Friday, February 28, 2014

Natural Vignette

On a recent trip to Chincoteague, Virginia I was in search of its famous wild horses, and birds as well. This beautiful egret was preening on the far side of a canal, with thick grasses and trees nearly blocking my view of him. I almost passed it by in hopes of finding an easier shot, but then decided to experiment.

I thought perhaps I could find a small area where I could get a more or less unobstructed view. While there was no place where he was completely in the clear, I did find a place where the branches and grasses parted a little, providing this view. It was a bit like shooting through a porthole, with the tree trunks creating a natural vignette along the left and right sides of the image. Other out of focus branches are visible to the right of the egret.

I was lucky to find a spot where both the bird and its reflection were in the small open space available.The foreground branches create a feeling of seeing into the bird's private protected domain.

Shallow depth of field of f/6.3, and the use of a long telephoto lens, caused the trees and branches close to me to be rendered very soft and out of focus. Had they been sharper, this shot would not have worked, since the distracting foreground would have competed for attention with the bird.

By focusing on the bird, I was assured that the nature of lens optics would not allow the trees to appear sharp. Often shallow depth of field is used to deal with distracting backgrounds, but in this case it helped to minimize a distracting foreground.

Previous blogs (posted on February 5 and 6) explain depth of field in much more detail. They are a good primer to help you understand the concept and how to use it to your best advantage.  

When you are out shooting, use every option that is available to you. Lens choice, camera position, and depth of field are three primary creative tools that can help you design interesting images.

More photographs from Chincoteague will be posted in future blogs. Join me for the Chincoteague Challenge workshop to be held November 19 - 21. We will be there at a good time for the fall bird migration. This is a lovely wild area with many various shooting opportunities. Details here 

Shutter Speed 1/5000 sec.  Aperture f/6.3.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L  IS with 1.4x extender for effective focal length of 560mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”  --Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stormy Skies

Dramatic skies make for dramatic photographs. And what gives the sky drama is clouds. They can be light and puffy, or dark and threatening as in this image.

Even dark clouds can have very bright areas that can be difficult to expose properly. This scene includes dark clouds, a bright area of clouds, and sunlit and shadowed foreground. The contrast range was extreme. As many of you already know, I am not a big fan of HDR, and I prefer to use Lightroom to control extreme highlights and shadows. Of course the basic exposure has to be fairly accurate, which keeps the dark tones and light tones within controllable limits.

In difficult lighting situations, always ALWAYS (and did I say always??!) check the histogram after every few shots, especially in changing conditions. It is virtually impossible to guarantee accurate exposures without relying on the histogram to provide invaluable information.

If the histogram “graph” has information jammed up against the right edge of the histogram box, that is an indication of overexposure. If it is against the left edge, it indicates underexposure. Overexposure is also shown by the “blinkies,” those areas that flash black on overexposed white areas in the image. If the blinkies show only in small areas, it is usually OK to leave the exposure as-is. If, however they appear in large areas like bright clouds, white birds, or other significant areas of the image, then it is wise to use exposure compensation to reduce exposure by 1 to 2 stops. Your camera's Owners Manual explains how to employ exposure compensation.

After you have set the new exposure, take a shot and again look at the histogram. If the blinkies are gone and the dark areas are not too underexposed, your exposure should be fine. If issues still exist, refine the exposure compensation settings, take another shot and again check the histogram. Do this until you have hit on the best compromise. Then do the final refinements in post-production with Lightroom, or Camera RAW in Photoshop, or other image optimization software you have access to.

Shutter Speed 1/320 sec.  Aperture f/20.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4L, set to 26mm.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Heavy hearts, like heavy clouds, are best relieved by the letting of a little water.”  --Christopher Morley

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Facial Recognition Fun

Today's blog is just for fun. When I was revisiting some images in Lightroom I came across this one and was about to delete it when I saw the face. Can you see it? It is the shriveled visage encased within the outer petals, the bud of the flower. To me it looks either like a crying baby, face all contorted, or an old man who has just eaten a terribly sour lemon!

