watch the way the shadows shape a landscape as the sun drops.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - tidal pool at sunset

I learned to love photographing blue hour when I went out for sunset and noticed that I loved the light about 30 to 60 minutes after sunset. Try sticking around into the evening and playing with the low light. You could even stay until well after sunset and try including some stars or the Milky Way in the scene.

Finally, using various photographic techniques or effects can add a different look to the same location. If there’s movement in the scene, try photographing it with different shutter speeds. Fast shutter speeds that freeze movement look very different from long exposures that blur movement.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - long exposure of ocean waves sunset

The way you expose the light can also change the look of the image a lot. Try exposing for a blown-out back-lit image or an underexposed the foreground for dark silhouettes. Photograph landscapes with both a large and small depth-of-field for a different look.

That’s it!

As you can see, with a bit of creativity, forethought, and patience, your options are many. You don’t need to come home from a location with only one good image.

Since I’ve learned to work a location, I often come home with many more decent images than I expected. Even with plenty of research and planning. Next time you go out to photograph a location, do some planning, get the shot, then walk, wait, and get creative to find a bunch more photos you’ll be happy with.

The post How to Work a Location to Get More Great Photos appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Work a Location to Get More Great Photos

I wouldn’t be able to count the number of potentially great photos I’ve missed because I visited a location with only one image in mind. It’s easy to fall for the temptation to set up, get your shot, then pack up and leave. I’ve done it countless times, and I’m sure you have too.

How to Work a Location to Get More Great Photos- photo of a rocky coast and trees

Every location on earth has the potential for thousands of different images. Even a simple beach scene can be photographed in a huge variety of ways to create many beautiful images. You don’t need to have stunning scenery to come home with a collection of great images.

It only takes a little planning combined with the ability to improvise and adapt to the environment. Here are some tips to help you work a location to come home with more and better photos.

Step 1: Plan Plan Plan

I’m a huge advocate of planning your photos. In landscape photography, you’re at the mercy of mother nature, so the more prepared you are, the better your chances are of getting the shot.

How do the top landscape photographers in the world manage to consistently produce gorgeous images? They’re in the right place at the right time. Of course, there’s a bit of luck involved, but it’s largely down to a lot of careful planning.

How to Work a Location to Get More Great Photos - sunset and reflection in water

Once I’ve chosen a photography location I’ll almost always do some planning for the shots I want. This usually involves looking at satellite and topographical maps on Google Maps. This will give you an idea of the landscape and features of the location.

Consider the time of day

Once you have an idea of the photos you want to take, it’s worth considering the best time of day. Golden hour at either end of the day provide great light, but you also may need to consider other factors like the tide and travel time.

There are many tools available to help you research and plan your photos. My favorite by far is PhotoPills. It’s a paid app, but worth every cent. It includes too many features to list here, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Photo sharing sites like Flickr and Instagram are great for finding inspiration. Experiment with a variety of tools and find what works for you. Whatever you decide on, be sure to use them. Planning your landscape photos will dramatically increase your rate of keepers.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - overhead view of a rocky beach

Step 2: Work the Location

Once you’ve planned your photos, the obvious next step is to go and create the beautiful images you’ve imagined.

Make sure you’re well prepared. Nothing will ruin well-planned photography like flat batteries or full memory cards. Watch the weather forecast and get to your location with plenty of time to spare. Wear comfortable shoes because you’ll likely be doing some walking.

Get the shot, but don’t stop there. There are still many opportunities to get more great photos. Exploring on foot is the best way to find different and interesting photos that you may not have considered when originally researching the location.

Walk in the direction you just photographed and look back the way you came. Hike up to a high place. Walk up a river or climb some rocks. Move your legs. Very few incredible photos are taken from parking lots.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - empty beach and blue sky

Change it up

Other than finding different perspectives and subjects to photograph, there are a few other ways to get more out of a location. Try using different gear. A different focal length can open up a bunch of new possibilities for shooting the same scene.

