Tips and Techniques


Another blog post so soon? I know exciting! We’ve gotten a few requests lately for some assistance with low-light photography from fans on our Facebook page. So I thought it would be a good idea to do another blog post about it, since it can be a difficult topic. And what better way to learn then with a little help from some childhood friends!

This past April I had the opportunity to spend some time visiting the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA. It’s quite an amazing facility providing education, history and entertainment all relating to various forms of puppetry from across the globe. They have interactive displays, informative workshops, and also really awesome puppet performances, if you’re ever in the Atlanta area I highly suggest you pay them a visit.

Now I’ll admit I do love all kinds of puppets, but the main draw for me visiting the center was to see the display of some very special friends.

It's Big Bird!!!!!

It’s Big Bird!!!!!

That’s right…I went to the Center for Puppetry Arts to visit THE MUPPETS!!!! In 2007 the Center for Puppetry Arts was named the proposed repository for much of Jim Henson’s collection of puppets. However, they have to raise money to build a space to house the collection. In the meantime, they do have a limited amount of Muppets on display and let me tell you it’s quite an experience being mere inches away from these amazing characters.

So how can the Muppets help us to learn about low-light photography? Well in the photo above Big Bird was actually behind glass, and no flash photos were allowed because flash can cause them to deteriorate. So I had to employ a number of low-light photography techniques in order to get some great photos of these guys.

Before we dive right into photo technique, let’s take a minute to talk about proper etiquette when taking these photos at a museum, aquarium or any public place. These institutions put on exhibits for the public to come and learn, view and enjoy, they are not there specifically for you to photograph. So you must understand that when you decide you’d like to get a great shot of something you may be inconveniencing others around you.

How do I get such great shots? Well bribing the manager doesn’t hurt….kidding! It takes a lot of patience, sometimes I’ll wait by a display for a long time until the crowds to disperse before I move in with my big lens to get the shot, but as you can see it’s worth it as you get much better shots and you won’t be rushed or upset others who are there to view the exhibit. There have even been times that I’ll see an exhibit with my friends or family and then go back again by myself to take photos so that I don’t bother them by making them wait around for me while I get the shot.

But Scott, you say, “I went to the Louvre to photograph the Mona Lisa, and the people never left…I’d still be there today waiting to take her photo”. Yeah she’s pretty popular, so what do you do if the item you want to photograph has a continuous line of people? You get in the line and wait your turn. When you get to the front, take your shots quickly since there are many people behind you waiting to see the exhibit.

I know you’re thinking now…”Scott, I understand that I need to get my shot fast, but how can I do that? Once I get there I have to check my settings, make sure the photo is properly exposed..these things take time!” Very true…so you need to be prepared BEFORE you get up there. While you’re waiting on line, start taking photos. Play with your settings until you’re exposure is perfect and you’re all ready to go. This way when you get up to the front and only have a few seconds to make it count all you need to do is take the shot and move on.

Set your camera settings ahead of time for a perfectly exposed quick shot

Set your camera settings ahead of time for a perfectly exposed quick shot

I do this all the time when I shoot. Yeah I know The Lorax is not the Mona Lisa, but he’s close. There’s a very long line to see him and you have little time to get the shot once you do. My wife thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world when I start taking photos of the characters with other people’s children, but that’s how I test my settings while waiting in line so that once I get to meet the head mouse himself, all it takes is a click or two of the shutter and we’re on our way.

Now that we’ve discussed proper etiquette when trying to get great photos, let’s talk about some techniques we can use to make them a reality. Basically it all comes down to getting more light into the camera so we can get a nicely exposed shot without using a flash. There are many ways we can do this.

The first is by raising the ISO setting. We’ve discussed ISO before in previous blog posts. The ISO setting on our cameras controls how sensitive our digital camera’s sensor is to light or how sensitive the film is to light on a traditional camera. Increasing ISO makes better exposed photos when shooting in low light levels. Great..problem solved, end of blog post!

Not quite…yes raising the ISO will increase the exposure of our photo, however, there is a side effect that we must take into account, each of the three camera settings that control exposure, ISO, aperture and shutter speed, all have a side effect as well. The more we increase ISO the more grain or noise our photo will have.

Most modern digital cameras can handle up to ISO 1600 reasonably well. Some high-end Digital SLR’s can even go as high as ISO 6400 without showing too much noise. For example in the photo I took below of the very hip and funky Dr. Teeth, of the famous band the Electric Mayhem, I used an ISO setting of 1000 which allowed for a nice properly exposed photo without a flash and very little noise.

Dr Teeth properly exposed using an increased ISO and slow shutter speed. ISO 1000, 1/30s, f/2.8

Dr Teeth properly exposed using an increased ISO and slow shutter speed. ISO 1000, 1/30s, f/2.8

However, my twinkle-toed piano playing friend Dr. Teeth was in such a darkly lit area that increasing the ISO alone would not have been enough. So what else can we do to take better photos in low-light?

We can use a slower shutter-speed. We’ve talked about shutter-speed before too. Shutter speed controls how long the camera’s shutter remains open to let light in when taking a photo. The longer it stays open the more light comes in, and the brighter your photo will be. But we mustn’t forget about the exposure side effects. What happens if I leave my shutter open too long?

We get blur. You know how sometimes those photos you take in low-light come out blurry? That’s because you’re using a shutter speed that’s too slow. Just how slow is too slow? It varies depending on the focal length of the lens you are using and also whether or not your lens has some form of Vibration Reduction built-in. As a general rule of thumb most people shooting with a “normal” length lens can hand-hold a camera with shutter speeds down to about 1/30.

Again this is a general estimation…please don’t send me messages showing me your heroic hand-held photos taken at 1/8s. Sure, there are people out there who can do this, maybe one of their distant relatives was a hydraulic tripod, perhaps their hands are fused together in one giant solid camera cradle that has no vibration, but for the most part 1/30 is a good approximate number to use.

When taking this photo of my good friend Sherlock Hemlock the world’s greatest detective, I used a shutter speed of 1/30. This, combined with an ISO of 1000 allowed me to get a nicely exposed photo in very dark lighting conditions.

Properly exposed photo of Sherlock Hemlock, ISO 1000, 1/30s, f/2.8

Properly exposed photo of Sherlock Hemlock, ISO 1000, 1/30s, f/2.8

Those of you readers with keen observation skills might notice something a little odd about this photo of Sherlock Hemlock. Do you see it? Take a look at the angle I shot this from. Why did I photograph Sherlock Hemlock from the side and not from the front like you would expect?

