June 28, 2009

Fireworks Photos

Fireworks over Missoula, Montana, 2008

Next weekend is the Fourth of July (American Independence Day for those of you not in the States) and many people will be joining the celebration by watching fireworks displays. I encourage you to try photographing them, even if you have a simple digital point & shoot camera! It's not hard at all. Here are a few tips gleaned from the Internet.
  1. Be sure you have a tripod or other way to support the camera. Exposure times will be several seconds and you can't get crisp photos of the display by hand-holding the camera. A mini-tripod, a beanbag tripod or even the roof of your car (with the engine turned off!) can suffice.
  2. Have a clear view of the display, preferably upwind from the smoke.
  3. Bring a flashlight so you can see your camera controls.
  4. Use a wide angle zoom (lens) unless you are a long distance away (as I was for the shot included here).
  5. Select the best quality and largest size image.
  6. If you have a scene setting for fireworks, choose that. (See your instruction manual for how it adjusts your camera.)
  7. If you don't have a fireworks scene, but you can set your camera exposure manually, try the following settings.
  • Turn off the flash!
  • Use the lowest ISO setting.
  • Select Daylight (sunny) white balance (for more vivid colors).
  • Set the aperture to f5.6, f8 or f11 (I used f22 for the photo here).
  • Set the shutter speed to between 2 and 4 seconds. (Most of my successful shots were 2 or 3 seconds.)
  • Use manual focus and set it to infinity. If you don't have manual focus, try the Landscape scene setting.
Now all you have to do is wait for the show to start! You may have to practice your timing for pressing the shutter and getting the shot. Check your results for the first few frames and make any necessary adjustments to exposure.

Digital SLR owners can make use of an electronic cable release (also called a remote release) to ensure the camera stays still and to better see the explosives and time the shot. Longer exposure times let you record multiple bursts.
And consider using a vertical orientation (camera turned 90 degrees from horizontal) to give a better sense of height for the sparklers!

Remember to have plenty of batteries and memory card space for the grand finale! Enjoy!

Fireworks finale over Missoula, Montana, 2008

June 23, 2009

Finding Good Stuff

The other day I received an email from a publisher promoting an excellent book about photojournalism which I already own: Photojournalism by Ken Kobre. Part of that email had some interesting information about a new piece of equipment (Kobre's Lightscoop, an accessory for better flash pictures). I clicked on the link and that took me to the product web site.

From there I followed a new link to Kobre's blog. And scanning through the recent entries, I came across a recommendation for an interesting article published in the New York Times by author David Pogue. (You might recognize his name as a frequent author of the Missing Manual series of books about computer software.) The piece contains some fairly original suggestions for getting better images from a compact (point & shoot) digital camera. You can read the article here. And you can read more technology tips on Pogue's blog.

This just goes to show how following links about interesting professional photographers can lead you to a whole new area of information.

June 14, 2009

Getting All Your Photo to Print

Have you ever ordered prints of your digital camera photos only to have them come back with details on the edges cut off? This is not a new problem with digital cameras; it existed with film cameras as well. The issue is one of different "aspect ratios".

An aspect ratio is the relationship of width to height in a picture (also called "proportion"). The problem with printing your pictures is that the proportions of the original digital camera image do not match the proportions of common print sizes. Here's what I mean:

You are probably familiar with the standard sizes of prints you can order from the photo lab. These are usually 4x6 inches, 5x7 inches, and 8x10 inches. Each of these sizes makes use of a different aspect ratio, the proportion of width to height. So the aspect ratio for a 4x6 print is really 2-to-3, usually written 2:3. The aspect ratio for a 5x7 print is just that, 5:7. The aspect ratio for an 8x10 print is really 4:5 (multiplied by 2).

The problem comes from the camera itself. A compact digital camera sensor (such as a Canon Powershot) has a natural (or default) aspect ratio of 4:3. You probably notice that this does not match any of the standard print sizes I described above!

A digital SLR camera sensor (like a Canon Rebel) has a different aspect ratio, 3:2. This one might sound familiar. It's the same as a 4x6 print, just flopped, (2:3 vs 3:2). Here's a list for you to compare them.

Print Proportions
2:3 (4x6)
4:5 (8x10)
5:7 (5x7)

Compact Digital Camera Proportions

Digital SLR Camera Proportions

So how does this relate to the problem of part of your photo being cut off in the print? Unless you make a picture with a digital SLR and order a 4x6 print (the same proportions as the camera's sensor), the print will always crop away part of your picture.