If you’re used to photographing landscapes with a wide-angle lens, put a longer lens on your camera. It will not only allow you to create many more compositions from the same place, but it will also stretch you creatively.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - aerial view of coastline

Rent or borrow a macro lens and try taking a look at the smaller details of the location. You have almost limitless possibilities once you start looking at the grass, rocks, sand, or trees around you.

Light is everything

Another option is to wait for the light to change. Within the space of a couple of hours, you can photograph everything from daylight, through the golden hour, and into twilight. The same scene can look very different as the intensity, color, and direction of the light changes. Watch the way the shadows shape a landscape as the sun drops.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - tidal pool at sunset

I learned to love photographing blue hour when I went out for sunset and noticed that I loved the light about 30 to 60 minutes after sunset. Try sticking around into the evening and playing with the low light. You could even stay until well after sunset and try including some stars or the Milky Way in the scene.

Finally, using various photographic techniques or effects can add a different look to the same location. If there’s movement in the scene, try photographing it with different shutter speeds. Fast shutter speeds that freeze movement look very different from long exposures that blur movement.

How to Work the Scene to Get More Great Photos - long exposure of ocean waves sunset

The way you expose the light can also change the look of the image a lot. Try exposing for a blown-out back-lit image or an underexposed the foreground for dark silhouettes. Photograph landscapes with both a large and small depth-of-field for a different look.

That’s it!

As you can see, with a bit of creativity, forethought, and patience, your options are many. You don’t need to come home from a location with only one good image.

Since I’ve learned to work a location, I often come home with many more decent images than I expected. Even with plenty of research and planning. Next time you go out to photograph a location, do some planning, get the shot, then walk, wait, and get creative to find a bunch more photos you’ll be happy with.

The post How to Work a Location to Get More Great Photos appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Organize Your Photos by Location in Lightroom

You likely know Adobe Lightroom as a powerful piece of photo-editing software. It’s known as the industry standard for photography post-production, especially when paired with Photoshop. You may also know that its photo management features are pretty impressive. If you so choose, you can use this one piece of software to upload, rename, keyword, review, edit, export and organize your photos.

camper van on the grass - How to Organize Your Photos by Location in Lightroom

How you use Lightroom is entirely up to you, and it’s unlikely that two photographers will use it the same. The way you organize your catalog will depend on many factors, including which genre of photography you choose, who you’re shooting for, and how you have your computer hardware arranged. There is no right or wrong way to organize things, and it will likely change over time.

If you’re a portrait or wedding photographer, you might choose to organize your catalog around sessions or dates. As a landscape and travel photographer, it makes sense for me to organize my photos based on locations. Whether a location is a city, country, or even a continent, it helps me to keep things organized so I can always find what I’m looking for without wasting time searching through thousands of photos.

There are a few different ways to find photos based on location in Lightroom, but they only work if you take a few simple steps when you import them.

Import

Whenever you import photos into Lightroom, try to follow the same steps.

It’s a good idea to create some templates for the Develop and Metadata settings. This makes it easy to apply some standard settings and metadata to every one of your photos. You should at least apply your copyright information to your photos with a metadata preset.

metadata organizing lightroom photos by location

Keywords

The single most important thing you can do to simplify the process of finding photos is keywording. You don’t need to add a long list of keywords, just a few relevant ones that will help you later on when you search.

When organizing by location, I always add the name of the country, region, and specific place name. I’ll also add any other relevant keywords that I may want to search for, such as aerial or long-exposure.

When renaming my images during import I always include the location in the name. Something like “noosa-beach-qld-australia” works well. The words in your filenames become searchable keywords themselves (make sure to use a dash between words). I don’t use dates in my file names, but it’s up to you whether you want to or not.

How to Organize Your Photos by Location in Lightroom

Folders

Using a good folder structure will make your life far easier, especially when you have tens of thousands of images.

To organize your folders by location, you can create a new folder for each specific location or one for each city or country. I have one folder for each country I visit and just keep adding to it. Even if I visit that country again years later, I’ll still keep using that same folder. It makes it far simpler and I know where I can find a photo from anywhere on earth.

