Friday, February 28, 2014

Shutter Aflutter: Photography Basics: Part 2

Photography Basics Part 2: Shutter Speed

See Part 1
Part 3

In this week's episode of "photography basics," we will be talking a little about what shutter speed is and how you can use it to improve your images.

So, what is shutter speed?
In last week's post, we talked about aperture, and how it helps determine how much light reaches your film. Well, the shutter is like a curtain that sits between the aperture and the film/chip. The speed at which the shutter is raised up and down determines the exposure time - how long light is allowed to hit the film.

So what does that mean?
A fast shutter speed means that the film is exposed to light for a shorter time, while a slow speed allows for a longer exposure - and thus more light. Of course, the aperture size also impacts how much light reaches the film.

Shutter speed is expressed as a fraction of time, say 1/250 seconds. Thus, a larger number indicates a faster speed, and also less available light for the exposure. A darker setting, for example indoors or in the evening, will generally require a slower shutter speed and a larger aperture to permit enough light to reach the film to make a decent exposure. Conversely, a bright setting, such as a beach at midday, will allow for a faster shutter speed and/or a smaller aperture.

These decisions are artistic as well as technical.

So does it matter to me if I need to use a slow shutter speed?
Well - yes. As mentioned above, a slow shutter speeds equals a longer exposure. Thus, any movement that occurs in the frame during the time of the exposure will be recorded.

Taken with a shutter speed of 1/60 at f/6.3, and a focal length of 100mm
You can see here that a slower shutter speed shows movement as blurring in the frame. You can use this to your artistic advantage to create interesting depictions of motion. However, it can also work against you. A shutter speed that is too slow allows for unwanted blur in the image, particularly if you are shooting with a long telephoto lens. This is called "motion blur." It occurs either because you moving the camera slightly as you shoot (get a tripod!) or because the animal/subject has moved suddenly in the frame.

A good rule of thumb to avoid motion blur is to shoot at a shutter speed of at least 1/focal length. So, for example, if I am shooting at 300mm, I don't want to be using a shutter speed of under 300 without a tripod to stabilize.

Here is an example of motion blur! It's not pretty - this photo is no good. Shot at a shutter of 1/40 at f/5 with a focal length of 200mm. The shutter is not fast enough to stop the motion of the bird.
So then what does a fast shutter mean?
A fast shutter speed means that the film is only exposed to light for a very brief period of time - thus, you need to be in a situation with a lot of available light.
A fast shutter speed is able to "freeze" motion, and can be good to capture detail in action shots and avoid motion blur, as discussed above.
Osprey at Bowman's Beach, Sanibel island. Shot at 1/1250s, f/5.6 with a focal length of 300mm
Here you can see the difference the fast shutter speed makes! The osprey is frozen in flight, with all of the detail preserved, and no blurring. It is artistic preference whether or not you choose to shoot motion like this or with a slow shutter.

Hummingbird Moth - 1/640s, f/5, focal length of 100mm
This is an example of an intermediate shutter speed. You can see that it is not fast enough to "freeze" the motion of the moth's wings, but it is able to stop motion of its body. Thus, you get detail preserved in the body of the insect and a soft blurring of the wings, representing flight.

I personally prefer the look of images taken with fast shutter speeds, so I usually set my camera to the largest (widest) aperture available to allow for the most light and the fastest shutter. Of course, sometimes I make adjustments to the aperture to create different depths of field - it all depends on the look I am trying to achieve. 

I hope that this article was helpful and allowed you to understand a little bit more about those funny numbers on your camera! If you're interested, here is Part 3 of the series.

Which look do you prefer - fast or slow shutter?

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Friday, February 21, 2014

The F Stops Here: Photography Basics Part 1

Photography Basics Part 1: A Practical Guide to Aperture

View Part 2
View Part 3

This is going to be the first post in a small series explaining some technical photography basics which can help you improve your photography skills. With the improving sophistication of automatic metering systems in digital cameras, technical knowledge of photography is becoming less necessary. However, if you want to have artistic control over your images, you should learn a few basics.

What is an F stop?
"F stop" is another term for "aperture." Aperture is the name for the hole through which light reaches the film - or digital chip - when the shutter is lifted. This allows for exposure of the film/chip and also focuses the light onto the surface.
The F stop is expressed as a fraction. Thus, "larger" numbers actually mean a smaller aperture. For example, when people talk about "F 16," they really mean f/16, or f over 16. F/8 is therefore a larger aperture than f/16.
These numbers, by the way, are based on a mathematical sequence and they are scaled such that each number down (bigger number but smaller aperture) represents a halving of the light intensity from the previous stop.
Make sense?

What does that mean for me?
The size of the aperture determines two things: 1. The amount of light that reaches your film (in conjunction with your shutter speed, which is next week's topic), and 2. Depth of Field (which is mostly what we will focus on today).

