Blue Hour Photo Workshops

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Archive for Practical Tips

See Beyond the Subject

Many people’s reaction to a rainy day sounds something like this: «Oh, it’s a nasty day; everything is going to get wet on my way to work.» But to a child, a rainy day means puddles to jump in, raindrops to catch, and the possibility of rainbows. And to a photographer, those puddles, raindrops and stormy skies with rainbows can mean great photographs, if you are looking at things for their positive potential.

If you believe there is beauty and interesting stuff around you, you will see it, more and more, as you open yourself up. You just need a willingness to explore and find what’s extraordinary in the ordinary things around you. It doesn’t matter what the subject is: A flower blossom, an abalone shell, a lichen-covered tree. Your goal is to get past what the thing is, and look at it for any visual delight it might offer.

It’s human nature to want to define what something is—a flower, a piece of granite, a type of tree. But more important for you as a photographer, you need to get beyond what it is and see it more deeply. Ask yourself things like, «what does bark look like up close?» or «what are the colours in this piece of rock and what would it look like wet?»

You can train yourself to see beyond the subject by asking how you feel about what you are seeing. What does it express to you? Are you drawn to the subject for its texture? Its shape? Is the light expressing a certain mood? Is the scene funny, or sad? When you get in touch with what you feel, you draw from a deeper well of vision and will find ways to photograph your subject that express this. If you don’t have any feelings about your subject, this, too, will be reflected in your pictures. They may end up being static, lacking expression and possibly lacking a focal point.

The inside of your house may not be interesting to photograph, but it’s a great place to begin learning to see more deeply. Go into your kitchen and notice the chrome reflections and design of kitchen items, their colours and shapes. If you want to make picture, great. If not, use the exercise as a way to begin seeing the things around you. Or, take a walk outside and look at a tree. Notice the texture, the pattern, and the shape of the tree. Walk around it and notice how the light changes its attributes, bringing out texture, form and shape. Or visit your garden or a neighbour’s yard and look at the variety of design in plants and flowers.

The only rule when doing an exercise like this is to leave you assumptions and expectations behind, opening yourself up to seeing what’s really there. Go beyond you left brain, which tells you, «it’s only a rusty old engine and listen instead to the right brain, which says, «look at all those wonderful patterns in rusty texture. The more you move into the right side of your brain, the more you’ll see.

There are so many wonderful pictures to be made when you look at the world with curiosity. Just imagine now how many photographic opportunities there are waiting for you within close range of your home. The potential is endless.

A Low Hanging Sun

Learning to understand and use light is one of the key elements to make your photographs stand out. But it’s also a challenging skill to master. Light can come in so many forms and have so many qualities. If you want to handle light, the best way is to practice one kind at a time. Here is a one that almost never fails to produce captivating photos.

Light helps tell the story of the photograph. The right light can transform an otherwise ordinary scene into something extraordinary. It can set the mood in a photograph. Light can help isolate an image. It can also reveal form and texture. It can create a feeling of depth. Light has so many qualities; an endless array of ways it can strike and bring out a subject that books have been written about it.

If we limit ourselves to natural light, more specifically sunlight, in particular one kind always makes an experienced photographer’s heart beat a little quicker. Have you noticed how beautiful the light from a low hanging sun is? I am not talking about sunset, although that is indeed beautiful. No, I am rather thinking about sunshine either a little earlier than sunset, like late afternoon or equally beautiful; some time after sunrise in the late morning.

Most experience photographers know that the light in the morning or in the afternoon is gorgeous, particularly when used as side light, that is light that falls on the subject from one side. Generally, side light is a very modulating light, it is a key light to bring out dimensions and textures, and it makes object appear three-dimensional by the distinct shadows it creates. Side light is usually regarded as very attractive and appealing and more so side light from an early or late sun.

Depending on the time, light from a low hanging sun may cast a warm tint on the subject, but what I really want to emphasize is the modulating quality of a low sun. The light sweeps across the scene, creating a pattern of striking highlights and shadows as it comes in from a low sky.

Position yourself so that the light from the sun comes in from one side relative to yourself. Almost anything you photograph in such light will turn into a pleasing photograph. You can hardly spoil it. What about sun from an open sky, is that not suppose to be harsh and rather unforgiving, you may ask. Yes, when the sun is high on the sky that is so, but when it gets closer to the horizon the sun rays moves through the atmosphere at an angle and thus have a longer way to pass before it hits the ground. That forces the sun rays to scatter into the atmosphere, more than at midday, which makes the sky into a light source of its own and wraps the sunlight around any object lit by the sun.

The sunlight in the morning or in the afternoon creates an extraordinarily beautiful light. Try it out yourself and I am sure you will be convinced—if you haven’t already given it a try.

