Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2014 Jeff Wignall.

"Look deep into nature, and you will understand everything better."


Albert Einstein

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Recover Your Lost Cameras (and Cell Phones)

Knock-on-wood I've never lost a camera or a cell phone (although I lose my cell phone around the house almost daily), but I'm sure it happens to people everyday. Your odds of getting that camera or phone back are, I would imagine, pretty dismal even if you have a name label on it or have your name etched into it. I just discovered a service, however, called TrackItBack that claims to have an 85-percent success rate at returning their members' lost possessions to them.

This is how it works: For a small fee (ranging from $9.95 to register a single cell phone to $149.95 to register 20 different items) you register your valuables with the company and they send you stickers to place on the items. If you lose your camera or lens or cell phone and someone finds it (and sees the sticker) they call a toll-free number and are given instructions for returning the item at no charge. They can even drop it off at a "safe" location (a UPS store, for example) if they don't want to be bothered shipping it.

As a reward for their honesty they are given a quantity of TrackItBack stickers and a free membership to the service. You can also register to give the finder a specific cash award--but it's not required. Does the service work? Apparently it does. Not only do they claim to recover that 85-percent of lost registered valuables, but a television station in Chicago tested the labels by intentionally losing two cell phones in the city--and both were recovered within two hours. There is a news video of the experiment on the site.

By the way, the service works in many places around the world including the United States, Canada, Mexico, much of Europe, parts of South America and South Africa and Australia. And I'm sure the service will grow. It seems like $9.95 is a small price to pay to recover an expensive point-and-shoot camera that you've left in a restaurant or airport. I'm going to contact the company today to be sure the service works for DSLR and larger cameras and if it does I'll register a few of my cameras. They also sell registered tags for your luggage--and that could be a real trip saver!

If you end up using the service and have to put it to work, let me know and I'll publish your experiences.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Follow this Blog

Believe it or not I've been posting to this blog almost daily for nearly eight months. While I've had to skip a week or a few days here and there to take care of writing and photo assignments, by the end of this week I will have posted more than 180 entries. Amazing.

I'm pleased that there are now almost 40 followers to the blog, as well. But according to Google I can grow that number just by asking more people to follow--so let's give it a try. If you occasionally view this blog but don't follow it on your Google home page, you can begin to follow just by clicking on the "Follow" link in the right margin. There is also a good help page on what following means and how you can choose between following publicly or privately.

The main reason that I want more followers isn't so that I can start a cult :) but so that I can see what types of readers are reading the blog, what information might be most useful to them and also so that I can follow their blogs. One of the things I like most about blogging and the Internet in general is just being able to read about other people's lifestyles and interests around the world. And I do read every single profile of my followers (you can find a link to my complete profile in the right margin), mostly just because I'm curious. When I teach online (I'm not currently teaching online but I may go back to it soon), I'm always really happy to see that I have students from all over the world. In once class I had students from something like 10 different countries!

So please, if you have a Google account, think about following this blog. And if you have friends that are interested in photography, show it to them.

About the photo: By the way, I shot the above photo at Lighthouse Park in East Haven, Connecticut with my Nikon D90. This is a beautiful park that is only about 20 minutes from home and yet I've only visited it a few times. The day that I was there I shot around 150 photos of the lighthouse from a variety of different angles over a period of about two or three hours. The park was so beautiful at sunset that I was kicking myself for not having shot there before. I'm thinking of using a half dozen different photos from the shoot in the update of my book The Joy of Digital Photography. All the shots were made the same day and each photo shows the lighthouse from radically different vantage points.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Read More About Mammatus Clouds

In my last posting I talked about photographing an unusual cloud formation after a thunderstorm on Friday. Coincidentally over the weekend I was reading Westportnow.com, an excellent community blog that covers daily events in Westport, Connecticut and to my surprise and delight there was a posting about and a photograph of the clouds. According to the co-editor of the blog they are called "mammatus" clouds and their appearance was so startling that a group of people who were visiting an art gallery reception were lured out to the street to view them.

I'm so glad that others saw these rare and beautiful clouds and that others photographed them. I also found a posting called "Mammatus Clouds Forever" on a blog called Gothamist that includes a great gallery of reader photos! Apparently seeing these clouds in the Connecticut and New York area was quite an event.

I also found photos of them on the NOAA site. I'm really very psyched that I saw these clouds and I hope that I see them again soon. So next time there is a big thunderstorm, get outside and look up--you never know when you'll be part of a cloud photography happening!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Just the other day I posted an entry here on the importance of always "being prepared" and tonight I broke my own rule. Let me tell you what happened.

Earlier this week I read about a huge air show that's happening up in Rhode Island and decided it would be a great thing to shoot for one of my books, so I've spent the past few days getting cameras ready, making a hotel reservation, etc. Because of this my cameras were in my office, packed for the road or getting charged up. It had been stormy all day and, in fact, I had stood out on my sidewalk with a few neighbors, Connie and Joe, admiring the incredibly intense storm clouds that were forming. Just as they left the lightning began and it started to pour. A few minutes later I decided to go out and grab a burger and since it was still pouring out, decided not to take a camera along. Big mistake!

