What is “Wild,” anyway?

There’s a lot of discussion about whether taking photos of wildlife in zoos is ethical, or even qualifies as “wildlife” at all, for that matter. I don’t get into that debate, because as a learning photographer, as are many who read what I write here, I don’t have the luxury of buying a bunch of long-zoom gear to take shots of wildlife in the wild. (Although my birds are all in the wild…) The Akron Zoo weighed in on this over the last few years, by having a photo contest for photos taken of their animals.

This shot is my entry (one of a couple, probably) into that contest. Tough shot, not because the “captive” subject was all that elusive, but because the subject was separated from the lens by a piece of glass. Add to that the fact that I was using a zoom lens (didn’t want to get caught unprepared with a distant subject and not enough reach) so I was far enough away that the reflections were visible. Had to move around a good bit to make ’em go away.

The bare details–Canon 60D, Canon 70-300mm IS lens at 70mm with the IS on. ISO 500, f/4.0 at 1/100 sec. No flash, obviously, not just because of the reflection off the glass but because it would have spooked the crap out of this beautiful jaguar. (By the way, there’s no I in jaguar.


Can’t believe it’s been this long.  Watch for a new post soon! Maybe about this shot…Image



Bigger is better, part 2…

What IS bigger?

Let’s talk about the second of the three elements I mentioned in my last post (which was a really long time ago–I promise to do better): shutter speed. Which way is up on this topic is sometimes a problem. When I set the shutter speed on my camera, the numbers I see in the viewfinder are anywhere from 30″ to something really big, like 5000; I don’t have the 60D in front of me right now so I can’t say for sure.  In any case, which is larger–30″ or 5000? In this case, the latter is deceiving–5000 is actually 1/5000 of a second, or a really, REALLY short span of time. That lets very little light in. And the ” symbol denotes ‘seconds,’ meaning that the 30″ number is a 30 second exposure.  That lets a whole LOT of light in. Think about when this matters…Say I’m shooting a small bird.  That bird’s wings are flapping like crazy a lot of the time. If I open the shutter for an extended period, that wing action is going to result in a blur  instead of a wing.  This can make for a pleasant effect, but causes a loss of detail in the wing (unless you freeze the action with a flash, which we can touch on some other time).  On the other hand, a really fast shutter speed can freeze the wing for a moment in time, and if you’re lucky enough to get it in the right position during that moment, you can end up with something like this: 


Usually, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I shoot in Aperture Priority at f/8 or thereabouts, to give me some room for error as far as what’s in focus.  When I was out shooting on this particular day, the sun was so bright that it was driving pretty fast shutter speeds, but not fast enough to freeze a bird in flight. So I switched to Shutter Priority (Tv, for those in the Canon world) to make the shutter go faster.  I picked a number at random, pretty much, and set it at 1/1600 second–which is darned quick. In turn, though, the camera forced the aperture to f/4, in order to let in more light.  Since I was shooting a moving target, and wanted to make sure I didn’t miss the focus, I wanted this to move BACK up to f/8.  What to do, what to do…


So I did the unthinkable–which you will see if you look at the details of this picture: I switched to manual mode.  In my case, manual isn’t exactly manual, in the sense that I left the ISO on “automatic.” I set the shutter where I wanted it (1/1600), and the aperture where I wanted it (f/8), and let the camera do what it would to get the exposure right.  In this case, instead of ISO 100, the “sensitivity” from the last post went up to ISO 400.  The result?  Didn’t have to worry about what was or was not in focus; got the action frozen just how I wanted it; got just enough light in the camera to make the shot look good; and got the wing in JUST the right place!


The other thing about this shot: Sometimes when I get a photo I really like, I’ll give it a name. That is a very hard thing for me to do, since I’m not all that creative. But this one came with a name from the moment I first saw it–I call it “How’s the Water?”


Next stop–an exploration of aperture… The setting, not the program!

So…Bigger is better, right?

Today I have a shot that is probably my new favorite to show you. It is a great example of photographic luck, in that I came around a curve, liked what I saw, hung the camera out the window, and popped the shutter without even looking. Generally, what you see here is what I got. I tweaked it a little bit but only in the Microsoft Office Picture Manager—the only tool I had available when I went to do the edit. Glad of that, too, because the urge to do too much to the image probably would have been strong, and I would’ve messed it up!


