Friday, May 23, 2008

How to use your White Balance button

In the dim, dark old days of film whenever we encountered a situation like the one on the left we were put in a bit of a pickle.

Film is designed to be shot during the middle of a sunny day. Whenever you shoot film under different light you end up with a colour shift.

When you noticed that colour shift the most was when you photographed under artificial light - house light bulbs, fluorescent lights, big strong halogen floodlights. I'm sure you've all seen the results which vary from a bright orange glow to a horrible yucky green colour.

We had a couple of choices - we could either live with the funky colours or put lots of coloured gels in front of our camera to try and get a more natural look. The gels were often a pretty hit-and-miss affair because not all lights are the same light temperature so you might get a great result one day and a pretty ordinary one the next.

Digital has pretty much solved the dilemma with the White Balance button. Shooting in your house with the lights on at night and not using a flash? Put it on the Tungsten setting (a little lightbulb). Shooting under flourescent lights? Put it on the fluro setting. Hell they've even got a setting for cloudy days and when you're in the shade. Or to be even quicker you can just stick the camera on Auto and let it do its thing.

The question is do you want to? Sometimes you may but in the end photography is an art form and you have to make an artistic decision. The image above was shot at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. I had to get up at about 3am to make the 5am giant tuna auctions. The place was lit up by giant halogen type lights on the roof. Filtering them with a blue gel on the lens brought all the colours back to normal and the pictures looked, well, normal.

But when I left the filter off and just let the film do its thing I got this lovely orange colour. It certainly wasn't quite how it appeared to my eye but it is a much better representation of what it felt like to be there. This is one of my all-time favourite pictures and I don't think it would have been anywhere near as nice if I'd filtered the light properly.

So before you go sticking your camera on Auto White Balance have a play with the settings. I leave mine on Daylight setting permanently now because I know I'll get the same look as I did with film. For tricky lighting situations where you're not sure how you want the image to look shoot RAW and that way you can process it to your heart's desire when you get home.

Free Photoshop book

I found this on one of my regular blogs today. A publisher is giving a newly released Photoshop book away for free as a download! It seems to be legit to me but I'm not guaranteeing anything. There's probably a catch somewhere but I haven't found it yet. I've downloaded it to have a look.

Just thought you'd like to know


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Buying a tripod

Now here's a photo that I have to admit I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought would ever get published! Just to the right hand side of the far left hand tripod leg is Mt Everest. At the bottom of the tripod is an el cheapo shoulder camera bag that I bought in Kathmandu and just survived a month walking in the Himalayas before I ditched it.

And the star of the show is my trusty Manfrotto tripod Model 190. (I had to just look at that because I had no idea of the model number!) Hanging down just above the camera bag you can see the blue strap that I've talked about before - the one I use to carry my tripod over my shoulder.

So what do you need to look for? The first thing is it has to be portable. You don't want something that's so heavy that you're not going to want to carry it, because as soon as it becomes more of a burden than it needs to be you'll leave it in the hotel room. But at the other end of the scale you don't want something that's so flimsy that every time you put your camera on it it wobbles. A good way to test the strength of a tripod is to put both hands on the tripod head and push down. If the legs bend or flex then forget it.

Once you have one that seems sturdy enough and not too heavy (carbon fibre tripods are expensive but highly recommended) you need to find one that is the right height. No one tripod works for all people. You need a tripod that, when you put your camera on top, the viewfinder is pretty much level with your eye while standing up. In other words you're not bending down to look through the camera. If your tripod is too short you'll wind up spending your whole day stooped forward and put your back out. I have a good friend who is over 2 metres tall and his tripod is taller than me!

Another thing you might want to think about is how low your tripod will go. If you're into photographing flowers and other plants low to the ground you'll want a tripod with legs that will bend out far enough to get you close to the ground. Often you'll find that those with leg supports (metal strips that run from the legs of the tripod to the middle column) don't let the legs open up very wide at all meaning the lowest you can go is the tripod at its minimum length. Some tripods let you attach your camera to the bottom part of the centre column which is a great way of getting low.

On top of the tripod you have the option of various heads. You can get three-way pan and tilt heads - which use three handles to control the various movements of the tripod head. You can also get ball heads which lock or loosen with a simple knob to allow you maximum flexibility. And you can also get a pistol grip head which works the same as a ball head but looks like a video game joystick.

I used to have a pan and tilt head but got sick of having to turn multiple knobs to lock the camera into position. I lost one of the knobs in India (if you're in Manali keep an eye out for it!) and swapped to a pistol grip head made by Manfrotto. I'm pretty happy with it, although if I had one gripe it's that it's awkward turning the camera vertically because the pistol grip head sticks out so far.

I don't really want to recommend any one particular brand but I've had my trusty Manfrotto tripod for nearly 15 years and it's been all round the world a number of times and never let me down. Manfrotto goes by the name of Bogen in the US. I also hear fantastic things about Gitzo tripods but personally don't have any experience with them. For the ultimate in flexibility a lot of nature photographers recommend Benbo tripods.

And that's about it for our mini tripod feature. I hope I've convinced you to rush out and buy one, or if you already have one to use it more often. I've said it before and I'll say it again - if there's any one accessory that can improve your photography a million percent it's a tripod.

Next time we'll return to our regular broadcast. :)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tripods and long lenses

Well we've covered a few things that tripods are good for. Most of them involve giving yourself a slow shutter speed to deliberately create blur in your picture, increase your depth-of-field or sometimes even both. We also talked about using them at night when you would otherwise have shutter speeds well beyond the realm of anything handholdable.

