Practical Color Management – How to Set Up Your Printer to Match Your Monitor

The post Practical Color Management – How to Set Up Your Printer to Match Your Monitor appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Herb Paynter.


Matching the color you captured with your camera and edited on your computer screen can be a very serious challenge to reproduce on paper. The various technologies involved in the processes differ significantly from one another.

If you’ve ever encountered problems matching the color of your printed pictures to the color you see on your computer screen, there’s a pretty good reason why. Color is not as simple to define as that box of Crayons you played with as a child. Practical color management can be very complex.

Image: Caption: Dealing with color was a whole lot simpler when you were a kid; a box of Crayola cra...

Caption: Dealing with color was a whole lot simpler when you were a kid; a box of Crayola crayons had all the answers. Life got a bit more complicated when digital color came along. Now you really have to think.


Reproducing color

Reproducing color is a complicated issue to deal with, especially when it comes to transferring pixels to paper. Color is very subjective, and matching the results from one system to another can produce some very different looks. The term “color print” can mean many different things, depending on the type of printing technology you’re dealing with. Just because the image on your screen looks great doesn’t mean that what comes out of your printer will faithfully reproduce that same appearance.


Large format, inkjet, and offset printing are just two of the color reproduction processes.


There are dozens of unique color printing machines and technologies on the market today, and most are inkjets, though occasionally we print pictures on color lasers, dye sublimation printers and several other types of printing devices. This means that four completely different technologies are trying to produce four different translations of a single color image and trying to make them all look the same.

And that’s just the beginning of the challenges because even different models of each of these printers (even from the same manufacturer) will produce slightly different results.


Dye-sublimation and color laser printers present two more challenges.


Inks from these different technologies get sprayed, baked, fused and pushed into the (usually paper) substrate, each reproducing color using a completely different method. Some inkjet printers utilize up to twelve different colors of liquid ink, while others print only four colors. Laser printers fuse colored powder onto paper in geometric dot clusters called halftone cells. Dye sublimation printers laminate just three (CMY) colors of dyes from plastic sheets onto a substrate, and printing presses transfer four (CMYK) colors of peanut-butter consistency inks at high speeds and under extreme pressure.

Each of these different technologies attempts to reproduce a similar appearance from the same original color image.

Printing papers open up yet another can of worms to deal with. Each paper stock (let alone other textures and surfaces) come in a variety of shades of “white” and varying surface types that absorb ink and reflect light differently. Some inks are absorbed into the paper surfaces while others sit on top of the paper. These dozens of variables result in hundreds of differing results.

Getting all these color technologies to appear consistent makes the proverbial challenge of “herding of cats” sound easy. Is it any wonder why you’ll see slightly different results from different printers?

Image: Colorants is the word that encompasses all color distribution, including solid and liquid ink...

Colorants is the word that encompasses all color distribution, including solid and liquid inks, dyes, and even toner powders.

Dealing with color has always been a major challenge, even for professionals. The first thing you should realize is that accurately matching color between the various technologies is technically an impossibility. If you think otherwise, you simply haven’t been around long enough! I’m not trying to frighten you with all these variables and problems, but the more you recognize the differences, the more prepared you will be to make them work.

Here’s the good news…there is a very workable solution to all this confusion. Recognizing the underlying issues of each is the first step to reaching a workable solution. Each convoluted challenge requires a relatively simple solution; one that the color science community has provided through a process called color management, or CM.

At the heart of color management is an integral step called “profiling.” Profiling in color science is a very good thing. It simply involves identifying each process’ uniqueness and compensating for that uniqueness.

Here’s how the process works.

Image: The all-encompassing color measurement process that defines how human beings see and identify...

The all-encompassing color measurement process that defines how human beings see and identify colors is known as the Visible Spectrum. It’s defined and monitored by this worldwide organization.


The Reference Standard

The International Commission on Illumination, also known as the CIE (the Commission Internationale d’Eclarage), is a worldwide federation of color scientists, researchers, mathematicians, and lithographers who have developed a systematic approach to addressing color issues. They have researched all the colors that the human eye can actually see and identify. While there are scientific instruments that can see even more colors than the human eye can, the standard for all color perception remains limited to what the average human eye can recognize.

Studies were developed that produced the CIE 1931 XYZ color space, a measured collection of about 7 million colors that are recognized by human beings with 20-20 eyesight. This study established what science calls the Visible Spectrum based on these colors. While there are many more “color frequencies” in the Electromagnetic Spectrum, they are beyond the scope of human eyesight. Human eyesight is based then on the Visible Spectrum.

The CIE has mapped this collection of measured colors as an odd-looking horseshoe chart representing all visible colors. The color industry recognizes this system as the basis for evaluating colors recorded, viewed, and printed on cameras, monitors, and printers. The particular intent of this system is to standardize the output of photographic images on various color printers.

Since every color printing technology produces slightly different color results, this single XYZ collection remains THE reference color space. It serves as the holy grail of color reference. The XYZ space is the central reference for judging and evaluating all printed color.

Here’s how the system works…


Color correction depends on accuracy. That accuracy depends on the confidence that what you are seeing on your monitor is an accurate depiction of what’s contained in the digital image file. Profiling a monitor is the critical first step.

Monitor profiling

Today’s computer monitors produce quite accurate colors right out of the carton. However, if you want to guarantee that the colors you see on your monitor are exactly the same colors that came out of your camera, you need to take this extra step.

The process is simple. Purchase a puck-like device like the X-Rite i1Studio spectrophotometer. Then hang it in front of your monitor and run the provided software that makes your monitor dance with colors while measuring the strength and hue of the colors flashing on the screen. This light show produces a monitor profile that gets stored on your computer and subsequently adjusts and corrects any errant colors. This allows you to see the whole truth of the color file, no muss, no fuss.

Printer/paper profiling

This next process should be equally painless. Most paper manufacturers provide downloadable profiles they’ve developed for their most popular printing papers and a wide variety of popular printers. Should you have to (or choose to) develop your own printer/paper/ink profile, you can do so using that same X-Rite i1 Studio.

Here’s how you do it…


The next step in reproducing color accurately, is making certain that the colors seen on the monitor are printed faithfully onto specific printing papers. Each paper surface and color (whiteness) affects the way light is reflected, and the color is perceived.

  1. A test chart of carefully defined color patches (based on this CIE XYZ color space) is printed from the software provided with the i1 Studio. The printed patch values are then measured by the i1 Studio comparing the printed patch values produced by the X-Rite reference chart to the known XYZ values established by the CIE. The difference between these patch values is recorded as a “profile” or evaluation. This profile reveals the color personality of each printer and paper tested, making a note of where the colors don’t match the test file.
  2. In the parts of the color spectrum where the printed color values differ from the reference chart values, minor adjustment instructions are made to either boost or diminish colors to more closely match the reference chart.
  3. This profile is then placed in your computer’s printer profile folder where it can be referenced by your printer every time you print a picture. The result of choosing the correct profile from the list of papers offered by your printer driver should result in a print that closely resembles the colors you see on your screen.

While there is a whole lot more detail involved in this profiling process, this basic explanation should give you a general idea of the procedure.

Every time you change the paper type or change the brand of ink, a unique profile should be developed to ensure the printer achieves the most consistent, repeatable results.

Precision profiling is a time-consuming chore, and most mortals have neither the time nor the access to these specialized devices to ensure absolute accuracy. However, printer and paper manufacturers use even more expensive versions of these spectrophotometer devices to test their products and develop very accurate printer/paper profiles. These profiles are freely available for download from each manufacturer’s site.

Setting up the printer

When it comes time to print your picture, there are certain issues you must address and set correctly in the print driver. There are generally two ways to have the color file prepared for output: either the printer driver or Photoshop will handle the chores. The choice is up to you, though I recommend that you allow Photoshop to do the work.

Image: Each profiled paper/ink/printer combination manage the way inks (colorants) are distributed b...

Each profiled paper/ink/printer combination manage the way inks (colorants) are distributed by the printer. Color Management is the discipline of controlling all of the major variables involved in the process.

