Archive for the ‘Friday Foto Talk’ Category
Hello everyone and Happy Friday!! I’m in the midst of a significant shooting drought. A number of things all combined are preventing me from shooting, but most of it is down to a simple lack of desire to shoot the subjects around me. I am currently working full-time and in an area not typically known for its nature photography. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not offering any excuses whatsoever, and freely admit that I’m not taking advantage of the time and opportunities that I’m getting.
I believe very strongly that it is never a good thing to force yourself into something if you’re not “feeling it”. I figure it this way: if you are going out to shoot things that don’t particularly interest you, in light that does not get your photographer pulse going, then the results are most likely going to be bland. And why do bland photography? It makes little sense to me.
Now I realize that you may worry that your skills are going to erode while waiting for the subjects to appear and the motivation to return. If you are still a novice and very much learning, this may be a valid concern. But for the most part it is a non-issue. You’ll get it back soon after you start shooting again. Besides, you can always read books on photography, whether instructional or illustrating the works of other photographers. You can also keep your observational senses sharp by remembering to be a keen observer – of things, people & animals, and of light, whether you have a camera or not.
So I’m going to post a couple images I stumbled upon that I didn’t process until now. They’re from a few years ago, in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Colorado. What a view the builders of this cabin had! Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!
Looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.
At the end of a winter’s day skiing, this is looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.
This is the 3rd and final part of my little series on shooting alternate versions of the same basic subject. Check out Part I and Part II for the nuts and bolts of varying composition and other factors just enough to create alternates without completely changing the image. Today I want to discuss a very important part of alternate versions: the review. This is where a lot of novice photographers tend to become frustrated, so this post includes some basic advice designed to help you use precious review time wisely.
Last time I mentioned how it’s important at first to be aware of why you are shooting an alternate of the same subject. It could be as simple as grabbing a quick vertical. Or it could be a version that concentrates attention on one particularly strong subject by using a large aperture, thus throwing the background out of focus. Or you can change multiple things about the image, getting low and close while rotating to horizontal, zooming out a bit, and including less sky.
An old pile dike along the Columbia River in Oregon.
Review on the LCD
It’s a good idea to think about why you shot different versions when you review the images later, whether on your camera’s LCD screen or on the computer monitor. Speaking of the LCD, I see plenty of photographers checking out their photos during the shoot. That is fine if you’re checking things like focus and exposure; in other words, making sure you don’t need to re-shoot. Or if you want to get a human subject more interested in the shoot. But don’t take too much time looking at the back of the camera. Avoid the trap of getting too caught up in review when you should be concentrating on your subject and the light.
I try to review the images on my camera’s LCD very soon after shooting. I do this not only to delete images with obvious problems right away, in order to make more room on the card. But I also like doing a quick inventory of my alternate versions while the shoot is still fresh. It is easier than you think to delete images you should have kept. Unlike a computer, your camera doesn’t have a trashcan where you can recover deleted images. It’s forever!
For example, you might think you have useless repeats of the shot when you actually had in mind at the time good reasons to capture an alternate version. Maybe your reasoning was unconscious and maybe it wasn’t. But if it was, reviewing on your LCD soon after the shoot has the effect of bringing it right up to the surface of your mind. I don’t always keep alternates at this stage. Sometimes I realize my reason for the alternate was rather superficial.
Despite a significant difference in composition, the light and atmosphere are similar enough to call this vertical of the above image an alternate version.
Review on the Computer
No matter how conscious you are while out shooting, when you’re viewing and rating the different versions on the computer later, deciding which to keep, it’s helpful to note what sets each alternate version apart. The differences are often subtle but important for what you’re trying to get across in an image. Were you trying to emphasize an interesting foreground with an alternate version? Next time out will you get low and close while the light is at its best instead of doing that as an afterthought?
While it’s perfectly natural and appropriate to prefer one version over another, be careful about your judgments. For example you may prefer the vertical version of a scene you just shot in dramatic sidelight. But that doesn’t mean you should always photograph scenes like it vertically. Say you return in softer, more subtle light. The horizontal may turn out to be the better choice.
Another reason to avoid overemphasizing personal preference is the existence of considerations that have nothing to do with whether one version is better than another. A horizontal version, for example, may obviously look better because of layering or other characteristics of the scene. But what if someone loves the image and wants to frame and hang it in a place that will fit a vertical but not a horizontal? Or what if a magazine likes it but needs one that has more negative space? That’s yet another way to shoot an alternate, by the way. By zooming out and/or flipping the camera to include more blank sky, water, or other similarly plain space, you allow room for type, mastheads and the like.
The vertical of the opening image includes the weather vane atop the lodge.
Using Review to Grow
As you review more and more shoots you’ll naturally learn which kinds of images you like better for which kinds of subject and light. You might notice yourself gradually shooting slightly fewer alternate versions. But the idea behind doing alternate versions is to increase not decrease your options.
Although learning your preferences is a good thing, don’t over-generalize and end up missing opportunities. It’s important to realize that every scene and every moment’s light and mood is unique. Also unique is the message you want to get across in the image. Alternate versions can help you accomplish this most important of photography goals, but only if you do them.
