Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2016 Jeff Wignall.

“The best way out is always through.”

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Looking Back at the Islands of Time

Here's another scene from yesterday's quick snow storm. This is the same pond and the view is just a few hundred feet to the right of the shot in yesterday's posting. I like the other shot more, I think, but one thing I like about this scene is that there are quite a few yellow leaves still clinging to some of the smaller trees. I think the yellow color adds another level of color interest to the scene. I like the very smooth reflection here, too. Interestingly (for me, at least) that large tree at the edge of the pond,  just to the left of center, has been there since I was a kid and, in fact, I used to sit on it and fish. That was more 40+ years ago and I had no idea I'd be a photographer then, but I find it comforting in a slightly mystical New Englandish way that I am able to revisit some of these haunts of my youth and turn them into photographs. While this town has undergone its share of development, oddly, there are some islands of my youth that have been untouched by time. If you have any places like that in the town or city where you grew up, whether you are still there or just visit occasionally, take time to photograph them because surely one day the bulldozers will come and those islands will disappear into the mists of memory. Tomorrow I'll show you another pond from the past.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Go Shoot Some Snow (but Hold the Beer, Thanks)

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a big fan of winter or snow--I complain about it a lot. But actually I love the look of snow, it can be a very pretty subject and if I lived in a more scenic area, I'd probably learn to love snow.  Still, you can find pretty snow shots almost anywhere, especially when it's that wet soft snow that clings to branches and outlines the dark trunks of trees so nicely. The snow was so pretty today, in fact, that I ran home while doing errands to grab the cameras and tripod and headed out about two hours before twilight to find something to shoot. This is an old mill pond near my home and as I drove by this reflection scene nearly stopped me in my tracks. Unfortunately the only place to park was in an unplowed parking lot and I wasn't sure if I'd get back out again, but the shot was so pretty I had to try (turns out I was able to back out easily). 

I knew the shot I wanted from the moment I saw it so all I did was to set up the tripod on a tiny dock, composed it, took a meter reading and shot. I should have shoveled off the wooden dock, it got very icy from me standing on it and I had a vision of myself falling into the pond not to be seen again until spring--and I *do* carry a snow shovel with me when I'm shooting so I can clear a place for my feet. I ended up shooting a couple dozen shots, changing the view slightly and altering the balance between the land and reflection. I initially had -1.3 stops of exposure compensation set inadvertently and when I noticed, got rid of it--always reset your controls at the end of a shooting session! That much compensation really didn't matter since I was shooting in RAW and could have easily corrected it. The shot here was a straight reading in the matrix mode; there was enough of a mix of lights and darks so that the meter didn't get fooled either way.

The only minor glitch in shooting this scene was that, after I'd been shooting for about a half hour, I noticed a beer bottle floating across the pond--being pulled by the current toward a small waterfall off to my right. There was nothing I could have done about it anyway and I knew I could clone it away (I did in the frame above), but it's amazing how people's garbage can get into almost any scene--and floating bottles have been a problem for me before. I'll have to buy a pellet gun and start shooting at them--might be more fun than cloning. Below is the uncloned shot--see if you can spot the bottle.
By the way, this is the same pond that I shot in this autumn scene--the snow scene is a little bit to the left of the autumn composition, but both were shot from the same dock. I think fishermen built that dock for their own use, but I get a lot of use out of it, too. Also, I saw two other photographers at the pond and one was off in the woods shooting, but the other just drove up, hopped out with a DSLR and snapped a few frames and left. It was almost a drive-by shooting.

I'm kind of hoping that snow is over for this season, but if not, I'll try to make the best of it and go get some snaps--you should too :) But if you have a beer while you're shooting, take the bottle home with you--and let someone else drive.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling, Shoot at Twilight Time

I guess it's my age and my love of music, but a lot of my photos bring songs to mind, both when I'm shooting and when I'm editing them. Tonight while editing images for the revision of my book The Joy of Digital Photography (Lark Photography Book) I couldn't get the Platters singing "Twlight Time" out of my head. Funny, my friend Mark Borax (who is one of the world's foremost astrologers and the author of 2012: Crossing the Bridge to the Future) and I used to drive around town singing this song, but we could never remember the lyrics so we made most of them up. And to be honest, since both of us are writers, we wrote some pretty good improv lyrics. Mark is also a musician and songwriter, so our midnight rides around town were filled with lots of music.

