Monday, March 30, 2009

By Request: What do I do before my first photo of the day?

This article is most applicable for those using digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR), but if you're using a Point and Shoot camera, or a film SLR camera, there are many relevant ideas in the article which apply to your camera too.

Nikon D200Before I use my DSLR, during a trip, or otherwise, I assume its settings are incorrect for the first shot of the day. I go through a 11 point checklist before I start each day's shooting, when I travel, or anytime I'm taking photographs.

Before I started this procedure I can't tell you how many great photos I thought I took before realizing that my meter method was wrong causing dark photos, or my ISO was too high causing graining photos unnecessarily.

You often don't get a second chance in photography, so you've got to take advantage of your opportunities when you get them.

Before running through the checklist, I do two additional things. The evening before, I recharge my camera's batteries (I use a vertical grip on my camera which uses two rechargeable batteries.) as well as my spare batteries. Next, I check my camera's sensor, to see if it's grimy, and clean it, if necessary. Don't wait to the last minute to check your sensor. Cleaning can take time. Moreover, since it's possible to damage your sensor during cleaning, you don't want rush the process.

When traveling I always take my cleaning kit. Zoom lenses draw air into DSLRs when the are zoomed in and out. Some dirt and dust is in the air almost everywhere. When you change lenses on a DSLR, even if you take precautions, dirt and dust can enter the camera and lodge on the sensor. Take my word for it, if you use a DSLR long enough, eventually your sensor will get dirty. That dirt will show up on your photos, and while you can normally "fix" the photo, you're better off eliminating the need to fix it.

My cleaning kit consists of:
  • A Sensor Loupe which enables me to easily see any dirt and dust on the sensor.
  • A Giotto Rocket hand air blower which is the first device I use to clean the sensor.
  • An Arctic Butterfly brush which is the second item I use to clean the sensor, when necessary.
  • The correct size Sensor Swabs and Eclipse cleaning solution which I use to clean hard to remove grime on the sensor. I follow the general procedures of the Copper Hill Method of sensor cleaning when using these products.
Most of the time, just using the Giotto Rocket will take care of loose dirt or dust. During a trip, I check out my photos on my laptop nightly, not just to see the photos themselves, but to see if I have a grime problem.

With a clean sensor, and fully charged batteries, I'm just about ready for the day's shooting, but before I start, I have to make sure I didn't leave the camera set strangely when last used. That might even be the prior evening. Here's my checklist for my Nikon D200:
  1. Nikon D200 backMy Nikon DSLR has 4 available groups of custom settings. I make sure that I have set the camera to the group I want to use.
  2. I set the ISO setting to that desired, which is usually 100.
  3. I set the White Balance to the setting appropriate for current conditions.
  4. I double check that the image quality, size, and file type are correct.
  5. I make sure that the camera mode (aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, programmed auto) is set appropriately. I typically use aperture priority. I never use auto.
  6. I make sure that the metering method (3D color matrix, center weighted, spot) is set properly. I normally use 3D color matrix.
  7. I make sure that my exposure compensation setting (used to alter camera's suggested exposure according to conditions) is appropriate.
  8. I make sure that my auto focus (AF) area mode (single area, dynamic area, group dynamic, closest to subject priority) is set to the desired mode, which is generally group dynamic. I never use closest to subject priority mode.
  9. Nikon D200 topI make sure that the focus mode (single, continuous, manual) is set as desired. Most of the time I set it to single. On some DSLR/SLR lenses you must also set the focus mode, as it can override the camera setting.
  10. Many of my lenses have Vibration Reduction (VR). Some cameras use Image Stabilization. Both attempt to automatically compensate for camera shake. I make sure my lens VR settings are as desired. For example, the VR on my Nikkor 18mm-200mm lens can be turned on or off as desired, and either set to normal or active mode.
  11. Finally, I make sure my shooting mode (single frame, continuous low, continuous high, self timer) is set properly. Most of the time, it's set to single frame. For sports it's often set to one of the two continuous modes, so I can just hold the shutter release button down, and let it continuously take up to 5 photos per second.
Your camera may use different terminology, and have different settings, but I think you can easily use this checklist to develop your own.

