Make Easy Panoramic Images with Microsoft ICE

The post Make Easy Panoramic Images with Microsoft ICE appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

Vista at Dead Horse State Park, Utah. Fourteen images stitched in Microsoft ICE.

You’ve no doubt seen panoramic images and perhaps even know how to make them. Whether using the tools built into programs like Lightroom and Photoshop, or perhaps another dedicated panoramic creation program, or even the sweep-panoramic capability of many cellphone cameras, you’ve used this technique to make images larger than you could make them in a single shot.

In the past, the choice was not as great, and the main stitching programs not as diversified in their capabilities. The programs that did exist to create panoramas were complex, sometimes expensive, and didn’t always work well.

When the first version of Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor), a program from the Microsoft Research Division of the software giant came out, it had all the things I sought in software utilities. It was simple, it worked well, and it was free – bingo! Although other options have come along for photo stitching, I still find ICE, (now at version 2.0.3.0), a favorite.

Panorama images are not new nor a product of the digital age. This image was made from Rincon Point in San Francisco in 1851 using multiple photo plates seamed together.

Image stitching – What is it?

When working with panoramic programs you will read the term “image stitching.” It is an apt phrase for the process by which a series of photos are composited together to make a larger image, much like scraps of fabric stitched together to make a quilt. The mark of a good photo-stitching program is how well it can piece the separate images together without showing the “seams.” Check another box for Microsoft ICE – it does that job extremely well.

The Mars Rover uses robotic cameras and panoramic stitching techniques to make high-resolution images.  NASA Photo

Considerations when photographing a panorama

The quality of a finished product is usually dependent on the raw materials that go into it. The same is true of creating a panorama photo. The better your technique in making the individual images, the better your finished panorama will be.  I will not be doing a deep-dive into panorama photography techniques, as that is a whole subject itself, but instead, I’ll list some of those things you’ll want to consider when making your shots.

One real benefit of ICE is that even with less than perfectly created images, it will still do a respectable job in creating a panorama. Of course, with better images, the result will be better too.

Here are some techniques to help you when shooting your images for a panorama:

Camera settings

As you sweep across your scene, making multiple shots, there will be variations in the light. If you leave your camera in an automatic mode, each frame will be slightly different too. ICE has what is called Exposure Blending and uses an advanced algorithm to compensate for this. Thus, it smooths the seams between individual images. However, if you give it better images to work with the result will be better too.

The best practice is to put your camera in full manual mode, find and set an exposure that is a good average for the scene, and lock that in.  Try to pick an aperture for maximum depth of field as well.

The same goes for focus. Find a point where as much of the image will be in focus, (the “hyperfocal distance,” typically a third of the way into the scene), focus there and turn off autofocus.

Lens selection

There is no “just right” lens focal length to use when making panoramic images. The field of view that represented in your stitched image will be dictated by how many photos you make and the sweep of your pan, not the lens focal length.

One might think a wide-angle lens would be a good choice, as fewer shots would be required. But that’s not necessarily true. The best choice is a lens with the least distortion as any lens distortion will be magnified as you stitch images together. Thus, a good, basic 50mm prime lens could be a great choice.

Sometimes, depending on the scene you want to capture, a longer telephoto might work well. Lens quality and minimal distortion trump wide focal lengths here.

A panoramic tripod head allows you to mount the camera so that the lens nodal point is centered over the pivot point of the pan. Thus, minimizing parallax errors.

Nodal point and parallax issues

Wazzat!!?? Yes, you can get complex very quickly and encounter cryptic terms if you want to when making panoramic photos.  Attention to detail results in higher quality panoramas. And, if you decide to pursue this technique, you will want to learn about these things in time.

Very briefly, the nodal point is the spot within a lens where the light rays converge.  Setting up your camera such that the pivot point of your pan is at that spot will produce an image with the least distortion.  This is most important in images where objects in the shot are both close and far in your scene.

Parallax is the difference in the apparent position of an object when viewed along two different lines of sight.

To see a quick example, hold your hand out at arm’s length with your thumb up.  Close one eye and put your thumb over a distant object.  Now close that eye and open the other. You will see your thumb “jump” off the object to a different position.  This is parallax.

When setting up your camera, pivoting around the nodal point will reduce or even eliminate this. And serious panorama photographers will purchase special panorama tripod heads to get this exact spot for any given lens they might use.

Highly serious gigapixel panorama photographers making images with hundreds of composite images might even use motorized computer-controlled heads like the Gigapan to make their shots.

Check out some of the Gigapan images like this made from some 12,000 individual shots. Alternatively, look at this taken from a similar setup on the Mars Rover.

Bringing it back down to Earth, you need not get nearly that sophisticated if you don’t want to.  There are less expensive heads for panoramic photography if you choose to try that and many Youtube videos and instructional articles on setting nodal points.

For starters, you needn’t even worry about all of that to give panoramic photography a try. The beauty of ICE is that even with something as simple as handheld images shot with a cellphone camera, it does a very nice job of assembling a panorama image.

Step-by-Step

Here are some things to do when making your images for use in a panorama:

  • Consider your composition – Good composition is just as important in making a panorama image as any other photo.  If your cellphone supports the sweep panorama feature, you can sometimes make a shot with it to help pre-visualize what you want to do with your DSLR.
  • Level the tripod – You will know your tripod wasn’t level if you get an “arched” looking composite panorama.
  • Mount your camera in a vertical (portrait) orientation – You will get a taller aspect ratio in your final shot and an image less “ribbon-like” when you assemble your panorama.
  • Hand-marker – Shoot a photo of your hand in front of the camera as the first and last in your panorama sequence. This will make it much easier to determine which images belong to a panorama “group.”
  • Camera Settings – Use full manual exposure and focus for the reasons outlined above.
  • Overlap – As you pan making each shot, overlap each image about a third so ICE will more easily find the match points when making the composite.

This is the screen you will see when first opening Microsoft ICE.

Bringing it into ICE

Bringing your images into ICE and letting it assemble your panorama is the easiest part and a big reason to like this program. ICE accepts most Raw photos, .jpg of course, and even layered Photoshop files.  You will need to know this is a Windows-only program and won’t work on your Mac. However, there are plenty of iOS alternatives. One which is also free and well-regarded is Hugin.  I can’t say I have any personal experience with it, however, being a PC guy.

