Seeing the full moon rise above the treetops as I worked in my garden yesterday evening reminded me of this shot I took last summer at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, so I went and dug it out to share. Photographing the full moon is actually pretty easy: just use the longest lens you have (I used a 70-300mm Nikkor which is the equivalent of a 450mm when it's fully zoomed on my Nikon D90 body) and put your camera on a sturdy tripod. You must use some kind of a land reference (here just a snippet of dunes at the far side of a small bay) in order to provide some sense of scale for the moon--otherwise it's just lost in the sky and you can't tell how big it looks. As far as exposure goes, I trusted my D90's matrix metering for this shot, but I did shoot in RAW so that I could adjust the exposure and white balance after the fact. I did tweak both, but only a small amount (I made the sky a bit bluer and I brightened the shot about one stop). The great thing about shooting a full moon is that you get a few days where it's pretty full each month--and you get a new chance each month!
If you're thinking of upgrading to Adobe Photoshop CS5, which was just released this month, or if you're thinking of buying the full version of Photoshop for the first time, there's one accessory I highly recommend: Colin Smith's new instructional DVD Photoshop CS5 Secrets for Digital Photographers from Software Cinema.
Using a new full version of Photoshop, even if you're an experienced user, is like learning a new language and, if you're a first-time user, it's like learning about a whole new universe--it's just staggering how much is crammed into this program. To try to learn all of the new features by just sitting in front of a monitor and experimenting is interesting, but it's also slow and very inefficient. The Software Cinema DVDs are the best of the best and they're incredibly easy to follow. Short of having a one-on-one instructor sitting beside you, it's simply the best way there is to learn Photoshop. Best of all you can pop in the DVD whenever you have a few minutes or watch it over and over again as often as you need, or when a new question pops up.
This DVD contains more than seven hours of personal instruction and the advanced interface allows you to instantly jump to any of the 64 lessons with complete control over the playback. I've been using Software Cinema DVDs for years and each one is better than the last--and if you've been reading this blog for the past two years, you know that I rarely, if ever, talk about specific products. But I answer so many questions about Photoshop each week that I know how frustrating it can be to try to learn such a massive program on your own. You'll learn more from this training DVD in 10 minutes than you would on your own in 10 hours. The disc sells for just $99 and there is currently a 15% discount being offered (I think it's through the month of May). Take a few minutes to check out the otherCinema Software training DVDs while you're on the site.
One of the keys to creating a strong composition is, naturally enough, letting your audience know exactly what your intention was when you were taking the picture. If someone has to ask what it is you were trying to show, dude, you've missed the boat somewhere. One of the simplest ways to give your photos more impact is, interestingly enough, to make them simpler. And, of course, one way to simplify any picture is to get closer to it. The question is: What is close enough? Ahh, that's where concepts turn into judgments calls: it's up to you to decide just how close you want to be (or not be).
When I spotted this photo idea at the very nice Caramoor Museum and Gardens in Katonah, New York, I knew almost immediately that I wanted to shoot this big urn. And I knew that I wanted that beautiful and ornate gold and black gate in the background to be a part of the shot. So I composed a shot (using my tripod, naturally) to include the entire urn and most of the gate. Nice shot. It looked nice on the LCD and I still like it. But then I thought that putting those geraniums in the foreground might be creating too much of a distraction and diminishing the impact of the gate. So, poof, I zoomed in a touch and got rid of the flowers. What the heck, as long as I had the original shot I wanted captured, I might as well shoot a bunch of variations.
As it turns out, it's a good thing I did. I'm using the middle shot above in the revision of my book The Joy of Digital Photography (Lark Photography Book) and while we tried to use the top shot first, the reds and greens were giving the printer trouble (too much saturation, partly, but also just very strong contrasting colors) and so rather than just try to tweak that file, we chose the middle shot. With the reds and greens gone from the foreground the shot will almost certainly reproduce better.
The third shot was just a variation that I thought might be useful in a lesson (like this one) to show that even when you think you are close, you can still take a giant step closer--and still come up with a nice shot. I call it the Giant Step Theory (well, actually, I just thought of that name, but you get the point). While the gate is completely gone and there is no real foreground, it's still a neat shot and in some ways I like it the best. One small step for you, one giant step for your photographs.
Is any one of these shots better than the other? It really depends on the use and what you like (or what you like at the moment--my preference on this keeps changing). But since digital is free and since you only have to move a few feet (or zoom a bit more) to give your self a variety of options, go ahead, shoot the wide shot and then take a giant step or two forward....as long as you're not shooting from the end of a dock.
Because photographs only exist in two dimensions (height and width) and have no depth (the third dimension), it's important to emphasize textures to give photos a "touch" factor. There are all kinds of textures that can be brought out in a photo, from the slippery smooth surface of wet seaweed to the rough surface of a gravel parking lot. Bringing out the texture is largely a matter of getting close enough to it so that it shows clearly and then using lighting to exaggerate it. Light that comes from the side or the rear of your subject works best because that kind of oblique lighting creates lots of tiny shadows and highlights and it's that contrast that draws out the surface quality of subjects. Sometimes top lighting will also draw out textures, as long as the angle is steep enough. For example, I shot this old peeling carving of a Chinaman with the light coming from almost directly overhead and the lighting created a lot of shadows running down on the face--under the eyebrows, nose, lips, etc. And by filling the frame with just the face, the eye is drawn naturally to the textures. If you're bored someday while shooting, forget about subjects and go look for a texture--you might find that the texture alone is a good enough subject.
