Monthly Archives: January 2014

Fun With Cupid

Cupid Image

We decided to have a little Valentine’s Day fun and ordered this Cupid set-up from Etsy.com.  Here again, anytime you’re dealing with a small child (6 months in this case), remember to get down low to compose your shot.  I was lying on my stomach for this one.  I shot this in our studio, but you could also create a great shot like this at home in front of a window (preferably a large one).  Try setting your child up on a table (with a helper to make sure no one accidentally falls off the table…that really ruins the photographic mood for most kids) to get them centered in the window, and throw a clean sheet or two over the table to soften the image.  It’s best done in a well lit room, but you might try opening the front door to let more light in.  If you can get the table set up about 10 or 12 feet away from the window in the background, and use a wide open f stop (like f2.8 or 3.5), you’ll get a soft, beautiful blur behind your cupid.  Remember to try raising your ISO (to 2000 or more if available) to deal with having less available light.  That should help get your f stop as low as possible.

Shutter Priority Mode – Freezing Moving Objects

If you end up shooting a lot of images of your children playing that are blurry, this is the article for you.  When things are in motion, there are basically only two ways that you can capture them in a frozen, crisp, clear manor.  One is with a very bright flash of light and the other is by increasing your shutter speed.  We’ll talk about the bright flash of light at the end of this, because it’s the least desirable method to use.  And by the way, if you haven’t read our article on the basics of Understanding Exposure, you really need to go over it before reading this.

The shutter speed determines how long your camera’s sensor is exposed to the available light.  If it’s open for too long, the things that it records will show any movement that occurs as blurred.  “Too long,” is a funny way to phrase it, because we’re really talking about very small fractions of a second.  They are typically expressed in terms of 60 (for 1/60th of a second), 125 (for 1/125th of a second), 250 (for 1/250th of a second), and so on.  There are both faster and slower speeds than the few I just listed.  These fractions (shutter speeds) are adjustable on your camera and can be set in either full manual mode or more preferably, in Shutter Priority Mode.  The reason that Shutter Priority Mode is more preferable is because it’s easier!  This mode is similar to Auto Mode, in that the other elements of your exposure (your aperture and your ISO) are auto adjusted to insure you get a proper exposure, based on the specific shutter speed that you selected.  In other words, you set the shutter speed and the camera takes care of everything else.  Although every camera can work a little differently, usually, if you set it to Shutter Priority, you then adjust the shutter speed by turning one of the dials on your camera.  If you watch the viewfinder while turning the right dial, you’ll see numbers like, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, etc…(some cameras may have a few extra ones, so don’t be alarmed).

Typically, subjects that are relatively still, can be captured blur free at 125 (1/125th of a second).  250 to 500 will freeze most moderate movement, while 1000 will handle some serious activity.

Below are some examples of different activities paired with different shutter speeds.

This first image was shot at 160 (1/160th of a second…I’m going to stop writing the fraction out now, because at this point, I’m hoping you’ve got the idea).  If you look at the full size image closely, you’ll notice that the kids’ movement (a slow walk) is frozen, as are the puppies, except for the second one that is in the middle of a jump.  That particular puppy was not listening to me when I said, “Walk slowly.”

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This next image was shot at 125, and you can see that girl in the center has both her hand, as well as her pant leg blurred.  Once again…not listening!  I said, “Spin slowly.”  Just kidding.  Sometimes, a little blur can give a great sense of motion to your image, bringing it to life.  But it’s good for you to see what types of activity will not be frozen at certain shutter speeds.

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In this next one of the same girls, I increased the shutter speed to 800, and everything is as crisp and clear as could be.

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Below, the horse and rider were captured perfectly at 640.

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The skateboarder and football game were both shot at 1000, an ideal speed for serious action.

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Notice in the football shot above, my camera’s perspective.  I’m on my knees, very low to the ground…at the kids’ level.  This makes for so much better of an image than one taken from a standing position.

The tennis player below was shot at 800.  Such a cool shot of him suspended in air!  You still see a little movement in the racket, but that’s because it’s moving at close to 100 mph.  A shutter speed of 1000 probably would have caught it clearly, but I actually like it’s movement…a nice contrast to the mid-air stillness of the player.

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So, that’s all the good stuff about Shutter Priority Mode.  Here’s the bad…faster shutter speeds (the shutter opening and closing faster), means less light getting to the image sensor.  If you’re out on a bright sunny day, it’s not going to be a problem.  Even on most cloudy days, you should be OK.  The most problematic situations are sunset, sunrise, and the worst of all, indoors (i.e. a basketball game or gymnastics).  As we discussed in Understanding Exposure, three things control the light that gets to your sensor:

1. ISO
2. Aperture
3. Shutter Speed

Since we need the shutter speed to be at a specific setting (to freeze our action), we’ll have to rely on adjusting the aperture and/or the ISO to get more light to the image sensor (still staying away from the subject of flash at this point).  Most camera’s will let you set the the ISO manually, so you should try a higher setting, maybe 800.  You can certainly go higher than this, even up into the 3200 range (on some cameras), but you start getting into grainy-looking images at those higher levels, with some cameras handling it better than others.

