HDR – my take

It seems that now-a-days, one can’t visit a
photo sharing site without seeing wall-to-wall “HDR” images.  Everyone
and his brother has written a “how to do HDR” tutorial.  What is
interesting is the visceral reaction this technique evokes.  People
either think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread or a godawful
technique that mangles images and degrades the “art” of photography.

(The photographic equivalent of black velvet Elvis posters, only without the kitsch appeal?)

I partly understand the animosity to HDR, or at least where it comes
from.  Because it’s easy to do, and produces dramatic results (note I
did not say GOOD results), I feel it is often used as a crutch to try
and make a mediocre image more interesting.  Boring landscape?  run it
through an HDR program and “oooh and ahhh” at the supersaturated colors
and compressed range (not to mention the halos, glow, and probable loss
of sharpness).

I’ve also seen some incredibly beautiful images that incorporated HDR techniques

Bottom line, the way I see it is:

HDR is a post-processing
technique, just like b/w conversion or curve adjustments or split
toning.  If used judiciously and in moderation it can be very effective
and give added depth and impact to your photos.  If misused/overused it
simply becomes a generic “fotoshop filter” technique that mangles
images beyond recognition (mostly images that weren’t all that good to
begin with) moreso, it is often used as a crutch to mask sloppy
exposure/metering technique. 

The most effective uses of HDR that I have seen are subtle.  Used
as a tool to retain highlight/shadow detail in high-contrast scenes it
can be very effective (i.e. take 2 images, one metered for highlights and
one metered for shadows and combine with HDR processing when there is
simply too much dynamic range in a scene to capture in one exposure). 
Most of the time though, it is hard to tell that this is even “HDR”
since it often lacks the supersaturated “punch” of the 5,6 or even 9
image composites.  The danger comes with the “more is better mentality”
– same thing happens with image sharpening in Photoshop i.e. if 20 sharpening is good, 40 must be twice as good. 

so to all the aspiring HDR-ists out there remember: use a light hand
applying the technique, your images will thank you, and dont forget, it’s only
one technique out of many!

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For all us off-camera speedlighters…

From Rob Galbraith

This guy (David Honl) makes and sells several useful light-modifiers for speedlights (snoots/gobos/barndoors) (LINK)

this is great for folks doing “strobist style” off camera lighting using speedlights… and the prices aren’t bad!

the strap that the attachments hold on to is also great for attaching gels to the flash – just stick 2 pieces of Velcro onto the gel (cut to fit) and bam…

Definitely worth looking at for someone looking to build a portable/light “lighting on location” kit.

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The iPhone as portable portfolio?

So I think I may be the only guy on the planet who hasn’t been particularly obsessed with the iPhone. Yeah it’s definitely a cool toy, but I have a nice treo already, and plus the iPhone doesn’t connect to MS Exchange, AFAIK…

what I realized after reading some of the reviews/articles about it is that it might just make an incredible photography accessory.

The huge, high rez screen combined with iPhoto integration means you can use it to store/show images. I imagine you could make it into a virtual portfolio, segmented by “gallery” – set up a few albums in iPhoto, sync them to the phone and now when you are talking to a potential client interested in your work -BAM- you can pull up the appropriate album (wedding/product/modeling/stock/landscape/ whatever…) and show them on the spot.

Kinda like the epson p-2000 only better (since you can separate out galleries/albums and it is a phone/pda/portable computer in addition to a sideshow viewer!)

Definitely a step up from just handing a business card and hoping they visit your website!

But is it worth 600 bucks just for that? That remains to be seen…
Oh yeah, and being as this is apple, I’m definitely going to wait for the 2nd gen. 🙂

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid…

It seems that for the past few days everyone in the photo-blogo-sphere has been in a tizzy (don’t you love that expression?)  about the newly proposed legislation in NYC to require photographers/videographers to get a permit and 1,000,000 of insurance to shoot *in public places*

I’m sure you’ve read the news by now, but if you haven’t here’s the article.
(LINK-opens in new window)

Now I’m not one to run down the “oh noes tehy are taking our RIGHTS” path but this bugs me, so I’m going to throw my .02 in.