Anyone know? Well it all has to do with the fact that these exhibits are behind glass. When you think about it all of these exhibits are lit from above outside the glass. This means that there’s going to be light reflections and most importantly glare on the glass. If I had photographed Sherlock Hemlock from the front he’d be a washed out mess because of all the lights being reflected back off the glass. This can easily be corrected by taking the time to move around a little bit and noticing how the reflections change depending on where you’re viewing them from.

You’ll notice that there are particular angles that you can view the glass where there are no lights reflecting back at all. Usually you find these angles by looking at the exhibit through the side of the display case. Once you’ve found the “sweet spot” with no glare then go ahead and take your photo, you’ll be glad you spent the extra few moments to make sure you’re standing in the right spot. I’m sure Mokey Fraggle appreciated how I was able to capture her likeness in the photo below without being obscured by glare.

Photographing exhibits behind glass from an angle helps to eliminate glare

Photographing exhibits behind glass from an angle helps to eliminate glare

Speaking of angles, what happens on the rare occasion that you happen to be in a place that actually allows you to take flash photos?

First a disclaimer…99% of the museums and public places you visit will not allow you to use a flash. Why? Because flash can destroy antiquities and cause paint and pigments to fade. Now of course one flash burst probably won’t do it, but imagine hundreds of people a day passing by a painting photographing it with flash. That painting won’t last very long without fading.

So before you use a flash, please, please, PLEASE make 100% sure that you are allowed to use one!

Now having said that, if you happen to be at a place that does allow flash such as say an aquarium and you want to take a photo of one of the lovely fish through the glass, what do you think happens when you try to take a photo straight on?

That’s right…it flashes right back in your face and you get horrible glare.

Glare from the flash on a fish tank

Glare from the flash on a fish tank

Well this is a disappointing turn of events you say. Fear not! There is a way around the dreaded flash glare, and surprisingly it is very similar to eliminating glare when we’re not using flash. Anybody care to venture a guess? I’ll wait………….

Yes! That’s right if we take our photo from an angle instead of strait on it allows the flash to go through the glass without having it bounce back in our face. Glare eliminated. Of course when shooting with flash this requires a bit of trial and error to get it right as opposed to when shooting with ambient light which you can see all the time.

Shooting a photo with flash at an angle to the glass eliminates the glare

Shooting a photo with flash at an angle to the glass eliminates the glare

Well there you have it, you’re now armed with all the tools you need to get out there and start taking some awesome photos in low-light levels. As always, I’d love to see your results, please feel free to post some, and if you have the time feel free to leave a comment or two.

And if you ever find yourself in the Atlanta area do yourself a favor and visit the Center for Puppetry Arts we’ve barely scratched the surface here of what they have to offer, and I promise you’ve never been in a more creepy room than their puppet “attic”, you’ll see ;)

All characters depicted in this blog are copyright of their respective owners including all Muppet characters ©The Muppets Studio, Sesame Street characters ©Sesame Workshop and Fraggle characters ©The Jim Henson Company.

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 follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dengrovestudios

It was on a recent trip to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, GA that I was inspired by the topic for this article. By the way, as a quick aside if you’ve never been to the Georgia Aquarium you should definitely go as it’s quite an amazing place. You can find out more about them on their website www.georgiaaquarium.org.

Anyhow, while I was there I was quite surprised to see not one, not two, but no less than 4 people actually using an iPad as their camera at the aquarium. Don’t get my wrong, I’m not a camera “snob” who thinks that good photos can only be taken by a true camera.

I mean some of the cameras being built into cell phones these days rival most point and shoot digital cameras in terms of both pixel count and scene selections. So then why would I have an objection to someone using an iPad to shoot photos at an aquarium?

Don't do this at the aquarium!

Well in a nutshell an iPad does not have a large enough aperture or high enough ISO levels to take decent photos in the kinds of conditions and light levels found in an aquarium; and the best reason of all, you just look plain stupid holding a giant iPad trying to photograph a fish!

I seriously could not believe that I saw 4 people doing this. One of which actually then tried to use the “flash” on the iPad while taking a photo. Don’t believe me? Check out this photo I sneaked in of one of the “iPad shooters”.

Not only that, I recently went to the NY Aquarium and saw someone there shooting fish with their iPad as well! This is an epidemic we must stop immediately.

Even in NY!

So as much fun as it is for us to go on and on about a bunch of crazy tourists who would descend upon an Aquarium walking around trying to take photos with a tablet the size of a small television, I think the best way to help these people is for us to discuss and educate them with some proper tips and techniques for taking great live animal photos in a low-light environment such as at an aquarium or even perhaps a zoo.

First let’s talk about the lighting that we’ll find at an aquarium. There’s usually quite a mix of outdoor exhibits with possibly harsh direct sunlight, and also indoor exhibits with large tanks and low-light levels. Lots of different challenges to overcome, but totally do-able.

Let’s talk about the outdoor exhibits first. Shooting live animals, especially ones that are in an exhibit such as an aquarium is a very different “animal” from shooting people. If I were shooting a group of friends outdoors and there was harsh lighting, I could ask them to move into the shade.

You can’t do that with animals. They’re notoriously stubborn, and they probably don’t understand english.

If there was no shade, perhaps I might use a diffuser above them to filter the light and make it softer. With animals in an aquarium this is also not possible. Not only can you not get anywhere near the animals due to those pesky fences, but animals love nothing better than to soil a nice clean white diffuser, nasty stuff.

So what can you do to battle harsh outdoor lighting? The easiest solution is just not to shoot in it. Most people usually spend a couple of hours visiting an aquarium. So you can easily start with the indoor exhibits during the mid-day hours when the sun is at it’s harshest and save your outdoor photos for either earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon when the sun is less harsh and gives a nice golden color to everything.

“But Scott…you say, the outdoor Penguin Feeding is at 1PM, are you telling me that I can’t photograph it”?

Huh? When did I say you couldn’t photograph it?  Of  course you can photograph it, you just need to use a different technique. So what else can we do to battle the harsh mid-day light?

We can use our fill flash! This technique can be done with any camera flash, but really works well if you can use an off-camera speedlight. Using a fill flash allows you add a pop of light from the front that can help to soften those harsh shadows, especially under the eyes, formed by direct overhead mid-day sunlight.

When shooting in “automatic mode” on your camera…you guys still don’t do that even after reading my blog posts right? When shooting in “automatic mode” your camera will not turn the flash on because ordinarily you would not need flash in bright sunlight.

Since we want to make sure that the flash fires to balance out the light, we have to set our flash mode to “fill-flash on our cameras”. This setting will let the camera know that we want the flash to fire whether the camera feels we need it or not. So there you have it, a way to capture the super cute Penguin Feeding and still make sure those penguins look their best, after all they are wearing their tuxedos.

Just try to convince this Walrus to move into the shade for you. Good luck!

