Photography Tips

Impromptu Photo Shoots Often Bring Best Attitudes

I posted this photo on social media recently with the caption “When your youngest daughter says ‘daddy, can we take pictures?’ you say YES over your shoulder as you run into the house to grab your camera.”

I’m a big believer in the idea that you making photos often will only increase your chances of getting the great moments and personalities captured. This is especially true with kids. While many of us are filling our computers with photos of our kids, all too often when we try to make real “portraits” it happens in a scheduled session and all to infrequently. And, inevitably, when we schedule a big photo event that seems to trigger in our kids the “you can’t make me gene” that either has them running wild or pulling out the attitude. This youngest daughter of mine seems to have a Diva Switch that turns on when when are doing big group family photos. Seriously, I can show you the proof easily.

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A New Tool in the Bag, A Practical Review

I’ve been waiting for this day for some time, and it finally arrived. It’s like any day can be a Geek Christmas when it comes to camera gear, and believe me this day felt like it.

I’ve enjoyed using my Canon 5D Mark II for 3.5 years now, and it is an amazing camera. I love it’s beautiful clear images, smooth bokeh and tremendous file quality. That said, I have been looking forward to the next general for some time now for some specific improvements. Most notably I was hoping for an improved auto focus system, quieter shutter sound, faster frames per second (FPS) and even better high ISO performance. On all these counts the Canon 5D Mark III has delivered!

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Why I love about Flickr (and social networks in general)

Obsession - Plate 2

Obsession - Plate 2

Ok, maybe love is a strong word. Perhaps enjoy, appreciate or really like would be more fitting. I crave feedback. Whether good, bad or ugly (no finger pointing), I like hearing what people think. Flickr is great for building a network of friends and other “like minded” people to share photos with each other and receive feedback. For the most part everyone leaves positive comments only, but if you invite critique, you can often get very helpful ideas to help improve your photos.

Of course not everyone is helpful, sometimes you will get the know-it-all geek that will point out your every fault as they see it, but really they are the minority. I have been very pleased with the interactions I get with fellow photogs.

Other social networks can also be helpful, from Twitter to FriendFeed to forums on various sites. You have to find ones that fit your personality type. Each group of people, especially when it comes to forums, can have their own distinct personality. Some I have tried out for awhile left me feeling on the outside of an inner circle or constantly feeling “not worthy” of participating at the level of those that make up the active core of a group. Not to worry, there are so man choices out there it is easy to move on to the next until you find a suitable home for your interactions.

Obsession - Original

Obsession - Original

Today’s image is a result of some simple yet helpful feedback on flickr. The original image I took had what I was looking for, so I quickly posted the image with almost no processing, happy to share what I had taken that day. Some helpful posters pointed out the framed picture in the background was a distraction, which I had overlooked because I was so excited at the overall scene. After “cloning” that out of the frame and making some color & contrast adjustments, my final portrait was much improved (and uploaded for the photo challenge).

Photo description:
I was able to slip in another quick shoot for the “environment” portrait theme this week. My buddy Lance owns an excellent motorcycle (and all powertoys) shop in American Fork, Utah. I thought it would be a great shot of hiim with some bikes in the background because this really is his passion. The shop is called Obsession Motoworx for a reason.

Lance is another of my patient and willing friends that answer my call to help out with my portrait challenge needs this month.

Strobist info: 2 580EXii’s on stands with Alzo softboxes fired with Pocket Wizards.

Day 27 (week 4 day 6) of the September Portrait Challenge. See the others in my set for this challenge and submitted in the challenge group.

Before & After Post-Processing

As a photographer, I enjoy capturing moments and scenes, but often the scene I capture is simply a canvas for what I end up doing for in the “digital darkroom” for my final photo I share with others. Lately I have been combing through Flickr and other sites to find photos with post-processing I really like and trying to create similar effects myself. I am also consuming as many online tutorials as I can find for good techniques. I feel like I have a lot to learn, but also that I can share some of what I have learned.

With this in mind, I am starting up a new Flickr Group called “How I Did It: What I Did in Post.” I still need to finish writing up all the rules and coming up with some good examples, but that will be a evolving process in itself.

My thought with this group is not to expect people to write up lengthy tutorials with plenty of screen shots and extended examples. Though I love those kind of tutorials for their detail and ease of following each specific step, an essay like those are very involved in creating. For me I am more interested in the summary of what was done, basic steps that give me an insight into what the artist did to create their final image. Though I may need to learn more to understand what is meant by specific steps, the more wonderful examples I see with some hints as to the post-processing steps, the better I will get at having a variety of ideas in my pool of techniques I can use when bringing a photo to life.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. This is a recent photo I posted to Flickr and included in this blog:

This particular photo is one that I took a few years ago on a wonderful trip to the United Kingdom. I was astounded at the intricacy and beauty of this building, but also by the dramatic clouds looming over it. The final image I posted was much better (in my humble opinion) than the original:

I have covered previously my thoughts on whether a photo is “tainted” by the involvement of Photoshop in the development process. I strongly feel that if the final image is your artistic expression of the scene and improves on the photo, all the better.

