Memory, All Alone In The Moonlight…

•July 27, 2010 • 7 Comments

I wanted to capture for each grandchild a special moment between just them and their grandpa.

I recently visited my grandmother and eventually the night turned to reminiscing over old family photo albums.  Tucked in the pages were a few old Polaroids of me as a child with my grandfather who is no longer with us.  It was heartwarming to see these photos that I had never seen before.  The quality of those old Polaroids wasn’t the best, but I’m grateful that a record exists of that moment.  I’ve had a desire for some time now to do something worthwhile and good with my love of photography.  A few months ago I decided to give the gift of photography to my father-in-law and his grandchildren.  My father-in-law’s health has been declining over the past few years and my nieces and nephews are all very young.  I wanted them to each have a keepsake for when they are older of their grandfather and how much he loved them.  They are the apple of his eye and the biggest bright spot in his life.

I tried to create and capture some more intimate moments.

I decided to undertake a photography project and photograph each grandchild individually with their grandfather.  When I started I had a vision of what I wanted and it helped guide me through the process.  I really wanted to capture a personal moment and show a real connection between loved ones.  In the end I didn’t quite capture the exact images I had in my mind, but I got the results I was looking for.  This was the first time I had ever really tried portraits and I ran into some challenges and learned quite a bit.

The simple black background helps remove any distractions and creates a more intimate setting.

For the set up I turned the corner of the living room into my photography studio.  My vision was to have an isolated moment in time that focused only on the relationship between grandfather and grandchild.  I decided to go with a plain black background to remove any and all distractions and leave just my two subjects as the clear focus of the photo.  I didn’t want any colors taking away from my models and the black evokes a sense of the subjects existing in a vacuum where they are the only two people there.  In my opinion it gives the scene a real sense of intimacy that only heightens the bond that comes through in the portrait.  To make the background I went down to the local fabric store and got a budget friendly piece of black fleece 12 feet long that was on sale.  I simply hung the fabric on a bookcase and it instantly turned into an elegant backdrop for the portraits.  It did turn out a little gray in the photos I took as some light hit the fabric so I just used the burn tool in Photoshop to make it completely black.

This was all done with just a simple flash set up on camera left with a shoot through umbrella.

For the lighting I decided to use something simple and straight forward.  I’m still kind of new to off camera flash photography and wanted to do something safe to make sure I got the shots.  I used a single flash with a shoot through umbrella just to the right of and above the subjects.  I got the umbrella as close as I could without it being in the shots so I would get nice, soft light and avoid harsh shadows.  I had my wife as a gracious assistant hold a white foam core poster board on the other side to bounce some light to fill in the shadows.  This setup gave some nice dramatic lighting that I felt enhanced the emotion of the photo.  Having the umbrella so close also creates a nice round catch light in the eyes that gives them a sparkle.  I would have liked to have tried a few other lighting setups, but I had to keep it simple.  Photographing small children can be a challenge and I wanted lighting that was versatile and easy to do no matter how much they moved around.  I learned quite a bit about flash photography doing this and hopefully in future projects I’ll be able to experiment with more complex and layered lighting.

I had to work with what I could get. She would only do her own poses so I tried my best to make it work.

The setup was the easy part of the process though.  Actually getting the photos taken was something entirely different.  I’ve always tried to do more candid portraits of my nieces and nephews and stuggling to get them to sit still and cooperate was quite the endeavor.  When I first got the idea for this project I had all these different poses I wanted to capture.  In my mind I envisioned all sorts of different angles and cute situations, but as I started shooting I realized it just wasn’t feasible.  My father-in-law’s strength isn’t what it used to be and the kids had a mind of their own.  A simple grandfather sitting in a chair with his grandkid on his lap was what I had to resort to.  It was a lot of work for some of the kids just to pose for even one photo.  I finally lowered myself to bribery and found that the promise of stickers worked well.  In the end I was just grateful if I could get a shot where everyone was smiling and not crying.  After a bit of trying to force my creative vision I found out in this situation I had to just work with what I was given and make the best of it.  I did manage to capture some hugs and kisses and tender moments though and I’m grateful for that.

After some coaxing I was able to get a kiss out of him.

A nice hug for grandpa.

This was by far the most worthwhile photographic project I’ve ever done.  I’m so happy with the results and I’m pretty jealous of the kids and the photos they now have.  For some of the youngest ones these photos might be the best memory they have of their grandfather and I felt such a sense of purpose in taking these portraits.  The years will fade, but these children will always have these photos to connect themselves to a great man who loves them so much.  In the future I hope to be able to to create more portraits of loved ones that will stand as monuments of family love.  My counsel is that each of you takes the chance to record those special loved ones in your life through photos.  Someday those photos will mean more to you than any other possession you have.

Hopefully these portraits will be something they cherish when they are older.


Bette Davis Eyes

•July 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

The eyes are what give a portrait life. They've been edited in this photo to make them pop. Learn how below.

As I’ve mentioned before the most important part of a portrait are the eyes.  They are what give life to the photo and really give a portrait its human qualities.  That is where all the emotion lies and if the eyes aren’t in focus it greatly detracts from the photo.  That should be your main goal when focusing for portraits and as long as you get the eyes you’ll be in good shape.  Once you’ve got your shot with the eyes in focus there is one little trick I like to use in Photoshop to enhance the effect of the eyes.

With beautiful eyes you really want to take advantage and make them shine.

When the sun is your light source shining from above a shadow can be cast over the eyes. Brightening them gives them sparkle.

The biggest problem with our eyes besides the fact they like to blink at inopportune photographic moments is that they are sunken into the eye socket.  Our eyes have a natural light blocker and if the light isn’t coming in just right they can appear grey and listless.  Of course the best way to get rid of this is to have a light source that shines on the eyes or a reflector to put an extra bit of light in the eyes.  This however is not always practical and in a lot my candid shots of people the eyes are not as bright as I would like causing a dull, unhealthy look.  Luckily this is easily fixed with a quick little edit in Photoshop.

Before editing the eyes.

The after photo. It's a simple edit, but has a great impact on the life of the photo.

