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

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."


Robert Frost

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Crank Up the ISO for Night Shots

For those of you who don't live in New England (or watch TV news) we had a bit of a blizzard here this past weekend. Considering that nothing (at least nothing I know about yet) blew off my house and the snow was powdery and easy to shovel, it was actually kind of a fun storm. The wind howled mercilessly and at times I thought the entire house was going to get lifted off its foundations and dropped in a snowy Oz. It didn't.

It was too cold and windy to go out shooting the day after the storm, but by that night I was really restless to shoot some pictures. I noticed the little spiral tree on my front lawn looked pretty from my office window (on the second floor), so opened the window and tried to get a shot. There was a small bookcase in the way, so I couldn't get a tripod close enough to the window to frame the shot I wanted. There was also a roof overhang in the way, so I actually had to lean out of the window (keep in mind it was about 15 degrees out and the wind was still howling) to get this shot using a 70-300mm Nikkor zoom on my D90 body. But the only light was from the tree and so, without a tripod to steady the camera (the lens has no image stabilization), I had to use the max ISO of 3200. I have rarely had to use that speed before, so it seemed like a good experiment anyway. But even at that top ISO speed, I had to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/60 second (at f/4). And trust me, steadying the camera on a snowy window sill with the wind hitting me at 40 mph was still an adventure. Luckily I don't think any neighbors were watching in the middle of the night.

I think the quality of the shot is pretty good considering the high ISO. I can see noise pretty obviously in the snow at the bottom of the frame, but it's not a distraction. And the colors in the lights themselves are pretty true to their real colors. So, while I would probably not use such a high speed as my first option, when the situation calls for it, it's nice to know I can go there. Of course, some cameras claim a top ISO of 100,000 these days (for shooting what exactly--bats in a cave at midnight?), but 3,200 did a good job here. The next evening I went outside and shot the same tree (from street level) on a tripod at ISO 200 and that shot is posted below--you can tell me if you see much of a quality difference. (It is better, no question--but the question is: by how much?) I'm going back out tonight to shoot it from the street with a longer lens--I'll play some more then!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice...and a New Mark Borax Book!

What an unusual bunch of events on the winter solstice this year! Within 24 hours we had: the winter solstice, a full moon and a total lunar eclipse. My astrologer friend Mark Borax must be going nuts with the possibilities up in Vermont! And speaking of Mark, he has a brand new book out Cosmic Weather Report: Notes from the Edge of the Universe.  I've read some exceprts using Amazon's "Look Inside" feature and it appears to be another fascinating book from Mark. Mark co-authored the book with his mentor, legendary astrologer Ellias Lonsdale. If you (or any friends) are interested in what's happening--astrologically-speaking--in the Universe around us, I'm sure you'll get a lot of out this new book. Ellias and Mark provide a really in-depth and very readable look at current and future astronomical events.

Of course, I personally pay more attention to the particular alignment of my cats' whiskers as they sleep in the recliner, but that's just me. But seriously, I've known Mark almost as far as I can remember in life and I know that he is deeply connected to the Universe in ways that most people probably couldn't conceive until they have known him a while. If there is anyone I trust to deliver a weather report from the Cosmos, it's Mark.

Fine, but how about some photo talk Wignall! OK! This shot was taken at Peck's Mill Pond (where, one summer night long ago, Mark and I sat in my car on the way home from a night of cold beer and blues in Westport and watched the Raven Inn burn to the ground) in Stratford, Connecticut last year during a spring snowstorm. (I actually think I blogged about this shot once before because I had to remove a beer bottle floating in the water--but it was 40 years after the fire, so I don't think it was a beer bottle we left behind). But here's the tip for this photo: I really wanted the shapes of the trees to create a bold pattern and to stand out against the snow--and, in particular, to pop out of the reflection. So, I first used curves in Photoshop to set the dynamic range (contrast) to hold detail in the highlights, but I still wanted more bite in the shapes of the trees. The simplest way was to use the "selective color" tool (you'll find it buy clicking on the half-circle shape at the bottom of the layers palette) and select the "black" color channel. Then I increased the black by about 70% (sliding the slider to the right). That provided a lot more black in the dark shapes without affecting any other part of the image.

