Photography - Lighting
There have been entire books written on one very small aspect of lighting or another, so to do the subject justice in just a few pages is not easy, however I will do my best.
Although I have divided the subject up into different categories, the lighting you 'find' and the lighting you create for yourself, it is really the same thing. You need to manipulate the scene to create the effect you want, this might mean moving a light on a stand or moving your subject relative to the sun, or waiting for a better time of day to get the effect you want.
I once met a landscape photographer who, having found the scene he wanted to photograph, would pitch his tent and wait for the light to be right. Sometimes this would take two or three days. I'm not sure I would have that kind of dedication and I certainly don't have that amount of time, but it is worth spending a little time getting it right.
Take a look at Photography in Sunlight to see how you can take control of the lighting in your outdoor shots.
Check out Flash Photography for tips on how to improve those indoor snaps.
The third tutorial in this section is the Inverse Square Law. This tutorial is there for people who are using movable light sources, either floodlights or flash, to show the strange relationship between distance of the light from the subject, and the amount of light falling on it.
Photography in Sunlight
Photography is all about light, the direction of the light falling on your subject is most important, you need to look at your subject carefully and watch how the shadows fall.
If you are able to choose the time of day to shoot your pictures, try to pick a time when the sun is low in the sky, either shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. Shooting pictures of people with the sun too high in the sky, tends to mean the subject's eyes will be in shadow and/or they will be squinting in the strong light, both of which tend to look horrible. A nice side effect of shooting in the early morning or late afternoon is that the colour of the light is 'warmer', reds and yellows are stronger which generally gives a more pleasing effect.
If you are photographing in sunlight, try to position yourself so that the sun hits your subject from the side, this will give you nice 'modelling' and help create a 3D effect in the picture.
Sunlight behind the subject can give a very pleasing 'backlight' effect but be careful that you are not getting 'flare' in the lens, which degrades the contrast of the image.
A picture taken in the middle of the day, the overhead sun casts deep shadows into the kids' eyes, spoiling an otherwise quite nice little group portrait.
The metering system has exposed for the highlights, as it should, and allowed the shadow areas to be under exposed. There is just too much contrast in the scene for the camera to cope. See how the professionals would handle it.
This picture was taken at the same time as the one on the left but here the sun is behind the subject. The metering system has done it's stuff and rendered correctly exposed faces.
The highlights of the hair and background are burnt out but, I think in this instance, it gives quite a pleasing effect.
An example of side lighting, taken late in the afternoon the side lighting 'models' the surfer well and pulls him away from the background. Also the late sun gives a warmer light.
A backlit shot of a dog shaking off water makes an interesting 'pattern' picture. Don't be frightened to face the sun but watch out for lens flare which degrades the contrast of the image, see below. Either use a lens hood or make sure the angle of the camera is not too close to the sun.
Backlighting can wreak havoc on a bad hair day!
Although there is a tiny bit of flare in this picture softening the dressing gown in the bottom right corner, it is of an acceptable level.
Moving round a little puts the sun too close to the edge of the frame and causes nasty flare as seen in the rainbow coloured streaks above, note how the contrast of the image is much softer.
As with all 'mistakes' in photography, you can use this flare to great effect with the right subject.
Of course you can take pictures on cloudy days as well. If you live in northern, less sunny climates, then you may have to. I, personally, find that shooting landscapes or wide shots in cloudy weather is usually not very satisfying. This, I stress, is a very personal thing, some people love the softer light that you get on cloudy days. Indeed on stormy days the sky can be quite dramatic, as can shots taken in the rain.
When I wrote this sitting in my apartment in southern Spain, by 'northern climates' I meant rainy old England, Belgium, Germany etc so imagine my surprise when I received an email from Greenland putting me right on how lovely and sunny it is up there. Have a look.
What I do find cloudy days useful for is shooting close-ups of people or small objects, the reduced contrast is much easier for the camera's metering system to handle, so exposure will be spot on and there will be plenty of detail in both the highlights and the shadows.
With a little magic in Photoshop the contrast of a 'flat' picture can be built up, to some extent, but it is not really possible to make a dull day look sunny.
The do's and dont's of photography with a flashgun
What to do about 'red eye'
Without any doubt, the worst, most horrible, ugliest way to light any subject is with the little flashgun that now comes built into every camera. The in-camera flash produces lighting that is flat, giving the impression that your subject has been run over by a steam-roller, such shadows as there are are very harsh and look more like an outline than a shadow and, if you are using flash to photograph someone looking straight back at the camera, they will probably have red eyes.