This is by far one of the most common things I do when touching up portraits.  It’s quick, easy and quite effective despite it’s simplicity.  Open up your image in Photoshop and make a duplicate layer of the image by going to Layer->Duplicate Layer.  Select the duplicate layer in the layers panel and adjust the brightness/contrast by clicking on Image->Adjustments->Brightness/Contrast.  Now boost both of the values to make the eyes pop to your liking.  I usually use a brightness value of around +35 and a contrast value of around +15.  This makes the eyes brighter and more lifelike, but at the same time it messes up the rest of the photo so you need to create a layer mask.  While holding the ALT key click on the ‘Add Layer Mask’ button at the bottom of the layers panel.  This will create a black layer mask and make the adjustments you just made disappear.  What a layer mask does is pretty simple.  When applied to any layer the parts of the layer mask that are black will be blocked and the parts that are white will show through.  The layer mask is completely black so we need to paint out the part where the eyes are so that they show through.  Zoom in on the eyes, click on the paint brush tool and select white as the color.  With the layer mask selected simply paint over the eyes and the brightened eyes will shine through.  This may seem pretty subtle while you’re painting, but you will be surprised by the difference it makes.  Once you’ve painted over the eyes zoom out and deselect the duplicate layer to see just how dramatic the effect is.

Create a duplicate layer and adjust the brightness and contrast to make the eyes shine. (Click to see enlarged photo)

Create a black filled layer mask and paint over the eyes with white to let the brightened eyes show through. (Click to see enlarged photo)

It is however possible to overdo this.  You don’t want the subject looking like they’re possessed by some otherworldly spirit (what I like to call the “there is no Dana only Zuul” effect).  When I zoom out after painting the eyes and notice that I went a little overboard I simply adjust the opacity down of the adjusted layer until it looks nice.  And conversely if the effect isn’t enough you can up the brightness and contrast some more until you get something to your liking.  As a little note there are professional plugins you can get to brighten and clean up eyes automatically for Photoshop.  I personally don’t care for the results and find them a little too artificial for my tastes.  There are others who swear by them so it’s a personal choice, but the plugins can be kind of pricey.

Be careful not to overdo the effect. It can look a little unnatural. There is no Dana only Zuul....

Another before. The light is coming from above so the eyes are left in shadow.

The after.

Adjusting the brightness of the eyes only takes a minute and can add such a spark to your portraits.  It amazes me how such a simple edit can have a profound effect on the end image.  I utilize this method on almost every portrait that I shoot when I’m editing. This is an easy step that you can add to your bag of tricks that will greatly enhance the effectiveness of your portraits.

Without actually telling you probably wouldn't know the eyes had been brightened. This was shot with flash bouncing off the ceiling so the eyes were in shadow.

The Star Spangled Banner

•July 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Fireworks show from years past...

My 4th of July weekend was a little different than I had anticipated, but it was still great.  I’ve spent the last few 4th’s worrying about getting firework photos.  They’re fun, easy and actually quite relaxing to do, but I have enough of those photos already.  I wanted to instead focus on getting great shots of the family at our BBQ before the show started.  I really wanted to get some memorable shots and tried to employ the techniques I gave for doing child photography (you can find those at  Shiny firework explosions make for nice pics and they’re something different to do, but years from now I’ll be much more grateful for the family pics than some purple star burst.

Taken at a safe distance thanks to my trusty zoom lens. The great late afternoon light gave me great blur free results.

It took my niece quite the bit of effort to climb up the slide.

The light was perfect and made taking photos easy and worry free.

I've been trying out some different Photoshop techniques for portraits.

The BBQ was outside so I was excited to give my 70-200mm zoom lens a go around.  I wind up taking so many of my photos of the family indoors that I don’t get to use it as much as I would like.  The tight quarters and low light make it near impossible to use the zoom lens indoors.  You have to be careful with zoom lenses.  The farther you are zoomed out the greater risk you have of camera shake and coming out with blurry photos.  I try to use the rule of thumb of not shooting faster than the distance I’m zoomed out.  This means if I’m zoomed at 200mm I have to shoot at least 1/200 of a second to get a decent shot.  There a lot of other factors that go into camera shake like technique and the crop factor of the camera, but in all it’s a good general rule.  It was great to be outside and be able to stand back on the other side of the yard and take sneaky ninja photos of everyone running around.  I got a few shots of adults at play that they would probably not have let me take without their consent or knowledge.  The best part is they don’t know until I post them online for everyone to see 🙂

Thought I'd get a little artsy with this shot. I love how the sidewalk lines continue through the whole frame.

After waiting 3 excruciating days the kids finally got to play on the new swingset in the backyard.

My sneaky zoom lens caught this grown up at play 🙂

Then once the sunlight started to dim I swapped out the zoom for the good ol’ 50 mm f/1.4 and I was able to keep on shooting until the night was over.  My favorite photo of the night was when I had that lens on and the night was fast approaching.  It was finally dark enough to pull out the sparklers and the kids lit up their giant sparkler wands on the front yard with great anticipation.  There is a pretty steep slope at the front of the yard that let me lay down and shoot up as the kids waved their America sticks back and forth.  I had the lens opened up pretty much all the way at 1.8 and my ISO set at 400.  This gave me barely enough light to get the shots I wanted.  There is nothing that this lens can’t do (see my love poem to it at  It was a perfect situation where I pushed my lens and camera to the limit and didn’t have to use flash to get the shot.  The sparkler was giving off just enough light to illuminate the kid’s faces and using flash would have ruined it.  It’s the kind of shot that only a really fast lens can get you.

My favorite shot of the night. The 50mm f/1.4 could just barely handle these conditions getting me this priceless shot.

The sparklers gave off just enough light to illuminate their faces.

Ran this one through Photoshop and added some dramatic flare 🙂

Sparklers are fun and can make for interesting photos.  I didn’t get the chance to play with them this year, but last year I set up the camera on a tripod and did some light painting with the wife.  It’s easy to do and the possibilities are limitless.  You need a remote shutter release cable and a lit sparkler.  Prefocus the camera by autofocusing on your subject and then switching the camera to manual focus so the camera won’t change the focal plane (if it’s dark shine a flashlight on the person so you can focus easily).  Now for the setting on the camera put the camera in manual mode with an f-stop of 8 and the shutter speed to ‘bulb’.  You get to the ‘bulb’ setting by moving your shutter speed all the way to the slowest setting possible.  This setting is simple to use, as long as you hold down the shutter button the camera keeps taking the photo.  When you’re done just let go.  This is where the cable release comes in handy.  If you’ve got your hand all over your camera for a 10 second exposure there is no chance it will come out sharp and plus it’s just more comfortable.  Once the camera’s set just have the person light the sparkler and hold it in position.  I did a count down and once I said “Go!” my wife would start to draw the shape she wanted as I pressed and held the shutter release.  Then my wife would paint away and when she was done she would yell out and I would stop taking the picture.  It was tons of fun and actually quite challenging trying to write legibly in the air with a burning stick.

