Getting Bright White Snow-Day Photos

A common problem when taking photos in the snow is that they come out a little grey and dreary. This is because the camera sees such brightness that it tries to compensate almost as if putting on sunglasses; and the white balance tries to make white a neutral grey. One way to fix this is with exposure compensation which adds light to the scene.

By adding exposure to the scene, you force the camera to overexpose just a bit. I usually start with +0.7 in snow and then either go up to +1.0 or down to +0.3.

The exposure compensation dial on your DSLR or mirrorless camera can be used in any mode except “green box” program. It is usually found on top of the camera and shows +/-. Simply hold it down and move the thumb wheel left or right to add (+) or subtract (-) light. On your iPhone, touch the screen on the subject’s face and slide the sun icon up a bit to add light to make the shot a less grey. BTW, this tip also works at the beach.

In photoshop, I may brighten the image by about 10-20%. Another trick to ensure white is white in photoshop is to use image>adjustment>levels. Then select the eye-dropper on the right (white) and click on something in your image that should be 100% white. This is a great way to correct images where the color isn’t just right and I find it really helps with skin tones.

Another way to get brighter winter portraits is to use flash. I will cover this next week. Enjoy the snow days of February and March!

 

 

Using a Telephoto Lens to “Flatten the Image”

Flattening the image, or compressing the image, is a nice result achieved when you use a telephoto lens and are situated a distance from your subject. I used this effect to make a romantic engagement photo in the Bayard Cutting Arboretum of my newly engaged niece and her fiancé.

The trees in the distance appear much closer than they actually are. And all the “layers” of background objects appear large and stacked closed together. The closest and furthest objects fall out of focus due to the depth-of-field. I like the compression effect as it gives a very clean and almost painterly feeling to the background that might otherwise be too distracting and take away from the subjects in the frame.

This post by photographylife.com has a great explanation of the effect: “This combination of long lens and camera-to-subject distance gives the viewer the impression that distant objects are larger than they actually are. As a result, it gives the appearance that the background is pulled in closer to the subject. The opposite effect occurs when you use a wide angle lens. When we use a wide lens, we tend to stand much closer to our subjects compared to a telephoto lens. Because of this relative closeness, near objects will look proportionally larger than objects in the distance. As a result, the background elements become much smaller and seem farther away.”

I used a moderate telephoto lens, the Tamron 70-210mm F4, on a crop-sensor camera at 170mm, so my effective focal length was 255mm. I stood a distance away and actually used hand signals as they couldn’t hear me. The effect will be more dramatic by standing even further away and using a 300mm or longer telephoto setting. Next time you are headed out to shoot, bring along your tele lens to experiment with compressing the image.

Whenever There’s Good Light, Seize the Moment

You’ll find I use window light quite a lot to take posed and candid portraits of my friends and family. I find window light is easier to manage for me than flash. And it’s very easy to find. I am sure you have a favorite spot in your house that gets nice light during certain times of the day without being too harsh, or that is filtered by a white gauzy curtain.

I was with my father in a coffee shop when I noticed the window at my left shoulder and the window at his left should were both wrapping a very even, natural light around him and made his navy cap and reddish sweatshirt pop. So I took several shots (see two more below), but really liked the natural easy expression here as he watched my sister with my niece interacting. For me, the soft shadows make the setting feel very real and comfortable.

When using window light, you may find you need to increase your ISO to 400 or 800, depending on just how bright the light is. You can shoot in program (not green box mode which may make your ISO too high for a pleasing portrait), or in aperture priority mode like I selected here. I shot wide open at f/2.8, 400 ISO, and my shutter speed then defaulted to an easy to hand-hold 125th sec.

Here are a few posts that also discuss window light:

Take in the Scene with a Slower Shutter Speed

Window Light Portraits

Lighting Diagrams for Window Light Photos

Capture Silky Smooth Moving Water

Water is a compelling photographic subject. And how you capture it makes an impression on the viewer. Freezing the action for crystal clear water droplets from a crashing wave or pool splashes conveys power and energy. Slowing the motion down to create a milky white stream of water creates a more serene picture.

