Friday, September 4, 2015

The Different Kinds of Natural Light

So here's the thing - there's great light, so-so light and bad light. I'm 99% sure most everyone has experienced the different types even without realizing it! No matter what you take pictures of - people, nature, pets, things, etc., the quality of light makes a huge difference in the pictures you take. Learning to shoot with natural light is key to great photos! So let's get started shall we?

The first thing to learn is the 6 different kinds of natural light...

  • full sun (mid-day sun)

  • even shade

  • dappled shade

  • overcast (cloudy days)

  • sunrise / sunset

  • backlighting

This harsh natural light is the most powerful during mid-day. That's the time when the sun is at the highest point in the sky. Even when it's not mid-day and the sun has come down some (or hasn't risen all the way up) this light is still really harsh. Full sun casts shadows on people and creates a very unflattering look for skin. It can be difficult to capture details of subjects. It's not an ideal light to shoot in... and people really hate squinting in it.

When the sun is too harsh and you can't look at it, the best light to look for is even shade. Even shade is light cast from buildings, walls, carports etc. During mid-day sun, the only even shade can be found under things like porches, carports, umbrellas, etc. That's because there isn't anything else that casts a decent sized shadow at that time. If you've spent the day at the beach and realized that your little umbrella shade was suddenly gone, that would be mid-day sun at it's best.

Shade cast from items like trees and trellis is what we call dappled shade. It's where leaves let bits of light shine through. This is not the best shade to work with so always look for even shade if at all possible. Sometimes a tree is so thick it will cast even shade (that would be your best bet if you have no other choice.) Ideally if you want to take portraits at a park with trees and have nice even light - you'll have to shoot when the sun is very low to the horizon closer to sunrise or sunset. The lower the sun gets to the horizon, the less shadows will be cast and the more soft and even the light will be.

Soft, naturally diffused light is what you get on cloudy, overcast days. The clouds act as a giant diffuser and you have this great light that is softer and more flattering. If you have a cloudy day, you can shoot portraits anytime, even in the middle of the day. The light is typically not as strong so you may find the need to face the sun to get the right light. Photographers get excited about cloudy days because we can shoot with reckless abandon! More or less anyway - unless of course you want to capture blue skies and sun flare.

Also called the magic hour or the golden hour this light is created when the sun is closest to the horizon, about 1 hour after sunrise and the last 1 hour before sunset. The best light would be about 45-30 minutes before the sun actually sets and the short 10 minutes you have after it passes the horizon. Just before you start to run out of light you will be able to face the direction of the sun. This light is a nice golden light and you won't squint looking at it. The magic hour is the best time to shoot portraits in a natural setting (like a park) to avoid shadows.

When the sun is still too harsh another option is to use backlight. Backlight can only be done when the sun is low enough in the sky to be behind the subject. If you turned around to face the sun it would still be too harsh and you'd squint. So instead place the sun behind your subject. Get in close, expose for the subject, then recompose and take the shot! Practice playing with backlight to see the dreamy quality light you can get from it.

So now that you're more familiar with the different kinds of light, let's take a look at some examples so you can see them in action. In this picture above, even though the sun is starting to set, the light at the red brick wall is still too harsh. But look around and you see there is even shade cast from the buildings.

In this example my friend is standing in harsh bright light... notice the strong shadows cast by the light. This is fun for some pictures (if you want a shadow picture) but forget asking your subject to look at you and smile. Just to the left however, is this great, fantastic light! Look for that nice, even shade cast from the building opposite this one. That's great light.

The next time you're out and about shooting, try to be aware of the different kinds of light. Practice shooting in the different kinds of light, look for even shade, catch the magic hour and have fun!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Different Types of Lenses

If you're just starting out with a DSLR camera, you probably have a standard kit lens which is just fine. For those of you with a fancy point and shoot camera, you might have a fixed lens. Even so, getting a better idea of the different types of lenses available and how they work will help you decide what lens you might like to get next or if you'd like to upgrade to a camera with interchangeable lenses in the future.

So let's check out the usual suspects and how to use them!