After you’ve seen all the seals, penguins, and of course walruses (or is it walri?) outdoors, it’s time to head inside and take some shots of jellyfish, sharks, and sea turtles.

Photographing indoors at the aquarium presents a whole new set of obstacles to deal with. The first being that a lot of these exhibits have very low lighting. Why should that stop you though, you read the Dengrove Studios Blog, you know how to deal with low-light situations. Plus you’re walking around with a flash, you think to yourself…you’re all set.

Flash reflection on a fish tank

Well…not quite. You’d better leave that flash in your camera bag for the indoor exhibits. Why…you ask inquisitively? Well, have you ever tried to take a photo of yourself in a mirror with the flash on? I’m sure anyone who has, experienced a giant white reflection of light in the middle of your photo.

Unfortunately for us, a big fish tank behaves exactly the same way as a giant reflective mirror. Pop a flash on it and you get a big white light blob in the middle of our lovely fish. So what can we do to get nice indoor photos of our fishy friends? Let’s revisit some of the basics that we’ve talked about before.

So what are some things that we can do to ensure we get great low-light photos at the aquarium? In past articles we’ve talked about raising the ISO on our cameras in low-light. ISO controls how sensitive to light the sensor of your digital camera is. When we increase the ISO it makes our photos much brighter. Perfect for a low-light situation such as indoors at the aquarium. Plus with today’s modern digital cameras you can easily shoot up to an ISO of 1600 or higher and still get very usable shots.

So what’s the downside? You may recall that every adjustment we make to our camera settings have side effects as well that we must take into account. In our case, raising the ISO setting also raises the noise level in our photos. Basically, the higher the ISO the more grain that will show up in your photo. Most modern digital cameras handle this noise very well up to ISO 1600 or even greater. In addition, it’s a pretty simple process to run your photo through a software program that can eliminate noise caused by high ISO.

Great…so we simply raise the ISO and we’re all ready for those sharks to show us their sharp pearly whites. Perhaps, but raising the ISO may not be enough given how dark some of these aquariums can be. So what other settings can we adjust to help us take better photos in low-light?

Using a slower shutter speed causes fast moving objects to blur

You may also recall from some of our previous discussions that shutter speed has a lot to do with the exposure of your photos and can help you take better photos in low light. This is true, however there is also a problem we must consider.

In order for the shutter to allow more light to hit your sensor you need to slow down your shutter speed. This will increase the exposure of your photo and make it brighter. Makes sense, but we also need to keep in mind the side-effect that slowing down the shutter speed has as well. When you shoot with a slower shutter speed the motion of your subjects tends to blur in a photo. As you can imagine this would not work very well when trying to shoot a fast moving fish. All you would get is a big blur streaking across your photo.

Those of you who own some photographic equipment might think that perhaps a tripod could help you out in this situation. It certainly does help keep a camera steady during long exposures using a slow shutter speed. However, we need to keep in mind that a tripod helps to eliminate camera shake caused by your hands, unfortunately, it does nothing to slow down a fast moving object such as a fish.

So in this instance you’ll be happy to know that you can leave your tripod at home and don’t have to lug it with you since it’s not going to help you get better photos at the aquarium. Plus it really wouldn’t be safe, people might trip on it, which is why a lot of public places won’t even let you use one. That, and it helps them sell more high-priced postcards.

Ok, so slowing down the shutter speed may not be the best option. However there’s still one more technique that we can employ.

We can use a larger aperture setting. By increasing the aperture, more light is allowed into the camera when taking a photo. Combined with raising your ISO this should go a long way to getting a nice photo of your friends from the sea.

And since ISO, aperture, and shutter speed are all related, by raising the ISO and also increasing the size of your aperture, this allows you to increase your shutter speed while keeping the same exposure level, thereby allowing you to “freeze” your subject better. Which is perfect for shooting those fast-moving fish!

High ISO and large aperture combine to create a perfectly exposed low-light photo

So to sum up, armed with the proper photographic techniques there should be no reason why you can’t take some great photos with even the simplest point and shoot camera at an aquarium in any type of lighting. Notice I said camera, not iPad!!!! By the way…you cell phone shooters are safe for now, but we might talk in the future.

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

It’s the start of a brand new year and I have a new technique for you to try that will revolutionize your photography from this day forward. Get Closer!

Get Closer? Get closer to what? Your friends? Your family? Your camera? Ohhh I bet your camera would love that, take it out to a nice dinner and a movie.

No, get closer to your subjects! One of the absolute most simplest, best ways to improve your photography is to start getting closer to your subjects. Perhaps a visual demonstration is in order…take my Gorilla friend here.

Gorilla Full Torso Shot

As photographs go, it’s not a bad shot. It shows the overall Gorilla, it’s relative size, and some of it’s surroundings. There may be some glare from the glass that was captured, but that can be forgiven considering the fact it was shot at a zoo. However, it is kind of boring and plain when you look at it. It’s basically just a Gorilla standing there.

So what if we got closer, much, much closer like this (btw I highly recommend clicking on the photo to see the full effect)…

Gorilla Face Closer!

Now the photograph has taken on a completely new meaning. It puts us right there eye to eye with the great majestic beast. At this distance we can see every wrinkle, every nuance of character in the Gorilla’s face, and most importantly those big, brown eyes starting right back at us.

There are so many visually interesting things to look at and think about now. Look at those crumbs in his beard…I wonder what he ate for lunch? His eyes look kind of sad…is he going through a rough time in his life, is he trying to express his displeasure at being stuck behind glass, or do his eyes always look like that?

Being so close to him in this photo it’s almost impossible not to connect with him on an emotional level, and think to yourself, wow those eyes really do look so human. All from simply doing nothing more than getting closer to your subject.

Now of course, when we say “get closer” we mean in a safe and responsible way. Certainly, I’m not suggesting that you climb into the Gorilla enclosure and meet them face to face.

There are 3 ways that you can get closer to your subjects when shooting your photos:

  1. You can physically walk closer to them when taking your shot; but perhaps not in the case of dealing with Gorilla’s or other wild animals. That would give a whole new meaning to the term “that’s the end of that camera”. It does work amazing when shooting people though, especially children.
  2. You can use the zoom function on your camera, or a zoom lens in the case of an SLR camera. This is a great way to get close to subjects that are very far away, or are out of reach, such as if they are a wild animal behind a glass enclosure.
  3. You can crop the photo in post-production after you’ve taken the shot to make it appear that you were closer. This is a good option for those times when you forget to get closer to your subject when shooting and decide later on that would be a better composition.

Each of these methods has positive attributes and also some drawbacks depending on the situation.

