Tips

A hard-won match by Paul Waldo

So, I don't know if I've been in a creative slump recently, or just super busy. I've really wanted to get out and make some images, and often carry my camera with me. I just don't see too much that cat catches my eye while running from here to there. I was out shopping in Winchester this weekend and it was gray dreary afternoon, having rained for the last couple of days. I happened to be passing by a tennis court that was completely empty. Not surprising, since the weather was so bad. The thing that caught my eye was the wet clay and the way it shined. I broke out my trusty 8-16mm and just started trying different things. This is the best of the bunch and it was really fun trying out different angles. Hopefully this will get me inspired to get out and do some more!

A hard-won match

Anatomy of an Image: Scotts Run WaterFall (Part 1) by Paul Waldo

A serene waterfall surrounded by rocks and fallen leaves.  How was this image created?  This post gives a step-by-step walkthrough from image capture to final edits.

This weekend, my son was interested in going for a hike and seeing a waterfall. I'm always up for photographing waterfalls, so we headed to one of my favorite spots at Scott's Run Park. This is an amazing place, probably only 10 miles outside Washington DC, but you would never know that it is so close to the hustle and bustle of a huge city. Unbeknownst to me, the day we went (January 1) was a national push to get people out to their state parks. On the day I thought everyone would be home nursing hangovers, the parking lot was mobbed with hikers! It seemed that getting a shot of the falls without people in it was going to be impossible. Luck favors the prepared though, so we set off to the falls with gear in hand.

My son, who is eight, hiked like a trooper, scrambling over rocks larger than he and climbing up some pretty steep hills. We finally got to the base of the falls and I was disappointed to see that there were lots of people around. Drat! Oh well, we were here to see waterfalls and I figured I would at least scout the location using my Sigma 8-16 mm ultra-wide-angle lens. We could always come back later on a less busy day.

Whenever my son sees me get out the tripod, he rolls his eyes and I can almost hear him groan “Not again…” Eight year olds are not known for sitting still and especially hate adults obsessing over minute changes of a tripod angle. Thank goodness cell phone reception was good, so I gave him my iPhone to use while I was setting up the shots. Watching train videos is his favorite pastime, and that would keep him from wandering around and landing in the drink!

 

CAMERA SETUP

When it comes to waterfalls, I love the blurred dreamy effect of a slow shutter speed shot. Therefore my primary goal for these shots was to use a slow shutter speed. I find that for this particular waterfall, 1/2 second is the bare minimum to get this effect. A tripod is necessary for a shot this slow plus it helps with maintaining the exact placement of the bracketed shots for HDR.

As soon as I got the camera and tripod set up and switched Live View on, I could see that the spot I had chosen was going to be fantastic. The 8-16 mm Sigma has some pretty heavy vignetting, but it worked to my advantage here.

The foreground rock and the waterfall in the background were the lightest objects in the scene, emphasizing the relationship between the two. “This could be a very cool image!” I thought to myself. If only there were no people…

With all the tripod adjusting and LCD ogling, I hadn’t realized that some dark clouds had rolled in and it was starting to sprinkle lightly. Apparently all the other folks, out for a more leisurely hike, decided to pack it in and go home. Never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I started shooting in earnest. I little light rain was not going to kill what looked to be some really nice shooting! Yes, I had to wipe off the camera every once in a while, but it had the advantage of lowering the light to get a good slow shutter speed. This lets the running water turn into the ethereal flow that looks so good!

I adjusted my position a bit and took a few more shots. Over the roar of the flowing water, I heard “Dad, its time to go!” The rain was getting a bit stronger now, so I conceded and started to pack up. While I knew I could have stayed for another hour at least, I was happy with the fact that I got some good shots.

EDITING

Once I got home and started looking at the images in Lightroom, I realized that this was the  sequence that looked most promising.

Each one of the shots allowed me to capture detail in a specific area of the scene: mid tones, highlights and shadows.  The next step was to use HDR software to combine these three images into one that holds detail in all three areas.

In Part 2 of Anatomy of an Image: Scotts Run WaterFall, I will be showing, in a slider-by-slider description, how I turned the raw images above into a single image that gently guides the viewer through the scene and captures the feeling I had at these fantastic waterfalls.

This is not your Father's Manual Mode by Paul Waldo

wpid333-20110818_leaf_dew_020-Edit.jpg

Manual Mode on older cameras has always been a pain to use. It required a lot of forethought and button fiddling; then, if the light changed or you moved significantly, you had to do it all over again. While doing some playing with my Canon EOS 60D, I have discovered that Manual Mode is now really easy and relatively foolproof!