You see, I can still talk about photography when I have to! I  think Frank was beginning to doubt me! And jumping back to the Universe: Hey, we get a few more minutes of daylight each day for the next three months! My father used to say that by Lincoln's birthday there is light in the sky until 6 p.m. (which was the time he drove in the driveway from work every day). Thanks Pop! That little marker in the world of daylight gets me through the dark cold days of December and January!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Crash Course Book in "Top 10" Amazon Photo Books

I'm not sure what caused the sudden surge in sales, but the book that I wrote that is based on this blog Jeff Wignall's Digital Photography Crash Course: 2 Minute Tips for Better Photos (Lark Photography Book) made it to the top 3,000 books (among all books) on Amazon today. And it landed in the "Top 10" of all photo books. In other words, it's a bestseller. As I said, the book grew out of this blog and it features roughly 150 or so tips that each began as a posting on this blog. The tips were expanded in most cases and I added extra illustrations, but the real genesis of the idea was this blog. What's really amazing to me is that the book is selling even better than my flagship book, The NEW Joy of Digital Photography (Lark Photography Book). Go figure! The Crash Course book was reviewed this week on a few blogs--including a major photo blog in Australia--so perhaps that is helping. In any case, I love having another bestseller! I'm sure you can find it at the local Barnes & Noble if you are looking for a last minute gift (and who isn't?).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Life lessons from "It's a Wonderful Life"

I just happened to stumble on this interesting article today called "Lessons in Manliness from 'It's a Wonderful Life.'" Worth a read. Don't worry, we'll get back to photography eventually. Or not.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Give a Gift to the Homeless

At 
this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually 
desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and 
destitute.
Ebenezer: Are there no prisons?Sometimes the best way to help yourself is to help others. At this time of year, especially here in the northeast, it's brutally cold even for the walk from the car to the front door. Imagine living outside in this weather. Every day. I found the article below online and I'm reprinting it here (without permission, I'm sure the author won't mind) exactly as I found it, with all the links, etc. Please read it. And if you have an extra pair of gloves in the house, toss them in your pocket or your car and next time you see someone who might be spending their winter on the streets, stop and hand it to them. I know this has nothing to do with photography, but how are you going to see great pictures if the homeless people around you are invisible?

Be selfish, give a gift to a homeless person 

by Doc Gurley

Both gratitude and altruism are good for your health and there's nothing like giving a gift to a homeless person to help you experience both. Here are some easy, practical, cheap ways to be selfish and give a gift to a homless person.

This time of year, no matter what your worldview, religion or culture, it's hard, as you hurry past the homeless huddled on the street, to not feel like Scrooge. Whether you're taking your family to the Nutcracker, or pounding the pavement for a job yourself, walking past so many shivering mounds of human misery takes a toll on the psyche. Maybe your kids are tugging on your arm, asking why can't something be done? Maybe you (like so many of us) just don't feel comfortable handing out bits, or even wads, of cash. So what can YOU do to make a small difference? Here, folks, is the Annual Doc Gurley Homeless Gift Guide, with tips for how you too can safely give an affordable, life-saving gift to the neediest among us. Because when it comes to the homeless, that's when, truly, The Giving Is Easy. And once you see how simple and rewarding it can be to drop a gift with a homeless person, be sure to pass the word along. Email friends, post your efforts on Facebook or MySpace. Put together gifts to have in your car for those awkward moments when you're waiting at an intersection, staring at a scrawled "anything helps, even a smile" cardboard sign. It will change the whole tenor of your life.

At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute. Ebenezer: Are there no prisons?

Still feeling reluctant to throw together a homeless gift? Keep in mind that, when it comes to your health, studies show that acts of altruism benefit YOU - your life satisfaction, your overall level of contentment, and even how long you live. If altruism was a drug, it would outsell Viagra.

Still not convinced? Channel some of your Niner frustration into a slightly different competitive arena. Hey, we've got to do something to redeem our city's good name - in the compassion-for-the-homeless nationwide stakes, San Francisco and Berkeley won top slots for Meanest Cities in America.

Still not convinced? Well, when it comes to gifts for the homeless, I'm not exaggerating about that life-saving part. How often can you give a simple gift, for less than 5 bucks, that can actually save the life of someone you pass each day? Now that's effective gifting. Life on the streets takes a lethal toll, and many people die unacknowledged.

How To Give:


Safety first - for you and your gift recipient. While many of us realize that giving an obvious gift to a street person might attract unwanted attention to yourself, you may not be aware that you could also be making your gift-recipient a target for assault later. When it comes to handing out a gift, here's what you mutter to yourself as you do it (hey, you'll blend in even more!): Discreet, discreet - the motto on the street. The safest and best way to gift a street person is to do what you already do - give small gifts to the folks you predictably pass on your usual routes, whether you're going to work, going out to dinner, or heading to a movie. Keep a gift handy and, instead of bending over to drop a buck in a cup, put your bag on the ground and keep going. Don't break stride, avoid getting into long conversations. Don't make a show of giving gifts around a large area and certainly don't go into areas your don't know. I'd say don't gift alone, or in isolated areas, and don't give gifts to crowds. Gift should be given in plain bags - no bows, no garish colors, no Tiffany sacks. It's nice, though, to tuck inside a small bow or giftcard ("From Me, To You"). You wouldn't wave money around, and the same applies to your gift. Anytime you might consider handing someone a dollar, hand him/her a gift instead. And do it as discreetly, and with as little fanfare.

