Friday, May 16, 2008

Panoramic photos on a tripod

Unless you plan to rush out and spend $10,000 or so on a Linhof Panoramic camera then you're mostly likely going to be using your digital camera to take a series of images and then stitch them together in your favourite software to create a big, wide image.

The first trick is to put your camera on a tripod. Yes I know that modern software is pretty amazing and can put together a panorama with handheld pictures but putting your camera on a tripod will help you line everything up to give your computer an easier time.

Despite how it may look, the best panoramics are constructed with the camera tilted vertically - not horizontally. So tip your camera over on the tripod head. Then take the first photograph, and keeping an eye on where the right hand edge of your viewfinder finishes, move your camera around so that the feature that was up against the right hand edge is now about a third of the frame away from the left hand edge of the frame.

By having your camera on a tripod you should have ensured that the camera hasn't moved up or down at all, just left to right. You need to have your camera on manual exposure as well as manual white balance so that all the pictures match up. Although it doesn't matter if your shutter speeds change it's really important that your aperture doesn't. If you use different apertures from shot to shot your depth-of-field will be all wacky. It's also best to leave your camera on manual focus as well.

In terms of focal length, panoramics are pretty hard to make out of extreme wide-angle lenses. Better to start with something around 50mm and move toward the telephoto end from there to prevent distortion.

Then when you've captured your sequence of shots, time to bring them in to your favourite panorama stitching programme and let the computer do its magic. This shot was taken in the beautiful far norther city of Townsville. Taken off the roof of the Gold Coast International Hotel looking towards Castle Hill. The focal length of the lens was 70mm and it was set at f16.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Slow shutter speed for still-lifes

Often a good way to show the motion of something is to have some things spinning with movement and some things stationary.

We often see effectively blurred shots with living objects such as people but it can also be used to make a still-life shot interesting.

These prayer wheels line the outside of the Dalai Lama's temple in McLeod Ganj, northern India. Every day pilgrims walk around the temple, spinning the wheels as they go. On the wheels is written a Tibetan prayer 'Om Mani Padme Hum' which it is believed is sent to heaven by spinning the wheels.

When I came across these wheels I was a little stumped as to how to photograph them. If I waited until they were all stopped then you couldn't tell that they actually spin around. If I photographed them all spinning you wouldn't be able to tell what they were.

So I decided to spin two out of three, thus showing that they are spinning wheels, but also showing the detail written on the middle wheel. So I put the camera on a tripod, walked forward and span the left wheel and then the right wheel then I walked back and took the shot.

I probably could have done this hand-held just by spinning the wheels really fast but it was a lot easier to put the camera on the tripod, line everything up exactly how I wanted and just walk forward and then back to take the shot. Sometimes a tripod just makes things easier. It was quite dark in the shade and I didn't want to take any chances with hand shake.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tripod during the day

The previous post had us using a tripod at night. I guess most people would think of that, but a tripod can also be pretty indispensable during the day.

It's all about giving yourself the ability to use shutter speeds slower than you could ever handhold. The reason you want those slow shutter speeds is to get movement blur in your subject.

When you have a moving subject you have a couple of choices. You can either completely freeze the movement with a fast shutter speed (think soccer player heading a ball), or you can blur the movement with a slow shutter speed.

I often like to put blur in my moving subjects, just as a way of actually showing that they're moving. Often if you completely freeze the motion you can't be sure whether the object is moving or not.

The image above was shot for part of a book project I was working on for the New Zealand book publishers Weldon Owen. It was a children's book series featuring festivals around the world. I was photographing for the Japan book and the cherry blossom festival. I already had shots of a family having a picnic under the trees (thanks to my sister-in-law's family!) but still wanted some atmospheric shots of the trees themselves.

So I got up early one morning and drove to the Hokkaido Jingu Shrine, Hokkaido's largest, with my ever-faithful companion - my father-in-law. He has been a continual supporter of my photographic career and often accompanies me on shoots when I'm in town. I am eternally grateful for his support.

Anyway when we got there there was quite a breeze up and the petals were all flittering down to the ground. The petals are quite small and I knew that if I used too fast a shutter speed they would just appear as pin pricks in the photo. So I decided to slow the shutter speed down so that not only would they appear blurred to give a sense of their motion, but also as streaks they would appear slightly larger in the picture and be more recognisable.

