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Friday Foto Talk: Alternate Versions III – Review   Leave a comment

Looking south toward Mt. Jefferson from iconic Timberline Lodge, Oregon.

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!

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

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.

Foto Talk: Alternate Versions, Part II   2 comments

I've posted this image before: dawn at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

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.

More Variables

  • 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, shorter focal-length version of the above scene, with the fence occupying a much more important position.

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.

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.

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).

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).

Friday Foto Talk: Alternate Compositions of the Same Image   2 comments

Dawn and part of a frozen waterfall in Zion National Park.

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.

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?
Catching a rainbow at Vista House in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

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.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Macro   2 comments

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!

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Wildlife   8 comments

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.

Shy Shy

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

Chatty Critters

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.

STRATEGIES

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.

 

Friday Foto Talk: Video ~ Sound, Part II   2 comments

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.

Solutions

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!

 

Friday Foto Talk ~ Sound in Video   2 comments

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!

Friday Foto Talk: Video in the Field   1 comment

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!

Friday Foto Talk: Video on the Move   5 comments

This is the 3rd part of my mini-series on video for the unrepentant still photographer.  The over-arching premise is that, no matter how in love with still photography you happen to be, there is always a enough time to add in a bit of videography.  If you need real reasons to press that play button, check out Part I.  For tips on things to watch out for when getting started, check out Part II.

Note that in order to watch the videos here you have to click the title at top left.  That will take you to my Vimeo page, where you simply press play to watch them.  There’s a full-screen option.  By the way, they haven’t been edited, even for length.  On my to-do list.  Now let’s get into it!

Video & Focal Length

Last time I recommended starting out simple, by placing your camera on a tripod and recording without moving the camera.  You can also keep things still while hand-holding the camera.  But choose a fairly wide-angle lens for this.  If you zoom in beyond, say, 70 mm., it will be next to impossible to hold the camera still enough.  Even with focal lengths around 50 mm. it’s hard.  Use a tripod.

There is another issue with focal length when recording video.  When you use a medium focal length, on the order of 50 mm., you are replicating the approximate field of view for human vision.  It means that the viewer will not be distracted by either an unusually wide angle, with its distortion, or by any unsteadiness and jittering of the frame that may happen when you zoom in to longer focal lengths.  This doesn’t mean you should avoid those different focal lengths; that’s one big advantage of shooting video with a DSLR.  It’s just that as a rule of thumb 35-60 mm. is a good baseline, or default, focal length.

Camera Movement:  Panning

If you do follow my advice from last post and start out by locking the camera down on a tripod while recording (and in that case you’ll be choosing moving subjects that are interesting in some way), it won’t be long before you get bored and start moving the camera.  The most basic kind of camera movement is panning.  If you shoot a lot of landscapes like me, panning will show you the whole area.  It’s sort of the video equivalent of an establishing shot in still photography.

You have two basic choices.  You can just pan like most people do with their phones, pivoting around while pointing the lens at what you want to include.  Or you can pan while on the tripod.  An in-between option is a monopod set up for video.  In the first case, just winging it by hand, you should realize that a camera phone has a very wide-angle lens.  Any deviations from a smooth pan (short of tripping over your own feet!) are masked by the wide angle of view.  Speaking of hand-holding for video, there are stabilizer rigs that you hold/wear that will make it much easier to keep things smooth while panning and otherwise moving the camera.

For the video below, I bushwacked to a very beautiful & secluded spot in Olympic National Park.  I climbed onto a rock beside a lovely falls and panned through the scene by hand.  Even though I used a wide-angle, you’ll see a couple small errors toward the end.  If I had used a stabilizer rig it would have been smoother.

Panning on the Tripod ~ Which Head?

If you pan on a tripod, which is what I’d try first for longer focal lengths, you have another choice to make.  Do you buy a so-called fluid panning head?  And how nice/expensive?  You can literally spend thousands on a super-smooth fluid head for video.  You’re thinking why can’t I just use my regular ballhead?  Sure. But if you go this route you will have to develop quite the steady technique.  You’ll also need to limit how long a focal length you use and probably accept small hitches in the final product.

‘But’, I hear you saying, ‘my ballhead has separate panning movement.’  Yes it does.  But it’s there for shooting a series of still shots on a plane (a panorama, for e.g.).  It’s movement isn’t really smooth enough for video panning.  That said, I have used my ballhead (not the panning base) to pan through shots.  I use the ballhead itself though, not the pan.  And I don’t do it with particularly long focal lengths.

Panning Heads:  What to Buy

If you go for a panning head, and if you’re not yet a serious videographer, I would buy an intro. model.  But intro. doesn’t mean cheapest.  Cheap fluid heads are like cheap tripods.  You’ll soon regret your purchase.  Get one a bit further up the scale, one with some good reviews by practiced videographers on a budget.  Figure on spending at least $100 and probably closer to $150 or even a bit more.  Look at the Manfrotto fluid heads in that range.

EXTRA ~ FOR OWNERS OF LONG TELEPHOTO LENSES ONLY

If you have a long telephoto or zoom, and especially if you plan on shooting wildlife, you’ll probably want a Gimbal head.  Wimberley is a popular brand but there are others just as good.  Gimbals aren’t cheap.  But when using big lenses they are more stable, balanced and move more easily than on a ballhead.  As a bonus Gimbals allow smooth panning and other movement during video recording.  So with big lenses it is your go-to head, whether you are doing still photography (following a bird in flight, for e.g.) or video.  There are partial Gimbals that clamp onto your ballhead.  Cheaper than a full Gimbal, these are better than using just the ballhead but not as good as the full version that replaces your ballhead.