The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.
One thing I’ve learned over time is not to force myself to judge when I’m reviewing images on the computer. Of course I do mostly prefer one shot over others, and one version of that shot over alternate versions. But when there’s no clear winner I don’t spend a lot of time forcing myself to decide. I just give the two an equal number of stars, label them both with copy names (a field in Lightroom just below the filename), and move on.
Most important is to keep an open mind. Open to other possibilities while you’re out there shooting, and open to different ways of evaluating images on the computer. As with all thoughtful post-shot review, considering your reasons for creating alternate versions can inform your next shooting session in interesting ways. It can also force you to grow as a photographer. For example you might find yourself better defining your style. Shooting and then reviewing different versions could lead you to explore a certain way of shooting in more depth. Thanks so much for reading and I hope your weekend is a fun one. Happy shooting!
For this alternate version of the above image I waited until deep dusk (which allowed a longer exposure). I also got lower and closer to the foreground rocks and relied on artificial lights from a hotel to illuminate them.
I’ve posted this image before: dawn at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
This is the second of three parts on creating alternate versions of the same basic image. Definitely check out Part I; these are meant to go together. Alternate versions are not totally different compositions, or one shot looking one direction and one the other. They are those images you may group together on the screen to review and compare.
Creating alternate versions can be as simple as shooting one horizontal and one vertical. Or it could be as complicated as shooting a dozen versions all with different combinations of variables. And speaking of those variables, let’s pick up where we left off last time and look at more ways to vary a landscape image.
- Focal Length. Changing focal length by a lot changes the whole image, by a lot. But we’re talking about alternate versions of the same image, so think zooming in or out by only modest amounts. The idea is to keep the main elements of the scene the same but perhaps include or exclude subsidiary elements. It’s similar in some ways to moving toward or away from the foreground, but although it’s often mistakenly thought that the two are identical, they will yield a different look.
A wider version of the above scene. In addition to shorter focal length, I lowered the point of view, putting the fence in a more prominent position and including more sky. The light is different too, as it was captured after sunrise.
- Depth of Field (DOF). Varying how much of the scene is in focus is something many people don’t consider for landscapes. Most of us always try for the maximum, sharp from front to back. But sometimes it’s interesting to limit depth of field for a shot or two after you get the standard landscape. If you are limiting DOF you may also vary the place where you are focusing. For maximum DOF you really don’t have much choice for point of focus; that is, there is a ‘right’ place to focus (the hyperfocal distance).
- Exposure Time. Another under-appreciated variable. For example most people get in the habit of shooting waterfalls in one way, using long exposure to smooth the water. Even when shooting this way you can get quite different looks and textures if you vary that longer exposure. Another example: changing shutter speed when there are moving clouds can totally change the look of the sky. Whenever there are elements moving in your frame, changing exposure time will give a different look.
Because of a somewhat dangerous position, I only had time for two versions of this spring along Oregon’s Hood River. This vertical has the longer exposure time. 28 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.
For the horizontal I went with a relatively short exposure for more detail in the water. 24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.
- Light. This variable is a bit different than the others. You don’t have nearly as much control on light as you do the others. But you do have some. The classic example is that photographer who shoots the sun as it’s setting. Then after it disappears below the horizon you look over and they’re packing up, thus missing out on alternate shots under different light. Another example: you may like a composition so much that you go out to shoot it both at sunset and sunrise. If it’s close to home you might shoot it in golden autumn light, crystalline winter light and bright spring or summer light.
There are two main points I want to make. One is that there are always options and usually enough time to get at least a vertical if not other alternate versions of the same scene. And so I recommend trying to do at least two versions of each landscape (a vertical and horizontal). I also recommend that while you’re out shooting, at least initially, you think about which variables you changed and, more importantly, why. As you become more experienced you’ll shoot alternate versions more or less unconsciously.
Next week we’ll conclude with some thoughts on post-shot review and processing of alternate versions. Thanks very much for checking in this week. Have a great weekend and happy shooting!
Sometimes you only have a few seconds to get a single shot. That was the case as I hurried to board a ferry. This is a traditional fishing vessel along the coast of Burma (Myanmar).
Dawn and part of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park. 16 mm., 1.6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100
Sometimes you have just one opportunity to get a shot. You have to whip that camera up and shoot. If you’re not ready the moment is gone. But more often there is time to capture different versions of the same subject. Since landscape photography is so applicable to this, and because I do a lot of it (I’m not alone!), I’m going to use landscape photography to illustrate ways to create alternate versions of an image.
There are several main ways to vary a landscape shot. Let’s look at those that change the composition but keep the same main elements of the scene the same.
- Format. Changing between horizontal (or landscape) and vertical (portrait) formats is the easiest way to create alternate versions of an image. Normally a vertical emphasizes the height of things like trees and mountains. It can also give a greater sense of depth. Horizontals emphasize a sense of space and can lend a serene feel to a landscape. I usually try to get both unless the picture definitely lends itself to one or the other.