It also makes it simpler to find image files on my computer as the folder structure I set up is identical both inside and outside Lightroom. Organizing folders by date or some other number-based system would never work for me.

Collections

Collections are another one of Lightroom’s great features that can help you keep everything organized by location. Where Folders contain every photo from a given location, Collections contain only the photos you choose. Again, I’ll create a new Collection for each country, but I only put the keepers in there.

How to Organize Your Photos by Location in Lightroom

In the past, I’ve done this manually, but I now create a Smart Collection for each location. I only need to add two rules to each Smart Collection: Flag and Keyword. Based on these settings, any photo that I flag that has that keyword is automatically added to the collection.

smart collections - How to Organize Your Photos by Location in Lightroom

Map

As a travel photographer, my favorite Lightroom tool for finding photos based on location is the Map module. One of the first things I’ll do after I’ve finished importing new photos into Lightroom is to add GPS coordinates. There are a couple of ways you can do this.

If you know the coordinates you can add them manually in the Metadata panel. The easiest way is to select all your images (Cmd/Ctrl+A) then go into the Map module, search for the location in the search bar above the map, then drag all your photos onto the right location on the map.

Depending on your camera, your photos may already have GPS coordinates embedded in the file. This is often the case with drone photos or any other GPS-connected camera or device. If not, you can record the GPS coordinates by taking a photo with your phone then grabbing them from that photo’s metadata.

map module - How to Organize Your Photos by Location in Lightroom

Searching for Photos

Now that you’ve imported your photos with location-based keywords and filenames, organized them into location-based Folders and Collections, and geotagged them with GPS coordinates, finding them later is simple.

I use a different approach depending on whether I’m looking for a specific image or a group of images from a specific location.

If it’s a specific image you want, and you know you flagged it, select the Collection associated with that location. If you’re not sure if it’s flagged, select the folder. Then search inside the collection or folder using the Library Filter.

Click on Text, select Any Searchable Field in the first drop-down menu, then Contains All in the next menu, then type your keywords in the search field. The more keywords you add, the more specific the search becomes.

library filter - How to Organize Your Photos by Location in Lightroom

If I’m looking for an image or group of images from a specific location, I like to use the Map module. Select All Photographs in the Catalog panel on the left then go to the Map module and type the location name into the search bar. Any geotagged images in that area will show up on the map.

You can zoom in or out on the map to make your search location more or less specific. Images in the specified location will appear along the filmstrip below the map.

Summary

A little forethought and organization when importing your images are worth the effort. It doesn’t take much time to apply these settings but can save you a lot down the road.

If you’re anything like me and have tens of thousands of photos in your catalog, you’ll be doing yourself a favor, and future you will thank you for your efforts.

The post How to Organize Your Photos by Location in Lightroom appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Choose Your Next Travel Photography Destination

If you’re anything like me, your love for photography is matched only by your love for travel. Your days consist of dreaming of epic landscapes, amazing cities, and unlimited air miles. Unfortunately, my friend, you have the travel photography bug, and I’m sorry to tell you that it’s incurable.

beach with chairs and umbrella - how to choose your next travel photography destination

It’s easy to get down about your inability to see and photograph everything right now. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and for most of us, not enough money in the bank. The thing that keeps me from getting down is planning my next trip.

Planning is the easy part, the hard part is choosing where to go. You might get overwhelmed by the options, so here are a few things to consider which may help you choose your next travel photography destination.

Look in Your Own Backyard

First up, your next trip doesn’t need to be an epic destination across oceans to places like Iceland or Patagonia. I’m always trying to find ways to get to big bucket-list locations that I know I would love, but sometimes looking closer to home may be a better option.

Unless you live on an island in the middle of the ocean, there’s likely somewhere nearby that you’ll be able to get to sooner to satisfy your wanderlust.