1. Zoom Lens
The zoom lens is what most kit lenses are. This is your out and about everyday lens to capture real life. It's a great multipurpose lens for documenting birthdays, holidays, family, friends, vacations. You can zoom in close or pan out for a wider angle view. Many zoom lenses even have a macro feature. Even though it's not a true macro you can still take nice up-close pics of flowers and butterflies, etc. My zoom lens is a Canon 24-70 2.8 "L" lens. I love 24-70 mm. A 70-200 lens is really great too. I used to have one but sold it because I didn't use it enough. Of course, I often wish I had the 70-200 lens.

2. Prime Lens
Prime lenses have only one focal length. In other words, there is no zoom. If you want to get closer to your subject, you walk closer. If you need to fit the entire wedding party in the shot, you'll need to get back (or switch lenses.) Having to rely on your feet to zoom makes prime lenses more active lenses. You'll find you have to be more aware / creative and really work the subject to get the composition you want. Primes also have the benefit of being lighter, usually producing better quality photos and are often more affordable. They are great for shooting details, product shots and portraits.

That being said, I really love my 50mm 1.2 prime. Now that's professional quality glass... an aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4 in a 50 mm prime is great too. We actually own a 50mm 1.8 as well. Most of the time I shoot with my 50mm lens. I'd love to get a 35mm prime. If it were up to me, I'd have nothing but primes... but I do love zooms too. Oh, I want them all.

3. Wide Angle Lens
Wide angle lenses are often used to get the big picture or to evoke strong emotion in a setting. They are great for when you want to tell a story. The thing to remember is the wider the angle the more distortion you'll get. In this example there's a rock in the foreground (by the bush) and it looks like it could cover a pair of patio chairs but it really wasn't that big in real life. This is the distortion.

The closer you are to the subject, the more distortion you'll experience when using a wide angle lens. Of course it always depends on what you want when you take the shot and I still love this photo of the vintage Belmont Hotel in Dallas.  35 mm, 28 mm, 24 - 15 mm (ultra wide angle) are considered wide angle focal lengths.

4. Fisheye Lens
Fisheye lenses are actually ultra wide angle lenses that bend the horizon and convey wide open spaces. It creates a fun distortion. A true fisheye lens is for full frame cameras and the curve will be pretty close to 180 degrees. I had a fisheye lens that worked only on crop body cameras and it did not create a complete fisheye. However in this example you can see somewhat of a curve. Fisheyes can be used for portraits if you want to do something crazy and are best for when you want to be extra creative and bend the horizon or other lines.

5. Telephoto Lens
Telephoto lenses bring you really close to the action and take you to places you can't reach, like in the middle of a flock of flamingos. They are great for trips to the zoo, sporting events, graduations, bird watching and any situation where you want to get close from afar. Telephoto lenses have even more shallow depth of field so they blur the background more and make subjects really stand out. They come in either prime or zooms (the 70-200 is considered a telephoto zoom.) I often used my 200 prime for portraits, especially if I really needed to blur the background. Of course when I retired from shooting professionally I sold my 200 prime telephoto lens. Again, I kinda wish I still had it. I'd like to have every lens.

6. Macro Lens
Macro lenses offer endless creativity and subject possibilities because when you start to look at things up close, you suddenly have the coolest stuff to photograph! Take this macro image of a rose, taken my husband B. I just love that the rose fills the frame. If you ever find yourself thinking you have nothing to shoot, try shooting in macro. Because of the macro function these lenses have very shallow depth of field, even at small apertures like f/16. So if you are shooting wedding rings and you want all the rings in sharp detail, you'll need to use a small aperture like f/22 and probably a tripod.

If I had to pick my favorite types of lenses for sure I would include a prime, macro and wide angle. I also really enjoy the multipurpose function of a good zoom lens.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to Capture Bokeh in Your Photography

Anytime I hear "images of broken light" in the Beatles song Across the Universe, I think of bokeh.  One of my favorite songs ever btw. So what's bokeh exactly? It's the result of blurred images of light - which in turn take on this magical, dreamy quality when you're shooting wide open apertures.