In this photo taken on the Little Falls Trail in Promised Land State Park, Poconos, PA, I hiked in mid-morning with my 18-400mm all-in-one lens as well as an electronics cable release designed for your camera and my travel tripod, two must-have accessories to create silky water fall action. Getting as close down and into the flowing water as possible creates a more dramatic perspective.

Settings are very important. First, set your camera to aperture priority and choose an aperture that will give you deep depth of field (between F11-F22 is ideal) so that your foreground to background will be in focus. I used F11 here. Next, select ISO 100. Now look thru the viewfinder and see if your shutter speed is below 1/15th second (I shot my image above at 1/6th second). You can change your aperture to make the shutter speed faster or slower. If you move the aperture from F11 to F16, the shutter speed be slower. If you open up your aperture to F8 to let light more light in, the shutter speed will be faster. Start shooting to see your effect and change your aperture until the image looks the way you want it to.

Since you will be shooting at slow shutter speeds below 1/60th second, you will not be able to handhold the camera. You must use a sturdy tripod and a cable release to ensure there is no camera shake.

The three settings involved in creating an image of a waterfall are referred to as the exposure triangle. The ISO, the aperture and the shutter speed all work in concert to create the effect. So your constant will be your ISO. The second that you will work with is your aperture. Opening or closing the aperture will change the shutter speed to be faster or slower. The shutter speed is ultimately the setting that will either freeze the water (faster shutter speed) or create the silky effect (slower shutter speed).

And the last tip for any landscape photo is to focus about a third of the way into the scene. This will give you the best results for foreground to background focus.

This tip is a good self-assignment for any season. So, find a park with waterfalls within driving distance and head out with your wide-angle lens, tripod and cable release.

Rule of Thirds in a Coastal Landscape Image

It’s been some time since I blogged photography tips for you. I am not sure why I got away from it, but I have a renewed interest in trying to help beginners take better photos. This may be inspired by the great number of people who have discovered photography as a new hobby during the pandemic and have recently invested in camera gear to take better photos. So whether it is with your phone or your new camera, I hope my tips will give you inspiration and guidance the next time you’re out taking photos. Today’s post discusses one of the most basic rules of composition.

The Rule of Thirds is a powerful rule, but keep in mind it can always be broken if not applying the rule make a better photo. The Rule states that if elements in your composition are placed left or right, or above or below, the center, you will have a stronger composition.

In the image above taken at Point Lobos, CA in January 2020, my subjects along the path are in fact centered horizontally, but pushed to the far right. The bulk of the landscape falls below the center, and the horizon line is above the center. Many readers and viewers tend to read text or an image from left to right in Z pattern, so the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn along the path to land on my subjects. The pop of the red sweatshirt also stands in contrast to the blue, green and brown landscape to inform that the subjects, my two dear photography mentors Ken and Andre, are an important focus within the image of this beautiful coastal landscape we were visiting during a photo workshop.

For further discussion fo the Rule of Thirds, read this post here that demonstrates this rule with a grid overlay on images and encourages you to take shots with various compositions to see how one may be stronger than another, or tell a different story based on your composition within the grid.

Environmental Portraits

Recently, a friend asked me to take a portrait of her in her office for professional use. We started behind the desk, but I didn’t feel that location captured her and the inviting warmth of her office and professional style. So we moved to a chair where she normally talks with clients, which was conveniently located by a window that let me avoid using a flash to maintain the natural feel of the office environment. I used a very fast lens (Tamron’s SP 35mm F/1.8) with a wide open aperture of F/2.2. This allowed me to capture my subject in sharp focus while blurring the background of the desk, laptop and books that let the viewer know the subject is in her office.