Physically getting closer to your subject is usually the preferred method if possible. This allows you to better connect with your subject while taking the shot, and also helps you to see your subject from a new perspective as the surroundings often change when you move closer. This allows you some really great options to set up the perfect composition in your shot. So why not do this all the time?

This method has some drawbacks too, which we discussed briefly before. Sometimes your physical location in relation to the subject doesn’t allow you to get any closer. Perhaps you’re behind a barrier of some kind. Maybe getting closer would put you in a dangerous situation such as if you were photographing a fire, or a flash flood. One key to taking great photos is definitely remaining safely out of danger so you can share them with others.

Physically getting closer to this flower, afforded me the opportunity to also capture this pollinating bee in the shot.

Getting Physically Closer – Flower and Bee

If you can’t get physically closer to your subject, you can try using the zoom function on your camera, or a zoom lens to get yourself closer to the action. Using zoom is a great alternative to get closer when your shooting situation doesn’t allow you to physically get as close as you would like. Such as, if you were shooting some people on a boat out on the lake, while standing on the shore. Or perhaps your subject is in a show or a concert, you certainly can’t get right up on stage with them. I mean you probably could, but it would most likely be the last thing you ever shoot in that venue.

Zooming is great, but it has it’s drawbacks as well. If you are using the zoom function on a point and shoot camera you need to be careful not to zoom too far. Point and shoot cameras use 2 types of zoom systems, optical and digital.

Optical is when the lens physically moves to make the image larger and the glass elements arrange themselves closer or further away to zoom in on the action. Digital zoom is when the camera actually does it’s own cropping of the image it’s shooting. In essence it’s not really zooming but enlarging a portion of the scene that the camera lens is seeing. Digital zoom is actually something you want to stay away from because it causes your images to have less resolution and pixelate the more zoomed in that you go.

Most point and shoot cameras use an optical system up to a certain point and then switch to a digital system. For example your point and shoot camera might use optical zoom until your image gets 3x as large, then it switches to a digital zoom up to 10x as large, which will cause pixelation. So as long as you use only the optical zoom function your image should still retain maximum resolution. Most cameras allow you turn off digital zoom in the camera’s settings.

If using an SLR camera with a zoom lens, you don’t have to worry about pixelation  as an SLR uses a completely optical zoom system. However, you do need to be concerned with camera shake. When using a zoom lens each small movement of the camera gets magnified because you’re focusing on a smaller area of the scene in front of you. This can cause blur to show up in your images and make them less sharp.

So how much zoom is too much on an SLR? The rule of thumb is that in order to hand-hold your camera your shutter speed should not fall below the value of the focal length of your lens. So for example, if you are using a 100mm lens on a full-frame SLR camera, you should make sure to use a shutter speed of 1/125s  (1/125 is the closest full shutter stop to 100) or faster in order to hand-hold your camera. Putting your camera on a tripod will of course eliminate camera shake and allow you to use slower shutter speeds with your zoom lens.

By the way…it’s important to remember when using a crop-sensor SLR camera that you want to use a shutter speed that doesn’t fall below the full-frame equivalent value of the focal length of your lens. For example, if you were shooting with a 150mm lens on an crop-sensor (APS-C size) SLR camera, you should make sure to use a shutter speed of 1/250s or faster in order to hand-hold the camera. This is because the full-frame equivalent of the 150mm lens is approximately 225mm. The closest full shutter stop to that is 1/250s.

Using a zoom lens allowed me to get a great shot of the “burning man” at the Lights, Motor, Action stunt show in Disney’s Hollywood Studios while remaining a safe distance away from the flames in my seat at the show.

Using a Zoom Lens – Burning Man

Which brings us to our last method of getting closer to your subject. Cropping your photo after-the-fact. Cropping is perfect for when you’re back at home reviewing your photos and that “ah ha” moment hits you, I should’ve gotten closer! Cropping allows you to almost create a brand new composition out of an existing photo while directing the viewers eye exactly where you want them to look in your photo.

If cropping is so great and affords you such a high level of control, then why not just shoot all your photos in any haphazard way and worry about cropping them afterwards? Because cropping has one nasty side effect. Think back to zooming for a minute, remember when we talked about digital zoom, and how it doesn’t actually change your lens configuration, but instead magnifies a tiny portion of the image being captured by the camera? Hmm…sounds a lot like cropping doesn’t it?

That’s exactly what it is! Digital zoom is a form of cropping, and why don’t we like digital zoom? It reduces the resolution of the image and causes pixelation. Unfortunately, the same thing occurs when you crop a photo in post-production. Your camera only captures a finite amount of pixels when it takes a photo.

Let’s say you have an 8 megapixel camera. That means when you take your photo it will be made up of roughly 8 million pixels, or tiny dots. You can never get more pixels than what is originally captured…so when you crop that photo the result is only a small portion of the original photo. That means that you have thrown away quite a few of those pixels in the areas of the photo that you cut out. Which means the portion you are left with may only have half the pixels of the original or less. If too many of those pixels get thrown away then your photo will start to get grainy, and pixelated.

So, when cropping your photos make sure not to crop too tightly, or throw away too much of the original photo. That’s why the best way to get a close-up image is to use one of the first 2 methods and not have to crop at all. This will make sure you have retained the highest amount of resolution in your close-up photo and will prevent pixelation.

As you can see in the image below when you crop the original photo too much, it becomes, grainy, blurry, and pixelated. Basically at this point it is unusable.

Too Much Cropping Causes Pixelation

There are so many ways to get closer photos of your subjects, there’s no excuse not to. I guarantee doing this one thing will add a whole new dimension to the photos you take.

How do you know when you’re close enough? What I like to do is get as close as I can, and when I think it looks right to me in the viewfinder and I’ve gone far enough…I go just a little bit further. Then I can be sure I’ve gotten just the right amount of closeness between me and my subject. Plus, if you find that you need just a little bit more after you’ve taken the shot…you can always crop it after-the-fact. Starting out with a close photo of your subject will ensure that you won’t have to sacrifice too many pixels if you feel the need to crop later on.

I have a bit of a homework assignment for you to reinforce this idea and it’s something I like to do from time to time because it really makes for some very interesting shots. You can do this whether you have a point and shoot or an SLR. Set your camera to the highest zoom setting, or if you have an SLR, use your longest zoom lens. Keep it at that setting for the entire day when you go out shooting. No matter what you want to take a picture of, don’t change that zoom setting. Find a new creative way to shoot that subject up close!

You’d be amazed at how it makes you see the world differently, and you’ll get some pretty interesting and spectacular shots. As always please feel free to share the results on here, we’d love to see them!