Have a great trip and take lots of wonderful photos.

Photography Exhibition: At the Philadelphia Museum of Art - Daidō Moriyama: Tokyo Photographs

Currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art there is a wonderful exhibition, Daidō Moriyama: Tokyo Photographs.

The exhibition will run until August 23, 2009

I agree with the Museum that Daidō Moriyama is one of the most important and exciting Japanese photographers of our time, having made prolific, often experimental pictures of modern urban life since the 1960s. This exhibition showcases a group of approximately 45 photographs made in and around Tokyo in the 1980s, when Moriyama focused his mature aesthetic on the city with renewed intensity.

Moriyama approaches the world with an equalizing eye, capturing disparate peripheral details that in themselves account for little, but together add up to a powerful diagnosis of modern experience. In 1980s Japan such details encompassed the disorienting and sometimes brutal juxtaposition of traditional culture and modernization, most visible in the glut of consumer goods and images. But in Moriyama’s photographs these subjects appear alongside the banal elements of any streetscape: a derelict patch of pavement and wall, a car with an aggressive key scratch running its full length, even a single rose blossom.

If you're traveling in the Philadelphia, PA area, don't miss this wonderful exhibition.

This article is the first of a new feature of the NSL Photography Blog, to bring to your attention important, interesting and worthwhile photography exhibitions by famous, not so famous, and unknown photographers. As I travel, I love seeing the work of other photographers as I hope you do. If you know of a new photographic exhibition which you think the Blog should publicize, please contact me.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Destination: San Francisco city-scape photographs

Golden Gate BridgeI'm often asked where are great spots for taking city-scapes (you know, landscapes in cities) at the destinations to which I've traveled. I've recently returned from San Francisco, a favorite destination of mine, and have some suggestions for you.

There are two great spots for taking wonderful skyline shots of San Francisco; Coit Tower and Twin Peaks. In addition, the Presidio is a marvelous location for taking a skyline photograph of San Francisco, or photos of one of the most famous landmarks in the US, the Golden Gate Bridge.

If you're in San Francisco visiting these locations, or anywhere, visiting similar city-scape vantage points, don't loose sight that the trek to the location, or the location itself, may have wonderful photographic opportunities well beyond the city-scape, or landmark shots themselves.

Filbert Street Climb to Coit TowerFor example, for me most of the fun at the Coit Tower was getting there. We purposefully didn't take a tour bus, a cab, or public transportation to get to the Coit Tower, probably the number one location for tourists trying to take photos of San Francisco's "downtown" skyline. We walked, or should I more correctly say, we climbed there.

We took the famous Filbert Street Stairs to the Coit Tower. On the right is a photo of some of the homes and gardens along the Filbert Street Stairs. The stairs aren't for the "faint of heart" but if you take your time climbing them and take periodic rests to turn around and look at the breath-taking views of San Francisco Bay, it's a wonderful walk. Take a look at my Coit Tower gallery which includes photos of homes and gardens from our Filbert Street climb.

Financial DistrictOf course, once you arrive at the "summit" of famous Telegraph Hill, and take the elevator ($5 for adults) to the top of the Tower, the skyline views are wonderful, from the Embarcadero and skyscrapers of the Financial District, to Fisherman's Wharf and Alcatraz, to the Golden Gate Bridge.

I've seen reviews of Coit Tower which relate tourist disappointment with it, once they arrive. They were expecting something far more grandiose, than something which looks like a fire plug on the outside, and with a first floor which is mostly a "gift shop." The murals inside are lovely, but the Tower itself is not the reason to visit this San Francisco icon. It's the climb to the Tower and the views from it which make this attraction so worthwhile.

From Twin PeaksI had never heard of Twin Peaks until a terrific waitress mentioned it to my wife and I at dinner, when we asked her where she recommends travelers visiting San Francisco go, especially for photographs. Twin Peaks are two hills with an elevation of about 922 feet (281 m) situated at the geographic center of San Francisco, California. They form the second highest point in San Francisco, after Mount Davidson.