It's harder than you think to write your name with a sparkler in the air.

My wife is a much better artist than I am.

In the end I was happy with the photos I got this 4th of July weekend, but I did have one regret.  I’ve got some ordinary fireworks photos from years past, but I really want to get an extraordinary shot.  I dream of finding a nice lake to reflect the glowing display or taking photos of fireworks over some interesting landmark.  I’ve tried in the past, but it’s never worked out and this year was no exception.  My work schedule didn’t allow me to go anywhere except the front yard for the major fireworks show in the area.  I read online at a supposedly reputable news website that there was going to be a firework show the next night at Antelope Island State Park.  It’s an island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake where wild buffalo roam.  I convinced the wife to make the 45 minute drive there only to come upon all the cars driving up to the park entrance and turning around.  When we got to the entrance we were greeted by a park ranger standing next to a sign that read “There is NO firework display tonight!”  My dream was shattered yet again.  Looks like there was some major miscommunication and there was never going to be a fireworks show there.  The ranger made sure to stress that there would NEVER be a fireworks show there, ever.  The search for great fireworks photos continues.  We wound up taking sunset pictures instead as we were eaten alive by literal swarms of bugs gnawing on our exposed flesh.  In the end though I had a great photo weekend.

I’ve Had The Time Of My Life or I’ve Had The Photo Of My Life

•June 27, 2010 • Leave a Comment

This tropical beach was amazing. However lugging my DSLR around I didn't get the chance to dive in and enjoy the surf and sand.

I love taking photos.  I’m not a professional so it’s not work for me.  I feel I’m an artistic person, born without artistic talent.  Without the ability to draw or paint I took up photography and learned to love it.  My favorite photographic moments are when I get to capture some memory in time.  I get the chance to be creative yet make something useful that others can enjoy years or generations from now.  As I’ve worked on my photographic skills I’ve become the “official” family photographer.  The title is an honor, but one that brings some responsibility with it.  There in lies one of the hardest things I have to balance as a photographer.  I want to take photos of important occasions, but it’s difficult to participate in the festivities and document them at the same time.  It’s tough having to make the choice between having a good time at a party or lugging around my camera gear to get the best shots of what’s going on.

It’s hard doing things with camera gear that costs more than you would like to admit dangling around your neck.  I once spilled an entire plate of chips and salsa at a birthday party while trying to manage both the plate and my camera.  Hiking a few miles up a mountain with a camera swinging from your neck and a bag full of gear on your back makes things a lot tougher.  I never felt comfortable enough to take my DSLR with me while paddling in a kayak.  I love my camera (more than I probably should), but there are just times I don’t want to carry it around.  When I get in that kind of mood I try to go light and just slap on my 50 f/1.4 lens.  It’s versatile enough to get me most of the shots I want and is lightweight without extending very far.  Then there are times I just want to enjoy the celebration.  As much fun as standing in a corner and taking pictures is I want to be a part of the fun.  I want to join in on the touch football game in the backyard or get out on the dance floor with everyone else.  I went to an Indian Holi celebration this past spring and was torn by what to do.  For those of you who don’t know (which was me until my wife explained it’s wonders), the Holi Festival celebrates the coming of spring and to show their enthusiasm everyone throws colored powder on everyone else.  They have a massive countdown and the air is instantly filled with every color imaginable.  It’s like choking on unicorn breath.  It was my first time attending and I was really excited to get covered in every color of the rainbow, but at the same time I wanted so badly to take photos of this unique event.  There were some brave souls there who wrapped their fancy DSLR’s in plastic and shot away, but I couldn’t do that.  Instead of a camera in my hand I had a bag of purple chalk.  My desire to document is just outweighed at times by my desire to be a part of what’s being recorded.  It’s a tough balance to strike at times and one of the hardest parts of my favorite hobby.

I'm lucky to have a photographer wife who was able to get this shot of me. It's nice to get in the occasional great photo myself 🙂

Of course the greatest dilemma faced by photographers the world over is never being in the picture.  Ever since the first cavemen painted a cave wall with a picture of his family without him in it this problem has existed.  There’s the old tried and true method of the tripod and timer setting followed by the quick 10 second sprint.  Not always the most fun and some wise guy always makes a “Run Forrest Run!” remark.  This of course is pretty impossible to do for candids and is not the most practical solution to the problem.  You can just always hand off your camera to a random stranger that looks like they run slow in case they try to take off with your camera.  I don’t like doing that though, not necessarily because they’ll bolt with my gear, but random strangers take horrible pictures.  They have no idea what they’re doing and even if you hand the camera over with all the settings ready they don’t know the first thing about composition.  I cringe in fear every time I have to do it.  I’ve got a few shots from various trips of my wife and I taken by strangers and they frustrate me to no end.  Humbly I believe that if I had been on the other end of the lens I would have done something much better and in the end I’m stuck with an OK shot that could be improved.  I’m definitely a firm believer in if you want something done right you have to do it yourself.  But it’s not easy.  I do have one shot of the wife and I that I set up at the Grand Canyon.  It was a wonderful evening spent watching the sun set over one of the most majestic places I’ve ever visited.  I had my wife pose while I set everything up so that all I had to do was run in the short time of 10 seconds a distance of 40 feet with shear drops of 1,000 feet ready to engulf me with any misstep.  That was an exciting photo 🙂

Death defying photo at the Grand Canyon. I had 10 seconds to get in position and not fall to my death.