The other available adjustsment would be your aperture.  In a DSLR, this will come down to how much money you spent on your lens.  The more expensive ones have much lower available f stops (lower numbers, like f2, meaning a larger opening, letting in more light).  This is often referred to as a “fast lens.”

In most decent cameras, if you’re in Shutter Priority Mode, the camera is going to auto adjust your ISO and aperture to give you a proper exposure at the shutter speed you’ve selected.  But know that you could always venture into the world of full manual mode and take total control if desired.

We should also touch on the nasty topic of shutter lag.  This is most noticeable on a point-and-shoot camera.  It’s the time lag between when you press the shutter button and when it actually opens.  It’s usually measured in a fraction of a second, but that can easily be enough to miss the shot, or at least have the moving subject no longer at the location on which your camera was focused.  Clearly, if you’re committed to a lot of action photography, a DSLR is the way to go.  But many point-and-shoot cameras do have a workable solution…it’s called Burst Mode.  You may have to check with that extremely boring camera manual, but this is a setting available to most good to great point-and-shoot cameras (like my lovely Nikon Coolpix 7800!).  It causes the camera to take anywhere from 6 to 10 images (maybe more or less, depending on the camera), each time the shutter is pressed.  I’ve gotten some great action shots on my 7800, but there will be a few fuzzy ones mixed in as well.  The point is, you can still get the shot and not have to lug around a bunch of heavy camera gear.

Finally, lets touch on flash.  If you’re indoors, let’s say at a basketball game, you can forget using your flash.  The flash on most cameras, even on a DSLR, is going to reach out about 10 to 15 feet.  Beyond that, the light is getting too dim and because your camera will automatically set your shutter speed to 60 as soon as you pop up the flash, all you’ll get is a dim blur.  If you can get close, it works, but you’re better off with no flash and a fast lens.  Indoor sports are tough situations, and sometimes, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently stated, “You can’t always get what you want.”  On a note of good news, for those of you that might have kids in the theater, most stages are so brightly lit, you can usually get pretty decent shots of them acting and singing their hearts out.  Just remember to leave your flash turned off!

In summary, capturing a moving subject without blur is all about getting into Shutter Priority Mode and raising that shutter speed to an appropriate level for a particular type of action (faster action = faster shutter speed).  It works best with a DSLR (little to no shutter lag), but can also work with a point-and-shoot, using the camera’s burst mode, if available.  Regardless of the camera, don’t expect every shot to be perfect, but many will be.

I’ll go over more detail in my upcoming book, but this is more than enough to get you on your way.

Now, pick up your camera, put it on Shutter Priority Mode, and  get out there and practice for a few minutes.  Use the dog (if you’ve got one) so your kids won’t roll their eyes into the back of their head because you want to take more pictures!

Here’s what 800 looks like with a Jack Russell, running full speed, preparing to kill his Frisbee.

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And yes, you can even do this with a cell phone camera.  I took this on my cell phone using a camera app (called Camera FV-5) that has a burst mode.  This is actually a small area if the image that I cropped it to, so the resolution is not as great as I would like, but I got the shot!

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Go take some pictures, and post some of your images in our Monthly Photo Challenge!

Remember, the choice to use Shutter Priority Mode should be driven by your need to freeze fast action.  For what you might call “regular” photography, I’d suggest sticking with Aperture Priority Mode.  In most normal lighting situations, your choosing to set an aperture of f2 – f5.6 to soften a distracting background, is likely to cause your shutter speed to automatically be set above 250.  This is more than adequate to freeze moderate movement.

In another article, I’ll discuss a related subject, Setting The Focal Point Of Your Camera.  Did you even know you could do that?

Don’t miss an opportunity for a great snow picture.

According to the weather folks, it looks like the Southeastern US may get hit with some snow and ice today/tonight.  It’s not something we see too often down here, so start thinking about what you can do to create a few great images.  If you have any water fountains in your town, they can get really cool (that’s a weather pun) looking under these conditions.

Here’s a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Try to get out of Auto Mode and switch to Aperture Priority Mode.  I know I keep saying this, but that’s because it’s important!  Keep your f stops low (under f 5.6) so you can soften the background by throwing it out of focus. If you’re scared, use Auto Mode and switch over for just a few shots.

2. If you have a lens hood, use it!  Even if it’s cloudy, you can still get quite a bit of lens glare.  If you don’t have a lens hood, buy one!  They’re not expensive and will significantly improve the contrast and saturation in your pictures (that means they’ll look better).

3. Position the kids so that when they look in your direction, they are not facing the sun to help eliminate squinting eyes.

4. Try different areas.  Take some shots right along the edge of some trees (also know as “the woods”).  You can have the kids popping in and out from behind the trees and use the shade to eliminate glare and squinting.  If you’ve got a forest nearby with some dirt roads, you can capture some beautiful images of kids (grown-ups and dogs as well) walking down the snowy road.  Get them walking both towards and away from you.

5. If you have one, try getting the kids to play with a bright umbrella.  The splash of color looks great against the snow, and it’s something different.  Have your child stand under a tree and get someone to shake it.  The snow falling over the umbrella will look spectacular.