You can achieve bokeh in nature, from the bits of light peeking through trees, with strands of lights and even stained glass. BTW some people say it as bo-kah, others um... I don't know? I say it as bo-kah.

This bride and groom portrait of Holly and Phillip has just the slightest amount of natural bokeh from the sun behind them. Shot with aperture f/2.8

One of my favorites is the bokeh behind Chris as she says her vows... it's actually a mix of light filtering through trees as well as colors from flowers and the guests.  Shot at f/2.8

Here's an example of "framing your subject" with a strand of Christmas lights. The lights were actually about 10 feet away from the bride and groom, and I was also shooting as close to the lights as possible in aperture f/3.5 to achieve this look. I simply focused on my subject, set my exposure and tada, bokeh framing.

The bokeh behind this detail shot of an ornament at a December wedding was not that far away.  They were actually on the same tree as the ornament.  Since I was shooting with an aperture of f/2.8 very close to my subject (almost macro) I was able to get a significant amount of bokeh. That's the big benefit of lenses with wide open apertures. You don't have to have your subject so far away to achieve the look.

I'm obsessed with stained glass windows, and the ones at Jana and Stephen's wedding were no exception. Shooting with the veil about 5-10 feet in front of the window, I was able to capture the delicate detail of Jana's veil while creating a gorgeous amount of color bokeh. This was shot in aperture f/4.

But get this, you don't have to have a subject to capture images of broken light! This set of purple and white bokeh was actually a Christmas tree at TCU. To get the shot, I chose the settings (aperture first, then the others accordingly) and then I put my camera lens in manual focus. This is not the same thing as the focus points in your camera. It is the auto focus / manual focus on the lens itself. Then I deliberately turned the barrel on the lens to get an image of lights not in focus. Instant bokeh.

Note how this bokeh (above) is much more defined than the previous image. You can actually see some of the hexagon shapes of the lights. That's because I decided to use a smaller aperture to get a different looking bokeh. Again, shot with the lens in manual focus, deliberately set to be out of focus.

image (above) shot with f/2.8

Last but not least, here's one of my favorite images taken of a strand of regular colored lights. I actually had the lights hanging on a window (in a dark room) about 10-15 feet away from me. I chose my aperture (in this case very wide open f/2) adjusted my other settings and then set my lens to manual focus. Again I deliberately made the shot out of focus to create blur without an immediate subject to focus on. This wasn't the final result, in editing I made the darks much darker and tweaked the colors.

So that's just some of the fun you can have shooting bokeh. Next time you're shooting, try your hand at creating these images of broken light.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Focal Plane and Getting Things in Focus

I don't know about you, but I'm bad at math and other technical things like that. When I first started shooting I was always getting confused with the technical details. Well dealing with the focal plane sometimes confuses people but don't fret - it's really not. that. bad. What the heck am I talking about? Just a little something that looks like this...

So yeah, there are these focal planes in a photograph. Basically if the subjects in a photo line up on the same focal plane at the point of focus - then they will all be in focus... depending on the depth of field. Big wide open apertures like f/2 have a very shallow depth of field. What this means is in focal plane land, there is a very small area where things will be in focus. After such the point of focus drops off really quick.

That's why it's tricky to nail focus when shooting wide open. Now if you're shooting with an aperture that's smaller, it will have a more increased depth of field and you have much more of that subject in focus. Confused yet? That's ok here are some pictures...

I love shooting portraits (singles or couples) in wide open apertures, but it can be really tricky to get two people in focus with apertures like f/2. In the photo above I asked Andy to lean forward until his head lined up with Christine's. Yep, I totally put their faces/heads on the same focal plane. Now if he dropped back some, he would drop out of focus really quick. Likewise, if I happened to hit focus on their shirts, then that area would be in focus and not their faces. That's because of the wide open aperture and the very shallow depth of field.