But I was looking at the settings, and remembered a topic that I wanted to discuss at some level of detail. I cover this because of all of the basics of photography, the relationship between the numbers was the most difficult for me to remember. Let’s start with a fundamental I’ve gone through before—the lighting in a photograph is a result of the interaction between the shutter speed (how long the sensor is exposed to the light), the aperture size (how big the hole is through which the light passes), and the ISO setting. The ISO setting is the more nebulous of the three, because it’s a measure of “sensitivity,” or what the sensor does with the light that hits it. I’m going to cover each of these three separately, starting with ISO.

Best way to think of ISO is the higher the number, the higher the light. Very simple—I mean, after all, that means “bigger is better,” right? Well, if you set ISO 400 you will get more sensitivity than you would if you had ISO 100 selected. But whether that’s “better” or not depends on what you’re after. For example, I shot this image pointing my camera more-or-less into the sunrise. The camera was set at ISO 100, fortunately, because anything higher might have resulted in “too much” light—leading to overexposed areas in the image.

If you’re shooting at night, on the other hand, there might be no such thing as “too much” light. The hole in your lens can only get so big (more on that in a later post in this series), and the longer you leave the shutter open the more risk that the image will be blurry. So in those cases, you want the sensor to do as much with the light as it can. This is accomplished by turning UP the ISO, going to a larger number. Remember—the higher the number, the higher the light. The compromise here is that a higher ISO number introduces an effect called “grain” or “noise” into the image, which can be unwanted in some (most?) cases. Fortunately, the modern digital SLRs are getting much better at managing noise, but some of the most common small-sensor cameras are not nearly as good. Finally, there are software solutions that can be used to remove noise, ranging from barely adequate to REALLY good. More to follow on that as the blog matures!

If you are setting the exposure of a shot manually by individually adjusting ISO, aperture and speed, you have to decide which is more important to you. In the case of ISO, you are thinking about overexposure if the number is too high in a bright scene, underexposure if it’s too low in a dark scene, and the tradeoff of noise at higher ISO settings.

Coming up: a similar bit of knowledge related to aperture and shutter speed…

Get down on the ground!

Warning: the following post contains images (OK, ONE image) which may be disturbing to some readers.  Sorry.

Well, it’s been a while, but it’s not like I haven’t been shooting.  Got a lot of shots lately, and I’ve learned a lot in the recent past.  A couple of lessons on off-camera flash, one of which I’m going to add now.  Here’s the thing about flash: one of the reasons I’ve avoided flash photography is that the only way I could do it (built-in flash or flash on the camera) created awful shadows and harsh lighting that I just didn’t like. With the new camera, I finally have the ability to get the flash off the body and create some interesting lighting.  I learned recently that the flash “foot” (a little plastic stand that came with the flash) has a tripod mount, so now I can set the flash wherever it will create the proper effect.

But before I learned that, I was back in macro action and was wandering my yard looking for interesting subjects.  The Little Tikes playhouse out back is just about the last thing one would expect to shoot with a macro lens, but there it was.  And it has quite the collection of tiny (around 3/8”, mostly) spiders crawling on it when the sun is out.

Turns out, shooting spiders is a little tricky.  First of all, when you get that close to a spider, he tends to do one of two things. He either turns around, giving you an excellent view of his… um… spinnerets;  or he sort of crouches down, giving a view of his back but not much else. In addition, when you’re that close and the spider is that small, the flash on the camera (internal or external) doesn’t do you much good, as it tends to shoot past the spider.

Never one to be deterred, I went through the following steps… I set the flash in wireless mode, and took it off the camera.  Couldn’t get it to stand up in the grass, so I said “heck with it” (literally—out loud; the spider thought I was talking to him) and set it on its side, pointing generally at the spider. Then I laid down in the grass myself, got really close to the spider, looked through the viewfinder and manually focused.  Set the camera back to autofocus and started shooting.  With fresh batteries in the flash, it was recharging pretty quickly and I was getting some pretty well-lit shots.  During this time, the spider was moving around a little and I knew he was going in and out of focus, but there was no way to know for sure so I just kept shooting.

At some point, he turned around and looked right at the flash.  I followed the front of him with the camera, and as a result, got the best shot of the bunch—that’s the one shown here. 