Recent studies indicate that our brains are hard-wired to recognize faces almost above all else.  Perhaps that is why we sometimes see faces where they do not exist, as in in this flower. The man in the moon and facial forms in natural rock formations also come to mind.

I do not look for faces in subjects that I photograph, but at times, like this flower, they seem to reveal themselves upon a second or third viewing.

A fun winter's day project could be to review your old images and look for faces. It can be fun, and who knows, you might find some interesting images.

The other element to notice in this image is the lighting. See how the out-of-focus sunlit leaves on the right add a nice circular counterpoint to the round bud. This shot was framed deliberately with the smaller bud on the left and the light green areas on the right. Sometimes a small change in your position can completely change the background. Be as observant as possible when out shooting in order to use these sorts of elements to your best advantage.

Shutter Speed 1/60 sec.  Aperture f/2.8.  ISO 100.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld

TODAY'S QUOTE: "I think your whole life shows in your face, and you should be proud of that."  --Lauren Bacall

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Just Ducky

This handsome guy was enjoying a swim in a small man-made pond, and he was fun to photograph. He swam back and forth under a small spray of water, and the water beaded up, well, like water on a duck’s back. Ducks' oily and tightly knit feathers do a good job of preventing the water from penetrating beneath the surface.

When photographing wildlife it is best to use a tripod with a true ballhead. There are many types of tripod heads available, and some are better than others.

The most basic entry-level head is a pan-tilt head, operated with two separate handles. One enables vertical movement, and the other is used for panning or horizontal movement. While these heads are functional, they limit your control and the camera’s ease of movement.

A better choice for most people is a ballhead. A true ballhead can be loosened with just one knob which allows for faster and more accurate movement and positioning. An offshoot of ballheads are pistol grip heads which can be loosened by squeezing one handle, and then they instantly tighten when you release the handle. While these have a few advantages for photographing some subjects, they are not the best choice for nature and wildlife shooting because you have less control over exact positioning of the camera.

There are many true ballheads available, and many are excellent quality that will last many years. My personal favorites are the heads made by Really Right Stuff. They are well-tooled with smooth movements and are easy to tighten exactly where you want it.

When photographing birds and other types of wildlife, an additional tool is very helpful. It is a partial gimbal head which attaches to the ballhead. A gimbal head is designed to be able to perfectly balance the camera on the tripod WITH ALL HEAD CONTROLS LOOSENED. If you have never seen these in action, you owe it to yourself to get on the Wimberley website and watch some of their tutorials.

My personal favorite is the Wimberley Sidekick, which is a partial gimbal head that attaches to the ballhead. It weighs a little over a pound and is small enough to pack easily. It is an indispensable tool for easy panning or following wildlife on the move.

Of course it helps to have a good sturdy tripod as well in order to assure yourself of getting the best pictures possible.

Shutter Speed 1/200 sec.  Aperture f/5.6.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 400mm f/5.6L.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.   -–Thomas Carlyle

Monday, February 24, 2014

Worth Repeating

Sometimes photographing multiple subjects can be more interesting than just one. This trio of orchids was nicely grouped together and stands out against the dark background. These are cultivated orchids photographed in a botanical gardens.

While tripods may be allowed in some places, many public gardens do not allow them, or restrict the times or the areas where they can be used. Also, many times it is not possible to get the tripod positioned where you want in order to get the shot.

For all those reasons and more, it is important to become comfortable hand-holding your camera. There are some simple tricks to hand-holding that will increase your chances of getting sharp shots almost every time.

1.  Use a fast shutter speed, at least 1/125 sec. Depending on the lens you are using, the basic rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed of approximately the same number as the focal length of your lens.  If you are using a 100mm lens, a shutter speed of about 1/125 sec. or faster will minimize the chances of camera shake during the exposure. With a 300mm lens, use a shutter speed of about 1/320 sec. of faster, and so on. If you cannot get a fast enough shutter speed, increase the ISO as needed.