Natural Light Indoor

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Nothing beats natural light. It’s versatile, so beautiful and always changing like a facet, thus always surprising. Even in places, you recon you would need to use artificial light; you may take advantage of natural light. Think indoor. Your first thought may be to turn on the flash, but instead of its harsh and contrasting result, here is a different approach.

Light from a window or an open doorway brings the beauty of natural light indoor. What more is, it’s a soft and diffused light that wraps around the subject you photograph—as long as you don’t let direct sunlight through the window or doorway.

Furthermore, window light is a natural light that we are all familiar with in our day to day lives. It is easy on the eye and easy for us to decode in a photograph because we are so familiar with the way light rattles around in a room. A large window is essentially a huge softbox that will diffuse light into the room and around the subject you place in front of it. Window light can be wonderful for photographing portraits or still-life subjects.

As mentioned, it’s diffused but still directional so that it brings out the forms of whatever you photograph. One could call it «quiet light» because it has a peaceful quality to it. It reduces contrasts, which makes it easier for the camera to record details in both the deeper shadows and the brighter highlights, which in turn makes it possible to see more details in the final picture.

By using light from the window almost anyone with a good camera and lens can take exceptional indoor images. The soft nature of window light makes it very flattering; the shadows that appear on the face are very natural and don’t accentuate any features.

You can use light from a window in many ways, lighting the subject from behind or affront. However, probably the most beautiful light from a window or doorway is when you use it to cast a sideways light on the subject. Side-lighting will really bring out the forms and details in the subject.

The photo above was lit from an open doorway only. The light brings out the characters of the elderly couple and brings out the weathered faces sculptured from a long life on a farm in Cuba.

What about giving this approach a try? I am sure you will find window light both easy to handler and resulting beautiful images.

Capturing the Atmosphere in Night Photos

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When you want to capture photos in the night, there is in particular one thing you should be aware of. Obviously everything is going to be darker and thus you would most likely need to use a tripod or at least amp up the ISO-setting significantly. Otherwise, the captured photo will be very blurry—which of course can be used creatively if that’s your intention.

However, what I really have in mind is quite something different. When you capture a landscape or a cityscape you will most likely get part of the sky in the photo. If the sky is pitch black, it will become a boring, uniformly dark, negative space. Night, right? After all you attempt to shoot in the night which means the sky would be black.

Look at great photos of «nightscapes», though, and you will see that the sky is never pitch black. Instead, there is a flicker of blue light or some lighter parts in the sky that makes the sky much more interesting than a flat and boring black sky.

The trick to get a more dynamic night sky, is not shooting during night time, but rather just before the night sets in. When you shoot during the late dusk or during the few minutes before twilight turns into night, you will be able to capture a much more interesting sky. The photo will still look like a night shot—as long as you keep the exposure dark enough or process the photo as a night shot.

So don’t shoot night pictures at night, but rather just before the night sky takes over, and you will capture a photo with much more atmosphere and dynamics.

Flash for the Night

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In the last post before Christmas in our series of simple, practical tips to enhance your photography, we wrote about using flash to accentuate contrast, colour saturation and draw the focus to the main object within the frame. In the post I also made a point of not using the on-camera flash when you would usually think of using it, that is when the subject is dark and badly lit. Usually that will only result in – when for instance photographing people – people in the foreground being burned out completely by the flash light with white faces and every thing else in the background going pitch black.

The technique for using the on-camera flash for some special effects that was mentioned in A Flashy Look, I pointed out was only to be applied in daylight, not when it’s dark. However I wasn’t telling the whole truth then, because the same technique can actually be used when it’s dark. You just have to be aware of the side effect that comes with this technique.

Because you are mixing available light and flash with this technique the shutter speed will often be longer than what is usually recommend for handheld camera use. Of course you can crank up the ISO-setting, but then maybe you don’t need the flash at all. So, once again this technique is best for achieving some special effects. The effect when using it in darker environments or when it’s dark is a combination of a subject that appears both ghost-like and rendered sharply at the same time. The reason is the combination of a longer shutter speed and a very short burst of flash light. The former renders the subject blurred while the latter render is frozen and sharp. The two shapes then seem to be superimposed on top of each other.

The technique is exactly the same as I explained in the post A Flashy Look. Select Aperture Priority mode on your camera (although other modes may work too, but that differs from one camera to another). If you have a point and shoot camera, put the mode to slow sync. Turn on the flash, shoot and let the camera do the rest. Because you choose either Aperture Priority mode or slow sync the camera will set the camera speed so you get a correct exposure of the available light in combination with the light from the flash.

