Friday, April 25, 2014

How To: Landscape Photos with your Smartphone

So I've had several requests to write an article about smart phone photography. In fact, I have an article here about taking photos of your pet with a phone, but I realize that there's more to be said on the subject.

So, what are some of the keys to great smartphone photography?

Well, the most important thing is to choose your subject wisely. With a phone, you are limited by a fixed (short) focal length, lower resolution, and mediocre exposure metering software. Thus, you want to select a subject that is large, easy to get close to, and evenly lit. In other words, landscapes are excellent subjects for the smartphone photographer.

Anastasia State Park - read more here.
What are the basics of landscape photography?

Well, lucky you! If you are using a smartphone, a lot of the basics of photography are out of your hands - so I won't talk about them here. Normally landscape photography requires a discussion on aperture and depth of field, but you can't control those things with a smartphone. This means that your photographs won't always turn out exactly how you like, but you can still create beautiful images with these simple cameras.

Okay, so what are some of the things that apply to me?

Pick an evenly lit scene. As discussed above, most smartphones do not have advanced exposure metering modes like DSLRs will, and thus they cannot compensate well for scenes with large dynamic ranges. The dynamic range is a description of how much variation there is between the lightest and the darkest part of the image.

This is an example of a scene with a large dynamic range. Notice that in the middle-right section of the image, the subject is almost entirely black. Conversely, in the top left, the sky has been bleached white. This results in loss of detail in both areas of the image, and is considered poor photographic technique.

The dark areas of the frame are termed "underexposed" - that is, they did not get enough light during the exposure. 
The bleached areas of the frame are referred to as "overexposed" - they received way too much light.

Overall, I do still find this photograph pleasing, but it's not a technically great image.

Well, fine, but my phone has HDR, which I know expands the dynamic range.

That's true. Many phones (and DSLRs) now come equipped with HDR (high dynamic range) technology. There are several ways to create an HDR image, but the most commonly employed method is to take several photos in quick succession using different exposure ratings. For example, the camera may take a globally underexposed photo, a globally "normal" photo, and a globally overexposed photo. Computer software then combines these images into one. (Yes, the iPhone HDR feature works like this - I believe it takes 3 images). This does result in an increased dynamic range.

However, this does not solve the dynamic range problem for smartphones, which allow for little user control of exposure. The above image is an example of a nightmare scene for a smarphone camera - dappled light, creating areas of dark and bright scattered randomly across the image. This photo was in fact taken with the HDR setting, and while it is improved against photos of that scene without HDR, it is not great. In short, it's best practice to avoid shooting these types of scenes with smartphones.
(They are no cakewalk with a DSLR either).

What are some other things I can do to improve my smartphone photography?

Well, like I've said before, the basics of all types of photography are the same. Photographs are composed of three main elements: subject, composition, and lighting. Lighting can be broken down into four components: Ambient light, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO rating. With DSLR/SLR photography, we have greater control over the latter 3 items. However, with smartphones, we are largely at the mercy of whatever creative decisions the software makes for us (the amount of control you have of course varies from phone to phone). As a result, it's important to capitalize on the things we CAN control.

Ambient Lighting

Seek out dramatic lighting to illuminate your images - it can transform even the most drab frog into a princess. (Note here that this is one of the few situations a high dynamic range photograph is successful).


Presumably we do photography because we want to show the world what we see. Bring your photography to life with images that are descriptive, poetic, and unusual. Think carefully about your composition before you click that button - you've got plenty of time; that gazebo's not moving. I find it helpful to do composition "exercises". Challenge yourself to take at least 5 different images of each of your subjects. Then, if you can do 5 easily, stretch to 10. Force yourself to think outside the canonical box to produce artistic images.

You can click here to read my article on pet photography with a smartphone.

Okay, I've talked enough - now it's your turn. What do you think about smartphone photography?

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Tiny Delicacies

As a follow-up to last week's post on macro photography, I've decided to dedicate this post to flowers. Not sunflowers, or over-enthusiastic roses, but tiny, delicate flowers, wildflowers, weeds. In other words, flowers that are great subjects for macro photography.