There have been numerous court cases brought against “public photography” and *every time* the courts (up to the supreme court) have ruled that photography in a public place is protected speech under the first amendment.  Putting arbitrary restrictions on photography in public, is essentially just an excuse to get around that pesky “free speech” thing when it is inconvenient.  (i.e. – we can’t say that “taking the picture” is illegal, so we’ll say that “standing in one place with the camera for too long” is illegal)

Now you say this legislation is not intended to restrict or censor private photographers, it’s just intended to prevent congestion/disruption by large film crews?  Fine.  that’s how it’s *intended* (you know, road to hell and all…)  But I ask when a law that is so easily abusable *has not* been abused???

consider:  the proposed law seems to be worded so vaguely that if you and your buddy are standing there with a pair of cameras chatting for too long, bam, you are in violation.  Set up a tripod to take some night shots or architecture?  BAM – violation.

It essentially gives law enforcement (and by extension, politicians) carte blanche to disallow any kind of photography/videography *that they don’t like* – effectively silencing any kind of independent media that is “undesirable”.

Consider, hypothetically: the city of NY doesn’t want Michael Moore exposing some of their “not-so-above-the-table” dealings on… <something>.  Under the proposed regulations, they can simply confiscate his cameras, and arrest him and his crew.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with Moore’s views, and I think his films are blatant propaganda and intentional distortions of the truth *at best*.  HOWEVER – I ALSO believe that the government/city of NY has NO RIGHT to prevent him from filming them.  Pesky free speech and all… unfortunately applies even to opinions that you don’t like.

Another unforeseen ramification: this would prevent any independent media from covering any kind of political protest (too many people gathered with cameras for too long…)- ensuring the only coverage that reaches the masses is pre-sanitized, and approved by the “mainstream” outlets.

the potential for abuse is enormous, if the legislation is, in fact, as I understand it.

now this rant is straying dangerously close to a political diatribe so I’ll quit, but I think we can all agree:

If a law is vague enough to be abuseable it WILL BE ABUSED. no matter how noble the intentions are. 

Shoot fireworks like a pro!

Philly Fireworks #1

Independence Day is coming up, and that means fireworks shows! Now admit it – we’ve all been guilty (at one point or another) of whipping out a little pocket camera and snapping away at the fireworks, handheld, in P mode, probably with the dinky little on-camera flash going too. Yeah, I’ve done it too…


with a little effort and a bit of technical know-how you can go from blurry, underexposed, globs-of-color-on-film shots to beautiful, crisp, rainbow bursts that will be the envy of your friends and neighbors! (grin)

(note: a lot of the techniques here are similar to the ones in my article on photographing lightning, so you may want to read that as well (LINK -opens in new window))

First things first:

most of this will be assuming you are using an slr/dslr. You can shoot fireworks with a pocket digicam, but it is harder. If you have one with manual controls, most of this info will apply, but pocket cams have never been known for good long/low light exposures so YMMV.

you will need:
1. a camera (duh). at least something that lets you control the aperture and has a “bulb” mode (meaning the shutter stays open as long as the button is held).
2. a tripod. we’re talking exposures of several seconds, it is impossible to hold the camera steady. Tripod is a must (the sturdier the better to cut down on “mirror slap”)
3. a cable release. used for bulb mode. Note that most wireless remotes will *not* do “bulb”, only set exposures. There may be some out there that do, but most likely you will need a *corded* remote release.

Now, on to the specifics:

first, set up your gear. make sure the tripod will not be disturbed/bumped during the exposures. Set up the camera on the tripod, attach the cable release. Frame the anticipated “action” area.
Before the show starts, put your camera in Aperture priority mode and take a few “test” shots to determine a good exposure, (I prefer slightly on the dark side). I like to adjust it to an aperture that will give me a decently exposed image at a shutter speed of about 2-4 seconds (since this is usually about how long I open the shutter with the release.) this isn’t an exact science, it’s just to get a rough estimate the the aperture needed for your approximate exposure time. Since the actual bursts of light will expose regardless, we are basically just calibrating the exposure for the ambient light here. Once you are comfortable with the exposure, leave the aperture set as it, and switch into M (fully manual) mode. Turn the shutter speed all the way down until it goes into “bulb” mode. Now you can manually control your shutter – when you press the button down on the cable release, the shutter will open, and stay open until you let go of the button. This way you can exactly control when the exposure stops and starts.
note: make sure you camera is set to manual focus, else you will lose shots while it “hunts” for a focus lock. Most likely focus will be set to infinity, but if you are really close/have a long lens you might need to adjust. Regardless, get it set and leave it.

