Someone once asked me what you can photograph at night. I was dumbfounded. That’s like asking what is there to shoot during the day. The answer is everything! If you can see it, you can photograph it. But the really cool thing about night photography is that you can also shoot things you can’t see!
Night photography is unique in that many subjects look totally different in the photo than they do when you shoot them. The long exposures typically used at night cause any moving lights to record as abstract streaks. The key to making the best images is to previsualize the effect for any given subject. In fact, with many night subjects, planning ahead is the ONLY way to get the shot.
I enjoy all types of night photography, but streaking is my favorite. (Light streaking, that is!) If an object emits light and it moves, it’s a candidate. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
Recording lights from moving vehicles is the easiest type of streaking you can do. Like most nighttime lights, vehicle streaks do not normally make good photo subjects by themselves, but they can make a strong compositional element in any scene. Cars are the obvious sources, but think about other possibilities. Set up near an airport and catch the lights from arriving and departing planes (watch out for the terrorism police!). Shoot boats in a busy harbor. Catch a train crossing a trestle or coming out of a tunnel. Get the neighborhood kids to ride around on their bikes with a headlight attached.
Optimum exposure varies according to the brightness and number of the lights. Typically, you will choose aperture first, based on depth of field requirements, then balance the ISO and shutter speed. In some situations, even with the smallest aperture and lowest ISO, you can’t set a shutter speed long enough to record the light streaks without overexposing the overall scene. Try using a polarizing or neutral density filter to cut the light and allow longer shutter speeds. Also, shoot during the magic light of twilight, when skylight is balanced with the lights of the vehicles.
Back in the film days, we could load ISO 100 film in a camera and open the shutter for hours, never worrying about noise. Try that with digital and you’ll hit the delete button afterwards. However, pro digital cameras are fully capable of producing noise-free images at shutter speeds of several minutes. By shooting a lot of exposures and stacking them, we can achieve an even better result than we could with film.
A photo of nothing but star trails might look cool at first glance, but it becomes boring quickly. You need something interesting in the foreground. Try campsite scenes, lighthouses, bridges, and striking buildings. I typically shoot star trails at ISO 200 and f/4. Shutter speed is based on the sky-fog limit, the point at which light pollution or skylight causes overexposure. At very dark sites, you might get by with 30 minutes or more, which would allow you to shoot a star trail scene in one exposure if noise weren’t an issue. In a heavily light-polluted region, you might not get a minute before it blows out. At reasonably dark sites, I’ve found that an exposure of 4 to 6 minutes works pretty well.
Stacking star trails can be extremely simple. Download the free Startrails application www.startrails.de/html/software.html. Just load your images and let it do all the work. Or you can stack nearly as easily in Photoshop by loading the files into layers and setting the blend mode to Lighten.
I think of light painting with handheld lights as photographer’s graffiti. The idea is to shine a light into the camera and move it around to spell letters or make interesting shapes and lines. Any type of light will work; the key is to have fun and let your imagination run wild.
For most light painting, I use a Mini Maglite LED flashlight. It’s cheap, powerful, runs on AAs, and you can get it at the Man Store (Lowes or Home Depot). To alter the color of the light, I use Rosco gel samples mounted in a GelGripTM, a special holder that I designed myself.
With apologies to Forest Gump’s mother, light painting into the camera is like a box of chocolates. You really don’t know what you’re going to get until you try it. Expect to go through several trial runs before you get the result you’re after. Typically, an ISO of 200 and an aperture of around f/8 are sufficient to record the light from an LED flashlight with a gel attached. A cool exposure trick is to create one exposure for the light painting and a second exposure for the background.
Our guest blogger is Nikhil Bahl, Nikhil will be teaching a workshop on Bird Photography at this year’s Expo!
All artists are faced with a wide variety of choices and decisions when creating their art. On the other hand, there are fundamental differences between how artists begin the creative process. While painters contemplate what elements to include on the canvas, photographers dwell on what they are going to exclude from the photograph. Like all other art forms, photography is a type of expression that is highly personalized. Nature photographers, including myself, predominantly make illustrations of beautiful subjects in good light and conditions. Relying on unusual conditions or spectacular light is a valid approach to making a photograph. Working to create a quality image in less than ideal conditions is a challenge that requires some creativity. What’s even more challenging is trying to capture and convey feeling in a photograph.
Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas and rules, and to create meaningful new ideas, methods or interpretations. It is a result of progressive thinking that expresses the thoughts of the artist in an imaginative way. While this may sound intimidating, creativity is born from the act of striving to be different, in both attitude and approach. If you want to be creative, that’s where you have to start.
I recently led a small workshop to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I timed the trip to coincide with the changing leaves and also the elk breeding season, or rut. Any wildlife photographer will tell you that you need a good mix of skill, technology, and luck to get the best shots. Here are some of the ingredients that went into making this image of a bull elk, which was one of my favorite frames from that trip.
Component #1: Location
In autumn, the elk are quite abundant in Rocky Mountain National Park. You can encounter them just about anywhere. We saw individuals in the lower areas and also at the upper elevations above 10,000’. While spotting elk is easy, finding them in a good location for photography isn’t. In this case, we got lucky enough to not only find individuals close to the road, but also in an area that had an interesting background: green foliage on the side of the hill. All too often background elements can cause unwanted distractions; in this case they added to the scene.
Component #2: Light
It seems that animals have this nagging tendency to find bad light. If it’s sunny, they’ll either be in the shade, or somewhere where they are back-lit. Getting good front or side-lighting is really tough, especially when most animals try to avoid being out in the open. At this particular spot, we had strong back and side-lighting, but the individual managed to be oriented in such a way that we didn’t have to shoot directly into the sun. In fact, what I really liked about the light here was how it put a spotlight on the individual and created a rim-lighting effect in the fur and antlers. Some of that can be attributed to dumb luck, but you also have to position yourself in a place where the light will be right (and hope the animal goes there).
Component #3: Technology
At this particular location, we did not have the luxury of a wide-open space to set up our tripods and big telephoto lenses. Fortunately, I was using a camera (Nikon D3s) that produces incredibly clean images at higher ISO settings. Because I knew I could shoot at high ISO’s, I was able to use my 70-200mm VR lens with a 2x teleconverter at f/8 hand-held and know I’d get sharp shots. Most of the time, the camera you use doesn’t really matter too much. In this case, the Nikon D3s helped me get a hand-held shot, which meant that I could be mobile enough on the side of a mountain to get the best position.
Component #4: Composition
When you are fortunate to come across wildlife in the breeding season, they usually ignore the paparazzi surrounding them. This means that you can usually have time to actually compose your shot rather than just grab a fleeting image. I deliberately placed the subject in the lower corner of the frame, and used the brightly lit foreground as a leading line. Moreover, I was able to get a few shots where the elk was making eye contact. With wildlife photography, your strongest shots will always be ones where you can see at least one of the subject’s eyes (and hopefully, it will be in-focus).
Component #5: RAW processing
I never set my camera to shoot JPEGs. Despite the numerous in-camera adjustment settings available today, shooting in RAW remains the single best way to extract the best quality from your images. While the as-shot image was OK, I made some adjustments to it in my image editor. First, I was able to recover some of the slightly blown highlights by adjusting exposure and using highlight recovery tools. Second, I used local adjustments to darken the background elements. This technique further accentuates the “spotlight” effect of the original image and leads your eye directly to the subject. Finally, I chose to crop the image to a 4×5 aspect ratio and I applied a very mild vignette (corner darkening) effect around the edges to further draw your eye towards the subject. In the end, I think everything came together nicely!
Nikon D3s with 70-200mm f/2.8 AFS G VRII lens and TC-20EIII teleconverter
1/400s @f/8, ISO 1000
In the as-shot image, the dark background has fooled the meter into opening up the scene more than what was necessary, causing some blown highlights in the subject.
My initial image processing was intended to recover the highlights in the subject and darken the background. I also tweaked the overall color and contrast, and applied custom sharpening settings in Nikon’s Capture NX 2.
For the final image, I cropped to a 4×5 aspect ratio and applied a mild vignette effect.
Our guest blogger is Ellen Anon. Ellen will be teaching a workshop and lecturing at this year’s Expo.