Here’s where you will find the download for ICE. Be sure you get the proper version, 32 or 64-bit for your particular PC. The program will work in Windows 10, 8, 7 or even Vista SP2. There is a lot of good information as well as an interesting overview video on the page.  The installation usually goes quite smoothly.

After you have the program installed, there are various ways to bring your images in for compositing into a panorama:

  • Running ICE as a stand-alone – ICE can be run just fine as a stand-alone program and you can bring your images in from wherever you have them stored. You can do this either by opening ICE and clicking New Panorama from Images or by opening another window in File Explorer and dragging and dropping the images into ICE.
  • Launching ICE from a Folder – Typically, once you install ICE, if you select all the images you want in your pano from a folder and then right-click, you will see an option to Stitch using Image Composite Editor.  Select that, then ICE will launch with your selected images brought in.
  • Using ICE as an External Editor from Lightroom – You can set-up Adobe Lightroom to use ICE as an External Editor.  This is my preferred way as I often do some basic pre-editing to my shots in LR before bringing them into ICE.  Once you have set-up ICE as an External Editor, select all the images in the pano group you will be using. Then, in the Lightroom menu, click Photo -> Edit In -> Microsoft ICE.  You will have the option to Edit a Copy with Lightroom Adjustments.  Pick that, click Edit, and ICE launches with the images ready for compositing.

There are four basic steps in ICE; Import, (the images have been imported here), Stitch, Crop, and Export.

Four basic steps in ICE

1. Import

If you’ve used one of the three methods above, you’re likely already seeing your images in ICE ready for Stitching. If you are running ICE in stand-alone mode and have not already imported your images, you will see three Options across the top of the screen:  New Panorama from Images, New Panorama from Video, and Open Existing Panorama. Choose the first option, navigate in Windows Explorer to where your images are located, select those that make up the panorama group, and click Open.  Remember, ICE opens Raw files, Tif, Jpg, PSD, and perhaps some other image file types.

You will find that in most cases, the default setting for ICE works well. If you are confused about some of the terms and menu options, you can click Next (at the top right of the screen), and ICE proceeds to the next step using the defaults.

If you choose to try some other things, here are a few options:

Rather than use Auto-detect in Camera Motion, you may wish to use Rotating Motion. It will give you more options for adjustment later. I have not found the Planar Motion options to be useful, (and to be honest, don’t really understand them. Such will be the case with ICE for most people – there are options and terms that will take more knowledge of the process. And, while they might have applications, most times will not be necessary.  Keep things simple, and you’ll most often be pleased with the result.)

This is the Stitch step. Ice has composited individual images.  Don’t be overwhelmed by the Projection options. ICE will almost always choose the correct one by default. If you wish to try the others, go ahead and see what you like best.

2. Stitch

Click Next or select option 2 – Stitch from the menu. The screen will show Aligning and then Compositing Images with progress bars as the work is done.  Depending on the size, number, and complexity of your images, this could go quick or could take several minutes.  Once done, your stitched image will appear.

Depending on the camera motion type chosen, you may have another set of options under Projection with terms like Cylindrical, Mercator, and a collection of other types you may not understand. I suggest trying the different options and seeing which makes your panorama look best and the least distorted. You can also zoom into your image with the slider or by using your mouse scroll wheel. Clicking and dragging above or below the panorama will allow you to adjust the shape further. Try various things – whatever helps to make your panorama look best.

3. Crop

Click Next, or Crop to move on. Here you can crop the image to choose what to include in the finished panorama. Usually, you will have some rough edges, depending on how you shot the images and composited them. If you click Auto-Crop, the program will crop to the largest points where it can make a rectangular image. You can also manually drag the sides of the crop.

Auto-Complete works like the content-aware fill in Photoshop and will try to fill in missing pieces in the image. Sometimes, especially with things like the sky, it works amazingly well. Other times with more complex patterns, not so much.

Give it a try and see if you like the result. You can always turn it off if you don’t like it.

The Crop Step. You can crop manually, Auto crop, and use the Auto Complete feature if you like.

Note how the Auto Complete feature has filled in missing parts of the image at top and bottom.

4. Export

Once complete, you will want to save your resulting panorama.

Because you have stitched together what are often high-resolution images to start with, your panorama file can be huge. That’s great if you need to print a wall-sized poster. If you don’t need something that big, consider turning down the Scale by inputting a smaller number. If you know what size (in pixels) you want the finished image to be, you can also enter that number in the Width or Height boxes, and the other will adjust to maintain the aspect ratio.

For example, to print a 12 x 48-inch poster at 300 dpi, you would need an image 3600 x 14,400 pixels.

If your panorama at 100% is over 20,000 pixels wide, that’s overkill and may result in a much larger file than you need.

Or, if you’ll be displaying your panorama on the web where you may only need a file 2400 pixels wide, why make a monster file?

You can also input numbers into the width or height, and the image will adjust the other setting to maintain the aspect ratio. Your use for the panorama will dictate how large you need to output it.

The Export Step. If you were to export this image at 100% scale as a .tif image it would be 19772 x 5833 pixels and be 149MB. For use on the web, you could drop to something like 2400 x 708 (scale just 12.14%) as a .jpg at 75% quality and it would be just 372k. Export your images according to how you will use them.

You also have the option to choose the file format. ICE can output as .jpg, .psd, .tif, .png, or .bmp. Again consider how you plan to use the image. A .tif file will be much larger than a jpg. If you choose jpg, you can also choose the compression level with the Quality settings.

When you’ve made your selections, click Export to Disk and ICE will give you the option of where to save the file. If you came from Lightroom, you will still need to specify the output location. ICE does not automatically put the resulting panorama back into the Lightroom folder where you started.

One option not immediately evident is the ability to save a panorama project. Before exiting the program, look in the top left corner of the screen for the icons there. The last two, which look like disks if hovered, will say Save Panorama and Save Panorama As. These allow you to save your project as an .spj file. This is an ICE file type which can be loaded back in using Open Existing Panorama from the main menu. This could be useful if you intend to make various output sizes or file types from your original images.

32 images shot in two rows to get more of the sky.

ICE does a great job stitching even more complex images.

The final result of the previous multi-row stitch.

Set your camera in continuous mode and shoot, panning with your subject. Bring the images into ICE and stitch as usual. You can get a sequence like this very easily.

Same technique with continuous mode.

The final result.