Blur Your Travel Snapshot Background

As travelers and vacationers, we want the “we are here” photo memories, but they do not need to be quick cell phone grabs, selfies or images that are just flat documentation of our sojourns. Blurring the background elevates your travel snapshots and is simple to do. Set your camera to aperture-priority mode and choose a wider aperture like F/5 or F/6.3. If you are nervous about using a non-program mode, set your camera to the “portrait” mode, which will automatically set your camera to deliver similar results. The sharp subject pops off of the softer background canvas that still lets the viewer know where we are, but feels more professional in nature. In this case, the girl is framed by the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park located within the NYU campus area. The arch is blurred out, but identifiable. And the bonus is that all of the distractive elements in the background are also blurred to put our focus on the subject. Try this technique when posing your child or family in front of an iconic structure on your next vacation.

{38mm, F/5, 1/500th sec., ISO200}

For Better Outdoor Portraits, Add a Little Flash-Even in Winter

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In the photo on the left, I did not use a flash. There are harsh shadows all over the girl’s face, to the point where you cannot even see her eyes. By popping up the flash, even outdoors in winter, you can eliminate the harsh shadows on a bright sunny day and capture a much more flattering portrait of your subject. This is called fill flash. I had my camera in regular program (not green box) mode and popped up my flash to get the photo on the right. Now there’s the eyes! And notice how the camera/flash system automatically balances the daylight with the flash to maintain the saturation in the blue sky, brown trees and green grass.

Fall Foliage Background Perfect for Photo Portraits

When sunlight hits colorful fall foliage, it makes a stunning backdrop for your impromptu family portraits. The trick to getting the painterly background look that makes the subject pop off the background is to use a wide open aperture. The portrait here was taken at 70mm with an aperture setting of F/2.8. Focusing on the eyes, the background drops out due to the shallow depth of field into a painterly sparkle of fall colors. If your lens does not open to a fast aperture like F/2.8, use your telephoto lens at its maximum zoom, set the camera to aperture priority and choose the widest aperture opening (most likely F/5.6 or F/6.3) and step in a little bit closer. That combination will drop out the background for a similar look that makes a beautiful portrait suitable for framing and display on your mantle. 

Shooting Sample Images to Learn How to Achieve Shallow Depth of Field

I find that the best way to make aperture-setting selections stick in your mind to be able to achieve a desired effect is to shoot sample images at two aperture extremes. Start by putting your camera into the aperture-priority mode (A on Nikon cameras; AV in Canon cameras). Then set your aperture to the widest setting (like F/2.8, F/3.5, etc.) and take a photo. This will be your sample A (see my sample below). Then move your aperture to its smallest setting (like F/22, F/32). This is your sample B. Then study the difference between the shots.

{Sample A} Wide Open Aperture (F/2.8 – 1/1000th sec shutter speed – 34mm)

{Sample B} Smallest Aperture (F/22 – 1/125th sec shutter speed – 34mm)

Now, to make things confusing, your results will vary depending on your widest aperture setting, focal length setting and how close you are to the subject. In my sample shots above, I was very close to the flowers I focused on and my aperture was F/2.8 in the first, so the brick building in the background is out of focus perhaps more so or less so than your sample shots may show.

If you keep making samples for yourself like this, eventually it will become second nature when you are shooting to select the appropriate aperture to get the photo you have in mind (with out of focus background or sharp background).

Typically you will want to blur the background a little for portraits for a more professional look; or if the background is very distracting; or if you want the viewers of your photos to be drawn to so a very specific part of the shot.

Photographers will use a smaller aperture to get the foreground to background in focus for landscapes, and sometimes for shots that tell a story of where you are. For example, you may want a store name to be in sharp focus so that it is legible. Or you may want the details of a landmark to be in sharp focus as well as your family standing in front of it.

However, sometimes landmarks, such as the Disney Castle, are so recognizable, that having the castle slightly out of focus works really well to give you a “here we are” shot that is elevated to a more professional looking image. Below is a sample from Epcot’s China Pavilion.

A slightly wider open aperture.