Anyway, back to photography. Today's tip is simple: Don't leave after the sun sets. There are two cool sky events that happen after sunset. The first, and one I've written about many times, is the "afterglow" which is that burst of color that frequently (not always ) spills up into the clouds after the sun has sunk below the horizon. The other is simply twilight and you can count on that every night. Twilight, to me, is an incredibly pretty time--the sky fills with blues and purples and any artificial lights (like the lighthouse beacon here) have a nice warm glow. Also, because the light tends to be very even at twilight, contrast is low and you have a lot of latitude with exposure. I always shoot in RAW these days (for the past year or so), so I can also moderate the amount of blue/purple light in the twilight and adjust the exposure before I even open the image in Photoshop. As far as metering, I tend to just meter the sky using the matrix or center-weighted meter and let and foreground shapes (the hillside and trees here) go into silhouette. 

The shot was taken in East Haven, Connecticut at Lighthouse Park, by the way--a nice place to head to for sunset and twilight shots (there's also a nice indoor carousel that's available in summer). I shot the photo with a Nikon D90 and an 18-70mm Nikkor zoom, on a Bogen 3021 tripod. Exposure, for anyone that cares, was 1/50 second at f/5.6.

By the way, I'm sure the Platters won't mind, so, in case you're trying to think of the opening lyrics of Twlight Time, here they are:  

Heavenly shades of night are falling
It's twilight time
Out of the mist your voice is calling
It's twilight time
When purple colored curtains
Mark the end of the day
I hear you my dear at twilight time

Monday, February 22, 2010

On the Threshold of the Past: Easy Ultra High-Contrast Imaging in Photoshop

I seem to be on a 1960's techniques kick lately. Last week I wrote about photographing things under black light and here's another technique that kind of resembles one I used way back when: high contrast black and white photography. My father worked in a photographic research lab back then and used to bring home odd bits of film and darkroom materials for me to experiment with. One of the most fun things he brought home were boxes of what is called "litho" or lithographers' film. The film was primarily used for making the separations from which offset printing plates were made, but it had another fun dimension: you could expose negatives on it to create ultra-high-contrast black and white images. There was actually a subculture among some of my photographer friends that got absolutely addicted to making high contrast images and were affectionately known (I think) as "those high contrast guys" at the camera store where we all hung out. Litho film was very expensive, but since I got it for free, I went through tons of it in my basement darkroom. 

Fortunately there is a quick and free way to create very similar images in Photoshop and it's called the threshold tool. You'll find the tool at the bottom of the layers palette (if you're new to the layers palette, just click on the little half-circle icon at the bottom and a group of tool options will pop out) and it's extremely simple to use. Once you open the tool the image you have open will convert to high-contrast black and white and you then use the slider to decide which parts go black, which go white. It's very simple. The only real problem with this tool is that it's not all that easy to find an image that looks interesting in ultra high contrast; some images just fizzle completely regardless of how you adjust the slider. I played with a dozen or so different pictures before I settled on this shot of a relief carving on the front of Notre Dame in Paris. The images that work best are those that have a limited range of tones to start, good surface texture and strong shape features. I shot this image late in the afternoon in bright sun that was creating dark shadows in the background and portrait-like facial shadows. 