Nifty tricks – Video, Tiny Planets, VR, and more

There are a few other things ICE will do beyond simply making panoramas.  It is beyond the scope of this article to outline the specific steps to do these things, but I simply wanted to make you aware of them so you can explore further if you like.

This is a 360-degree pano shot as video and imported into ICE. The video will not be as high resolution. 360-degree panos, however, open VR possibilities.

Video Input

First, your input file can, instead of being a group of still photos, be a video file. Video is lower resolution than images taken with most still cameras, but there may be other reasons you want to use it as an input format.  One of those is multi-image action. (See the sample photos). You can do this with multiple images shot as stills or using a video. Capture the action, input the video into ICE, choose the portion of the video you like and then select the action points you want in the finished pano.

Give this a try, and doing it will make the steps clearer.

ICE can also be used to create “tiny planets.”

Virtual Reality

Use ICE to make a 360-degree pano from still images or a video.  Then create an image that can be viewed as an interactive pano and be rotated by the viewer.  Post it to Facebook or view it on a VR device.  There are numerous online tutorials teaching how to do this.  Drone footage can make for an especially interesting VR image.

Conclusion

Microsoft ICE is powerful, can produce high-quality panorama images, and is very easy to use. It also does a good job when accepting the default choices. ICE can use simple images made handheld from a cellphone or hundreds of images on a Gigapan robotic system with a DSLR. There are also fun things like multi-image motion images, tiny planet creation, and virtual reality possibilities.

Oh yeah…and it’s free!  What’s not to like?

Go download it, give it a try, have fun, and share your images with us in the comments below.

 

panoramic images with Microsoft ICE

The post Make Easy Panoramic Images with Microsoft ICE appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

Try this DIY Neutral Density Filter for Long Exposure Photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is ND and why use it?

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

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

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

Types of ND filters

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

Camera filters typically fall into two types:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and you’ll get weird artifacts.

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

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

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

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

The “One Weird Trick” ND filter

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

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

So here’s the big reveal…

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

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

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

What and where to get it

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

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

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

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

Density Yes, Neutral… not even close

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

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

Three options to dealing with the color cast

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

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

Let’s discuss these options.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calculating your exposure

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

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

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

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

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

Using an app to calculate shutter speed with the filter

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

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

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

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

Attaching the welding glass filter

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

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

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

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

Making the shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back in post-production

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

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

Frustrations and limitations

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

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

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

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

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

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

When to buy a real ND filter

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

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

 

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

How to Make Interesting Abstract Smoke Photos

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

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

Abstract smoke photography - Firebird

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

Tools for the trick

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

Camera

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - Use stick Incense

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

Flash

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

Tripod

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

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

Smoke-producing object

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

Location

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - Setup diagram

Setting up

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

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - smoke photo straight out of camera

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

Camera and flash settings

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

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

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

Leave the flash off.

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

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

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - The Seahorse

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

Making your photos

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

Make a shot and check it. Is it focused?

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

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

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

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

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

Basic editing

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - horizontal and vertical mirroring

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

Mirrors and colors and abstracts, oh my!

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

Here are the basic steps:

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

Alien Gas – A straight smoke shot later colored green.

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

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

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

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

Maybe you’d like to add some color?

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

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - The Witch Doctor

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

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

What do you see?

Smoke in other photos

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - Smokin Hot Peppers

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

Pseudo-Smoke

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

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - Pseudo Smoke Effect - Simulated Smoke

Looks like smoke, but it isn’t.

Conclusion

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

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

 

 

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

How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

All visual artists have a common goal of creating an image with impact. But unlike painters who start with a blank canvas and add to it, photographers start with a sometimes chaotic scene and must decide what to remove from it. Which parts of the scene should be included and which excluded to create the greatest impact?

Mobius Arch by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

This rock arch, known as Mobius Arch, frames the mountains in the background.

Part of your job as the photographer job is to bring order to the chaos by deciding how to arrange the elements in the scene in your camera’s frame. You cannot just hold up your camera and expect to make an impactful image. You have to evaluate the scene and discover what elements of design are there to work with and how you are going to use them to create your composition.

There are visual clues to good composition all around you. Clues that will help you see with your photographer’s eye if you take the time to slow down and take notice of them. The elements of design are there, but sometimes you don’t notice them until you go looking specifically. That’s the key – you have to go looking for them. Once you start looking for a particular element of design, you will be surprised how often you will discover it in the world around you.

Valella Valella by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

These creatures are called Valella Valella. As they wash up on shore, they create a leading line that guides the viewer’s eye into the frame.

1. Lines

Lines are one of the fundamental building blocks of composition. They direct the eye around an image and give the viewer a path to follow. Understanding the power that lines have in graphic design, and how different lines have different effects on the viewer, will help you add more impact to your images.

  • Horizontal lines exist in almost every scene. They tend to be calming and give a sense of peace and tranquility.
  • Vertical lines tend to be associated with strength and power. Think of skyscrapers, trees in a forest, or waterfalls — all features of strength and grandeur.
  • Diagonal lines add energy to an image and give a sense of movement.
  • Curves create a graphic design that makes an image easy to look at by leading the viewer’s eye through the frame. They can be c-curves, s-curves, arches, circles or spirals.
  • Leading lines can be any type of line that leads the viewer’s eye toward the main subject.
North Algodones Sand Dunes, California by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

The lines in these California sand dunes lead the viewer’s eye into the frame toward the main subject.

2. Color

Colors determine the viewer’s emotional response to an image. They set the mood and determine what part of an image gets the most attention.

One of the most impactful ways to use color in your composition is to look for complementary colors. Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel such as blue and orange, red and green, purple and yellow.

Sea Nettle by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

Blue and orange are complementary colors.

3. Patterns

The human eye is drawn to patterns in the same way that our ears are drawn to the beat of music or the chorus of a song. The visual rhythm that the pattern creates makes order out of the chaos. It can give an image a sense of movement as our eyes travel from the first element to the next.

Filling the frame with a pattern is a sure way of turning a snapshot into a compelling photograph.

A pattern is simply a repetition of a graphic element such as a line, shape or color. Usually, a pattern is made up of at least three repetitions, but the more the better!

Jing'an Temple, Shanghai, China by Anne McKinnell

These prayer ribbons create a repeating pattern in the frame.