If you choose to have Photoshop manage the Colors:

  • First, take note of the paper loaded in the printer. Remember, each paper type reacts to the colorant (ink, powder, etc.) differently, and your printer has no way of knowing what paper is in the hopper.
  • Second, choose File -> Print.
  • Third, choose Photoshop Manages Colors.
  • For Printer Profile, select the profile that best matches your output device and paper type.
  • Set the “rendering intent” selection to either Perceptual (which tells the printer to try to preserve the visual relationship between colors, which is what the human eye does) or Relative Colorimetric (this instructs the printer to shift the out-of-gamut colors to the closest reproducible color).
  • When available, always check Black Point Compensation as it adjusts the overall baseline for the deepest shadow point in the image.

If you choose to have the Printer manage the Colors:

  • First, realize that all of the controls for color and range in the image will be controlled by the printer and not by you.
  • Make certain that you pay close attention to all the items in the print dialog that appears after you click “Print” from the Photoshop dialog.
  • Since every printer and print technology differs, little further advice can be offered. This is not to infer that inferior results will occur, just that Photoshop relinquishes control to you and your printer’s manufacturer.

Final thoughts

If good-enough color is good enough for you, then the simple act of noting the general type of paper (coated, glossy, matte, etc.) available will suffice and satisfy your needs. However, if you extensively adjust your images for color fidelity in the editing process and demand absolute color accuracy, then employing accurate monitor and printer profiles is essential for practical color management.

The printer and paper manufacturers have done most of the hard work of producing and honoring accurate profiles. Your job is to make intelligent pull-down menu choices that will seriously affect your printing results.

It may not be rocket science, but it is color science.

Happy printing!



The post Practical Color Management – How to Set Up Your Printer to Match Your Monitor appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Herb Paynter.

An Introduction to Amazing Abstract Automotive Photography

The post An Introduction to Amazing Abstract Automotive Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

Some photographs document an event or show a person, place or thing. These are photos of record accurately capturing an image that represents what we see. Other times we want to take a more artistic approach, making a photograph more about a feeling than solely about the subject itself. Sometimes the two mix, for instance in advertising photography, where we might want to accurately show a product but do it in an artistic way that invites the viewer to also feel a certain way about the product.

porsche abstract automotive photography

The beautiful lines of a Porsche and the curves of a twisting road. Put the two together to create a story.

When leaning toward the artistic and sometimes abstract interpretations of photo subjects, I like to remember the words of famous photographer Minor White:

“One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”

abstract automotive photography

You don’t need to show the whole car to tell the story. The colors and lines contribute to the image of this American legend.

Applying this to the subject of abstract automotive photography, my intent here is not to teach you everything there is to know about making abstract automotive photos, but to simply get your creative juices flowing. You’ll note that none of the photos here show a complete automobile, but instead depict details, pieces, and parts.

The focus here is the artistic concepts of form, shape, line, tone, color, pattern, light, and shadow.

blurry mustang shot

The shot is blurry by design. I wanted to create a feeling of motion here.

dashboard of mustang

You can also get creative with interior images. The zoom-blur effect was added later in editing.

car steering wheel composite

Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? The patterns and holes in wheels can look like faces – a phenomenon known as Pareidolia.

Automobiles may be a mode of transportation, but they are also art objects – the work of designers who pay much attention to form as well as function. Know that an automotive artist purposely and artistically designed every detail of every car. We, as photographers, can explore that art, find the beauty, note how light plays across the curves and surfaces of an automobile, and use it to craft beautiful photos.

cars all in a row

You can make a shot like this on a car lot. It’s all about repeating shapes, lines, and patterns.

What and where

Finding cars to photograph and places to photograph them will depend on what’s available to you. I work part-time at a Ford dealership, photographing new cars for posting on the internet. These are not art photos. They serve the purpose I spoke of earlier: accurately representing the vehicles to interested buyers. The purpose, time, and volume don’t permit spending much time on each photo. However, when time does permit, the light is especially nice, or a particularly interesting car is available, I will get a little more creative.

mustang front angle

Find an angle that works and you can use it over and over. Can you tell I like this composition when photographing Mustangs?

abstract transmission composite

Why restrict yourself to the exterior components of a car? When I saw this transmission torn apart on the workbench, I asked the mechanic if I could take some shots.

You might not work at a car dealership, but you could probably talk a local dealer into letting you take photos of their cars particularly if you’d share some of your images with them.

Alternatively, perhaps you or a friend have a nice car you could start with. Begin making and showing some good work and, before long, you’ll have people asking if you can photograph their cars.

old cars

Car shows can be a great place for auto art photography. They often have a diversity of makes and models from different eras.

Car shows

Most areas have occasional car shows, where owners polish their vehicles to a mirror-like finish and proudly show them. Often there will be a nice variety of vehicles, sometimes exotics, hotrods, older classics, and antiques. Because the public is typically invited to these events, and they are held in public spaces, photography is generally not a problem.

In fact, the owners practically expect people to ogle and photograph their cars. One thing they will not appreciate (and will likely get you run off in a big hurry) is touching their beauties. Always be respectful and ask if there’s any doubt about whether you can photograph the vehicles.

And, above all, never touch the cars.

red Jaguar with raindrops - abstract automotive photography

Raindrops on red Jags…These are a few of my favorite things. The color, the diagonal lines, the iconic symbols, and the interest added by the raindrops on a freshly-waxed hood all combine to make this image work.

One problem is that there will typically be lots of people around. Because cars are covered with highly reflective surfaces, getting shots without people’s reflections can sometimes be a problem.

I have no real solution for this, other than to make two suggestions:

  1. When making tight shots of particular pieces of a car, the chances of getting a reflection in your shot is much less than if you were photographing the entire car.
  2. Learn to be patient. Frame up your shot, be ready, wait for the person in the shot to move on, and then quickly make your photo.
reflections in old cars

It can be hard to keep bystanders, or even yourself, out of the reflections in glass, chrome, and shiny paint.

red and white car

Fins up! How cool is this beauty, found at a local car show?

black and white old car

Sometimes monochrome is the best way to show the old classics, much like they might have appeared in an old film of the era. Sunstars are courtesy of the noon sun, a highly polished surface, and an f/22 aperture.


High-end automotive photography can involve as much care in lighting as any product or model session. There are studios specially designed to drive a car inside to photograph. I know a local guy who has such a studio. It has full hard cyclorama walls, a glossy white floor, and a lighting system that includes the largest softbox I’ve ever seen. The softbox has to be at least 30 feet long, maybe more!

abstract hood ornament compositions

Hood ornaments are art objects unto themselves. Then add a sunstar with a specular highlight and a small aperture. Both images were made in full noon sun.

front of car - abstract automotive photography

The hood emblem of an old Ford F-100 pickup reminded me of the symbol used by the superhero the Flash.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the shots in this article. They are all made outside with just daylight, no flash, sometimes on a tripod, but many times handheld. Often they were made in the bright noonday sun. Sometimes the bright sun is nice, such as when the specular highlights on chrome, combined with a small aperture, create sunstars.

The point is that you don’t need anything fancy to try this kind of photography. A creative eye, some imagination, and the ability to properly control focus, depth of field, and exposure are all you need.

rusing car - abstract automotive photography

The door handle is the only touch of reality in this otherwise purely abstract image.

Gettin’ funky in the junkyard

Even the nicest cars will wind up here one day – the junkyard.

One might think it a strange place to make photos. However, for some reason (perhaps nostalgia?), many of us are fascinated by old things. In the auto junkyard, you’ll often find old classics quietly rusting in peace. The once-shiny paint fades to all kinds of interesting colors and patinas. And the layers of peeling paint and rust make an incredible canvas for abstract art.

car in junkyard

On the right, an old tour bus used by country star Gene Autry is now parked in Palouse, Washington. On the left, a tight shot of the abstract art to be found if you explore the rust patterns on the old band bus.

junkyard abstract automotive photography

Corruption of Power

A word of caution about junkyard photography: Always ask the owner if you can take pictures on their property.

Yes, oftentimes auto junkyard owners will puzzle over why anyone would want to make photos of a bunch of old beat-up and rusting cars. Ask nicely. Convince the owner you’re only there to make photos and you won’t be taking any spare parts home with you. You’ll often get the go-ahead.

