While on my way back to N.J. after two art shows in Florida, I made a side trip to Charleston, S.C., to photograph the “super moon” tonight. The full moon won’t be this close to the earth until 2034, which means it looks larger than normal.
I usually like to shoot the full moon on the night before the actual full moon, it rises about an hour earlier, so there is still light in the foreground. But I had an art show yesterday and couldn’t get out to shoot, so my only choice was tonight.
I used a program called Photographer’s Ephemerist to pre-determine where the moon would rise behind a large fishing pier on Folly Beach. It blows my mind that I can sit at my computer or use the app on my iPhone and know where I need to be to line up the rising moon and the pier.
While doing the art show in Pensacola, FL, I’m getting lots of requests for local photos. Since this is the first time I’ve been in Pensacola, I don’t have anything to show them so I went to the beach after the show tonight to catch sunset and see what was going on around the pier.
There was some great color in the sky after the sun went down, as I waded in the edge of the surf, I was able to get the pier in the foreground and the sky blazing behind it.
After the color faded a bit I went under the pier but I didn’t want the typical shot of the silhouetted pier and smooth water. I brought a flashlight with me to try some light painting. I did a 30 second exposure and used the flashlight to illuminate the pier and give me a different effect.
At Chittenden Reservoir in Vermont there is a pretty little island about 300 yards off shore. It is a favorite place for photographers and I’ve photographed it on many occasions at different times of day and different seasons. I decided to try it at night and use a large flashlight to illuminate the island using a technique called light painting, where you pass the light over the subject many times during a long exposure, I usually do 30 seconds. So tonight I started about 30 minutes after the sun went down and shot for the next hour. There was only a slight breeze which gave me the nice reflection on the water. Then I was lucky to have a shooting star which gave me a beautiful final touch. This is one exposure with only minor adjustments in Lightroom. As the sky got darker I needed to bump my ISO up to 400 and I was shooting at f/5.6.
I was out in my favorite location in Pomfret, VT, looking for foliage photos and looking at a small set of birch trees. A single fallen yellow maple leaf had landed on the trees and provided a nice splash of color against the white bark.
But the light was pretty bad. I was deep in the woods and there wasn’t any light getting down to the leaf.
So I pulled out my flashlight and since I use my tripod for most of my photos I was able to do a long exposure which let me light the scene with my flashlight. Rather than illuminate it from the front with a flat light, I moved the flashlight to the side to give it nice modeling and texture on the tree. I like sidelight and backlight and use it whenever I can, so when I can control the light, that is what I aim for.
Usually most people think of doing light painting at night, but there are many times when kicking in some extra light can make a big difference in an image. It is good to have a strong flashlight handy.
Let’s start with when you need a neutral density filter. A normal ND filter cuts down the amount of light going through the lens. You want to do that when the light is too bright to get a slow shutter speed you want, like when you want moving water to look milky. Or when you want to use a large aperture, like f/2.8 on a sunny day to limit your depth of field. People shooting video frequently use an ND filter so they can shoot at 1/30th shutter speed to get normal looking video.
There are a couple of different ways to accomplish neutral density. One is to use a variable neutral density filter, the other is to use a filter that has a fixed amount of density. The variable is much more expensive and gives you more precise control. The fixed is less expensive but you may want two or three to meet all your needs.
If I want moving water to look milky, I usually like to have a shutter speed of two seconds or longer. So if I am shooting 100 ISO and it is sunny, my exposure will be f/11 at 1/125 sec. So I need eight stops of ND to get down to the two second exposure I want, which is why the only ND I carry is 8X.
OK, I kinda lied. I made my own variable ND filter by using two polarizing filters and reversing one in its frame. I can then stack the two on my lens and vary the amount of light coming through, which is how an official variable ND filter works. But I don’t find that I need to do that very often, my 8X ND covers what I usually want to do.
And there are graduated ND filters where part of the filter is ND and part is clear. These are great when the sun is below the horizon and the foreground is dark and the sky is bright. You can cut down the light in the sky but not the foreground. I have to admit that I don’t use my graduated ND filters much any more since Lightroom does such a great job creating the same effect. But I’d say that it is better to do it with filters than software if you are real fussy. They also make slotted ND filters that cut down the light in the middle, like after sunset when the horizon is bright but the sky and foreground are dark. And there are tinted ND filters, but they are gimmicks to me. If you want your scene to be blue or warm, just do it in the computer.
My suggestion is to start with a 8-10 stop ND. You’ll want to have it available for each of your lenses, you never know if you are going to want it with wide angle or telephoto. So either buy one for each lens or buy one for the largest filter size you have and get step-down rings that let you put the larger filter on the smaller lens.
Many photographers use fill flash outdoors when faces are in the shadow. The flash built into the camera can do a good job punching a little light into an area that is too dark. I went out to photograph a field of sunflowers and the sky was gray, so I made the “fill flash” the main light source and underexposed the rest of the photo by one stop. The flash was off the camera bouncing into a small umbrella to create a softer light, but it would still work with an on-camera flash.