- Point of View. Point of view (POV) can be changed in many ways. I did a mini-series on POV that explores this very important subject. One of the most common ways to vary POV is by changing camera height. Depending on how close the foreground is, changing height will also change the distance to that foreground, which can greatly change the look of an image.
Vertical of the image at top. I lowered POV, got closer to the foreground and thus emphasized the ice and sandstone while reducing the apparent size and importance of the background mountains and sky. 16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.
- Proportion of Sky vs. Land. Changing POV in turn can change this variable. It involves changing the relative amount of sky vs. land in the image, a very common thing for landscapers to do. For example, simply tilting the camera down or shortening your tripod legs takes you from an image dominated by sky to one dominated by the landscape below. The possible variants are nearly endless. For example you can change from nearly fifty-fifty to almost all land with just a sliver of sky. You could even shoot with the horizon in the middle, but that works well only in certain situations.
- Distance from Subject/Foreground. As long as you don’t exclude a main element (in which case it’s a different picture), you can change the feel by simply moving closer to or further from the closest element in the frame. Try doing this without changing any of the variables above. It’s hard to do, isn’t it?
A rainbow and a tall fir tree frame Vista House in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. 35 mm., 0.4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 100.
As just mentioned it can be tough to change just a single variable when you’re taking multiple shots of the same thing. Of course you don’t have to limit yourself to one variable. And you shouldn’t. We’re not doing science experiments, we’re shooting pictures. But if you’re curious and want to see more clearly what the effects of changing a certain variable look like, go ahead and control the other variables. Play scientist for awhile.
Next time we’ll look at a few other variables you can change to create alternate versions of your landscape images. Thanks for reading. Have a fun weekend, one filled with laughter and plenty of pictures!
Which version do you like, this horizontal or the vertical above? By changing format & using a slightly longer focal length, the tree and top of the rainbow are cropped off. The light has also changed slightly. 50 mm., 0.5 sec. @ f/13, ISO 100.
This series on casual video for the still photographer has mostly stuck to the basics. I’ve done that to show how easy it is to start shooting video. None of these videos have been edited either. I want to head off the excuse that some people use, that they have no time to learn a whole new editing program. Untold numbers of people shoot video with their phones. My goal is to get my fellow still photographers to create videos when the mood strikes, but to do them with intention and care.
I’ve also stayed away from stuff like time-lapse and slow-motion. These are rather faddish in my opinion, but speaking objectively, they are sub-areas of nature videography that require a specific focus. Time-lapses, for instance, are actually a series of still shots. While you do produce a video of sorts, the mood is often disjointed. Also there is no real-time, native sound. Creating a time-lapse is rather boring in practice, and it doesn’t really help you develop field video recording skills.
Of course there is nothing wrong with timelapse or any other type of video. But I believe that when you’re first getting into video, or any genre within the photography realm, it’s best to start simply. Go out and do it before you commit to creating a final (shareable) product. So many of us love what we see online so much that we just have to go off and create that very thing. Or something that looks just like it. It’s a completely understandable impulse.
Consider taking a more organic approach. See if you enjoy the process of creating it first before worrying about results. This way you’ll slowly develop your own style, eventually creating something that is uniquely yours rather than imitative. By the way, I don’t consider myself such a great artist. But I do have a firm idea of the way to get there!
I know this is the era of instant gratification, but it’s important to be patient. Learn to enjoy the process before you expect to create something you can be proud of. High expectations are fine, but don’t impose too-short a timeline. That will only cause unnecessary stress. Even a mild amount of anxiety can sabotage the creative process.
Video & Focal Length
Now let’s get to it! One of the best things about shooting video with a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera is the ability to use a variety of lenses. As I mentioned in an earlier post on the basics, when you’re starting out it’s useful to stick with a medium focal length lens. If you have a 50 mm. lens you’re in luck; it’s perfect for video. Otherwise use a medium zoom and stay 10 or 15 mm of 50. Reason is to avoid the distortion you get with wide angles, and the shakiness that can happen with long focal lengths.
Once you’re comfortable doing videos at medium focal lengths, you’ll naturally want to try different lenses. But this post isn’t about using telephotos for wildlife or wide-angles for landscapes. It’s about one of the most fun ways to shoot video: macro and close-up! In order to view these videos click on the title at top-left first, then click the play button.
By the way, I didn’t mean to cut short the video of the dung beetles below. A black rhino had suddenly appeared between my rental car and where I was lying on the ground. So I had to stop and figure out how to avoid being charged!
Macro Video ~ Tips
- Try to pick subjects that stay in one place. You can expand on this once you get some practice. Either way you should observe your subject for a time before you come up with a plan. For example in the video above I watched those beetles in Africa roll a couple dung balls from point A to point B before I followed along shooting the clip. That delay may have saved me, as I could have been regarded as a threat if I hadn’t been lying down!
- Use a tripod. Just as with macro still photography, a tripod is nearly essential. For one thing, most macro lenses have fairly long effective focal lengths. Hand-holding is hard to do without introducing jumpiness. Also, whether you use a macro lens or attachments like extension tubes or close-up filters, depth of field will be quite narrow. Provided you choose a suitable subject, you have a better chance of keeping things in focus when you’re on a tripod.
