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.

The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Tripod

You need a tripod for long exposures

Picture the scene – Bangkok airport and I’m settling into seat 16H on my short Thai Airways flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. The lovely hostess hands me a hot, scented towel as I shout ”Bollocks” while slapping myself firmly on the forehead.

She gives me a justified look of disdain while I apologize for my outburst and then start begging her to contact Lost & Found as soon as possible. You see, I’d stupidly left my gorgeous carbon fibre, ball head tripod, in one of those plastic trays into which all airports now force you to empty your worldly goods before being forced through the X-Ray machine.

I’d somehow managed to wander through Bangkok airport, grab a snack, check my email and then board the plane without even realizing I’d lost one of my most essential pieces of equipment. I blame it on the terror filled drive through downtown Bangkok the night before while trying to find our hotel, it was a late night.

I realize I will never see that beloved tripod again.

Night Photography requires a sturdy tripod

So I touch down in Siem Reap, Cambodia and the first thing I do is go shopping for a tripod. Siem Reap has seen some major development over the years but it’s still a galactic black hole when it comes to tripod shopping.

The best I could find was a $45 Yunteng tripod with a plastic video panning tripod head that has one of those long handles that poke you in the eye every time you try to look through the viewfinder.

It was like going back in time to the very first tripod I’d ever bought. The next four days of shooting were an exercise in rage management as it took me five times longer to set up my shots. If it hadn’t been for my ever present tuk-tuk driver and his calming influence, I would have bent that tripod over my knee and tossed it under the wheels of a bus for good measure.

No wonder so many beginner photographers quit at the tripod using stage.

A good tripod makes ALL the difference

When buying a tripod, if you go for an El Cheapo one, two things will happen:

  1. You’ll spend so much time messing around getting your camera in position that by the time you’re ready to take the shot, you’ve already lost the will to live.
  2. You’ll realize that the $45 you spent could have gone towards a proper tripod that you now know you’ll have to buy anyway.

I realize that for total beginners, spending around $400 on a tripod seems like a major financial commitment but I’ve seen so many of my workshop students struggle in frustration with shoddy tripods that it breaks my heart. When I lend them one of mine, it’s like a ray of sunshine for them. At that point they realize their cheap tripod is now junk.

Long exposure - Why You Need a Good Tripod

Speed is important

You might think that if you’re using a tripod to hold your camera in place, that means you’ve got plenty of time to frame your shot. Sometimes that’s true but more often than not, the scene changes quickly, especially when you’re dealing with nature. Weather and wildlife won’t wait for you to get your tripod set up.

Things to consider when buying a tripod and tripod head

1 – How fast do the legs telescope?

I can’t stand those rubber twist leg locks that you have to loosen and then tighten. I much prefer quick release grips that flick open and quickly drop those tripod legs. Securing the extended legs requires a quick push of the thumb and you’re done. If your tripod has four telescopic extenders with threaded grips you’ll still be setting up your shot while I’m at the next shooting location.

Tripod Comparison

2 – How fast does the ball head adjust?

Once your tripod is in place and secure, it’s time to position your camera. For me, the best ball heads are those that only require one lever to loosen and tighten. That means that with just two turns of the lever I can position my camera in exactly the right position.

It’s also important to get a ball head that allows you to quickly switch between landscape and portrait aspect. A lot of cheapo tripods have those flippable mounts that you have to loosen first then tighten once in place. These are usually abysmal as you struggle to get just the right position and then the flimsy flippable part wobbles from the impact of just your breathing.

 

3 – Easy quick release

The thing that infuriated me the most with my temporary $45 Yunteng tripod was the quick release clip which mounts the camera on to the tripod head. I longed for my well oiled Manfrotto head with its trusty quick release clip.

Mounting the camera on the tripod head should be quick and easy. When shopping for a tripod, get the store clerk to demonstrate and then try it out yourself multiple times until you feel if it’s right for you. Some of the smoothest looking quick release plates I’ve seen are made by Really Right Stuff.

Really Right Stuff Quick Release Plates

4 – How heavy should my tripod be?

This is a personal choice based on your exact needs, and how much you can carry. There’s always a trade-off between portability and sturdiness. Heavier tripods will laugh in the face of a strong wind, while super lightweight carbon fibre tripods will vibrate. You can always attach a rock filled bag to the central stem of your tripod to give it more stability in high winds.

5 – How big should my tripod be?

Again, this depends on your travel plans. Since my recent loss at Bangkok airport, I’m now considering buying a smaller tripod that will actually fit into my camera bag. A smaller tripod won’t be anywhere near as sturdy, but for the Siem Reap shoot it’s not as if I had to face high winds and extreme weather, so smaller would have been okay.

Very tall photographers will most likely have to shop for tripods that cater to their height. Sure, you can always extend your tripod’s central column, but that’s always a last resort as you’ll find it induces major wobble from just your hand contact with the camera.

6 – How much should I spend?