What is depth of field?
Depth of field is a measure of how far back in the frame objects remain in focus.
This is an example of a picture with a shallow depth of field. It was taken with f/5.
You can see here in the example above that detail has only been captured in the lacewing's head. Objects father away from the camera, the rest of the picture, blur softly out of focus. This technique is often used for pleasing artistic effect.
Here is another example:
This picture also displays a shallow depth of field. It was taken with f/6.3
A shallow depth of field allows all attention to be focused on the subject, because background objects are not rendered in detail. This can be advantageous for macro images.
This photo has a greater depth of field. It was shot at f/9.
This photo has a greater depth of field than the previous examples. Note it was taken with a smaller f/stop. A smaller f/stop (eg, f/22) creates a larger, or deeper, depth of field. You can think of this as a small opening focusing the light more sharply, allowing more items in the frame to be rendered in detail. Notice that even items far away from the camera are recognizable. I could have stopped down even farther in this shot to obtain greater detail.

Another example, taken at f/7

What's the deal with the light?
Remember that we said the f/stop affects two things: the amount of light that reaches the film and the depth of field? Well, the farther down you stop (a smaller f/stop, a bigger number), the less and less light reaches the film. This means that your exposure will have to become longer to compensate - and that will be next week's topic (click here to read Part 2 of Photography Basics and here to read Part 3).

Feel free to leave any questions you have below.

Did you see this post about lighting? Check it out!

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Winter Blues

Winter is not always kind to the nature photographer. Either the frigid north winds hound us, bringing ice, snow, and difficulties to our craft, or we find ourselves alone, cameras without subjects. Living in the south, it is the latter problem I suffer from. Once spring fades, insects die or hibernate, flowers wither, birds fly south, and mammals seek shelter in their burrows. In short, all of my favorite subjects suddenly turn up missing. So what's a photographer to do?

There are overall three keys to a good photograph: good subject, good composition, and good lighting. In the winter, if you do not have access to dramatic snowscapes, it can be difficult to find a "good" subject. After all, who really wants to take photos of dead leaves? To give some visual CPR to your lifeless subjects, dramatic lighting and sharp compositions are essential.

In both of these examples, dramatic backlighting perks up static images of dead leaves.

Mood is another consideration. Winter swathes everything in a subdued, nearly monochromatic palette. A good photograph might exploit this tone to create evocative works, expressing peace, loneliness, or beauty.

Placed against grayscale backgrounds, even "dull" colors, such as the brown in the above photograph, suddenly become vivid in comparison. The empty seed pod above almost glows with life in relation to the bland background. Again, composition is pivotal here in ensuring the photograph creates impact. The branch leads the viewer's eye upward toward the lone splotch of color in the frame. As a result, movement is created, and even a photograph of a dead plant becomes eye-catching.

Want more tips on composition? Check out my post here for some brief pointers!

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So what do you think? Is it worth it to brave the cold for photographs or is winter better spent hibernating? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, February 7, 2014

My Slimy Friends: Salamanders in Nature Photography

If I recall correctly, Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame), made some remark about how nature was gross, because something was always crawling or oozing slime on you.
Dear reader, I humbly submit that this is not a bad thing.

This week, we are going to talk about salamanders as unique and beautiful nature photography subjects.

Salamanders are some of my favorite animals. Brightly colored or simple brown, they squirm and squiggle their way through quick-moving streams and underneath mossy rocks. Turn over a stone here and who knows - perhaps a translucent dragonfly larva, or possibly a vibrant orange amphibian.

Eurycea cirrigera - Southern Two Lined Salamander
 Amphibians are an oft neglected subject in the world of nature photography. Not as available as insects, pitifully unglamorous next to big mammals, they tend to shrink away into their damp worlds of moss and wet stone.

Desmognathus quadramaculatus - Black-bellied Salamander
Perhaps that is why I am so fond of them. After all, I cannot resist the contrast of soft vegetation against slimy Caudatan skin. It was love at first sight, really.

Salamanders are delicate animals; soft, overcast lighting and macro lenses do them great favors. As with most other subjects, early morning is the best time to photograph them. Not only do you get the most flattering light this way, but the cold-blooded salamanders will be the most sluggish (read: most willing to sit still for you).

If you do handle any salamanders, make sure to do so gently. Do a little research of the species in your area before you go out, however, as some are toxic. And finally, do not remove animals from their habitats or take them far away from where you found them searching for a "better" photo. Remember that you are a guest in the salamander's dank world.

Southern Two-Lined Salamander
The melting ice and warming temperatures simply remind me, in tantalizing whispers, that salamander season is coming again. So, if you should find yourself near a swampy forest or a cold mountain stream, consider (carefully) turning over stones and logs to look for amphibians.

(All photos were taken at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. The Smoky Mountain region is considered to be a biodiversity hotspot for salamanders.)

Nikon D70 + Sigma 100mm macro

Check out this post for some tips on taking great animal portraits! Please remember to share, follow, and subscribe via the fancy sidebar options! Here is my tumblr and here I am on bloglovin.