We all want to create WOW images, if not all the time, at least some of the time! In reality no-one, not even your favorite pro, creates phenomenal images with each and every shot. But most of us want all of our keeper images to look the best they can and have the most impact. And we want some images that knock people’s socks off. So with that in mind there are lots of discussions over which is the best camera system (Nikon, Canon, Hasselblad, an iPhone …) and which is the best lens and whether you need to run out and buy the latest offering from the manufacturers, etc. But somehow a new camera body, a new lens, a new filter, etc may improve an aspect of your images but rarely do they take your images to the WOW level by themselves.
And after you get past the notion that it’s a lack of the latest equipment that’s standing in your way, then folks tend to think that it must be the processing … is Photoshop better or is Elements OK? Lightroom or Aperture? What about plug-ins? What about processing just on a smart phone or on a tablet like an iPad? And then they learn how to pull the various sliders to adjust the images in various programs and plug-ins. And really, that’s what post processing is – you adjust sliders that change the apparent exposure, color, detail level, etc. It’s not hard. If you’re not sure what something does, you can pull the slider to an extreme and get immediate feedback, and then set the slider more appropriately. Personally, I love post processing … but I don’t love spending hours on a single image nor do I have the time to do that on a regular basis. The fact is that there are lots of excellent books and workshops out there to help you learn to use the various programs, some of which I’ve created.
But the trouble is you may find yourself spending inordinate amounts of time adjusting those sliders and still not having images that make you pleased with the result. Because it’s one thing to know that if you pull this slider to the right, the image will get brighter and to the left will make it darker, or whatever, and an entirely other thing to know what things to adjust in an image and what to leave alone.
The best images begin with choosing the right tools in the field to create the image, i.e. the right lens, shutter speed, aperture, etc and then progress to a few key adjustments (depending on the individual image) in the digital darkroom that emphasize the message that you’re trying to convey with the image. Traditionally there are a lot of compositional rules designed to help you do this and create powerful images. But the trouble is that most rule based approaches say something along the lines of, “Follow this rule to make better photos, but feel free to break it at times when it doesn’t work.” That leaves a lot of people scratching their heads wondering how they know if they should follow the rules they memorized or break them. For example there’s the rule of thirds where it’s suggested to imagine a tic tac toe grid overlaid on your image and place the subject on the intersection of two lines. This helps people learn to get their subject out of the center, but the fact is, sometimes the center placement works … so how do you know when to follow the rules and when to break them?
My son Josh and I have come up with an approach that we call Visual Intensity that makes it far easier to know how to make an image stronger. In a nutshell every image has a certain amount of energy based on a number of factors including subject content, subject placement, colors, lines and more. If the energy level is too high, you need to take steps to decrease the overall energy in the field. For example one option would be that you could change the depth of field to blur the background. Or perhaps you should use a different focal length. Similarly if the energy is too low, you need to take steps to increase it … perhaps by including more details or more contrast. (In fact when we go into more detail about Visual Intensity we talk about lots of types of contrast, not just luminosity contrast.) Once you start to view your image in terms of its energy level, you’ll create stronger images in camera and when you open the image in the digital program of your choice, you’ll know what to adjust to make the image the best it can be. You’ll know whether you want to increase its energy or decrease the overall energy and then use the tools at hand to do so. In other words, you’ll be on your way to creating WOW images a lot faster.
This week’s guest blogger is Denise Ippolito. Denise will be presenting at this year’s Expo on Sunday November 13th at 2:00pm
The image above was created at Nickerson Beach in Long Island NY where I photograph and run workshops during the spring and summer months. The image above which shows a flock of Black Skimmers that has just taken flight was created in harsh light and thus was a bit too contrasty so I converted it to B&W and made some tonal adjustments. Next I wanted to soften the look of the birds and the grasses so I used a Photoshop plug-in called Fractalius and applied my own “soft-fix” preset. I have posted the settings for my “soft-fix” preset here on my blog if you would like to try to replicate this look.
I will be presenting a slide lecture entitled “A Blend of Art and Nature” at the 2011 Nature Visions – Mid-Atlantic Photography Association Expo on November 13, 2011 in Manassas, Virginia. I will share a variety of images that will feature my artistic expression of the natural world and the way I see it. During the program I will share some of the favorite effects from my eBook “A Guide to Creative Filters and Effects”. The images will be a blend of traditional nature photographs and digital creations. I like to photograph a variety of subjects including birds, flowers and wildlife. I find that many of my subjects are so beautiful that they do well without any enhancements but others benefit artistically from the application of a variety of filters and effects.