We got to Twin Peaks via a rental car, but you can get there by tour bus. There is no public transportation which takes you to the summit, but the 37 Corbett Muni line stops near a path that runs up the hills on Crestline Drive. As you can see by the photo, the views are incredible. Check out some of my other Twin Peaks' photographs in my galleries.

Golden Gate BridgeThe Presidio of San Francisco (originally, El Presidio Real de San Francisco or Royal Presidio of San Francisco) is a park on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula in San Francisco, CA, within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It has been a fortified location since 1776 when the Spanish made it the military center of their expansion in the area. It passed to Mexico which in turn passed it to the United States in 1847.

In a past article, Traveler's "must" photos - Shooting Landmarks I talked about the disappointment some feel when they get home and see their photos of famous landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge. One of my suggestions was to scout around for a new vantage point. Take a look at the variety of looks and shots I've taken of the Golden Gate Bridge in my Presidio gallery at NSL Photography. In the gallery, you'll find eleven different and some similar views of the Golden Gate Bridge which I think exemplifies that idea. The photos are from different angles and perspectives. They include photos of the Bridge showing the beach and fort below, and the parkland above. It's almost amazing how different the Bridge can look. We drove to the Presidio, which I recommend as it's a pretty large place and you don't want your visit cut short by the schedule demands of a tour bus.

Coit TowerIf you're traveling in San Francisco go to these wonder sites for your photographs. You'll be glad you did, and don't let the Coit Tower naysayers keep you away, but take the Filbert Street Stairs, enjoy the gardens and the Bay views behind.

Have a great trip. It's a great city.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Photographing through glass and Plexiglas

While traveling, we often run into challenging photographic situations: a helicopter or small plane flying over the glaciers of Alaska, a glass wall protecting the Pandas at the National Zoological Park, a glass display case containing a great work of art at the Louvre, or a striped burrfish behind the glass of the National Aquarium. You might even want to snap a more mundane photograph of people at work, behind a large, plate glass window.

Great photos can be crafted in each of these situation, but you must be prepared to meet the "glass challenge;" reflection and focus.

Reflections on glass can be a photographer's bane, but sometimes a friend. One of the biggest problems with reflections is our brain works so well that sometimes we don't even notice small ones, but the camera doesn't miss a thing. As photographers, when working through glass, we must make ourselves aware of these reflections, which sometimes can even be us, or our clothing.

When shooting through glass, some cameras have trouble focusing on the subject and attempt to focus on the reflections on the glass. This must be overcome.

Tailors window in Old City Philadelphia
In the above photograph of a tailor shop in the Olde City area of Center-City Philadelphia, I wanted to capture the whimsy of the window painting of a tailor at a sewing machine. That required me to focus at the window, and use a midrange aperture (f8) to create significant depth of field to keep the shop in focus behind the window. Fortunately, when I came by the shop, the sun was behind the buildings across the street, so sun and building reflection was at a minimum, however, I had to wait for traffic to move past the shop to eliminate their reflection.
  1. If you can, don't use a flash. That will immediately eliminate its self-reflection. When you must use a flash, do not direct its light straight on or you will get a photo of the flash of light it produces. Move the flash head to an angle so the flash's reflected light bounces off the glass at an angle, not directly back into the camera's lens. If you're taking a photo through a display case, and have an "off camera" flash, try using the flash from above the case. Using a "fast lens," a lens which can open its aperture very wide, can mitigate the need for flash use.

  2. Perhaps the easiest was to eliminate reflections and focus problems is to hold the camera as close to the glass as possible to avoid glare and reflections. If you can, use a rubber lens hood, if you have a DSLR, to seal out light, or if its a point and shoot camera, use your hands at the side of the camera to do the same. This also has the benefit of eliminating problems of dirty glass as you will be focusing past the dirt on the subject behind the glass. If you need a wide view, use a wide angle prime or zoom lens. This is a great way to photograph at an aquarium.

  3. Sometimes you can't get very close to the glass, since you want a wider view of the subject behind it. If the light is from a single source, such as often found in a museum, or even multiple sources, stand to the side of the subject to minimize the reflections from the light and eliminate your reflection.