Now, you’ll be working in an environment of sharp rusty metal, broken glass, spilled oil, gas, and other automotive fluids, so caution is important. (It might be a good idea to have your tetanus shot up-to-date and carry a first aid kit just in case.)

Whatever you do, just don’t head onto the property without permission, even if the area seems abandoned. You don’t want to meet the infamous junkyard dog or his angry owner.

junkyard abstract hood

You can likely still tell this is the hood of an old car. Even so, it’s really about the patterns, textures, lines, and colors.

Getting really abstract

It could be argued that the previous photos in this article really aren’t “abstract” images.

So let’s take a deep dive into really abstract automotive photography – the kind not everyone will appreciate. You’re almost guaranteed to have viewers ask, “What’s that??!!”

No matter. Abstract art is an acquired taste. But once the bug bites you, you’ll find an auto junkyard is practically a gallery of images all begging for your attention.

I took a photo workshop by noted photographer Art Wolfe earlier this year called “Photography as Art,” and he really opened my eyes to this kind of imagery. After the workshop, the auto junkyard became a whole new experience. It was suddenly a place where abstract imagery abounded and peeling paint, broken glass, rust, and decay were the stuff of great photos.

junkyard automotive abstract

It’s still an old car, but now we’ve entered the world of pure abstract art. Unlike photographing iconic landmarks, where your photo is pretty much what everyone gets, making these kinds of images guarantees your photo will be one of a kind.

junkyard abstract automotive photography

I have to wonder if this vehicle was painted numerous times over in its life, or if this is just how the paint ages.

abstract car paint peeling

I’ve seen abstract art like this selling for big money and displayed on the walls of corporate offices. I hope to someday figure out just how to tap into that market.

Go do it

I invite you to look at the shots here, look at other abstract automotive photography online, and get inspired. Then just go do it.

Make it a point to not photograph the entire car. Instead look at the shapes, lines, tone, color, and all the other artistic elements of the vehicle. Isolate these to make your shot.

If getting truly abstract images interests you, find some old cars in a junkyard and get in tight. Use the textures, colors, and patterns to make your shot. Be less concerned about what the subject is and more concerned about how the image feels.

Have fun and, if you get some good abstract automotive photography, share them in the comment section below. Best wishes!



The post An Introduction to Amazing Abstract Automotive Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

The Highline Ballhead Review: The Best Bargain Ballhead in 2019?

The post The Highline Ballhead Review: The Best Bargain Ballhead in 2019? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

The Highline ballhead is billed by its creators, Colorado Tripod Company, as “ultralight,” with an “increased range of motion.”

But does the ballhead live up to the hype?

That’s what this Highline ballhead review is all about. I recently received a ballhead of my own, and I’ve been putting it through its paces.

In the next few sections, I’m going to take you through my experiences with the Highline ballhead. And I’ll let you know if it’s something you should consider purchasing.

(Spoiler alert: It’s a bargain worth checking out.)

Highline ballhead review

Two views of the Highline ballhead.

The Highline ballhead overview

First things first:

Where does this new ballhead come from?

The Highline ballhead is produced by the Colorado Tripod Company (CTC). The CTC caught the attention of photographers when they announced on Kickstarter they would be producing the “world’s first titanium tripod system.”

For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the aluminum version of the Highline Ballhead, as that is the product I received for review. However, a titanium version is available from CTC.

As for the specs:

The Highline ballhead is has a 70 lb (32 kg) load capacity, though the ballhead itself weighs just 16 oz (0.45 kg). The head is cut out of aluminum. The ball itself is 1.89 in (4.8 cm) in diameter.

My first impressions of the Highline ballhead

The Highline ballhead makes a great impression from the get-go.

Opening the box, I found a quality neoprene drawstring bag with the Colorado Tripod Company logo printed on it. Inside the bag was the ballhead, as well as a plastic zip bag containing two Allen wrenches for working with the hex-head screws on the head. The bag also contained an adapter so the head can be mounted on tripods with 1/4-20 screws (without the adapter, the head mounts on the larger 3/8-16 screw used by most tripods).

highline ballhead out of box

I was impressed with the quality right out of the box.

I was immediately struck by the appearance of the ballhead, both in the quality of the parts and the beautiful gunmetal-gray finish. The design is clean and uncluttered, the knobs well-placed and sized for easy operation. All the components are metal; you won’t find a plastic piece on the entire ballhead.

My first thought?

This is a well-designed and well-built piece of photo equipment.

The CTC describes the Highline as a traditional ballhead but with some special features. Striking is the large 48mm hollow ball and the ability of the locking mechanism to provide a 54-pound load capacity, much greater than most tripod heads of this size.

The CTC indicates the Highline head is made for photographers with large camera equipment. I mounted my Canon 6D and my Canon 70-200 lens, but the head had no problem at all holding it right where I wanted.

highline ballhead with camera and lens

With a DSLR (the Canon 6D here) and a large lens (the Canon 70-200), the Highline was more than up for the job.

Photographers want a tripod head that can lock in place with little droop or movement. The Highline satisfies this requirement, even with a full-sized DSLR and large lens.

This is how things look when the camera is mounted from the photographers POV:

highline ballhead review

Note the clamp-lock knob at the top left, main ball adjustment knob on the left side, and the pan-lock knob at the rear. The drag adjustment knob is at the front and is not seen in this shot.

Camera mounting, knob placement, and performance

CTC engineers designed the Highline so the camera can be held and controlled with your right hand and the tripod head knobs worked with your left hand.

The largest knob is used to release and tighten the ball. Its large size and knurled grip makes it easy to use, even with gloves.

On the rear of the head is the smaller pan-lock knob. This knob releases the head to be rotated around its vertical axis, such as when doing panorama shots. The base of the head is also marked out in degrees, which is helpful for pano shots.

On the opposite side of the head is the drag control. Adjusting this knob changes how freely the ball can be moved. This is a great aid in setting up the feel and control of motion while compensating for the size of the camera and lens used.

Once the camera is mounted and the drag knob is adjusted, you’re free to use the large knob for moving/locking the ball position.

At the top of the head is the clamp and camera mount plate. I was very pleased to see an Arca-Swiss type mount being used. This has become a standard mount in the photo world, so you don’t need to worry about mounting incompatibilities.

The mounting screw has a D-ring on it for tightening without tools. Open the clamp knob fully and tip the plate into the clamp, then tighten the knob most of the way. The camera can be moved forward and back, but will not fall out of the clamp. Balance the camera and then fully tighten the clamp knob.

d-ring for tightening

The monogramming was a nice touch. And note the D-ring for tightening the mounting screw when you don’t have tools.

What to like about the Highline ballhead

The Highline ballhead is a great piece of photo equipment, so there’s a lot to like.

As I’ve mentioned above, the Highline ballhead features excellent build quality, fit, and finish.

The control knobs perform smoothly, are easy to grasp and operate, and the mechanism allows the ball to move smoothly and lock exactly where you want it without any droop.

drop slot on head

Using the large drop slot, shooting straight up or straight down is very easy.

For a head its size, the Highline is also quite light. Even the aluminum version comes in at 18 oz (510 g). And the titanium version of the ballhead shaves 40% off that weight, coming in at just under 12 oz (340 g).

portrait orientation

The Highline had no problem locking and holding the camera just where I wanted in portrait orientation.

The head also performs beautifully even with a good-sized DSLR and big lens. My current tripod is an aluminum MeFoto Globetrotter Classic, but while the MeFoto stock head isn’t bad for the money, it feels a little wimpy. Switching out the MeFoto head for the Highline made a world of difference: The Highline head worked great with the same camera/lens combo and fit very well on the Globetrotter tripod.

In fact, I will be using this combination as my new everyday camera support system. (Or at least until I consider the CTC Centennial tripod!)

Finally, the price is the best part of the Highline ballhead.

Though I can’t say I’ve tried every comparable ballhead out there, I’ve never found a better ballhead at this price point. The aluminum version of the Highline sells for just $129.00 USD. I consider that a screaming deal for a product of this quality.