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

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

Welcome back all and Happy New Year, I know it’s been a while since there’s been a blog post but I’ve been very tied up with new photo shoots. I thought we would touch on a topic that is fast becoming a “very big thing” in the photo community for both hobbyists and professionals alike. HDR Photography…it’s a term that I’m sure you’ve heard tossed around, but many people aren’t sure what it is, and what it can do for your photos.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Have you ever tried to take a photo of a landscape with lots of trees and a nice bright blue sky only to discover that the photo doesn’t look like the scene in front of you at all? Perhaps the sky is perfectly exposed but the trees are all dark. Or maybe the trees look perfect but the sky is so blown out it almost looks white. What happened?

Perfect sky, dark shadows

Overexposed sky, nice shadows

You think perhaps something is wrong with your camera? Or those damn kids tinkered with your settings again? Rest assured your camera is working just as it should. The real problem is eyes. “The kids have been tinkering with my eyes?” No, you see the human eye is the best camera ever invented. It can see and properly expose a very wide range of light. Wider than any camera ever made.

Think about a night scene, you’re walking along a street, there are very bright street lights, headlights of cars, but when you look up at the sky you can still see the stars and even perhaps a blue tint to the sky. This is because the human eye can actually see a range of over 24 f-stops of light. This range of light is referred to as “dynamic range”. It is the difference between the minimum and maximum amount of light that can be seen at the same time. The very wide dynamic range of the human eye allows us to clearly discern both the bright street lights and the very dim stars all at the same time.

Unfortunately, we’re not so lucky with our cameras. Even the best digital cameras made only have a dynamic range of 10-14 f-stops. This makes our camera’s almost 1000x less sensitive than our eyes. This is why when you try to shoot the same scene with a wide dynamic range of light with your camera it doesn’t look anything like it did when you were looking at the scene through your own eyes. So what can we do to fix this? Do we have to take everyone we know with us when we travel somewhere so they can all see the same scene with their own eyes?

As awesome as that would be, although I imagine it would be tough to coordinate all of those schedules, this is where HDR photography comes in, or High Dynamic Range. HDR Photography allows you to shoot a particular scene with 3 or 5 different exposures and then using special software combine all those photos into one that has the best exposed parts of each individual photo. So now you can shoot that sky and tree scene exposing for the sky in one photo, the trees in another, and all the other pieces in between. Then combine them into one beautifully exposed photo throughout.

The last time I was at Disney’s Animal Kingdom I took these 5 photos of the “Tree of Life”. Each one is exposed slightly differently so that the set covers the full dynamic range of light present in the scene.

Tree of Life -2 exposure

Tree of Life -1 exposure

Tree of Life 0 exposure

Tree of Life +1 exposure

Tree of Life +2 exposure

When we combine all of these together using software capable of creating HDR photos such as Photoshop or Topaz Adjust, the software picks the best exposed parts of each photo to create a single one that represents the entire dynamic range of light that was in the scene. It makes a High Dynamic Range photo which looks like this:

Tree of Life HDR Photo

As you can see this photo now shows everything from the sky to the ground to the tree perfectly exposed. I’ve actually just started toying with HDR photography and it takes quite a bit of practice to get good at it. I’ll be the first to admit that I have quite a ways to go. Like with anything else though practice makes perfect! So the next time you find yourself shooting and the scene doesn’t look quite the same in your camera as it does in person, think about creating an HDR photo.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of HDR Photography in this blog post. It was really meant to be an overview of the process rather than an in-depth how to. There are many people who do this type of work better than I so it would be worth it for you to check out some of their pages and their awesome photography.

The website “Stuck in Customs” is an awesome site created by Trey Ratcliff with a great free tutorial on how to create HDR photos. Don’t forget to check out his awesome gallery as well here. After looking at these photos one thing is clear, you can’t help but be “wowed” by a good HDR photo.

As always please feel free to post your results, leave comments, and ask questions. Happy Shooting!

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 3 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut. 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

Welcome all, with Thanksgiving just around the corner and other many holidays not too far behind I thought we would spend some time talking about how to take some decent photos of your friends and family during these happy gatherings.

The first hurdle that we are faced with is all of these holidays occur during the Winter time, which means indoor photos, which also means FLASH.

Flash can sometimes be a dirty word amongst photographers. It can conjure up images of super bright blown out blown out faces with harsh unflattering lighting that can make even the most attractive person in the world look like Frankenstein. So let’s discover some ways that we can minimize the negative effects of flash lighting and still capture some awesome photos of your friends and family this holiday season.

Let’s discuss those of you using a point and shoot camera first. With these small compact cameras the flash is so tiny that the light it produces is always very harsh. In addition due to the small size of the flash it can only provide illumination for just a couple of feet in front of you.

Pretend you’re shooting a photo of some family members in a room at your house during Thanksgiving. Everyone has 5 foot tall mice in their family right? Although the room looks well-lit to you, to your camera it’s a very different story. Your camera decides that flash is needed. You snap your photo and your family members end up looking like a disjointed faces and torsos floating in a sea of dark murkiness.

 

Family Photo with regular flash

This is despite the fact that they were actually standing in what you would consider a well-lit room. Come on admit it, how many of you have photos that turned out this way, but you never knew what to do about it? It’s ok you can raise your hand, I’ll look away.

So how can we prevent this. The first and one of the simplest things you can do is increase your ISO. Even the most inexpensive digital cameras have a function to increase ISO.

As we learned in a previous article, ISO determines how sensitive your digital camera’s sensor is to light. The higher the ISO the more sensitive your camera will be to light, which means it can perform better in low-light situations such as when shooting inside your house. In fact you might even be able to raise the ISO high enough that you won’t even need to use the flash at all.

There is a side-effect to be aware of, however. As you increase your ISO setting you also increase the amount of noise or grain that will be captured in your photo. This is an undesired effect and something you need to keep in mind when increasing your ISO setting. Most recent digital cameras will perform reasonably noise-free to ISO levels of 800 or even 1000. Some of the newest digital SLR (DSLR) cameras will even peform well at ISO levels  of up to 6400.

You can learn more about ISO from this previous article on the Dengrove Studios blog.

Now that we have our ISO set properly; high enough to allow make our camera more sensitive to the low-lighting conditions in the room, but not high enough to cause excess noise, what else can we do to make our flash photos better?

We can also change the mode of our flash. Most cameras allow you to change the way that the built-in flash operates by changing it’s mode. There are usually several to choose from.

There’s Standard Flash Mode, which causes the flash to fire when the light meter in your camera determines it’s necessary. There’s Fill Flash Mode, which causes the flash to fire every time you take a photo. Red-Eye Reduction Mode which is supposed to prevent subjects in your photo from getting those nasty devil eyes. More often than not it simply just annoys the heck out of people because they get blinded  with 3-5  flash bursts before taking the photo.

