Archive for the 'Eye & Hand: Draw, Photograph, Paint, Write' Category

Jan 21 2017

Exposing Snow: Tips for Winter Photographers by Tamia Nelson

Ever wish you could discover a new world? Do you think those days are over, at least here on Planet Earth? Well, I’ve got news for you. Every winter storm remakes the world, if only for a little while. Just be the first person out the door and down the trail after a fresh snowfall, and you’ll be sure to make a few discoveries. Of course you won’t get your name in the history books, but you can get some great photos. It’s not quite as simple as pointing and shooting, though. All that fresh, white stuff on the ground can easily throw your camera’s sensors off. The result? One of two polar extremes: Your shots will either be blown out (overexposed, or too bright), or—and this is more likely—they’ll be a dull, dispiriting, uniform dark gray (underexposed).

OK. That’s the problem. What’s the cure? Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula. Most automatic cameras have a “Snow Scene” setting. Often these work. But sometimes they don’t. Then you have to rely on trial and error. Needless to say, this is a lot easier than it used to be back in the Age of Film, when you had to wait for your prints or slides to come back from the lab before you could see how the shots turned out. Today it’s as simple as hitting the Playback button. Now here are some tips to make the process even easier:

Start With a Test Shot  Then study it carefully in your camera’s LCD screen. Your eyes will tell you if it’s too light or too dark, and the image’s histogram—the camera’s manual should show you how to interpret it—will tell you even more. Once you’ve analyzed the test shot, you’re ready to…

Adjust the Exposure Value (EV)  Most cameras let you set this to ±2.0, usually in 0.3- or 0.5-stop increments. I typically begin by setting EV at +0.5 for snow scenes, and I’d suggest that you do the same. Then take a second test shot. Too dark? Up the EV by half a stop and try again. And again. Until it’s right. Too bright? Back off half a stop (to 0.0, say, if you started at +0.5) and shoot a test shot. Still too bright? Back off another half stop and shoot another. And so forth. Till it’s spot on. Then you’re good to go.

Or are you? The tiny LCD screen on most cameras isn’t big enough (or bright enough) to display images to best advantage. What looks good in the field may look less so on your desktop monitor. Which is why it pays to…

Bracket Your Photos  This just means shooting a succession of photos at EV numbers above and below the EV value you arrived at through trial and error. Don’t get carried away. It’s usually enough to bracket one full stop up and down, in half-stop increments.


So far, so good. Care in choosing the EV should give you what you want in most instances, and bracketing will take care of most of the rest. But super-bright conditions—full sun on a high-altitude snowfield, for example—warrant special measures, like…

Mounting a Polarizing Filter  These common aftermarket accessories subdue highlights and reduce reflections, preventing “wash out.” They can also reveal hidden textures in superficially uniform surfaces. But be warned: If a landscape includes areas of shade or shadow, a polarizer will further limit what can be seen in those dark places. Here’s an example:

Snowy River

The polarizer brings out the fine detail in the expanse of snow, but the forest beyond is now preternaturally dark. (To see larger images in new windows, right-click on this photo and those that follow.) Now here’s a similar scene. It was shot with the same lens, but I left the polarizer off:

Snow Mounds on the River

Spot the difference? The forest fringe looks less gloomy—and you can see individual branches, too—but there’s a price to be paid. The granularity of the snow isn’t as pronounced. Note, too, that I’ve tweaked both photos in my electronic darkroom, by…

Using Post-Processing Software  Darkroom magic is no longer a game that only big-name pros with big-time budgets can play. It’s now open to anyone with a digital camera and a computer. And no, it’s not cheating. Photographers—famous and unknown alike—have been spending long hours in the darkroom to make their work look its best since the mid-19th century. Now you can, too. With a few adjustments to saturation, levels, and contrast, you can bring out details you thought were lost in shadow, take some of the dazzle out of distracting highlights, and work other minor miracles. But no amount of post-processing can make a bad picture into a good one. So always do your best in field, where the effort counts most.