2.  Hold your camera with your left hand supporting the camera and lens. Avoid the temptation to place your left hand on top of the lens since this does not provide support.

3.  Turn your body into a tripod of sorts. Stand comfortably with your feet about shoulder width apart. Once you have focused and framed the shot, make sure the camera remains pressed lightly against your head, tuck in your elbows so that they are against your sides, take a breath and either hold it or slowly exhale, and press the shutter.

These simple steps will help you get sharp shots almost every time. The added benefit to not using a tripod is an amazing sense of freedom. You will be traveling light, and easily get into positions that you would be unable to with a tripod.

1/640 sec.  Aperture f/5.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8L IS.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Freedom is the oxygen of the soul.”  --Moshe Dayan

Friday, February 21, 2014

Drama Queen

Mother Nature can play the role of a Drama Queen very well. Storms, both approaching and clearing, can create fantastic conditions. This was an approaching storm over Lake Powell in Arizona. We were standing on a high promontory and the wind nearly blew our tripods over at one point.

As the clouds blew across the brilliant blue sky, the sun’s rays put on a spectacular show. These conditions often provide extreme contrast that makes proper exposure difficult. The white in the clouds was extremely bright, and the shadowed ground was getting quite dark.

I chose an exposure that held some detail in the dark areas, and kept the blown out whites to a minimum. I knew that Lightroom would be able to return detail in both areas.

When shooting in these conditions, it is important to keep a wary eye out for lightning. In the desert southwest conditions can change very quickly, and lightning even miles away can travel rapidly in your direction. No shot is worth putting yourself in danger.

We were fortunate that our cars were close by and as the wind escalated and the sky became more threatening we retreated to the cars and took the last few shots from an open window.

Notice the composition. The cloud at the top right is not cropped at the top, and the one on the left edge is also fully visible. Small details like that can improve the overall composition and add to a feeling of completeness to the image.

The dark ground along the bottom acts as a base, supporting the entire weight of the image.

Shutter Speed 1/250 sec.  Aperture f/22.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4L, set to 17mm.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Gitzo tripod with ballhead. 

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Everything can have drama if it’s done right. Even a pancake.”  --Julia Child

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Something From Nothing

Good images don’t always have to come from exotic locations or spectacular circumstances. Sometimes the simplest things can work together to create interesting shots.

This pond in autumn is a good example of making something from nothing. The reflection of fall colors makes a lovely backdrop to the raindrops hitting the surface of the water. Before the rain started I was all set to photograph the reflections, but the unexpected sprinkles were a nice added touch.

It is tempting to not shoot in the rain, or the fog, or the snow. But those can be the best times to get out there and see what you can find. Because virtually all cameras are digital, moisture can wreak havoc with the electronics, so you want to have good rain protection for cameras and lenses.

Something as simple as a plastic trash bag held on with rubber bands can work in a  pinch, or a plastic shower cap. There are many types of rain protection available, some simpler than others. My personal preference is something simple and lightweight, something that can be attached in a hurry but still allows me to see and use all the camera’s controls.

My favorite is the Vortex Storm Jacket, available from several retailers including Hunt’s Photo and Video   It comes in different sizes and colors. The “pro” version has an opening at the bottom that allows use with a tripod.

It is not inexpensive, but it seems to hold up well. It is made of coated nylon, and while the manufacturer does not recommend using it in a torrential downpour, I have found it to be waterproof in light showers, mist, and fog. I even recommend using it on windy days if you are shooting at the beach or other areas where dust and dirt are being kicked up by the wind. 

Shutter Speed 1/200 sec.  Aperture f/7.1.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 400mm f/5.6L.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  --Confucius

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Circular Thinking

Spiral staircases make wonderful subjects, but they are not always easy to photograph. This is one of the larger ones I have seen, and choosing a vantage point was difficult.

This was in a Charleston, South Carolina hotel I was staying in, and was absolutely gorgeous. The shot was taken from the lobby level, looking up at a domed skylight. Fortunately it is a small hotel, and the lobby was deserted. So I did not feel too self-conscious wandering around, trying to find a good way to frame the shot.