Now, let’s talk about some techie stuff related to this shot.  I had been shooting earlier in direct sunlight, so I had applied about -1.75 stops of exposure compensation for some flower shots.  As is my usual habit, I forgot to check my settings before I started shooting the spider shots. That meant that the compensation was still in place, and I was therefore starting off dark. I had selected an aperture of f/10, to try to create a little more margin for error with regard to the focus point—the depth of field is shorter on macro shots to begin with, and reducing it even farther by setting f/6.3 or F/8 would have added to the challenge.  This reduced the light even further, so the camera defaulted to the slowest shutter speed I had allowed, that being 1/60 sec. Since this is still too dark the next move was for the little computer inside the 60D to start bumping up the ISO until it got to an acceptable meter. The result, after all that, is what you see.

What I like best about this shot is the shadow of the spider.  It looks like something out of a 1970’s cartoon, for those of you who are my age. And I also like the look on his face—reminds me of a Star Wars character, for some reason.  Anyway… lessons here?  Check the settings—you’re not in that big a hurry. And don’t be afraid to get dirty. It’s OK for you AND your gear to lay on the ground! 

Sticking Around

I have mentioned on occasion a couple of things: first, that I’m a pretty patient person when it comes to taking pictures (as long as it’s not too cold out!); and second, that I share the view of the great nature and wildlife photographer Martin Bailey (see the links page…) that luck plays a significant role in photography. Take for example the shot of the hawk that I posted earlier (Why “Always”?, below). Yes, I had the camera sitting next to me, and yes, I was driving through a wildlife refuge. Those things were not luck.  But I happened to see the bird, and have time to get the car stopped, window down, camera on and up, and then shoot just as he took off! That particular dose of planetary alignment had not a whit to do with patience, and almost everything to do with luck. But sometimes, those things seem to combine to make what ends up being a great shot.  

I heard a photographer once say, and I really wish I could remember who it was, that you should never assume that you have “the shot” and take off.  Stick around, he (or she) said, and you might see something that is more than what you already have. I was driving through the park one afternoon, and saw an adorable squirrel in the fork of an old tree. He was having a snack, and I stopped to practice a little bit. I took three or four shots that I really liked, and started to set the camera down, when I remembered that advice and left it up for a moment.  Maybe twenty seconds later–which seemed like a half hour since nothing was happening, hence the reference to patience again!–he started to groom himself in the way that small mammals often do, rubbing his paws on his face. I blasted off about ten more frames, not having any idea whether they would be worth keeping and frankly not caring much; then he quit, and headed around the back side of the tree. Before driving away, I paused to look at the LCD on the back of the camera, and behold: 


(Before those of you with good eyes start to type, yes, I know that the shot is noisy, and over-sharpened. I’m experimenting with Photoshop Elements but I’m not very good at it yet.  I just wanted to get a post up on this subject, and while I’m not proud of the edit, I am pretty happy with the image!)

The little fella (or whatever) almost looks like he’s shy and hiding from the camera! 

So if I had gone with my usual behavior–“I got the shot, now I’m moving on to the next thing”–I would have missed this one. Of course, I could have sat there for another ten minutes without seeing anything interesting, and that’s what patience is all about.  But I got lucky. Speaking of luck, the settings on the camera weren’t luck this time, as I had just finished shooting this guy in the same spot “on purpose.” This was taken with my 60D (for which I still owe a review) with the Canon 70-300mm IS lens, in aperture priority mode at f/5.6, with +1 exposure compensation. The camera did its part, giving me 1/400 sec and ISO 320. A couple of points–the 1/400 speed is the camera compensating for the focal length (I took this at 300mm), which is why it chose ISO 320 instead of dialing back the ISO to, say, 200 and clicking slower. And the 320 should not have generated as much noise (grain) as is in this shot, so I’ll be looking at what I did wrong in Elements to create that noise. 

In any case, it’s a cute shot.  It’s a good lesson. And it’s a reminder that sometimes the more patient you are, the luckier you get!

Why “Always”?