Note that the titanium version of the Highline ballhead is $499.00 USD. If shaving six ounces off the weight is important to you and the cost is no object, go for it.

As for me?

I’m gonna be quite happy with my aluminum Highline!

What’s not to like about the Highline ballhead?

The Highline ballhead is nearly perfect, but falls short in a couple of areas.

What don’t I like about it?

First, I prefer a lever lock to the Highline’s twist-knob lock. However, the twist-knob lock should be fairly easy to switch out. And I spoke with Eric Ellwanger of CTC; Eric said CTC is already working on their own lever-lock clamps and should offer them as an option for new ballhead buyers before long. If CTC makes one with the same quality shown in the Highline head and at a decent price, sign me up!

(For those who have already purchased a head, CTC will allow those users to send in their clamps for a rebate if they’d like to switch to the lever-lock style.)

Another small nit: CTC touts the large elongated slot on the right side of the Highline head as a great feature, because it allows the camera to be flipped over into portrait configuration and gives extended motion. But I, like many other photographers, have mounted an L-bracket to my camera to allow easy switching from landscape to portrait orientation. I like that the L-bracket allows me to keep the center mass of the camera over the center of the tripod regardless of orientation. It also better supports panorama work, keeping the nodal point of the camera more centered over the rotation axis.

ballhead in portrait orientation

I still prefer using an L-bracket, which keeps my camera centered over the center axis of the tripod. Because the Highline clamp is an Arca-Swiss type, my L-bracket mounts with no problem.

In other words, for photographers like myself, the elongated slot is a bit redundant. It’s not a big issue, but I thought I’d bring it up.

What is the availability of the Highline tripod head?

The Highline was originally a Kickstarter product. This means that the first orders go to Kickstarter backers, which potentially limits availability for consumers. However, CTC says they are about caught up with Kickstarter orders and are now taking orders on their website as well as Adorama Camera.

If you check the CTC website, you may see that the Highline heads are available to purchase. Alternatively, the heads may be on backorder. Regardless, CTC says their machines are running 24/7 now. So if you want a Highline ballhead, place your order on Adorama or on the company website, and you will be billed when it ships.

Highline ballhead review: conclusion

There’s nothing I like better than a quality product at a great price, and the Highline tripod ballhead absolutely delivers.

Also, note that CTC is working on two other versions of the Highline: a smaller version and a larger version. I can see a smaller version being more practical for smaller mirrorless or bridge cameras. As for a larger version, I have trouble imagining a camera that needs more stability than what the current Highline ballhead can provide!

So if you’re in the market for an excellent ballhead at a bargain price, go have a look at the Highline tripod head.

It may be the right product for your needs.

The post The Highline Ballhead Review: The Best Bargain Ballhead in 2019? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography

The post How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

The morning sun shone through my kitchen window, catching the vase with a rose in it on the window sill.  A low cross-light highlighted the texture on the rose, while the purple glass vase cast a pattern of colored light across the counter.  The photographer in me studied the light, saw the potential for a photo, and went to get the camera.

Image: From observing the sun shining through a vase on the window sill to the finished image, this...

From observing the sun shining through a vase on the window sill to the finished image, this idea started with simply seeing the light.

A simple observation of light.  That’s how a photo can start – learning to really see the light. Understanding its properties, knowing how to control and shape it – those are the things that will take you from a casual snapshooter to a creative photographer. It’s a matter of crafting photographs rather than simply taking snapshots.

George Eastman helped bring photography to the masses with his development of roll film, simple cameras, and readily available processing.  You’ve certainly heard of the company he founded – The Eastman Kodak Company.  Eastman understood the importance of seeing the light.

He put it like this:

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman

Image: The vase set-up led to experiments with glasses, colored water, and more exploration of light...

The vase set-up led to experiments with glasses, colored water, and more exploration of light.

Harnessing the light

The rest of the photo session explored the interplay of light, color, shadow, texture, shape, and pattern.  From shots of the glass vase and rose, I switched to glasses and vases filled with water dyed with food coloring.  I experimented with different camera angles, positioning of the subjects, and different background objects. I shaped the light with cardboard “flags” and the Venetian blinds through which the sun was streaming to allow different looks.
The low angle of light also provided ways to cast shadows and projections of color.
How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography

In this case, the light source was simply the early morning sun.  I could have created other effects had I used artificial lights, say a snooted Speedlight to cast a beam of light right where I wanted it.

Studio photographers become masters of light manipulation by using their knowledge and a variety of lights and light modifiers.  Their skills draw upon understanding the properties of light and how to harness it.

Landscape photographers may not be able to create their own light, but they also understand its properties. They know when, where, and how to make the most of the light presented to create the look they seek.

Light Physics – the properties of light

You need not become a physicist to be a photographer, but a little understanding of the properties of light can be beneficial to your work.  So, a little science knowledge can help your art.  Left-brain, right-brain – good photographers use both sides.

What is light?

Light is photons of energy.  It has both wave and particle properties.

Electromagnetic spectrum

Human eyes can only see a very tiny portion of what is called the Electromagnetic Spectrum.  Some photographers use Infrared photography to go a little further past the red end of the visible spectrum, and ultraviolet light sources can take us a bit further past the violet end.  Specialized cameras can also capture X-rays.

How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography

Human eyes see only a tiny portion of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, that portion we call Visible Light.

(transferred by Penubag (talk · contribs) on 05:04, 15 May 2008 [CC BY-SA 2.5 (]

Properties of light

When speaking of light, we often refer to its properties.  These are:

Quantity – (Also called Intensity or “Brightness”)

Quality – Photographers will use the terms “Hard” or “Soft” light.

Technically, these refer to the shadows cast, not the light itself.  The hard or softness of a shadow (a place where the light is blocked), depends on the size of the light source relative to the subject.  Thus the sun, which is, in reality, huge, can cast harsh shadows (hard light). This is because as a pinpoint of light in the sky, its relative size to the subject is small.

On an overcast day, the whole sky may be the light source – nature’s giant softbox – and the shadows are soft or non-existent.

Direction – Light waves travel in straight lines.  They can be redirected however through Reflection or Refraction.
Reflection – Light hitting an object can bounce off that object.  In fact, anything we see is a result of light bouncing off that object.  The apparent Color of an object is due to what colors (wavelengths) are absorbed versus those reflecting.  A red apple is that color because it absorbs all other colors in the spectrum and reflects only the red wavelengths.
With highly reflective objects, the angle the light hits an object will be the same angle it is reflected. The angle of incidence = the angle of reflection.

RefractionLight can pass through some objects and be refracted or redirected.  Put a pencil in a half-full glass of water, and you will see how the light is refracted differently as it passes through the air versus the water and the glass. Camera lenses shape light through refraction. The image projected on the camera sensor is actually inverted. It is the same as it was when view-camera photographers threw a cape over their heads to see the image on a ground glass before making their photo.

Image: Dewdrops act as tiny lenses refracting the light passing through them.

Dewdrops act as tiny lenses refracting the light passing through them.

Light waves can:

Pass through transparent or translucent objects.

Transparent objects – little if any light is scattered as the light waves pass through – i.e window glass.

Translucent objects – Some light passes through the object but waves are scattered and objects on the far side are not clearly visible.

Reflect or bounce off an object  – We call highly reflective objects “shiny.”  They will often produce Specular highlights.  Objects which break up and bounce light in many directions have a matte quality and Diffuse the light.

Be scattered – Light waves are bounced in different directions

Be absorbed – As discussed, objects have color because they absorb some (colors) wavelengths and reflect others.  Because light has energy, the more light energy an object absorbs the warmer it will be.  This is the reason black, (which absorbs most of the light energy), warms faster than does white, which reflects most of the light.

Be refracted (bent) as light passes through.  Denser objects refract light more (pencil in a glass of water shows example air vs water vs glass).  Diamonds have a very high “index of refraction” and thus are sparkly.

Shadows – Shadows are formed where light is blocked.  Photographers seeking to understand light can learn much by studying shadows as they will give clues to the other qualities of the light.

Image: This abstract image is all about the light and shadows

This abstract image is all about the light and shadows

Dispersion – Visible light can be separated into its component colors due to different degrees of refraction through an object. (This is how prisms work and how rainbows are formed)

Image: A rainbow is an example of white visible light being split into its component colors when the...