I took it from a few different angles, and liked this one best. But even so, the original image had to be cropped and flipped upside down in order to strengthen the composition. This is the original image, as it came out of the camera.
 In the final image above, the center of the skylight is placed at a “power point” based on the Rule of Thirds. You enter the image from the lower left along the railing, and then you follow the concentric circles around and up to the circle at the power point. The dark wood along the right-hand side acts as a blocker, keeping your eye from leaving the image.

Exposure was a concern, since the wood was so dark and the skylight was quite bright. I was hand-holding the camera, so HDR was not a good option. And because I was hand-holding, I did not want to use a shutter speed slower than 1/125 of a second. Even with an ISO of 1600 the wood was rendered quite dark, but I knew that using Lightroom in post-production would extract the detail in the dark areas while keeping the light areas under control.

Shutter Speed 1/125 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 1600.  Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4L, set at 17mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Style is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.”  --Robert Frost

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Tickled Pink

Birds provide a wide variety of photographic opportunities which often result in many successful images. Birds in flight, or with their young, or reflecting in water are just some of the possibilities. Close ups of their feathers, as in today’s photo, is another option.

The colors and textures of feathers vary widely from one species to another. Getting in tight allows you to create many different compositions, and is a nice departure from the more typical literal representation of the bird.

When shooting bird feathers, a long lens is very helpful. Most birds are skittish and may not allow you to get too close. This shot was taken of a captive flamingo, one of several in a small enclosure. These particular birds are used to people being close, and they have limited space so they can’t move too far away.

Even so, they do tend to move constantly, so when a composition presents itself, it is best to be ready to shoot quickly.

When you cannot get close enough, cropping after you have downloaded your images is another possibility. As long as the image is sharp, you will be able to crop in fairly tightly and still retain good detail.

This image was cropped in order to create a panoramic composition, and to strengthen the overall image. Notice that the darker feathers are positioned to the left and the right, with lighter feathers in the center. That creates visual movement throughout the image, and provides more interest.

While there is no true center of interest, the few feathers that are horizontal in the lower center of the frame, as compared to most of the feathers which run on a diagonal from upper left to lower right, draw the eye and add a very subtle focal point.

Shutter Speed 1/640 sec.  Aperture f/5.6.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS set at 200mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Sometimes you just have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down.”  --Kobi Yamada 

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Long View

Lenses of different focal lengths provide different perspectives. “Normal” focal lengths of between 40mm and 60mm provide a view that approximates what our eyes see, and does not distort the relationship of one element to another in the picture. Telephoto lenses, ranging from about 70mm to 500mm and more, bring us in closer to the subject and tend to compress the distances between near and far objects in the picture. Wide angle lenses ranging from about 10mm to 35mm make objects appear farther away than they are, and also stretch the apparent distance between near and far elements in the scene.

This image was shot with a wide angle zoom lens that was set to 19mm. I was standing much closer to the altar than it appears in this image. The wide angle lens makes the altar appear to be at least twice as far from me as it actually was.

In addition, I tipped the camera up so that the entire chandelier is included. The wide angle lens makes the distance between the chandelier and the altar look much greater than it was. It also distorts the shape of the round chandelier, making it look oblong.

When you tip wide angle lenses severely up or down, they tend to distort perspective and alignment of vertical lines. Notice that the uprights and columns  appear to tip inward. Had the lens been parallel to the floor, the distortion would have been minimized.

Understanding the distortions inherent in your wide angle lens will help you know how and when to use those distortions to your advantage. Controls in Lightroom 5, Photoshop, and Elements can help to minimize those distortions when you find them distracting.

In this image I did not find the distortions disturbing, and in fact they help direct the eye to the chandelier and the stained glass window. Had this shot been done for the architect of the church, however, it would have been imperative that all uprights be vertical, and I would have done that in post production.