My idea for rules & requirements for this new group are to ask any photo invited and added to the photo pool would need to add in a general listing/description of their steps they used in to post-process their photo. As most people will likely be thinking back to what they did rather than taking notes along the way, I would expect fairly a general list of tips. That said, those general tips can be very insightful.

Here are my steps I did in developing this photo:

  1. Opened two copies of the file, each initially exposed differently in Adobe Camera Raw. Often I do this in Adobe Lightroom, but with this particular image I went straight into ACR/Photoshop. The first was exposed for the sky (darker), and the second for the building (lighter).
  2. In Photoshop, I duplicated the building exposure file as a layer in the sky exposure file and closed the extra file.
  3. A layer mask was added to the building file, hiding the sky portion of that exposure so I ended up with a dark sky and a brighter building in the same view.
  4. I used a Curves adjustment layer on the sky to add contrast
  5. Another Curves adjustment layer on the building for brightness/contrast for drama and detail
  6. Saturation adjustment layer on the building to adjust and amp colors for drama as well
  7. An Overlay layer filled with neutral gray and then 5% large/soft brush for dodging and burning along with some slight vignetting to emphasize the building and mute the sky as it was further from the building.
  8. Stamped out some distracting elements (people) in the foreground.
  9. Downsized for upload, then Smart Sharpening, at roughly 60%, radius of 0.3 and threshold of 0.

That’s it (sarcasm intended). The process is really subjective along the way as I tweak to what seems to be best for the individual photo. Now that is an example of a fairly detailed list of steps. Here is a shorter version that would also be acceptable:

  1. 2 exposures of same file, one for sky one for building
  2. Combined in one file with masked layers
  3. Curve to sky for contrast
  4. Curve to building for contrast & brightness
  5. Saturation adjustments to building
  6. Dodged, burned & slight vignette
  7. Stamped out people
  8. Downsize & sharpening

Obviously a little more detail is nice, but even from this more concise version there is a lot to learn!

Most photographers I know enjoy sharing their tips on creating great photos, probably because most of us have learned this way from others as well. My hope is this group can be very informative and one that photographers will be happy to share their insights rather than shy away from revealing their “secrets.”

I would enjoy any feedback here or in the group as to if you think this idea is worthwhile and how it could be improved upon and pulled off in a beneficial way. Thanks!

Capturing Moments, Always Be Ready

 Favorite Grandpa
Favorite Grandpa 

This last weekend I was out taking some family photos, which I tend to do more of this time of the year for obvious reasons.  I enjoy taking family photos, even with those kids that can be tough impossible to capture all looking at the camera and smiling at the same time.  Thank goodness for Photoshop!

I was able to capture a number of good group shots as well as couples and individual portraits of kids as I usually do with each sitting, but what I really enjoy doing is trying to capture the “in between” moments that often take place.  This grandchild loves is grandpa, that was obvious from the moment they got out of the car.  So, between settings he was tossing him up in the air and doing various fun things to keep the kid smiling in the cold weather.  So I jumped in and took a few shots of him tossing the boy, but the one I loved best is above capturing the connection between the two.  It is these moments and pictures I am always most happy about.

So, next time you have an opportunity to photograph groups of people, don’t forget to keep the camera rolling and your eyes open between settings for the more natural photos you may get.

Fall Portraits

 Family Portrait

It’s that time of year again, when everyone starts thinking about getting their family photo taken.  Whether they are doing this in anticipation of including a photo with Christmas cards, for a new framed photo on the wall, or simply to have a new photo to add to the scrapbook, this gets to be a busy time of year.

Fall colors are beautiful, but it depends greatly on the available lighting, a great location and a quickly passing time of year as the colors change.  If you wait too long, bright orange turns to rusty brown and you have missed your chance.  If you are too early you get too much green with only a smattering of color.

This year I tried a new location and was generally happy with the results.  Lighting was very difficult as our family was in a shadow in the foreground with a bright background.  To accomplish a more even shot I combined two exposures, one with the background exposed properly and one with my family exposed evenly in front.  I combined the two in Photoshop for a well balanced photo.

With family photos, rarely does everything go perfectly.  As with this photo, not every smile is perfect.  I may end up transferring some expressions from another exposure onto this one to try and improve upon it, but perhaps not.  Sometimes leaving things closer to reality feels better and gives us something to laugh about years later.