Although we tend to think of gardens and sunshine and photography as going well together, in fact, the best time to photograph most gardens and most flower close-ups is on cloudy--even rainy-days. The problem with shooting on bright sunny days is that, as cheerful as they are, that bright sunlight tends to burn out the highlights of light-colored blossoms and it also creates a lot of contrast. Contrast is one of the toughest things to control in terms of exposure, so the more you can avoid it, the easier your life will be. I photographed this peony blossom in one of my side gardens and it was just starting to rain when I made the photo. A few things pushed me into making the photo at this particular moment: one was that I knew that the blossom was at its peak and that a heavy rain would probably destroy the flower (it did). But also, I'd been watching this plant for days hoping for a great shot, but the light was always so bright that I couldn't hold any detail in the petals. The heavily overcast sky of a rainy day was just what I'd been waiting for and it gave the peony a beautiful rich pink color with a minimal amount of contrast--just perfect conditions.
There are some tricks I could have used if I'd really needed to shoot on a sunny day (like putting a diffusion screen between the flower and the direct sun to soften the light), but I really just wanted a "straight" shot made with no extra gear. That decision was part laziness but also, I was using the picture to illustrate a book for beginning photographers--and they weren't likely to own diffusion screens (or the light stands to hold one), so it seemed more honest to shoot the photo in the simplest way possible. Anyway, even though it was raining when I spotted the blossom, I knew that it was a "now or never" shot and so I hauled out the tripod, set up the camera and shot. Good thing I did--the next morning the blossom was completely misshapen by the pounding rain that came during the night and I would never have gotten the shot. The thing I like most about the picture, ironically, is the soft light of the very heavy overcast skies.
So next time you get a cloudy day, head out to the garden and do some close-up work--you'll be pleasantly surprised at how uniformly nice all of your exposures are and just how much color saturation you get in the flowers.
If you'd like to know more about the lighthouse in this post (and the previous one), then visit Jeff Wignall's Travel Guide: Great Places to Photograph. I started that blog years ago, then like most bloggers, I spread myself too thin with too many blogs abandoned it. But with summer here, it's time to put on your travelin' shoes, so that blog is back--we'll see how much energy I can muster to keep it going. Check it out once in a while though, because traveling to new places is one of the reasons we're on this earth--yes? By the way, you'll notice that this shot is different but almost identical to the one in the previous post (different people on the beach, for one). What does that tell you I was using in the way of a photo accessory? Oh, those of you who yelled out TRIPOD! step to the front of the line! Another reason for using a tripod: You can set up a scene and then wait for things to change (for people or animals to walk into a scene, for instance) without losing your composition. You can buy a nice tripod for less than you think--check out this nice lightweight unit from Manfrotto: Manfrotto 7302YB M-Y Tripod with Ball - Replaces 725B.
Last week I showed you a quick example of what a photo looks like when you add a texture overlay layer to it in Photoshop and I thought I'd explain the process in just a bit more detail. It's really a very simple procedure and it can create some very fun and interesting effects. If you do any kind of graphic arts work or design brochures or newsletters, using texture overlays can be a nice way to customize an otherwise ordinary shot--making a new photo look old, etc.
Basically you only need two things to create the effect: a photo that you want to add a texture too and a texture layer. You can either create your own textures by photographing interesting textures (a piece of canvas or fabric, a close-up of barn siding, a rusted old metal sign surface, etc.) or you can buy them. I bought the texture show here from the FloraBella Collection--they're inexpensive and beautifully done (and you get them in 300 dpi, so if you need to reproduce or print your photos, you'll have all the resolution you need). The set of textures that I bought had three different versions (cold, warm, B&W) of 25 different textures--so 75 textures in all at full resolution for $40. A steal if you ask me. But again, you can easily create your own and that's a fun learning experience. If you are shooting your own textures, try to use side lighting because that will bring up the three dimensionality or "nap" of the textured surface.
To combine your photo and the texture simply open your photo and the texture (separately) in Photoshop (or another editing program) and then use the move tool to drag the texture onto the photo image. Then use the opacity slider (top right of the layers palette) to adjust the density of the texture until you get the level of texture that you want. In the shot above I used an opacity of 29%. You can then also play with layer-blending modes to further enhance the blend (though as I recall I just used the "normal" blending mode for this shot). I did crop the image a tad after combining the two layers.
If you look at the three images above you'll see a) the finished combination b) the before photo and c) just the texture. One thing you have to be sure of is that you have both your original photo and the texture set to the same resolution and color space. Color space usually isn't that big an issue since and I just override the texture's color space to match it with the photo (you'll get a warning screen automatically that will do this for you). If the texture happens to be larger than the photo, you can move it around (again, using the move tool) until it "sits" on the photo where you want it. When you have the image you want, flatten it in that position (or lock the two layers) so that you don't move it around accidentally.
Creating the right positioning and opacity is really a very visual and instinctive thing and it's a lot of fun to play with the various blending modes. The thing I like about the final image here is that it gives the lighthouse photo a kind of "found" old postcard look--like the kind of image you might find while going through a bin of old snapshots at a yard sale.
Any questions, just post a comment and I'll get to them. By the way, unrelated note, I saw my book Exposure Photo Workshop on an Apple iPad MB292LL/A Tablet (16GB, Wifi) the other day--Wow, is that cool! I've already decided to write my next book for iPad and Kindle only--no print version! No trees will die for my next book!