All these problems are caused by one thing, the flash is too close to the camera lens, the closer the flash is to the lens the bigger the problems. In the 'good old days' the flash was a separate item which clipped onto the top of the camera and, more importantly, could be detached from the camera. Even holding the flash at arm's length from the camera will improve the photo in all three respects. Also, with the separate flash guns, it was possible to bounce the light off a wall or ceiling giving a much more natural, softer light. If you can stand carrying a bit more kit around with you, I urge you to get a separate flash gun, they are still made for most of the more serious cameras.
There will, of course, be times when you must either use the built-in flash or go without the photo, so what can you do to make things a little better? If there is any light at all, then use as much of it as you can. Modern autofocus cameras tend to do this automatically, they use the widest aperture to let as much natural light in as possible and add the flash to bring the exposure up to what is neccessary. They might, however, be a little stingy with the shutter speed. The camera, after all, cannot be expected to know whether your subject is moving or not and whether you have a steady hand. Try changing the exposure mode to shutter priority and set a shutter speed of about 1/30th of a second, if you have a steady hand and there is not too much movement in the scene, this may well give you a sharp enough photo.
One of the ugly things that I mentioned at the top of the page is the 'outline' effect you get when the flash light casts a shadow on the wall behind the subject. This can be minimized or eliminated by either posing your subject against a dark coloured wall or, better still, getting them as far away from any walls as possible. The drop off in the intensity of your flash light is such that a white wall ten metres away will be quite dark if you are taking a close-up shot.
'Red eye' has been a major problem for camera manufacturers since they first started including flash guns in their cameras. There are many complicated an ingenious methods being tried to eliminate the problem but, in my experience, none of them seem to work. The most common method in use at the moment is the 'pre-flash', which is usually a series of flashes fired quickly just before the shot to try to close the pupils of your subject(s) and thereby lessen the problem. Apart from the fact that this does not seem to work that well, the problem is that people think that you have already taken the picture and start to walk away. In this digital age I would advise you not to use these fancy settings on your camera, live with the red eyes, and paint them out afterwards in Photoshop.
The picture above shows the dreaded 'outline shadow', a result of using the in-camera flash. Although the contrast of the shadow has been softened by the available light, it is still, annoyingly, there. The picture above was taken on the same day, with the same camera and flash. If you look really closely at the side of the head you can see the shadow but, because the wall behind is dark, it hardly shows at all. Once again the shadows have been greatly softened by making the most of the available light.
The dreaded 'red eye' caused by light bouncing directly back from the centre of the eye. It's easy enough to retouch the eyes in Photoshop or any paint programme, just zoom in close, select the right size brush and spray in some black. Then change the brush size to a smaller one and put in the white highlights. Be careful to put the white highlights in the same part of each eye otherwise she will look cross-eyed.
A gentleman by the name of Dave Bradley sent me an email after reading this tutorial suggesting a different approach.
Instead of just blasting black into the eye and then repainting the highlights, change the brush mode to 'colour' instead of 'normal'. Still using black in the colour pallette, this will desaturate the red without effecting the tones in the eye. So the highlights and any other gradations are stills there. It does seem to give a more natural look.
The only thing I found was that the tone was a little on the light side, the centre of the eye is normally black or nearly black, but this was easy to remedy with the burn tool.
I got a bit carried away while I was doing these and took out some of her freckles as well. I will be writing some Photoshop tutorials on this and other subjects soon.
The Inverse Square Law - what it means to Photographers
It's useful to know a little about the inverse square law especially when using flash or studio lights. Basically all the inverse square law says is that an object that is twice the distance from a point source of light will receive a quarter of the illumination. So what it means to us photographers is that if you move your subject from 3 metres away to six metres away, you will need four times the amount of light for the same exposure. This can most easily be achieved by opening the lens aperture two f-stops (see aperture for an explanation) or using a flashgun that is four times as powerful.
What do we mean by a point source of light? Well in Physics there might be a very strict definition but for our purposes any flashgun or lamp can be considered a point source. The other variable to be aware of is that the law works for 'unfocused' light sources. Light from a laser or other highly focused source will not drop off quite so rapidly.
The reason why the power of the light diminishes so rapidly is not because it 'runs out of energy' or anything like that, but because it spreads and so a smaller and smaller proportion of the light hits the object. Here's a little diagram to illustrate the point.
As you can see from the diagram the beam of light fans out quite quickly and the object furthest from the light receives only a small proportion of the light, most of the beam misses the target.