But there's another situation where you could maybe get away without using one but you are often better to dig it out. That's long lens photography. And with the ever-increasing zoom capabilities of many point-and-shoot cameras this lesson goes for those of you with simple cameras as well as SLRs.

The old general rule for handholding a camera was to put 1 over the focal length of the lens and that was the slowest shutter speed at which you could handhold the camera without getting hand shake in there. So if you had a 50mm lens, the theory went that you could handhold it down to about 1/60 second before things started getting blurry.

Extrapolating that idea further you can see that the longer your lens, the faster a shutter speed you need before you have to have some sort of support ie our trusty tripod. A 300mm lens would require a shutter speed of roughly 1/250 second, a 400m up to a 1/500 second. This was all based on 35mm film photography so if you have a compact camera, or a digital SLR you need to convert the focal length of your lens to its eqivalent in 35mm film.

So a 70mm lens on a film camera could be held down to about 1/60 second but when you stick it on a crop digital camera it's the equivalent of a 105mm lens and you'll need 1/100 second to prevent things getting blurry.

Now before we start with the macho churpings of 'Yeah but I can handhold my camera this slow', yes you maybe can but the pictures won't be anywhere near as sharp as they would be if you had the camera on a tripod. And the rule has changed slightly with Image Stabilisation techniques as well.

That being said, putting your long lens on a tripod is just a good idea. It saves you sitting there holding a whopping great lens for hours on end waiting for a little critter to come into your field of view. The shot above was taken with a 400mm lens with a 1.4 x converter on it. I'd tell you the f stop and shutter speed but it was shot on film so I have no idea! I would say it was taken at about f5.6 and the film was definitely ISO 100 which means my shutter speed on that cloudy day would definitely have been too dodgy to handhold.

When I use my long lens on a tripod I have my right hand on the shutter button (or cable release button if I'm using a release) and I place my left hand on top of the lens at the point where the lens is connected to the tripod (usually a tripod collar ring). This helps dampen any shutter vibrations that might further help to give me a less than sharp picture.

Well that's about it for the types of pictures that a tripod will help you take. I hope it's been of some value. For my last post tomorrow I'll talk a little about how to look for a good tripod and the kind of features that will come in handy.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Tripods and fireworks

Of course the ultimate tripod shot is one of these. Fireworks. You really do need a completely un-handholdable (are bloggers allowed to invent their own words?) shutter speed for these babies.

You also need to have a Bulb setting on your camera. Pretty much all digital SLRs have them and a lot of point and shoots as well. You'll usually find it only in Manual mode. Not manual focus but actual Manual mode where you have to set the Aperture and Shutter Speed yourself.

When you put it into Manual mode dial your shutter speed down as slow as it can go. Once you get to 30 seconds (which looks like 30") you can actually go one step further. This setting is called Bulb and it lets you leave the shutter open as long as you like.

You'll need a cable release for this trick. You push the shutter once to open it and then lock the cable release. This will leave your camera open until you take the lock off again.

Set your aperture to about f8 and open up your shutter until a firework goes off in the picture. It can be pretty hit-and-miss but if you know roughly where the fireworks are going to go off point the camera in that general direction, open up your shutter and close it once you've recorded one or two bursts.

For more than two bursts you leave your shutter open for a loooong time and in between firework bursts place a piece of black card in front of your lens, to stop any light getting in. Just take the card away every time another burst goes off. This way you can go crazy and put as many fireworks in the one photo as you like. Just remember that the longer the exposure with digital cameras the more noise you tend to get in the pic.

This photo above was taken at Lake Toya on the island of Hokkaido, Japan. During summer they have a nightly fireworks show for all the guests staying in hotels along the banks of the lake. Worried that your hotel is too far away from the show? Don't worry because the fireworks shoot out from a little boat that makes its way along the shore so that no matter where you are you're guaranteed a front row seat. This was taken off the balcony of our hotel and I photographed it in my Japanese robe pyjamas with my two little boys having a whale of a time! Exposure was 10 seconds at f8 on 100 ISO with a 28mm lens. I took a series of shots but this was the best of the lot. Like I said, it can be pretty hit-and-miss!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Using a tripod to increase depth of field

Up till now we've mostly talked about using a tripod in terms of getting slower shutter speeds to help you blur things. This photo certainly uses that technique - if you have a look at the small waterfall there you can see that it's been blurred by a slow shutter speed.

But the main reason for using a tripod in this situation is to increase the depth-of-field - what is in focus from foreground to background. To get everything in the frame in focus you have to use a small aperture - f16, f22 somewhere around there.

The problem is that when you close your aperture down so small you get a really, really slow shutter speed. And when that happens if you try to handhold your camera you're not going to have just a blurry waterfall, you're going to have a blurry everything!

Add that to the fact that when in the rainforest you want to be using a polarising filter to cut down on reflections and bring out the lush greens. Stick that filter on and you're going to lose two stops of light and get an even slower shutter speed. We could be talking up to 30 seconds or so.

So that's when the tripod comes out. Just a word about tripod technique. I see a lot of people who stick the camera on the tripod and then try and compose the picture. As a result most of their photos are taken at exactly tripod height, and usually horizontally! :) It's much better to leave the camera off the tripod and work out your composition first, and then adjust the tripod to fit where you want to be.