So when I shot this image we were running out of natural light. Since I didn't want to use flash, I knew that I needed to stick with a bigger aperture. I could have shot this photo with f/2.8 however for the size of the group and how I have them posed someone would not be in focus. I ended up using a high ISO to get the look I wanted with f/4.5 and had just enough depth of field to get everyone lined up and in focus.

f/2.8 = shallow depth of field = focus on the cool Marilyn painting in a thrift shop. The clothes in the foreground were on a different focal plane so they would be blurred (just like I knew they would.) This composition technique is called framing the subject and works great when you want to highlight your subject.

In my last example I wanted to blur quite a bit of the background. For lighting reasons my couple had to be close to the background, so I shot in a wide open aperture of f/2.8. As usual with big apertures it was really important to line them up on the same focal plane if I wanted them both in focus. The result? My couple are both in focus and the green industrial wall behind them is more blurred, making them stand out.

So remember if you're shooting in wide open or want a certain look in your photos, keep in mind the focal plane to help get what you want in focus.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Histogram - Your Sometimes Friend

In today's post I wanted to focus on the histogram. Or as I like to call it, your sometimes friend.

1. What is the histogram?
The histogram is a graph on your LCD screen that shows what the exposure looks like after you take a picture. If it's too dark, the graph goes to the left. If it's too bright, it goes to the right. If it's a good exposure, it's in the middle.

Now to find the histogram you'll probably need to click info on the picture you're viewing in playback. Check your manuals. The thing to remember is that the histogram is your sometimes friend. It's just a guide. Sometimes the reading is right... sometimes totally off.

To be honest I almost never pay attention to this thing. Most of the time it's all wrong (especially if I'm deliberately shooting dark stuff, like when light painting.) Instead I'm used to how my images look on my LCD screen and how it compares to how they look at home when I upload them on my computer. LCD screens are different though, and if you have one that is hard to judge, you can check your histogram to see what's up.

Here are some examples...

This picture is too dark, I can't even see my dogs eyes. The histogram is towards the left (too many darks.) Totally an accurate histogram reading.

According to the histogram, this is overexposed (the graph is towards the right - too many "lights") but really, it's a pretty good exposure. You can see some of the details are pretty bright in the white wall behind Ava pup towards the left. But my subject is properly exposed just how I want it. So in this case I wouldn't give two fiddle sticks about what my histogram says.

When the histogram stays to the middle and starts to resemble a "mountain" it's supposed to be a good, correct exposure with even lights and darks. The bigger / fatter the mountain, the better the light. Usually we agree! This isn't the best example of a histogram mountain. But like I said, I really don't pay much attention to the histogram. In fact... I kinda/sorta/forgot what it was called. I had to ask my husband B. True story. Mr. Technical saves the day.

Well that's it! This is really a very simple thing in DLSR photography. Just remember that if you want an idea if your exposure is good, take a look at your histogram. It can sometimes be your friend when you're shooting. I never really pay attention to mine but sometimes it helps.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Understanding Aperture and Depth of Field

I totally have a crush on aperture. What's not to love? By choosing certain apertures you can be all kinds of creative with your photos. You can make your subject stand out with some background blur, frame your subjects with foreground blur and of course there's that dreamy bokeh. Most of the time I shoot in f/2.8 or bigger apertures (wide open.) I also love to shoot mid-range apertures to get more of my subject in focus. So what aperture will you choose?

It depends on the look you want in your photograph.

When I started learning photography, my goal was to shoot weddings and engagements. I didn't know much but one thing was for sure: pro photogs were gurus at making their subjects stand out. Yep, I'm talking about those gorgeous soft backgrounds... blurs of color and seamless backdrops.

So what's the trick to creating that look on purpose? Lenses with big apertures. As a reminder, beginner kit lenses normally only open up to f/3.5 or f/4.5 and even when that happens those apertures are only available at certain focal lengths. Why is it like that? Zoom lenses that have bigger apertures available at all focal lengths are really expensive.

But no worries! Even if you only have a kit lens you can still capture background blur and bokeh. That's because the further away your subject is from the background, the more intense the shallow depth of field will be. Granted, you'll have to have your subject stand in front of that pretty wall (or lights) at least 10 feet or more away - but the further away your subject is, the more blur there will be. Yes, even shooting in bigger apertures like f/4.5.