The more the beam is focused the higher proportion of the light will fall on the object. With a theatrical spotlight for instance which has a very narrow beam, much more light will fall on the object.
In photography though we don't tend to use highly focused beams as they produce a very harsh light, too contrasty for our purposes. So the inverse square law, as a rule of thumb, works very well for us.
So why do we need to know this?
If you are using flash on camera and everything is automatic then you don't need to worry about it at all. Except you may 'run out of light' because your flashgun is not powerful enough. It also explains the big difference in exposure between objects or people near the camera and those only a few feet further away.
If you have read my tutorial on flash photography though you will know that I consider 'flash on camera' as one of the cardinal sins of photography, and should only be used in extreme emergencies. If your flash, or light source, is off camera or bounced off a wall (see flash photography for and explanation) then you have independent control over the distance from the light to the subject. In the studio my lights are often much closer to the subject that my camera. There are two reasons for this, one is to get more light on the subject, and the other is that the nearer the light is to the subject the less of a 'point source' it will be and so the softer the shadows will be on the subject. (I will do a more in depth article on studio lighting soon and explain this more fully.)
All we really need to know
An automatic camera will do all the maths for you so, unless you are using manual exposure, you don't need to worry too much about the details. It is very useful though to have some understanding of what is going on so that it doesn't come as a surprise when you see the effects of all this in under or over exposed photos. Just remember 'at twice the distance, a quarter of the light reaches the subject'.
The other day I was asked to take some pictures of snails which got me thinking about the perils of close-up photography in general.
The first problem we need to look at is, how close the lens will focus. Lenses have a minimum focus distance which varies considerably from lens to lens, some longer zoom lenses have a 'macro' setting and will focus quite close but most lenses will not focus close enough to take the picture on the right.
If the lens you are using will not focus close enough there are a couple of ways to make it do so. If the lens is detachable from the camera, you can use 'extension tubes'. These usually come in a set of three which can be used separately or together. They fit between the lens and the camera body and, as the name suggests, there is no glass in them, they merely serve to move the lens further away from the film plane (or CCD on a digital camera). The lens will now focus on closer objects than it would before but will no longer focus on infinity.
Extension tubes are a good solution as you are still using the quality lens that you paid so much money for and so the picture quality will be the same as for any other shot. The downside (there's always a downside, you never get anything for nothing) is that you need more light (the inverse square law works just as well behind the lens as it does in front), either a longer shutter time or a wider aperture. Your meter will automatically compensate for this but it can lead to severe depth of field problems which we will discuss in a couple of paragraphs.
Close-up lenses are a bit like reading glasses, they are attached to the front of the lens and their strength is measured in diopters. So a +2 diopter lens will focus closer than a +1 etc. Using close-up lenses solves the problem of needing extra light but now you have something on the front of your lens. The front element of your lens and the beautiful multi coating on it, that you paid a fortune for and have lovingly looked after, are not being used. The quality of your photo is now, to some extent at least, in the hands of your close-up lens. So make sure you buy a decent make, they are not expensive so there is no need to buy the cheapest.
Depth of Field
Whichever method you choose to get your close-up, the mere act of focusing on close objects narrows the depth of field down to problematic levels (for an explanation of depth of field click here). Any kind of wide aperture setting becomes out of the question if you hope to get the whole object in focus. If your subject is static and you have a tripod you have the option of shooting at a slow shutter speed and therefore a small aperture, but if not, you need a lot of light. Either sunlight or flashlight will do (I used a small studio flash for the snails), but you must get the aperture ring closed down to f22 or whatever your smallest aperture setting is. Even then you will find that sometimes this is not enough and part of your subject is still out of focus. Well, if that's the case, then it's time to make a decision about which parts of the subject most need to be in focus.
All other things being equal, I would almost always choose to have the parts nearest to the camera in focus and let the background and parts furthest from the camera go out of focus. This to me looks less like a mistake than a picture where the foreground is out of focus. There are always exceptions and one I can think of is an extreme close-up of a face, if I had to choose between the eye(s) being in focus or the nose, I would always choose the eyes because they are a more important part of the face.
There are times of course when a shallow depth of field can be very effective. I'm quite fond of this flower shot because the stamens really stand out against the out of focus petal. I also like the area of sharp focus on the right. It is usually considered to be a bad thing to have two focal points in a picture but in this instance I think it works quite well. To me, the main centre of interest is the right hand side with the lovely crisp water droplets.
This was a very dull day just after the rain, I had no tripod and so could only manage 1/60th at f8. I must admit that if I could, I would have tried to render the whole flower in focus but I like this the way it is.