Camera Icon

Are you ready to discover new worlds? You’re in luck. Or at least you are if you live where it snows. Just wait for the next storm to blow through. And while you’re waiting, get your photo outfit ready. Then head out the door and start shooting snow scenes. Each storm remakes the world, creating new landscapes to be explored. But only for a little while. It will be summer before you know it. There’s not a moment to be lost!


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Mar 14 2015

Photoelasticity — Showing Plastic in Its True Light

Are you tired of winter? Has cabin fever set in? Then if you’re a shutterbug who enjoys experimenting, chart a course to my recent Pentax Forums post on using your camera, a polarizing filter, and an LCD display to see some of your plastic possessions in a whole new light.

Check out the compass plate below:

Taking a Bearing on Birefringencesu

The subtle rainbow bands are an example of photoelasticity, also known as plastic birefringence. And you’ll see them in all manner of transparent plastic products. So put on your specs and start shooting!

Take a Look

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Feb 05 2015

Eye and Hand: The Artist in Winter

The Artist in Winter

Winter can be a trying time for cold country trekkers. There are compensations, of course. Suitably shod — either claw‑ or web‑footed, as conditions dictate, with sturdy stick or pole in hand — hardy winter wanderers enjoy a freedom of the hills denied walkers in more temperate seasons, when hobbling undergrowth and swarms of biting flies conspire to make any deviation from the beaten track both sweaty and painful. A rucksack charged with the Ten Essentials is now your passport to a backcountry without bounds or borders, where off‑trail travel is the norm. And this winter I’m also leaving my camera at home from time to time, in order to do some “batteries not included” exploring, recording the stark beauty of the winter landscape with pencil in hand.

That’s my intention, at any rate. But my first attempt proved frustrating. In fact, you could say it was a comedy of errors … Read more…

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Dec 09 2014

Manzella Silkweight Windstopper Gloves: My First Line of Defense Against Cold Hands

I like to keep active through the winter. If I didn’t, I’d emerge in the spring ready for the beach—and I’d be the beach ball. So I motivate myself to get out even in rotten weather by making every trip a photo safari, whether I go forth on two wheels or on two feet. But baby, it’s cold out there! So I keep the cold at arm’s length by bundling up in layers of wool and synthetic (not cotton). My hands are a trouble spot. They get cold. Very cold. So to keep my hands warm on winter photo safari, I follow the same principle as when outfitting my body. I layer. And my first line of defense are Manzella Silkweight Windstopper gloves:

Keeping Cold At Bay

They have textured palms and fingers, a soft fleecy interior, reflective accents, and they fit my hands perfectly. Unlike thick gloves or mittens, Windstoppers allow me to work the camera controls without impediment (they’re not so bad for changing a flat tire, either). I also appreciate the D-ring and snap-link that join the gloves together for times when I stow them inside my pack. Another feature I like are webbing loops sewn into the cuffs. A long lanyard connecting the two gloves and threaded through the sleeves of my jacket insures that I won’t drop one along the trail.

Of course, the Windstoppers alone aren’t enough in really cold temperatures. When the mercury drops below 45 degrees or so, I pull a pair of thick fleece gloves right over them. Then, when I need to free my fingers for fiddly work—using a camera, say, or scrolling through the menus on my GPS—the heavy fleece gloves come off again. But the Windstoppers stay put. And they live up to their name. Provided I do what needs to be done quickly, my fingers remain comfortably warm.

So far, so good. But one of the unhappy consequences of accelerated product development cycles—not to mention manufacturers’ growing tendency to confuse fashion with function—is the short shelf-life of many products. By the time I’ve bought something and used it long enough to form an opinion about it, it disappears from the stores. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that Windstoppers are still available from some sources even though I got my pair six years ago. Now that‘s something to celebrate.

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Nov 15 2014

How Can You Keep Your Hands Warm and Still Leave Your Fingers Free?