What is depth of field? It is how much of the image is in focus.

Anyway, this is why 99% of the time when beginner photographers learn about aperture they want to add a new lens to their kit. The most popular option? An affordable 50mm f/1.8 prime lens. A lens like that opens up to a whopping f/1.8 aperture. With a lens like that you get tons of opportunity to capture creamy backgrounds and bokeh. You'll also be able to shoot in lower light situations without flash often.

The only downside to shooting wide open?  It's really easy to miss your point of focus but with lots of practice you'll get better at hitting focus.

Wide open apertures like f/2.8 are great for capturing stunning detail photos. If you have a blog, Etsy shop, etc. then shooting in f/2.8 or f/2 is going to be something you'll want to try out. Big apertures really make product shots pop.

It's true that most of the time I shoot in wide open apertures (I have a tendency to stay around f/2.8 - f/2) but sometimes I just need to get more of my subject in focus and a wide open aperture won't work. This is when I'll stop the lens down (make the hole smaller.) Smaller apertures = greater depth of field.

Anytime I'm out shooting new places / architecture I like to use smaller or mid-range apertures.  Apertures f/3.5, f/4.5, f/5.6 are still considered to be big apertures but they have more depth of field than shooting wide open. Apertures f/7, f/10, f/11 are the true mid-range apertures.

Then of course there are the very small apertures. We're talking f/16, f/22, f/32 and I rarely use those.  Those are ideal when you're wanting to capture the details of some grand big picture - like the view from the top of the Royal Gorge Bridge - looking down into the canyon below.

For this view from our cruise ship (above) I actually used f/2.8 - mainly because I didn't want a lot of grain in my photo (from a high ISO) and I wanted to make the most out of the lingering natural light at sunset. This just goes to show that you don't always have to shoot in smaller apertures to get a beautiful landscape shot.  It will just always depend on what you want and what you're willing to compromise when capturing a certain image.

While on-location in Vail, Colorado I shot this image of Aspen trees in late spring around Sylvan Lake. I really wanted more of the trees and texture in focus so I chose a smaller aperture.

If you want to use a very small aperture to shoot big pictures you need to set your aperture and adjust your other settings accordingly. Then pick your point of focus on something about 3-4 feet away from you. When you take the shot the details from front to middle to back will all be in good focus (if you're using a fast enough shutter speed.)

Sometimes the subject you'll want to shoot won't have a lot of depth (front to back) in the first place.  In that case you can get away with bigger apertures, though it's generally better to use a mid-range aperture.

This image of business cards I collected at a social event was shot with a fairly small aperture. Why? I was using a macro lens and anytime you shoot in a macro situation the shallow depth of field is intensified even more. The closer you are to your subject the more background blur you'll get as well.

So if you're shooting in macro and you're just not getting the depth of field and detail that you want, chances are you need to shoot with a much smaller aperture.  The aperture f/4.5 is going to produce a background blur like f/2.8 when shooting in macro. The above image (of cards) was shot at an aperture f/7 with a macro lens.

The next photo was shot in macro. Notice how only the rings are in focus and the focus drops off really quickly past that? I can't remember but I was shooting either aperture f/11 or f/14. When I first started doing ring shots I would get upset because I couldn't get more of the actual ring in focus. I eventually learned that to get more focus in a macro shots, I had to use an even smaller aperture.

Well I hope this post about aperture and depth of field was helpful. Remember that your choice of aperture determines your depth of field in a photo. As always what settings you choose depends on what you want in the photo. It's always your call to get the shot you want.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Fixing White Balance - JPG vs RAW

Have you ever taken a picture that was too yellow, too blue or just overall not the way it looked in person? That would be a white balance issue. I've mentioned before how important it is to pay attention to white balance when shooting in JPG vs. RAW.

When I spent the afternoon with one of my friends at the Modern art museum, I snapped a photo of her that was just awful in terms of white balance. So I thought, hey blog post! Here's a little video tip about why it's important to pick the right white balance setting if you're shooting in jpg format. And a little bit about the difference between shooting in JPG vs. RAW.