But the one we want to look for  is Slow-Sync Flash Mode. Some point and shoot cameras refer to it as “Night Mode” or “Party Mode”.

Ordinarily, when shooting with flash the camera chooses a fast shutter speed in order to “freeze” the action in the scene. Slow-Sync Flash allows the camera to use a slow shutter speed when shooting with flash. As you may recall from a previous article, shutter speed controls the length of time that ambient light or the available light in the scene is allowed to enter your camera and hit your camera’s digital sensor or film.

By using Slow-Sync Flash more of the available light in the scene or ambient light will be allowed to hit your camera’s digital sensor or film. Allowing you to capture not only your main subject which is illuminated by flash but also the background of your scene which is being illuminated by ambient light.

Remember that floating head photo you shot of your family members earlier? When we take that same photo again using Slow-Sync Flash just look at how much better it comes out! Now, not only is your main subject visible from the flash light but we can now see the actual room they’re standing in versus the scary abyss of darkness from before.

 

Family photo with Slow-Sync Flash

For those of you shooting with Digital SLR cameras there are even more things you can do to make your indoor flash photos look better. One of the absolute best ways of improving flash photos is to get the flash off the camera. This is because the built-in flash of your camera is actually in the worst possible position it could be in for making people look their best in photos.

The built-in flash rests nearly at eye level and right in front of your subject. This causes a bright harsh burst of flash light to fall on your subject from directly in front of them. So how can DSLR cameras help with this situation? Because, when shooting with a DSLR camera you have the option to use an external flash unit instead of the built-in one.

Nikon SB-900 External Flash (photo courtesy of Nikon)

Using an external flash compared to the built-in one is the difference between night and day! External flash units, when used properly, can simulate overhead lighting, side lighting, and even help to improve your photos in natural daylight. Since all of these types of light are what you find in most everyday lighting situations your flash photos will come out looking very natural, almost like you never used a flash at all.

Even using an external flash unit in it’s simplest configuration, mounted directly on the camera, it is still a vast improvement over the built-in one because it adds 1-2 inches of height. This means that the flash is no longer at eye level of your subject which makes the light softer and more flattering. It also helps get rid of that nasty red-eye.

For  even better photos you can rotate the angle of your external flash which you can then use to “bounce” the light coming from the flash off of a wall or ceiling. When “bouncing” your flash off of a ceiling it simulates the look of your subject being lit from overhead lights. This is excellent, now we can light our subject using flash but have it look more natural.

 

Nikon SB-900 External Flash rotated for bouncing light off the ceiling (shown with diffuser) (Photo courtesy of Nikon)

For the ultimate in natural looking flash photos you’ll want to get the external flash completely off the camera. “Why is this” you ask? Moving the flash off the camera allows you unlimited possibilities in positioning and directing your flash when taking a photo. This even allows you to light your subject from above at a 45 degree side angle, simulating natural daylight from the sun.

In order to make this work you can purchase a sync cable for your external flash unit which allows you to connect the flash to your camera while still being able to move it around. Some external flashes will even communicate wirelessly with your DSLR camera allowing you to position the flash on the other side of the room and still be able to set it off.

So as you can see no matter what type of camera you’re shooting with there are a number of simple techniques that you can employ to get better indoor flash photos of your friends and family. Most only require the turn of a simple switch to activate. With the holidays just around the corner I’m sure you’ll find plenty of opportunities to use these new techniques. Feel free to post your results, we’d love to see them and get introduced to your families.

As always, please feel free to leave comments, ask questions, and share some of your results on this blog post.

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 3 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut. 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

Picture it…(already he’s starting in with the puns?) Yes, Picture it….a lovely day, a good friend and a photograph. Let’s say you and your friend are out at a park and you decide what a lovely setting it would be to take a photo of your friend.

Remembering a tip you read somewhere on the internet about how portraits look better when the sunlight is diffused, you decide to have your friend pose under a big, leafy, shaded tree.

You shoot *click*. One more time just to be sure *click*. Then you look down at your lcd screen to see the gorgeous image you just captured…WHY THE HECK IS IT BLUE???!!!!!

Photo with blue color cast

Well now that you’ve destroyed the peace and quiet in the park, and scared your friend off, let’s examine why the beautiful image you were trying to capture came out with a horrible blue color cast.

It all has to do with something called White Balance. White Balance is a camera setting that allows the camera to adjust or compensate for color differences in the surrounding light of the image you are trying to capture.

“Now wait a minute Scott”…you say. Go ahead say it, I know you’re thinking it. “I just shot this photo on a nice sunny day under a tree, trees are green, sunlight is white, where did this blue color light you speak of come from?”

Well you’re only partially right, trees are definitely green, but sunlight isn’t always white. In fact sunlight is rarely pure white. You can check this for yourself, put on a white shirt and go out in the sun at various times during the day.

You’ll notice that at sunrise your white shirt takes on a pinkish hue. As you approach early morning it turns into a bit of a cream color. At sunset it turns into a nice gold. And if you happen to go under a shaded tree you’ll notice that it does indeed appear to be a bit blue.

Shirt Color at Sunrise, Mid-Day, Sunset

This isn’t only limited to sunlight. Go into various rooms in your house, if you have incandescent lights you’ll notice your white shirt takes on an orange tint. Fluorescent tube lights, those appear kind of green.

So how come we don’t notice these color changes all the time? Well as we’ve said many times before the human eye is the best camera ever invented, and it can compensate for this differences in the color of light very well.

Think about it, a lot of us work in offices with overhead fluorescent lighting, but do you spend your whole day at working saying “gee, everyone looks so green in here today”? Of course not, because our eyes and brains compensate for the color shift.

Our cameras are not so lucky they record the color of light exactly as it appears. So when you took that photo of your friend under that shaded tree,  the camera recorded the blue color of the light that is cast by the shade of the tree.

You may ask why this doesn’t happen every time you take a photo? Your camera actually has an automatic white balance adjustment built-in which automatically compensates for the differences in the color of light. Since it is a machine though it can sometimes be fooled by an object in your scene and actually choose the wrong white balance setting. Hence you get a photo with a blue color cast.

The auto white balance adjustment on your camera does a good job most of the time, but for the times that it gets confused, that’s when you switch to manual white balance. Most cameras will have a couple of manual settings that you can choose from:

– Sunlight  – use this setting when shooting in bright sunlight

- Overcast – use this setting when shooting on a cloudy day, it will add a little warmth (orange tone) to the photo

- Shade – use this setting when shooting in shady conditions, it will add quite a bit of warmth (orange tone) to the photo to counteract the blue cast caused by the shade

- Tungsten – use this setting when shooting indoors with tungsten lighting, it will add coolness (blue tone) to the photo to counteract the orange cast coming from the indoor lighting

– Fluorescent – use this setting when shooting indoors under standard fluorescent lighting, it will add a reddish tint to your photos to counteract the green cast caused by the fluorescent light

Each of the settings above will allow you to achieve a nice proper white balance when shooting under those various conditions. Luckily since you have a digital camera you can instantly see what effect each setting has on your image right after you capture it.