In the end though my great compromise usually winds up being my little point and shoot.  I used to work at a national electronic retailer and started out in the camera department.  I had no idea what I was doing, but that experience actually led to me finally deciding on getting a camera and trying to figure this stuff out.  We were trained to try and sell along with every DSLR purchase a point and shoot as well.  I used to think this was ridiculous and wondered why anyone with such a nice camera would take a step back with a pocket sized camera.  When I bought my DSLR I didn’t have a small point and shoot camera and never thought I would need one.  I had a DSLR with control over all the dials and settings I could ever dream of.  Then I got tickets to see my favorite band in concert and I was faced with a predicament.  The types of concerts I prefer to attend do not afford the luxury of using nice, big, fancy cameras.  They’d get smashed to pieces by the end of the night, covered in a strange blend of sweat, face paint, and ‘the metal’.  I finally broke down and got a little Canon Elph for the show and I was hooked.  No longer did I have to choose between taking memories or making memories.  Just today I carried around my Elph in my pocket at an amusement park and was able to capture fun moments on rides.  One of my favorite photos all time of my wife and I is when we had just finished riding a Superman roller coaster and were waiting for the car to pull up to the unloading dock.  I pulled out my camera from my pocket had our friend next to us take a photo of us with wind swept hair and the giant coaster loop in the background.  The point and shoot camera’s of today are pretty tough, compact and you can even get some that are water and drop proof now for a very reasonable price.  The small size just opens up so many opportunities and let’s me live without fear of destroying my beloved DSLR.

My Canon Elph survived this concert and let me get shots of some water drums getting me and my camera wet in the process.

As great as my Canon Elph is it’s not the same as my Canon Rebel.  The photo quality just can’t compare and the laws of physics make it impossible to get those nice blurry backgrounds with such a tiny camera.  The Elph is not as sharp, has more noise and there are just times when it drives me crazy that I can’t manually set the camera settings I want.  I know there are point and shoots that can do those things, but they cost twice as much and aren’t as compact pretty much defeating the purpose of having a tiny pocket camera with you all the time.  Photography has taught me that there are no perfect situations.  Photography is all about compromise and finding the best solution with the least amount of compromises.  At times the Elph compromise is worth it, but then there are times when it doesn’t let me get the best shot available.

Sometimes I'm more than happy to just sit back and observe.

This is my continuing great dilemma, to shoot or not to shoot.  I don’t know if I’ve found the perfect balance yet between documenting and participating.  Inotice some photographers and it seems much more natural for them as it does for me.  Maybe I need to practice more, especially with event photography.  That is one field where I definitely lack experience and it’s never really come naturally to me either.  On the one hand I want the amazing photo of people living it up at a festival or event while on the other I want to be that person living it up.  Perhaps one day I’ll find that well balanced compromise, but until then I am still torn between the both.

HDR…You Make My Dreams Come True

•June 22, 2010 • 2 Comments

The Power Of HDR

What if I told you there was a magical, mystical photographic technique that can make the impossible possible? What if there was a way to take a picture of a sunset and actually have it turn out just the way you saw it? What is there was a simple process to make works of art well beyond your artistic capabilities? My friends that wonder is already here among us and it’s name is HDR. So what do those three little letters mean? HDR or High Dynamic Range photography in its essence is taking multiple photos of a scene at different exposures and then taking the best parts from each shot. This is necessary at times because your eyes work so much better than your camera. You can look at a sunset and appreciate the rich colors of the lit sky against a darker background and surroundings. Our eyes are adaptive and can adapt quickly to a greater range of light than can a camera.  Your camera just can’t compete, but HDR photography evens the playing field when the scene is unfair.  All you need is a camera where you can control the aperture and shutter speed.

The Grand Canyon at sunset. The perfect time to use HDR.

So when is a good situation to employ HDR? If you’re taking a photo of your friend outside in great light or you’re just inside taking a simple snapshot you probably won’t need to use HDR. Where it shines through is when there is a dramatic difference between the brightest and darkest objects in your scene. This happens quite a bit when you’re taking a photo outside during the day. The sky is much brighter to your camera than you think and many times if want to take a photo with the sky and foreground in the same shot you have to make a choice. You can choose to expose the sky properly.  However this will cause everything else to turn out really dark or you can expose for the ground and have the sky blow out and turn white. This happens a lot with sunsets and makes taking photos of them difficult at times. It’s frustrating to have an immensely beautiful scene transpire right before your eyes, take a photo and then get back home only to discover the photo is nowhere near as amazing as you remember. HDR can help you record that scene as you saw it and not just as your camera saw it. Another time HDR is helpful is when you’re not supposed to be taking photos. In the middle of the day the light is harsh and bright causing shadows that are dark and highlights that are extremely bright. The dynamic range of the light is so wide there is no possible way to get a decent photo with your limited camera. You’ll lose either detail in the shadows, the bright sky or even both. HDR empowers you to shoot in situations where it’s near impossible.

HDR can really bring out the texture of an object.

Now that you’ve seen what a miracle process HDR is just how do you use it?  HDR usually requires some forethought to what kind of light you’re going to have when you shoot, a few extra pieces of photo equipment and some software. The first step is that I like to plan ahead and know if the light I’m going to be shooting in is harsh. If I can’t help shooting in the middle of the day I usually plan on having to do HDR. I recently went to Arches National Park and knew I would be there in the middle of the day when the sun was at its worst.  Knowing that ahead of time I came well prepared.  That way I made sure to bring the gear I needed. The one piece of gear that you absolutely need is a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod then invest in one that’s sturdy and solid. I’m all for cheap, but an unreliable, wobbly tripod will do you no good. Another helpful piece of equipment, but not necessary is a remote cable shutter release. This will help you avoid camera shake while your camera is on the tripod giving you better results. You can get by without it, but it’s an inexpensive item that can really improve your results. Once you’ve taken the photos you need to get an HDR image you need a software program to process the images. Photomatix has been the preferred program of most photographers for years, but the latest version of Photoshop, CS5, now has HDR capabilities that rival any other programs. You can download free trials of each program and give them a try to see which one works best for you and just what kind of results HDR can give you.

This was shot at Arches National Park in very harsh midday sun. This was near impossible to photograph without HDR.