As you can see the auto white balance is bad in this picture. The light is way too yellow and red. If you shoot this in JPG without paying attention to the white balance, it's tricky and sometimes impossible to fix. If you shoot this in RAW you can easily fix the white balance issue in editing (I use Lightroom.)

Ewwwww. Look at all that green. I mean, it's better but no cigar. Really I'm done trying to fix this (fixing jpg white balance is just not my thing!)

Now here's the same image (the RAW format) after white balance correction in post editing.  It looks SO much better and more true to life, and it was really easy to fix.

So basically there's nothing wrong with shooting in JPG - but this is why it's really important to pay attention and choose the right white balance setting for the situation you're shooting in. Next time you're out taking pictures, try to remember the white balance and keep it in mind. If you do change the white balance, don't forget to change back to AWB when you're done. Unless of course you're totally feeling all Oompa Loompa up in here.

Monday, February 2, 2015

How to Use Your Camera's Light Meter

I've mentioned in previous posts that aperture, shutter speed and ISO are super important but they are nothing without the light meter. So when shooting in manual you always have to use the light meter, otherwise you won't be able to adjust your settings for a correct exposure. In today's post we are going to learn more about the light meter and how to use it!

Remember, the light meter is most often indicated by a circle, half circle or something close to a circle in the center of the viewfinder (see above.) This example is for Canon and I don't have a Nikon example but they are very similar. Also take note of what the light meter indicator generally looks like.

Here's what you need to know:

1. The light meter indicator helps you get a proper exposure
To manually set your exposure you need to make sure the tic-mark is on the "0" and to get it there, you adjust your aperture / shutter speed / ISO. The light meter indicator tells you if the exposure looks too bright (+) or too dark (-)  and you may have realized by now, this is sometimes subjective. It depends on what you're taking the meter reading off of, or what kind of picture you're trying to take. If you're light painting, the indicator will show it as way too dark (-) etc.  Sometimes even though the tic-mark is on "0" the image is still too overexposed.

2. The light meter isn't perfect
Stay calm and remember - the light meter isn't perfect. In fact the light meter easily gets confused. This is why sometimes no matter what you do to get the tic-mark on "0" the exposure is still bleh! Well in digital photography there's a little thing called "12% reflectance of gray."  It's too complicated for me and I'm not going to go into specifics here but pretty much, its how the camera sees the world. Which means black & white are a big deal in light meter land...

3. Black absorbs light
Ditto for pretty-much-black and really dark grays. These colors will confuse your light meter:  if you take the meter reading off these things... the camera will think you need more light (when you don't) and prompt you to over expose.

4. White reflects light
Bright white snow, white sand beaches, reflective water etc. will confuse your light meter: if you take your meter reading off these things... the camera will think you have TOO much light (when you don't) and prompt you to under expose. Well crap!

5. Find a neutral subject
So black and white objects confuse the light meter. What to do?!  Take the meter reading off something neutral in the scene and take the shot.  That's about it.  Confused?  Don't worry, I have pictures.

The image above is pretty much how the sculpture actually looked in person. When I took my meter reading off the black sculpture, the camera meter told me to add more light...

but instead I got an overexposed picture. No problem! I just took the meter reading off the neutral sky behind the sculpture, set my light, then recomposed and took the shot. TADA!

Here's how Ava pup looked when I took her picture.  It was really bright and lots of light was reflecting back from the sorta-white wall (and concrete.)  When I took the meter reading off the wall, my camera's light meter told me to use less light...

and then the picture looked way underexposed... bleh! Instead I took the meter reading off the blue sky. I set my light (my settings) and recomposed the shot.

And sometimes the light meter does just fine! In this example, I took the meter reading off my subject (the building) and the exposure settings were perfect. If there was a lot of reflection on that glass, I would have taken the meter reading off the sky.

Just remember the light meter is a guide, it helps you set a proper exposure. It is often great but sometimes gets confused. If this happens try taking your meter reading off something neutral in the scene, set your light, recompose and take the shot. The more you work with your light meter the easier it will get!