Is there anywhere within driving distance that you’ve always wanted to visit or a place that people have been saying you should check out? Somewhere in your own backyard that others spend thousands of dollars and countless hours traveling to see? It may be somewhere you’ve been before but could revisit to try to photograph better. The benefits of looking in your own backyard are many.

lake with rocks and mountains - how to choose your next travel photography destination

Make a Bucket List

You likely already have an idea of some of the places that you would like to visit and photograph. If you ask me, I can rattle off a long list of dream destinations. If you haven’t already done so, make a list and write it down. You could even make more than one list – local and international.

My bucket list has nested sub-locations within each item because I keep seeing new locations within a given country that I want to see.

I also encourage you to try and get past the big-name travel destinations. Add them for sure, I certainly have, but there’s more to the world than Iceland, New Zealand, and Yosemite. These places are insanely popular, which makes them expensive to get to and you’ll often be competing with huge crowds.

Instagram is a great place to find inspiration, but again, try to look for more than the uber-popular locations. Also, try asking people who love to travel for their recommendations. I’m always happy to make suggestions if you’re stuck for ideas.

egypt - how to choose your next travel photography destination

Talk to Your Travel Buddy

Who will you be traveling with? Do you have a buddy that you go everywhere with? Share ideas with them and come up with a shared list. Do you usually travel alone? Great, that gives you some freedom to do whatever and go wherever you want. It might be worth considering a travel buddy for a change. There are many benefits to traveling with somebody else or even a group.

If your travels usually come in the form of family vacations, then your plans will need to work for them too. Maybe try asking your kids where they would like to go for your next family trip? They might suggest something you have not considered. Is there somewhere your partner has always wanted to go but never mentioned?

Multi-Task

Is there a way that you can kill two birds with one stone? Sometimes there are ways to justify travel that you may not have considered. Do you have family somewhere that you could visit? Maybe an old friend that you haven’t seen for years?

Not everyone has the ability to travel for work, but if you do – is there a way you could tack on some personal travel to the end of a work trip? If you’re crafty you might be able to get your boss to pay for you to go to a conference somewhere. If you don’t ask the answer is always “No”.

cathedral how to choose your next travel photography destination

It’s worth considering photography workshops also. Although it will still be all about the photography, you’ll be investing in your craft. They can be expensive, but if you find one close to home you can keep the travel costs down. Your photography will benefit from a workshop far more than it would just by taking a trip.

Budget

The biggest barrier for most of us is cost. If money were no object, I’m sure many photographers would spend more time traveling than they do at home. Unfortunately, travel costs a lot so it needs to come into consideration.

Depending on where you live, you can use seasonal fluctuations to help you choose your next destination. Virtually everywhere in the world will have a high and a low season. These seasons affect travel costs significantly, so it’s worth doing some research into where’s the best place to visit at a given time of year. Either side of high season (shoulder season) is often cheaper, while the weather is still okay.

It’s also worth considering exchange rates as they can fluctuate a lot. If your home currency is performing well against another country’s currency, it could be worth considering traveling there while you’re able to get more for your money. I’ve planned travel at short notice a few times due to an unusually good exchange rate, and it’s saved me hundreds of dollars.

Expand Your Portfolio

It’s worth taking a look at your travel photos and asking yourself if there’s a subject or medium that you really want to add. Maybe you have loads of images of beaches and the ocean and could diversify by getting into the mountains?

Do you primarily photograph nature and could stretch yourself by spending a weekend photographing cityscapes? Always wanted to try out some astrophotography? Go spend a few moonless nights as far away from light pollution as possible.

I’ve always wanted to take my camera underwater, so next month I’m spending a few weeks in Queensland, Australia exploring the Great Barrier Reef.

cityscape how to choose your next travel photography destination

As photographers, we naturally seek out subjects that we’re drawn to and are comfortable with, but it’s worth trying something different from time to time. Choosing your next destination based on the subject or medium you want to photograph is a great way to learn something new and maybe go somewhere you wouldn’t usually choose.

Available Time

I’m a big advocate of slow travel. You can see and experience a place in a completely different way when you spend a few months there rather than a couple of days or weeks. That said, not everyone wants to or can quit their job and go live somewhere new for a few months.

