Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fire station gargoyles

Nikon D3000, 270mm (150-500mm), f/18, shutter 1/125, ISO 100, cropped

I grew up in a house just down the street from a fire station with gargoyles. Or to be more precise, the building is now a neighborhood center. But it was originally a fire station, and its gargoyles looked like firemen.

For years I’ve wanted good pictures of them. But relatively small objects high off the ground can be difficult to photograph. Here’s a view of the location from farther back with a shorter lens, so you can get an idea of the shooting conditions:

Nikon D3000, 20mm (18-55mm), f/8, shutter 1/250, ISO 100

For starters, I need to use a lens that will let me zoom in as much as possible, so I can stand on the ground yet get a photo that looks like I’m right next to the subject. In technical terms, what I need is a lens with a longer focal length.

So I switched from my usual 18-55mm Nikon lens to my 150-500mm Sigma. Because it’s fairly heavy, I mounted it on a monopod.

Standing on the sidewalk outside the building and aiming up, I got this photo with the lens zoomed in roughly halfway:

Nikon D3000, 270mm (150-500mm), f/18, shutter 1/125, ISO 100

Because I was shooting higher resolution images (the “large/fine” setting on the camera), I had plenty of data to work with when I loaded it onto my computer. I used Photoshop to crop the picture down, eliminating some unnecessary information around the edges and bringing out the details on the gargoyle. Now it looks so close we can count his teeth.

This cropping process is essentially what happens when a point-and-shoot camera uses “digital zoom” to make a picture look more close-up.

Personally, I prefer optical zoom (zooming done with the lens itself rather than by digitally “blowing up” the picture). I shot this image of one of the other gargoyles at the full 500mm limit of the lens:

Nikon D3000, 500mm (150-500mm), f/18, shutter 1/125, ISO 100, retouched

If I want to edit down to details, I can go this far without making it look “pixellated” (like a low-resolution computer image blown up too big):

Nikon D3000, 500mm (150-500mm), f/18, shutter 1/125, ISO 100, cropped, retouched

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Maker Faire 2012

Nikon D7000, 28mm (18-55mm lens), f/4.5, shutter 1/60, ISO 400, cropped and retouched

I’m surprised at myself. We’re three entries into this new blog, and this is the first entry about the most important photographic subject: people. Photographers who hope to make a living at their craft must become practiced at getting good shots of people, as most paying jobs (photojournalism, fashion, portraits, weddings and so on) require the skill. Even the casual snapshot will generally be of a friend, relative or other person.

This example comes from the 2012 Maker Faire in Kansas City. Events like this are great places to practice your people-photographing skills. Whatever bit of theatre this happened to be supplied good facial expressions from the actor and her young volunteer.

Here’s the original shot:

Nikon D7000, 28mm (18-55mm lens), f/4.5, shutter 1/60, ISO 400

After I loaded it onto my computer, I cropped it down to increase emphasis on the people and improve the shot composition. The figures now roughly follow the visual principle known as “Rule of Thirds.” The main action occupies the center of the shot, while the “mad scientist’s” body takes up the left third. The right third is relatively empty.

I also ran Photoshop’s auto-tone on it, improving the color quality. We’ll get into color tone in greater depth in a later entry. For now just note that the “after” version looks warmer, less grey.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Nikon D7000, 10mm, f/10, shutter 5 sec., ISO 200

I took this photo last week during the annual Fourth of July fireworks festivities. It has several things to teach us.

First, fireworks need to be facing up when you light them. We got three launchers lit at once, and you can see two of the three performing as designed in the middle of the photo. Unfortunately, the third one ended up sideways, spinning itself around as it shot flaming, exploding balls all over the neighborhood. You can see the light trail left by one that’s going off just out of the shot on in the lower right. In the middle right you can see one flaming under a truck in the driveway across the street. In the middle left you can see a big one in the street. And at the far left you can see one detonating in the bushes. That last one is also a lesson in the importance of raking the dead leaves out of your hedges, as it started a brush fire that took a few minutes to put out.

In the photography realm, the key teaching point is the importance of being in the right place at the right time with your camera ready. If my camera had been in a bag in the house, I wouldn’t have gotten the shot. Even if I’d been a little earlier or a little later with the shutter, the picture wouldn’t have documented the event as completely.

At least to an extent, photos like this are a matter of luck. But we can influence our luck greatly by taking steps to improve our odds. In class I nag students constantly about keeping their cameras with them at all times and getting into the habit of taking a ton of photos. Moments like this are the payoff for the practice.

You can also see some technical elements at work here. Normally shooting in extremely dim light with a low ISO would produce a big, black square. But the light from fireworks produces a strong lighting source. In this example, the loose pyrotechnics are sort of like having someone running around the shot firing a strong flash left and right. Because fireworks were the target of the shoot, I locked the camera down on a tripod and set the shutter for five seconds. This extremely slow shutter speed also allowed me to catch some more standard shots of explosions that went off in the sky like they were supposed to.

And for the more advanced photographer, I also followed some advice from Nikon’s newsletter and turned on the long exposure noise reduction setting.

Nikon D7000, 10mm, f/10, shutter 5 sec., ISO 200

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Trees and mist

Canon EOS 10D, 17mm, f/4, shutter 1/4, ISO 100

I’m starting this blog with one of my personal favorite photos. I shot this on the last day of a week-long trip to the Black Hills. When I woke up that morning, a mist settled in around our cabin. The whole world seemed so peaceful, it didn’t exactly make it any easier to leave.

The picture gives me a couple of good opportunities to introduce important photography concepts. The first is the aesthetic principle called Contemplative Photography. The idea behind this philosophical approach to the craft is to shoot pictures that capture our perceptions (actually there’s more to it than that, but a simple description will do to start). So the image I wanted was misty, shadowy, not rich on vivid detail, the trees in the mist the way I perceived the scene.

With the camera on “full auto,” this is what I got:

Canon EOS 10D, 17mm, f/4, shutter 1/2, ISO 400

The camera’s programming thinks it’s doing me a favor with this bright, detailed picture. And in many shooting situations it would be absolutely correct. In this case, however, the “full auto” image was too over-exposed to match what I saw and felt.

So I took it off the automatic setting, made some adjustments and got the picture I wanted (the one at the top of this entry). Specifically, I decreased the ISO (the camera’s sensitivity to light) and increased the shutter speed (letting less light get through). The result is a darker, less detailed photo, which in this case was exactly what I was trying for.