  4. You can use a circular polarizing filter almost anytime you are shooting through glass, or water for that matter. Circular polarizers are necessary with today's through the lens metering (TTL) and auto-focus cameras. Linear polarizers, though more effective, generally render TTL and auto-focus ineffective.

  5. If you're shooting through a window of a moving bus, or a helicopter there are several things to do. Use a fast shutter speed. That will help you negate the movement of the bus. Consider manually pre-focusing your lens, or if your camera has the capability, use continuous focusing. Try setting your aperture at mid-range which will lengthen the depth of field, making up for focusing inaccuracy. If your DSLR lens has vibration reduction (VR), use it, especially if it has active VR. If your point and shoot camera has image stabilization, use it. Get as close to the window as possible, without touching it, to eliminate glare and reflection from inside the bus. Try a trick suggested to me. Use the rubber end of a light weight toilet plunger. Cut a hole in it for your lens and use it to block the light from inside, with the lens close to the window.

    Some people suggest the use of a circular polarizer when shooting through the windows of a helicopter or bus. It definitely can help you lessen or eliminate the refections on the window glass, or helicopter's Plexiglas, but if you've ever worn polarized sunglasses while in these vehicles you already know that it will accentuate the stress marks in the Plexiglas or the spots in the safety glass. Personally, I wouldn't use one when photographing from a helicopter or bus.

    If you have the option, shoot through the open door of a helicopter, instead of a window. It will make it easier to get great photos. You can be buffeted badly by the turbulence with an open door, so be prepared for that.

  6. If you know you're going to be shooting through glass, especially if you're in a moving vehicle or helicopter, wear dark clothing to minimize your reflection.
Bar Window in Old City Philadelphia
When shooting with available light, as I did for the photo above, there are times when a little reflection can be a good thing. By focusing on the window itself, I was able to capture the neon signs in this bar window, plus the reflection of the sky, and the buildings across the street, to add to the shot's context and make the photo far more interesting.

Enjoy the "glass challenge."

Monday, March 9, 2009

What is the perfect camera/equipment bag for travel?

I can answer that question which was recently posed on one of the larger Internet photography forums, quite succinctly. "It doesn't exist."

We all travel to many varied destinations, under such diverse circumstances that there is no single bag which fits everyone, or even anyone, every time.

I did some research before setting out to write this article. There are many categories of camera/equipment bags. The main ones are: shoulder bags, backpacks & daypacks, sling bags, belt systems, hip/waist packs, briefcases, satchels, and rolling bags. At B&H Photo-Video's web site, a brief survey shows they carry 592 shoulder bags and 256 backpacks for cameras and accessories. That makes 848 camera bags when I stopped counting, and I wasn't even close to half-way through all their bag choices.

When I finished counting my camera/equipment bags, it totaled 12 which include: shoulder bags, backpacks, belt systems, waist bags, a brief case, and a satchel. Some were used for a while, then discarded when they didn't meet my needs, and are now used only for storage, but I do use 2 backpacks, a belt system, and a satchel regularly, chosen mostly, at this point, according to where I'm going and what equipment I'm carrying.