It is also a good illustration of photography in muted lighting conditions. I am usually an advocate of strong sunlight but here it would have caused problems with too much contrast, making these beautiful colours difficult to render.
The Depth of Field Dilemma in Close-up Photography
How to get the bits you want in focus and the background out of focus
Here is a method for producing extra depth of field in all, or just part, of your picture. I decided to put this tutorial in the 'photography' section rather than the 'Photoshop' section because, although the large part of the explanation is about what you do in Photoshop, the planning and execution starts at the photography stage.
In the picture below I wanted a shallow depth of field to throw the background out of focus. Unfortunately using a large enough aperture to throw the background out of focus meant that I couldn't get the whole spoon and it's contents in focus at the same time. A common enough dilemma, should I increase the depth of field by selecting a smaller aperture? This would mean a more muddled composition, it needs the difference in focus to lift the spoon and it's contents out of the picture, in fact the whole composition relies on this. However, having parts of the spoon out of focus is not an option either.
The answer is to take two shots of the subject, you obviously need a tripod for this and the subject needs to be completely still, to make sure that the two shots are exactly the same. The only difference is the focusing, the shot on the left is focused on the front of the spoon and the shot on the right is focused on the back. Looking at the shot on the right you can see that the shaft of the spoon is in focus and also the furthest pieces of macaroni. So now we have two shots which between them cover the range of focus we need.
The next step is to drag the first picture, the one with the focus at the front which will be our main picture, onto the right hand picture creating a new layer above it as you can see in the left hand picture below.
Provided that you have 'snap' selected in the view menu, the two pictures should be in register. You can check this and make any adjustment necessary by temporarily changing the opacity of the top layer to 50%. You need to make sure that the pictures match up at the point where the focus changes.
Note that, because we are looking at 50% of one layer and 50% of the other, the whole picture looks out of focus.
Finally add a layer mask to the top layer and paint it with black to reveal the bits that you want from the lower picture. In this case we want the shaft of the spoon and the back pieces of macaroni, you can see the black on the layer mask where I have painted with a soft brush. In theory you should see a difference in the background but, because it is out of focus in both pictures to almost the same degree, you can't really see it at all.
This technique can be used for anything that has been photographed at an oblique angle to the camera, like a flower for instance. It could be used with a subject that is face on to the camera but just too deep to get in focus, but then the painting stage, to reveal the bottom layer, would have to be done with a lot more care.
I have also seen this technique used to take pictures of model cars or trains where the whole frame needs to be in sharp focus and there is not enough depth of field available even at the smallest aperture, sometimes a third shot is needed, focused on the middle section, to cover the whole rage from front to back.
Of all the things there are to photograph I find animals, birds and insects the most satisfying and the most difficult. They almost never do what you want them to and are most likely to do whatever you least expect. The best way to photograph animals is in the wild but I am also always up for a trip to the zoo. In the old days it was very difficult to get decent photos at the zoo because there was always wire netting or bars of a cage in the background. These days zoos have improved considerably and the habitats can look almost natural if you point your camera carefully.
The storks (top left), although not strictly 'in the wild' were, I suppose you could argue, in their natural habitat. The family has taken up residence on the church tower in a small village near Seville in southern Spain. The villagers have got quite used to them over the years and now consider that they bring luck to the village.
When photographing animals you need a lot of patience, they either do nothing for long periods of time or they are so hyperactive that you can't keep them in the viewfinder. What you need to do is study the animal for a while and try to predict their next move. Birds will often follow a definite flight path so, if you can work out what it is, you can just wait until they fly past a certain point. I usually switch to manual focus when photographing birds as the auto focus can often end up trying to focus on the empty sky.
Animals, especially in the wild do not let you get very close to them so an essential piece of kit for photographing animals is a long lens preferably a zoom. I use a 75-300mm zoom and, more often than not, I end up using it at the 300mm end. Ideally I would like a 500mm lens but good ones cost quite a lot of money and you really need to use it on a tripod. The general rule of thumb for handholding without camera shake is to use a shutter speed greater than 1 divided by the focal length of the lens. So a 500mm lens should be used at shutter speeds greater than 1/500th of a second.
With this in mind it's also a good idea to choose clothing that will help you blend in with your surroundings. I found when photographing these turtles in the river that, as I approached, they would all dive into the water for cover but, if I stood still, the brave ones would be back sunbathing within five or ten minutes.