Once you have the image in high contrast, of course, you can always use others tools (like the gradient map) to add color in very striking patterns. Again, finding just the right image is the key and it does take some experimenting to know which images will work. But just think of all the time and money you'll save by not having to go find litho film--and I have no idea where you'd even find it these days!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Contest Book Featured in Shutterbug March Issue

I just found out this week that Shutterbug magazine has run a major excerpt (spanning six pages) from my book Winning Digital Photo Contests in their March issue. The theme of this month's issue is "Edit, Organize & Enhance Your Images" which fits perfectly with one of the chapters in the book where I talk extensively about the value of tightly editing your work and creating a good organizational system so that you can present your best work to contest judges and then track all of your contest submissions. The excerpt features several great winning photos from the book and as I've said here before, the great thing about the contest book is that it's entirely illustrated by contest-winning photos from (mostly) amateur photographers. Check out the March issue next time you're at the newsstand--lots of great articles and photos.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Black Light Photography--It's a Trip, Man!

It's been a long time since I was a teenager and I don’t know how teenagers decorate their bedrooms these days, but back in the 1960s we had a pretty universal style: cover the walls with as many black-light posters as you could afford and beg your parents to buy you a black light for your birthday. Most of us just had little screw-in incandescent black-light bulbs, but a few of my friends had huge four-foot fluorescent fixtures and they enjoyed a very elite social status because of it. Recently black lights have been enjoying a rebirth in popularity and I couldn’t be happier—if only I’d kept all of those cool posters!

Black lights work by filtering most visible light and emitting only long-wave Ultraviolet light. Things that glow under black light are called black light reactive and there are a lot of natural things that react brilliantly, including: certain minerals (fluorite, calcite, wernerite and many more), petroleum jelly, quinine (tonic water), Mr. Clean and even live scorpions. (Yes, if you lose a life scorpion in your house a black light is the way to find it.)

You can also buy things that are known to react—including paints, balloons, soap bubbles and jewelry (to list just a few), as well as lipstick and body paint in case you want to do some very haunting portraits. Places like Spencer gifts (in almost every mall) and online sites like blacklight.com sells tons of fun things to photograph. Look around hardware and toy stores for likely subjects too—anything that is labeled “fluorescent” (spray paints, highlighters, sticky notes, etc.) is likely to glow.

The real fun of playing with black light, however, is just experimenting with common objects because until you place it them in front of a black light, you never know what will react. While doing test shots for the photos here, for example, I was shooting on my kitchen counter and I noticed a label on a bottle of olive oil on the counter was glowing to beat the band.

To take photos under black light all that you’ll need are an inexpensive black light fixture, some objects that react to black light and (preferably) a tripod since exposures tend to be very long. I bought both an 18" model Blacklight Fixture with Bulb- 18" and this 24"version American DJ Black 24 BLB 2 FT Blacklight and Fixture and both work great. (If you're thinking of buying one, please use these links and you'll help support this blog!) Making the exposures is just a matter of shutting off all room lights and placing your subjects close enough to the light so that they glow intensely. Surprisingly, most digital cameras meter black light quite well (remove the UV filter over your lens) and my exposures were generally around 1/8 second at ISO 200 with the lens was wide open. Without a tripod you could boost up the ISO and probably shoot handheld.

Incidentally, you can shoot entire rooms this way (especially if you line the walls with posters), but you’ll probably get the most brilliant results from shooting close-ups of very reactive objects. The tulips, butterflies and dragonflies here, for example, were just unfinished wooden objects that I found in the local crafts store and then painted with a combination of both spray and brush-on black light reactive paints. Martha Stewart did a great article on black light photography in her 2009 Halloween issue and there are so cool room shots, so look it up next time you're at the library--it's a good thing (the issue and the library, by the way).

Black-light photography is very experimental and tremendous fun—and just think how excited and proud your parents will be when you ask them if they have any old Jimi Hendrix posters stashed away in the attic.

Photo note: Incidentally, the green in this shot is much cleaner and nicer looking than it appears here. Google really slams these images with compression and it strongly affects the image quality.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Jeff Wignall's Digital Photography Crash Course--New Book Just Finished!