I bought the burger and then went and sat down by the Housatonic River to watch the departing storm. As the storm began to break up, I looked toward the mouth of the river and noticed there was a large rainbow trying to form. It started up and faded about a half dozen times but then the sun burst through the clouds and the rainbow soared up into the sky. To my amazement it formed a perfect arch and I could clearly see both ends at the horizon and the complete arch--a site I don't recall ever seeing by that river before. Oh, and did I mention I didn't have a camera with me? The rainbow was beautiful, but fortunately (for my dignity) it wasn't a brilliant radiant rainbow that demanded to be photographed. Still, with the river full of sailboats at anchor and the dark sky surrounding it, I surely would have photographed it if I could have.

OK, so fast forward about a half an hour. It was time to go home and as I drove up my street I looked up into the sky to see one of the most unusual cloud formations I'd ever seen--anywhere. It looked like an artist had just dabbed the sky with a thousand puffs of white paint--all shaped almost identically and all looking as soft as cotton. I ran inside unpacked a camera and looked out the front window toward the west to see how the clouds were doing--gone! So I went to the bathroom and there they were, scutting toward the southeast and now dipped in a beautiful golden light. I only had time to shoot off a few dozen quick frames before the sun set completely and the light vanished.

The clouds weren't as fascinating looking as they were when they were in the west a few minutes earlier, but still they were very pretty. I shot the two photos here from my bathroom window--not the place where I normally shoot nature scenes from (though I've done it quite a few times). So I didn't get the rainbow shot, I didn't get the puffy clouds, I still managed to get a few interesting shots.

And I learned a lesson: pay attention to your own advice! By the way, I shot the top photo with a 70-300mm Nikkor and then switched to an 18-70mm for the second shot. The top shot looks more like what I saw when the clouds were in the west, but I like the impact of the wider view.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Go on Safari in Your Own Backyard

While traveling to far-off places like Africa or Australia or visiting a national park to photograph wild animals sounds like a lot of fun, it's surprising how much wildlife there is in your own backyard--even if you live in a typical surburban neighborhood. In my little yard in Connecticut I've seen red fox, opossums (lots of them), raccoons, wild turkey, a few kinds of snakes (all harmless), woodchucks, skunks, turtles and even the occasional hawk. And that's not to mention the dozens and dozens of different bird varieties that come to my feeders.

The great thing about photographing animals in your own backyard, of course, is that you don't have to go anywhere to find them. Also, if you've lived in a house for a year or two, you probably already know the animals' habits and when and where you're likely to see them. The raccoons in my neighborhood, for example, rattle the garbage cans almost every night in summer at just about 2 a.m. The bunny in this shot has been my gardening pal for a few summers now. She comes within two or three feet of me when I'm weeding the veggie patch and I'm convinced that she likes human company. Even when I got up to run inside and get my camera the day I shot this photo, she didn't move an inch and while I was photographing her from about eight feet away (with a 70-300mm lens on my Nikon D90) she sat patiently munching the grass.

You can photograph most backyard animals with a DSLR and a moderate telephoto zoom lens or a zoom camera with a good zoom range (how I'd love to have one of those 20x zoom camera for doing this). I've had squirrels eating out of my hands within just a few days and you could probably photograph one of them with a wide-angle lens they're so close. If the animals are a bit more skittish, try baiting them a bit with their favorite snacks. If you hide some peanuts in an old stump, for example, every squirrel in the neighborhood will get the word; try to shoot them when they're not actually eating and the photos will look more natural. Water (bird baths and garden ponds) are another irresistable urge to most birds and animals; try setting up a birdbath or a small fountain in front of a simple background and you'll have a nice outdoor studio.

If you leave an old tripod next to the birdbath (or a bird feeder) for a few days before you plan to shoot, the birds will get used to it being there and it will help them ignore you. Also, shoot from a lawn chair if you can since the birds will probably ignore you if you're just sitting nearby. Inch the chair closer to the food or water ever few minutes and you'll be able to get within feet of them. You might also want to consider an inexpensive remote control (the one for my D90 is only about $15) and then you can operate the camera from a greater distance--some remotes let you work up to 50' away.

Photographing animals at night is a bit trickier, but in a future posting I'll turn you on to an amazing device that includes both sound and motion sensors to trigger the camera so that you can get almost any animal to take their own picture during the day or at night. And it's not that expensive.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Believe the Wildlife Warning Signs

The past few weeks I've been researching a possible trip to Yellowstone National Park this fall. It's a place I've always wanted to photograph and I need photos for a new book so hopefully this will be the year. While I was researching the trip I came across a page on the park's official site that gave some very serious warnings (including a video of elk attacking cars) about keeping yourself safe from wildlife and vice versa.

I take those kinds of warnings seriously (and so should you) because I've seen wildlife in parks do some very unpredictable things. Last year we revisited the Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, a wonderful prairie preserve that has a free-roaming heard of bison. There are signs when you're entering the bison area that warn you that these are wild (and big--they weigh in excess of a few thousand pounds) and unpredictable animals. People take the signs for granted though and somehow think the bison know that you're visitors and they'll remain calm in your presence.

Don't count on it. While we were driving (very slowly) up a gravel road, suddenly we saw a heard of 40 or so bison heading right for us and as they got closer, their pace picked up substantially. Within seconds they traversed several hundred yards and were heading right for our car (and the car in front of us--see the photo) and in a few more seconds we were completely surrounded by huge, snorting, excited bison. I have no idea what sent them off on a tear or why they ended up on the gravel road around us, but to unexpectedly be engulfed by dozens of two or three thousand pound wild animals (with horns) is a weird and insecure feeling. I have almost no fear (but lots of respect) of most wild animals, but this was still an unnerving experience--and we were in a car! I remember thinking that our Ford Explorer probably wasn't much of a match for one of these guys running at full speed. To make things even more edgy, there were a number of babies in the herd and parents are much more unpredictable when there are young nearby.

