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!
A clear, quiet morning at Bench Lake, Mt. Rainier National Park. 30 mm., 1/60 sec. @ f/11, ISO 320, handheld.
Camera makers have been providing ever higher quality images, with lower noise at higher ISOs. No, I’ve not become a cheerleader for big corporations. But this little factoid is true nonetheless. By the way, a rule of thumb: the larger the sensor in your camera, the less noise you’ll have when shooting at high ISO. It’s one reason that cameras with full-frame sensors have become so popular. Size isn’t the only thing affecting noise, but it’s an important factor.
Besides sensor size, camera makers have been improving noise performance across the board, even on crop-frame sensors. It’s especially true with high ISOs, but noise has also improved for very long exposures. My last post focused on ways you can shoot without a tripod, the easiest way being to simply raise ISO. This post will cover some tips on balancing noise and ISO with your exposure needs.
A hoary marmot is getting ready to chow down on some lupine high up on Mt. Rainier, Washington. 100 mm., 1/500 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 500, handheld.
The Oregon Coast Range. 135 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/9, ISO 100, tripod.
Don’t fixate on how high ISO can be set on your particular camera model. That’s pretty well meaningless. Just because you can set your ISO over 25,000 doesn’t mean you’ll be able to shoot a decent picture at anywhere near that ISO. Think of the max ISO advertised for a given camera as a general guide to ISO performance. Real-world shooting is the only way to see how high the ISO can be set for a given situation, and still allow a fairly sharp image to be captured with low levels of noise.
So Heres a TIP: Fairly soon after buying a new camera, learn how high you can raise ISO and still capture an image with manageable amounts of noise. Manageable noise is noise that you can handle with the software you have. Lightroom does a very good job with noise, but there are plug-ins (like the great Topaz DeNoise) that can reduce or even eliminate high levels of noise. It’s going to take some practice with both your camera and your software.
I got a kayak! Here it is 1st time on saltwater on a bay at the Oregon Coast. Handheld shot with polarizer.
While you’re figuring out what that ISO ‘tipping point’ is, remember these two caveats:
- Caveat 1: As I’ve mentioned in several prior posts, the longer your focal length, the faster your shutter speed needs to be for sharp pictures. This also means, assuming you’re off-tripod, that you’ll need to raise ISO more for shots with longer focal lengths. Obviously you’ll need to raise ISO more for dimly lighted subjects as well.
- Caveat 2: This one is more subtle and refers to the shadowed or dark areas in your image. If you anticipate later filling (brightening) those areas on the computer, you will have increased noise in those areas (but not so much in brighter areas). The more brightening you need to do in post-processing, the more noise you’ll need to handle. But it’s area-specific.
Precious rain, Oregon. 100 mm. macro lens, 1/40 sec. @ f/13, ISO 400, tripod.
This little guy lives along Coldwater Lake, Mt. St. Helens. 100 mm. macro, 1/40 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250, hand-held & braced against a rock.
This relationship between the variable brightness of your scene and noise means, in effect, that you can get away with raising ISO more for overall higher-key (brighter) images that have fairly even illumination than you can for lower-key (darker) images that have a lot of dynamic range (contrasting illumination) across the frame. Of course, if you anticipate leaving shadowed areas fairly dark, you don’t have to worry so much about noise; it won’t be visible. That was true for the dark face of that marmot above, for example.
This leads inevitably to the differences among different camera makers. The big two, Canon and Nikon, have been competing in both the low-noise/high ISO arena and the resolution (megapixel) arena. Meantime, Sony has been working a lot on dynamic range, along with (more recently) ISO/noise. I could say a lot more about this but it won’t really help you take better pictures, so I won’t. Remember, this is not the blog for specific gear recommendations.
A monkey flower at Mt. Rainier. 100 mm. macro, 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 1250, hand-held & small breeze.
The important thing is to use the camera you have in your hands to its limits. Don’t hold back. Practice with it in the dark, on moving platforms (boats, etc.), in situations where it really isn’t made to produce perfect photos. It’s not your job to exactly match your gear’s supposed capabilities, and it’s senseless to wish for something with more megapixels, or more dynamic range. Rather it’s your job to stretch the capabilities of your gear. If you really work at this, you’ll invariably miss on a lot of shots. But those you hit on will shine!
Have a wonderful weekend, and happy shooting!
Back home! Sunset in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon. 50 mm., 6 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50, tripod.
Good morning Glacier Park! While a tripod wasn’t really necessary here, it allowed me to lower the ISO. 50 mm., 1/25 sec. @ f/9, ISO 50
Let’s continue with tripods. Not what to buy, that’s not so interesting. This series is about when and how to use them. Check out the other posts.