I’m not one to hibernate indoors in winter. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no hard(wo)man. I like my creature comforts, and I don’t worship the cold. I’ve spent enough nights shivering in unheated rooms to last me a lifetime. But I also know that I need to keep moving to stay reasonably fit. A chipmunk can sleep through the winter and then spring into life just as soon as the sun melts the snow away from her burrow, with her vigor and vitality unimpaired. Not me. A week spent sitting behind a desk leaves me listless and flabby. Four months of idleness would probably finish me off altogether. Use it or lose it… That’s my motto. It has to be.

Still, it’s not easy to leave a warm house when an icy wind is driving snow through the pine woods and even the chickadees are cowed into silence. I need a very good reason. And photography provides it. There’s so much to see in winter. Landscapes that I know intimately from excursions during the more temperate seasons now look completely different, and every storm alters their appearance yet again. It’s said — correctly — that you can never wet your feet twice in the same river, such is the power of moving water to alter the land in ways both large and small. And the same is true of any winter landscape, at least in snow country. With nearly every step you take, you’re going where no one has gone before.

Of course, there’s more than this to lure photographers outside in winter. The white mantle that remodels the contours of familiar hills also serves as a tablet, faithfully recording the wanderings of every manner of four‑footed traveler. Best of all, its surface is refreshed with each snowfall, so I’m always seeing the latest chapter in the story of the travelers’ lives. In a very real sense, the winter woods are an open book. And then there are the colors. Much of the time, the frozen landscape is a grim portrait in gray and black. But suddenly, just as I’m turning toward home, the last rays of the sun will duck under the low‑hanging clouds, suffusing a distant ridge with a warm glow, and in the blink of an eye the composition is completely changed. Now it’s a nocturne in black and gold. No Pixar wizard could produce anything half so striking.

The bottom line? The winter woods and hills are a wonderland for photographers. But like almost all gifts, this one comes with strings attached. Winter isn’t an easy time to work outside, even when the work involves no more than turning dials and pushing buttons. Photographers need the right gear — and they need to know how to use it to best advantage. Blowing snow and freezing cold are also hard on digital cameras and their lenses. To be sure, practice and planning can overcome most such obstacles. Yet one stumbling block remains to bedevil cold‑season shutterbugs: cold hands… Read more…

This article was one originally published on December 8, 2011.

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Dec 17 2013

Shooting the Moon: A Quick Guide for Photographers

What photographer hasn’t wanted to shoot the moon at some point? But photographing the moon is tricky, and results can be disappointing. For one thing, the moon is much brighter than you might think—bright enough to throw off some cameras’ exposure meters. Deciding on ISO and focal length is fraught, too. Choose badly, and the moon will appear as little more than a bright dot. Or—the other extreme—she might be an immense, featureless blob.

But don’t give up. Digital cameras make it cheap and easy to experiment, and practice makes perfect. Let’s begin at the beginning, with…

Sensitivity Settings. If you set your camera’s ISO (aka Exposure Index) as low as it will go—generally in the 80-200 range for digital cameras—the resulting images will be sharper and less likely to be plagued by “noise,” a particular problem in the darker areas of a scene. Here’s a typical noisy shot:

Noisy Moon

This is a one-to-one reproduction of the rising moon, shot shortly after dusk, cropped from the original picture. I hand-held my point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot A550, racking the lens out to its maximum extent and then making use of the digital zoom for an extreme telephoto effect. The sky was a deep cerulean blue, but that’s not how it looks here, is it? The combination of high ISO (400, in this instance), digital zoom, and a camera of less than stellar capability conspired to muddy the heavens.

Cameras and Lenses. Inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras can take good photos of the moon. You’ll do better with a digital SLR and a sharp lens, but if a point-and-shoot camera is what you’ve got, there’s no reason not to make the most of it. Here’s a second look at the moon shot you saw above. Now, however, it’s been reduced to fit the webpage. I also spent a little time in the digital darkroom to improve the shot as much as was possible.