Fortunately the animals remained very calm and ended up just grazing and feeding their young almost within arm's reach. We sat for about a half an hour watching and photographing them at super close range and wondering what was next. Then, on some secret signal from one of the herd elders, they left as quickly as they'd come.

If you're traveling to a wildlife refuge this summer, pay attention to the warning signs, even if other people don't. Your lives and the animals' depend on it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Cultivate Flower Photos, Visit a Botanical Garden

If you like to photograph flowers and plants but don't have the time or room for a garden at home, consider making a trip to a local botanical garden. Even if you do garden a lot at home, you'll get to see things at a botanical garden that most home gardeners could simply never grow and in quantities that are extraordinary. Wherever I travel in the world, in fact, one of the things that I seek out are the local gardens and botanical collections.

Most gardens have two types of displays: formal outdoor gardens and indoor conservatories. Longwood Gardens just south of Philadelphia, for example, has around 1,000 acres of outdoor gardens and more than 4.5 acres of indoor gardens! In fact, the conservatory contains more than 5,500 different types of plants growing in 20 different gardens. Another favorite haunt of mine is the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and it features 250-acre landscaped acres, 50 curated display gardens, a 50-acre native Forest and more than a million different plants--all waiting to be photographed. I photographed the water lilies shown here at the NYBG in one of several nice reflecting pools behind the main conservatory (I also photographed a family of 11 baby ducks in the same pool).

These are some of the big guns, of course, but I've found wonderful small gardens in places like Corpus Christi, Texas and Tucson, Arizona and I've even got a small but terrific rose garden in a park just up the street from where I live. Wikipedia has a great listing of gardens organized by state and odds are you'll find one that's within a short drive. Don't forget to check YouTube, also, you're sure to find lots of videos of formal gardens and botanical parks.

One other thing that I like about photographing in a botanical garden, by the way, is that they usually have a staff of gardeners who work continually to deadhead old blooms and weed the gardens so that you don't have to worry about a great shot being ruined by a few raggedy blossoms. Even better, you can ask the gardeners lots of questions about how they keep the gardens looking so nice.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Live the Boy Scouts' Motto: Be Prepared

I have a good friend who works as a lawyer in New York City and sends me lots of photos from his cell phone. Dismal as cell phone photos are in quality, he has a great eye for the little oddities that make life interesting--old billboards, funny signs, snippets of daily life and even the occasional incredible sunset. I hate to think of him careening through the streets of the Bronx with one eye on the road and another on the cell phone screen, but it appears that a lot of his pictures are shot from his car window. Safe driving aside, his photos make a great point: we all encounter tons of quirky little photo ops almost every single day and all you need is a good eye and a handy camera to capture them.

That's the secret to a lot of good photography: always have a camera with you because you can never predict when a great photo will reveal itself to you. I shot the photo above in Rhinebeck, New York while driving through a pretty neighborhood, admiring the fine older homes. I spotted the bicycle/flower planter in front of a small inn and just stopped the car in the middle of the block to shoot it; fortunately it was a slow street and no one was behind me. Fortunately too, I had a good camera on the seat next to me and the right zoom lens all waiting to go. Maybe it's pure laziness, but I'm not sure if I hadn't had the camera ready to shoot that I would have bothered stopping to get the camera out to make the shot. The photo has since turned up in at least one of my books, several of my online lessons and it's been popular on Flickr, so I'm glad I did make the photo.

While I hope you won't be one of those people that I give dirty looks to for talking on (or heaven forbid shooting pictures with) their cell phones while driving, you can still keep a camera with you wherever you go. You might not want to drag a DSLR with you every time you go out to the supermarket, but there are lots of high quality digital point-and-shoot cameras that will fit in a shirt pocket. They make a great second camera. Or you can do what my friend does: just shoot with your cell phone and email pictures to your friends while you're stopped in traffic.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Improvise Lighting for Night Subjects

The night-blooming cereus is one of the most beautiful and mysterious flowers I've ever seen. The flower blossoms are the size of dinner plates, they have a heavenly scent and one of their most fascinating qualities is that the blossoms only bloom for one night and then they're gone.

I have several large cereus plants growing in pots in my yard and you have to pay close attention as they get ready to bloom, because they only start to indicate (by a curling of the flower stem) that they're going to bloom on the night they bloom and they don't begin to open after dark. Then by dawn the huge flower heads are folded up and hanging limp from their stems.

Normally I try to keep a close eye on the plants and try to predict when they'll bloom, but this night I was taken totally by surprise when I went out to check on its progress after midnight and found this blossom almost totally open. I took this shot at 3 a.m. and because I wasn't expecting it to flower that night, I didn't have the energy to design and set up a real lighting plan. Instead I brought out an odd mix of small lighting components and reflectors and improvised a somewhat Rube Goldberg-like lighting set up. I tried just shooting with the built-in flash on my Nikon D70s for the first few shots but the light was, predicatbly, very flat and even. So I think placed a small Morris Digital Mini Slave Wide (it operates on AA batteries) behind and under the flower to separate the rear petals a bit. I also placed a silver-foil reflector (just aluminum foil on a sheet of foam board) in front of the flower to bounce some of that light back into the face of the flower.