Another of my passions is avian photography. I enjoy photographing shorebirds, waders, raptors, and ducks. I spend lots of time each winter on the famed Barnegat Jetty in New Jersey photographing Harlequin Duck, Purple Sandpiper, Long-tailed Duck, and other cold weather visitors. The jetty is one of the best places in the Northeast to view and photograph these species especially the gaudy drake Harlequin Ducks. In addition I spend time each winter in Florida photographing wading birds and more on both coasts. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my many tips for shooting at both of these fantastic locations.
I am looking forward to seeing you at the Expo in November.
We are pleased to present Art Wolfe as our guest blogger!
Greetings to my friends, fellow photographers and nature lovers!
I’m very much looking forward to traveling to Manassas in the beginning of November to teach my highly praisedArt of Composition seminar and deliver my keynote presentation Between Heaven and Earthat this year’s Nature Visions Expo. I always love coming to the Mid-Atlantic that time of the year and enjoying the late fall colors.
On the Friday, November 11th, I will be teaching my Art of Composition photography seminar at the same place the Expo will be held – the Hylton Perfoming Arts Center. In this seminar I will draw from some 36 years of international travel and will delve into a vast range of subjects; from discovering the subject to elements of design and even new works such as time lapses. Imagery of nature, wildlife and the world’s varied landscapes will round out the curriculum to provide the most comprehensive and imaginative class available. In short, I will teach you a new way to see your photos. This seminar will be highly beneficial to the photographer of any skill level with any level of digital camera.
The following day I have the opportunity to deliver the keynote presentation entitled Between Heaven and Earth. I have worked my best to create a highly stimulating multimedia presentation that will hopefully leave you inspired about the world and about the photographic art. This presentation centers on the Himalaya region of China, India, Nepal and Bhutan and reflects my most personal statement to date. Between Heaven and Earth is a 90-minute grand adventure tracing my formative years and development as an artist. These locations triggered my imagination and wonder and pointed me on the path of blending my creativity and artistic vision with photography while documenting the wild world.
This week’s guest blogger is Patty Hankins, Patty is a fine art floral photographer based in Bethesda, Maryland
I love photographing wildflowers – especially in the spring. For the past several years, I’ve spent part (if not most) of the month of April in Tennessee and North Carolina in what can only be described as the most beautiful place on Earth for wildflowers. Be it alongside the road or under a tree, it seems that whereever you look is another wildflower waiting to be discovered and photographed.
The combinations of colors, shapes and textures have to be seen to be believed. I took this photo of the Yellow Trillium (trillium luteum) and Purple Phacelia (phacelia bipinnatifida) quite literally along the side of the road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park three years ago. It has the wonderful combination of the triangles in the trillium and the rounded edges of the phacelia. The complementary shades of yellow and purple bring additional balance to the scene, while the pattern of the trillium draws you into the scene.
It’s not just the beauty that attracts me to the wildflowers – spending time among the flowers brings me an incredible sense of peace and connection with the greater natural world. Not only do I see the flowers – but also the settings where they are. I’m often photographing in the mountains, or alongside a stream. I can hear the birds singing in the trees, the insects buzzing, and the wind rustling through the leaves. I also know that the amazing colors and shapes serve the purpose of attracting just the right pollinator to the flowers to ensure the future of the species.
When I’m out photographing wildflowers people often stop and ask me what I’m photographing. They are so used to looking for the big wildlife or grand landscapes – that they don’t think to look down at their feet to see what’s growing. As I was photographing the trillium and phacelia, two people asked the inevitable question that people seem to ask when they see a photographer with a tripod the park – “Is there a bear?” Umm – no. Given how short of a lens I was using and how close I was to my subject – if I had been photographing a bear at that particular moment – I could easily have been his next meal!
So next spring – whether you are photographing locally at Turkey Run Park or in the Smokies – I hope you’ll take a few minutes to check out the wildflowers. You might find some wonderful subjects to photograph.