4. Symmetry

Despite everything we have been taught in photography about the rule of thirds and keeping things off balance and out of the middle, symmetry has always been associated with beauty. In a symmetrical composition, your main subject is placed at center stage and the eye is encouraged to travel in a circular center around the frame. This will make a scene feel harmonious and calm. But it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds!

The difference is in the details. It’s in the absolute perfection of the symmetry. A composition that is almost symmetrical will seem off and boring, one that is perfect will seem awe inspiring.

To make a photograph that is symmetrical, you will have to hone your eye to find items in the scene that are symmetrical and leave everything out of the frame that does not fit. The composition should have symmetry from corner to corner, which means that the background if there is one, must be symmetrical too.

Legislature in Victoria, British Columbia by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

This photo uses both symmetry and frame-in-frame as design elements.

5. Frame-in-Frame

One way to quickly add a new dimension to your subject is to give it a frame inside the boundaries of the image. The edges of your photograph are the first frame. Then, you want to add another frame around your subject, which is internal to the photograph.

The idea is to add interest to your photograph by framing your main subject inside another frame. This isn’t always possible, of course, but if you keep your eyes open for opportunities you will start to notice them more often.

Windows and doors are one of the most accessible frames for this technique because you find them everywhere. If you have a wonderful view from your window, try including the window in your image. Remember you can look from the inside out or from outside looking in.

Hatley Castle by Anne McKinnell - How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design

This gazebo provides an arch that frames the garden and castle outside.

Conclusion

The next time you are out photographing, keep one of the above elements of design in mind and go looking for it. Being purposeful about your composition is how you will progress from taking snapshots to making great images.


If you’re ready to dive deeper into composition and the elements of image design, be sure to check out Anne’s eBook The Compelling Photograph – Techniques for Creating Better Images.

The post How to Compose Photos with Impact Using Elements of Design by Anne McKinnell appeared first on Digital Photography School.

5 Surprising Habits That Will Make You a Better Photographer

When you’re learning photography, it seems natural to pay the most attention to the gear and techniques you use to create images. You’ve probably received advice about developing great habits like photographing every day, carrying your camera everywhere you go, trying different compositions, learning processing skills, and backing up your photos. These things are important, no doubt! But there is more to becoming a better photographer than that.

Getting the shot often comes down to being there at the right time, so these tips have to do with getting out in the field and staying out in the field. If you cultivate these surprising habits, you’ll surely become a better photographer.

Canon Beach, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell - better photographer

#1 – Research Locations

Before you set off on your photo shoot, doing a little research can go a long way to making better images. First, think about what potential subjects are available. I like to create a Pinterest board and start collecting images I like from the location. Once you get an idea of what is there, how can you create images that are different from what you have seen? Is there a different perspective you want to check out? Or maybe a night shot? Don’t forget to take note of the direction of light in the images you see. Imagine what it would look like at a different time of day.

Once you get an idea of what is there, how can you create images that are different from what you have seen? Is there a different perspective you want to check out? Or maybe a night shot? Don’t forget to take note of the direction of light in the images you’ve seen. Imagine what it would look like at a different time of day.

Joshua Tree National Park, California, by Anne McKinnell - habits better photographer

This is the location where the Joshua Trees are the densest in Joshua Tree National Park, California.

The second part of your research should be looking at maps and figuring out where exactly the best subjects are located and how to get there. Is the location close to the road or will you have to hike there? How long will it take?

#2 – Watch the Weather

Keeping a close eye on the weather forecast will dramatically affect your photos. Remember, bad weather is usually a good thing for photography! Storms bring the potential for seeing dramatic clouds, wet leaves, and even rainbows. You’ll get photos with fewer people in them too.

Red Rock State Park, Sedona, Arizona by Anne McKinnell - habits better photographer

Waiting for a break in the weather resulted in this rainbow at Cathedral Rock, Arizona.

When I was visiting Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona, I noticed that there were a lot of people around and it was difficult to get a photo without a lot of tourists in it. Then it started to rain and everyone left. I waited in my truck for 45 minutes during the downpour. Mine was the only vehicle in the parking lot, and when the rain began to die down, I headed out and was rewarded with a beautiful rainbow. I had the location all to myself.

If a clear sky is in your forecast, instead of photographing your scene with a plain blue sky, you might have the potential for a great night shot.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to check when the sun rises and sets and when the moon rises and sets. If you’re going to be on the beach, tides are also important.

#3 – Carry Less Stuff

Whether you choose to go out with your camera and only one or two lenses or switch your whole system to a lightweight mirrorless system, you’ll undoubtedly find that you can hike farther and get to more remote locations with less weight on your shoulders. The potential for finding unique subjects and unique compositions increases the farther away you get from the beaten track.

Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas, by Anne McKinnell - habits better photographer

I don’t think I would have made it this far up the hill if I had carried all of my heavy gear.

#4 – Don’t Forget the Comfort Essentials

Despite the last tip about carrying less stuff, it’s equally essential that you carry the right stuff to allow you to stay out there longer. Anything that makes you uncomfortable in the field will probably cause you to leave earlier than otherwise.

Thirst, hunger, being cold or wet, getting bitten by bugs and looming darkness are just a few things that can make you leave a location too soon. A few things on my “always carry” list are food, water, rain jacket, sweater, bug spray, and a headlamp. These items will get you more potential shots than that extra lens.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona, by Anne McKinnell habit better photographer

I probably wouldn’t have this photo if it were not for my trusty headlamp that I used to make my way back through the cacti in the dark.

#5 – Hike With a GPS

Getting lost is one of my fears when I’m out exploring, so I have started hiking with a handheld GPS. It took me awhile to get used to it because it’s not the fancy kind with built-in maps. All I do is mark a waypoint where I park my truck and then it tracks me as I walk. No cell signal or internet required. I can always figure out the direction to get back to my waypoint, or even follow my tracks to go back using the exact route I took to go out. It’s worth it to carry a couple of extra batteries for it too.

Now that I have the GPS, I am more willing to go off the trail and explore new things. It’s a whole new level of freedom!

Bisti Badlands, New Mexico, by Anne McKinnell - habits better photographer

At Bisti Badlands, New Mexico, it is very easy to get lost with no trails and strange rock formations in every direction. My GPS was a lifesaver.