The shots were better, but the blossom still looked kind of flat. Since the flower looked like it was at its peak and I didn't want to go find a better flash set up, I just grabbed the flashlight that I was using to find may way around in the darkness with and tilted its adjustable head to toward the flower. Because it had a fairly focused beam, I was able to point the flashlight across the center of the flower and just light individual petals. It's that flashlight that is creating the warm highlights toward the center of the bloom. It still wasn't the best lighting job I could have done, but at 4 a.m. with raccoons skittering around me and a skunk digging grubs in the next yard a few yards away, it was all the effort I was going to make.

Every year I promise myself that I'm going to design a multiple-flash set up and give these incredible blossoms the lighting they deserve, but every year the night they blossom takes me by surprise and I end up improvising again. But don't discount your ability to light things acceptably, even nicely, with whatever you have at hand--slaves, flashlights, penlights--they all provide light. Whatever your night subject is, all it takes is a little experimentation, some fresh batteries and a stick to keep the raccoons away and you'll create some really interesting night shots.

In an upcoming posting I'll introduce you to some of the coolest night photos that you'll ever see--and tell you about the fascinating guy that shoots them. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reflect on Less Conventional Compositions

In some ways photography can be a very literate graphic medium: if you aim the camera at a sailboat passing through the sunset everyone will look at your photograph and know exactly what you had in mind when you shot it. But just how obvious your subjects are is really up to you--they can be literate and straightforward, or you can spin them slightly into the abstract.

One way to turn away from reality a bit is to literally turn away from your subject and look for its reflection. You can find reflections in some of the most unexpected places--shiny car fenders, polished car hubcaps or even in the surface of a puddle after the rain.

I shot the photo here in Galilee, Rhode Island (a beautiful New England fishing village if you're looking for one too shoot) during the peak of a very colorful sunset. But after spending about 20 minutes watching the sunset get more and more intense and framing it against very common subjects like the rigging on fishing boats and a ferry boat passing by, I wanted to find something that would capture the color and drama of the sunset in a dramatic but more freeform way. As I walked along the pier between giant fishing boats, I noticed that the sunset was reflecting in the almost quicksilver surface of the water and so I tried to shoot photos of just the reflection--but something was missing. The shot could have been made anywhere and I wanted it to have some connection to the locale.

Then as I came out between two boats tied to a narrow dock, I saw this rope hanging down into the sunset from the side of a fishing boat and it was exactly what I was after. I don't know if anyone else gets the sunset/fishing boat connection, but because of the snippet of the boat in the shot, I'll never forget where I shot it. The waterline stripe on the boat and the rope bring back the moment perfectly for me. I've made other similar shots of reflections to get the same effect--once photographing the Eiffel Tower in the reflection of a tour-bus window and another time photographing neon signs reflecting in the windshield of a car in Las Vegas.

Sometimes turning away from your subject and looking for reflections is the best way to find new viewpoints. Not everyone will appreciate your flights into whimsy, but who cares. It's a great exercise in expanding your creative reach.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Indulge Your Wanderlust

I love to travel. In fact, as much as I like hanging around the house and poking around my garden on a summer day, there is no single thing I'd rather do with my time than see other places. I think I can lay the blame for this on my mother who also loved to travel and who handed me a copy of John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley when I was about 15 and looking for something interesting to read. The book, which remains one of my all-time favorite reads, documents several months that Steinbeck spent wandering the back roads of America at age 58 to get back in touch with the country and the people that he had been writing about for so long.

In his travels, Steinbeck avoided interstates and major named routes and instead traveled the "blue highways," the roads that crisscrossed America before the major routes were built. While he had a general idea of where he was headed, he more or less made up the trip from day to day. Photographically, that is my favorite way to see a place--to just throw a cooler of food in the trunk, ignore the maps as much as possible and go where the road takes me. (Fortunately I have a girlfriend that is just as much of a back-road wanderer as I am.)

I'd never been to the Amish are of Pennsylvania before when I took the above photo. We'd spent a few days at Longwood Gardens south of Philadelphia and just decided to explore the Amish farms on the way back to New England. Most of the roads in that area didn't even show up on the maps, so we just drove until we hit a head end or we intersected another road (one of the main towns in the area is called Intercourse--named, I assume, after a joining of roads). We spent one very long day driving past the most beautiful farms I'd ever seen, buying fresh produce from farm stands and just relishing a landscape without commercialism. The area is so photogenic that I was finding great photos in all directions; I shot hundreds of pictures in one day. We never looked at a map until the late began to fade and we started looking for the highway north.

When you plan your summer vacation this year, work in a few days to indulge your wanderlust. Some of the best photo locales in the world are in the places you only discover by exploring.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Liberate Static Subjects from the Center

When it comes to consistently composing interesting photographs, we all have to fight our bad habits. One of the things I constantly have to fight against is my tendency to simply place subjects smack in the middle of the frame. It's surprising that I'm so susceptible to this because I think one of my best talents in photography is having a good eye for composition.

I think part of the reason that I fall victim to this so often is that I grew up with cameras where the metering and focusing indicators were always in the middle of the frame--so it became necessary to put the main subject in the middle, at least temporarily, to frame and meter it. Today, of course, most cameras have matrix metering that covers the entire frame and multiple focusing indicators so that no matter where the subject is, the camera will meter and focus correctly. But, hey, old habits die hard and I still find myself nailing things to the middle of the frame.