A rainbow is an example of white visible light being split into its component colors when the raindrops refract the light and disperse it.

The Speed of Light – Light travels faster than sound at approximately 186,000 miles per second (300,000 km/s).  Sunlight takes 8 minutes, 20 seconds to reach us.  From the next nearest star, Alpha Centauri, light takes 4 years to reach us.  At night we see the light from stars that took hundreds of thousands of years to reach us.  Currently, the most distant star observed by astronomers is over 9 billion light-years away.

Photography and light

We know that without light there is no photography.  Building on the basics of light physics, we photographers have further ways to define light and how we use it.

Photography and color

General photography works within the visible light spectrum.  We use the Kelvin temperature scale to describe the color of light.  For example, a candle’s flame is 1,200K, which is towards the red-orange end of the scale, and a cloudless day is 10,000K, which is at the blue end.

White balance

The human brain is good at correcting colors under different light so that we usually see “correct” colors. Cameras need some help.  Using White Balance, we can index the color we want to be white or neutral in color, and all other colors in the scene will use that as a reference and adjust accordingly.  Thus images shot in daylight, with flash, or under tungsten or fluorescent lights can all be adjusted for “correct” color.

A huge advantage of saving images in the Raw format is you can correct this later when editing. Unfortunately, .jpg images lock the white balance in during the capture.

Image: The color of old tungsten light is quite warm, about 3200K on the Kelvin scale. This could ha...

The color of old tungsten light is quite warm, about 3200K on the Kelvin scale. This could have been white-balanced to be more neutral, but for this image, the warm light added to the antique look desired.

Image: With light, all colors combined equal white. With ink, all colors combined equal black.

With light, all colors combined equal white. With ink, all colors combined equal black.

Color models


Your camera can interpret the world of color and reproduce it on a color monitor, but in reality, it really only “sees” three colors, Red, Green, and Blue (RGB).  All other colors are created from these three.  Use a magnifying glass to see the pixels on your monitor, and those are the only colors you will see.

Your camera sensor can also only capture those three colors.

If all three of those colors or light combine at full intensity, the result would be pure white.  Because colors record by adding one to another, the term “Additive” is used.

Any of over 16 million colors can be defined using the RGB model, which has 255 steps of each color.  So, white would be 255, 255, 255.  Black is no light and therefore has an RGB value of 0, 0, 0.  Pure red would be 255, 0, 0.  A mixed color like pure yellow is 255, 255, 0, and something like a deep purple shade might be 113, 58, 210.

Image: Pure Red is a primary color in the RGB (Light) model with an RGB value of 255,0,0 but in the...

Pure Red is a primary color in the RGB (Light) model with an RGB value of 255,0,0 but in the CMYK (Ink) model it’s a mixture of Yellow and Magenta.


The RGB model works fine in cameras and monitors where we add light to the blackness to create color.  When printing, however, we are starting with a white piece of paper and subtracting from that white to create color.

Instead of red, green, and blue being the primary colors, printers use Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black  (CMYK)  to create all other colors.  (“K” is used for Black because it is the last letter of the word and not used by any other color, i.e. (B)lue).  To save costs on ink, and to produce deeper black tones, unsaturated and dark colors are produced by adding black ink instead of just the combination of cyan, magenta, and yellow. So, while in the RGB model, pure red is defined as 255, 0, 0 the same exact color in the ink printing world of CMYK is something like 0, 100, 100, 0.

So as not to make your head hurt any further, I will not get into the complexities of color spaces, printer profiles, gamut and how we can be sure what we saw is what the camera captures and finally appears on a print.  That’s a whole other and a quite complex subject.  For now, know it is a lot of science and a perhaps a touch of magic.

Instead, you can read more about those topics here:


How photographers control light

As photographers, especially in studio photo work, we have the tools and the means to control the light.

Here are the basic things we can do:

Transmit – Using lights of various kinds we can transmit light onto our subjects.  We control the quantity, direction, and color of the light source.  By changing the relative size of the light source to the subject, we can also control the hardness/softness of shadows.

Reflect – All objects reflect light to varying degrees (which is why we and the camera can see them).  How that reflected light plays off of objects, or how we might use other objects, (reflectors) to bounce light into a scene is one way we shape and control the light.

Image: Many of the principles of light discussed in this article are present in this shot. Can you i...

Many of the principles of light discussed in this article are present in this shot. Can you identify them?

Diffuse –We can cause the light emitting from the source to scatter to varying degrees, (diffused), by shining it through translucent materials.  This how softboxes and other light modifiers work.

Block – As light travels in a straight line, anything between the source and the subject blocks the light and creates a shadow.  How and where we create shadows is as important as where we allow light to cast.  Photographers use things like Flags, Gobos, and Cookies to cast and control shadows.  An example, a “barn door” on a lighting instrument is a type of flag.
Image: This image is all about the light. The backlit leaves are translucent and pass a portion of t...

This image is all about the light. The backlit leaves are translucent and pass a portion of the light striking them, filtering out some colors and passing the golden parts of the spectrum through them.

When nature lights the scene – Landscapes Landscape photographers and those using only natural light sources don’t have the same controls over the light, but they still need to understand it to become master photographers.

Learning how light works, how direct sun, diffuse light, time of day, season, angle, diffusing factors like fog, smoke, rain, and other “atmospherics” affect the image are all a huge part of becoming a student of light.  A skilled studio photographer can create light.  A skilled landscape photographer knows when and where to be and then very often, simply “waits for the light.”

Image: A smoky sky filters out many of the colors of the light and passes the warm yellow and red to...

A smoky sky filters out many of the colors of the light and passes the warm yellow and red tones. The side of the wheat facing the camera receives no light and so is silhouetted against the sun. Learning to see the light is key to becoming a good photographer.

Becoming a student of light

Sure, you can just get out some glassware, fill it with colored water, place it in the sun and make some pretty pictures.  I encourage you to do that. It’s fun and you will likely make some nice images.  You need not know the physics and terminology to make nice photos.  But I encourage you to take it a step further.  Use it as an exercise to further your understanding and become a trained observer of light because I really believe George Eastman had it right –

Know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.



The post How to Understand Light and Color to Improve your Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

This Back-to-Basics Photography Exercise can Improve Your Photography

The post This Back-to-Basics Photography Exercise can Improve Your Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

The digital age has made photography easier, cheaper, and more accessible than ever before.  Even people who wouldn’t call themselves “photographers” now carry a camera in their pocket in the form of their cellphone.

However, has the ability to snap a picture without skill or knowledge made photography too easy? Even for you reading this article who’ve come to this site to learn more about making better photos – has the ease of making digital photos with modern cameras robbed you of learning the basics?

Perhaps. Presuming you really do want to learn more, give the following exercise a try with the intent of improving your skills.

This Back-to-Basics Photography Exercise can Improve Your Photography

I’ll bet back when this grocery store was operating you could buy black and white film here. Now, both are relics. I shot all of the mono photos in this article with a 50mm prime lens during a photo walk, while conducting the exercise outlined.

Back to the film days

Some of you remember the film days, but with digital photography catching hold in the early 2000s, we already have a generation of new photographers who may never have loaded a roll of film.  Others may never have had to manually focus a camera, calculate exposure without a meter, or made monochrome photos in the camera.

My first “real” camera – a 35mm Hanimex Praktica Nova 1B

As the risk of dating myself, here’s a little background:

Back in the “pre-digital days” (back in 1970 when dinosaurs roamed the earth), I was 16 and in high school. I bought my first real camera – a 35mm Hanimex Practica Nova 1B. It was an East German camera built in Dresden and imported to the U.S. The Oreston f/1.8 50mm Meyer Optik Görlitz lens was fast and sharp (though I didn’t know much about such things at the time).  It was typically loaded with Kodak Plus-X film (ISO 125, previously called ASA) or sometimes Kodak Tri-X (ISO 400).

I learned how to process the film and later make black and white prints in a little darkroom in the corner of the garage.  Working under the dim glow of a safelight, and watching the image magically appear as the photographic paper bathed in a tray of Dektol, is something young photographers today have likely not experienced.