Conclusion

These tips should help you figure out where to go when to get there and make sure you are comfortable in the field so you can stay as long as you like to get that special shot. Sometimes photography is a waiting game, but if you are comfortable you can be patient and wait for the magic moment to happen.

The post 5 Surprising Habits That Will Make You a Better Photographer by Anne McKinnell appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Take Care of Your Camera in Cold Weather

Mid-day, mid-winter, Alaska light. It just doesn't get any better.

Where I live, it gets cold. Not your “Brrr, I need to put on a sweater” kind of cold, but genuine, bone-chilling, spit-freezes-before-it hits-the-ground, kind of cold. Here in Fairbanks, Alaska, winter temperatures regularly drop far into the negatives, and yearly we suffer through snaps that send the mercury plummeting to -40F (-40C).

You’d think that in such conditions I wouldn’t want to step outside, let alone take photos, but you’d be wrong. Winter light, what few hours there is of it, is absolutely beautiful. That sweet, crisp glow can pull me from the deepest funk, and lure me out with a camera in hand. During many long winter nights, the aurora borealis dances overhead, and that too can draw me from my cozy cabin, into the snowy forest to make images. On the days I made the two images below, it was seriously cold, but that light, yep, that light will get me outside.

Low winter sun, and frosted birches near Fairbanks, Alaska. AK-FAI-Winter-sun-112172-17

To venture out in those temperatures, you’ve got to be prepared. You need the right clothes to stay warm, and you’ve got to make sure your camera equipment is ready too.

Forget about fashion

To shot the aurora during mid-winter in Alaska you need to dress warm!

To shot the aurora during mid-winter in Alaska, you need to dress warm!

You’ve got to dress right. It doesn’t matter what the light is doing, if you get frost-bite on your fingers, and can’t operate the camera. When dressed in my winter-photo clothing, I feel a bit like an onion, wrapped in layer upon layer. From inside to outside my system goes like this: long underwear, fleece or wool sweater and pants, down or synthetic vest, 800 fill down jacket with hood, windproof Thinsulate pants, two pairs of thick wool socks topped by expedition quality winter boots, a musher’s style hat complete with ear flaps, a balaclava or face mask, and thin nimble gloves with a pair of expedition overmitts dangling from wrist straps. Last, I’ll often throw a couple of chemical hand-warmers into my jacket pockets. When temperatures drop to -40F, it’s best not to mess around.

Two of my clients on an aurora photography tour, dressed for the weather.

Two of my clients on an aurora photography tour, properly dressed for the weather.

The author's well-worn NEOS overboots.

The author’s well-worn NEOS insulated overboots.

Stay Charged

The fluctuations of electricity mean that a cold battery cannot kick out the same amount of electricity as a warm battery. This means that on a brutally cold day, your camera or flash batteries will last only a small fraction of the time they normally would at room temperature. It’s a problem easily solved by carrying a spare battery or two.

A backup battery will let you swap out the cold, dead one in your camera, but there is a hitch: the spares should not be kept in your camera bag, but in an inside jacket pocket. That way they are warm when they go into the camera. When the dead battery warms back up in your pocket (with the help of the aforementioned chemical hand warmers) it will be ready to use for a while again. I find I can shoot at extremely cold temperatures for the better part of day by cycling two batteries back and forth from my pocket to my camera. Though this will vary a lot, depending on how power-hungry your camera is.

AK-FAI-Aurora-111154-35.jpg

Avoiding Bad Breath

The cold comes with other risks, one in particular, can ruin your day of photography, and that is – watch your breath. I mean it. A mistimed, warm, humid, breath will condense on your lens, resulting in a layer of milky frost on the glass. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on your lenses, no amount of sharpness will make up for that kind of damage. Wiping at it, usually just smudges it more, and defrosting it inside (see below), can take hours. Watch where you breathe, if you turn your camera around to check lens settings, don’t exhale. I also usually wear a neck gaiter or balaclava that I pull up over my mouth and nose. So with your mouth covered, your breath is directed up, where it frosts on your eyelashes instead of your camera.

This is what happens if you accidentally breathe on your lens during a cold weather shoot.

This is what happens if you accidentally breathe on your lens during a cold weather shoot.

Lens Caps Exist for a Reason

Breath is the usual culprit of fogged lenses, but when shooting at night, there is always the chance that natural frost will form. To avoid this, use your lens cap when you aren’t shooting. If you are walking from one location to another, taking a break, or searching for a new composition, put the cap back on your lens. When I’m out shooting the aurora at night, my cap is on my lens, even if I’m just walking a short distance to a new shooting location.

AK-Interior-Whites-103193-8

Back Indoors

Last, and perhaps most importantly, is the return indoors. You know how on a hot day, your cold beer glass gathers condensation? Ever watched how those drips can form and run down the bottle, pooling in a messy ring on the hard-wood table? Imagine that happening to your camera gear. It can, and it will. When you step back indoors to take a break, warm up, or finish up for the day, place your camera and lenses into an airtight bag.

A properly bagged and sealed camera, ready to be taken back indoors after a cold outdoor shoot.

A properly bagged and sealed camera, ready to be taken back indoors after a cold outdoor shoot.

Ziplocks are good, but I favor light-weight roll-top dry bags like those used by boaters to keep their gear dry. These are tough, reusable, and work like a charm. Once sealed up tight in a ziplock or dry bag, condensation can’t form on your gear. Just let your camera warm up to room temperature before you pull it out.

AK-NoatakPreserve-KellyRiver-1083-491

The cold scares a lot of photographers, and make no mistake, a frigid, mid-winter Alaskan night is nothing to mess around with. But with a few precautions – warm clothes, spare batteries, avoiding frost, and protecting against condensation – you can take advantage of the stellar beauty of crisp, clear, days and nights like this one.

The post How to Take Care of Your Camera in Cold Weather by David Shaw appeared first on Digital Photography School.

6 Easy Photography Techniques to Diversify Your Portfolio

In today’s world of digital photography there is an even greater demand and possibility to capture unique and different photos. Over time, every photographer will develop their own “cheat sheet” of techniques that they find pleasing, and more importantly, that their clients can use. There are numerous techniques and styles to diversify your portfolio, but here are six of my personal favourites to get you started.

KavDadfar_Tips-6

1 – Put Yourself in the Picture

You see a beautiful vista and think the only thing that can improve it is having a person in the photo, to convey a sense of scale. But, you haven’t seen a single person in hours and are unlikely to see anyone anytime soon. This is when you can be your own model, and put yourself in the photo.