When photographing any subject, you decide whether you are seeking an interpretive image that creates a mood or a feeling, and takes liberties with the reality before you, or if you prefer a more literal, realistic view of the subject. Both approaches are valid, and you should try both with most subjects to see which version pleases you more.

Shutter Speed 1/60 sec.  Aperture f/5.  ISO 800.  Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4L, set to 19mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Handheld.   

TODAY’S QUOTE: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”  --Dorothea Lange

Monday, February 10, 2014

Brave New World of Back Button Focus

[Note: Due to a scouting trip to South Carolina, blogs will be sporadic this week. The blog will be back on a normal schedule starting Monday, February 17.]

In the old days before autofocus was invented, the shutter button had only two functions: press down partway to take a meter reading, and then press down fully to take the picture. Focus was not tied to the shutter release. To focus in those days, you manually turned the focus ring on the lens.

But since the advent of autofocus, we now have 3 separate functions occurring on the shutter button. That was a poor decision on the part of camera manufacturers. By tying the focus function to the same button as tripping the shutter, it means that each and every time you press the shutter button, your camera attempts to re-focus. The net effect is that a series of images of the same subject can vary in focus even if neither you nor the subject has moved. Each time the lens has to hunt for focus, there is a good chance that it will not lock onto the precise area you want sharp.

But not to worry, there is an easy fix. You can remove the focus function from the shutter button and put it someplace else. Most camera bodies allow you to do that via the Custom Function menu. There is a setting that will change the focus function to a button on the back of the camera body AND will remove focus from the shutter button. For some cameras this requires two separate changes  -  one to activate a rear button on the camera to focus, and another to remove the focus function from the shutter button.

Each camera body has a slightly different way of making these changes. Most Owner's Manuals are notoriously bad at providing this information. The best way to get the information clearly is either on YouTube or other sites that will come up during a google search. This is the YouTube link  Once on the site, type in your camera body in the search box near the top of the window. Here are a few links to get you started:

for Canon 5D Mark III  -
for Canon 60D  -

for Nikon  -

If you own a Canon 7D, online instructions are inaccurate, so here are the steps to follow [NOTE that these instructions are for the Canon 7D ONLY]:

1.    Press Menu button
2.    Scroll down to C.Fn IV; Operation/Other
3.   Press set button
4.  Press set button again
5.  Default is shutter release button top left.  Press set button 3rd time
6.    Turn wheel on back clockwise one click to: Metering start (instead of Metering and AF start) and press the set button.  This disables the focus from the exposure release.
7.    Pressing the set button above returns you to the Custom controls screen.  Use the wheel to scroll down to the AF-ON button and depress the set button again.  This brings you to the AF-ON button screen.
8.   Use the wheel to select the AF field and press the set button. (It may already be selected as it is the default). 
9.  Depress the menu button 3 times to exit the menu.

If you have a choice, set the focus function to the "AF-ON" button on the back of your camera rather than other buttons that may also give you that option. 

This is still the same autofocus as always, you just press a different button than you did before. While you may balk at this at first, it is the best thing you can do for your photography of any subject, regardless of whether it is a stationary subject or a bird in flight.  

So now, when you press and release the back button to focus, focus will not change each time you press the shutter release.  If you are taking multiple shots of the same subject, and neither you nor the subject has moved, your focus has not changed. When you or your subject has changed position, or you move on to another shot, press and release the rear button to focus for the new shot.  

Now you can embrace the bold new world of focusing control!

Shutter Speed 1/100 sec.  Aperture f/2.8.  ISO 100.  Lens: Canon 100mm macro f/2.8.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new.”  --Alan Cohen

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Travel Light (by guest blogger Ken Hawkins)

I’ll tell you a secret if you promise not to tell my wife: You don’t need a lot of expensive camera gear to take good photographs. All you need to do is apply the rules of light and composition that Awake The Light teaches.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) has always been on my Bucket List and I am currently hiking the 2,186-mile trail in sections (very few persons my age can do the entire trail in one continuous through-hike). So far I have hiked 799 miles, mainly in the South.