6. Don’t spend all your time trying to get the kids to look at you and smile…let them play with each other and or the snow itself.

Snow is magical (unless you live in it 3 to 6 months of the year), so put your coat on and get out there with your camera.  Post some results in our Monthly Photo Challenge!

Monthly Photo Challenge

We’re kicking off a Monthly Photo Challenge that should be lots of fun for everyone.  Head on over and check it out.  And don’t be a chicken, participate!

Aperture Priority Mode

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After having read the basics of Exposure (you should really read the Understanding Exposure post before reading this one), we’re going to apply that knowledge by using my favorite camera setting: Aperture Priority Mode.  Sometimes this is displayed as an “A” on your camera’s main dial, or it may show up as “Av.”  While I wouldn’t say that Auto Mode on a digital camera is a terrible thing, I’d put it in a classification of “emergency use only.”  If you need to get a shot quickly, it usually does the job, but rarely as well as the camera is capable.  Aperture Priority still uses a number of the camera’s automatic features, while putting you in charge of others.  Particularly, something called Depth of Field (DOF).  DOF is about the relationship of what you’ve focused your camera on (the subject) and everything else in front of and behind that subject.  There’s a lot of math involved in the details, but we’ll leave that up to the nerds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and look at the big picture perspective.

Basically, when you focus on your subject, how sharp or blurry everything else is in the picture, will be determined primarily by your aperture (remember from Exposure, that’s the f stop).  A lower aperture (like 2.8) causes everything except your subject to become blurred.  This is what’s referred to as a shallow DOF.  A higher aperture (like 22) causes everything in the entire picture to be (mostly) in focus.  Why does it matter?  If your kids are playing in such an adorable way that you have to get a picture of it, but they’re at the park and from your viewpoint, the parking lot is in the background.  In the lot are a few windowless, ratty looking, child abduction vans that you don’t want to become the focal point of your image.  What do you do?  You can’t go ask the kidnappers to move their vans…that would be politically incorrect!

This is the perfect opportunity to take control of your camera and make it do what you want.  Set it to Aperture Priority, use whatever dial on your camera controls the aperture (there are often 2 dials, try them both if unsure), and set it to something like f2, or 2.8, or 4 (whatever the lowest one is that it will go down to).  Focus on the kids and take the shot.  The parking lot behind them, and everything in it, will disappear into a beautiful, blurry mix of soft colors, leaving the focal point of the shot on your kids.

Without going into too much detail, you should know that sometimes when your lens is zoomed in, you may notice that you can’t always go as low in your f stop.  This is related to the len’s focal length.  Most zoom lens (meaning all except the really expensive ones) have self-adjusting apertures.  When you’re not zoomed in, the lens might go down to f2.8, but when you’re zoomed all the way in, it only goes down to f4 or f5.6.  Just keep this in mind and know that if you want/need to get a larger aperture (to get the background more blurred), physically move yourself closer to your subject so that you don’t have to be zoomed as much.  This will give you that lower f stop.  Just grab your camera and play with the zoom, in Aperture Priority Mode.  You’ll see that the lowest available f stop will change as you zoom in close.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on your shutter speed.  You don’t want it to drop too low.  60 to 120 if the subject is still, 250 to 500 if they are moving some, and over 500 if they are moving a good bit.  If the shutter speed drops lower than you want/need it to be, and you still want a lower f stop, you can always increase the ISO to let more light get to the sensor.  Going up to an ISO of 800 should produce good results and some cameras can go quite a bit higher.  Only raise the ISO as high as you need to, ideally keeping it at or under 400.  See how useful the Exposure post was?

This same concept of using a low f stop to blur the background, is how we get great shots with someone standing in front of the Christmas tree and all the lights are beautifully blurred behind them.

One other detail to keep in mind is that there needs to be some separation (distance) between the subject and the background in order for it to be out of focus.  The further away the subject is from the background, the more out of focus it will become.  If you want to take a shot of someone standing in front of some colorful flowers or tree leaves that produce a wonderful, soft color behind them, get the subject about 10 or 20 yards from the background…the further, the better.  Zooming in also helps the lens to distort the background.

Here’s an example of a mother and child in front of a tree shot at f8.  The tree behind them is in too sharp of focus, and as I see it, quite distracting.

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Here’s another shot, but taken at f3.5.  To me, the softening of all the detail in the tree puts and keeps your focus on the subjects.  Much more pleasant to the eye.  It’s funny…to me, the shot below makes them appear to stand out from the tree, separated.  In the previous shot above, it actually looks like they are almost standing in the tree, or at least only a foot or 2 away from it.  But between these 2 shots, they never moved.  Pulling them another 10 yards away from the tree would have had a more dramatic effect, but you get the idea.

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Here’s an example of some wildly colored fall leaves about 50 yards from my subject, with me zoomed in tightly.  This was shot at f 5.6, but because he was both a good distance from the leaves, and I was zoomed in pretty tight (150mm on a 200mm zoom lens), we got a great, soft blending of colors as the background.  Had the leaves only been about 10 yards from him, they would be pretty well defined.

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