Go For a Photo Walk

photo walk pictures
Photographers gather and check gear for a photo walk.

One of the biggest mistakes people new to photography make is not being involved in their profession. That includes memberships in professional organizations, like PPA, and being involved with local photography groups, meet-ups, and events.

Some of you may chaff at that idea, thinking it’s nothing but a bunch of old ladies with point-and-shoot cameras and you’d be wrong. The WorldWide Photowalk was this weekend and at one of the local walks, which drew about 20 people, a quarter were working professionals from around the area and half made some part of their living from photography.

There was equipment of every manufacturer. Cameras by Nikon, Canon and one Sony Alpha, flash units by Sunpak, Canon and Quantum, lenses that ranged from kits lenses to Zeiss primes. We had a great time and I got to mingle with some really good shooters.

Another option to consider is going on paid photography tours, especially if you’re visiting a strange city for the first time. Hiring a local photographer to serve as a guide can insure that you’re not missing lesser known photogenic parts of the city. Besides, most of the locals will know your walk organizer and you can borrow some of that credibility. Even experienced hunters hire a guide when hunting in a new area, so don’t discount the idea of paying a guide.

Walks, meet-ups and group TFP (Time For Prints) shoots are all ways to meeting other photographers, pick up shooting tips and get your name out there. I came back with a stack of business cards after a two hour photo walk, including ideas for new paying projects. It turned out to be a wise investment of my time.

Helping to organize photo walks and TFP shoots is always appreciated, and organizing one of your own is great advertising.

So grab your gear and get going!

Bokeh Demystified

bokeh explained
A good example of bokeh - by Angel mat-eye

Bokeh is the Japanese word for “blur” and can lead to some common misconceptions about the effect. I’ve heard bokeh explained as, “Just a blurry background.” It’s tough to bite back the annoyance that arises at such a simplification. A Rembrandt is not just a pretty painting and bokeh is more than blur.

More specifically, bokeh is a highly stylized background created by selectively blurring parts of the picture in a way that highlights the subject. Not merely a blurred background, but one that pops with colors and patterns.  Good bokeh doesn’t always require a subject, sometimes just the pattern of lights without a subject is just as appealing.

You don’t need special equipment to achieve bokeh, but it helps to have a fast lens, like the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 and a selection of ND (Neutral Density) filters. Those help achieve the lower f-stops you’ll need and they’re also handy for shooting video where you have less latitude in shutter speed selection. You don’t have to use ND filters, you can also experiment with your camera’s Aperture Priority mode (the “A” setting on Nikon, “Av” on Canon) and let the camera set the exposure, but I like the results with ND filters a little better and I can still lock a subject in motion.

For the inspirational bokeh, look for sunlight filtered through leaves and foliage or bright pinpoints of light in the background.

Get as much separation as you can between your subject and the background.

As far as I know there are few cameras with an “auto bokeh” setting, so you’ll want to use the widest aperture (lowest f-stop) your lens can achieve.

If you need fill flash, you’ll be limited to flash sync shutter speeds, which may or may not yield the desired f-stop. Times like these is when you may want your neutral density filters.

You can also cheat and get a similar effect in post-processing with Photoshop or GIMP, but I like getting the best possible results in the cameras and save the time in post.

Perfect Panoramas

panorama photo
Waves can be a challenge when shooting panoramas, you can see the break lines if you look closely - by 1suisse

Creating the perfect panorama is far more difficult than merely stitching together a series of images in Photoshop. Getting the perfect shot takes planning, the right equipment and a surprising amount of preparation.

For certain specialized areas of photography, like architectural and structural, it’s not unusual to see photographers employ highly specialized cameras like the Seitz 6×17, which is great choice if you have $30,000 to drop on a camera. For some specialty areas of photography and certain applications such expense is justified.

I’m guessing most of you will want to utilize the equipment you happen to own now, as I would.

Once you select the vista you want to capture and have established your vantage point, you’ll need to gear up.

– Your camera
– A sturdy tripod
– A bubble level if your tripod doesn’t have one (some cameras have built-in software levels)

Remove the polarizer if your lens has one as subtle changes in the angle as you pan across a scene can cause the colors in the sky to change slightly.

There are specially made panorama heads for tripods, but those are expensive.  A $6 bubble level and tripod will usually do the job.

Horizontal or Vertical Framing

It’s your choice. Horizontal framing will give you a long, narrow shot. To get a wider picture select vertical framing.

Be aware that vertical framing may introduce subtle errors because you’re no longer pivoting around the lens access. To correct for that you need to either have your camera perfectly level relative to the horizon, or there are specially made panorama tripod heads that compensate for the shift.

The vertical framing won’t be quite the issue if you’re perfectly level, especially with a full frame camera like a Canon 5D.

Turn Off Auto Everything

This will be a challenge because most cameras have automatic settings that most people aren’t even aware exist. Modern cameras are fitted with computers that will fight to the death to get you the most perfect picture it can with whatever functions it still controls independent of the operator. So, for panoramas, you have to turn them all off.