This Back-to-Basics Photography Exercise can Improve Your Photography 3

The orange glow of a safelight and the smell of photo chemicals. Before Lightroom, there was the darkroom.

I can’t say I miss it.

Today’s cameras are far superior. Also, the ease of working at a computer using Lightroom, where you can dodge and burn with the click of a mouse instead of with physical tools, gives so much more creative freedom.  I also don’t have a wastebasket full of failed paper prints, and money spent trying to master the art.

These were things I learned the hard way with no electronic assistance from my camera. Let’s see what you can learn. Set up your camera and take a photo-walk emulating the way it used to be.

Learning to focus manually takes some skill. Note in this shot the very closest weed at the bottom of the frame is focused, but the other portions are soft. You’ll also better learn the relationship between depth-of-field and aperture when you work in manual mode.

Camera setup

We’re going to want to go fully manual for this, putting you in charge of setting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. So put the dial in the “M” mode.  Turn autofocus off.  You will be focusing yourself.

If you have a 50mm prime lens, that will better emulate what most of us had on those old 35mm film cameras before we could afford to buy a zoom.  Composing with the “sneaker-zoom,” (that is, using your feet to move closer or further from your subject), is good practice, especially if you always rely on a zoom lens to compose.

Working with a prime lens will help teach you to compose without relying on a zoom.

Going Monochrome

Most beginning photographers, (and all of them in the pre-color era), shot black-and-white film. So to stick to the basics, we’ll be shooting monochrome as well.

Well, sort of.

The best option in a digital camera is to shoot in RAW mode, which will create a color image.  Later in editing, you’ll make a monochrome image from that color file.  Photographing for monochrome will also allow you to better concentrate on composition – another point of this exercise.

Photography Exercise can Improve Your Photography 4

It is thought the term “chimping” originated from the “ooh, ooh” sounds photographers made when reviewing their photos on their LCD screens, (not necessarily as in this case, whether the photographer had a simian-like appearance  :-D.   For this exercise, you will NOT be chimping.  – Photo of/by Rick Ohnsman.

To chimp or not to chimp?

You’ve heard the term “chimping” which refers to the practice of some digital photographers to look at the playback on their LCD screen after each shot?  Some scoff at the practice.  Others, (count me in that camp), think the ability to immediately review a shot, check the histogram, make adjustments and reshoot is the best thing to ever happen to photography.  Instant feedback, (rather than waiting days, weeks, months, whatever it was to get back the photos and only then discover your mistake?) – what a concept!

I still bow to the wedding photographers who shot film.  Those photographers knew their cameras relying on skills and experience so they could trust they had the photo before ever seeing the results.

Many cameras will do this. This is a Canon 6D. Set your Picture style to Monochrome, but shoot Raw images. The Raw file will be in color but the LCD display, (both in playback and Live View) will be Monochrome.

So… a choice for you as you do this exercise –  You have two options:

Option 1:

Shoot Raw, but set your camera so the image played back on the LCD (which is a .jpg thumbnail) is shown in monochrome

On a Canon camera, you will be using Picture Styles.  On a Nikon, Picture Controls is the term.  Look for Monochrome in the menu.  What you’ll be doing is taking a Raw color image but forcing the camera to playback a monochrome image on the LCD.

Check your camera manual for how to set this up.

The advantage is being able to see a monochrome image in playback rather than having to previsualize what it will look like.   Because your raw file will still be color, you will have more control in editing.  Should you decide you do prefer the color image, you can stick with it and not convert to black and white.

If you shoot .jpg only, your image will be monochrome with no going back.

Flexibility – it’s just one more of dozens of reasons to shoot raw images.

Or …

If you set your Image Review to “Off”, the photo will not be displayed in the LCD after you take it. Film photographers didn’t have the luxury of image review in the field and for this exercise, you won’t either.

Option 2

Turn off or tape over the LCD screen

If you really want to emulate shooting film, (and get the most from this exercise), you will not chimp at all.  There was no option to review your shots with film. The photographer had to trust their knowledge and instincts.

For those who’ve only made digital photos, (and even for those who may have used film but haven’t done so for a long time), this is harder than it might seem.  The reward, however, will be learning to analyze the scene better, make necessary camera adjustments, and trust your instincts.  You will make mistakes and not know about them until later, but lessons learned with a little “pain” attached will be those you’ll best remember.

I’m not suggesting you always work like this, instant LCD feedback is a beautiful thing. However, when practicing this exercise, see what it can teach you.  (Don’t forget to turn your LCD Review back on completion of the exercise!)

Photography exercise

With the Picture Mode in Monochrome, both Live View and Image Playback on the LCD screen will be Monochrome even though the Raw file will still record in color.

When more isn’t better

Another great thing about digital photography is how many images you can fit on a storage card.  Depending on the camera and the card size that can easily be hundreds, even thousands in some cases.  You also don’t have to worry about each shot costing you more.  If you don’t like what you see, that’s what the delete button is for.

Cards are reusable. Once you buy one, you can use it over and over.

As the saying goes, “digital film is cheap.”

Monochrome will help you better compose and concentrate on line, shape, tone, and texture. Also, note how simulating a red filter when editing allowed the blue sky to render very dark.

Shooting film wasn’t cheap.  There was the cost of the film, the cost of film processing, and the cost of printing.  Nothing was reusable, and so all the shots, both the keepers and the junk, cost money.  With digital, we also need not print if we don’t like a shot.

It was hard to view a film negative and judge what you had.  Unless you were printing your own images, you’d almost always print everything and prints cost money.  Some of us shot transparencies (slides). These were a little cheaper since you’d typically not print them. However, you had to get it right in camera as there was no editing a slide.

Beginning film photographers could spend lots of money learning with little to show for it.

There was also the limitation of how many photos could be made on a roll of film. The capacity typically measured in dozens, not hundreds or thousands of images like digital media.  If you used 35mm film, you could typically get 12, 24, or 36-exposure rolls.  With limited exposures and to save money, photographers wanted to make each shot count.

The downsides were making fewer images, (and thus reducing the odds of getting a keeper), less experimentation with new techniques, and a longer learning curve for a new photographer who’d be making fewer photos.  The upside, however, (and this is a big factor), was photographers took more time to do it right – more time to think before pressing the shutter button.

Putting it all together

Are you ready to give this exercise a try?

I’d suggest not doing this in a session that’s important to you. If you are doing it right, you’re apt to make some mistakes.  That’s okay, those will be mistakes from which you can learn.

Here are your settings and steps:

Camera in “M” – Manual Mode – You will control ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed

Autofocus Off – Focus with the focus ring.  Learn to see and concentrate on what you’re focusing on.  A mistake I often see new photographers make when learning to use an autofocus digital camera is letting the camera select the default center focus point when that may not be the spot they wanted in focus. Manually focusing puts you in charge of what’s in focus.   Also, consider when you might need to use your aperture to increase or decrease your depth-of-field.

Determine your lighting conditions and chose a “film type” ISO – Choose ISO 125 for bright daylight (emulating Kodak Plus-X or Ilford FP4), ISO 400 (to emulate Kodak Tri-X or Ilford FP5). If you’ll be photographing in low light, try ISO 800 and emulate “pushed” film.  The point here is set it once and leave it there for the entire session.  It wasn’t possible to change ISO with film, you were stuck with your choice for the entire roll.

Use a prime lens if you have one – Learn to compose without a zoom.

Decide how many exposures you have – Pick 12, 24, or 36.  Sure, film photographers often carried multiple rolls, but this exercise is designed to help you make each shot count.  Once you hit your pre-determined number, you’re done.

Here’s what came in a box of Kodak Plus-X or Tri-X film. Can you use this to calculate exposure and not rely on your camera meter? Give it a try!

Calculate Exposure – By the 1960s, most 35mm film cameras had light meters, but they were primitive by today’s standard.  A “match-needle” system where a needle could be centered when dialing in exposure and shutter speed was what many displayed.  If you wanted to purposely over or under-expose a bit, you’d adjust until the needle was over or under as desired.

