How to Take Better Pictures
In another section in this part of the book on long exposure photography I will explain why I prefer to shoot at day light with exposure times varying between 3 and 7 minutes. The only way this can be done during daylight is by using very dark ND filters of at least 10 stops. I have both of them and I tend to prefer the rectangular filters to the circular ones. With circular filters you always run the risk that you accidentally adjust the focus on your lens when trying to screw them onto your lens.
Furthermore the filter-holders can be attached to any size lens using an adapter ring. For long exposure photography no specific lenses are needed.
Just make sure that if you use tilt-shift lenses to cover the lens with an old lens bag for example to prevent the light from leaking in through the lens. Tilt-shift lenses are usually not built for long exposure photography. Another important accessory is a remote that locks. If you manually press down the shutter button, the camera moves just a little bit which results in unsharp pictures.
It just needs to lock the shutter button. Yes black tape. Probably the cheapest accessory in your bag but also one that can save you a lot of frustration. Use it to tape your lens bag around your tilt-shift lens. And there are so many other uses when out in the field. Light-leakage is the most common mistake beginners make and it will show in your photo as a strange overexposed purple or magenta-like area in your photo. Most of the times, that is light leaking into your camera. Remember that most cameras are not specifically built for long exposure photography.
Now that you have found the perfect angle, you can set up your tripod and camera. Make sure your camera is tightly secured on your tripod head and the tripod head is tightly locked.
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Every bit of vibration can result in blurry photos. Once you have done that, set your camera to aperture priority mode and choose your settings. Also make sure the lens is set to autofocus and turn off image stabilization if your lens has that option. If you leave it on, then your image will be unsharp and blurred, due to the image stabilization. The meter reading with a tilt-shift lens will only be accurate if the lens is in the normal position and not shifted or tilted.
If you are all set up, make sure your subject is perfectly in focus and take a test shot in the aperture priority mode. I do this for several reasons. First of all, I want to know if the light that the camera measured was correct. Secondly, it serves as a reminder. The shutter speed of this image serves as the basis of the long exposure image. In case I forget, I can just look at the meta data of this image. Important: make sure that when you take a meter reading in the aperture priority mode that the viewfinder is properly covered and no light is coming in from the viewfinder.
Set the lens to manual focus and go into bulb mode. Use the same settings that you used in aperture priority mode.
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Mount the filters to the lens. And last but not least: cover the viewfinder against any light with the built-in cover, black tape or a hat. Calculate your exposure time using the chart below. Or, alternatively, you could download one of the many apps available now on the iTunes store. Tip: just download the free of charge calculators. If you forget the exposure time, simply go back to the shot you took in step 4. Often caused by incorrect meter readings while light leaked through your viewfinder. The darker the ND filter, the less reliable this table gets.
For the lighter ND filters until about 6 stops this chart holds up pretty nicely. Tip 1 : Always take notes while shooting. Make it as detailed as possible. What type of light hard sunlight, moon shine, strobe, cloudy , what time of day, the subject, how did the sky look like, what shutter speed did your camera calculate, what shutter speed did you end up using, etc, etc.
These notes will prove their use in the future. Often it can take me up to an hour before I really start setting up my tripod and camera. Then focus with auto-focus, switch to manual focus and do some additional focus correction. I do this with the live-view mode of my camera so I can zoom in to the object. Switch to Bulb, check all settings. Leave it on manual focus and start screwing on the filter very carefully or slide them into your filter holder.
And then shoot! Always try to be as meticulous and disciplined as you can be. Remember, often you need to wait for the right combination of weather, clouds and light, before you know it the ideal condition has flown into thin air. If for example, on one hand you live in an area with very bright light conditions and you only have a 6 stops ND filter then the best you can get at daytime is just an exposure of less than 1 second, which is not enough for the type of long exposure photography I propagate. But if you go out shooting at night on the other hand, then the 6 stops ND filter is very useful.
What you can also see from the quick reference card is that a 10, 13 and 16 stops ND filter is the best set of filters to cover anything during daylight under any condition and part of the evening as well. The exposure chart is of course just a theoretical chart: it assumes light conditions that are constant and stable over a longer period of time. Of course such ideal circumstances are very rare. Depending on the weather and the time of day, sunset or sunrise, light can change very fast.