Usually when shooting handheld you are recommended not to use a slower shutter speed than either 1/125 of a second or 1/60 of a second, because of possible camera shake. But with this technique I describe here you can easily use the camera handheld down to at least one second. Keep in mind, though, that the longer the exposure time, the more ghost-like or halo-like the image will look like. However, creatively used, this can produce some both special and interesting results.

Have fun experimenting with you flash!

A Flashy Look

Using an on-camera flash often feels difficult to master, whether it’s with a built-in flash or one mounted in the hot shoe on top of the camera. The problem is simply the size of the light source itself (very small if we don’t use some devices to make it bigger such as reflectors or umbrellas) as well as the direction of the light, close to and following the axis of the lens. Nevertheless there are easy ways to use an on-camera flash with amazing results. Paradoxically enough, it often means not using a flash when you think you should use it (for instance when it’s dark), but rather when you don’t need to but can add some stunning effect by using it. Such was the case I showed in the post Flash Away the Shadows a couple of months ago. And today I will show you another easy way to use the flash for a special effect.

This is a good way to increase both saturation and contrast for instance when shooting during an overcast day. In addition this method puts increased attention to the main subject. So when you need something like this, you might consider this way of using the on-camera flash for a special effect. In addition – and best of all – it’s very easy to do.

Simply mount the flash on the camera and turn it or or turn on the built-in flash if that’s what you are using. On more advanced cameras, usually the ones without a built-in flash, I recommend turning the exposure mode to Aperture Priority, that is you choose an aperture suitable for your subject and the depth of field you would like to have, and the camera will automatically choose a correct shutter speed. You may also choose Shutter Priority, but then you will have to make sure the exposure will be within the range of what the aperture is capable of. As a general rule, don’t chose Program mode as this often – and normally – will set the camera to the synchronization speed for the shutter, and thus destroy what you try to accomplish with this effect.

On a point-and-shoot camera, you will usually set the camera for slow sync. That’s it. The rest you let the camera handle. If you can compensate the flash light, make sure flash adjustment is set to 0, that is neither over nor under exposed.

What happens is that the camera automatically adjusts for the added flash light so the main subject – or the subject that is lit up by the flash – will be exposed correctly. On the other hand, the rest of what is within the frame, further away and not lit up by the flash will be underexposed. The effect, as I mentioned earlier, is increased attention to the main subject as well as increased saturation and contrast.

If you want to understand what actually happens, think of it as two exposures happening at the same time. One exposure is by the flash while the other exposure is by available light or the natural light. Where both flash light and available light lit the subject there will be too much light, since one is added to the other. Thus the camera compensates for this overexposure. It does so by choosing a faster shutter speed (if you have put the exposure mode on Aperture Priority). Changing the shutter speed doesn’t affect the flash, but a faster shutter speed will make the available light darker. So where the flash doesn’t light the subject, the result is a darker exposure.

This much said, you don’t need to understand the underlying and technical function of the camera to make use of the effect. But remember this is for daylight use, not when it’s dark. I used effect for the photo accompanying this post. It’s a photo shot during the celebration of Puerto Rican Day in New York.

Let the Sun In

It’s about time to continue our little series of practical tips – tips that can be used to enhance your photos. In the last installment of this series we wrote about using a long exposure time on freehand to create a more energetic and somewhat abstract expression (Time Elongated – A Practical Tip). Today I want to talk about light.

Light is one of the most important factors that influence the quality of a photo. Light can make or destroy an otherwise excellent photo. In traditional photo literature and how-to-books we often learn that midday sunshine is bad. It creates harsh and unforgiven light with dark and ugly shadows. Certainly, that can sometimes be the case, but I disagree with the notion that it’s bad light in general. There is no such thing as bad light, only suitable or not suitable light for whatever you are trying to express. If you use the harsh light creatively, it can generate some wonderful photos.

Here is a way to turn that harsh midday light into a more subtle, soft and glowing illumination. Simply go inside and leave the door open behind you. The sunshine coming directly from above reflects on the ground and showers softly through the open door and into the room behind. Use the indirect light from the sun to create and almost unearthly setting for you photography.

The result does depend on the ground, though. If the outside of the door is covered with newly laid and black asphalt, the amount of reflections may be close to none. Then this tip doesn’t work. But with a lighter ground outside, it’s a delightful (excuse the pun) light to illuminate persons or a still life in an interior setting.

This works particularly well in areas closer to equator, be it Mediterranean countries, the Caribbean, the Tropics or Subtropical areas where midday light is particularly harsh. The photo following this post is all illuminated by harsh midday sunshine coming through an open door to the left (and yes some light is streaming through the open window behind, but not illuminating anything facing the camera). It shows the celebration of quinceañera or a girl’s 15th birthday in Cuba.