It’s worth considering how much time you have available for your next trip. If you only have a weekend, you’re not going to want to spend 20 hours flying in each direction. If you have a month, you probably don’t want to spend the whole time in a small town down the road. Use your time wisely.

spices how to choose your next travel photography destination

There are places that I want to visit that I wouldn’t really enjoy if I rushed it. So I’m leaving them for when I can explore it at my own pace. There are also many places that would happily spend a couple of nights and be satisfied.

Make it a Road Trip

It’s pretty hard to beat a good road trip. You have the freedom to go where you want when you want. You’re not dependent on public transport or an itinerary.

You can even sleep in your vehicle if you like and get to obscure locations away from the crowds. Drive as far as time allows.

mountains how to choose your next travel photography destination

A road trip opens up many possibilities for travel photography destinations. It can turn one location into many. I always wanted to visit Yosemite National Park in California, so I did an epic road trip on the entire west coast of the USA.

Next, I wanted to see the Canadian Rockies, so I drove all the way from Vancouver through British Columbia, into Alberta and the Rockies, then down through northern Washington. I saw so much more on those road trips than I ever would have flying or busing between locations. Maybe a road trip should be next on your list?

Where to Next?

You probably can’t pack your bags and get on the road tomorrow, but choosing and planning your next travel photography destination can give you something to look forward to and prepare for. I hope this has helped you to consider new possibilities and narrow down your options.

If it’s helped your next trip come around sooner, even better. What’s on your travel photography bucket list? I would love to hear what you’re thinking or planning, please share in the comments area below.

The post How to Choose Your Next Travel Photography Destination appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting

The further I have gone on my photography journey, the more I have come to learn about the importance of understanding light. I believe light is the single most important element that makes a photograph. Not a great subject. Not great composition. It’s great lighting that will make a photograph amazing.

colorful landscape scene - How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting

So what is great light? There is no one type of light that makes a photograph good or bad. Hardness, brightness, color, direction. All these things and more will dictate how your image looks, and more importantly, how it feels.

One of the ways I’ve learned to see and understand light and how it affects my landscape photography is by learning about and understanding portrait lighting. Portrait photographers know that the way light falls on the human form dramatically affects the photograph.

Although you can’t control the light in landscape photography, learning to apply the principles of portrait lighting will help you create far more dramatic landscapes that make the viewer feel something.

Light and Shadow

At its most basic level, a photograph is made up of light and shadow. We have a tendency to focus a lot on light in photography, but shadows are just as important, if not even more so. Shadows reveal shape, depth, and texture.

aerial photo - How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting

Portrait photographers understand light and shadow better than anyone. They shape a portrait by moving the light source around until the light falls in just the right way so that the shadows reveal the contours of the subject. When shooting with natural light that can’t be controlled, they will move the subject instead.

The transition from light to shadow is often lost in modern landscape photography. Camera sensors with incredible dynamic range, along with the popularity of HDR techniques, have allowed us to bring back a lot of detail in the shadows of our landscapes.

This isn’t a bad thing in itself, because usually, we want some detail in the shadows, but it often goes too far. Just because we can brighten the shadows doesn’t mean we should. Leaving parts of the image in darkness add mood and mystery.

long exposure seascape - How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting

Rembrandt Lighting

I learned about Rembrandt lighting before I had ever heard of the artist it was named after. Rembrandt was a master painter who understood the principles of light and shadow better than anyone. Studying his paintings will teach you a lot about how they can create mood and drama in an image.

Rembrandt self portrait - How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting

Rembrandt self-portrait.

Rembrandt lighting has become known as a classic lighting setup in portrait photography. Using soft side-lighting, this technique creates a beautiful look that you will likely recognize.

When the light source is coming from the side of the subject, it causes the light to reveal and conceal various elements. The parts of the subject that are visible to the light source will be illuminated while the parts which aren’t visible to the light source will be in shadow.

portrait lighting for landscape photography - How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting

Understanding portrait lighting to bring out texture and dimension.