Next time, more video on the move: tips for when you’re in the field and want to shoot a video or two to go along with your still shots.  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

 

Friday Foto Talk: Photographing People ‘in Flow’ ~ Candids & Travel   Leave a comment

While shooting landscape in southern Utah, some hikers "rudely" inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

While shooting the landscape of southern Utah, these hikers “rudely” inserted themselves into my photo. The nerve!

If you haven’t been following along, I’ve been doing a little series on the idea of flow in photography.  Flow is that state of hyper-focus that we’ve all experienced, perhaps not enough in the modern era of distractions.  Last week’s Foto Talk looked at people photography in general, but was biased toward portraiture.  This week is a follow-up that focuses on my favorite kind of people photography: serendipitous candid shots done either traveling or while engaged with another subject (landscapes, as above, for example).

Two young Malawian boys who somehow didn’t become members of Madonna’s family.

Serendipity & Candids

Serendipity implies little or no thinking ahead.  But it’s okay to have a general approach.  It’ll vary depending on whether you know ahead of time that you’ll be photographing people.  And whether or not you like shooting without first asking permission.  But serendipity means at the very least that your subject(s) don’t know they’re going to appear in your photos until very close to the time you press the shutter.

  • Why should you do this kind of photography?  Say you’re traveling, whether on a short weekend trip close to home or half-way around the world.  You naturally want pictures, right?  Suppose on this trip you head out on foot to look for interesting stuff to photograph.  You might think you’ll be shooting buildings and “the sights”, but in most places you will come across people as well.  You already know they usually make the best images from a trip, and that’s because people speak to us of the place where they live much more strongly and eloquently than any building or mountain can.
I didn't even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

I didn’t even think about a shot of this Rasta woodcarver on the shores of Lake Malawi until he took a smoke break. I think he represents well the chill atmosphere of the lakeside part of that country.

 

  • So whether or not your goal on a shoot is to photograph people, be ready anytime you’re out in even a lightly populated area.  I don’t always follow this advice, being somewhat shy most of the time.  But traveling in foreign lands is different; I’m much more outgoing.  I’ve learned that approaching people is easier than it seems.  For one thing they may be just as curious about you as you are of them, and for another many people want to help visitors, and that includes helping them get good photos.
Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

Usually I have trouble approaching girls this pretty, but she and her friends turned out to be full of fun and easy to shoot.

  • The first question photographers who want candid travel shots ask themselves is, “to ask or not to ask first”.  While I do shoot the occasional picture when someone isn’t expecting it, I normally ask first.  But don’t make the mistake I made at first, which is to go right up and ask to shoot their picture.

 

  • Instead of letting your camera get in the way right off the bat, spend a little time with people before asking to shoot.  Minimize the fact you have a camera (I know, easier said than done when you have a big white lens!).  Be curious about them, advice that applies to all photography subjects.  And if you’re not genuinely curious, shoot something else.

 

  • As with all people photography (and in fact all photography), have fun!  When you approach strangers, joking around and even making a bit of a fool of yourself are sure-fire ice breakers.
This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

This cute little Sherpa girl, who was shy at first, had such a big playful personality that I had to force myself to stop and get pictures.

 

  • All this engagement takes more time than if you simply shoot and move on to the next subject.  You may miss a shot or two by focusing on the person first and the pictures second.  And you’ll probably get fewer photos.  But the images you do get will hopefully be better, and most important they will mean more to you.

 

  •  Now it’s time to ask for pictures.  You can simply smile and ask, or you can take more of an indirect approach.  You could point out the aspects of the setting, light, or of your subject that attracted your attention and made you approach in the first place.  Whatever you do, be honest about what you want and respect their decision if they decline.
At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn't push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

At first, this beauty in a remote little Zambian village said no. I didn’t push, just photographed her friend who had said yes. Luckily she changed her mind.

 

  • There is one more issue that inevitably comes up when doing this kind of travel photography, and that’s how to express your gratitude if they say yes.  Your subject may request money, especially if you’re a tourist in a foreign country.  If it’s obvious that you are better off financially than they are, it becomes even more of a temptation to pay.  I generally don’t pay for pictures.  But there are a few exceptions, such as when someone has organized a way to direct a little tourist money to local people and I really want the pictures.  But I do believe that paying results in a less desirable relationship between photographer/tourist and subject/local.  I also think there are too many other ways to show gratitude (see below).  But ultimately whether or not you pay for pictures is a personal decision.
While I didn't pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

While I didn’t pay this young Sherpa in a Himalayan teahouse directly, I did tip him well.

 

  • Showing gratitude and sharing your pictures is about more than just showing the back of your camera.  While traveling I carry a small portable printer (Polaroid Pogo but there are others).  I print a wallet-size picture direct from the camera and it’s always a hit.  If they ask for emailed pictures, always always follow up.  I recommend you use low-resolution versions that are good for computer display.  Another great way to show gratitude if your subject is a vendor is to buy something.
Happy kids aren't hard to find in Cambodia, but I got great reactions from this group along Angkor Wat's moat when I handed out pictures. They are holding them and note my little red printer at lower left.

Happy kids aren’t hard to find in Cambodia, but these “urchins” along Angkor Wat’s moat were quite excited when I handed out pictures (which a couple are holding).  Note my little red printer at lower left.

That wraps up people photography & flow.  I hope you enjoyed the pictures.  Granted, some of the above points are not specific to the idea of flow.  It is good advice whether or not you experience flow while shooting candids.  But all of will help create a comfortable atmosphere, and to help both you and your subjects relax and have a good time.  It doesn’t guarantee experiencing flow but it sure helps.  Thanks for reading and have a grand weekend!

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

The sun sets on a southern Thailand beach as this fire-dancer practices for the evening performance.

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