Orange Moon

That’s better, isn’t it? And it’s a pretty faithful rendering of what I saw at the time, too.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for the sun to go down to shoot the moon. You can also make…

Moon Shots During the Day. But you have to know where to find her (I recommend the free planetarium software Stellarium), and you have to look sharp. Nor can you expect to be successful every time. The sun will always outshine the moon, so if they’re too close together in the heavens, you’re simply out of luck. When you do strike lucky, though, consider using a polarizing filter to deepen the color of the sky and reveal some of the fine detail of the moon’s surface. The photo below is a shot of the waxing moon, high in the sky on a February afternoon, shot through the trees. (The out-of-focus limbs are a distraction in the eyes of some, but an indication of setting to others.)

Moon at Midafternoon

This shot was taken with my digital SLR and a 200 mm telephoto. A polarizer darkened the sky and helped to bring out the moon’s topography. Forgot your polarizer? Well, don’t give up yet. Sometimes you can achieve the same result in the digital darkroom, simply by diminishing the brightness of the photo and increasing its contrast.

Another way to improve your odds with moon shots is to bracket your exposures. Choose Manual mode on your camera, select the shutter speed you want, and then ring the changes with aperture so that you underexpose and overexpose in half-stop intervals till you have shots ranging from +1.5 EV to -1.5 EV. Later, when you’ve downloaded the pictures to your computer, just pick the photo that looks best. Here’s a shot of the rising moon, taken late in a July evening:

Moon at Dusk

It, too, was taken with my digital SLR and telephoto. This time, though, I left the polarizer off, and I underexposed one full stop (-1.0 EV). I also hand-held the camera.

Moon Shots at Night? Can you shoot them without a tripod? Yes, you can. This shot was made later in the same evening as the last photo:

Moon at Night

And the only digital darkroom magic I did was a (very) slight sharpening and a one-to-one crop. As before, I underexposed so that the gibbous moon’s brilliance wouldn’t overwhelm the sensor and wash out all the surface detail. Would I have gotten such a good result had I not used Manual mode? See for yourself:

Moon at Night

This shot was made on another day, using my point-and-shoot camera in Auto mode. The color is good, but the image is a constellation of blurs.

And what’s the cure for this disease?

Keep Her Steady as She Goes! In other words, use a tripod when you can, employ a cable release or remote shutter release (or self-timer), and lock up the mirror. Long exposures magnify the slightest tremor. Do anything you can to kill the shake. But that may not be enough in itself. The problem? When you shoot the moon, you’re shooting a moving target, and she moves a lot faster than you think. Take a look at this:

Moon Doubled

Yes, the shot is overexposed. I was using the Bulb setting to yield a long exposure. And damned if the moon didn’t move on me! But that wasn’t the only problem. I also forgot to cover the viewfinder—my cupped hand would have done the trick—and this allowed enough moonlight to trickle into the camera body to produce the doppelgänger you see in the photo above.

The photo below is another illustration of motion-induced blur. In this shot, I stopped down the aperture and attempted a long exposure, hoping to capture a nearby star in the frame. But this was what I got:

Moon Blurred

A rather blurry image of the moon. And I didn’t get the star I wanted, either. In fact, I had the worst of both worlds: My exposure was long enough to blur the moon, but too short to reveal the nearby star. A lose-lose scenario, in other words.

Of course, blur isn’t the only way to spoil a moon shot. There’s also lens flare. At least the cure is simple. Just center the moon in your viewfinder. This doesn’t guarantee that you’ll avoid flare altogether, but it certainly improves the odds. And what happens if you don’t center? Here’s an example, cropped to fit the webpage:

Moon and Lens Flare

What did I tell you? While the colors are interesting, this isn’t the shot I wanted.The photo would have been much better without the pink and green blobs.

Focal Length. Your choice of lens affects what your camera sees. And your camera’s “normal lens” (about 35 mm for most digital SLRs) is almost certain to disappoint when shooting the moon. Fortunately, a long telephoto lens brings the moon closer, so it’s the center of attention, just as you want it to be. But a short focal length wide-angle goes the other way, pushing the moon far into the background, until she almost disappears. Can you see her in the photo below?

Moon in Upper Corner

Give up? She’s in the upper right-hand corner. The photo was shot in late morning, using my point-and-shoot. The moon was not the subject. Good thing, too.

OK. That’s enough to be getting on with. Happy hunting!


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