There is a “rhythm” to photographing fireworks, once you get the feel for it, it’s pretty easy to “anticipate” the exposures. You can usually hear the rocket going up, a second or two before it bursts. This is when I like to start the exposure. Hear the rocket – CLICK – burst – wait a second or two for the “trails” of the burst to expose – release shutter. That’s basically it! I find most of my exposures are in the 3-5 second range. As the show goes on you will probably adjust your aperture, or even set a “preset” exposure as you find the “pattern” of the show. Either way, you still generally want to be starting your exposure right as the rocket goes up before it bursts. The exception to this is when the show gets really “intense” and many rockets are going at once, it can be difficult to tell by sound alone. In these cases, hopefully you have a general idea of the exposure needed, and I will sometimes just set an “average” exposure and just keep clicking the shutter. Kind of “spray and pray”, if you will 🙂


What lens to use?
– this really depends on 2 things: how far away from the action you are, and how tightly you want to frame the shot. Farther away = longer lens, closer = wider. The examples on this page were shot with an 85mm lens (equal to 127.5mm when using a 1.5x crop camera, like most dslrs) I was about 4 blocks away, shooting from a balcony of a high rise apartment building. I like a pretty tight framing, as it allows the actual fireworks to dominate the picture, rather than extraneous elements, so I tend toward longer rather than wider.

Framing the shot / vantage point
This is a matter of personal taste, but I like to include the surrounding scenery in my shots to give “context” to the fireworks. (As opposed to pointing the camera up an having just the bursts against an empty sky). Usually the best way to do this is to get to a high point, so you have an unobstructed view of the surrounding area. I happen to be lucky in that my apartment’s balcony looks out over the Philadelphia Art Museum (where the fireworks show occurs), So I’ve got a great vantage point without leaving the home. But even if you don’t you can probably find something. If you live in an urban area, many high-rises have roof decks that make great spots. Tops of parking garages are also good. If you’re in a rural area, this might not be as much of an issue, since there is probably more space, and less “stuff” to get in the way of the shot, but a high vantage point is still good.

– The clearest shots often come at the beginning of the show, and after pauses in the shooting (of fireworks that is, not photos!) this is because the accumulated smoke will either not be too bad yet, or have had some time to dissipate (respectively).

-Speaking of smoke; if possible, is is advantageous to set up in an orientation where the wind is blowing at a 90 degree angle to your position. This way, the accumulated smoke from the rockets will blow out of the picture frame as quickly as possible, leaving less to “muddy” your shots.

Capturing multiple bursts.
– A cool trick if you are using bulb mode is to capture multiple bursts in one exposure. Basically they way you do this is to use bulb mode to keep the camera’s shutter open, expose one burst, then cover the lens with something to block out extraneous light, but *keep the shutter open* until the next burst, uncover the lens to expose the burst, re-cover it and so forth…

The trick here is to have something that will block light out of the lens, but NOT TOUCH IT, as the vibrations of bumping/touching the lens will ruin the shot. One common method is to use a black/dark colored baseball cap – the “bowl” of the cap will block light from entering the lens without touching it (this is what I do). You could also use a black piece of cloth, a black cardboard cylinder with one end capped etc…

Basically the sequence goes like this:
– As the first burst starts, expose normally using bulb, however, when the burst ends, instead of releasing the shutter, leave it open and with your other hand, cover the lens with your cap/coth/whatever, being careful not to bump/touch it.


-As the next burst starts, remove the covering for the lens, expose the burst.

Repeat as desired (note,you may have to close down the aperture for these kinds of shots to compensate for the increase in ambient light over the length of the exposure)

Finally when you have enough bursts, release the shutter to finish the exposure.

I hope these tips help you all get the most out of your holiday fireworks pictures. Photographing fireworks is not all that difficult once you get the hang of it, and can yield some spectacular results.

Enjoy the holiday everyone!
philly fireworks 2

Snap O’ The Day – 6/27

Taken on the south shore of Bermuda. I was trying to do a seascape that avoided the standard “vacation-snapshot-landscape” cliche’s when I saw this rock face with a hole eroded through it. I loved the geometric feel of the slanted striations, and the glimpse of the sea through it – I got up real close with a wide angle lens, frame the sea through the “window” and took the shot. I think it came out rather well.

Photographing Lightning.

Lightning 1

I love storms. I love the scent in the air as one approaches. I love the feel of “electricity” in the air. I love the lull right before, and I love to watch the rain “break”. But most of all I love lightning. The awe-inspiring spectacle of a lightning storm truly makes one appreciate the raw power and beauty of nature. Like I said, I love storms (as long as I’m not stuck out in one without an umbrella)! Now maybe you like storms too, and have tried to take some pictures of lightning bolts, only to discover that this is easier said than done!