Creatively speaking, however, the center of the frame is a dead zone. Because your subject is surrounded by equal amounts of space both horizontally and vertically there is no spatial tension, no sense of impending motion on the part of your subject. Your subjects just hang there in the middle like the bullseye of a target.

Over the centuries artists have devised methods for finding more dynamic and pleasing subject placements. The most familiar of these, of course, is the "rule of thirds" that you've surely read about. To use this method you simply divide the frame into both horizontal and vertical thirds and then place your main subject at one of the intersections of those lines. The red-wing blackbird shown here, for instance, is roughly at the point where the left third line (vertically) and the bottom third line (horizontally) intersect. It's a simple method for off-center subject placement and it really does provide a good mental guide for subject placement. Some cameras even have a grid on the focusing screen though I think that's a bit of overkill--the rule of thirds is a creative guideline, not a precise instruction.

Another method that many artists used is a somewhat more complex (but related) design technique that is based on the "Golden Mean" or the "Golden Section" as it's sometimes called. The principle is based on a mathematical ratio that, again, divides the frame into a pleasing gridwork into which you can place your subjects. Entire books have been written about the Golden Mean and it's a fascinating subject. Watch this YouTube video for a very basic summary of using the principle as a design tool. For a more mystical look, watch this video.

Taking the main subject out of the center of the frame will immediately improve almost all of your photographs and you'll find yourself creating much more interesting and pleasing designs.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Get Serious: Use a Tripod (Part II)

Now that I've got you convinced that it's time to buy a tripod (see previous post), let me give you some of my specific reasons why you need one--at the very least so that you can explain to your spouse why you need to spend more money on yet another photo accessory.

  • Sharper pictures: Obviously this is one of the primary reasons for owning a tripod. No matter how good your image-stabilization system is, a tripod is better because it lets you shoot sharply at any shutter speed. (By the way, in most cases you should shut stabilization off when you're using a tripod because otherwise the camera make make pictures less sharp rather than more--I'll explain this in a future post.)
  • More Shutter Speed Options: Using a tripod makes all shutter speeds (even time exposures) available to you. You could never take a shot like this 28-second exposure of a Ferris Wheel without a tripod--just can't be done. Similarly, if you want to create the "ribbons of water" effect in a shot of a waterfall or to create traffic streaks at night, you can't do it without a tripod. City skylines at night without a tripod? No way.
  • Depth of Field Control: Getting extensive depth of field (near-to-far sharpness) should be a primary consideration in most types of photography (like landscapes) and unless you're shooting in bright sunlight or raise the ISO to a noisy level, you can't shoot at f/16 or f/22 without a tripod--especially as the light grows dimmer (twilight, cloudy days, misty days). I can't count the number of nice landscapes that I've ruined by not having enough depth of field before I dedicated myself to using a tripod. You can't shoot a landscape with edge-to-edge depth of field (see the previous post) without a tripod.
  • Exposure bracketing: Exposure bracketing allows you to shoot three (or more) rapid exposures of the same scene with one press of the shutter button (in continuous shooting mode). But you will never get the exact framing in all three shots unless you have your camera on a tripod. You'll have three different exposures with three slightly different compositions--what is the point of that?
  • High Dynamic Range Imaging: And speaking of making bracketed exposures, that's a required part of HDRI, a popular technique that consists of taking multiple identical compositions each at a different exposure setting. There's no way to align those frames exactly without using a tripod.
  • Panoramic Stitching: While I've done some panoramic stitches shooting hand held, that's a very experimental way to shoot. If you really want a high quality pan shot, the camera must be mounted on a tripod.
  • Slower Pace: This is, to me, one of the most important reasons for using a tripod: it slows you down. Very often photographers put quantity ahead of quality--thinking that more pictures of a subject means better results. I'd rather get one great carefully executed shot of a landscape than 20 "almost" shots.
Using a tripod forces you to consider all the elements of a potential shot: exposure, depth of field, sharpness, creative shutter speed and it lets you consider using special techniques like HDRI. By the way, it also takes the burden off of your shoulders when it comes to holding equipment all day. Personally I'd rather haul a tripod into the field for 10 minutes than try to shoot with a 400mm hand held for hours on end without one.

There, I've given you my tripod lecture!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Get Serious: Use a Tripod (Part I)

When I was about 20 years old, I was going through an intense period of frustration about the lack of progress my photography was making, both technically and creatively. My poor parents had to listen to me vent this frustration late nights as I would sort slides on a light table and fling the rejects (somewhat violently) around my bedroom like miniature Frisbees. One morning my father (also a photographer) said to me, "You'd like your photographs a lot more if you learned to use a tripod every time you shoot."

He was right. I had nothing to lose and so gradually (it wasn't an overnight thing, trust me) I started hauling a tripod around with me. The pictures got better, but still I would go through periods of laziness and rather than slow down and set up the tripod, I'd take the easy way out. Years later I came across a wonderful book by my now friend Bryan Peterson called Learning to See Creatively and I was really stunned to read that he used a tripod for almost every single photograph in the book. I was so impressed by the quality and creative genius of Bryan's photography that I decided to devote myself to using a tripod every time I took a picture.

Again, there was a quantum leap in the quality of my photographs--only this time I got the idea through my thick head: the secret to improving your photography is to use a tripod as often as you can. Today I wouldn't think of going out to shoot photographs without a tripod and even if I'm traveling I always take a substantial tripod. In fact, I'd rather leave a lens or two behind to save weight than leave my tripod.