During a workshop in Cape May, NJ, we were getting pretty tired at the end of the day. I had seen a row of tents on the beach and knew they would make a fun photo but the light was too harsh. So long after the sun had set I said I wanted to go shoot the tents and asked if anyone wanted to join me. I got some strange looks but everyone had enough energy left to join me. The street lights were yellow and cast a strange color on the sand and the tents. Tire tracks made interesting patterns in the beach and there was barely enough light in the sky to give it some blue. I shot this at f/5.6 for 30 seconds at ISO 800 and my lens was zoomed to 20mm. So when you think the day is over, there usually is more out there to shoot.
Since we still have the snowiest months coming, here is a vital tip when taking pictures in the snow. You have to give your photos more exposure than your meter is telling you, especially when the sun is out. A camera’s light meter reads the overall light in a scene and then calculates the exposure to average tonal value of 18% gray. So if the scene is mostly white, you’re camera will make the snow gray, not what we want. We need to increase the exposure up to two full stops more light to turn that gray snow back to the white that it should be. The same thing happens on bright, sunny beaches in the summer. And the opposite happens when most of the scene is dark, then we need to underexpose from the meter reading. So don’t forget that you are smarter than your camera and be sure to make the proper adjustments.
I hear a lot of people saying that an iPhone will make pictures as good as my expensive DSLR camera. That’s true if the iPhone is the only camera you have with you, but the difference is the ability to use wide angle or telephoto lenses. A telephoto is not used just so you don’t have to be as close to your subject. Yes, when I was in British Columbia this summer I needed my telephoto to shoot a breaching humpback whale, but one great creative use is to pull the background closer to the foreground and to give an image a flatter look. I often use a telephoto when I want to make the background look closer to the foreground, like in this shot of a birch tree against colorful maples. If I would have gotten closer to the birch and used a wide angle lens, the birch would have looked farther away form the maples and not had the colorful impact.
When photographing anything that has eyes, people, birds, frogs or dogs, I almost always want to have my camera at the same height as their eyes. Sure, there are exceptions, but generally being at eye level makes for more compelling photos. So if you are taking photos of a child opening Christmas presents, get down on the floor. If you are shooting eagles plucking fish out of the water, be at water level. If you are taking a portrait, shoot head on with the person, although older folks do appreciate if you get a just little higher which will hide double chins and saggy necks.
Camera lenses are full of flaws, which can be bad, but we can also use some of them in a creative way. I’m sure you’ve seen sunbursts in photos but maybe you haven’t figured out how to get them in your photos. All lenses will create the effect when the sun, or any strong light source, shines directly in the lens. But it doesn’t always happen, only when the lens aperture is very small, like f/22, and letting in very little light. Stopping your camera down to f/22 doesn’t always make the points happen either. If you aim your camera directly at the sun, you probably won’t see any bursts. You need to have the strong light source be slightly diffracted by something, like a tree branch, or lamp post.
I run into a lot of beginning photographers who see something they want to photograph, look at the scene, take one picture and move on. Unless they are damn good or really lucky, they are probably not getting the best photo possible. When I am out shooting, I’m looking to get the best photos I can, not the most photos. I prefer quality over quantity and I achieve this by what I call working the scene. Working the scene means that I am going to exhaust all possible angles, positions, settings and lenses before I am satisfied that I have made the best image possible. It may require moving my tripod down two inches or to the right two yards. I tend to look at angles first without the camera because over the years I’ve learned what it will look like, but I recommend you look through the camera first, find the right spot to start and then put the camera on the tripod. Slowing down and working the scene will make you a happier photographer!
One the keys to photos at night is to add light where needed. Many times we just shoot what is there but adding some light of your own can make a big difference. It doesn’t require tons of equipment, just imagination and experimentation. This show of a covered bridge was lit with a flashlight. I did a 30 second exposure and walked around shining my little flashlight on the end of the bridge and the fence. It took several attempts to get it right but checked the each exposure on of the back of my camera and then made adjustments.
With the nice weather upon us, many people are thinking about photographing sunsets Or sunrises, which I prefer. But they don’t always look the way we think they should when we load the images into our computer. Having the sun filtering through a few clouds makes the picture more dramatic. A cloudless sunset is usually pretty boring. And it always helps to have something in the foreground, a shot of the sun setting over the water usually lacks an element or two in the image.
If I want the sun to be big in the picture, I use as long a telephoto as I can. This shot from my Meetup last Sunday was done with a 70-200mm lens with a 2X teleconverter giving me a 400mm lens. Then to add extra drama, make something a silhouette in the foreground, it adds that extra wow factor. And your exposure usually needs to be darker than you think. I meter right above the sun to get the sky good and dark. Unless the sun is peeking through fog, it will usually come out a white circle even when it looks yellow to your eye. There isn’t much you can do about that.