The penguins and the sea lion were shot at the zoo (still saving for that trip to the Antarctic) which gives you a better chance because it's more difficult for them to get away from you. If you're going on a photo session to the zoo get there as early as possible for three reasons. The light will be better than shooting in the middle of the day, the lower the sun is in the sky the kinder the shadows are and the colour of the sunlight is warmer. There will be less people getting in your way, and finally the animals are usually more active. In the afternoons on a sunny day they tend to skulk in the shadows and take a nap, so do I if I get the chance.
One lens I did splash out on recently was a Tamron 90mm macro which I used for the photo above. I found this little guy in a friend's garden and he sat there for quite a while and let me take a few photos. Insects don't seem to be aware of you unless you make sudden movements, I remember reading somewhere that they only see moving objects with their honeycomb eyes. Still objects or slow moving (therefore not threatening) ones go undetected. It's interesting to see a wasp so close up, I knew they had hairy legs but who knew they had such hairy bodies?
The biggest problem when photographing something so small is getting it all in focus. As you can see here not everything is in focus. Depth of field is very shallow indeed so you need to use the smallest aperture you can. Set the camera to shutter priority and set the shutter speed to the slowest speed that will not show camera shake (with a 90mm lens this will be 1/100sec). This will ensure that the camera selects the smallest aperture possible for the lighting conditions. Also you need to pay attention where you focus, you don't want to focus on the nearest point as this will waste some of your precious depth of field, you can afford to assume that some of the object that is nearer to the lens than the point of focus will be sharp. However, things in the foreground that are out of focus look bad whereas things in the background that are out of focus are more acceptable. The answer, as always, is to take more than one shot and vary the point of focus. A chance to set the camera to manual focus and try your hand at the ancient art of focussing the camera yourself, frightening stuff!
The Right Light
If you prefer to go on sightseeing holidays rather than flopping on a beach then you're probably going to want to take photos of the buildings you visit. The trouble is you're always there at the wrong time of day, the light is coming from the wrong direction, there are crowds of people blocking your view and the rest of the family are nagging you to put the camera away and get moving. You could just buy the postcard but, if you are a photography junkie like me, that will never be an option. Although sometimes I might buy a postcard as an insurance policy in case my photos are not good enough.
The best time of day to take photos of any outdoor subject is either the early morning or the evening when the sunlight has a reddish hue and the light is coming from the side rather than directly overhead. Early morning is best, there is a difference in the quality of light that I find it hard to put my finger on, also there are normally less people around. Obviously if you are photographing buildings the best time of day is going to be dictated by which way the building is facing. The photo on the right was taken at about 7.30am, I had spotted the building the day before but the light was all wrong so, as it was close to the hotel where I was staying I decided to go back in the morning.
As with any other type of photography you should ask yourself what it is about this particular building that you like and focus on that. Sometimes this will mean framing the whole building, sometimes it will mean picking out details and sometimes a mixture of both will work well. In the photo above it was the tower on top of the building that caught my eye but I found that I needed at least some of the building to give the tower context.
When photographing buildings, especially the tops, you often end up with lots of boring sky so a good trick is to frame the top of the building with a branch or two from a nearby tree. I was quite lucky with this shot the trees were there waiting for me, all I had to do was go and stand in the right place, but I would not be above dropping in a branch from another photo using a bit of Photoshop magic. Looking around for a tree before you take the photo though will always be more convincing and with zoom lenses it is easy enough to adjust your perspective to fit everything into the right place. It can be hard to get the scale and the lighting just right when you try to put the tree in afterwards.
Getting the perspective right
All the photos on this page were taken on a holiday trip to Barcelona where, amongst other delights, we wanted to see the work of the architect Antoni Gaudí. The photo on the left is of a building that was reworked by him in the 1920s. This building is quite difficult to photograph because the trees that line the roadside get in the way. I wanted a shot of the whole facade and the only way I was going to get it, without chopping the tree down, was a drastic tilt of the camera. In this instance the look is quite dramatic and the use of a wide angle lens makes the building look as though it is bending over backwards. Whenever you tilt the lens upwards to get the top of the building into the picture you will notice that the sides of the building converge towards the top and the building appears to be leaning over backwards. In a shot like this one it doesn't really matter but, if you want your buildings to be upright, and personally I hate to see photos of buildings where the verticals are slightly off, then you either have to shoot from a higher vantage point or you need to employ a little trickery.