- Speaking of focus, choose a point of view and composition that makes it easier to keep the subject in focus without having to twist the focus ring. “Pulling” or “following” focus as it is called, is a skill that takes awhile to master. A subject that moves across the frame, for example, is easier to keep in focus than one that moves toward or away from you.
- Watch for repetitive or cyclical behaviour. Many times, when observing nature, you’ll notice that a critter will keep repeating its actions, or it might circle back to where it has been before. If you set up on a tripod focused in on that spot, all you need to do is watch and wait, ready to press record. For the video below the dragon flies were zipping around much too quickly for me to follow. So I simply watched one for awhile and noticed her returning to a nearby perch, spreading her wings like they do. I focused on her first, using manual focus (which is best for video). Then next time back, since she alighted in exactly the same spot, I shot the clip.
- Limit motions. By using the approach just mentioned, pointing at a spot and waiting for the critter to arrive, you’ll be forced to stay put. Insects and other small critters tend to get used to your presence more quickly than bigger animals, but it’s still helpful to keep still. Of course moving around is necessary for any good photography. But macro shooting, still or video, goes much more smoothly when movement is limited, planned out and deliberate.
- Look for subtle subjects too. Macro video isn’t just about insects. For example, flowers or other interesting macro subjects can be great targets for video when light is rapidly changing as clouds move quickly across the sky. Movements from wind can also make videos worth a try.
- Finally, don’t limit yourself to true macro. Do close-up videos with other lenses. If you have a lens that offers a “macro” setting, you may be able, depending on subject, to focus close enough to get that intimate feel of macro. Do you know the closest that each of your lenses will focus? You should. Wide-angle lenses often focus quite closely. They also enable you to hand-hold the camera with less chance of shakiness. For the video below I had to get my feet wet to move smoothly through the scene. At the end of the clip is a bonus: my little buddy Charl (RIP) watches from the bridge. No way was he getting his little feet wet!
That’s all for now. If you haven’t done so, try a macro video or two. If you have, let us know what you thought. Are there any tips I forgot? Thanks for reading and have a fantastically fun weekend!
My blog series on video for still photographers continues. It’s not been too popular, something I figured would happen because of the the nature of blogging. The blogosphere is quite biased toward still photography. Videos are very popular overall, but tend to be concentrated in other places on the web. It’s sad to say but most serious photographers still don’t think video is worth doing, I believe because they think the learning curve is too steep. But when you’re out shooting photos you’re also carrying a very good video camera around with you. So why not add movement and sound, even if the results aren’t likely to measure up to those of a pro videographer?
Last time we looked at landscape videos. Today let’s talk about critters, or animals. Specifically wildlife. Domestic animals have their own challenges. Video of wildlife is not easy. But it’s one of the few subjects that even non-video people think of shooting. The reason is that wildlife often do interesting things that are very hard to capture with still pictures. They also make fascinating sounds.
To view the videos don’t click the play button right away. First click the title at top left, then the play button.
Wild animals are generally shy and not easy to find. In modern times there is a two-edged sword. Plenty of roads and easy access make it a snap to go looking for wildlife. But the same development and population growth that gave us those roads also causes most species to decline in numbers. And the survivors normally become very shy and elusive.
A general truism is that the easiest critters to find also tend to have the fastest and most unpredictable movements. On the flip side, leaving aside rarity, if they’re very difficult to find they tend to be slow and easy to follow. Sloths come to mind. But it’s not always true that the slow ones are hard to find. It could be the animal is simply not afraid and instead looks on you as lunch, like the Komodo dragons below.
Location, Location. There are just a few main strategies that will make it easier to find wildlife. One is heading to protected areas. Parks and preserves concentrate the wildlife that we have chased out of most parts of the world. Some African parks even fence them in, which is actually to prevent them leaving the park where they can be poached. Of course the poachers just go into the park to kill, so the fences are relatively ineffective in that way. The fences do cut down on human-wildlife conflict, as well as reduce road-kill.
The Right Time. Another strategy is to go out looking when animals are most active. And I’m not just talking about dawn and dusk, when most (not all) animals are likely to be moving about. I’m also talking season. Fall is when many animals become active, and spring (or the start of wet season in Africa) is also good because many have their young and are thus forced to go out hunting, foraging or browsing to feed them. Also, the babies are irresistible.
‘Tis the Season. Seasonality also affects the ease with which you’ll be able to spot critters because of vegetation. For example going on safari in Africa during the dry season is popular because the general lack of green leafy growth on shrubs and trees of the savannah makes it easier to spot wildlife.
Some wildlife during a specific season will ignore their natural instinct to avoid humans and come right down into our towns. In late fall, the elk of several western U.S. National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Grand Tetons for e.g.) descend from higher country and congregate in gateway towns like Estes Park, Colorado.
Showing their Moves
Animals move (I know, duh). And they move apparently without warning and in unpredictable ways. But really not so unpredictable once you observe and learn about them.