To be honest, I don't think you can be a serious photographer unless you use a tripod most (OK, not all) of the time. I would guess that I use a tripod for 90-percent of my photographs and when the shot is very important, I use one 100-percent of the time. In fact, if I'm not using a tripod I feel downright lazy and I know I'm not giving the subject the full attention it deserves. I know that I'm not being serious about getting the best shot (and there is no quality I hate worse in myself than laziness). And if I find myself starting to get lazy, I remember those hundreds of nights in front of the light table cursing myself for the photographs that were "almost" good enough--but not quite.

"But!" you'll scream. "Tripods slow you down!" Or: "You can't photograph a birthday party indoors with a tripod!" Or "I have image stabilization, I don't need a tripod!" Yes, most tripods are a pain to carry, all but the most expensive graphite tripods are awkward and heavy. You're also right, photographing a family party with a tripod would probably be more of an inconvenience than it's worth (though I'll bet you'd get better quality photos if you did). And image stabilization is a wonderful thing (where was it when I was photographing rock concerts six nights a week at 1/30 of a second!). But image stabilization is no panacea, it's only designed to give you sharper images at marginally slow shutter speeds and that's all. It won't let you make a 10-second exposure of traffic flowing through city streets at night and it won't let you create multiple images to stich a panorama perfectly.

In the next posting I'll tell you exactly why you need to own and use a tripod--and why it's not as painful as it sounds.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tell Them it's a Fake (Unless You Like the Mail)

What? You've never seen a photo of a blue flamingo before? Not surprising since I created it in Photoshop and this beautiful pastel bird never really existed. Unfortunately, I haven't always been particularly clear on that fact since I first started using it as decoration (and only decoration) on my website. I assumed people would know it was a fake just by looking at it, but oh how wrong I was. In fact, I've never had a single photo get as much attention as this goofy late night creation.

I have used the photo in a Photoshop tutorial and obviously people seeing it there know it's a fraud because I'm telling them how to create it. I've also posted it on my Flickr stream and I'm always careful to say it's just a fake and that there's no such bird. I took it down from Flickr because it was getting ripped off on a daily basis and I had to write a lot of letters to tell people that they were stealing (perhaps without know it) a copyrighted and registered image. Apparently a lot of people don't read captions too carefully on Flickr either, because even though it was identified as a Photoshop creation, about once a week I would get requests from bird photographers asking me where I found this unique and wonderful bird. I even had one person offer to pay me to tell them (wow, how tempting that was).

Creating the image was easy by the way. I simply selected "red" from the pull-down menu (the flamingo was a sort of salmon pink in reality, of course) in the hue and saturation tool box and sampled the red color with the eyedropper tool. Once I'd sample a few different red tonalities in the bird, I just used the hue slider to change the color. The background stayed natural looking because there was no red in it--thus I ended up with a "blue" flamingo with in natural-looking surroundings. And I think that's the reason it draws so many double takes: it just seems so real.

To be honest I think a lot of people (me included) wish there was such a beautiful bird species hanging out on a Caribbean island beach, but there's not. It reminds me of the colored chicks that some farmers used to sell around Easter time. They would inject the egg with food coloring and, for a few days at least, the chicks would come out in pretty shades of pink or blue. I don't imagine anyone still does that, but I could be wrong.

I really don't mind all the email about the shot, but I feel terrible when I can tell that it's a young kid writing to me and I have to disappoint them with reality. But I do tell them that blue flamingos can always exist in their imaginations--along with green flamingos, orange flamingos, yellow flamingos--and mayb even a striped variety. I suppose I should caption the photo on my website, but I'd probably miss the letters. Still, I am careful to caption the photo as a fake when I post it anywhere beyond my site--but like I said, I'm not sure anyone reads the captions (or maybe they just choose to ingore them!).

Friday, June 5, 2009

Look Through Normal Eyes (Optically Speaking)

Since I've talked about the fun and creative aspects of using extremely wide and extremely long (telephoto) lenses, I should probably also take a minute to appreciate the simple beauty of the normal lens. Normal lenses are those that (in 35mm equivalent terms) range from about 45 to 55mm in focal length. They're called "normal" because they closely approximate what you see when you look at the world when you don't have a camera pressed against your face. In other words, normal lenses closely match the angle of view that you see with the naked eye.

Since most of us own cameras with zoom lenses (either attached or as accessory lenses) and since digital cameras don't have a standardized sensor size, knowing exactly what is normal, optically speaking, isn't as simple as it was with 35mm cameras. But if you are using a point-and-shoot camera, you can assume that the most normal/moderate setting is probably halfway through the zoom range. So if you have a camera with a 5x zoom, when you're in about the mid-point you're probably pretty close to normal. If you have a moderate zoom that came with your DSLR (my D70s came with an 18-70mm, for example), the mid-point is about 44mm or about 66mm in 35mm equivalent, making it just a bit on the long side of normal in 35mm terms. The numbers aren't really that important, it's just knowing that normal for your moderate zoom is somewhere between the extremes.

Historically there have been some master photographers that actually preferred the view through a normal lens. The great color-photography innovator Ernst Haas (one of my personal photographic heroes, by the way), for example, used normal lenses for much of his work because he felt that extreme focal lengths altered the world too much and he wanted to show the world they way that it really looked. While he never restricted himself to normal lenses, of course, he appreciated (and spoke often of) the familiar beauty of "normal" when it came to lenses. Haas felt that if you wanted to get closer to a subject or make it smaller, you should just change your vantage point. One of his more famous quotes is: "The most important lens you have is your legs." Much of the beauty of Haas work to me is that I feel as if I'm seeing exactly what he saw with no optical interpretation (or exaggeration) at all.

