Friday, January 31, 2014

Evening Walk

It's probably obvious to you, by now, if you've ever picked up a camera, that lighting is important. Many photographers wax poetic about the delicate pre-dawn light that waking up at 5:00 AM affords you. I can't disagree - the morning is beautiful. However, I feel that evening light is under-appreciated. Glowing and golden, it illuminates subjects in dramatic backlight or highlights textures of scale or fur. Plus you don't even have to get up early on your day off.
Taking advantage of the harsh evening light can make for some interesting portraits.
The sun has been blessed with Midas' touch and can charm even the most drab subject into bedazzlement.
Walkingstick - Phasmida
Of course, when working with subjects that are naturally flashy, strong evening light ratchets up their attire to an almost gaudy level. Here, I had to be careful not to overexpose highlights on this Japanese beetle.

Japanese Beetle (invasive)
Unfortunately, this sort of "magic" lighting fades quickly, so if you want to take advantage of it, you'd better work fast!

What's your favorite time of day for photography?
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Friday, January 24, 2014

Q: How to Give Life to Still Photographs of Still Things

One of the challenges of photography is imparting life and motion to a still record of a scene. In some cases this is quite simple. One frame of an eagle's swoop looks just as exciting as a video of the entire event. Indeed, still photographs of animals in action can intensify the drama, as the viewer begins to anticipate what will happen next, what occurred after the photo.
This is not true of plants. Plants don't swoop, or dive, or flash brilliant and bizarre mating feathers. Plants are the connoisseurs of slow. They grow, they mate, they fight, at a creeping, deliberate pace, too gradual for us to detect.
So how can one lend the same interest and excitement to plant photography as is characteristic of animal photography?

1. Develop an appreciation for color and shape.
Brilliant, saturated colors steep many flowers. However, the key to developing interest and excitement in flower photography is variety of both color and form. An endless field of red flowers may make for a striking landscape, but then become overpowering for a macro shot. To avoid visual oversaturation, try to mix different species of plant in the same frame, if possible. This is often quite easy to do if you are shooting in a botanical garden, where different flowers are arranged for you in ways that are already visually pleasing.

If you are shooting a single type of flower, try to incorporate different parts of the plant (ie stalks or leaves) to add variety. Alternatively, a shallow depth of field can be used to your advantage to paint areas of blurriness and sharpness and avoid monotony.

2. Use Visual Cues to Suggest Motion
In a photograph of a tiger leaping, the brain picks up on visual cues that allow you to interpret the picture as "action" - the stance of the tiger, the position of his paws, or perhaps the fact that he is no longer touching the ground. Similarly, compositional cues in still photos can be used to suggest motion and "trick" the brain.

In this picture, for example, the seed pod has been photographed at a lower angle, making it appear to be emerging from the flowers. This view is much more dynamic than if the pod had been photographed "head-on".
Here's another, more subtle, example.

In this image, the strong vertical lines suggest an upward motion of the flower, which is open to the sun. This composition works to create the feeling that the flower is "reaching" upwards, when, in reality, we know it is (relatively) static.

What sorts of tricks do you use to add interest to your flower photography?

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Strangers

There are a lot of bugs. A mind-bogglingly large number of species, an inconceivably immense biomass of creatures. Many of them are quite familiar to us - they buzz, bump, and crawl their way through our lives, either as pests, terrors, or pieces of wonderment. However, some of them are quite strange and foreign.

Antlion - Myrmeleontidae
Here is one I rarely notice - the antlion. Now, some of you are probably thinking, "that's not what an antlion looks like." This is probably because you are familiar with the larval form, which the pincered creature children often find hiding in tiny sandpits in playgrounds. It undergoes metamorphosis and then becomes this guy. It's still a rampant predator, even in its adult form.

Mayfly - Ephemeroptera, poss. Ephemeridae hexagenia
Here's one you're probably a little more familiar with - the mayfly. Similar to the dragonfly and the damselfly, the mayfly can be distinguished by the characteristic filaments protruding like a tail. They are famous for their incredibly short adult (winged) lifespans, lasting only a few days in some species.