Taking pictures of lightning is like photographing fireworks, only harder.

a bolt of lightning appears only for a fraction of a second, it is entirely unpredictable in shape or intensity, and you have no idea where one will appear. Not to mention that a lightning storm, usually including pouring rain and wind, is not the best environment for camera gear!

Still, photographing lightning can be a very rewarding pursuit and can yield some spectacular images! Here are a couple of techniques and pointers to get the best out of your lightning shots

1. A camera. More specifically, a camera where you can control the aperture and shutter speed manually. Some pocket cameras can do this, but a dslr will most likely yield better results (pocket cams generally aren’t that great at long exposures).

2. A sturdy tripod. necessity. Lightning shots involve long exposures, and you need something to hold the camera steady. The tripod should be as sturdy as possible, since where there is lightning, there is likely wind. Cameras blowing over = bad, generally speaking.

3. A remote release. As mentioned, we are dealing with long exposure times, so vibrations become a major issue. A remote shutter release (wired or wireless) will help cut down on vibrations be removing the physical button press on the camera. Alternatively, if your camera has a 2 second timer that does “mirror lock up” (ie the camera raises the mirror, waits 2 seconds, then opens the shutter) you can use that to eliminate “button press induced vibrations”

4. Some way of keeping your gear dry. Pretty self explanatory; water and electronics don’t mix. If you are fortunate to have a “weather sealed” camera and lens, this may not be as much of an issue, but generally you’ll need some way of keeping the camera dry. this may be as simple as wrapping a plastic bag around it, or as expensive as a custom underwater housing. Personally I like to just set up under an awning/overhang or some enclosed space to stay dry (I happen to have an enclosed balcony off my apartment, so that works well!)


photographing lightning is best at night or dusk, since we need long exposure times, and during the day there will probably be too much ambient light to achieve these. You can try using neutral density filters, but YMMV.

First, set your camera to the lowest ISO, generally 100 or 200. This may be counter-intuitive, but since we are opening the shutter for a long time, we need to prevent too much light from overexposing the image.
Next, pick a relatively small aperture, most likely f/11 or greater. Again, this will allow the long exposure times needed to increase the chance of capturing a bolt. Bear in mind though, that if the aperture gets *too* small, image quality will begin to suffer due to diffraction effects. I find f/9 through f/16 usually work for me depending on the level of ambient light Now, identify where most bolts are striking in the sky, and aim the camera in that general direction. Frame it up however you want. I generally like a wide angle lens to maximize the field of view.

Calibrate the exposure time. Once you’ve set your aperture, you need to find a shutter speed that will give you a good ambient exposure. I generally start with about 6-8 seconds, depending on ambient light. Check the LCD/histogram, and adjust from there. You want to wind up with an aperture/shutter combination that will leave you enough time to capture a bolt, yet expose the rest of the image properly too. I am usually shooting from my balcony in the city, so there is a lot of artifical ambient light. I usually wind up with an exposure of f/9-f/11 @ between 10-15 seconds.

Another thing to consider when deciding on exposure time is that the longer the exposure, the longer it takes to process (in many cases). This is because most dslrs use a noise reduction method called “dark frame subtraction” that increases the time to write for long exposures. The longer the exposure, the longer you get stuck “writing” and can’t take more images. This can become very frustrating, as Murphy’s law states that the best bolt of lightning will always strike *right* after your exposure finishes, while the camera is processing. Turning off noise reduction will alleviate this problem, but you may start getting a lot of noise in the images if they get really long. On my camera exposures of 10-15 seconds (what I normally use for lighting) are not a problem even with NR off. Test it both ways, YMMV…
Now you’ve got your exposure set, just start shooting! As long as a bolt hits within the camera’s field of view while the shutter is open, you’ve got a lightning photo! Yes, it’s a lot of hit-or-miss. I probably average 10-15 exposures for every bolt I capture. You can of course maximize your chances by shooting when the frequency of strikes peaks, and determining which direction most of the strikes seem to be coming from.

HAVE PATIENCE. photographing lightning takes a lot of patience. You will probably miss far more than you “hit”. You will lose tons of great bolts while your camera is processing, or pointed in the wrong direction. Keep at it, and don’t get frustrated. Eventually you will get a shot that will make it all worth it.