How should one deal with that? The light during sunset is amazing, but the light also changes very fast. But the more accurate the meter reading, which is far more often the case when you cover your viewfinder, the less correction you have to apply. But if light is changing rapidly, close to sunset for example, then often I just double the exposure time. My bridge-vanishing-in-the-fog shot for example was calculated at seconds and it was getting dark rapidly and there was a heavy fog.
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So I just doubled the exposure time during the shot. This is all a matter of experience especially in dynamic light conditions. Furthermore it is important to realize that there are no ideal light or weather conditions for long exposure photography. Learn to adapt and to deal with any weather condition, with any light condition and make the best of it. Usually I prefer to shoot my long exposure seascapes in poor light conditions with a lot of clouds and cloud movement, never with a blue sunny sky.
The light is just too bright and it will show in the photos with contrasts that are just too harsh. Besides that I think that shooting under a sky covered with clouds the light is more diffuse and can be controlled better by the photographer. Very often I shoot close to or around sunset when light is fading fast and I can shoot longer exposures to achieve a more ethereal effect. Notice the ratio between the sky and the clouds. For example: a photographer only has 10 stops of filters and wants to shoot at bright day light with exposure times of over 3 minutes.
Most of the times that is impossible and you would need 16 stops to do that generally speaking. Needless to say this is an incorrect approach. This especially holds true when shooting architecture. Please refer to the chapter on Dealing with weather and light conditions. There are many ND filter manufacturers, some produce only light ND filters, some produce a whole range of them.
The filters come in different price ranges and in different sizes. Having said this a rectangular filter system is more expensive than a circular filter system since you also need the filter holders for a rectangular system. A circular filter system might therefore be the filter you want. The approach when using circular filters is the same as with rectangular filters. Many photographers use polarizer filters also in combination with ND filters. The great thing about polarizer filters is that not only do they give a little color boost, but also reduces the light with 2 additional stops.
There are two types of polarization filters: the circular polarizer CP and the linear polarizer LP. But why risk it? Just use a CP. Besides, most polarization filters are CP.
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Also know that the so called variable ND filters are based on the concept of 2 polarizing filters to reduce the light. You can screw your ND filter onto the ring. You use a step up ring to fit a filter onto a lens that has a smaller diameter than the filter. For example: using a 77mm ND filter on a 58mm lens. You use this ring to fit a filter onto a lens that has a bigger diameter than the filter.
For example: using a 58mm ND filter on a 77mm lens. These will cause vignetting. Filter holders are used for rectangular filters only and are usually designed to be used with mm filters. The filter holder is attached directly in front of your lens using an adapter to fit any size lens. The filter holder can accept any adapter. Formatt-Hitech and Lee filters both have filter holders in their range that are among the best in the world. Formatt-Hitech however has a filter holder that can also fit the likes of the Nikon mm lens by using Lucroit filter holders.
Most long exposure photographers use multiple filters at once. They might use a 10 stops, a 6 stops and a GND. Charge it before you go out so you're certain there's enough life in it, and invest in a spare battery if you regularly find yourself shooting beyond its capacity. Most times you'll be shooting at the highest resolution your camera offers, regardless of what it is you're photographing. But do you always need to? Sometimes a smaller image size might be all you need, and reducing the resolution not only means more images will fit on a memory card, but you can achieve a faster shooting rate, too.
If sports photography is your thing, reducing the resolution will help you avoid delays as your camera clears its buffer. If you intend to do any manipulation or retouching, shooting raw is often the best solution thanks to its increased bit depth. However, raw files are larger, so take longer for the camera to deal with, and you also need to process them before they can be printed.
JPEG files, on the other hand, are processed in-camera at the time of shooting, so you can print or share them immediately, and you'll find that you can shoot a much longer burst of consecutive frames at a much quicker rate.
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Providing you don't want to make too many radical changes to an image after you've taken it, you may find you can't tell the difference between a JPEG file and a raw one. For the ultimate in choice, though, and when speed isn't important, why not shoot both? Most digital cameras give you this option, and you can then decide what you want to do when you're back at your computer.
