"Eye & Hand: Draw, Photograph, Paint, Write" Archives

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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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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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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Dec 10 2013

How to Break In a Book

I’m a scribbler by trade. I exchange words for cash. Which probably explains why I love books. Not just books-as-literature, mind—books-as-objects, too. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no neo-Luddite. I was writing on a computer back in the day when the 3½-inch floppy was state-of-the-art storage. I was quick to embrace the Internet, too. I’ve been a paid columnist online for more than a decade. I haven’t subscribed to a print magazine in years. And I have hundreds of PDFs of rare volumes I’d never be able to get my hands on otherwise, including a nearly complete run of the Naval Chronicle and an early edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. But I still have books—real books—on my shelves, thousands of them. There’s a feeling of permanence about a bound volume that no PDF can match.

So I hope you’ll understand my impatience with folks who don’t know how to care for books. And if the volumes I borrow from the local public library are any indication, this now includes most librarians. Once upon a time, librarians gently broke in new books before lending them out, thereby insuring that the volumes would withstand repeated borrowings. Nowadays, though, librarians are too busy maintaining their wireless networks and serving coffee and doughnuts to their patrons to have time to break in a new acquisition. The result? Perhaps half the books I borrow already have broken backs, the almost inevitable result of abruptly wrenching a new book open in order to make it lie flat. In as little as a few months—a few years at most—these tortured volumes will separate at the spine. Then they’ll have to be taped together or discarded.

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. While breaking in a new book takes a few minutes, it’s not like breaking a horse. Moreover, it’s time well spent. Do you still buy books? And do you plan to keep them after you’ve read them? Then you’ll want to get the most from your investment. Here’s how it’s done…

I’ll use a large-format paperback as an example, and paperbacks are even more vulnerable to abuse than hardcovers. But the break-in procedure is the same for both, with just one exception—and that will become clear as we proceed.

The job is easiest if you have the proper tool. It’s called a bone, and bones were originally made from…you guessed it…bone, shaped and polished bone. Nowadays bones are made of plastic, but they’re still called bones.

Dem Bones

You don’t have a bone? No problem. Any smooth, rigid implement will work. In a pinch, you can even use the edge of your hand. As I do in the photos below. Ready? Good! Then let’s begin. And if you’re breaking in a paperback, you’ll begin with the cover. (This is the “one exception” I mentioned above.) Start by locating the crease pressed into the front and back covers, near the spine. Can’t find any creases? Then create them with the tip of a butter knife or other blunt instrument, using a straightedge as a guide.

Guide Line

Happily, most modern paperbacks come pre-creased. This crease is analogous to the U-shaped depression, or “joint,” in the front and back cover of a hardback, but the covers of hardback books don’t need special attention. Paperback covers do, however. So place your straightedge along the joint, holding it firmly in place while you open the book’s front cover. Run the edge of your hand along the inside surface to finish the job.

Bend It Back

Repeat the procedure with the back cover. The real work begins now. Hold the book so the spine rests on the table, with the front and rear covers lying open. Turn the first page back and fold it against the front cover, running your fingers along the inside edge of the page adjacent to the spine (this is known as the “gutter” ). Apply firm but gentle pressure. Next, turn your attention to the last page, opening it against the back cover and pressing it down with your fingers. Now it’s back to the front of the book. Open the second page. Press it down. Move on to the next-to-the-last page. Open. Press. And keep alternating, page by page, front and back, until you reach the middle. The book should now lie open on the table before you.

Stage One

But you’re not done yet. One by one, take the pages on the right and turn them over to the left, pressing gently along the gutter each time until the book is closed. Now open the book to the middle pages again and repeat the process in reverse, turning the pages on the left over to the right, pressing them gently home. When you’re done, your book will look something like the book in the picture on the left below:

Broken In and Not Broken

You should now be able to open the book for reading without having to fight to keep it open and without damaging the binding. (If you can’t, if the book springs closed, just repeat the process outlined above. That should do the trick.)

OK. That’s it. But having mentioned the bone earlier, I suppose I should illustrate its use. Here goes:

Dem Bones Redux

You glide the bone along the page, pressing it close to the gutter. If you keep the bone clean, you’ll avoid transferring oil from your fingers to the pages. This is important if the book in question is a rarity or otherwise valuable. As always, use firm but gentle pressure to avoid damaging the binding.

That didn’t take long, did it? So do your books a favor. Break them in before they’re broken down. If you like to see you library grow and if you return to old favorites again and again, you’ll be glad you took the trouble.

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