Ready & Steady. Be ever ready to move the camera instantly. It’s a mindset that is applicable to still photos of critters as well. Your positioning and stance needs to be such that you can swivel or pivot easily. I liken it to when I was a kid being coached on how to take a lead in baseball. You also need a way to smooth out your motions, covered in a previous post: Video on the Move.
Observe. The most important thing in this regard is careful observation. The more you learn about a species, the better you’ll be able to predict its movements. But avoid the trap even experienced people fall into. You can know the species but not the individual. Like us, each one is different and unique, in ways that seem quite subtle to us (but presumably not them). So even if you know the species well, a little pre-shooting observation goes a long way.
If you record the voices of animals (and why wouldn’t you have sound recording turned on?), you can be sure that even the chattiest of them will choose the time after you press the record button to give you the silent treatment.
Observe some More. Same goes for sound as for video: if you have the opportunity, observe the animal for awhile before you press record. You’ll gain a sense of the periodicity or patterns inherent in the animal’s vocalizations. The keys, as it is in general nature observation and photography, is patience and timing.
Examples. At Yellowstone Park I went out in the very early morning to film the buffalo above. On a previous morning I’d seen them crossing the Lamar River and figured they were sleeping on one side and eating breakfast on the other, with a bath in between. Also the early hour meant only one other tourist, and he stayed up by the road. A shotgun mic helped to capture their voices. Below, on the Kafue River in Africa, I couldn’t get close enough to these hippos but their voices carry so well across the water that I didn’t need the shotgun mic.
That’s it for this Friday, thanks for looking. Have an excellent weekend and don’t forget to press that record button!
Addendum: Dry Run
Try is a dry run from time to time. For example you could walk out into a forest in the wee hours to hear the dawn chorus of birdsong. Try leaving your camera in the bag, at least at first. The goal is to find the best locations and to simply listen. Note when certain bird species begin and end (it’s strictly regimented), along with how long the singing lasts. If you go out several times you’ll begin to learn how the weather affects timing along with other features of bird vocalization and behaviour.
Believe it or not I did this for a job one summer. I surveyed forests in the Pacific NW proposed for logging, looking for evidence of use by endangered bird species. Since most of the areas lacked trails, I would go out during the day with some white surveyor’s tape. I’d find a good spot to observe from and then, on the way back to the road, flag a route by every so often tying a piece of surveyor’s tape around a branch.
Then in the morning, at “zero dark thirty” I returned with my flashlights (I recommend two, a headlamp and a strong hand-held) and followed the trail in. White shows up in the dark a lot better than orange. On the hike out after sunrise I’d remove the surveyor’s tape. This is, by the way, also a good way to find and shoot out-of-the-way places at dawn, your “secret” spots that are away from roads and trails.
I took a break last week from Friday Foto Talk. I hope everybody’s new year is starting off right. I’m going to conclude the series on video for still photographers with two or three posts focusing on common subjects that you might want to film, with tips on how to make the most of those opportunities. The first one is, you guessed it, landscapes. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with using the verb ‘to film’ when you’re talking about digital video. Is there? To view the videos here, first click on the title at top left. Then you can press the play button.
The Feel of a Landscape
Have you ever been out photographing a beautiful landscape, perhaps with a stream flowing through the scene or a breeze sighing through the trees, and wondered what it would be like for your viewers to hear and feel what you are hearing and feeling? How do you shoot a video of a landscape and not bore people? Nothing is really happening after all. Or is it? Although there is very little going on in the video at top, I think the intense dawn chorus of birdsong gives a strong feel of watching the sun rise over the Klamath wetlands of Oregon.
THE BASICS & BEYOND
It’s probably best to start out filming landscapes by putting the camera on a tripod and using a medium to narrow aperture focus about 1/3 of the way into the scene. It’s easy to screw up a video by leaving important areas out of focus. Now if you have close foreground in your video, you should not only focus closer, right on the foreground or slightly beyond it, you should also go with a wide angle lens and use a narrow aperture.
But if you’re trying to transmit the feel of the scene to your viewers, the procedure I just mentioned may not be the only thing you try. For me the reason to do videos is to give viewers an idea of what it’s like to stand where I’m standing and see what I’m seeing. It’s also one of my main goals in shooting stills, by the way. First of all, don’t worry so much about the boredom factor. For landscapes you’ll be trying to strike a balance between capturing the mood and boring your viewers, but don’t let that hamstring your creativity. Definitely don’t limit your video to when there’s a lot of action. My opinion is there are very few situations in still photography that cannot be successfully filmed.
COMPOSITION IS STILL KING (BUT AUDIO IS QUEEN)
Compose your video to take advantage of any movement in the scene, but make sure the movement is in keeping with the scene’s mood. For example you could try getting low and close to a moving foreground element (waving grass or moving water, for e.g.). Despite what I just said about focus, you could even leave your foreground out of focus if it doesn’t take up too much of the frame. It’s not quite as distracting to see out of focus foreground in a video as it is in a still photo. If it’s moving we don’t seem to mind as much if it’s blurry. Experiment with this.