Here’s another important thing to consider. If like me, you’re a bit of a Gormclops, don’t buy the best that you can afford. I abuse my tripods by shooting in the ocean, rivers, deserts and mountains. If I’m lucky, I’ll get two years out of a tripod (assuming I don’t leave it in the airport) so it just doesn’t make sense for me to spend big money when I can get a very capable tripod for under $400, that already comes with a good ball head.

7 – Do I need a bubble level?Camera Bubble Level

Although not essential, it’s nice to have an accurate bubble level on the tripod stand itself, and one on the tripod head. If you’re lucky enough to have a digital level inside your camera (like my Sony A7R) you probably won’t use a bubble level much. If you have neither, you can always attach a bubble level to your cameras hot shoe attachment as pictured here (see photo right).

Why do I even need a tripod?

If you want tack sharp images (see my article on how to get super sharp landscape images) with the best possible image quality, accept that a tripod will become a part of your anatomy. For long exposures, a tripod is essential. If you shoot weddings, portraits, action and events, a tripod may just get in your way.

Which brands should I buy?

I’m not going to recommend one brand over another. I advise that you try out as many tripods and heads as you can. It’s fine to read reviews but you need to get hands on to decide which tripod and head combination works best for your needs. A specialist camera store should have a much wider choice of consumer and pro level tripods to choose from.

Enough Yunteng Bashing

Cheap Yunteng TripodTo be fair to Yunteng, I got the sturdiest tripod I believe it’s possible to find for a measly $45. It didn’t fall apart, was light, and in all honesty the tripod head was made for video, not stills. I got exactly what I paid for. I’ll keep it in my studio as a demonstration tool for showing people the difference between a $45 tripod and a $400 tripod.

What features do you look for in a tripod? Do you have any horror stories or recommendations for our readers?

The post The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Tripod by Gavin Hardcastle appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Photograph Fairground Rides

Learn how to photograph the fairground at night

When it comes to taking pictures of the fairground or amusement park, you’ll be amazed at just how easy it is to get super colourful, vibrant, and bright images of those awesome rides. Twilight is the best time to shoot, when all those mega-joules of artificial lights burst into action to give you amazing effects that aren’t possible during the day time.

Here’s what you’ll need:

When is the best time to shoot?

The optimum time is about 30 minutes after the sun has set. If you’re lucky, there will be a beautiful colourful afterglow in the clouds, but it will still be dark enough for all the artificial light to be the brightest parts of your image. When it gets fully dark you can still get stunning shots, but the sky may just be a dark blanket if there is cloud cover.

How to Photograph Fairground Rides

Harness the power of higher ISO

By increasing your ISO settings to around 400,  you’re increasing the light sensitivity of your camera. You can try higher settings (larger ISO numbers) but your goal here is to achieve an exposure time of around one to two seconds so that you capture some motion blur in the people and in the rides. Using a higher ISO than 400 will speed up your exposure time and you don’t necessarily want that, unless you want to totally freeze all of the motion in your shot. There’s some trial and error involved, depending on the available light of your scene, so my number of 400 is approximate.

When the rides are static, you won’t capture any motion blur but as soon as they start to move (and they usually move fast), you’ll find that the one to two second exposure time is ideal for capturing a lot of movement.

Shoot in time-lapse mode

By taking pictures every four seconds, you’ll end up with a huge variation of different motion blur as the rides progress through their cycle. It’s almost like shooting video, but by shooting time-lapse, you’ll ensure that every frame is a full resolution image – video can’t compete with that. This technique ensures that you capture lots of images at different stages of the ride. Here’s a one minute time-lapse movie I made while shooting stills at the fair using this technique.

If your camera has a built-in intervalometer or time-lapse app, you’re in luck. Set your interval at four seconds, and your camera will take a picture every four seconds. If you’ve set your exposure time to two seconds that gives you a two second gap after your shot has finished before the next shot will be triggered. Make your time-lapse last for about a five minute duration, and you should be able to capture images of the rides while they are static and while they are moving – it depends on how busy the rides are and how long the ride cycle lasts.

You can then overlay those blurred images with the static images in Photoshop to create the ultimate composite of sharp static scenes, and motion blurred scenes.

Don’t worry if your camera doesn’t have a time-lapse function, you’ll just need to take as many pictures as you think will capture your desired motion blur and static states. Alternatively you could buy an intervalometer which will connect to your camera and trigger the shutter for time lapse shooting.

Top Tip: Be sure to switch off your built-in noise reduction as this will slow down your write times to the memory card, and will mess up your intervals.

Photographing Amusement Parks

Choose the right white balance

It’s important to set the right white balance on your camera for this type of shooting. Don’t trust the auto setting because there are so many different light sources that your camera won’t know which setting to choose. For all of the shots I took with the Sony A7R, I used the Fluorescent Warm setting.

Experiment to get the most pleasing looking white balance for your scene, try to avoid everything looking super orange. Look at the scene with your eyes, then look at your shot to try and get the most accurate colour temperature.