You obviously can’t control the light source when photographing landscapes, but you can still apply the same principles.

Considering how the light will fall on your landscape can guide the way you photograph it. The position you shoot from, your composition, and the time of day will all affect how the lighting affects your landscapes. Even though you can’t control the light, it never stays the same, so waiting for the angle of the sun to change or for a gap in the clouds can make a big difference to that way it illuminates the scene.

Reverse Engineering Photos

A great exercise for learning to understand light is to reverse engineer a photograph. When I was learning portrait photography I would regularly study an image and try to figure out how it had been lit. Is it natural light or flash? How far away from the subject is it? How big is the light source? Is there more than one light source?

How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting - lighthouse on a rocky shoreline

These days as a landscape and travel photographer, I still ask myself those questions when looking at a photograph. Which direction is the light coming from? What time of day was it taken? Was the sky clear or cloudy? Learn to get in the habit of analyzing photos that you admire by asking yourself more specific questions like this rather than what gear or presets the photographer used.

Dodging and Burning

Shaping light and shadow doesn’t stop when you take the photo. Dodging and burning is the process of lightening and darkening areas of a photo in post-production. It doesn’t need to be a complicated process. Often all that is necessary is burning (darkening) areas that could use more shadow or might be distracting.

portrait lighting for landscape photography

One of the best ways to think of dodging and burning is to ask yourself where you want the viewer to look. It may be a specific element of the photo, or you may want to draw the viewer’s eye through the image. You can paint more light and shadow into a photo to guide this process.

Our eyes are naturally drawn to brighter parts of an image. Portrait photographers will often dodge and burn to draw the viewer to the subject’s eyes or another important element of the subject. When editing landscapes, try to paint in light and shadow to control which parts of the image are attracting your attention.

waterfall and mountain and reflection in a pool of water - How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting

Go Practice

The next time you’re photographing a landscape, try taking another look at the light. Ask yourself some of the questions I’ve mentioned. Look for the shadows. Experiment with side-lighting. Wait until the light changes. By understanding portrait lighting you will be better equiped to apply it to your landscape photography.

You’ll find that thinking of the landscape as contours with depth and shape rather than separate elements will help you make more engaging landscapes with mood and drama.

The post How to Improve Your Landscape Photography By Understanding Portrait Lighting appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking

Astrophotography has become increasingly popular in recent years, with good reason. There’s something about the night sky, stars, and The Milky Way that are fascinating to us. They remind us of how small we are and how huge the universe we live in really is. Photographing them can make for some pretty spectacular images.

How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking - night photo with Milky Way visible

Digital Noise in Astrophotography

As camera technology has advanced, photographing the night sky has become possible for photographers of all levels and budgets. Low-light performance continues to improve, allowing us to photograph the stars at higher and higher ISOs. However, digital noise continues to be one of the biggest challenges for astrophotographers.

There are a number of different approaches to dealing with digital noise in your astrophotography, from your camera settings to the way you process them in post-production.

Digital noise is caused by a couple of things. Firstly, the camera sensor heats up as it exposes an image, causing an increase in noise. Secondly, an increase in sensor sensitivity, or ISO, can lead to more digital noise in your images. As both high ISO values and long exposures are going to lead to more digital noise, you’re going to need a strategy to deal with it in your astrophotography.

path to the ocean with Milky Way in the night sky - How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking

Exposure Stacking

There is a technique called exposure stacking that is very effective in reducing the digital noise in your photos. You take multiple exposures with the same settings, stack them into layers inside Photoshop, align the stack, then Photoshop will create an image based on the median of all the stacked exposures. The final image will show the parts of your exposures that are consistent through each layer, like the stars. Because digital noise is random, and changes from one exposure to the next, it will not be visible in the final stacked image.

If you’re still following me, great. It sounds complicated, but I’m going to walk you through exposure stacking step-by-step and you’ll see it’s really not that difficult. It can take a little time to get right, but it’s totally worth it when you see the difference it can make in your night sky photos.