You see so many beautiful sights along the AT…my problem is that I would like to share them with my non-hiking friends but don’t want to carry the weight of a DSLR (a Nikon D300S with one zoom lens weighs in excess of 6 pounds).  Most AT hikers carry a small point-and-shoot in their backpacks but I wanted one that was capable of taking exceptional pictures. I finally settled on the Canon S95 because it was the lightest point-and-shoot (PAS) with a manual mode. It only weighs 6.9 ounces and is available at Amazon for $299 refurbished (less than a good lens).

Nearly all AT hikers ooh and aah at the expansive views from mountaintops along the trail but few take the time to see the macro
opportunities that abound almost daily. Of course you have to slow down and not be consumed with going from point a to point b at the fastest rate possible. 

Another trick is shooting moving water so that it has that silky look. PAS cameras do not have provisions for a remote shutter release and a tripod would be way too heavy to carry. I set my camera on one of my hiking poles (Leki makes a model with a ¼” threaded screw on top) and use the timer to eliminate any vibration. In manual mode, set the ISO as low as it will go and the aperture as high as possible…the resulting shutter speed should be 1.5 – 4 seconds.

I have also experimented with attaching a 46mm Cokin circular polarizer to the S95 (the filter doesn’t weigh very much). On future AT hikes, I want to attempt some HDR shots.

Awake the Light emphasizes the importance of composition and proper use of natural light
so I have tried to incorporate their teachings into my AT photos.

As I complete the remainder of the AT, I am looking forward to the photo opportunities that will undoubtedly present themselves. For day hikes where I don’t have to haul food, shelter and a sleeping bag, I will carry my Nikon D300S but for the AT, the Canon S95 will do just fine. Besides, stopping to photograph gives me a chance to catch my breath.

[Editor’s Note: Ken is an accomplished hiker who does not mind getting down and dirty to take wonderful macro shots. In fact much of the time you will find him flat on the ground, up close and personal with a plant.]

Lake scene: Shutter Speed 1/125 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 200.  Camera: Canon S95.  Handheld.
Mushrooms: Shutter Speed 1/160 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 2500.  Camera: Canon S95.  Handheld
Trail scene: Shutter Speed 1/13 sec.  Aperture f/8.  ISO 1000.  Camera: Canon S95.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”  --John Muir

Ken Hawkins bio:  
I learned about photography on the Naval Academy yearbook photo staff back in 1968 (ye olden days of film). They handed me a Nikkormat and said go take some pictures. I knew nothing about photography but fiddled with the camera’s various controls & buttons until the results were acceptable. After my graduation from Annapolis, I specialized in underwater photography, both with a housed Nikon FtN and later with a Nikonos. Actually, underwater photography is a lot easier as most of the creatures down there either don’t move at all or move very slowly. After leaving the Navy, I retained my love for underwater photography. My wife Joyce & I spent our vacations in locales with clear water such as Grand Cayman, Cozumel and Hawaii (the low visibility and turbidity found in our home waters of Louisiana’s bayous & lakes weren’t too conducive to underwater photography). Damage to my inner ears resulted in the end of my SCUBA diving days but introduced me to the wonders of hiking and nature photography. We moved out of Louisiana in 2004 and took over a Bed & Breakfast in Lexington, Virginia. Joyce & I retired from the B&B in March, 2013 so now I have more free time to devote to hiking and photography (and more Awake The Light photo workshops!)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Hocus Pocus, How To Focus

When you look through the viewfinder and hold the shutter button down halfway, you probably see a variety of rectangles that light up, perhaps in red. Most cameras come pre-set so that some or all of the rectangles are “active,” meaning that they are all attempting to acquire focus when you aim the camera at your subject.

While that works reasonably well much of the time, there are many other times when it does not provide accurate focus. After all, the camera is just a non-thinking device, and does not know what YOU want to focus on.