I’ve found many people don’t use tripods when they should, causing blurry pictures from camera movement. But I’ve also seen plenty of people using them when they’re not needed. Believe it or not the answer to “when do I use a tripod?” is not “always”. Each situation is different, a truism in photography if there ever was one.
Whether or not to use a tripod is a question often ignored in photography education. I think it’s because so many workshop leaders & teachers don’t consider things from a learning photographer’s perspective. Back before we got serious about our photos, when we were shooting casual snapshots, we never used a tripod. Now we hear and read that one is always necessary for quality images. I’m here to call bull on that, and I hope this series is giving you reason to believe that there are no hard and fast rules.
Boats spend the night at Deception Pass, Whidbey Island on Puget Sound, Washington. I used a tripod because of the low light of dawn. 50 mm., 1/4 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.
Are you someone who doesn’t use it enough? Or are you never without your tripod? Only you know which end of the spectrum you’re on. All I’m saying is to consider both the pros and the cons of using a tripod for each situation (see Part I), and don’t over-react and swing over to the other end of the spectrum.
There are, of course, those occasions when a tripod is at the least very helpful and at most plain necessary for a sharp image. For example, if the light is low and/or you’re using a small aperture for depth of field, definitely use a tripod. That’s why you paid good money for one. But other times they are just in the way. Isn’t it better, when possible, to be free to move around quick and easy? If it’s bright and you don’t need it, or if seconds count, hand-held is the way to go.
Last Sunday I gave an example of when using a tripod for a landscape image might not be a good idea. Now let’s look at a couple more examples. As usual, my focus here is on landscape and nature photography, but the advice certainly applies to other types, especially street/architecture.
EXAMPLE 1: A SHORT HIKE
I got the shot below last week in the northern Idaho panhandle. I was looking for a nice place to swim. We’ve been having an intense heat wave in the western U.S. I found a short hike along a stream named Myrtle Creek. It was mid-morning and very bright out, so I didn’t anticipate any good photo opportunities (my main goal being full bodily immersion). But I grabbed my camera with the wide-angle lens. At the last minute, despite wanting to go light with no pack, I grabbed my tripod.
An idyllic waterfall and swimming hole: Idaho panhandle near Bonner’s Ferry. 16 mm., 1.3 sec. @ f/13, ISO 50.
If I’m going a short distance, I tend to just bring the tripod; if I don’t use it, no harm. If I’m on a longer walk or hike, and especially if I have other heavier gear, I think about whether I will really need it. If I don’t foresee using my tripod much, I may allow weight to be the deciding factor. But I try never to allow weight to over-rule photographic considerations.
The 1+ mile trail ended at creekside. I heard a falls, so waded carefully downstream, hopping slick rocks. After some scrambling where the tripod was a hindrance, I came upon the waterfall from above. I was glad I had the tripod. The falls was mostly in shade, allowing a nice little motion-blur picture. I also had my circular polarizer, which helped to bring out the colors of the rocks and vegetation. After shooting I dove into the deep aquamarine pool at the base of the falls. Heaven!
Bonus shot, from the top of the Idaho waterfall showing the swimming hole at its base. It was some 15 feet deep and bracing!
EXAMPLE 2: MACRO OPPORTUNITY
This crops up when you least expect it. You’re in nice bright light, away from your tripod hiking or exploring somewhere, and you were wise enough to have your macro lens (or extension tubes or close-up filter) in your backpack. But you saw no reason to take a tripod. I did this recently in North Cascades National Park. It was a daytime hike and, as usual for this park, very steep! So no tripod.
But as usually happens in cases like this, I ran into beautiful fields of flowers, got bit by the macro bug, and was forced to make do without a tripod. Although macro is possible without a tripod, using one sure makes life easier. Your chances of blurring a macro picture are greatly increased when you don’t stabilize your camera.
I used my backpack for some of the shots, but positioning for macro is such a precise thing that no tripod usually means hand-holding your shots. Raising ISO and laying on my belly with elbows forming a triangular support, I shot in burst mode (a rarity for me) in order to increase my chances. I was pretty happy to get this picture of the beautiful tiny bell-like flowers that were in bloom all over the subalpine meadow I hiked to.
Little white bells blooming in the subalpine of North Cascades National Park, Washington.
Thanks for tuning in. Next week I’ll conclude the series by considering those times when you left your tripod behind but run into shutter speeds which are slow enough to cause blurring. That is, we’ll look at tricks for how to get sharp images when you’re caught without a tripod. Have a wonderful weekend!
Rarely do I post a mid-day landscape, but this meadow high in the North Cascades was just too beautiful regardless of the harsh light.