  1. Simply set your camera on a tripod and attached your cable release.
  2. Work out where and how you will appear in the photo (sitting down, leaning, etc.).
  3. Compose the photo and take a trial shot to ensure the lighting and composition work.
  4. Set the self-timer on your release for enough seconds to allow to get to the spot you need to get to (I find that 10 seconds is more than enough time for me).
  5. Press the release start the timer, then get into position (take your time, you can always add more time if you need to).
  6. Look at the result on your camera and make adjustments as needed (where you stand, etc.).
  7. Repeat the process until you are happy with the result.

It will take a bit of trial and error, but the key is to make sure the photo looks natural. The great thing about putting yourself in the shot is that you also have a model release (providing there are no other people in the photo).

2 – Tilt-Shift Photography

Without getting into huge detail, this type of photography, also known as diorama effect or miniature faking, is essentially a technique that uses the illusion of blurring parts of the photograph, to turn a real world scene into something that looks like a miniature model. This effect can either be created while taking the photograph using a tilt-shift lens, or more commonly, in post-production using Photoshop or Lightroom (there are plenty on tutorials showing the step-by-step process available).

Tilt-shift photography is a great way to add diversity to your cityscapes.

Tilt-shift photography is a great way to add diversity to your cityscapes.

Photos that are taken from a high view point looking down work best (not directly from above), and you need to ensure that the main point of interest is sharp, as that will work in contrast to blurred parts of the image. Experiment with some of the photos you have and you may be surprised by the outcome.

3 – Silhouettes

One of the great aspects of photographs that utilize silhouettes is that it simplifies the photograph to a basic level, of showing the subject in a two dimensional format. There are no textures, just a general outline of the subject. To capture successful silhouettes you need to find a subject that is easily recognizable in this basic format (i.e. people, buildings, etc.).

Simply compose the photograph keeping the sun in front of you (it doesn’t have to be behind the subject), and if your silhouette is not dark enough, stop down the shutter speed a couple of stops (shooting in Manual mode, or use -2 Exposure Compensation in Aperture or Shutter Priority) until you get the desired effect. Remember to make sure you turn off your flash. The best time for silhouettes is at the beginning or end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky.

Successful silhouette photographs need to be a form that people will easily translate.

Successful silhouette photographs need to be a form that people will easily translate, something recognizable.

4 – Using Motion Blur

Motion blur is a truly fantastic way of adding dynamism to a photograph. Whether it’s the blur of movement of objects, people walking, playing sport or dancing, water, clouds in the sky, or even light trails from passing cars at night, a photograph with the correct motion blur can stand-out in any portfolio. Digital photography makes it incredibly easy to experiment with motion blur. The key is to ensure that it looks intentional, and not like camera shake.

To capture any sort of motion blur you will need to play around with the shutter speed. Put simply, the slower the shutter speed, the more movement you will capture, thus meaning more blur. Depending on the speed of the object, and also your creative vision, you will need a different shutter speed. Motion blur usually works best if there are sharp parts in a photo that contrast against the blur, so when using slow shutter speeds you will often need a tripod.

Motion blur is a great way to convey movement and speed and can add real dynamism to your images.

Motion blur is a great way to convey movement and speed and can add real dynamism to your images.

5 – Bleached Effect

This is one of the Lightroom preset effects that I love using on certain type of photos. Usually for portraits where the light is fairly flat and uninteresting, and I feel the photo feels gritty, harsh, and could benefit from muted tones. There are lots of different preset effects in Lightroom, and sometimes it’s worth having a flick through them to see if there are any that can enhance a photo. Like always, the great thing is that you can always revert to the original.

There are plenty of presets on Lightroom. Have flick through them and you might find something that enhances the photo.

There are plenty of presets on Lightroom. Have flick through them and you might find something that enhances the photo.

6 – Unique Angles

Capturing unique photos is becoming more and more difficult, so sometimes you really have to think beyond the obvious eye-level shot. Get above objects and they look completely different. Get close to them and you start to capture details that people normally don’t see. Crouch down and capture a low angle, suddenly the scene takes on a completely different look. Next time you have captured the first photo, to go beyond that and capture a few more, but at completely different angles.

I had to stand on my chair to capture this photo.

I had to stand on my chair to capture this photo.

This list is by no means all encompassing. Infrared photography, HDR, black and white photography, the list goes on and on. The important thing is to experiment and try out new techniques that you enjoy, find pleasing, and also help the final outcome. Over time you will build up a set of techniques and you will actively take photos for use with those techniques.

Now it’s your turn. What are your favorite techniques? Share them below.

The post 6 Easy Photography Techniques to Diversify Your Portfolio by Kav Dadfar appeared first on Digital Photography School.

How to Use Foreground to Create Depth in Your Images

One of the biggest hurdles in photography is the fact that our majestic three-dimensional scene is rendered into a mere two-dimensional image, and the physical depth that we experience in real life is lost. To resurrect this spacious feeling, we can create the illusion of depth where there is none, by using strong elements in the foreground.

Cannon Beach, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell

When we make a photograph, our natural urge is to get a clear shot of the main subject, without other objects getting between it and the lens. That’s exactly what makes foreground elements so powerful though – they’re unexpected, and sometimes even counter-intuitive. Like any other compositional element, they create shapes, lines, and patterns that lead the viewer’s eye through the image and can be used to enhance its visual impact.

What is the foreground?

When you are working with a grand vista landscape scene, you can often divide it into three sections: the foreground, mid-ground, and background. For example, the scene below contains some colorful shrubs in the foreground, a pond in the mid-ground, and trees in the background.

Paradise Meadows by Anne McKinnell

The foreground, mid-ground, and background areas are not at fixed distances, but are understood relative to each other. The foreground consists of anything that lies between you and your subject, which is typically considered to be in the mid-ground (but not always). The background is made up of everything behind the subject.

You can think of a photograph like a stage: you have the upstage – that’s the background. It gives setting and context to what happens below it. Center stage is the mid-ground, where the bulk of the action takes place. But downstage – the foreground – is the closest to the audience, and therefore the most intimate part. It is capable of whispering to them and luring them into the action. It is the most easily seen and heard, and therefore understood, and can reveal the finer details of the story.