In the bad old days of film the best option was a special 'anamorphic' or shift lens which would correct the verticals for you. There was also an option to correct the perspective in the darkroom by tilting the enlarger at an angle but in the modern world we use the 'perspective' or 'distort' adjustment in Photoshop to spread out the top of the picture until the verticals are once again vertical.
If you have ever tried to do this to one of your photos and found the adjustment greyed out as unavailable, the probable reason is that you are trying to apply the adjustment to the background layer which will not work. If you double click on the layer in the 'layers' palette you get the option to rename the layer and the default option is 'layer 0' click yes to this and the layer will no longer be the background and all the perspective adjustments will work.
Here are three more photos of the same building, in the shot on the right I have corrected the verticals in Photoshop by stretching out the top of the picture. This seems to work remarkably well considering the programme must have to insert pixels into your picture to make up the size. I suppose a purist would not stretch the top but shrink the bottom and then crop the sides.
Normally when I am out and about I carry two zoom lenses, a mid-range which covers approximately 28-80mm (in old fashioned 35mm terms, now 18-55mm) and a 75-300mm telephoto. This covers me from moderate wide angle to about as much telephoto as it is sensible to handle without a tripod. The two pictures on the left are details from the facade showing the'bits that I like' picked out with the telephoto lens.
Photographing fireworks presents some technical challenges, it needs quite a different approach to most other subjects but follow these few steps carefully and you will be successful. What are we photographing? Basically we are photographing streaks of light that develop over a period of time against a black background. The great thing about a black background is that it makes no impression on the film, or sensor in the case of a digital camera. So we can leave the shutter open as long as we like, the black will still be black.
So, in short, the way to photography fireworks is to set the camera to manual exposure, set the aperture to a suitable
f-stop and the shutter to b or bulb. Open the shutter just before the firework bursts and close it after it's finished. Easy!
The first thing we need is a sturdy tripod. The alternative methods of support that I mentioned in the photographing buildings tutorial won't cut it here. Here we are talking about seriously long shutter times of several seconds so nothing but a good sturdy tripod will do. The second piece of kit that would be very useful is a remote shutter release so you don't have to touch the camera at all. In the old days this was a cheap piece of kit called a cable release but nowadays it is more likely to be an electronic gizmo with a higher price tag. I, personally, don't use one but that's because I'm a cheapskate.
I'm afraid all the modes and settings that you paid all that money for are all useless when photographing fireworks and auto focus is one of them. If you leave your camera set to auto focus the lens will whirr backwards and forwards in a demented fashion trying to find something to focus on in the black sky.
Set the focus to manual and then focus on something in the far distance. Don't just wind the focus ring around to the end of its run, check it against a distant object if you can.
Aperture & Shutter Speed - The Technical Stuff
The exposure is going to be determined by the intensity of light from the firework which, as it bursts will spread across the sky. So we can only be guided by people who have been successful in the past as there is not way to measure the light at the time. There is TTL metering which can measure the light during an exposure, as it does with a flash exposure but, in the case of fireworks, there is far too much contrast to give a useful reading.
The aperture you set depends on the ISO rating (basically the sensitivity to light) for the film or the ISO rating set on your digital camera. At ISO 100 you will need to set the aperture to between f8 and f16. So a good start would be f11 at 100 ISO but be prepared to vary this a little for very bright fireworks.
For an explanation of ISO film speed rating see my tutorial - ISO rating for Film Speed
As I mentioned above, the shutter speed needs to be set to b or bulb (bulb refers to the old fashioned type of remote shutter release, on which you literally squeezed and rubber bulb and triggered the shutter with a burst of compressed air). At this setting there is no set time for the exposure, when you press the button the shutter opens and when you release it the shutter closes. So the shutter may be open for several seconds. There is no significant build up of light on the film or sensor as the sky is black and the firework is only lit for a short time at any one spot before it spreads out.
For more details about shutter speeds and apertures have a look at my shutter speeds and apertures tutorial.
Framing a picture you can't yet see is always going to be a challenge. What are you going to aim for? I think there are basically three shots to consider, there is a wide shot that includes a bit of foreground - a building or monument, especially if they are floodlit, or just silhouettes of the crowd. This can be really great when it all comes together but there are quite a few problems. Will the fireworks go off in the right place in the frame? Will everything be properly exposed? Will any movement on the ground be too blurred?
Another way to work is to shoot all the elements separately then combine them in Photoshop. Shoot the whole scene without any fireworks then shoot the fireworks separately and drop them into your main picture in exactly the position you want them. Because the sky is black this is really easy to do (I'll explain later).
If you're planning to do this it's important to make sure you get the whole firework in the frame like this one on the left.