These are the sorts of flowers, just centimeters across, that are trampled by hikers, unnoticed in the great outdoors. In last week's post, I talked about the wonder of macro photography stemming from the artist's ability to expose an unseen world to the viewer. In many cases, these flowers appear strange or unusual simply because we never look at them.

Here are my tips for macro flower photography:

1. Angle

Many of these little flowers hang downward. Unassuming from above, their petals often hide intricate structures or patterns that make for appealing visual subjects. Don't be afraid to sit in the dirt to get these kinds of shots - it's okay. No one's looking, right?
Additionally, you can use the angle at which you approach your subject to either emphasize or downplay their tininess. 

 2. Appreciate Detail
As mentioned above, these flowers often hide complexities that we otherwise do not appreciate. Don't be afraid to get as close as you can, even taking extreme macros if you have the equipment to do so.
Even familiar flowers, like this Texas bluebonnet above, can become exotic and unusual when captured with a macro lens. Notice how the detail in the varying flower structures keeps the image interesting, balancing the vibrant blue tones.

3. Stability

Macro flower photography suffers from the same difficulties that any other macro photography does - namely, the magnification of unwanted motion in the frame. Particularly for flower photography, the wind can be a frustrating enemy to battle. 

The best advice I can give you, short of buying this device, a clamp designed to hold plants still in the wind, is to shoot in the early morning. You are probably doing that anyway - look at you! The morning tends to be the calmest time of day, in terms of wind. However, some days the weather just won't cooperate with you, and you'll have to find something else to shoot.
Of course, you could always play with artistic effects using a slow shutter speed and wind, but that discussion is for another post.

4. Accept Surprises

One of - in my opinion, anyway - the best things about macro photography is that you sometimes discover one thing while looking for another. Incorporating other wildlife always adds interest to a static shot.

Reduviid bug on Foxglove

So, are you going to try miniature flower photography this weekend? Or is this style of macro not for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts, and thanks for reading!

You can also check out this post I wrote about composition in flower photography.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Very Small Rocks: Macro Photography Basics

Macro Photography Basics

Baby reduviid 

You may have noticed that I kinda have a thing for arthropods. Okay, maybe not "kind of", but definitely certainly. Quite frankly, I love bugs. And while I believe that insects are amazing photography subjects, I realize that macro photography is not as intuitive as other forms of nature photography. Firstly, you need specialized equipment (should I do a post on this? Let me know). Secondly, you need to understand the technical hang-ups with macro work. Finally, you need to really like small things.

So what even is macro photography?

There is actually a technical definition of a "macro" lens - it must render the subject with a 1:2 or 1:1 reproduction ratio. In other words, the subject must be at least half as large on the film as it is in real life. Make sense? (Note: Some sources only consider 1:1 ratios to be true 'macro', but I believe that this is nitpicking).

Dew-laden flowers

Okay, so besides being small, what's the difference?

The main technical difficulty of macro photography is learning how to handle the magnification power of the lens. In short, the extreme magnification creates problems for the photographer.

1. Focusing Problems

At very high magnifications, the depth of field becomes very shallow. Thus it is imperative to focus your images carefully. A few millimeters' change in the focal plane can create entirely different images. Pay close attention that your desired subject is actually the point in the frame you are focusing on. I would recommend using manual focus. As a corollary to this tip, a tripod is helpful in ensuring that you don't accidentally twitch and move your subject out of focus.

Hornet Clearwing Moth
You can see in the image above how shallow the depth of field is. Unless this is the look you are going for, I would suggest stopping down to a very small f-stop to maximize your available depth. 
(If the above discussion about depth of field is confusing you, you may want to head over here to read my article about f-stops.)

2. Choosing the Right Subject

I've spoken (and written) before about how I believe there are 3 main components of a good photograph: lighting, subject, and composition. Depending on the type of photography, these individual elements attain greater or lesser importance. For macro photography, I believe that choosing an appropriate subject is paramount.

Parasitized Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar
You should seek out subjects with interesting patterns, textures, or behaviors. Okay, you say, I'm supposed to be doing that anyway. And that's true -  but the key here is to discover subjects that are not easily appreciated with the naked eye. With the magic of your macro lens, you are transporting the viewer to place she cannot otherwise go. In short, your camera becomes a tool with which to expose a hidden world. In my obvious opinion, insects make wonderful macro subjects, as their bodies are etched with color and detail we rarely notice at our native scale.