Trona Pinnacles, California, by Anne McKinnell

Not all photographs have three sections though, some just have a foreground and a background, and some have no depth at all.

How is the foreground used?

The foreground should contain some key point of interest, such as a human figure, a tree, a boat, some flowers, rocks, or anything else that is comparatively near to you. Composing in this way evokes depth, and gives your image the illusion of that missing third dimension.

Green Point, Newfoundland, by Anne McKinnell

When you’re composing a photo and you feel that it’s looking a little too flat, placing something in the foreground can instantly add a sense of depth. Exactly how this is done depends entirely on your subject, and on your own creative decisions. This can mean physically adding something to your scene, if you are able to. But most of the time, you’ll be looking for objects in the surrounding area that would make an interesting foreground, and changing your perspective – either by moving your camera higher, lower, or to one side – to incorporate those elements inside of the frame.

For example, imagine a group of oak trees in a field, all standing in a row. If you photograph them head-on, they’ll all look more or less identical – their size, distance, and focus will be the same, and the composition will likely be a flat, static one. However, if you change your perspective and shoot them from one side, everything changes. One becomes closer, and therefore larger, while the others shrink in comparison. When a viewer sees this image, their eyes will immediately fall on the tree in the foreground first, and the implied line created by the row will pull their gaze inwards towards the other trees. Suddenly, the composition has depth!

Boone Hall Plantation, South Carolina, by Anne McKinnelll

Likewise, you could change your perspective by lowering your camera angle to incorporate rocks, flowers, or anything else that is on the ground, into your image. This use of foreground will provide a point for the viewer’s eye to enter the image, and any lines created in the foreground will direct their eye into the image.

Like any other compositional element, the foreground is only helpful if it adds to the impact of the image. If it doesn’t help tell the story, or worse yet, if it distracts the eye, then it isn’t working as a benefit to your image. Your foreground should be an important part of the scene, and not something distracting. Look for things that point towards the focal point in some way.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland, by Anne McKinnell

Foreground elements can even be made of simple shapes and lines. In some cases, your foreground elements may be nothing but shapes and lines, like the paint on a stretch of road, the waves on the ocean’s shore, or the shadows cast across a wind-swept desert. Anything that forms a line towards your subject is especially effective. These are known as leading lines.

Similarly, a wall that stretches into the picture from the foreground will carry the eye along with it. The corners of your frame are especially strong points, and anything that leads inwards from them will have a particular impact. Textures are another compositional tool that can make for an interesting foreground.

Salton Sea, California, by Anne McKinnell

Arranging your composition so that there are interesting elements in front of your main subject is a very effective compositional tool that can evoke depth, by giving your image the illusion of the missing third dimension.


This week on dPS we’re featuring a series of articles about composition. Many different elements and ways to compose images for more impact. Check out the ones we’ve done so far:

The post How to Use Foreground to Create Depth in Your Images by Anne McKinnell appeared first on Digital Photography School.

5 Tips for Golden Hour Photography

It’s pretty much an accepted fact that the earlier and later parts of the day are best for photography, but if you want the absolute richest, warmest, most beautiful light, the hours directly following sunrise and leading up to sunset – known as the golden hours – are prime time for natural light.

This is when the subtle golden light from the low-hanging sun bathes the world in a warm glow, and shadows become long and dramatic, but not harsh.

Mono Lake, California, by Anne McKinnell

Those hours can be short-lived, though as once the sun starts to rise or set, it isn’t long before it climbs too high, or disappears altogether. To help you get every second out of each golden hour, consider these tips when you go out shooting.

1. Be There

The first step to making the most of the golden hours is knowing exactly what time that magic light is going to happen. Because the golden light is caused by our view of the sun, the timing will change with the seasons. Exactly what time the sun passes over the horizon depends the time of year and your location.

Sedona, Arizona, by Anne McKinnell

The time of sunrise and set is easy to find in your newspaper or online and that is a good place to start to calculate when the golden light will happen. But golden hour may not be anywhere near as long as an hour depending, on the season and your location. For example, near the equator, the sun rises quickly and you may only get golden minutes. On the other hand, in far northern locations the sun may not rise very high in the sky at all and you might get golden light all day.

You also need to watch how the clouds are forming throughout the day, since clouds on the horizon will cut your golden hour short.

2. Prepare Early

The golden hour (or minutes) can pass very quickly, so if you’re not already out shooting when the golden light starts, it’s likely to be over by the time you find your subject, choose a composition, set up your camera, and take the shot. If you know in advance what time you need to be there, you can plan ahead. Go out a couple of hours beforehand so you’ll have time to get to your location, get set up, and be ready to take the photo by the time the horizon starts to glow.

Depoe Bay, Oregon, by Anne McKinnell

By doing this, of course, you have to think into the future a bit. Rather than compose your image based on where the sun is, you must arrange your frame according to where the sun will be. To do this, think about the path the sun takes through the sky. It rises in the east, so you know where you can expect to see it first, and because it sets in the west you know which direction it’s moving. You can even find out the exact position where the sun will set on the horizon using various website and apps. Plan your shots with this information in mind. A compass will come in handy. Compose your photograph where the sun is going to be, then just relax and wait for the moment to present itself.

3. Balance the Exposure

The contrast between light and shadow isn’t as extreme during the golden hours as it is in the middle of the day, but there can still be a huge tonal range between highlights and lowlights (shadows). Especially if you’re trying to capture the sky itself in the picture, its brightness will almost certainly overpower the scene below it.

There are many ways to balance a difference in brightness between two parts of your composition. Bracketing your shots is a good start – use your camera’s exposure compensation feature (+/- button) to take several pictures of a scene with different levels of brightness. There might be a perfect exposure setting that captures both light and shadow areas.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona, by Anne McKinnell

If you shoot in your camera’s uncompressed RAW format you’ll be able to individually adjust your photo’s highlights and lowlights in post-processing, reducing the contrast while preserving as much detail as possible. This way, if one area of your photo is too dark and another is too bright, you can tone down the whiter shades while bringing up the darker shades to create a well-balanced image. This level of control isn’t possible with compressed JPG files, which don’t save the subtle information in those areas.

If the sky is consistently too bright in your photos, consider using a graduated filter that is tinted at one end, but fades out and is transparent on the other. This will reduce the exposure on only half of the image. By putting the tinted half at the top it will darken the appearance of the sky.