If you have not read Wednesday’s and Thursday’s blogs, you might want to do that now so that the rest of this article will make more sense. Those blogs deal with Depth of Field and how to control how much of your picture is in focus. In order to do that most successfully, you also need to do what is recommended in this blog.

And what is recommended is this: instead of allowing your camera to attempt to focus on a variety of elements in the scene, YOU control what it is focusing on. To do that, all that is needed is to set your camera so that ONLY ONE OF THE FOCUS POINTS IS ACTIVE. The only active one should be the one in the very center of the viewfinder. Your owner’s manual will tell you how to change this on your camera. It is a simple modification, and can always be changed back if needed. But once you get used to this, and see how much more focus accuracy it provides, you will never want to go back.

Here is the basic working method. Aim the center focus point in the viewfinder at the primary subject or the main area of a scene that you want to be in focus. Then press the shutter button down halfway so that the camera will focus on what you have aimed at, continue to hold the shutter button down halfway and recompose so that the shot is framed however you want it to be. By keeping the shutter button depressed halfway, focus will not change when you recompose. Once the shot is lined up to your satisfaction, press the shutter button down completely to take the picture.

If you use back button focus rather than using the shutter button to focus, which I highly recommend and is a topic for another blog in the future, your focusing procedure will be simpler. Place the center focus point on the subject as above, press the back focus button and release it, then recompose and click the shutter.

In today’s photo, the center focus point was aimed at the grass stem on the left. Once I had focused on that, I then recomposed to place the sun in the lower left of the frame, and then clicked the shutter.

The benefit of using just the one focusing point in the center of the viewfinder is that it makes focusing faster, easier, and more foolproof. And it keeps you in control of your camera, which is the best way to guarantee great photographs.

Shutter Speed 1/1250 sec.  Aperture f/6.3.  ISO 400. Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS, set at 200mm.  Camera: Canon 30D.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “The control center of your life is your attitude.”  --anonymous

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Depth Of Field - Part 2



Yesterday’s blog discussed how to easily control Depth Of Field (DOF) by the use of f/stops. A larger lens aperture of f/2.8 or f/4 or f/5.6 will generally provide shallow DOF, allowing you to blur the background. Smaller apertures of f/8 or f/11 or f/16 or less will provide deep DOF rendering everything sharp.

But as is often the case, in photography as well as in life, there are no true absolutes. The distance that the lens is from the subject, and the distance between the subject and the background, also affects DOF.   This is illustrated in today photos.

Both images were shot at f/8, but the DOF of the dragonfly shot is shallow, while the DOF in the scenic is deep.  Why? In the dragonfly image the lens was relatively close to the dragonfly and the dragonfly was relatively far away from the foliage in the background, whereas in the scenic the lens was relatively far away from all the elements in the image.

This may seem confusing at first, but if you re-read the above paragraph it will begin to sink in.

So in matters of love, distance may make the heart grow fonder but in photography greater distance makes everything sharper.

The best way to cement the concept of DOF is to practice, practice, practice. DOF is a simple function of the optics of lenses, but you do not need to understand the mathematical or scientific parameters of how lenses work in order to control DOF successfully. If you understand the basics as explained in yesterday’s and today’s blogs, you will be well on your way to producing better images and having more control over how they look.

Dragonfly: Shutter Speed 1/500 sec. Aperture f/8.  ISO 200.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS set at 200mm.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Handheld.

Alaska scene: Shutter Speed 1/1600. Aperture f/8.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4L set at 40mm.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.”   --Yousuf Karsh

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Depth Of Field - Part 1



Depth of Field. Not a phrase that trips off the tongue easily. It is also a concept that many photographers are either not familiar with, or do not fully understand. This is the start of a series of articles explaining Depth of Field and how to use it to your best advantage.

So, what IS Depth of Field (DOF)? Basically it is how to control which elements in your picture are sharp, and which ones are not. Depending on your subject, you may want most elements in the frame to be sharp, as in the scenic in today’s blog, or you may want to blur the background so it does not detract from the main subject as in the butterfly shot.