While walking around my yard after a rainstorm, I spied a big leaf on the ground that had some large water droplets. The sun was low in the sky, making some interesting shadows and specular highlights from the droplets. I knew that I wanted the droplets as well as the vein structure of the leaf to stand out, so I attached a macro extension tube to my trusty Sigma 18-200mm.

I had two challenges with this macro shot. The first was the very shallow depth of field, easily resolvable by stopping down to a small aperture. The second was that I was hand-holding the camera and wanted to avoid camera shake. When using the extension tubes, the old "shutter speed should be greater than 1/focal length" rule goes out the window. I use at least double this value and usually more.

Most of my shooting is done in Av (aperture-priority) mode so that I control the depth of field and let the camera choose the shutter speed. I also usually have the camera in Auto-ISO mode, so the camera can vary the ISO. I have found empirically that, with an aperture I set, the 60D then picks an ISO that gives a shutter speed of around 1.5 times the 1/focal length value.

For example, when I pick an aperture at a 100mm focal length, the camera sets the shutter speed to around 1/150 and picks an appropriate ISO. I am assuming that the approximately 1.5 multiplier accounts for the fact that the 60D is a crop sensor camera. Nonetheless, I knew that the camera-chosen shutter speed was not going to be fast enough to let me hand hold and get sharp images at this magnification. I was going to have to outsmart the camera!

Knowing that I wanted a shake-free image and good depth of field, I switched to Manual mode and selected a small aperture and fast shutter speed, fully expecting to have to continually tweak as the light and my composition changed. Much to my surprise, no matter how I moved and how the sinking sun changed the light, the exposure was spot on!

While shooting, I didn't give this pleasant coincidence much thought; the histogram looked good and I was able to keep the exact shutter speed and aperture I wanted. Only after the images were downloaded and being edited did I start to question how this worked. It seemed to me, with the changing light and changing composition, it would be impossible for a fixed aperture and shutter speed to always give "correct" exposure. I scratched my head for a while then realized the answer; shutter speed, aperture, and ISO together make up the exposure. It was the Auto-ISO mode that allowed the camera to vary something to get a correct exposure. As the ambient light decreased, the camera set a higher ISO; as my composition changed to include brighter subjects, the camera set a lower ISO.

Conclusion

Never having worked with a camera that had Auto-ISO, I didn't realize how powerful this feature is. I can now set the two most important exposure components to my liking for maximum creative control and still have the ability to shoot quickly in dynamically changing light conditions. With Auto-ISO turned on, I can choose how deep the depth of field is and whether the action is frozen or blurred, all without having to worry about exposure!

There are some caveats to this approach:

  • Once in Manual mode, there is no Exposure Compensation; you have to use whatever exposure the camera chooses. If your subject requires exposure tweaking, you will either have to set a specific ISO or move to another mode.
  • Non-professional cameras have a relatively narrow ISO range, which limits the range of aperture/shutter speed combinations. My 60D ranges from 100-6400; seven stops. This is not too bad though, considering many lenses have about this range also.
  • The ISO can change drastically, depending on the light. Many purists want ISO as low as possible to avoid noise. My personal belief is that noise is the last thing you want to optimize for. Part of a good image is that it is sharp where it needs to be and has depth of field appropriate to the subject matter. If the image is noisy to satisfy these other characteristics, so be it; I can overlook noise in an otherwise compelling photograph. An out-of-focus or blurred image that is noiseless is much less interesting. Besides, noise reduction technology is getting better all the time. Noise that might be distracting today may be able to be removed next year.

Just like any other technique, this one has its plusses an minuses and is not applicable in all situations. Its just one more tool in your toolbox. Go out and give it a try; let me know how you fare!

f/8 and be there by Paul Waldo

wpid310-20100207-CRW_2137.jpg

The old adage "f/8 and be there" is a great one, reminding us the most important ingredient of a good photograph is actually taking it, and letting go of all of the technical considerations. A case in point is this image.

I took this during the big snowstorms of 2010 and think it is a pretty successful image. From a technical perspective, it has a lot of problems. First and foremost, it is a pretty heavy crop of the original image, below.

As you can see, the deer by itself is only a small portion of the original, weighing in at only 586x878 pixels. That's only half a megapixel!

 

Another problem is that I made the shot hand-held from the inside of my house, through a double-paned window. Talk about a crappy lens!

There are a lot of things I would like to change about this image. It could have been a lot bigger with a 30 megapixel camera. It could have been sharper if I had used a tripod and a better lens. I didn't have any of these, but I managed to capture an image I like enough to print and hang on my wall!