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All posts for the month June, 2011


Most people have heard that taking photos in mid-day sun is generally considered a bad idea. The high angle of the sun causes very harsh shadows on your subjects, and their faces often end up a squinty, scragly mess due to the very bright light. That’s why photographers do most of their people shooting in the 2 hours or so just before sunset or what is known as “The Golden Hour”.

Golden Hour Portrait Nikon D300 16mm 1/320s f/13

Photographers love “The Golden Hour” because the setting sun produces a beautiful, soft, flattering light with a nice warm glow that makes everyone look their best. Just take notice sometime of how many wedding photographers schedule formal shoots during “The Golden Hour”, it’s not by accident.

Although shooting during “The Golden Hour” is likely to produce some beautiful photos for you, there is a problem. The light doesn’t last very long, and photographers have to work quickly in order to get all their shots done in time before they lose the light to the setting sun. It always amazes me how many people pack up their cameras and go home once the sun has set. Yes, it’s true, your people shots are probably over once the sun sets, but with the warm summer weather you can shoot some amazing landscapes just after sunset during what we call “The Blue Hour”.

“The Blue Hour” is that magic time when the sun has set just below the horizon but there is still some light in the sky. It extends right up until the last bit of light has drained from the sky. If you’ve ever stopped to look up at this time you’ll notice that if the sky is clear it takes on this amazing deep blue color. This is also the time that street lights, architectural lights, and signs start to come on which makes for some beautiful summer scenes for you to photograph.

Restaurant lights during “The Blue Hour” Nikon D300 1/30s f/2.8

Shooting during the “The Blue Hour” is a whole different ball game than shooting during “The Golden Hour”. This is because during “The Golden Hour” you have beautiful sunlight to light up your scene, but during “The Blue Hour” the sun has set and you’re basically shooting at night time. This requires some form of stabilization for your camera, because in order to shoot during “The Blue Hour” you need to use a slow shutter speed in order to be able to capture your scene with the reduced light levels.

Take this photo I shot recently at Disneyland during “The Blue Hour”. I happened to shoot it with a very fast lens, which means it has a very large Aperture. As such, I was able to shoot this photo at a shutter speed of 1/30s and still hand-hold the camera. However, if you didn’t have a particularly fast lens that cost almost $1000 like I do, you’d be using a standard lens with the values below. For more information about Aperture and Shutter Speed, see some of our previous blog posts.

Most standard lenses have a maximum aperture size of f/4. This is one-stop larger than the f/2.8 lens that I was using. Using reciprocity (again see some of our previous blog articles for more info) if I was to shoot this same photo with a lens using an Aperture value of f/4 then I would have to use a shutter speed of 1/15s. This would be too slow to hand-hold to shoot a photo with acceptable sharpness, so I’d have to introduce some form of stabilization for the camera in order to get a good resulting photograph.

There are many options that you can use to stabilize your camera for night time photography. The most common method is to mount your camera on a tripod. However, there are other options as well, you could also use a monopod, a gorillapod, or even just a trash-can or other stabile object to place your camera on.

There are tons of different kinds of tripods available. Some of the many options available are the material the tripod is made out of, aluminum, carbon fiber, or even plastic, how large the tripod extends 2 segments or 3 segments, and even whether the legs fold completely flat or inverted for easy travel. Naturally this means the prices on tripods can vary wildly depending on the options you decide to take, anywhere from an inexpensive $15 tripod you can find in Walmart or Target to large professional travel models costing in excess of $1200.

Velbon DF-60 Tripod (Photo courtesy of Velbon) http://www.velbon.biz/product/cx-df/df.html

I could do an entire article alone on the many different options for tripods, but here are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing one. If you’re going to be traveling a lot with it and weight is a factor, go for a carbon-fiber tripod. Although more expensive you can’t beat the sturdiness, rigidity, and light weight. For flexibility when composing your shots make sure it has at least a pan-head, and for the ultimate in exploiting all camera positions go with a ball-head instead. Plus one of the most important things to look for is to make sure that the first section of leg extensions gets the tripod up to or almost up to your regular height. The first leg sections are the most sturdy so you want to make sure the tripod will be at a comfortable height while getting the most stability out of it.

If the idea of lugging around a full tripod, especially to a theme park, makes you cringe, you’re not alone. It can be very tedious to carry around one of these with you for a full day, plus a lot of places don’t allow them, and when using them at venues that do you need to take extra care that nobody is going to trip over or hurt themselves because of your tripod. So as a great alternative I would suggest a monopod.

Velbon Monopod E64 (photo courtesy of Velbon) http://www.velbon.biz/product/monopod/monopod-geo.html

A monopod is just as the name suggests, it’s basically a single retractable stick that you mount your camera on top of. It gives you extra stability for using lower shutter speeds, but not the full support that you would receive from a tripod. The advantages are they are much smaller to use and carry around, they take up very little space in front of you even when extended and in use, plus they can be used in a lot of places that tripods cannot. If you look up to policies of most places they clearly state “No tripod use allowed”, but they never say anything about a monopod. Sure it’s a play on semantics depending on how you look at it, but it is a valid argument to make if questioned while using one.

Monopods are also usually cheaper than tripods and do not require pan or ball-heads as since it is a single stick you can basically tilt it in any direction that you need to. In addition they are much more compact to simply fold up and stick in a bag than a tripod is. Plus as an added bonus they actually can help you carry a very heavy camera rig as you are now supporting it with your hands on a stick rather than hanging it around your neck. Basically the options on monopods are more limited than tripods, simply a choice of what materials it’s made out of and/or how high it extends.

Still think a monopod is too large to carry around? Don’t want to be accused of carrying a cane? No problem, I have one more stabilization alternative for you, and it’s one that I highly recommend and use myself. Why not choose a gorillapod?

Gorillapod (Photo courtesy of Joby) www.joby.com

A gorillapod is in essence a mini tripod with segmented and articulated joints covered in rubber, this makes the legs flexible and actually allows you to wrap them right around any railing, tree or other oddly shaped stable object, to give your camera a rock-solid platform to shoot from.

They make several different models depending on which camera you are going to use with it, including ones for the smallest point-and-shoots all the way up to large professional video cameras. For the ultimate flexibility in mounting your camera, don’t forget to add the ball-head made specifically for your gorillapod. This allows you to pan and tilt your camera on top of your gorillapod for an infinite number of mounting combinations.

I use my gorillapod all the time, it’s so convenient to throw in a bag and then poof have a mini tripod that you can mount almost anywhere at a moments notice.

Now that the weather is warm and the light is perfect, get out there and start taking some “Blue Hour” photos! You’ll be amazed at some of the results, as long as you have some sort of stabilization for your camera. With the plethora of choices out there you shouldn’t have too difficult of a time finding the right solution that will be convenient and user-friendly for you.

Paradise Pier at Blue Hour Nikon D300 16mm 1/4s f/11

Scott Dengrove is a professional photographer from the NYC area. Scott’s work has been featured in many national photography competitions and published in several nationally circulated magazines and publications. In addition, his work can currently be seen in 2 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut and a traveling exhibit entitled “America: Coast to Coast”. For more information, and to see more of Scott’s work visit his website at www.dengrovestudios.com and connect with him on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dengrovestudios