Photographers have varied bag purposes, equipment, body types, and travel destination requirements. I've found that these four factors are the main ones in determining the bag(s) needed for any particular journey. I regularly use 4 different bags for my travels, according to the those four factors.
  1. Bag Purpose — When I travel, I often have two diverse needs for a camera bag which must be fulfilled on a trip; hauling equipment to and from airports and hotels, as well as carrying equipment while taking photographs so they are readily accessible. In airports and hotels my equipment needs to be secure and safe, protected from the elements and potential shock or breakage, in a bag which meets the requirements of government security and airline rules. When actually hauling my equipment while taking photographs, protection from rain, dirt, wind, etc. continues to be important, but now fast access becomes critical.
  2. Equipment — I don't know about you, but I travel with at least one DSLR camera body with zoom lens attached, plus a wide angle zoom, and a super zoom telephoto at a minimum. In addition, I bring along a portable battery powered hard drive, memory chips, a flash, flash bracket and cable, cable release, filters, all kinds of other accessories, plus my laptop and its accessories. They all have to make it on my trip, and some need to be carried during the shoots.
  3. Body Type — I'm not a big person, and I'm not twenty any longer, but I'm in good shape. I've gotten to the point where I haul around a lot of gear and aggregately it's not exactly light. As a result, I prefer to spread the weight on my body, so most of the time when I travel, I use a backpack from airport to hotel, etc., and a belt system while shooting. I occasionally use a satchel when I'm on a day trip, and most of the time will not actually be carrying equipment, or at least not much equipment. My main problem with shoulder bags, sling bags, brief cases, and satchels is they rest all their weight on one shoulder. Other bags use more body to spread their weight. That being said, many photographers love shoulder bags for their ease of equipment access and capacity.
  4. Travel Destination Requirements —If I'm traveling to a city, I need my bags to withstand their environment, but if I'm traveling to a rain forest, or perhaps white water rafting, I have a completely different set of requirements which includes the need for being waterproof, not just water resistant.
All the bags do have some common requirements. The bags must,
  • have the capacity to carry the required equipment.
  • have a high quality to handle the rigors of travel.
  • have strong zippers able with withstand the torture of use during travel.
  • be protective of the gear through shock-absorbing, water resistant materials.
  • meet carry-on requirements of airlines if used for that purpose.
  • have customizable organization in the case of backpacks and other bags, or have enough variety of modules to carry gear in the case of belt systems.
  • have rain protection built into the bag which can be used as needed.
  • have the capability of carrying drinking water while traveling.
Each photographer has to carefully determine their own bag requirements to find their perfect bags.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Rule of Thirds

There are principles of photography which when learned can dramatically improve your photographs, and help make them more consistently excellent. The Rule of Thirds, probably the most well known rule in photography, once understood can significantly improve how you compose your photographs.

Rule of Thirds - Kicker RockThe Rule of Thirds refers to the concept that the most eye-pleasing photographic compositions split the field of view into roughly equal thirds, whether you're holding your camera horizontally or vertically. It doesn't matter whether you're using a a typical consumer level point and shoot camera, or the most expensive professional digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. On some cameras the viewfinders have gridlines which will help you see the "thirds," but most of the time photographers must use their best judgment.

The Rule of Thirds is a compositional rule of thumb used throughout the visual arts. It's used in painting, photography and design. Specifically, the rule states images should be divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. The rule further states that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines and/or their intersections. The rule's exponents believe that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest than just centering the subject.

I believe the Rule of Thirds works much of the time, especially with landscapes, and cityscapes which we all run into when we travel, but it isn't the only principle of composition, and as we all know, sometimes rules are meant to be broken.

Various studies in the world of art have revealed that when people view images, their eyes naturally go to one of the Rule of Thirds intersection points rather than the center of the image, therefore when you use the Rule of Thirds you are directly using a person's normal way of viewing an image, instead of working against it.

The example photograph above is of Kicker Rock in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean. That small white area along the water to the right of Kicker Rock is Celebrity Cruises' Xpedition. Note that I kept the ocean's horizon in the lower third of the horizontal plane of the photograph. I broke the rule to a point by putting the main part of the Rock in the center vertically, but it is along the left guide. The Xpedition is in the lower right quadrant.

Personally, I think the Kicker Rock photo opportunity cried out for using the Rule of Thirds, as landscape pictures often do. Keeping the water, for example, and its Kicker Rock reflection, in the lower third, allows the linear features of the image to flow from area to area.

Using any guidelines inflexibly is not a good idea. There are many situations in which guidelines or rules of thumb are better ignored. We should understand that the Rule of Thirds main thrust is to discourage photographers from placing the subject at the center of the image, or allow an image's horizon to bisect the photograph. Both of these would usually make for a mediocre or poor photo. When photographing people, it is normal to align the body with a vertical guide, and have their eyes align with a horizontal guide.

I hope you will experiment with the Rule of Thirds the next time you travel, and that you can use it to make your photos even better than they already are.