Don’t forget audio. Sound is an important factor when trying to impart mood in your video. For native audio, note what part of the soundscape you want to capture and use the appropriate mic, if you have one. Or adjust position, recording short clips and listening back to them until you pick up the sound nicely. In the video below, which was shot with a fisheye lens so you can see both up- and down-stream at Zion’s Subway slot canyon, it didn’t matter what mic I used. Because of the closed-in canyon, the sound of moving water dominates everything.
We looked at wind already (check out this post), but it is part of nature so is a near constant concern. Use a windsock but realize the wind will still cause issues. Position and shelter the mic to minimize it. If it’s whistling around some object, you could get close and deliberately record instead of avoiding it. Or consider a video with audio turned off, and add separately recorded sound or music later. Whatever it takes to create the mood.
GET A MOVE ON!
A lot of good video can be done while locked down on a tripod if you select your subjects and compositions carefully. But moving the camera is inevitable. If you want to pan through a scene, check out the tips in this post. What I didn’t mention there is creating a sense of the scene with camera movement. For example, panning horizontally on a tripod allows you to change the view by pivoting the camera. But that can end up giving your viewers a vague sense of being disconnected from the scene.
By moving the camera itself you can give viewers a sense of moving through the scene. Moving in an arc is good when you’ve got focus locked on an important subject and want to keep it in focus. Just remember to either use a wide-angle lens with careful hand-held technique, or use some means of stabilizing & smoothing the movement (wearable stabilizer, rail, etc.). Jumpiness distracts.
The best way to find a video that captures the mood of a landscape is to try different things. Mix things up. Panning vertically in a forest is worth trying. In the video below I was walking through a Colorado aspen grove on a breezy morning and, despite the fact I knew the sound would include some wind interference, wanted to capture the quaking part of quaking aspen. It’s a lesson in not letting worries about the quality worry you too much. The wind only messed up the sound for a brief moment.
One final example: if you are lucky enough to have an interesting subject in the scene, you could try breaking a rule. Normally videos require slow, steady camera movement. But how about throwing in a sudden jump-over? Swing quickly over to that moose, or even a friend caught in a compelling action. You need to keep it steady once you’re there; that is unless it’s a dangerous critter, in which case viewers expect a little jumpiness. The point is to avoid getting stuck into some imagined correct way to do things.
Next time we will take a beginner’s look at the wonderful world of wildlife videography. And speaking of that, have a wonderful weekend!
The series on getting started in video is almost complete. Last week’s post provided general tips on recording sound during video capture. Let’s dive deeper into the subject of sound by looking at a few of the more subtle ways that it can mess up your video, and some solutions to help make sure that doesn’t happen.
The Ear vs. the Microphone
You’ll find that the way you process sound is different than what is recorded by a microphone.
- Your ears are placed perfectly for detecting sound all about you. But with those flaps they’re biased toward the front. A mic. (or two for stereo) can be placed anywhere. But if it’s a shotgun mic it will mostly pick up those sounds in the direction you point the mic. Omnidirectional mics are the opposite (see below). By the way, I saw a guy on the web who records sound using a stereo mic setup where the mics are worn like headphones and are even shaped somewhat like ears. His goal is to record as close to what he hears as possible. The rather funny-looking stereo mic setup was for sale, as long as you don’t mind some strange looks!
- It’s not just your ears that cause microphones to record sounds differently than the way you hear them. Your brain is involved too. Thanks to evolution you can pick up distant sounds and magnify them. And simultaneously in some cases, you have the ability to filter out loud, nearby sounds in order to better hear a faint, more important one. These natural skills allowed our ancestors to hear the sounds of a predator while near a stream. Of course mics don’t do any of this. An omnidirectional mic, for example, captures everything around it without bias. The louder the sound the more prominent it will be in the recording.
- Why is there a significant difference between the way your eyes and your camera captures images? The key difference maker is the brain. Just as it does with your eyes, your brain works in concert with your ears to weight various sounds differently. The brain also has the ability to make your head turn, like an antenna dish, to effectively corral those sounds you want to hear and at least partly block those you don’t.
- Let’s take an example. It took me awhile to realize that recording next to a stream is a mixed blessing. If your goal is to record the sound of the water it’s usually fine. But if you want ambient sound that includes birds, etc., the water can overwhelm everything else. Even when you’re going for the sound of the water, being close can make it sound too loud and harsh.
Just as you learned to pay attention to subtle features of the light, you should start tuning your ears to subtle differences in volume, tone, bass notes vs. treble, etc. But at the same time you need to factor in the above: your brain filters and evens things out while the microphone records actual sounds, without bias. Here are a few tips:
- Move closer to that interesting but not very loud sound even if you can hear it just fine. The old piece of photography advice, “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” applies to sound as well.
- But depending on what mic you’re using don’t get too close! Using the example above, recording next to a loud stream (a waterfall perhaps), and if you’re using a shotgun mic, avoid pointing it right at the water. Try pointing it an angle or even directly away from the sound.
- Adjust position to minimize loud sounds when you’re seeking balance and want to pick up more subtle sounds in the background, even if your ear hears a good balance. Simply putting a tree or rock outcrop between you and a sound source that is too loud can make all the difference. You can also use landscape features, such as rock walls, curved hillsides, etc. to focus and magnify key parts of the soundscape.