I found both of these guys on the same day, while taking a brief hike in Fort Worth Nature Center. Both of them were resting on vegetation below eye level, reiterating the importance of looking down when insect hunting. Finding insects is a skill that improves with time and practice, as you learn the sometimes subtle clues that announce an arthropod presence. Admittedly, I know that this is not a skill many care to perfect, but, as a macro photographer, insects provide variable and interesting subject manner at finger's reach.

How do you feel about getting close enough to bugs to photograph them?

Want to learn more about bugs? Head over here for a brief lesson in entomology!

Friday, January 10, 2014

How to Take Great Pet Photos with your Smartphone

I'm diverting slightly from my usual content to discus one of the biggest revolutions in photography - the smartphone. Suddenly, everyone is carrying mini digital cameras in their pockets - and these cameras are becoming more and more sophisticated.
So is it possible to take professional-quality photographs with your smartphone?
Well, yes...if you choose your subjects and your lighting carefully. As my facebook feed is constantly flooded with pictures of people's pets, I figured pet photography was a good starting point.

How to Make the Most of your Smartphone Camera 
I mentioned earlier that you can create excellent photographs with your smartphone, if you choose the right scene. My experience here is with the iPhone camera, which does not let you manually adjust camera settings.
Here are a few general smartphone pointers:
1. Avoid contrasty scenes
Scenes with a large difference between the darkest and the brightest point in the picture will turn out over- or -underexposed on many smartphones. Choose a situation with fairly even light to get the best results.

The bright white blown-out computer screen is very distracting in this high contrast photo.

2. Read the manual
This is the first thing you should do with ANY camera. Seriously, the features won't help you if you don't know how to use them.
3. Work with easily available subjects
By this I mean, your subject should fill the frame. However, most smart phones have very limited zoom capabilities. The "digital zoom" most are equipped with usually just results in very low image quality. Instead of resorting to this, your phone's camera is best used for subjects that are very large (ie, landscapes) or that will let you get very close to them (ie, your dog).

All right, so let's say you, like so many others, have found your "available" subject in the form of your adorable, fat puppy. Now what do you do?
Well, the basics of pet photography apply regardless of what kind of camera you are using.

1. Shoot at eye level
While the top of your kitten's head is cute, his face is probably cuter. We have a tendency to "shoot down" at animals because they are shorter than we are. This results in photos of backs and ears from funny perspectives. That's generally not what you want. When you're photographing an animal like this, your camera should generally be at the eye level of your subject.
Top-down, we can't even really see what he looks like

This picture was taken at the same time as the one above, but was taken at eye level. 

2. Think about the composition
One of the biggest advantages of photographing your pet versus a wild animal is that he will generally sit still for you for long periods of time. This should give you ample opportunity to think about the composition of your photograph. Are you following the rule of thirds? Is your underwear unobtrusively sitting in the background of the picture? Is your lighting ok? These are questions to consider before you click the "shutter" button.
This picture is pretty cute, but there is a lot of distracting material in the background that takes away from the subject.
Here, the background is clean, allowing us to focus all of our attention on the subject.

3. Try shooting with natural lighting
Many times when we are with our pets and our phones, we are indoors. This results in photographs that may be dark, yellow (from incandescent light), or "flat" (from the automatic flash). Try to get your subject in front of a window for a little taste of soft, natural lighting inside.

4. Turn off your flash
On a smart phone, the flash feature generally serves to hit your subject right in the face with a blinding burst of light, creating red eye, casting weird shadows, and lending a characteristic "flatness" to the photo. It also tends to startle animals or make them squint. It's no good. Just turn it off.
The flash causes apparent "flattening" of his head against his body, red eye, and squinting. No wonder he looks so mad.

5. Try to capture a mix of interesting behavior and portraits
Here's my final tip for you. A lot of us rush to grab our cameras when our pets are "doing something cute" -- and that's good. One of the keys to pet photography is variety. You don't really need 50 pictures of your overweight cat sleeping on the couch. At the same time, you don't need to spam your grandmother's inbox with photos of him sitting on your head. Or whatever. Try to illustrate elements of your pet's personality in your photos. In the end, your pictures should describe him (or her) as an individual, and not merely be a record of his existence.

Would you rather be taking pictures of flowers? Head over here for some great flower photography tips!
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