Hover fly
3. Lighting Difficulties

Because of the issues discussed in tip #1, macro photographers often stop down very far. This results in little available light to shoot with, and thus blurry images. To combat this problem, many photographers choose to use flash to illuminate their macro images. Personally, I prefer the appearance of natural light in photographs. However, if you like flash - go for it! But don't let anyone try to convince you that you "need" expensive lighting gear to undertake macro photography. None of my images are shot with flash.

Parting words:

So there are a few technical challenges posed by macro photography, but they are not insurmountable, even for beginning photographers. Overall, the same basics of light, subject, composition hold true with this, and any, genre of photography. While equipment can be expensive, there are entry-level devices that can help elevate your images to the realm of small (macro lenses are even available for smart phones now). Would you like me to write a post about macro equipment? Let me know in the comments.
In the meantime, it's insect season again! Get out there, and get CLOSE.

If you're interested, in this article, I talk briefly about finding great insect subjects.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

My Favorite Places: Vol 1: Anastasia State Park

My Favorite Places for Nature Photography: Anastasia State Park, St Augustine, FL

One of the most common questions I get asked is, "where do you take those photos?" so I decided it was high time for a post addressing that topic.

A very brief introduction about me:
I currently live in Texas for school, but I grew up in Florida, and my parents still live there. Thus I am traveling back and forth from Florida to Texas a lot to visit them.

OK, on to the actual subject: Anastasia State Park

Anastasia State Park is probably my most favorite locale for bird photography. It's less crowded than "famous" sites like Ding Darling or the Alligator Farm, but it is no less spectacular for birding. Anastasia State Park is located in St. Augustine, on the East (Atlantic) coast of Florida. The state park website is here.

What sort of habitats does the park encompass?

One of the best things about Anastasia State Park, in my opinion, is that you can visit a variety of habitats within the park borders. This varied landscape is also part of what makes the park so attractive to wildlife (and people!). 
Areas I would definitely recommend scouting out for birds are: the salt marsh and the beach. There are also a few small trails into woodland scrub habitats, if you want to look for songbirds. But I like water birds, so you can usually find me by the salt marsh.

What sort of animals should I expect to find?

Anastasia State Park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, so it's an excellent location for birding and bird photography. Of course, insects, small mammals and small reptiles also make the park their home. A list of the bird species that have been recorded in the park can be found here. 

Wood Stork
Favorite species include: roseate spoonbills, the american oystercatcher, osprey, and the wood stork. I have found that this park is one of the best places for seeing wood storks in north Florida. They particularly like it when people have been fishing!

Tips for Visiting the Park

If possible, I would recommend visiting the park at low tide. A quick google search will easily bring up the times for the tides. During low tide, all the little inhabitants of the salt marsh are exposed, attracting flocks of avian visitors looking for an easy meal. I generally see the largest numbers of species when I visit at low tide. However, I find that the wood storks, herons, osprey, and egrets are present even in high tide - so do not despair if you are unable to visit during the low tide.

Roseate Spoonbills


Of course, there is more to the park than the salt marsh. Anastasia State Park boasts a lovely, clean, beach that is full of wildlife. I have found this an excellent place to photograph gulls, terns, and other shorebirds. In fact, I have an entire post on shorebirds here, most of which I photographed at Anastasia.

Royal Terns
Particularly in the winter, you may be able to catch groups of migrating ocean birds stopping to rest in the park. You can generally find me sprawled out on the sand, in jeans and a t shirt, camera resting close to the ground, lens trained on an unassuming cluster of birds. Yes, that is how I visit the beach when I go to Florida.

Immature Tricolored Heron
In short, Anastasia State Park is worth the drive over if you are in the area. It boasts a wide array of wildlife inhabitants, along with recreational opportunities for fishing, hiking, and lounging on the beach. Yes, I do believe you should support your local state parks!

Equipment information:
Nikon D70 + 70-300mm Nikkor zoom lens +/- manfrotto tripod

What's your favorite spot for nature photography? Let me know!

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