When is a good time to use a normal focal length setting? Sometimes the shot tells you. I spotted this lamppost in Camden, Maine right after I had parked my car and was heading into a deli for lunch. The composition of the flower basket and the lamppost just grabbed me immediately and that made the focal-length choice easy: I knew that I wanted the composition to reflect exactly what caught my eye with no optical exaggerations. In 35mm terms the focal length was set to 55mm--completely normal.

I think that before you can hope to understand the creative beauty of having many different focal lengths available to you, you must take time to look through normal eyes--yours and your camera's.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Zoom In On Distant Subjects

In the last posting I talked about the advantages of choosing an ultra wide-angle lens as your second DSLR lens. The other option (and the opposite end of the optical spectrum), of course, is to buy a longer telephoto zoom lens. Lenses in the 80-200mm or 70-300mm range make a great addition to a DSLR kit because they provide you with the ability to reach out and snatch great close-up shots of distant subjects like sports and wildlife.

Remember that with the cropping factor of a DX-size sensor, you're really working with a lens that's 1.5x longer than the stated focal length. So for example, if you buy a 70-300mm lens, in effect what you're getting is a 105-450mm lens. In fact, that's exactly the lens that I used to photograph this great egret in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, Florida. While I used to haul my very heavy (and very expensive) 400mm f/4 single-focal-length tele (which required it's own heavy case since it is too big to fit in any shoulder bag), I now bring my affordable, small and lightweight Nikkor 70-300mm lens and not only can I shoot at 450mm (with a one-stop slower maximum aperture of f/5.6--that's one small drawback), but I'm now shooting with a zoom and I can tweak the focal length at will. When I use the 400mm lens, I'm stuck with just that one focal length.

If you've never had the fun of working with a long telephoto zoom and you like shooting things like sports, animals or even kids running around the park, you'll love owning one. Of course, I almost always use long telephoto zoom lenses on a tripod (in fact, as I've said a million times here, I almost always use a tripod, period), so you should realize that shooting with a 450mm lens is not something you want to do handheld. I know, you can (and probably should) buy long telephoto zooms with vibration reduction, but I still prefer a tripod. Keeping a bird like the egret in the frame with a long lens often requires watching it for hours at a time and even with a lightweight zoom, hand holding it for that long is no fun.

Adding a long telephoto zoom really extends your shooting range a great deal with other subjects, too. If you want to make the sun look really huge in a sunset, for example, having an 80-200mm lens (again, 120-300mm effectively), lets you really compress space and makes the sun look the way you see it in caldendar and postcard shots. In fact, I use my 70-300mm lens more than any other lens in my kit--especially when I'm traveling. And between that lens and the lens that comes with a lot of kits (say an 18-70mm), you're covered from 36mm to 450mm with just two lenses and that is an extraordinary range of focal lengths.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Add a Wide-Angle Lens to your DSLR Kit

Other than asking me what camera they should buy, the question I get most from friends (and students) with DSLR cameras is: What lens should I buy next? Most people buy their DSLR as a kit these days and that usually includes a fairly substantial zoom lens that covers a range from moderately wide angle to moderate telephoto. These lenses are typically lightweight, fast-focusing and, for the optical range they cover, offer a lot of flexibility.

The larger issue for me is that these lenses are restricted to a fairly moderate (i.e., creatively safe) optical zone. You get a moderate wide-angle lens through a moderate telephoto lens range and that's it. I much prefer working with optics that are capable of providing a more extreme view of the world--either extremely wide-angle or extremely telephoto. Let's look at wide-angle lenses first and in the next posting I'll talk about teles.

Most consumer-level DSLR cameras have a DX sensor that is about one-third (in terms of diagonal size) the size of a 35mm frame of film. One of the byproducts of having a digital sensor that is smaller is that, because the sensor is only seeing the center of the lens' coverage, the focal length of whatever lens you're using is effectively longer. This magnification is called the cropping factor. Typically you have to multiply the focal length of a lens designed for 35mm by a factor of 150% (it varies by camera and sensor) to get the effective focal length. (And again, I'm only talking here about cameras that have a smaller sensor; lenses used on digital SLRs that have a full-frame sensor provide the same coverage that they would provide on a 35mm film camera.) This is great if you're a telephoto lens user (if you often shoot wildlife or sports, for example), but not so great if you like using very wide-angle lenses.

If, for example, you're using a 24mm lens--which provides a stunning wide-angle view on 35mm--you're working with what is effectively a 36mm lens on a DSLR. That's only a moderate wide-angle at best and is actually closer to a "normal" lens. In order to get really wide-angle effects with your DX-sensor DSLR you'll need a much wider lens. I recently bought a 10-20mm Sigma ultra wide-angle lens and I love it. In terms of 35mm lenses it provides the angle of view of a 15-30mm lens and so restores the ultra wide-angle view that I'd get with a lens in that focal-length range. Nikon makes a 12-24mm lens that provides coverage equal to an 18-36mm lens on 35mm and Canon's EF-S 10-22 USM is approximately the same.