With the proper gear in tow and an HDR program waiting for you at home you’re ready to make the magic happen. The basic idea of HDR photography is that you take multiple exposures of the same scene, each with a different exposure level. In essence you take a darker photo, a normal photo, and a bright photo all of the same exact scene. Luckily your DSLR has a mode that does all the work for you called exposure bracketing (check your camera manual to find out how to set it). You can set the bracketing anywhere from +/- 1/3 stop all the way up to +/- 2 stops of exposure. To get the best results and capture the greatest amount of data you want to set the bracketing all the way to the max. The exposure bracketing will allow you to take 3 consecutive photos each one with a different setting. It will keep the aperture setting the same for each shot so depth of field is unchanged, but will instead change the shutter speed for each exposure. I prefer to actually just shoot in Aperture Priority mode when doing HDR.  Don’t be worried if the 3 photos you take look horrible because this is about capturing the greatest amount of data and not about getting photos with great light. You have to press down the shutter button each time to take the different exposures. A tip to make it easier is to put the camera on burst mode so that you just have to press and hold the shutter button down once while the camera rattles off the 3 shots for the bracketing. A remote cable shutter release makes this part easier. If you’re holding down the shutter button with your finger for the time it takes to do the 3 exposures you’ll probably cause some camera shake. Your tripod is the key to this whole process. The HDR process involves doing the exposure bracketing of the scene and placing the 3 images on top of each other. If the program places the images on top of each other and they don’t line up exactly you’re not going to have a sharp image. The HDR software tries it’s best to align the images, but without 3 images that are almost exactly the same you won’t get the best results, thus the grand importance of a tripod. Honestly it’s not worth doing HDR photos without a tripod (you can however improvise one if you’re in a pinch by placing your camera on a solid surface).

Exposure Number 1....not very impressive.

Exposure Number 2...this exposes for the sky.

Exposure Number 3....this exposes for the trees. Notice the blown out sky.

Put the 3 exposures together to form an HDR and you get this. It takes the best part of each exposre.

Once you’ve got the multiple exposures of the same scene taken it’s time to convert them from 3 horrible looking pics into something magical. Thankfully this is actually the easy part of the process. I’ll run through the process here using Photomatix. Open up the program and go up to the top menu. Click on Process->Generate HDR. In the window that pops up click on ‘Browse’ and find the 3 multiple exposures that you took. Select all 3 and click on ‘Open’ and then on ‘OK’. This will bring up the options menu. Most of the important options should already be selected for you. If your scene had trees, water, people or anything else that might have moved during the time you took the exposures make sure to click on the ‘Attempt to reduce ghosting artifacts’ box. This option helps to reduce blurry trees and people in your final image. It’s not perfect and you might have to do some clean up work, but it helps. Once you click ‘OK’ Photomatix will convert the multiple exposures into a single HDR image. This takes about a minute so be a little patient with it 🙂 Now don’t worry once it finishes. The image that Photomatix spits out looks even worse than what you could have ever imagined. I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty details, but suffice it to say your monitor can’t actually reproduce a true HDR image. All you can see is a horribly exposed picture with extreme shadows and highlights. In order to create a high quality image your monitor can display click on Process->Tone Mapping.  Suddenly your hard work pays off and the horrible images you started with are transformed into a wondrous blend of perfect exposures.  All the best parts of the multiple exposures you took are pieced together giving you detail from the bright sky to the dark shadows.

My very first HDR. It's so easy to do and the immediate results make it exciting to try.

This will bring up the tone mapping settings window.  There are a bunch of sliders that control the magic output.  I’ll try to go over the important ones and what they do.  It’s hard to explain such a visual process in words.  The honest truth is if you want to learn what they do play around with the sliders.  Slide it from one end to the other and see exactly how it affects the image.  You won’t hurt anything.

  • Strength – This controls the contrast of the HDR effect and in general the overall ‘HDRness’ of the photo.  I personally like a higher number here.  It gives the image a more painted quality and I like going a little over the top.  In the end it’s a personal preference though on what you think looks nice.
  • Color Saturation – Pretty self explanatory on this one.  HDR images are known for their rich and wide array of colors.  Be careful however not to get too carried away with the saturation.  If you do too much the colors will start to bleed and you can have too much of a good thing here.
  • Luminosity – Simply another word for brightness.  Pretty self explanatory setting.
  • Microcontrast – This is just a basic contrast setting.
  • Smoothing – This setting is a little hard to explain in words.  Try it out and see for yourself what it does.  You probably want to keep it on the higher end.  I personally only ever use ‘Max’ or ‘High’ because the lower you go the more psychedelic the image becomes.
  • White and Black Point – I really don’t use these too often.  I prefer to just do a level adjustment in Photoshop because the Photomatix sliders use numbers for settings that don’t really match up with the histogram.
  • Temperature – Make sure this is set where you want it.  Once you save the HDR image the temperature gets baked in and you’ll have to redo the post processing all over again to correct it.
  • Microsmoothing – This is like a mini contrast setting.  It smooths out the transition between colors and the different objects in the image.
  • Highlight/Shadow Smoothness – These are helpful for adjusting the highlight or shadow exposures individually in the image.  These are great for getting the final exposure levels just right.

Once you have things just the way you like click on ‘Process’ and you’re good to go.  I like to then save the HDR image and open it in Photoshop for some touching up.  I’ll do a levels adjustment, sharpening and some noise reduction usually.

Sunset at Delicate Arch. Thanks HDR!

As much as I’ve talked up HDR there still are however some limitations and minor flaws.  One problem you have to worry about is noise.  The photos can some out pretty grainy using Photomatix so running it through noise reduction software can help.  Keep an eye on the noise when you’re adjusting your settings so and try to avoid extreme settings that really make the noise noticeable.  Another limitation is you need a relatively still subject and background.  There’s just not really any way to take an HDR of a race car or your kid playing sports.  The software can handle fairly well small tiny movements, but if the wind is really kicking around the limbs on the trees you’re going to get a very blurry final image.  I’ve also had trouble with it when taken an image at night.  The software tries to expose the blackened sky and it turns into a horrible mess.

The hour long hike up to this lake was harder with my tripod in tow, but definitely worth it.

Clicking on the tone mapping button is pretty nerve racking because you don’t quite know what it’s going to spit out.  There have been times when I thought this is going to turn out great and the resulting image that pops up looks like trash.  But on the flip side there have been a few times where I haven’t had too much hope and have been wonderfully surprised by what the tone mapping process could do.  It honestly takes practice to know when the situation calls for taking multiple exposures for an HDR image and when it won’t be so great.  Luckily though more times than not you’ll come out with a winner.  I still learn something new every time I try the process and have found though that when in doubt go ahead and do the exposure bracketing.  If one of those shots turns out great by itself then that’s one less step for you to do and if not you can run all 3 through HDR software.  Shooting with HDR in mind is a great safety net when you’re in tricky lighting situations.