On cameras without meters, many relied on the chart typically found in a box of film.  Often, these calculations were based on what was called the “Sunny 16 Rule.”  It said that on a bright sunny day if you put the aperture at f/16, then the shutter speed should equal the ASA, (now ISO), film speed.

For example, with Kodak Plus-X ASA 125 film a setting of ASA 125, f/125 at f/16 would give you a well-exposed image.  If you wanted to shoot at a different shutter speed or aperture, you could calculate from there. For example, f/250 @ f/11 (assuming you had the same ASA 125 film in the camera) would be an equal exposure.

If it wasn’t a bright sunny day, you were in the shade, or light conditions were different, sometimes the little printed chart could help.  Mostly, it was the practice that taught a photographer what was “about right” for a given film and a given lighting condition.

That’s another purpose of this exercise; to help teach you what’s about right for a given lighting condition.  See how you do without relying on the meter. At least pay close attention to what the aperture and shutter speed is for a given set of conditions.

Slow down

If this exercise teaches you nothing else, learning to slow down will make it worthwhile.  With limited exposures available on a roll of film, the “spray-and-pray” style of photography was rare.  Typically it was only sports and fashion photographers who had motor-drives (the mechanical version of what we now do with continuous mode).

Photographers took the time to carefully think about their composition, and what they wanted to convey with the image. What shutter speed choice might be best to freeze or blur the action?  How much depth-of-field might you desire and what aperture choice would be best?  Should you roll in a little exposure compensation?

All of these factors were given thoughtful consideration.  Bracketing shots to be sure everything was right could be done but at the expense of more quickly eating up that roll of film.  The difficulty of fixing anything in the darkroom was much greater too, and photographers didn’t have the attitude that they’d “just fix it in Photoshop.”  Consequently, the concept of “getting it right in-camera” was the norm.

Getting it right in-camera is among the goals intended with this exercise.  If you know you only have a minimal number of exposures available to you, each one has to count.  You won’t have the luxury of shooting, chimping, adjusting, and re-shooting if you’re doing this exercise as intended.

So, slow down, take your time, think about each part of the process. And then make your best shot.

Later, you will have a real advantage film photographers didn’t have – the ability to review your images with attached exposure data.

In the film days, conscientious beginning photographers carried a notebook and wrote down their settings to recall later.  Now, your digital camera keeps the notes.  Chalk up one more plus for digital photography.

Why monochrome?

We briefly touched on why monochrome was the choice for this exercise.  One, of course, is that it replicates what early beginning film photographers used and we are simulating the limitations of that time.

The more significant reason is without color, monochrome images rely much more on shape, form, line, tone, and texture.  It is also much easier to concentrate on composition without the added distraction of color.

Working in monochrome can help a photographer better key in on those elements that make a strong image and practice those techniques.

If you’ve done much monochrome photography, you’ll likely already know this.  If you’ve pretty much only made color images in the past, this part of the exercise will also be part of the process of improving your skills.

Back in edit

Film photographers typically dropped their film off at the lab, mailed it in, or sometimes did their own processing.  (I love the smell of D-76 in the morning!  It smells like… Victory.  – Not!  Sorry for the flashback, let’s resume).

You will come back with a few, (you limited your exposures as instructed, right?), Raw images on your storage card.  They will be in color, but you’ll be converting them to monochrome.  I will not spend the time in this article outlining the best ways to convert color to monochrome.  You will find a nice collection of those tutorials here on DPS.  You will find there are great ways to manipulate the tones in your monochrome conversion to create distinctive looks.

To complete the goals of the exercise, what you’ll want to give the most attention to is, were you able to make well-focused, properly-exposed, and nicely composed images with the self-imposed restrictions of the exercise?  Without the electronic assistance of a modern digital camera (auto-focus, auto-exposure), what worked?  What didn’t?

If this really had been film, what would you do differently next time?

The takeaways

This is a great time to be a photographer.  The sophistication of our cameras and the ease with which we can do amazing things in editing is fantastic.  The point of this exercise, however, is to teach you to use your brain as a photographer, to take full control over your camera, and not rely on a microchip to do it for you.  I personally would never go back to film, have no desire to get back in a darkroom, and love every electronic aid my camera supplies.

The point is, I want those things to build on a solid foundation of photo ability and knowledge.  That is the reason for this exercise.

The path to becoming a better photographer lies in using your brain, not a camera microchip, to do the thinking. Slow down, pre-visualize the image, and then use the camera as a tool to capture that vision.

I sincerely hope you give this a try.  If you make great images, wonderful!  If you struggle and make mistakes, fine – you will have learned something.

Either way, you will grow as a photographer.

Drop me a line in the comments and let me know how you made out.  Best wishes.


This Back-to-Basics Photography Exercise can Improve Your Photography


The post This Back-to-Basics Photography Exercise can Improve Your Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Rick Ohnsman.

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, 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.


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.


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.

How to Make Interesting Abstract Smoke Photos

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

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

Abstract smoke photography - Firebird

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

Tools for the trick

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


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

Abstract Smoke Photography - Use stick Incense

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


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


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

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

Smoke-producing object

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


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

Abstract Smoke Photography - Setup diagram

Setting up

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

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - smoke photo straight out of camera

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

Camera and flash settings

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

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

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

Leave the flash off.

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

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

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - The Seahorse

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

Making your photos

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

Make a shot and check it. Is it focused?

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

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

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

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

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

Basic editing

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - horizontal and vertical mirroring

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

Mirrors and colors and abstracts, oh my!

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

Here are the basic steps:

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

Alien Gas – A straight smoke shot later colored green.

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

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

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

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

Maybe you’d like to add some color?

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

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - The Witch Doctor

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

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

What do you see?

Smoke in other photos

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - Smokin Hot Peppers

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


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

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

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

Abstract Smoke Photography - Pseudo Smoke Effect - Simulated Smoke

Looks like smoke, but it isn’t.


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

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



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

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.


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.

7 Tips to Improve Your Skyline Photos


Is there a more iconic photograph to depict a big city, than a beautiful photograph of its skyline? Skylines can provide stunning photographs that have a big sale potential, but to capture those wow shots, you have to be prepared to plan for them in advance, and to allow time and patience, as well as determination, to capture them. Here are some tips to help you capture striking skyline photos.

1 – Plan in Advance

Like most types of photography, you will need to plan, and research, in advance to get the perfect skyline shot. It’s all about finding the right location, so before you even get on the plane you should have an idea of where you might be able to get a good view from, and with Google Maps it’s now easier than ever to plan your skyline photos. Start by looking at where the city center is on a map, and identify vantage points around it that could give you a good view. Keep in mind that if want to capture a wide photo of the skyline you will need to be a fair distance away.

Parks, river fronts, lakes, and harbors generally offer a good view of the skyline (if they face in the right direction), so look for these on a map, and make a note so that you can scout them out when you’re on location. You can also research image libraries to see what already exists, that can give you an indication of what viewpoints are available.

2 – Speak to Locals

No one else knows the city better than the residents and locals, so get friendly and take advantage of their knowledge. After all, the people who live in a city will often, over time, go beyond the post card locations and might be able to offer you advantageous advice, which gets you a unique image.

For example, as a Londoner, I know that most people head to the river or one of the number of bridges across the Thames to get a photo of London’s skyline, but you could actually get a very unique view from some of the amazing bars such as the Vertigo Bar.


Speaking to locals means you could get unique views that others won’t see.

3 – Lenses, Tripods, and Filters

I’m one of the biggest advocates of not carrying too much equipment, however when you are photographing skylines it’s best to ensure you have what you might need. These include:

  • A tripod if you are photographing early morning, late afternoon, or at any other time that might need long exposures.
  • A wide angle lens is usually what you will need, but there may also be occasions where you need a telephoto lens if you are far away from the skyline.
  • An array of filters – these could be anything from Neutral Density filters to Polarizing filters and more.

The key is to make sure you have everything you need, as you might not get a second chance. So it might be worth paying for a taxi there and back, to avoid having to carry lots of heavy equipment or leaving something behind.