Does your photo look a little too blue? Try the Shade White Balance setting, that will add a bit more orange to it so your whites will look perfect. (Such as the image we shot above)

Shade Setting-cancels blue color cast

Subject looking a bit too green? Use the Fluorescent White Balance setting, it will shift the color a bit more in the red direction so your whites will look just as they should.

Did you happen to notice before how I said “since you had a digital camera”? Why is that? Remember when you used to shoot with film, there was no white balance setting on your film camera was there? That’s because when shooting with film the white balance setting is controlled by the film itself.

Actually the everyday, standard film you purchase at CVS or Walgreens is balanced mostly for sunlight. However, there are many specialty films that can be purchased which are white balanced for shade, tungsten, or even fluorescent.

So when shooting film you never had to worry about setting your white balance for each shot. If your camera was loaded with film balanced for shade you were pretty much stuck with it until you used up that roll of film. So with digital unlike film we have to worry about white balance for every shot, but it gives us better control and therefore better looking photos.

Now that we know how to set our white balance, what happens if you have a mixed lighting set up? For example, you’re shooting some photos indoors with both tungsten and fluorescent lighting, which setting should you use?

Well in this instance your camera can easily get fooled into using the wrong white balance setting. So the best way to deal with a situation like this is to calibrate your camera using an 18% gray card. “Hmm…” you say, “I seem to recall something about 18% gray when we learned about exposure a while back”.

Yes you are correct, when we talked about exposure we mentioned that your camera’s light meter tries to make everything in your image even out to a nice 18% gray. Your camera not only does this for exposure, it wants to do it for white balance too. Thus enters our 18% gray card..stage left, TA DA :)

There are many different companies that make gray cards for making sure your white balance is properly set. Below is an image of the one that I use from a company called Photovision. It not only helps you with your white balance but it helps check exposure as well.

18% Gray Card

Whichever one you choose to buy, make sure it is calibrated for digital cameras. Older gray cards, or ones made more for the film age are usually calibrated at 13% gray and will not work well for your digital camera. So you went out and bought an 18% gray card…now what do you do with it?

Aside from the white balance pre-sets we talked about above, most cameras have a setting that allow you to measure the white balance from what the camera sees. Sometimes this is called a manual white balance, custom white balance, or measured white balance. In this mode your camera will take a photo and then choose a white balance based upon the scene that it sees.

So to use your 18% gray card simply have your subject hold the card and then zoom in real close to it with your camera. The subject should hold the card under the same location and lighting conditions where you will take the final photo. Set your camera to the measured white balance setting and then snap your photo.

Since we know that our card is 18% gray, and your camera wants to make the white-balance of the scene in front of it measure 18% gray this will allow your camera to choose the perfect white-balance setting.

For example let’s say you’re shooting under shade. When your camera takes it’s measurement photo, the gray card will come out with a blueish color cast as we learned earlier. Therefore, your camera will shift the white-balance more towards the orange or warmer setting until the measurement photo measures 18% gray. Since the photo just happens to be of an 18% gray card we know that this will be the perfect white-balance setting for the scene we are about to shoot.

You only have to perform this calibration once for your scene. As long as you don’t change locations or change the lighting your new white balance setting will work perfectly for each and every photo you shoot under the same conditions. If you decide to move your subject somewhere else or your shade turns into sun, then simply re-calibrate your white balance with the 18% gray card again and you’re ready to shoot!

Some of our more advanced readers may be wondering if there is a way that they can set their white balance after they take their photo. Perhaps you’re not sure which white balance setting will work best for your scene. Or perhaps you have to shoot your subject very quickly and there’s simply no time to perform the calibration before you take your shot. Is there anything that can be done?

The answer is yes, if you shoot RAW. “Scott you’re talking crazy, these aren’t vegetables this is photography, what does RAW mean?” Shooting RAW means that the images that come out of your camera will look exactly the way that your camera’s sensor captures the scene.

Most digital cameras save their images as JPEGs. When this happens the camera does some processing of the image before it saves it to make the image look its best. But this is all very subjective, whose to say that the way your camera processes your image is truly the way you wanted it to look. This is where RAW comes in.

RAW means that the camera will save the image in it’s native format without any processing at all! This gives you unlimited creative possibilities with your photo. The down-side is that often times RAW images don’t look very good right out of the camera because no processing has been done to them. This requires you as the photographer to add some processing to the images to make them look their best. This can be a bit time-consuming.

RAW photo (left) vs Processed JPEG photo (right)

However, the upside is (and this is a good one…) that since no processing has occurred to the image, your image does not actually have any white-balance setting applied to it. So what does that mean in terms of our discussion. Basically it means that you are free to choose whichever white-balance setting you would like for your image, after you have shot the photo!

This is great, it means that you can try different white-balance settings to see what would work best for your scene. It also means that if you happened to choose the wrong white-balance setting when you shot the photo, you can get a do-over!

Let’s say when you shot that photo of your friend under the shade of that big tree you accidently had the white balance set to Tungsten. You will recall from our discussion earlier that a Tungsten white-balance setting will actually add more of a blue color-cast to your photo. This isn’t what you wanted, your photo already had a blue color-cast due to the shade of the tree; now your photo is really blue.

Of course if you shot RAW this is no problem at all! You can simply change your Tungsten white-balance setting to the Shade setting after you’ve transferred your photos to your computer. Your photo is saved, yay! You definitely can’t do that with a JPEG.

In conclusion exploring the many white-balance presets built-in to your digital camera will allow you to virtually eliminate any color casts you may find when shooting your photos. To nail the perfect white balance every time you should pick yourself up an 18% gray card and use it to calibrate your camera’s white balance before each scene change. And for those of you advanced shooters who want the ultimate in white-balance control, shooting RAW will not only allow you more control over your photos but also give you the opportunity to correct your white-balance mistakes long after you’ve shot the photo and gone home.

As always, please feel free to leave comments, ask questions, and share some of your results on this blog post.

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 the New York area. 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

With summer upon us a frequent activity of mine and I’m sure many others is visiting a theme or amusement park with family and friends. The wealth of colors, sights, people, shapes, and the occasional furry bear make theme parks an excellent venue for taking some really amazing photos. However, it is important to make sure that you’re using the right settings on your camera. Not only to make sure you get a great shot, but also to make sure that you do not disturb others around you who are trying to enjoy the ride!