Thirdly you can go for maximum impact with a tight shot where the firework fills the whole frame and spills out the edges. This can be a bit hit and miss, literally, as you may end up pointing your camera in the wrong place entirely.
Lastly a very interesting option is to leave the shutter open while several fireworks explode building up patterns in your picture.
The safest way though, if you are a Photoshop fan is to build your picture from elements photographed one at a time. Go to page 2 and I'll explain some of techniques involved.
Photography Tutorial - Portraits
What makes a good portrait?
Photographing people is the most common and, in many ways, the most challenging task for photographers. We all know a good picture when we see one but what is it that makes the good ones stand out? Is it because it is an especially good likeness? A photograph will always be a true likeness, even when we think it isn't. How many times have you heard someone say "that doesn't look like me/you at all"? How can that be when we are using a camera?
The problem is that we are used to seeing people moving around, at least their faces, and in some kind of context, doing something or talking to us. We very rarely see people completely motionless, except perhaps when they are asleep, so a single frozen moment in time can seem totally unrepresentative, it can, only too easily, capture a moment when they are in a pose that we have never noticed before.
So what makes a good portrait of someone is that it should say something about that person that we feel is true. A good portrait sums up the character of the person or at least an aspect of their character. You don't know the girl on the left but, looking at her photo, you have made some judgements about her and you have made some decisions about her character.
The pose, viewpoint, direction and quality of lighting, choice of lens, choice of background and the cropping of a picture can all contribute to the mood of the photograph and therefore what you are saying about that person.
A good portrait is a picture that says something about the person, gives you an insight into the person's character, whether this is make believe or not.
The most important item in the list above, by far, is the pose. Capturing the right moment is crucial and, with that in mind, it is important to take as many shots as you can. Each one will be slightly different, as you take pictures you will think up new ideas, the whole thing is an evolving process. I took about fifty shots to get this one, the others are nice, most of them, but this one stood out as being the best. There is no excuse now that we have digital cameras, the cost of taking extra shots is nothing.
How do I know when to stop? I know the session is over when I catch myself taking the same picture again and again, or we just run out of time.
The picture above was taken in the studio where I can control the lighting carefully and ensure that the shadows fall exactly where I want them. I'll be giving you some tips on light placement on page 2.
This little fellow on the right on the other hand was shot outside in the playground. I only actually got two shots of this guy so I consider myself quite lucky to get a pose as good as this. Once again, when you look at the picture, you immediately start to read his personality. The shot is a very natural pose. You could not tell him to do that and expect the same degree of success. Which brings me to one of the most important tips for successful portraiture.
You must be ready for the action and work very quickly, seize the moment.
People, especially children, get bored very quickly. If you start fiddling with your camera telling them to hold on a minute you will never get good pictures. The most important part of the picture is the expression on the face. When you see that expression you must be ready to instantly capture it, everything else, the lighting, the background, the composition must be ready. Facial expressions, at least the good ones, are very fleeting things. If you ask someone to smile and you leave them holding that smile for even a second it will look very, very false.
When taking pictures of children I like to use a long lens and blend into the background. After a while they forget you are there then you start to get much more natural expressions. You need a lot of patience to work this way, you must not keep stopping them or trying to get them to turn in the direction you want because you will break the mood. Just keep watching be patient and be ready. Let the good stuff happen when it will.
On page two I'll give you some tips on lighting, cropping and the more practical 'nuts and bolts' aspects of portraiture. These are obviously important too but the most important part of the process is to set out with a definite purpose in mind. My most successful pictures are the ones that were planned carefully. That doesn't mean getting out lots of gadgets, it means thinking about what you want to do and making sure you are in the right place at the right time. There are flukes of course but the flukes are more likely to happen if you plan ahead and are ready to take advantage of them.
Working with Models
Photography is all about shapes, textures and lighting. Sooner or later you might start thinking that there are some interesting shapes and textures to be found in the human form, if so then you need to persuade people to model for you.
Persuading people to model for you can be a daunting task, and can be vaguely reminiscent of asking people out on a date. Unlike dating though, you do not have to appraise yourself before deciding who to approach.
People generally have a fair idea what they look like and how they look in photographs, their modesty may prevent them from talking about it, but deep down inside they know. So you have the most chance of success with good looking people who are less likely to be afraid that they might be making a fool of themselves.
Can I photograph you in the nude?
When you approach people, do so with complete confidence as though you have done this a million times before, your confidence will help to reassure them and put them at their ease. Don't embarass them in front of their friends, wait for the right moment and don't try to force a decision there and then.