HDR really brought out the dark storm clouds.

There is still so much more I want to say about HDR, but I’ll leave that for another post.  It’s pretty controversial actually in the photography community and there are definitely those who sing HDR’s praises like I do and some unfortunate souls who look down on HDR.  I’ll save all that for another discussion 🙂  If you have any interest in photography give this process a try.  It honestly is pretty much foolproof and so addicting.  With such little effort you can achieve stunning results right out of the gate.  Some of my personal favorite HDR’s are from the very first time I tried it out.  HDR is such fun and so incredibly useful.  I just love the rich colors and vibrant textures.  It’s a technique that every photographer should have in their repertoire.  So get out there and try it!

I Believe That The Children Are Our Future…

•June 21, 2010 • 46 Comments

Cutest Baby In The World

Have you taken a look at your childhood photos?  Recently?  There are some pretty good shots in the collection that is the history of me and some that could be improved.  I love my parents and they did the best they could with the photo gear they had.  They had quite a cute baby as their model though which helped.  It’s easier now than ever to take photos of your children.  Cameras are cheap, you don’t have to worry about the expense of film along with getting it developed and you get instant results.  You never get the moments back of your children growing up which gives each smile or frown importance.  Each day they grow and change and capturing those moments in photos is a precious opportunity. Luckily I’ve presented here just a few simple techniques you can employ to get results that will help you make images worthy of these memories.  The real beauty is you won’t have to buy a single piece of extra equipment to improve your photos with these techniques.

Technique #1- Get On Their Level.  This is probably the simplest yet most important thing you can do when taking photos of children.   One of the best ways to make an interesting and memorable photograph is to take it from a point of view that you normally don’t see.  If you take a photo of an every day object from the same mundane angle that you normally see it you’ll find there is no power in the image.  To your brain it’s just the same old, same old.  How do you normally see children?  Usually it’s towering over the kid looking down at them as they run around.  When you stand over a child and take their picture it’s just more of the same to your brain.  It lacks a sense of intimacy between the photographer and the subject and makes the child look small and unimportant.  This is very easy to solve.  Bend that knee, get down to their eye level and see how much a difference it makes.  Don’t be afraid to even lay down and shoot up slightly at them giving them a sense of size and power.  Getting down on their level is a window into their world and transforms them from a tiny child into a full grown person.   It’s a different point of view that you usually don’t get to experience with them and it will give your photo much more impact.  Get on the slide with the kid at the park, crawl around on the floor with the baby, or sit on the ground to watch them play.  This one simple technique will transform your child’s photos from mundane to memorable.  It’s easy to take a photo in your usual standing position, but taking the extra step to get on their level is worth the effort.

Get down and see the world from their perspective. It gives the photo a much more intimate feel.

Technique #2- Fill The Frame. This is a technique that is useful for most types of photography, but especially so with children.  You want to fill up as much of the frame as you can with the child by zooming in with either your lens or the good old fashion foot zoom.  Filling the frame is also easier now that you’re down on eye level with the child.  Making sure that your child fills the view finder has a lot of positive effects on your image.  It helps to emphasize the subject by leaving no doubt what the photo is about.  With the child taking up most of the frame there is little room for distractions in the background.  I’m sure we all have some childhood photos of ourselves taken from across the room and it’s hard to even tell what or who the subject of the photo is.  A busy background filled with clutter or random people takes away from the focus, just how cute your kid looks.  The personality and emotion of the child really shines through when shot from up close.  Subtle facial expressions are picked up and the eyes, which tell the story, are easily visible.  Try even taking it to the extreme and filling the frame with single body parts.  This is wonderfully effective with babies in focusing on just their tiny hands or feet.  With older children try zooming in really close on the face making sure to capture the eyes.  Maybe focus on their mouth as they laugh or their feet as they tie their shoes.  Isolate your child from the rest of the world in your photo and you’ll capture a wonderful moment in time.

Fill the frame to remove distractions and really enhance the facial expressions.

Technique #3- Posed Vs. Candid. I recently had my own run in with this conundrum (I’ll write about it when I finish the project) and anyone who has photographed children has run into the problem of posed vs. candid.  Since the day parenting began children have refused to listen.  It’s not their fault, but they are completely uncooperative.  If you’ve ever tried to get them to pose just the way you want with a nice natural smile and eyelids open you know how much an impossible task that is.  One of the problems with posing children is the forced smiles and the unnatural posturing it brings.  Saying “Cheese!” and having them pose is a magical recipe for cheesy grins or awkward what do I do with my arm moments.  There are however times when you want to make the effort and pose kids in a situation to get the exact image you want.  I wish you the best of luck in those situations 🙂  But I’ve found it easiest to just let the photos happen.  I love to just let kids do their thing and silently observe with my camera.  Watch them through your lens as they run around in the back yard.  Sit and observe with your camera as they play make believe and jump about.  It’s exciting to let the moments develop organically.  Doing so brings natural expressions, genuine smiles and true captures of the moment.    I feel this is really where the emotion and memories shine through in the photo.  A photo of a child laughing while playing will have more emotional impact than a posed portrait of a child in a suit and tie sitting in a chair.  This technique however takes some patience and can be hit or miss.  But if you take the time and look for those small moments with the perfect expression you’ll walk away with memorable and natural images.

I really love the natural smile that comes from a candid photo. You won't get that by saying "Cheese!"

As an aside to this technique I wanted to share a common problem with candid photos and how one person solved it.  I read about this person’s predicament years ago, but can’t find a link to it now so I’ll just share it in my own words.  Kids can develop horrible camera habits and many times the parents are to blame.  A mother had always taken photos of her children and when she saw a moment she wanted to capture would pull out her camera and yell the obligatory “Say Cheese!”  The kids would stop what they were doing and force big, cheesy grins.  The mother however over time noticed that all her photos looked similar and she wasn’t capturing the moments the way she remembered them.  The problem was whenever the mother would see the kids doing something memorable, out would come the camera and they would immediately stop doing the adorable stuff and strike up cheesy poses.  So the mother decided she had to condition the children to act naturally around the camera.  She began to carry the camera around with her all the time, but would take no pictures.  When she saw the kids doing something that she wanted to document she would pull up the camera to take the picture, but wouldn’t take it if the kids made a cheesy pose.  This continued until the children learned that mommy didn’t want a forced smile, but rather simple organic moments.  The camera became common place and soon the kids didn’t react at all when the mother would take a photo.  This allowed her to record those precious moments just as they happened and helped her photos have a greater impact.  Definitely something you can try if you’re having trouble making those candid moments.