What To Give:

1) Earning power is primo. One of the best possible presents is something that helps a homeless person earn some cash. Consider buying a harmonica, recorder, or sheet music for the a cappella singer who starts to sound hoarse by the end of rush hour. If your neighborhood, like one in Berkeley, has a street person who paints tiny abstracts on rocks to earn some bucks, a set of acrylics or a handful of Sharpies could be a life-saver. Finally, anyone who's ever had to dumpster-dive knows the value of some study work gloves, or a pair of fingerless mitts. But what if you don't know someone's talents? Never fear. You can still spontaneously give any homeless person a great present. Consider some of these types of gifts -


2) Hats, scarves and gloves. Any of these are heart-warming (literally) gifts, especially this time of year. Prices range anywhere from $9.99 or $4.99 for men's items at Target and Longs, to all of $1 at the (of course) Dollar General Store. Homeless people try to blend, because the streets are not a good place to attract attention. For that reason, choose gender neutral colors that won't show wear and tear so fast (navy, brown, black). And if you're giving any clothing item, it's nice to leave the tag in place. Lots of homeless people have gotten unfortunate cases of lice and scabies from accepting used articles, so it's reassuring to know, if you're the recipient, that what you're getting is new. Coats are really nice, but hard to hand out discreetly, and expensive to buy in quantity - but if you can provide them, go for it! Another lovely present is a pair of sweatpants. Sweatpants are both gender and size neutral. Buy men's large in dark colors, regardless of who you're gifting ($19.99 Target and other stores).

Monday, December 13, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Santa's Favorite Book of Digital Basics

Around this time of year I always get a panicked call from Santa's Workshop asking me if I have written a really basic book on digital photography that the old bearded gent can hand out with confidence. And this year, thankfully, I was able to say yes! (And trust me, they were more than grateful at the North Pole book warehouse!) In May Lark Books released Focus on Digital Photography Basics (A Lark Photography Book), a really handsome and fun little book that, I think, is perfect for kids or adults getting their first digital camera.

There is nothing about this book will scare off anyone and the techno talk is kept to an absolute minimum--on top of which, it's so full of nicely reproduced photos that even if all you did was look at the photos and read the captions it would be a fun read. I cover the entire gamut of camera basics in the book including: types of cameras (and why there are different kinds of digital cameras), what the term "resolution" means, what pixels are, a really basic look at the different types of lenses that are available and the accessories that you might want. But much of the book is devoted the more fun and creative aspects of photography--composition, natural light, shooting photos of your kids and pets, taking pretty sunsets, etc.

It's a really simple book and yet I think it covers a tremendous amount of ground. I shot almost all of the photos and the reproduction is extremely nice. (I'm told the elves are particularly smitten with the photo of the penguin on page 109! Who knew?) Oops, I better go, the Candy Cane phone is ringing again and you know who that is!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Don't Forget to Photograph the Decorations

I grew up in a house where Christmas wasn't Christmas until my mother had turned the inside of the house into a living Hallmark card: there were decorations everywhere. There was no tabletop, no rocking chair, no lamp that escaped without at least one red bow or a red candle. Even the big wonderful tabby cat, Brandy, that I had back then had to wear the occasional red bow (and trust me, it took nerves of steel to try to get him to cooperate with such a scheme). Tragically, I seem to have inherited the affliction--I spend the weeks before Christmas puttering around the house putting together silly little still-life scenes and hanging bows on things. Pathetic, I know.

But one good thing that comes out of this mild obsession (other than that the house looks cheery and the cats have something new to play with) is that I have little still life subjects all around to photograph. I shot the photo here while sitting at my dining room table flipping through the junk mail. I looked up and saw that beautiful afternoon light coming through the blinds and illuminating the scene--so naturally I had to grab the camera and take a few shots. I ended up using the photo in my book Jeff Wignall's Digital Photography Crash Course: 2 Minute Tips for Better Photos (Lark Photography Book). Amazing to me that such innocent photographic moments end up in the pages of a book, but again, that's the fun thing about photography, you never know what will become of your photos. I'm also thinking of using this shot on some homemade cards this year.

So this year when you're putting up a tree or just hanging some greens on the front door, take time to photograph them--maybe next year you can use one of the photos on a Christmas card.