This is been, without question, the hottest summer than I can remember for years. I love heat, so no complaints from me, but living without a/c often sends me out cruising the cool nights seeking a cool breeze. But as any experienced cruiser knows, if you're going to drive around aimlessly, you have to have some sort of destination--however vague--otherwise you're just, well, driving around. One way to feel slightly less useless and still give yourself a nice cooling ride is to look for a good night subject to photograph.
My favorite night subject, of course, is neon. Unfortunately, at least where I live, there's not a lot of really interesting neon out there--but there is some. I actually shot this sign a few summers ago to use in my book Exposure Photo Workshop: Develop Your Digital Photography Talent. It remains one of my favorite local signs (and I drove by last weekend but forgot to even notice what condition it was in) and it's a real throwback to those great 1950's motel signs that you used to see everywhere.
Photographing neon is easy and you can get great shots with any camera. The trick is to fill the frame with just the neon sign and then trust the metered exposure. I shoot in the RAW format 100-percent of the time these days, so I can adjust the exposure and white balance after the fact, which is great. But if you're shooting in jpeg, you can give yourself similar exposure leeway by using the auto-bracketing feature and bracketing exposures by a full stop in either direction. (By the way, if you don't have an auto-bracketing feature, you can just use exposure compensation to add/subtract a stop or more on either side of the metered exposure and you'll get the same result.)
Next time you're suffering through a hot night, toss the tripod in the backseat, load up the camera (don't forget to charge the batteries!) and give yourself a neon challenge. If you don't find a great sign, well, you can always photograph the line at the Dairy Queen. And hey, as long as you're at the Dairy Queen...
One of the more fun blogs that I read and subscribe to is the DIY (Do it Yourself) Photography blog founded by a very inventive guy named Udi Tirosh. It's one of the most interesting and fun photo sites you'll find and they'll teach you how to build almost anything photographic yourself--and a heck of a lot more cheaply than if you went out and bought it. This week they ran a fun piece on how to build a homemade scanner/film copier from a couple of toilet paper tubes, some tape and a filter--and it looks to me like it would work! Go to the article and you'll see another view of what this homemade gizmo looks like. And while you're there, subscribe to their blog!
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
In the last posting I talked about photographing fireworks using a tripod, remote release and time exposures. Oh, bother. Who (besides me) wants to go through all of that nonsense when what you really want is to just go have some fun at the local fireworks and maybe come home with a few nice snapshots. Last year I went to three fireworks shows and I think I was the only photographer there with a tripod (and I kept hoping no one would trip over a tripod leg in the dark). OK, I admit it, taking a tripod to the 4th of July fireworks is a bit of a pain.
But fear not, there is a simpler way to get good fireworks shots and it has worked so well for me that, believe it or not, unless there is a really important foreground that I want to include (see yesterday's photo) I just leave the tripod in the car and shoot hand held. I still feel insecure and unprepared without a tripod (as I would in almost any situation--especially at night), but I'm sure with time (and therapy perhaps), I'll get over it.
The method for photographing fireworks using a hand-held camera is simple: just raise the ISO speed to around ISO 800 and put the camera in the automatic or programmed exposure mode and shoot. Piece of cake. Even at that fast speed, however, you may find yourself shooting at slower shutter speeds than you feel comfortable with. There's an old rule for deciding what is a safe hand-held shutter speed and that is to invert the focal length of the lens and use that fraction as the lowest shutter speed you can safely shoot without a tripod. If you're using a 100mm lens, for example, try not to shoot at a speed slower than 1/125 of a second (the closest speed to 1/100 on most cameras).
Of course, with image-stabilization technology you can probably sneak by using a shutter speed even two or maybe three stops slower than that. So, again, if you were shooting with a 100mm lens, you could probably (probably) shoot safely with a shutter speed of 1/30 or even 1/15 second. (The traditional sequence of shutter speeds in that range is: 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, etc., but many digital cameras have additional in-between speeds, as well.) I was not using image stabilization for the shot above, but managed to get a pretty sharp picture at 1/8 second because I was resting the camera on the open window frame of my car.
The wider the lens you use the better your odds are at not chopping part of the bursts off and also at capturing large bursts. I shot this photo with an 85mm lens (127mm equivalent in 35mm, roughly) which is kind of long, but I was shooting from the roof of a parking garage that was a bit far from the actual event. Still, it took me a few wasted shots to figure out just the right zoom setting to fill the fame without a lot of black space.
In terms of exposure, I've had pretty good luck using the auto-exposure modes. My D70s and D90 bodies amaze me at being so accurate in such tough situations. But if the fireworks seem to be getting over-exposed, reduce your exposure either by using exposure compensation or by switching to the shutter-priority mode and reducing the shutter speed. I try to keep the lens at about f/5.6 or f/8 and only adjust the shutter speed.
Experiment. The beauty of photographing fireworks (and almost any night subject) with a digital camera is that you can check your compositions on the LCD immediately and make the necessary adjustments in both exposure and framing.