Technique #4- Lighting. This is as much a general overall photography technique as it is specifically for taking photos of children, but it’s very critical to making a great child photo.  Without great light you can’t have a great photo.  It’s as simple as that.  So what is great light?  It is NOT the light from the little built in flash on your camera and it is NOT the harsh midday sun.  The problem with a lot of child photos is they are either taken indoors with insufficient light or outside in the middle of the day in direct sunlight.  The tiny flash on your camera and the midday sun are what is called hard light.  This kind of light produces hard shadows, washes out color and is very unflattering.  The tiny built in flash on cameras has problems because the quality of light is directly proportional to the size of the light.  The tinier the light source the harder the light and those built in flashes are minuscule.  There are however some simple things you can do to get better light.  If you have a north facing window open the blinds all the way up and shoot using it’s light (try not to have the actual window in the frame because it will blow out in the photo).  The window will diffuse the light and for once having dirty windows will actually make your life better (the dirt helps diffuse the light even more).  This will give you nice even light without the harsh shadows.  Avoiding flash indoors also helps you to blend in and take more candid photos.  There’s no distracting burst of light letting the child know you just took their photo.  If you can’t get great light indoors take the child outside.  Try to avoid midday, but if you have to take photos at that time of the day shoot in the shade.  It’s much cooler, nobody’s squinting and the light is much more flattering.  It seems slightly counter intuitive, but a nice covered porch makes an excellent makeshift studio when the sun is blazing away.  The best times to shoot outside are a few hours after sunrise and a few hours before sunset.  The sunlight during these peak times has a wonderful golden glow to it and shadows are subdued.  There isn’t a more flattering way to take someone’s photo than in the nice golden light right before the sun sets.  Photography in it’s very essence is simply light and without high quality light you can’t make a high quality photo.

This was taken outside about an hour before sunset. Nice soft golden light that enhances color and features.

Technique #5- Rapid Shots. How many times have you seen a perfect photo of your child just ready for the taking.  They’re looking right at you, smiling, the light is just right and you decide to click the shutter.  You can’t wait to look at the photo and you sadly realize the perfect shot is ruined with a pair of closed eyes, opportunity lost.  Now that we can shoot digital and since the cost of memory is so cheap there is no reason we can’t rattle off hundreds of shots without consequence.  Most cameras today have a burst mode that will allow you to take anywhere from 3 to 8 shots a second.  You just press down the shutter and keep holding it down until the moment is over.  Consult your user manual if you don’t know how to turn on burst or rapid fire mode.  This increases your chances greatly for getting a great shot.  Out of the barrage of shots that you take there just has to be one where the kid’s eyes are open, the expression is just right and your subject is perfectly in focus.  Doing child photography is hard enough and if there’s something to increase your odds of a winning shot you need to take advantage.  It doesn’t mean that you should just wave your camera around snapping off photos at will.  You still need to compose your shot properly making sure to have the light you need, but when you do see the shot you want make sure you do an overkill and rattle off as many shots as you can.  This is an absolute must for taking sports shots of your children.  It’s impossible to wait for just the right pose, but if you take 5 or 6 shots of them swinging the bat at their t-ball game you’ll get at least one shot showing off the action.  Don’t be afraid of taking a ton of photos.

Anticipate the action and get ready to take multiple shots using burst mode. Hopefully you'll get one that captures the action just the way you want.

Technique #6- Focus.Of course you want all your photos to be in focus.  This however is the part of child photography that I’ve found to be the most difficult.  Unless you’re taking some nap time portraits the child is most likely on the move.  There are however some techniques you can use to increase the odds of having an in focus portrait.  The most important thing to remember is to focus on the eyes.  You can have an entire photo of person in focus except for the eyes and it won’t look right.  The eyes are the window to the soul and are what really convey the emotion and personality in the photo (to learn how to improve the eyes in the photo check out  So when you’re trying to focus make the eyes your target.  Now how exactly do you make that happen?  All DSLR’s will have a continuous autofocus mode that continually focuses until you press the shutter (once again consult the manual for your camera).  This is a life saver with a moving child and lets you keep the subject in focus until they’re in position.  Another thing you need to do is watch your shutter speed.  If the subject is moving and you have a slow shutter speed (anything slower than around 1/125) you’re going to get a blurry photo no matter how well your image stabilization works.  If your shutter speed is too slow you have a few options.  You can bump up the ISO on your camera, but this will degrade the pictures quality the higher you go.  You can use a bigger aperture which might require switching to a faster lens ( to read about the wonders of a fast lens).  You can also add more light by opening a window, taking it outside, or using a flash.  All the techniques in the world can’t save a photo if you don’t start out with subject in focus.  Practicing taking photos of moving objects and learning how to get the focus point right on the eyes will improve your photos dramatically.

Makes the eyes the focal point of the image and you'll be able to convey much more emotion through your image.

As part of the talk on focusing I should mention the aperture.  Having a fast lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or even bigger will help out immensely.  It will give you a nice blurry background really helping your subject to pop and it will increase your shutter speed helping you freeze motion.  However using a really big aperture means less of the subject is in focus and if you don’t get your focal point just right you’re going to get a blurry shot.  It takes practice and is something I’m still working on to get just right myself.  You can use a higher aperture, if the light you have allows you to, like f/5.6 or even up to f/11 which is the standard portrait aperture.  These smaller apertures will give you more flexibility with keeping the subject in focus and are more forgiving.  Experiment with different apertures and see what results you like.