The idea for this article came out of a trip I recently took to Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. More specifically while riding one of my favorite attractions, Spaceship Earth, at EPCOT. You know Spaceship Earth it’s the one that people claim looks like a “big golf ball”. In actuality it is one of the world’s largest geodesic spheres. It is while riding this iconic attraction that an incident occurred that prompted me to write this post.

Spaceship Earth

In general, this particular blog post is aimed at anybody who will be visiting a theme park and taking photos in the near future.

However, more specifically this post is aimed at the gentleman of average-description who was sitting 4 cars behind me on June 30th, 2010 at precisely 1:34 PM in the afternoon who decided it would be a bright idea to continually use his flash approximately every 10 seconds while taking photos, thus ruining the ride for not only me, but the other 25 people around me who were all taking the “slow-moving journey through the history of civilization” that is Spaceship Earth!

I can only hope that this man is a reader of my blog, and if so, my friend, you’d better listen up because I’m talking directly to you on this one! *End of rant*

For those who don’t know, Spaceship Earth is what is known as a “dark ride”. These types of rides usually take place in some sort of a vehicle, which brings you past various scenes of a story, such as a haunted house. The key thing that some people don’t seem to fully understand is the “dark” concept.

These rides are meant to take place in the dark and often times have extremely low-light levels. Naturally, it is very difficult to take photographs under these conditions and have them come out. This, I assume, is why there are people who take photos in these “dark rides” with their flash on.

There is a better way. Let me show you some techniques that you can use on “dark rides”. Not only to help you take better photos, but also so that you’ll be able to take the photos you want without disturbing the other people around you who are also trying to enjoy the attraction.

There is also a third reason why you shouldn’t use flash on “dark rides”. This is because the photos will never look like what you see on the ride. The people who create these rides use special lighting, and projections to create all the effects that you see, and to give the scene an illusion of realism. When you take a photo your flash is so strong that often times it overpowers all of these special effects and you end up with a photo of a very fake looking mannequin.

Let me give you an example…at the very top of the Spaceship Earth ride is a beautiful projection of the planet Earth. Naturally, everyone loves to take a picture of it. And of course there is always one person who will ruin the scene with their flash.

What this person doesn’t understand is that they just took a photo of a big white nothing! You see the image of planet Earth on the ride is a digital projection, like when you watch a movie. So when you shoot your flash at it, it ends up being so bright that it drowns out the projector and all you get is a photo of a blank white screen.

Earth

Image of Earth (f/1.8, 1/10s, 1600 ISO)

Earth with Flash

Image of Earth taken with Flash

As you can see from the images above clearly the flash doesn’t work in this type of situation, and all you have done is upset the other riders around you. So how can we get a nice photo of the Earth projection or any other scene in a “dark ride”? The first step is to turn off the flash! Every camera has a way of doing this, usually you should look for this symbol on your camera. This is where you can change the flash setting on your camera to OFF .

Once you have your flash off, there are some other settings on your camera that need to be “tweaked”. You’ll want to increase your ISO. We’ve talked briefly about ISO before. ISO is the setting that controls how sensitive to light the sensor on your digital camera is. If you’re using a film camera the ISO is determined by the type of film you place in your camera. The higher the ISO that you use, the more sensitive it makes your camera to light an therefore makes it easier to take photos in low-light.

Great so let’s crank our ISO setting to full blast and take some “dark ride” photos. Wait just a minute, it’s not quite as simple as that. You see although increasing the ISO makes our cameras more sensitive to the light coming through the lens, it has a very detrimental side effect that we must take into account.

Increasing the ISO also increases the amount of noise in your photo. This means that if you set your ISO too high your photo will turn into a big grainy, noisy mess. What’s worse is you won’t realize this until you download the photos to your computer, because on your cameras tiny little screen everything looks sharp and clear.

Spaceship Earth Scene with ISO set too high

Fear not though, today’s modern digital cameras can usually use ISO settings as high as 1200-1800 without showing any noise at all. In addition, camera manufacturers are pushing the ISO envelope all the time, creating better and better sensors that can take high ISO’s without showing any noise at all. Just this year 2 of the major camera manufacturers came out with cameras whose maximum ISO settings are over 100,000!

Changing our ISO will allow us to take better photos without flash, but what other settings do we need to know about when taking photos on “dark rides”? As you know, in nearly all “dark rides” there is some sort of movement or vehicle that you travel in, this is the “ride” part of the “dark ride”. When you leave your camera on it’s automatic settings it wants to slow down your shutter speed so that it can allow the most light possible into your camera.

Your camera’s shutter speed controls how long the sensor or film in your camera is exposed to light. Slowing the shutter speed down will allow more light to enter your camera because the shutter is open for a longer period of time which makes for better photos. There’s only one problem, when you combine a slow shutter with the movement of a “dark ride”, you get blur. Basically your photos would be a big blurry mess if you simply used your camera’s automatic settings on a “dark ride”

In order to correct this, we must tell the camera which shutter speed we’d like it to use. This way we can pick one that’s slow enough to be able to take decent photos in low-light but still fast enough so that you don’t get any blur from the moving ride vehicle. To do this we must put the camera into Shutter-Priority Mode, or S-Mode. You should be aware that not all cameras have an S-Mode setting on them. For those that don’t you can usually use either a “Night Mode” setting or “Portrait Mode” setting on your camera. These modes limit how slow the shutter speed will get so you can prevent or eliminate blur.

For those of you with cameras that have a Shutter-Priority Mode I would recommend using a shutter speed of 1/15 – 1/30 of a second. I find that setting is usually sufficient to get a nicely exposed photo while eliminating blur. If you’re not sure what kind of settings your camera has, consult with your owner’s manual to see if it has an S-Mode setting, and to see what other exposure presets it may contain.

Some digital cameras today come with over 15 programmed exposure modes. With everything from a “beach” to a “fireworks” setting there should be one offered on your camera that will allow you to limit your shutter speed. For more information about S-Mode you can click here to view our previous blog post about it.

SSE Scene

Properly exposed scene without flash (ISO 1600, 1/10s, f/2.8)

As you can see from the above photo when you combine a high ISO with the proper shutter speed you can walk away with a great photo of any “dark ride” without using your flash, just as the designers intended the scene to look. And more importantly, without disturbing your fellow riders! So the next time you find yourself at Epcot, riding on Spaceship Earth, I beg you, please keep in mind what we’ve discussed here today. Not only will it help you take better photos, but as you can see Mr. average description gentleman sitting 4 cars behind me, I might just be the one who is on the receiving end of your flash bursts.