Milky Way beach photo - How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking

Capturing the Stars In-Camera

There are plenty of other articles that will teach you in detail how to take great astrophotography, so I won’t go into it here. However, there are a few considerations that are required to get the exposures correct in order to be able to use the exposure stacking technique later.

1. You need multiple exposures with the same camera settings. You can take as many shots as you want, but I would suggest using a minimum of 10. Try to capture them as close together as possible to minimize movement of the stars between each exposure. The more time that lapses from the first exposure to the last, the more work will be required to stack them properly.

2. Turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction. This is probably called something like “Long Exposure NR” in your camera. It will cause each exposure to take twice as long when it’s turned on, meaning there will be twice as much movement of the stars between exposures. It also means you’ll be double-processing your images, causing a reduction in image quality.

3. Make sure the stars in your photos are pinpoint. They need to be sharp and have as little streaking as possible. You can work out the maximum exposure time to create pinpoint stars based on the focal length of your lens using this tool.

Import and Develop in Lightroom

Again, there is a wealth of information about how to process astrophotography in Adobe Lightroom. All I do in Lightroom is check each exposure to eliminate any images that are unusable due to camera movement, do a basic edit, then open my selected images to Photoshop as layers.

How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking

Use “Open as Layers in Photoshop” to do exposure stacking. Go to: File > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop.

The main things to remember here are that you make sure to sync your edits with all the exposures that you’ll be using and to avoid over-processing the images in Lightroom. Avoid sharpening and noise reduction at this stage of the process. Also take it easy on contrast, clarity, and dehaze. You can perform more creative edits on the final stacked image.

Aligning and Stacking Exposures in Photoshop

Ensuring your images are all aligned correctly is vital when doing exposure stacking. If they are not, you will end up with blurry stars. There are a couple of ways to align exposures. Try the auto-alignment method first and if it doesn’t do a good job you’ll need to use the manual method.

Auto Alignment

  1. Select all layers.
  2. Select Edit > Auto-Align Layers…
  3. Select Auto. Click OK.

How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking - auto-align layers

Manual Alignment

    1. Make only the bottom two layers visible.
    2. Select the second layer and change its blend mode to Difference. You’ll see the image go mostly black with white specks. The white areas represent the parts of the two visible images that are not aligned correctly.

How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking

  1. Click Edit > Free Transform.

How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking - free transform

  1. Click View and make sure Snap is unchecked.
  2. Zoom in on a corner, hold down command/control and move the corner box around until you see the white parts of the image line up and turn black. It will take some trial and error.

How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking

    1. Repeat with each corner of the image. You may need to go back to readjust a corner that you’ve already moved. It won’t be perfect, but try to get it as close as possible.
    2. Press return to exit Free Transform mode, then change the blend mode back to Normal.
    3. Make the layer you’ve just adjusted invisible and the next one up visible.
    4. Repeat with every layer, aligning each one with the base layer until they’re all aligned as well as possible.

Stacking Layers

  1. Make sure all layers are visible and selected.
  2. Right-click on one of the layers and click Convert To Smart Object.

How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking

  1. Click Layer > Smart Objects > Stack Mode > Median.

<ol> <li>

Finish up

When Photoshop has finished working its magic, you should end up with an image that’s much cleaner with significantly less noise than you started with. Your stars probably won’t look quite as sharp when zoomed into 100%, especially if the alignment wasn’t quite right, but you’ll be the only person who looks that closely. Don’t forget to crop the edges that have moved during the alignment process.

Now you can apply any other creative edits you might like to your image. You can either do this while still in Photoshop or save the image and apply the adjustments back in Lightroom.

This may seem like a complicated process, but once you’ve done it once or twice you’ll get much quicker. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find the effort is worth it for the lovely, clean, noise-free astrophotography images it gives you.

The post How to Reduce Digital Noise in Astrophotography Using Exposure Stacking appeared first on Digital Photography School.

1 2