On Thursday I finished another new book: Jeff Wignall's Digital Photography Crash Course to be published by Lark Books in October--and here's the cool news: the book is based entirely on this blog! I've taken the top 150 or so tips from this blog and expanded them, added a few new twists and lots of new photos, and I think it's going to be a beautiful book. Lark did a great job and I'm psyched to see it being published  (hopefully one of several if I can keep the blog energy going). 

Finishing a book is always a huge relief and it brings with it a mixture of extreme exhaustion, the inescapable feeling of restlessness that comes from being tied to one project for many months and, thankfully, a sense of accomplishment. (The downside is that I'm already working on another book, so there is absolutely no rest for the wicked.) I'll write more about the Crash Course book when I've rested and reflected for a few days. Writing books is incredibly draining, both physically and mentally (and emotionally too, I guess): I just couldn't be more tired. Writing 75,000 words and coming up with 200 photos really grinds you down. And then, of course, after working on it for 12 hours a day (minimum) there is this feeling of "What do I do now?" I'm too wired to sleep and to exhausted to do much else.

In the meantime: I shot the final photos for the book at around 6 a.m. on Thursday morning after having been awake for 18 hours and nearly hallucinating from fatigue. The photos were made under black light (all those old enough to remember having a black light in your bedroom, raise your hands) and in the next posting I'll tell you how I made them. It's a very cool trick and it's really easy. The shot here is a mason jar full of artist's brushes that I was using to paint props with black-light reactive paint. Is that cool looking or what? I shot with a pair of fluorescent black-light fixtures and my Nikon D90 and the only tough part was not having someone there to help me hold the light fixtures in place. Anyway, next time I'll give you the whole inside scoop on black-light photography. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Nikon Introducing P100 with 26X Zoom Lens

Normally I don't talk about new equipment much on this blog, but I love zoom cameras and Nikon is about to introduce one that sounds like great fun--the Nikon Coolpix P100. I've had a thing for Nikon Coolpix cameras since I illustrated most of my book The Joy of Digital Photography (Lark Photography Book) using a Coolpix 5700. (Amazing isn't it that I illustrated that book almost entirely with 5mp cameras!). One of the most interesting features of this new camera is its built-in zoom--a whopping 26x zoom that is the 35mm equivalent of 26 to 678mm! Wow, talk about a great sports and wildlife lens. Can't wait! I'm a bit surprised that it's only a 10.3 megapixel camera, I would have thought Nikon might go for a 12mp camera at this point--but megapixel counts are not that important, it's the size and quality of those pixels that really matters. Interestingly though, the camera will have a CMOS and not a CCD sensor. Another thing I really like is that it's going to have a 3" articulated LCD screen, which means you can lift the LCD away from the body for more flexible viewing angles.

A few other nice features:

  • High-speed 10 fps enables high-speed continuous shooting for full 10MP images, ideal for sports and action
  • Sports Continuous shooting with pre-shooting cache option enables high-speed shooting at approximately 120 fps for images up to 1.1MP
  • Advanced Night Landscape mode combines a series of consecutive shots taken at a fast shutter speed into a single, clearer image when taking handheld shots at night
  • Backlit Scene HDR (High Dynamic Range) merges different exposures of the same scene to create an image with a range of tonal detail that could not be captured in a single photo 
  • New Full HD movie with stereo sound and HDMI output 
The camera is supposed to ship in March and has a suggested retail price of $399 (my guess is that it will sell for about $50 less than that). You can read more about the Coolpix P100 on the Nikon site.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The RAW Deal: Why I (Now) Always Shoot RAW Format

If there was such a thing as a photographers' bar (and maybe there is and no one's told me about it yet), I'm sure that one of the most heated topics of happy-hour debate would be the perpetual row over RAW vs. Jpeg camera formats. Other than the fifty-year Canon vs. Nikon holy war, nothing incenses the opposing factions in photo circles like the discussion over which recording format is better. And if you think that I'm going to stick my foot in the middle of that dog fight, well...maybe just a bit.