4:3 Original Photo Cropped to 3:2 (4x6) Proportions
(shaded areas on long sides will be lost)

4:3 Original Photo Cropped to 4:5 (8x10) Proportions
(shaded areas on short sides will be lost)

What can you do to solve this problem? Let's start with the compact digital cameras with the 4:3 aspect ratio. One thing you can do is to leave a little extra room around your subject, especially on the long sides of the picture. If you do this, then it won't matter if some of the edge is trimmed away.

Another option is to check with the photo lab to see if they offer "digital prints". This is a new print size (aka "proportion") that matches the proportion of compact digital camera photos.

Third, you can order a "full frame" print of your picture. This shrinks your photo slightly so that the entire image fits on the paper. Instead of part of your photo being cut off, you have a border (either white or black) on two edges that you can trim away yourself.

4:3 Original Photo Printed Full Frame on 4:5 Paper

Fourth, if you are comfortable with a basic photo editing program, you can make a copy of your original picture and crop the copy to the aspect ratio you want yourself. Then save the result and take it to the photo lab.

If you are using a digital SLR, you can try any of the above suggestions. In addition, you can order special prints that match the aspect ratio of your camera and do not crop the photo at all. I've already mentioned that a 4x6 print exactly matches the 2:3 proportion of this camera. You can request an 8x12 print, instead of an 8x10, and get all your photo as well. Of course, an 8x12 won't fit a standard 8x10 frame, but you can trim it yourself to the correct proportions without worrying about losing the top of someone's head.

3:2 Original Photo Cropped to 4:5 (8x10) Proportions
(shaded areas on short sides will be lost)

Finally, some compact digital cameras have the option to record the picture in a different aspect ratio than the standard 4:3. Look under the "Image Size" menu option for these options. Often there will be a choice for 3:2 (the same proportions as a 4x6 print). If you select this option, the LCD screen will black out the top and bottom edges so you can frame your subject to fit this aspect ratio.

In addition, some compact cameras have a "wide screen" image size or proportion. The aspect ratio of this size is 16:9, like a wide-screen television, movie screen or computer laptop. This setting creates a "panorama" type image (long and narrow) which can be fun to play with. But be aware that some photo labs may not be able to print this different aspect ratio.

So have fun printing your digital photos but remember to "mind the edges" of the frame so you don't lose important details.

June 5, 2009

Nature Photography Day, June 15

Three Pines & Fog

I was visiting the North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA) web site and read about "Nature Photography Day" which is June 15. This is a day to pay attention to nature where you live and honor it with photographs. If you are a NANPA member and make a photo you really like, you're invited to upload it for publication in their bi-monthly newsletter. To read more about this excellent idea, visit this page! And remember to photograph nature on Monday, June 15!

June 2, 2009

Focus Problems

Calla Lily

I recently helped a student who has having trouble getting her close-up shots of flowers to be sharp. She was using the macro setting on her compact digital camera and placing the camera close to the blooms. But the pictures were still out of focus.

It turns out there were two issues. The first was that she was photographing outside. Even though the flowers were in the sunshine, there was a bit of a breeze. This caused the flowers to sway gently on their stalks, enough to create a fuzzy photo. The best solution here is to photograph early in the morning when there's less likelihood of breezes to disturb the plants. If you are working in your own garden, you could cut the blossoms and bring them inside out of the breeze. But don't do this in a public park!

The second cause of her blurry flower pictures actually had to do with the way autofocus works. She was trying to photograph a close-up of the center of a tulip petal. But the petal itself had very little detail: no changes in color that would create an "edge" for the camera to focus on. So even though both the camera & the flower were motionless, the picture was still fuzzy.

Autofocus cannot focus on objects without detail or "edges" (what the camera manufacturers call "contrast"). This can cause problems with sky pictures when you are trying to photograph clouds. Even though you can detect the edges of the puffy clouds, there might not be enough detail for the camera to focus. And certainly if you point the camera at a clear blue sky, the lens will not be able to focus. A lack of detail shows up in other places too, like plain walls or smooth concrete.

How do you overcome this? Simply look for an "edge" the same distance as your subject and use focus lock. In the case of the flower close-up, when my student pointed the camera at the edge of the petal instead of in the middle, the lens could focus. Then, keeping her finger on the shutter button to lock the focus, she recomposed the picture and got the image she wanted. For sky photos, try pointing the camera at the horizon or at a distant tree against the sky. Press the shutter button halfway to achieve focus, then recompose for the shot you want.

Sunset over Frenchtown Pond

Lastly, I've seen some blurry sunset shots recently. In these pictures, the photographer was working after the sun had dropped below the horizon. So the light was fading. Even though the sky looked bright to the person, to the camera it seemed dark. So the camera needed a longer exposure time to make the picture. The problem was that the photographer was holding the camera instead of using a support. Hand-holding the camera during this time caused motion blur. So when you're taking sunset shots, use a tripod or other support for a sharp picture.