It’s full of stars!

Night time photography tutorial

In shots like the one above, you can see a very pleasing looking blue star on the lamp post. All lenses produce their own characteristic stars, some are better than others. One thing you can do to get the best star out of your lens is to select a very narrow aperture like f/16 or f/22. This will also have the added benefit of forcing your shutter speed to be slower which gets you closer to the two second exposure time I mentioned earlier.

Get up close

Remember that wide angle lens I mentioned at the start? That lens will allow you to fill your frame with all the fun of the fair. Wide angle lenses create a pleasing looking distortion that adds drama and intensity to your shot. A 14-16mm shot on a full frame camera can cram in a LOT of action. By getting close to your subject and positioning yourself at a point that creates a nice looking distortion effect, you’ll really make your images POP!

Wide Angle lens used for Night Photography

Post-production

Noise reduction

What happens to your image quality when you use higher ISO settings? Noise, that’s what. We don’t like noise do we? No, so lets get rid of it using the brilliant noise reduction of Adobe Camera Raw. Your specific settings will depend on your camera’s sensor, as not all sensors are made equal. Here are the settings that I found gave me the best results for my pictures. Experiment with these sliders to get rid of as much noise as you can while still retaining image detail.

Noise Reduction Settings

Fix the shadows

You’ll probably want to brighten up your shadows and blacks a little but don’t overdo it. We actually need those dark areas in our image to contrast with the bright lights, that’s what gives our image its PUNCH!

Fix the highlights

If the brightest parts of your image look a little blown out, pull them down a little with the whites and highlights sliders. Again, don’t overdo it or you’ll run the risk of ending up with a totally fake looking image.

Clarity

Increase the clarity a little to introduce some contrast to the mid tones.

Vibrance

Increase the vibrance a little to make the colours pop and give a subtle blue hue to the sky area.

Use graduated filters in Adobe Camera RAW

The graduated filter simulator is a really powerful tool, but did you know it’s not just for making a part of your sky darker? You can use multiple graduated filters to selectively brighten or darken large parts of your image. If you want to brighten just your foreground, simply add a graduated filter and increase its exposure value like in the image below. You can further tweak just that selected area with the other powerful ACR tools like shadows, clarity, contrast etc.

Using Grad Filters in Adobe Camera Raw

Combine your images to make the ultimate composite

Once you’ve finished tweaking your images in Adobe Camera Raw, it’s time to open them in Photoshop to make a composite image that captures the motion blur and the static state of your fairground ride. It’s worth pointing out that this is just a creative choice, if you’re happy with just a single image, that’s cool too.

Step 1 – Choose and open your Images

From your images, choose one that shows your ride in its static state. This could either be while it’s not moving or perhaps you took a super fast, high ISO shot while the ride was moving and managed to freeze the motion nicely. Either way, pick an image that you like, and open that in Photoshop.

Step 2 – Copy and paste your images

Next you’ll choose an image, or images, that perfectly capture the motion blur of the ride; maybe it’s a roller-coaster ride and you want to catch the long streaking lights of the carriage. Open this in Photoshop so that you’ve now got two tabs, each with their own image.

With the motion blur image open, hit ctrl+a (or Cmd+A for Mac) on your keyboard to select the entire image. You should see the marching ants around the image. Next hit ctrl+c (Cmd+c) to copy that image on to your clipboard.

Now click on the other tab to switch to your first image which shows the static or frozen motion shot, and hit ctrl+v (Cmd+v) to paste your clipboard image on to a new layer above the default (Background) layer. Photoshop will call your new pasted layer “Layer 1″.

Step 3 – Blend your images

Assuming that you used the exact same ACR develop settings for both images, just go ahead and change the blend mode of the motion blurred image (Layer 1) that you just pasted on to the new layer to “Lighten”. The blend mode lives in your Layers panel and defaults to Normal, so change Normal to Lighten.

Now you should see both images combined to give you a lovely composite of both moments in time. If the effect is too pronounced, try turning down the opacity of the second layer to around 50%. For fun you could also try the Overlay blend mode or Screen, for a more intense effect. Remember to play with the layer opacity to get the look you want.

Step 4 – Erase the parts you don’t like

It’s likely that when you’ve blended both layers together by choosing the Lighten blend mode, you’ll want to erase certain parts of Layer 1 if the image gets too complicated. You can do that easily by choosing the Eraser tool and selecting a soft brush size, appropriate to the area you’d like to erase. Simply click on Layer 1 where you’d like to erase and bam – it’s gone (or use a layer mask for non-destructive editing).

Combine Layers in Photoshop

That’s it! You’ve now learned how to shoot and process your amazing images of those mind blowing fairground rides. Go out and have some fun with this, just don’t overdo it on the cotton candy and doughnuts like I did, ugh.

If you have another other tips for photographing fairground rides, please share in the comments.

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