So I reached for my 70-200mm zoom. I wanted the telephoto to compress the perspective and make the long row of trees look more voluminous. The shutter speed was way too slow to handhold so I put the camera on the tripod. Then I sat and waited until the three people in the frame were clearly separated from the background and took a series of images.

You know that saying that if you see something you like you should photograph it straight away. Well in this case that advice was right on the money. I went off to photograph some other trees and came back a couple of hours later to find these trees nearly bare where all the petals had blown away. Sometimes you can be lucky!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tripod - to carry or not to carry

...that is the question. Well not the only one, but one that I'm often asked. I think if there's any one photo accessory that can improve your photographs a million percent it's the humble tripod. So as a way of showing you why I think they're so important I thought it might be fun to post a few photos over the next little while that I could not have possibly taken without a tripod.

Hopefully by the time we're finished you'll either be rushing out to buy one for yourself or dusting off the one sitting in the bottom of the cupboard. I'll also try and give you some hints about what to look for in a tripod purchase.

Before we talk about what kind of a tripod let's talk about lugging the damn thing around. The first thing I would say is - make sure you find a comfortable way to do it. I sling mine over one shoulder with a strap, one end of which goes around the base of the tripod head, the other around the bottom of the legs. I can also sling it over my back Robin Hood quiver of arrows style. Either which way it's out of the way and if I don't need it it just sits there and I can still shoot freely. If your tripod is annoying to carry you'll leave it in the hotel room and you might as well not have one. So get a strap for it or stick it in a case that can go over your shoulder.

Enough yabbering, let's look at some pictures!

On my very last night in Sapporo on my last trip to Japan I ditched the wife and kids and headed into the Susukino district of town. This is the fabled entertainment quarter, filled with pubs, clubs and nightlife of every variety.

I was spending the night in a capsule hotel for a magazine assignment and decided to spend the evening photographing the surrounding area. I had my Lowepro Mini-Trekker with camera gear and my trusty Manfrotto tripod slung over my shoulder and off I went.

The photo above was taken in a little alleyway called Ramen Yokocho. Ramen is a famous Japanese noodle dish and Sapporo is home to this little alley crammed with Ramen restaurants. People come from all over the world to sample the different flavours. I had just had dinner in this little restaurant and stepped outside to photograph the entrance.

It was very dark and the shutter speed would have been way too slow to handhold. So that was one reason to put the camera on the tripod. The other reason was that I wanted some blurred movement in the restaurant patron as he came out the door. When you handhold a camera you limit yourself to reasonably fast shutter speeds. When you put the camera on the tripod you can really slow things down and get a lot of creative blur happening.

The other thing I find about using the tripod is that you can set yourself up in a position and wait for interesting things to happen. People realise you're photographing so you don't look suspicious, and if you're using a remote cable release you can actually take the photo without people realising, so they don't appear self-conscious in the photo.

Come back tomorrow and I'll have another tripod photo for you.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Photographing food

I bet when you read the title of the post you thought this was gonna be a post about how to light your five-star meal so it looked delicious!

Well sorry to disappoint you. Monkey anyone? One of the things I love the most about travel is the food. As a travel photographer/writer you often get sent on famils where you get wined and dined in fancy restaurants.

But at the other end of the scale you get days like this. This is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire. A huge country in the centre of Africa, the country is pretty much a mess. The Trans-African Highway (on which this gentleman is standing) runs across the middle of the country.

When it rains they get holes in the road so big they literally swallow a truck! It really is the Heart of Darkness. One evening after a full day of digging our truck out of bog hole after bog hole ( I think we managed to cover about 4 kilometres that day!) we were exhausted. We asked some locals to hunt us something for dinner and this is what they came back with.

Just as you need to keep an open mind when experiencing new cultures, you have to keep an open stomach when it comes to dinner time. I've eaten everything from chicken feet to grasshoppers, from salty sea urchin to crocodile. Some of it has agreed with me, some of it definitely not but I'll give anything a go - once!

The hardest thing I always find about photographing your own food is remembering to do so. I always seem to get to the end of a meal and think, damn I should have photographed that. In this case I did. Not exactly fine dining in the Ritz but all a part of the travel experience nonetheless.

I have to admit, today's post didn't have a hell of a lot to do with photography but it gave me a great excuse to put my monkey handbag photo up! :)