- If you get more involved with audio, field gear can help greatly with all of the above. For distant &/or faint sounds, a high-quality shotgun mic, along with parabolic reflectors, can make a huge difference.
- For the ability to adjust the balance of tones, bringing out the sounds you want and minimizing those you don’t, consider upgrading to a system that replaces your camera’s sound-recording. Basically a portable soundboard that mounts beneath your camera, it will allow you to adjust and equalize tones. These systems are often used along with headphones. They allow you to monitor the way the sound is actually being recorded, as opposed to the way you hear it.
- You could also choose separate sound recording using a portable digital recorder. You’ll have to sync the sound to your video later, but it allows you to focus on video and audio separately, thus doing a good job on both.
- Remember: all of this extra gear will only add to, not replace, what you can do in the field by changing position and using natural features, along with choosing the appropriate mic to use.
That’s all for now. I hope you are getting more comfortable with the idea of doing videos, even if you’re an unrepentant still photographer. Don’t be shy about asking questions or giving your two cents. Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!
Last week because of Christmas I skipped Foto Talk. I hope the holiday was fun and festive for all. The series on video is not done yet, so let’s jump back in with perhaps the most important (and challenging) aspects of video. I’m assuming that you wish to catch native audio; that is, the sounds that you hear during your video clips. Adding audio later, whether it’s music or something else, is certainly possible and in many way easier. But my initial goal is always to capture interesting audio at the same time as the video.
Check out the previous posts in this series for tips on the visual half of video. In order to view the videos in this post, click the title at top-left, or on the link. You’ll shoot to my Vimeo page where you can click on the play button.
There are several pitfalls to watch out for when recording audio. The main ones follow, along with solutions. As you do with photography, tailor your solutions for sound-recording problems to the specific subject and situation.
- Built-in Microphone. Your camera’s microphone, while usable, is essentially a starter mic. Depending on its quality, the sound can be tinny and harsh. It also can’t easily be used with a windscreen. But don’t forgo your internal mic entirely. It can be a better recorder of ambient sound than the shotgun mic that you’ll likely purchase (see below).
Solution: An internal microphone is okay for starting out. But sooner or later you’ll want to purchase a separate external mic (or two) that mounts on your hotshoe. There are two basic types of microphone, and what you most like to record will determine whether you get one or the other (or both). If you want to record discrete sound sources (bird calls, a person talking or singing, etc.) get a shotgun mic. If you most often record diffuse soundscapes with the sources scattered around you (the video at top is an example), get an omnidirectional mic. The shotgun mic (which comes in different types which vary in their degree of directionality) can cost a lot more than the omni mic. But it’s useful in a far wider set of circumstances. So I recommend buying a shotgun mic first.
- Wind. The wind often adds atmosphere to a setting (see link to video below). So why not record it? Not so fast! Your ears are designed in a wonderfully organic way. But when wind hits a microphone it doesn’t sound atmospheric. It just sounds like somebody trying to annoy you by blowing into a mic.
Solution: There is a deceptively easy solution to wind noise. If and when you buy an external mic, buy a windscreen for it and don’t take it off. They come in foam or hairy (“deadcat”) versions, or you can make one yourself. Depending on how strong the wind is they can be very effective in blocking out wind noise. But they aren’t 100%, so you should take steps to shelter the mic further from strong winds. Point down-wind and block with your body if at all possible.
Wind and Quaking Aspens: Colorado Rockies
- Image Stabilizer & other Space-outs. I hate to admit how many great soundscapes I’ve recorded that are immediate candidates for deletion. Why? Because I forgot to turn off the image stabilizer (IS on Canon, VR on Nikon). That little motor you barely notice while shooting stills will sound like a generator, even if you use an external mic. Another easy thing to forget is the sound setting itself. If you turn off sound recording in the menu (say you plan to add sound later), you’ll feel as dumb as a post when you play back to dead silence. You may think it’s hard to be this forgetful, but when you’re grabbing a quick video in the midst of shooting stills, believe me it’s easy to space out. Finally, if you have an external mic it can be easy to forget to turn that on.
Solution: Get in the habit, every time you switch to video mode, of checking to make sure that IS or VR is turned off. Also helpful is getting in the habit of reviewing and listening to at least portions of your clips. And before you do any video make sure that the sound setting is turned on. Then if you turn it off for a video or two, go in right after and turn it back on. Make it your default setting. Most external microphones have a little light that says it’s on. But get used to turning your mic on (and off when you’re done) every time you record.
- Planes. Aircraft (planes, helicopters, and now drones) are a type of unwanted noise that deserves its own category. Whether you’re recording the human voice or the sounds of nature, planes just seem to show up at the worst times. Soon after you press the record button, you’ll hear one buzzing overhead. It’s almost guaranteed. I never fully appreciated the amount of air traffic in our world until I started shooting video and recording natural sounds.