Technique #7- Have Fun. I usually don’t like to include cheesy stuff like this, but I have found this to be absolutely true when taking child snapshots.  If you’re having a fun time and smiling then the child is ten times more likely to have a smile on their face as well.  It can be frustrating trying to get a nice picture, but if you’re patient and keep your cool your chances of success will greatly improve.  There’s the old photo cliche that the camera looks both ways and if you’re not enjoying yourself then your child probably isn’t either.  Make a game of it.  I often get requests by kids to take their picture while doing some silly pose and find those interactions to be gold mines.  You can get some crazy shots, but it also makes them much more likely to let you suggest a few poses once they’ve run out of their own ideas.  Besides if you’re not having fun doing photography then you’re doing something wrong.

If you're smiling you'll get a lot more smiles in return. Let the kids have fun and you'll get quite a wide range of expressions.

Hopefully you’ve picked up an idea or two that can help you out.  None of these techniques require advanced camera gear and in fact the majority of these could be used with just a simple cell phone camera to get great shots.  Do yourself a favor and improve your technique when taking photographs of your children.  Try focusing on just one technique and master it before moving on to another.  If you practice enough (which costs you nothing using a digital camera) these will all become second nature.  Then instead of trying to remember to fill the frame you’ll instinctively do it and can instead turn your attention towards becoming ever more creative.  These are also just suggestions and every photo you take doesn’t have to follow these rules.  In fact you can make some very dramatic photos by doing the opposite of filling the frame and instead making the child very small in the frame in comparison to some other gigantic object.  Mix things up so that you don’t look back and realize every photo you of your children looks exactly the same.  Children grow up fast and with your improved technique you will truly be grateful that you have such wonderful photos to remember those precious yet not forgotten moments.  I’ve never heard anyone say “I wish my parents hadn’t taken so many childhood photos of me that look so great”.

In The Sunshine Of Your Love…

•June 2, 2010 • 3 Comments

Sunrise at Silver Lake in Utah

I don’t know if I can recommend what I did for Memorial Day to a normal person, but I enjoyed the adventure so I’ll share.  It was crazy, but fun and something I’ve been wanting to do for a long while.  The wife and I got invited by an old friend to go up into the mountains at the unfathomable hour of 4:00 a.m. to take some sunrise photos.  Of course I have the very fortunate side effect of being nocturnal working graveyard shifts.  I’m wide awake every day at 4:00 a.m. so I felt pretty bad for my significant other who does not enjoy that benefit.  She was a trooper though to go with me.

When we got there it was dark and cold. But the unicorn magic was soon to come.

Now if you’re going to do sunrise photos that’s the unfortunate side effect, being awake when every sane person is asleep.  To get the shots you want you need to get to your spot in advance and scout out the perfect location.  If you’re arriving when the sun is coming up you’re unfortunately too late.  We had to hike in the snow for about half an hour to find our final spot that had a nice open clearing and good view of the eastern sky.  That’s how they get all those amazing shots in magazines and posters that you see, getting there insanely early.  It’s not easy being a nature photographer 🙂

The sky really started to pick up and I had about 15 minutes to take care of business.

Photographing sunrises (and sunsets for that matter) is a very dynamic experience.  The fun and exciting part is that the view literally changes every minute.  Colors ebb and flow and no two photos that you take during the sunrise are the same.  The display that unfolds climaxes to an eventual breathtaking display…hopefully.  Sunrises are crapshoots and I’m sure Forrest Gump would have something to say about them.  Something about chocolates or what not.  There’s nothing worse than getting up so early, driving to some exotic location and then getting a lackluster sunrise.  Just consider the potential for disappointment part of the excitement.  But once it starts you need to be set up and ready.  There isn’t much time to waste and you’ll get maybe 10-15 good minutes when the colors are at their peak.  That’s why it’s so important to get there before the show starts so you have everything all set to just take pictures.  There’s nothing worse than having this amazing light display going on and you’re still parking the car or finding a nice spot without power lines in the way.

It was an amazing view and well worth the early start.

As far as setup goes you’ll need a tripod.  It’s not fun hauling it up into the mountains, but it makes all the difference.  Light is scarce and you’ll have to shoot with some long exposure times.  You’ll want to have a small aperture so that you can get most of the scene in focus.  Something around f16 should work well which makes the tripod an absolute necessity with shutter speeds of around a few seconds.  Another useful tool for shooting long exposures is a remote shutter release.  When your camera is on a tripod with a long shutter speed, pressing the shutter button can cause some camera shake and make the photo blurry.  With a remote shutter release cable you can stand safely from afar leaving your camera in perfect blur free isolation.  If you don’t have a way of taking a photo without touching the camera try using the timer.  Just like my favorite infomercial you can just set it and forget it!  You can use the timer to take the photo and you’ll have no camera shake from physically pressing the shutter.  If you are still having problems with camera shake look to see if your camera has what’s called mirror lock up and enable it.  When the camera takes a picture it lifts up the mirror inside to expose the sensor which can cause some camera shake.  Mirror lock up mode makes opening the mirror and taking the photo two separate steps.  This way you can avoid any movement caused by the mirror moving up.


Catching the tail end of the sunrise.

If hauling around a tripod, getting up before human beings responsibly should and trying to capture a fleeting moment haven’t stopped you then you’re ready for the hard part…the exposure.  The basic problem is the sky is very bright and everything else is not so bright.  Unfortunately your camera isn’t capable of taking the photo as you see it.  Either the sky will be just right with everything else greatly underexposed or the sky will be blown out with the surroundings exposed properly.  The latter just defeats the whole purpose of photographing sunrises if all the colors are washed out and overexposed.  If you have an interesting subject to make a nice silhouette you can take advantage of that by exposing for the sky and leaving the silhouetted shape underexposed.  This can make for a nice photo.  However what do you do if you want both the sunrise and surroundings properly exposed?  Three little letters…HDR.  HDR is a technique that takes multiple exposures of the same photo and combines them into a magical concoction of proper exposures (check out my little tutorial on it here  It’s a technique that can transform an impossible situation into a beautiful photo.

It's amazing how different the same scene looks after just 15 minutes. The light makes all the difference.

The photos I have up here are HDR photos and really help the colors pop and shows the scene as I saw it with human eyes.  Luckily we got some good color in the sky and the sunrise didn’t disappoint.  It was a worthwhile trip and something I hope to do again in the future.  I’ve got a few ideas kicking around and hopefully I’ll get around to shooting at 4:00 a.m. soon.  I just hope when I make the effort in the early morning darkness that the sunrise cooperates again 🙂

Victory pose 🙂