Just make sure you pack an extra memory card. When they're not working on an assignment, professional photographers spend a lot of time testing. This could be testing a new lens to determine which aperture or focal length it performs best at; testing the ISO and white balance to see which options give the very best results; or even testing the dynamic range so you know the sensor's limitations. You can do exactly the same with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, so you know precisely where its strengths and weaknesses lie. This isn't about looking for perfect shots - just experimenting with your kit to understand it better, or trying out new techniques that you can employ at a later date.
A good tripod is worth its weight in gold, so don't be tempted by budget options. Dig deep for a decent tripod and it will give you many years of service, making it a sensible long-term investment. And don't forget to take your tripod with you, either! The simple act of setting up your camera on a tripod will slow you down, and this can be enough to make you concentrate a little harder on what it is you're photographing and what you hope to achieve.
At the same time, locking your camera down for every shot you take can reduce your spontaneity, so don't be afraid to mix it up from time to time. If you religiously use a tripod, set out without it and see what happens, and if you normally travel without one, take it with you to see how slowing yourself down affects the results you get.
You don't necessarily need a tripod to hold your camera steady - supporting it against a wall or tree will help you avoid camera shake, and a beanbag or just a bag of rice can also give you a more stable shooting platform. The word horizon is found in the word horizontal, and that's precisely what it should be.
If your digital camera's got an in-camera level, use it. If not, invest just a few pounds or dolloars in a hotshoe-mounted spirit bubble. It will save you hours correcting your shots in Photoshop later. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras now have a grid that can be activated and superimposed over a Live View image on the rear LCD screen, making getting level horizons a breeze. It might sound obvious, but check your camera bag if you're going to be shooting away from home.
You may have your camera, lenses and tripod, but if you use a quick-release tripod head, is the base-plate attached to the camera or the tripod? Have you got the right diameter adaptor ring if you use Cokin or Lee system filters. It's these small things that are more likely to scupper a trip than the major elements of your kit. It's all too easy to become over-reliant on your camera's autofocus, and there are some situations where focusing manually is definitely a better option - pre-focusing to photograph a fast-moving subject on a race track, or focusing precisely for a detailed macro shot, for example.
DSLRs and mirrorless cameras may have a bewildering number of AF points to choose from as well as a wealth of focusing modes, from simple single point AF to much more advanced focus tracking. Make sure you spend time getting to grips with your camera's AF system as this can prove invaluable before a big and important shoot. A bad lens will always be a bad lens, no matter what DSLR or mirrorless camera you attach it to. So before you decide that you've 'outgrown' your camera and need a 'better' one, ask yourself if investing in a new lens might be a better option instead?
A few extra pixels and smarter features might sound enticing, but a faster maximum aperture and higher optical quality could go much further in helping you take better pictures with the camera you already have. There are thousands of lenses left over from the days of 35mm film, and as many DSLRs are 'backwards compatible' most notably Nikon and Pentax they can still be used in the digital age, while there are numerous adapters available for mirrorless cameras. Moreover, as many of them are dirt-cheap it's a great way of expanding your focal length repertoire. But there is a downside.
Some lenses perform better than others, and the only real way of weeding out the good from the bad is to give them a go. In general, zoom lenses and wide-angle focal lengths tend to be the worst performers. In addition, there is the need to focus manually, and in-camera exposure metering can be unpredictable and unreliable. That said, there are some cracking manual focus lenses out there, and in certain situations they can actually outperform contemporary low-cost zooms in terms of sharpness. Wide-angle lenses can give the impression of increased distance between near and distant elements, while telephoto focal lengths appear to compress perspective.
Consider this when you're framing a shot and position yourself to use the focal length that's best for the image, rather than simply choosing a focal length that fits everything in. If you want to maximise the depth of field in your shot at a given focal length, then focus manually at the hyperfocal distance; the point at which everything from half the hyperfocal distance to infinity will appear sharp. The only way to be certain is to check your camera's LCD screen once the shot is taken. If there's anything untoward in the frame, simply adjust your composition and shoot again.
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