Solution: Mostly patience is all that is required. Planes don’t take too long to pass over, though while you’re waiting it can seem an eternity. If you’re under a flight path it may take awhile to get a silent window. If a helicopter is working in the area you’re stuck with it and should probably return another day. If somebody has a drone and insists on flying it near you, well that’s what a slingshot or pellet gun is for (just kidding..I think).
There is more to sound than the above, and next time we’ll dive in a little deeper. But if you can overcome these simple stumbling blocks, you’re well on your way to recording quality sound with your videos. Thanks for reading, and have a happy and photographic New Year!
I’d love to know how much you all are getting out of this little series on video basics for still photographers. Are you getting excited about shooting a video or two to go along with your stills? Have you been pressing that red button more often lately? Or at least thinking about it?
Last time we left off with some gear-oriented tips on panning and moving your camera while shooting video. Let’s continue with the nuts and bolts on moving the camera through the scene. If you’d like to view the videos I’ve posted, resist the temptation to click the play button right off; it won’t work. Instead click the title at top left. You’ll go to my Vimeo, where you can press the play button.
A Word about Gear
Last week I mentioned tripod heads designed (at least in part) for video. But I don’t want to make it about buying specialty gear. This series is for you who are just getting into video or thinking about it. If you start getting serious and video becomes a big focus of your shoots, then it’s worth spending money on accessories. For an intermediate level of enthusiasm, I’d limit purchases to an external shotgun microphone plus a fluid video head.
In terms of camera movement and shooting video on the fly, one of the more useful pieces of gear is one I already mentioned: a stabilizer rig. Many times I’ve wished I had one, but it is another piece of gear to haul along. For the following clip I had to hike up a rugged Utah canyon to get there. So I’m not sure I would have brought a stabilizer along even if I owned one. Despite the rock hopping, I think it turned out pretty smooth. To see that video go to Canyon Hike
Another piece of gear (or two) to consider, if and when you get serious about video, is a rail and/or cart. They both allow you to swing the camera through a smooth path or arc like you see in professional shoots. The technique is used most often in portrait & event shooting, but landscape videographers sometimes use rails. If you’re handy you can make them yourself.
Video Tips On Location
Now let’s go somewhere cool and see how to get started making moving pictures. The advice below doesn’t include some major issues of sound. Those are worth saving for a coming post devoted to audio. A few tips is all you need to get started:
- Focal length matters. I talked about this last week but it’s worth expanding on. The shorter your focal length and wider your angle of view, the easier it is to move the camera without shaky frame edges. This applies whether you’re doing it by hand or on a support. And it means that when you zoom in to long focal lengths it can be next to impossible to avoid a jittery look. That’s what happened in the clip below. In the excitement of being so close to Everest and its neighbours, I used a relatively long focal length and panned by hand, ending up with a jumpy video.
But before you slap that 16 mm. lens on, there is another effect when you’re shooting at very wide angles. It depends on how close you are to scene elements (especially the foreground), and also how fast you pan the camera, but the frame edges can move in a rather distracting way. Try it yourself and see: shoot a few panning video clips at a focal length of 16 or 17 mm. It may be best to use a focal length near 50 mm. when panning, at least when you’re just starting out.
- Go Manual. Although there is nothing wrong with automatic mode when you want a quick video, I recommend getting used to shooting manually right off the bat. Manual exposure and manual focus. For example, in a nature scene where you want everything in focus, go about it this way: While you’re in aperture priority mode, pick a smallish aperture (f/8 – f/11) for good depth of field. Then point the camera at a place in the scene that represents the (approximate) average brightness of everything you’ll be panning through. Note the settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO). Then go to manual mode and switch to those settings. Autofocus on something about 1/2 to 2/3 into the scene. Then switch to manual focus and leave it there for the duration of the clip.
- Plan your clip. Figure out ahead of time where to start and stop your video, then do a quick dry run before you press play. Of course if you’re shooting live subjects you may decide to continue the clip or cut it short. Still, getting an outline of the clip in your head ahead of time is a good idea. Adjust your position to get the smoothest and quietest (if you’re recording ambient sound) motion. While panning I generally try to avoid moving my feet. Even if on a tripod, how you change position through a pan will affect the final product.
- Slow down. The most common beginner mistake is to pan and move the camera too quickly through the scene. As always with camera movement during video, focal length is a factor. The longer your focal length the slower you need to pan. When you pan too quickly the scene appears to race by. A further influence is how far away you are from whatever you’re filming. When fairly close to the subject, go more slowly. But don’t go to the other extreme. A super-slow pan will bore your viewers, leading them to not finish the clip. The best way to know the right speed for different lenses and various kinds of scenes is to experiment and play the clips back on your LCD.
- Review & Repeat! When you first start out shooting video, just like when you started still photography, you’ll shoot a lot of junk. The key is to review the shot before moving on. You’l likely find that it requires a number of takes to get it right. For the waterfall at bottom, I did 3 or 4 takes before I got one I liked. As you gain more experience you’ll more often get it right the first time. This is a worthy goal. You want to catch the most interesting goings-on, not to mention the most interesting light.
That’s it for this week’s Foto Talk! Please don’t hesitate to share your own experiences with video. Or ask a question about anything at all. Have a wonderful weekend and happy shooting!