When picking a location, keep in mind a few things:

  • What is in the foreground that may add or distract on your photo
  • Same for the background – do you have a clear shot or is their a road or building that may ruin an otherwise pleasant shot
  • Can you choose a different angle to solve any distractions
  • What time of day will provide the best lighting for the location; keep in mind the time of year for how early it gets dark if going for an evening shoot
  • Is the ground going to be wet or dirty; if so, bring something to sit on such as a blanket that can be tucked out of view of the camera (note that in this shot there was duck poop everywhere!)
  •  Does the location require permission for photography use
  • Suggest color ideas to your subject for clothes that will compliment the location

When actually taking the photo, here are a few things to think about:

  • Look for balance in your arrangement.  This is one of my weakest points I continue to try and improve on.
  •  Be quick about it, especially if kids are involved.  You may only have a matter of minutes before the youngest ones lose interest and start getting fussy
  • When working with kids, you can’t be bashful.  If you need to make crazy sounds or goofy faces to get the shot, it is a small price to pay!  Consider bringing noisy squeeze toys or similar if you will have very young children in the photo.
  • Shoot the same shot from different angles.  You may not realize one angle was better than the other until you look at them later.
  • Look for bright spots on faces that can foul up an otherwise good shot.
  • Use a tripod – you may be the master at holding the camera still, but you will never be more steady than a camera mounted on a tripod.
  • Consider using a trigger release.  Once you have framed the photo you can stand to the side of the camera and be as goofy as you need to capture kids attention.  When everything is just right you can hit the trigger without going back behind the camera.
  • If you are taking your own photo, with a tripod you can use the timer function. That is how this particular photo was taken.

There are plenty more ideas that can apply to the family portrait, but hopefully this will get you started.  Most of all, just get out and take some photos.  I typically will get out with the family several times over a few weeks to be sure we get the best shot we all love.  Kids have bad days, weather and lighting may not cooperate, etc.  When you get that perfect shot in the end, it is all worth it.

Canon 40D, 17-55, 1/125 at f/8.0 and 400 ISO

Taking Concert Photos: ISO Explained

Recently I have had several requests to talk a little about ISO settings, what I use and why. First, thanks for the specific request. Second…well, no second just let’s get into it!

On a technical level, ISO really is just an acronym for the International Standards Organization that has set specific parameters for measuring film speed, or the sensitivity of film to light. Because there are many makers of film, having a standard by which to go by makes life much easier for photographers to know a basic benchmark of how and when to use various film types.

Now that we have entered a digital age, we still live by these same standard numbers handed down to use from the films used previously. This does keep things easier for those transitioning from film cameras, and because it is a simple numerical progression it is easy enough for the rest of us as well.

Without getting into the various details, which really has no impact on the way in which you use ISO settings, ISO is a matter of simply the bigger the number, the more sensitive your camera is to light. So, in dark settings you will likely use a higher ISO number, in bright settings like a bright sunny day you will use a lower ISO number.

There is a give and take to your ISO choice though that you need to be aware of.

With higher ISO numbers, along with the ability to capture more light in a short time you end up with more “noise” in your image due to some of the phyiscal characteristics and limitations of your camera sensor. This noise factor varies camera to camera, with better quality cameras having less noise at higher ISOs. Generally, though, the bonus of a lower ISO setting is that you will get richer colors and lower noise when ample lighting is available. Here is an example of extreme noise in an image:

ISO Noise Example

So how does this impact you with concert photography you ask? Thanks, I was just getting to that.

ISO in Concert Photography

I am always asked what is my magic settings on my camera for concert photography. The answer is really that there is no magic setting; sorry to disappoint. The lighting for different concert set ups, the specific venue, whether you are indoor or outdoors, and even how strong the spotlights happen to be that night can all impact your settings. That said, I do have some benchmarks I start at and then make adjustments from there.

This next section is really only helpful for those that are willing to try shooting in manual (M) mode on their camera. I usually start with my camera set at f/4.0 (with one particular lens), 400 ISO and a shutter speed of 1/200. The reason I try things at 400 ISO first is that I feel like I get richer colors, lower noise and fewer blown out highlights at that setting. If lighting ends up too low, such that I am not capturing any of the colors int he background or if I have to lower my shutter speed to much to capture anything, then I move up to 800 ISO. At times I have even bumped up to 1600 ISO, but then I tend to get too much noise in the image. I reserve 1600 ISO for truly dark situations such as this:

Paul Peterson on Bass

Of course noise isn’t always a bad thing. Some times it can be quite an artistic effect if done right, appearing like an older photo or newsprint. Many software programs can reduce noise quite easily as well if you would like to see it removed, so rather than miss a shot because you know it will be grainy using a high ISO, get that shot and reduce or remove the noise later.

Why Bother?

So why all this talk about ISO? Going back to my article about not using your flash for better photos, I am a big believer in using your camera controls to get the best possible photo. Sure, there are times when leaving the camera in the automatic mode is best, including using a flash; better to get the shot than not at all. But, when you are ready to get serious about taking great shots, learning how to get the best out of your photo is not only fun, but very rewarding. You may will likely end up with a bunch of bad shots along the learning process, but in the end you will be taking better photos in a way exactly like you are anticipating.