The beauty of a really wide-angle lens is that it exaggerates spaces like crazy and can elongate shapes and provide a much greater feeling of depth in all kinds of photos from landscapes to still lifes. I shot the photo of the old freight train show here (shot in Greenville, Maine) using the Sigma 10-20mm lens specifically to exaggerate the shapes and length of the train cars. Look at how that near car seems to be looming over the rest of the train and really draws the eye into the composition.

If this type of visual exaggeration appeals to you, you might want to consider adding an extreme wide-angle lens to your DSLR kit. I would suggest getting something that offers a minimum focal length in the range of 15-22mm (in terms of 35mm coverage), so 10-15mm in the DX lens format. (I wouldn't go for a "fisheye" lens as your first ultra-wide lens, but I will talk about those in a future posting.) In the next posting I'll talk about the advantages of adding a more extreme telephoto lens.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Protect Your Images with Copyright Notice

You've probably noticed that all of the photos I post in this blog (and anywhere else) have a copyright symbol and my name or web address--and so should yours. It only takes a second to add a copyright notice and, while it certainly won't stop someone from ripping off your images, it might slow them down. Also, if someone intentionally deletes or hides your copyright notice, it shows intention to commit a crime.

I'm definitely not an expert on copyright, but I do know that the moment you create a photograph (under United States of America law, anyway), that photograph is copyrighted in your name. Technically you don't have to register each image with the copyright office, but there are benefits if you do. If someone uses one of your photos without your permission after it's registered, for example, you are entitled to statutory damages and legal fees, in addition to being compensated for usage fees (without registration, you would only get compensation for the usage). And you don't have to register each individual photo, you can group your images together and register them for one fee; putting 100 images on a disc and calling them "Collected Works of Jeff Wignall, Volume I" for example. The United States Copyright Office has a great website that explains the laws very clearly.

Legalities aside, however, there are multiple benefits to putting your copyright notice in your images. For one, it discourages people (well, some people) from just casually downloading and using your images for their own purposes. Personally, it's OK with me if a college kid uses one of my sunset shots as their wallpaper, but if someone uses one of my sunsets on their website, they'll have to negotiate it with me first. Also, putting your name on your photos shows that you have a certain pride in your work. You see names on everything these days--including the company name on the side of the sea plane in the shot here, so why shouldn't your photos carry your name?

You're probably noticed, however, that there is no "©" (copyright) symbol on your keyboard. So how do you put a copyright symbol in your work? If you're using Photoshop (and Photoshop Elements is the same, I think) and a Mac, it's easy. Just click on the type tool and then hold down the option key and type the letter "g" and that will produce the symbol. If you're using Windows (and I know almost nothing about Windows), it's a bit more complicated: Holding down the Alt key, press 0169 and that should produce the symbol. I've read on a few forums that you might also need to press the "Fn" (function) key at the same time and also, you need to use the numbers keyboard when typing 0169.

You can also find the copyright symbol in your extra characters palette, which you can find next to the volume indicator on your top tool bar on a Mac, or by finding the Windows Character Map on your Windows machine. You can then just click (or double click) or copy/paste the symbol where you need it. By the way, if you're a Windows user and I've got this wrong, send me an email or post a comment and I'll correct it.

Also, if you are using a different editing program, there is probably yet another alternate method--just use the help screens and you should find it no problem. I try to be discrete about placing the copyright notice in my images and I know that that makes it easier for someone to clone it away if they have larceny in mind, but again, cloning out a copyright notice with intent to avoid paying for an image is a serious crime. On some images, pictures that I know might be in high demand (like some of the popular musicians I photograph), for instance, I put the symbol in a place where it's more difficult to alter--even putting it across the face if I think it's needed. But for most images, I think a subtle notice in a corner makes the point.

Read this Wikipedia article to learn more about copyright issues.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Include Interesting Reflections

Like almost everyone, I've always loved the great photography that is published in National Geographic and I've learned a lot by studying how they were made and what made the shots so special. One of the first National Geographic photos that made a huge impression on me was a photograph of a sunset in a church window in the midwest. I don't recall who the photographer was or where exactly the shot was made, but the photographer did a beautiful job of showing a colorful sunset sky reflected in the simple window of a small-town church. Since then, I've always made it a point to try to find interesting or colorful reflections in windows, especially when the subject itself was somewhat low-key and simple.

The shot here is a worker's shack at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park (see yesterday's post) in Florida. I shot it very late in the day and the sun was behind the building, so that the front of the building was in almost complete shadow. I liked the shot but it was kind of bland from most angles. But as I explored more I began to see that from certain angles the palm trees and a barn behind me were being illuminated by the late afternooon sun and reflected in the shack windows. Beautiful! Once I knew that I wanted that reflection I just kept moving until I got a colorful but simple pattern of reflected light in the window.

And yes, I did boost the reflection's colors a bit in Photoshop using the hue/saturation tool. I used the individual-color pull down menu (at the top of the hue/saturation tool box) and "pushed" the yellow and green a bit to make the reflection pop. There is a tutorial about saturating individual colors on my main site.

By the way, finding the best place to stand to get a good reflection is easier if you remember a little bit of high school physics and the laws of reflection: the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. If you were to draw a perpendicular line straight out from the center of the window and then stood to one side of that line, whatever you saw reflecting in the glass would be (on the opposite side of that line) at the exact angle that you are standing from the window. Here's a really simple diagram that explains it. And you thought all those hours napping in your high school physics would never come back to haunt you!