If you have ever used a cable release for your camera, you are probably familiar with the “bulb” mode. This simply means that when you press the button on the release, the camera’s shutter will stay open as long as you hold down the button. I generally use this method for photographing fireworks, but not for lightning – why? With fireworks, you know exactly where they are going to occur (more or less) and you can even anticipate the timing with a bit of practice. This lets you get into a rythm of longer or shorter exposures, depending on the “flow” of the fireworks show. With Lightning, on the other hand, you have no way of predicting it – it’s pretty much entirely click and pray (after you’ve set up to maximize your chances, of course). In this case, I find it better to simply adjust the shot for the ambient exposure, and let the bolts fall where they may!

And of course, the standard silly disclaimer: I am not advocating anyone going out and standing anywhere in a storm. If you get hit by a bolt of lightning, it’s not my fault 🙂

I has a bukket! (an analogy for the basics of aperture, shutter speed and exposure)

As I frequently find myself in the position of advising friends/folks getting their first dslr, I am often trying to come up with good ways to explain the basics of photographic exposure.

Here’s a good analogy that I’ve come up with (yeah, I’m sure others have come up with the same idea- sue me.) I know this may be basic for some of you but here goes anyway.

First off: some basic concepts – aperture and shutter speed. Pretty much everything in photography comes down to these two things.

Most everyone understands shutter speed- it is simply the length of time the camera “opens up” to let light in to the sensor/film. It is represented in fractions of a second (1/10th of a second, 1/20th, 1/40th, 1/80th and so on).

Aperture is also fairly straightforward: it is simply the size of the “hole” in the lens that lets light through – the wider the whole, the more light gets through to the sensor, the smaller the hole, the less gets through. Aperture is also represented by a number, often called the “f-number” or “f-stop”. These don’t seem to be as logical as shutter speed, you will generally see apertures of 2.8, 3.5, 4, 5.6 etc… (there is a mathematical reason for these though, although it is beyond the scope of this article). Generally all you have to remember is that the smaller the number, the bigger the hole – i.e. an aperture of f/2.8 means the hole in the lens is wide open to let as much light as possible in, whereas an aperture of f/22 is practically a pinhole – a tiny dot of opening. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but just remember it 🙂

Ok, now concept #3 which is also slightly counter-intuitive: there is only one “amount” of light that will give a “correct” exposure. Just hold that thought.

On to the analogy:

Imagine the camera is one of those 5gal Rubbermaid buckets, and the light that exposes the sensor is water from a hose.

Now there are 2 ways you can fill the bucket – you can either do it with a small garden hose or with a fire hose.

The garden hose has a small opening (think: aperture) so less water come through, ergo it takes more time (shutter speed) to fill the bucket.

the fire hose is a huge diameter opening, (aperture) so a lot of water comes through very quickly (shutter speed) and it fills the bucket in no time at all.

In both cases though, you still get 5 gallons in the bucket – the only difference is that in one case you are using less water over a longer period of time and in the other, you are giving it a huge blast of water very quickly. However, it is still the same amount in both cases.

This is essentially the basics of exposure – you are “filling up” your camera’s sensor with light. There is a set amount that you camera needs, and you control that by determining how long you will let it “fill up” and how big the hole is that the light gets through. The smaller the hole, the longer needed to fill up the bucket, the larger the whole, the less time needed.

That’s it – that wasn’t so bad, huh?

Now if you think about the above relationship – it is an *inverse* relationship – i.e. as the diameter of the aperture increases the length of time needed (shutter speed) decreases, and vice versa.

Further, it is a linear inverse relationship – i.e. if you let twice as much light in (double the size of the aperture) you need half as much time (shutter speed) and vice versa.

In other words, if you adjust your shutter speed from 1/10th of a second to 1/20th of a second you are halving the exposure time, therefore you must double the aperture to get the same exposure.

Now of course, you are asking – so what? Why is this important? The answer is, plenty of time it’s not. A great deal of the time, you can simply leave the camera on “fully auto” mode and let it determine the correct shutter speed and aperture for you. However much of the creative control in making a photo comes from manipulating these two variables, and they both have effects on how the final picture will look. As one progresses in skill and *wants* to have more direct control over the end product, it becomes critical not only to understand the concepts of exposure, but also to understand how they affect the image.


P.S. Yes, I know some of my definitions/explanations are not *technically* precise, but this is simply trying to be a basic explanation. there is plenty of time for esoteric nuances down the road…