Give them a professional looking card with your phone number and ask them to call you if they're interested. If you have some good pictures, put them on a website and include a link on your card. When people are hassled in the street their first instinct is to say no, it's an in-built reflex reaction we have all developed in the last few years, so it's important to let people make their mind up in their own time.
If you persevere in a professional manner and don't come across as 'creepy', the phone will soon start ringing and you can arrange a shoot.
If you want to use the pictures you take, or offer them for sale then you must get a model release. The best time to talk about this is while you are arranging the session. Of course as soon as you mention model releases and selling the pictures, the model will think you are going to earn big bucks and will ask for a fee. You need to explain that the chances of you selling any pictures at all are probably quite slim and the chances that you will make any large amounts of money are very remote indeed.
If you are a reasonably good photographer, most models can be persuaded to work for pictures, they always need new pictures for their portfolios and often have to pay for them. So, if you are prepared to do some shots in the style they want, and they will pose the way you want, then you can arrange a trade.
I cannot stress too much the importance of getting the model release, if you don't you will regret it later on, I know I have, on several occasions, don't leave it 'til later.
As far as locations are concerned you really have three choices. You could use your house, work outside, or hire a studio. Hiring a studio might cost a little bit, but it creates the right impression with the model, and using studio lighting will help you to get great shots. I used to rent studios quite often, it's not as expensive as you might think, and they are bigger than the average front room. It's surprising how much space you need when you start putting lights up and a background.
If there is no reasonably priced studio nearby then you could use your house. If you have at least some studio equipment, some basic lights and a background of some sort, this will help to create the impression that you know what you are doing and put the model at ease. Make sure that anyone who you share your house with is under strict instructions to stay away, photography is definitely not a spectator sport, nothing will scare your model away quicker than having an audience. It's also best to keep the model's boyfriend, girlfriend or mum away too, this is a job for the two of you on your own, anyone else will just be in the way.
Working outside can be a problem if there are a lot of people around, as soon as you start shooting everyone will be fascinated with what you are doing, so you need to find a quiet spot or come back at a quieter time of day. Early in the morning can be really good, the light is beautiful and there are not many people about, but beware of the dog walkers and early morning joggers. Working outside, if you can find a secluded place, means you don't need to buy lots of extra equipment to get started, even the top professionals just use the sun, and a reflector or two.
Plan your Shoot
To ensure that things go smoothly on the day you need to plan your shoot like a military operation.
Most importantly make sure all the equipment works and, if you have anything borrowed or new, that you know how to work it. Get your lights set up the way you want them, take light readings and then set the camera settings and fire off a few test shots, once your model has arrived you don't want to be messing about with camera settings.
Plan what you are going to do and discuss it with you model before you start. Of course you should be prepared to take advantage of any spontaneous moments, but you don't want to be dithering around wondering what to do next, also you don't want to be springing any nasty surprises on your model asking for things that you have not discussed beforehand. Trust me, it will only land you in hot water.
Plan start and finish times an be generous with breaks, it can be quite tiring work for both of you. I never got any sympathy from my wife when I arrived home tired and said that I had been 'slaving over a hot model all day', but there you are.
Shooting - Keeping the flow going
Once you start shooting keep the flow going, it's very important to shoot quickly and move on to the next pose. This quick backwards and forwards, pose - click, pose - click, is how you set the tempo for the shoot. The more you get into the rhythym the more lively your pictures will be. These days, when you don't have the cost of film to worry about, there is no reason to be stingy with the number of frames you shoot. If you shoot 100 pictures to get one good one it doesn't matter, you can delete the rubbish and it didn't cost you anything.
So even if you don't like a pose, click the shutter anyway just to move on to the next one and keep the rhythym going. If the session is going in a direction that you don't like then you have to stop, explain what you want and try something different, but don't try to make every shot a winner.
Talk to your model the whole time and make encouraging comments, you don't have to get silly about it but building the right atmosphere is very important. The atmosphere in the room will be reflected in your pictures, an unhappy model will look unhappy or bored which is even worse.
Finally, once you've gone to all this trouble, do something creative and different. Don't just add to the world's ever increasing pile of 'glamour' photos, think of some new twist. Study the great photographers, what makes their pictures rise above the mediocre? Usually it's just a question of coming up with a great idea.
Photographing Sports and Action
Action photography requires all the same care in selecting a viewpoint and composition, focusing, depth of field, direction of lighting etc. as any other type of photography, with the added ingredient of split second timing.