You achieve whichever effect you want by controlling the f/stop you use. The operative words in that sentence are YOU and CONTROLLING. I feel compelled to point that out before going on because it is important to note that there is now software that can blur certain areas of an image, or sharpen them. Although I hate to be be too judgmental about these kinds of software, I really do not like them. “Why,” you might ask, “does she dislike them so much?” You might be thinking “she uses Lightroom to optimize images, so why is software than can sharpen or blur any different?”

In my opinion it is very different because it encourages a lack of knowledge, a lack of forethought, and a lack of control. Yes, there is that “control” concept again. I have confessed many times to being a control freak in some ways, and I admit it again now.

The way for YOU to CONTROL Depth of Field is really quite simple, and does not require fancy software, complicated calculations, or a Ph.D in physics. All you need to know is that large apertures  -  f/stops of 2.8 or 4 or 5.6  -  create shallow DOF as shown in the butterfly image, and smaller apertures  -  f/stops of 11 or 16 or smaller create deep DOF as shown in the scenic. That’s it. If you know how to change your f/stops, you can control DOF.

So that is the basic concept. The finer points will be discussed in another blog this week.   

Butterfly  -  Shutter Speed 1/125.  Aperture f/5.6.  ISO 100.  Lens: Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS with 1.4x extender for an effective focal length of 280mm.  Camera: 40D. Handheld.
Scenic  -  Shutter Speed 1/250 sec.  Aperture f/13.  ISO 200.  Lens: Canon 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5, set at 13mm.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Handheld.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”  --Mark Twain

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Extend Yourself

Yesterday’s blog mentioned teleconverters as a way to give your lenses more “reach,” enabling you to get tighter shots of birds and wildlife. So what are they and how do they work?

Basically a teleconverter is a small lens that goes between the main lens and the camera body, increasing the focal length of the main lens. In general there are two sizes  -  1.4x and 2x. The 1.4x increases your lens’ focal length by 40%, and the 2x doubles its focal length. So if you put a 1.4x on a 200mm lens, the effective focal length increases to 280mm. If you put a 2x on a 200mm lens, the effective focal length becomes 400mm.

While teleconverters are good tools, they do have some negative aspects. The 1.4x cuts light transmission by one stop, and the 2x by two stops. What does that mean? If normally your lens’ widest aperture is f/4, use of the 1.4x teleconverter will reduce that to f/5.6. If you use the 2x, your widest f/stop will be reduced to only f/8. This means that it will be best to use teleconverters on bright days when there is a lot of light to work with.

The other downside is that use of teleconverters can cause some degradation of the image, primarily with less expensive lenses. With higher-end lenses, the degradation is barely noticeable, but with other lenses you may see a significant loss of sharpness and detail.

Teleconverters may be used with zoom lenses, even though some manufacturers recommend against that.

Since they are essentially lenses, they tend to be expensive. But they are less expensive than buying a lens of the focal length that a teleconverter will create. And they can be used on a variety of lenses. The best ones are the ones made by your camera’s manufacturer. So Nikon teleconverters for Nikon bodies, Canon for Canon bodies, and so on.

There are other brands of teleconverters that tend to be less expensive, but they will certainly degrade the image greatly, and I do not recommend them.

So there’s the good news and the bad news. If you have relatively good lenses, but do not have a longer lens of your dreams, then consider getting a 1.4x teleconverter.  While the 2x will give you even more reach, I do not suggest one that large since it cuts so much light and will potentially degrade the image somewhat more than a 1.4x teleconverter.

To create today's image, I used a 1.4x teleconverter. Even so, it did not get me in as close as I wanted, and I had to resort to cropping after downloading it onto my computer to get this tight image of duck feathers.

Shutter Speed 1/640 sec.  Aperture f/7.1.  ISO 400.  Lens: Canon 200-400mm f/4L IS with 1.4x telextender for an effective focal length of 560mm.  Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.  Gitzo tripod with Really Right Stuff ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.”  --Abraham Harold Maslow