Another option is to take your bracketed shots and combine them in post-processing to make a high dynamic range (HDR) image (Merge to HDR in LR or another method).

4. Use Fill-Flash

Rather than take light away from the brighter areas, your other option is to add light to the darker parts instead. You can do this with a continuous light source like a lamp. Moving the light closer to the subject will make it brighter, and pulling the light away will dim it.

Superstition Mountains by Anne McKinnell

Of course, if you’re outside you probably don’t have a lamp on hand. What you probably do have, though, is your on-camera (or off-camera) flash. Flash doesn’t always have to act as the main light source in a picture – it can enhance an existing light source (such as the sun) by simply adding light into the shadow areas of a photograph.

Flashes also don’t have to be used at full power. Nearly every camera will have a Flash Compensation option. This gives you the ability to turn the brightness of your flash up or down. A dimmer flash will still add light to your scene, but it won’t be strong enough to overtake the primary light source and create new shadows of its own. Using it in this way is known as fill-flash. When your subject is backlit, such as by a fiery sunset, use this method to prevent silhouetting. Bracket your shots using different flash settings to achieve the right balance of brightness between the foreground and background.

5. Set the Colour Temperature

Combining two light sources can cause other complications though – particularly with the white balance. Every light source has a different hue, or colour temperature. Incandescent bulbs have a yellow/orange (warm) cast, while fluorescents are sort of blue/green (cool). Our eyes adjust to those slight shifts on their own, but a camera has to measure the balance of the light so it can alter its colours, and ensure that a white object looks white and not yellow/orange or blue/green. Modern cameras can do this automatically, or you can manually select what kind of light to balance the camera to (daylight, indoor light, candlelight, etc.).

Devils Tower, Wyoming, by Anne McKinnell

The golden hours have a lot of warm coloured light, so if left on auto white balance, the camera will adjust its colours to be a little more blue to compensate. However, if you add in the light of a flash, which is cool in tone, one of two things will happen: the camera will keep the same white balance setting as before, and the flash’s light will appear even more blue, or the camera will re-adjust itself to the white balance of the flash, causing it to look normal but the rest of the picture to appear more orange.

When using two different light sources, it’s important to notice the colour temperature of each. Then, decide which of them you want to appear neutral, and which one should retain its natural colour. Rather than keeping your camera on auto white balance, set it to the type of light you want neutralized. If you shoot in RAW format, this can also be changed in post-processing.

Arch at Whitney Pocket, Nevada, by Anne McKinnell

Remember, golden hour is not sunset or sunrise, but shortly before and after those times when your subject still has direct light falling on it. The magical golden light will transform your photos from ordinary to extraordinary. It’s all about the light!

The post 5 Tips for Golden Hour Photography by Anne McKinnell appeared first on Digital Photography School.

The Advantages of Renting Photographic Gear Before you Buy

We have all heard the expression “The gear does not make the photo. The photographer makes the photo.” That being said, the gear does certainly help in perfecting the art of photography.

If you are a professional photographer or even a serious amateur, you know that photography is quite an expensive profession/hobby. Good equipment can be expensive and by the time you build your day-to-day gear bag, it can set you back several thousands of dollars. Just when you think you have the perfect setup,  you hear about the latest camera or a faster lens than what you have just being released for pre-order. Gear lust is very real among photographers!

Kenichi Nobusue

By kenichi nobusue

This is where renting gear or even borrowing becomes a viable option for many professional as well as serious amateurs.

Benefits of renting photo gear

There are several advantages to renting photographic equipment.

  • The cost of renting is typically much lower than cost of buying the gear. This becomes more relevant if it is not something you are going to use too often (like a mega telephoto lens, fish-eye, or tilt-shift lens).

    Jon Fingas

    By Jon Fingas

  • Ability to try out the equipment and see if it suits your style of photography. Once you know you like a piece of gear, you can make the investment and know you’re making the right choice.
  • Using a rental as a backup system for assignments especially events like weddings or concerts.
  • Traveling light and having gear shipped directly to your hotel is an option many photographers mention as a plus for renting. This also eliminates travel-related anxiety around lost luggage and excess baggage charges.
  • Using a rental when your main gear is out for repair. This let’s you keep working while you wait for repairs to be completed.
  • Eliminating buyer’s remorse. It is true that not every piece of gear works for everyone. Often times we buy gear because a certain photographer that we admire has the same equipment, only to be disappointed that our pictures are no where like theirs.

Renting – online versus local stores

Richard Fisher

By Richard Fisher

There are many different options for renting photographic gear. You can do so from local stores in your area or online vendors. In the US, big camera chain stores like CalumetPhotographic and AdoramaRentals sell as well as rent photo gear. CalumetPhoto, one of the local camera retailers in my area, also has local stores where you can go to pick up and drop off rental equipment. They tend to have a wide variety of equipment but definitely recommend reserving gear, especially if you want it for a specific event like weddings, to ensure you get what you want.

There are online stores like Borrowlens and Lensprotogo that also offer a wide variety of lens, cameras and other equipment for rent. You order online and have the gear shipped to your home or location of your choice. Once you are done, you ship it back to them. There is definitely more flexibility in renting gear online but there is the added cost of shipping and insurance, as well as a slight risk that the gear might not arrive in time (any unforeseen circumstances like extreme weather).

Benefits of borrowing photo gear

Giyu (Velvia)

By Giyu (Velvia)

Sometimes you get lucky and have other photographer friends who let you borrow their equipment for a photoshoot, or just to test out – definitely one of the more cost effective ways of trying out photographic gear. However, for those of us who don’t have such awesome friends, there is another method of renting temporary gear that is starting to become popular.

Online companies like CameraLends provide access to a lending community where you can rent cameras directly from local photographers and film makers. On the CameraLends website, they offer a peer-to-peer lending community for photographers and videographers. Owners post unused gear to rent out to other photographers and you can rent gear directly from local photographers, faster and cheaper than traditional means. But this service is somewhat dependent on the market you are in. Not every market will have every piece of equipment available for rent.

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 10.51.13 AM

Regardless of what method you choose to borrow or rent camera equipment, definitely try out gear before you make the investment to purchase it. The last thing you want to happen is buying equipment you think you want or need, only to find that it is really not benefiting your particular style of photography.

The post The Advantages of Renting Photographic Gear Before you Buy by Karthika Gupta appeared first on Digital Photography School.

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