The truth is, of course, that neither format is inherently superior to the other; it's all a matter of how you work and how involved you are with image editing (and if someone insists that one is intrinsically best, beware that bulging vein in their neck--it's about to start throbbing). It actually took me years to arrive at the decision that RAW was a better format for me and, in professional circles, at least, I was very late to the game. Now, however, I shoot RAW almost exclusively--and I'll tell you why.

First, let me briefly explain the differences. Whenever you take a photograph in the jpeg format, regardless of how you have the camera set up or what mode you're working in, the camera processes your image before you see it, automatically enhancing things like color saturation and sharpness, for example, to make your images look as good as possible right out of the camera. And for a lot of photographers (and photographic situations), that's a good thing. If all that you do is drop your card off at the local CVS to be printed, for instance, this will vastly improve the quality and "prettiness" factor of your images. So what's wrong with that? Nothing.

The price you pay for that quality convenience, however, is that the camera has taken a certain amount of creative control away from you. You can choose to set the white balance to "cloudy day," for instance, to warm up shots on a cloudy day--but you are stuck with that white balance. You are also stuck, to a degree, with the exposure that was set when you shot the photo. Again, in many cases, this isn't that big a problem. A larger problem is that, in order to keep files as small and manageable as possible and to keep your camera cranking out images as quickly as you can press the shutter button, the camera also compresses those images. That's what jpeg is--a compression scenario that shrinks images by tossing out similar pixels before you even seen them. Jpeg, in fact, is known as a lossy format--it loses information during processing.

RAW images, on the other, hand, are recorded with virtually no behind-the-scenes enhancement. The image that comes out of the camera is almost exactly as you shot it. The most common analogy for this, in fact, is that a RAW image is like a camera negative--all of the information is there for you to alter as you like in editing--just as you would interpret a negative in the traditional darkroom. Even more importantly, nothing is lost or left behind in translation. Every pixel that was exposed is maintained and nothing is "compressed," thus RAW is referred to as a lossless format.

Where RAW really gets interesting, and quite useful, is during the pre-editing process. Whenever you download and then open a RAW file you must first go through a "conversion" step that enables you to change some key things like exposure, white balance, tint, contrast and saturation--and on a very detailed level. In terms of exposure, for example, you can be off be several stops in-camera and actually change the exposure during editing. You're not just making a curves or levels adjustment, as you can do with a jpeg file, but you're actually changing the exposure. You can also adjust the white balance in any way you like. If, for example, you weren't sure if you wanted the image to be warm or cool, or if the dominant light source was tungsten or daylight, no problem--you can make that decision after the fact. You can also adjust the hue/saturation/luminosity of each individual color before you even begin to edit the image--quite amazing. And you can pre-adjust curves in the conversion process (though to be honest, I do all of my real curves work in Photsohop after conversion.)

It was largely the ability to change the first two things--exposure and white balance--that won me over. That and the fact that my good friend and one of the world's premiere food photographers, Jon Van Gorder, convinced me that by not tossing away duplicate pixels and by editing in 16-bits instead of 8-bits (another RAW feature), the quality of my images would vastly improve. I tried it for a few weeks and he was right. Once I switched to RAW, my images were radically better. My editing also became more careful, more calculated and I understood more about what I was doing and why.

Are there downsides to shooting RAW? Yes, but for me they are slight. For one, RAW files take up huge amounts of both card space and hard drive space. But memory prices have plummeted so much that that is no longer a concern to me. You can buy a terabyte hard drive now for a few hundred dollars--unimaginable when I started shooting digitally. Also, because the files are so large it slows your shooting down; it simply takes the camera longer to transfer the images from the buffer to your memory card. And finally, there is that extra step in processing that you must go through.

So is RAW better? Ask me in the photographers' bar some night. In the meantime, look at the type of work you do, the level of quality you demand from your images, how much time you want to spend editing and how many memory cards you're willing to own. Don't let anyone tell you you're wrong to shoot jpeg if the balance for you tips in that direction. But if RAW sounds appealing to you, try it. I think once you do, you'll be evangelizing in no time.

Now, speaking of camera brands...