Patty Hankins is a fine art floral photographer based in Bethesda, Maryland. Patty loves sharing the incredible beauty of the flowers that she sees. She hopes that her photographs bring others the same sense of calm and peace that she finds while photographing nature. You can see more of her work on her website http://beautifulflowerpictures.com/ and on her blog http://beautifulflowerpicturesblog.com/
Shooting in infrared provides a new outlet for artistic expression. For both nature and landscape photography you can capture traditional subjects in novel and interesting ways. An infrared image is uniquely different than a color image converted to black and white; and a plug-in or filter can’t replicate the beauty of an infrared image. IR photography allows you to expand your creativity, and create one-of-a-kind images.
An infrared filter allows infrared light to reach the camera sensor, and blocks most visible and UV light. The most effective way to capture the surreal world of infrared is to have a camera converted to photograph in infrared. The camera can then record infrared light and the new world of creativity that lies before you! When color is removed, some of the reality is removed, creating pictures that are more surreal and artistic. From a photographic perspective, the world becomes captivating in an entirely new way!
There are several choices for infrared camera conversion – which makes infrared photography very exciting. You can choose the deep black and white (830nm), the standard R72 type filter (720nm), the enhanced (590nm), or the super color or the latest super blue (590nm) infrared conversion. The first two are easy to work with, while the last three require a little more post processing knowledge in Photoshop. You can create captivating black and white imagery, or beautiful imagery in blue, gold or other colors.
Infrared photography is a wonderful way to broaden your photographic horizons while enhancing creativity in your photography. Nothing can quite compare with the surreal factor of bright white foliage, a dark sky, and how beautifully infrared light is reflected and absorbed by different surfaces.
Deborah Sandidge is a professional photographer, and the author of Digital Infrared Photography published by Wiley. She is an instructor at BetterPhoto.com teaching Enhancing Images and Creating Works of Art, as well as Digital Infrared Photography. Deborah shares her knowledge and enthusiasm with photographers in her many presentations and instructional workshops each year.
Deborah’s travels have taken her from coast to coast of America and beyond to yield photography that stretches the imagination. She has had the joy and privilege of photographing the beautiful people and captivating architecture of Cuba, the rich culture and history throughout Europe, and the stunning dunes and sweeping coastlines of Namibia.
Deborah’s passion is not only capturing images of people, places, and things with her camera, but also in the creative work she does in Photoshop, her artist’s palette.
This week’s guest blogger is Juergen Roth. Juergen is based in Brookline, MA.
Last year I spent a couple of hours at the Boston Arnold Arboretum. It is one of my favorite photo locations because of its easy access and its diversity in plants and wildlife. Weather-wise it was one of your typical November afternoons with chilly temperatures and high winds. Inspired by my latest tree leaf photography collection addition, taken the week before on my front porch, I was looking for dropped and disintegrating leaves. I stopped at Dawson Pond where the needles of a cypress tree had changed to many colors and the tree canape was fading into the pond. The edge of small Dawson Pond was covered in brownish cypress tree needles, within them occasionally trapped leaves in all colors from other surrounding trees. I looked carefully around the edges of the pond and studied the patterns and photographic objects that mother nature provided. Half way around the pond I stumbled upon a beautiful setting of a disintegrating green leaf captured in a burgundy red leaf. Raindrops from an earlier shower were still present and the red leaf was almost fully submerged in the pond. When I lowered my tripod to ground level, one leg half way in the pond, I realized the full beauty in front of me. The tiny wind driven waves were constantly moving the leaf up and down, creating a current that produced wonderful abstractions perfectly framing the main subject. Although near ground level with my camera I decided to explore even lower, more intimate and frame filling perspectives. I detached the camera from the tripod, moved in closer and lower using one of the tripod legs to stabilize the camera. By hand-holding the camera and moving it in closer I finally accomplished the composition I envisioned when I accessed the scenery earlier.
I turned the polarizing filter to maximum impact and used a kitchen towel to diffuse the harsh early afternoon sunlight. I underexposed by -2/3 steps to bring out and saturate the colors. The camera aperture was set to f/7.1 providing me with an exposure time of 1/30 second. In post processing I had little left to do. I removed any dust spots, applied minor contrast and color saturation corrections before sharpening.