The auto ISO setting is the one most people overlook, auto white balance is another. I go so far as to turn of Peripheral Illumination Correction and Low Light Noise Correction. Some of the newer consumer cameras have panorama features built-in that take care of the exposure and overlap issues for you.

Depth of Field

In most panoramas, depth of field is going to be more important than shutter speed since you’re working on a tripod. You’ll want to use a smaller aperture (higher f-stop) but don’t feel like you have to go all the way to f/22. You should be able to get adequate DoF for a panorama out of f/11 or above.

Overlapping Frames

I prefer to pick my overlap points manually. For landscapes it’s easy: Find a prominent feature with strong vertical lines that will be easy to match up in post and overlap your frames on those features.

Oceans and beaches present peculiar problems in panoramas because of waves and people moving around on the beach. Waves may be one time you want to think about bumping up to f/22 so you can utilize a slower shutter speed. Since it won’t be possible to preserve a wave pattern from one frame to the next, sometimes the best compromise is to use a slower shutter speed that blurs out the wave motion. You can also cheat in post-processing and use the clone tool to blend wave features, but that’s a lot of manual work.

For situations where there are humans moving around, you’ll just have to be fast and try to pick break points large enough to conceal a moving person, like a pillar or big tree. If you’re far enough back from a crowd, minor imperfections won’t likely be that noticeable anyway.

I wouldn’t advise trying an HDR panorama where there are any moving parts. That’s going to be hard enough to get right on a static scene. Use Automatic Exposure Bracketing if your camera supports it and I do the HDR layering before trying to stitch the panorama photos together. It’s inevitable when adding HDR layering that the color in one frame will be off, so find that one first and minimize the amount of color work you have to do in post.

With that exception, do the stitching first and then run color and contrast correction on the final product.

Shooting Panoramas

Stitching Panoramas Together

Photography Basics: The Golden Rule

Applying the golden ration
Missed it by that much - According to this overlay I should have lowered the frame just a tad.

The rule of thirds is one of the easier elements of composition to master and I like it because it’s easy.  Mentally divide the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically and put the subject near the power points. Easy.  My kind of rule.

The Golden Ratio is a little more complicated and involves math.  For thousands of years artists and intellectuals have studied the Golden Ratio and other constructs based on the Golden Mean and how it applies to art composition.  That has yielded tools like the Golden Triangle, the Golden Spiral, and the Golden Rectangle.

This gets deep in a hurry, so I’m going to simplify by saying the Golden Rectangle is one where the short side and long side relate to one another on a ratio of 1.61803.  You might recognize the Golden Rectangle by another name, we call it 16:9 (actually a ratio of 1.777, but close enough).

Align the visual elements of a picture to the golden ratio and apparently humans perceive the composition more positively.  It’s true.  If you look at an older TV show shot in 4:3 it looks boxy compared to a show shot in wide screen format.  Once you get used to wide screen it’s hard to go back.

By way of a simple calculation, divide the frame diagonally, corner to corner.  Then draw a second line from the lower corner to upper intersection of thirds.  That will yield a rough approximation of the Golden Triangle.  Do the same drawing a line from the upper left corner to the lower left intersection of the thirds.  If you can picture all that in your head, then you’re aligned with the Divine Ratio.

You can see how your pictures measure up to the gold standard at this handy site.

Photography Basics: The Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds for subject positioning - by Chaky

There’s a reason it’s called the “Rule of Thirds” and not the “Suggestion of Thirds” or the “Very Highly Recommended Concept of Thirds”.

Still, for the most part, photographers don’t like rules.  More to the point they like flouting them with reckless abandon.  Photographers are frequently the people climbing on street lights to try and get a better angle on the crowds, the ones hauling a ton of gear out into the wilderness at zero dark-thirty to catch that one moment of fabulous lighting, the ones climbing over the fence at the zoo because the frame of the bear exhibit is really better just a couple steps beyond the fence.

The relationship between artists and rules has always been tenuous and contentious at the best of times.  Yet the Rule of Thirds ranks right up there as one of the more time-tested concepts in composition, both in photography and in the art world long before photography came into existence.

The general concept is fairly straightforward: Divide the image frame into nine equal sections.  Position your subject at the intersection of the dividing lines.  Which one of the intersections will depend on what else is in the frame.

The horizon line can be higher or lower, depending on whether you want to focus attention on the foreground or the sky, anywhere but along the center line.

Subjects In Motion

If your subject is in motion, the Rule of Thirds changes somewhat as you want to give your subject room to move in the photograph.  Position the subject so their direction of motion is toward the open area of the picture.  If a subject is moving left to right, you generally don’t want to frame the subject in the lower right hand corner as it leaves the impression they’re running off the frame.

For every rule there are exceptions.  I have seen some pictures when a slow shutter speed was used and the subject positioned at the distant corner, relative to their direction of motion, to make it appear as if they were going so fast the camera could not pan fast enough to keep up with them.

So there are rules and then there are rules in photography.  Learn them, break them, find new ways to apply them to your own personal style.  At least no one is going to issue you a ticket for climbing on the street light.