4 – Early Morning and Late Afternoon Light

It is not a coincidence that most of the skyline photos that wow, are usually taken at dawn or dusk. The hour after sunrise, and the hour before sunset, give a beautiful light, which can transform any scene. In fact, you can get two very contrasting photos taken from the same place at different times of the day. Instead of getting to your location at these times, aim to get there half an hour earlier so that you are set up and ready to go.


Early morning and late afternoon light is a great time for photographing skylines.

5 – Wait for Night

After the sun has set it is tempting to pack up and go home. However, one of the best times to photograph the skylines of a city is at night, when the whole place lights up. Wait around for an hour or so after sunset, and you can capture the city skyline at its most glamorous. You will definitely need a tripod if you are planning to photograph at night, as you will have long exposure times, so make sure you leave your home or hotel room with it. Remember to keep safe at all times, and ensure that if you are photographing at night, you are in what are considered safe parts of the city.


At night, the city lights make it come alive.

6 – Utilize Your Hotel

One of the best places to take photographs of a city skyline is from your hotel. A lot of the big hotels in cities have amazing open-air swimming pools, or roof top bars with beautiful views across the city. This means you can get great photos right from your doorstep. So prior to booking your hotel room, research and keep this in mind, and when you arrive at your hotel you can always ask if they have a room with a view of the skyline. I have lost count of the number of times I was able to take skyline shots from my hotel – and sometimes even from my own room (use the polarizer to eliminate reflections from the window)!


These are just some of the photos I’ve managed to take from my hotels.

7 – Add a Point of Interest

Most city skylines have been photographed thousands of times, so sometimes it’s good to take a step back and add a point of interest to the foreground. Not only will this give you another differentiating shot from the same location, but it will also tell a different story which could be completely unique. Be on the lookout for people admiring the view, a runner with a dog, or cyclists, all of which make great foreground points of interest.


An example of how adding a point of interest can make a photograph tell a much more interesting story.

There is no doubt that skylines can provide some incredibly striking photographs which can be stand-out shots on their own, but which can also work as part of a portfolio. But like all types of photography it takes planning and perseverance to ensure you capture the photos that will do the scene justice. Follow these simple tips and you’ll be on your way to capturing great skyline photos.

Do you have any tips or advice for photographing skylines? Share them and your skyline images below.

The post 7 Tips to Improve Your Skyline Photos by Kav Dadfar appeared first on Digital Photography School.

Review: Flashpoint Zoom Li-on Flash

01 Packaging

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: you’ve fallen in love with Speedlight flash photography, but you gripe at having to lug around lots of odds and ends for your remote triggers, not to mention boxes of backup AA batteries. Isn’t it time for flashes to catch up with DSLRs and be powered by rechargeable batteries, and have more discrete wireless triggers? It turns out that these features DO exist, but not with Speedlights made by major camera manufacturers.

Announced by Adorama earlier this year, the Flashpoint Zoom Li-on TTL Flash is a new and affordable system that has the key feature of being powered by a rechargeable Lithium Ion Polymer battery. This battery promises to power your flash longer than any other hot shoe mount Speedlight on the market, and it does so while keeping the flash unit at a relatively compact size. When paired with the Flashpoint Commander Transmitter and Receiver set, you have an intuitive, compact way of using the flash off-camera. Sound appealing? Read on for more specs and details.

What’s in the Boxes

02 In the Box

To be clear, the flash unit and the commander (transmitter and receiver) are two separate items that are sold separately. You don’t need to have the Commander set to use the flash unit on its own.

The Zoom Li-on unit, made specific for either Canon or Nikon, arrives in a nicely packaged box containing:

  • (1) Flashpoint Zoom Li-On TTL flash unit
  • (1) Lithium Ion Polymer battery pack
  • (1) Battery charger with cable
  • (1) Protective case for flash with a mini-stand unit

The Flashpoint Commander set arrives with a rather large transmitter (it’s about the size of a Pocket Wizard), and a much smaller receiver (about the size of a thumb drive). The transmitter runs on a pair of AA batteries.

Best Flash Feature: The Battery

Boasting more power than any AA battery, the lithium ion battery is the standout feature of the Zoom Li-on unit. It packs 11.1 volts and 200mAh, and a fully charged battery delivers up to 350 full power shots, with a recycle time of less than 1.5 seconds. You’ll need 2.5 hours to fully charge the battery, but it will function just fine on partial charges. On the unit’s display, there is also a battery icon in the upper right corner that will indicate how much power your battery has left. For longer shoots, it’s recommended that you purchase an extra backup battery, since the flash unit can’t be powered by any other means.

04 Charging

Other Flash Features: Comparable to Most Major Speedlights

Besides the rechargeable battery, the Zoom Li-on flash has all of the other functionality present in other Speedlights today. These features include standard TTL mode, Manual mode, Exposure Compensation, Front and Rear Curtain Sync, Laser Autofocus Assist, High-Speed Sync, group control, and Slave and Master optics, to name a few. This flash also has complete IR TTL control connectivity with Canon and Nikon flashes, meaning you don’t necessarily need to convert your entire Speedlight system. Other triggering modes for the flash include hotshoe, radio controller, 2.5mm sync port, and optical slave.

The flash head has a built-in wide angle diffuser and white bounce card. It also rotates 180 degrees in any direction and tilts over 90 degrees. It can also automatically or manually zoom from 24-105mm. Basically, if you’re familiar with the Nikon SB-900 or Canon 580EXII, the Zoom Li-on flash is similar in size and layout of its controls. Thanks to my familiarity with Canon Speedlites, I was able to unbox the unit and set it up intuitively without referring to the included instruction manual.

Flashpoint Commander Set: All About Convenience

The accompanying Flashpoint Commander set enters a crowded market full of all kinds of remote trigger options, but their main advantages are, an affordable price point and lots of power, packed into relatively small units. Using this set, you can view and change your flash output and trigger your flash remotely from 150+ feet away. There are also 16 channels and 16 groups of control so that you can handle multiple units of remote lighting. The newest version of the transmitter also comes with a 3.5mm sync port, allowing for a direct cable connection to the PC socket of your camera.

03 Details

The transmitter is slightly larger than a single Pocket Wizard Plus III and it sits nicely in your camera’s hot shoe mount. Unlike most other trigger systems, the receiver looks nothing like the transmitter, consisting of a flat unit that simply plugs into the side of the Zoom Li-on flash. After syncing channels and groups via manual switches on the transmitter and receiver, that’s all you need to do to set it up.

Two complaints: you’ll need slim fingernails or a tool to hit the switches on the channel sections of both units, and the group dials are a little too easy to turn, opening up room for possible syncing mistakes. On the whole, this Commander set is impressively compact and easy to set up, although you’ll want to keep an extra eye out for the tiny receiver as it seems very easy to misplace.

05 Umbrella

Flashpoint Zoom Li-On Flash and Commander Set in Practice

To test out the flash unit, I worked put it through three separate scenarios: table top food photography, on-the-fly event photography, and a posed portrait session.

For the food photography session below, the Zoom Li-On flash was paired with the transmitter and receiver and handheld to camera left. Shot in manual mode with no diffuser, the outcome was a soft, natural light that I’d expect from any speedlight.

07 Example Food

The on-the-fly event photography scenario was a quick red carpet photo op with Laila Ali. Fired in ETTL mode on-camera, the Zoom Li-on’s smooth rotating head feature plus fast recycle time came in extremely handy, and I was able to pull off the desired shots without turning to my Canon 580EXII, which I had mounted to a second body just in case.

06 Example Laila

Finally, the portrait session combined the Zoom Li-on flash, acting as the master, and a Canon 580EXII flash off-camera as the slave. Both flash units synced seamlessly, and thanks to similar control layouts, it was easy to figure out that the master/slave function on both units activates the same way (holding down the Zoom button).

08 Example KA

Overall, I declare the Zoom Li-on Flash a winner and a new staple to my camera bag thanks to its power, reliability, and the cost (and weight) savings of not having to haul tons of spare AA batteries. Are you inclined to give this flash a shot?

You can find the Flashpoint Zoom Li-on Flash at Adorama or on

The post Review: Flashpoint Zoom Li-on Flash by Suzi Pratt appeared first on Digital Photography School.

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