Recently I have had a couple of lucky breaks in the photography arena. That is, I’ve been in the right place at the right time and got some shots that surprised me.  Here’s one of them. I was driving through the country and saw a bird on a limb.  I stopped, dropped the window, grabbed my camera, and as I was getting ready to shoot, he took off.  This is the result. For those who are keeping track of the numbers, this was in aperture priority mode, f/7.1, which gave me a shutter speed of 1/500 at ISO 100.  I had previously selected a full stop of exposure compensation.  This is a crop, by the way.


I really like this picture, but that’s not what this post is about. You see, in the course of passing this around, I’ve had an interesting series of conversations.

When I show a really good shot to someone I usually get the response that’s so common it’s almost a joke: “Wow, that’s a great shot, you must have a really good camera!”  That’s a bit like telling the Cake Lady, “Wow, that’s the best cupcake I ever had—you must have a really good oven!” But the next response is the one that bothers me—“you shoot like a professional!”


No, I don’t.  I shoot like an amateur. There’s a line, and I’m not interested in crossing that line.  Here’s why:

First of all, I’ve gotten to the point where, when I point my camera at something and push the button, I am reasonably sure what’s going to happen. But I’m not EXACTLY sure—and that’s the key difference between me and those whose living is photography. Take, for example, Naomi Weber—when Naomi pushes the button, she knows exactly what’s going to happen, because this is what she does. When my son was born, I took two hundred shots in 24 hours; a couple of them are hanging in my “gallery” even now. But when the time came to get the real pictures, I hit www.naomiweber.com and never looked back. Why? Consider the baking analogy again: my wife makes cakes.  She makes the best cakes within three hundred miles. But when she needs bread, she goes to the bread guy.  Naomi shoots newborns, and she’s the best at it.  When you need a specialist, you go to a specialist.  That’s how I feel about pictures.  If it’s not critical, I’ll shoot it myself; if I absolutely have to have it, I will go to the pros. I’m an amateur.

Second, as I said in my first post, I REALLY love taking pictures.  This winter, I’ve spent a good bit of time standing out in the cold waiting for that one good shot so that I could see it on the screen and admire it as something I’d created. That’s enough for me to justify the cost of my equipment and the time I put into the craft. But one thing I’ve learned about business is that the vast majority of the business owner’s time is put into tasks OTHER THAN the fun stuff.  The successful pro photographer spends easily more than half of his or her time doing things other than shooting. Heck, I don’t even like post-processing, let alone trying to market, print, package, frame, design, study…you get the picture, right? I don’t want that kind of pressure. That’s pro stuff. I want to shoot.  I’m an amateur.

Finally, “professional” isn’t necessarily about the quality of the work. I take the occasional good picture, but I have a day job, I add value at my day job, and that’s how I make my living. That suits me well. But I know people who have taken the art of photography to the next level, and who have decided to feed their families with the fruits of their labors. For me to take on portrait work or (God forbid) event work would be to take money out of a market to which those folks are dedicated. That’s not where I belong, not because I’m not good enough (I’m not) but because that’s not what I decided to do with my life. In that sense especially, I’m an amateur.

Listen—I believe that someone who’s “always an amateur” can take some really good shots.  I plan to keep shooting, and hope to keep getting better; sometimes you will see images with my name on them that you might consider to be “professional” in quality. So you show up at my blog or my facebook page wanting to buy a print?  We can make an arrangement—I’m always looking to trade. But when you want me to take pictures of your child,  your party, your wedding…I can provide you the names of some people who will manage that task much better than I will.  They’re the professionals. I’m… yeah, I know, you get the picture!

Artistic Freeze? Just look around…

Writer’s block.  Creative drought, you might say, particularly if you’re a fan of the music of a certain Canadian band. Artistic freeze, I’ve heard it called. Whatever the name, it’s not uncommon for arts or creative types to struggle with getting “output” once in a while.  If you are, as I am, new to the art of photography, you might find that this comes more often—it’s a condition where you just can’t think of anything to shoot.  Either you can’t decide among the many objects around you, or you find that many of those objects are already in your library!

Looking around my collection—here and on Facebook, as well as other locations—I find that I’ve getting an increasing number of animal shots, especially birds.  So when I am struggling to decide what to shoot, I often go to one of my favorite bird spots and let them do their thing for me.  Recently, though, what they’ve been doing is a lot of stuff I have seen—and shot—before. Since I am regularly in the same spots, I do tend to see a lot of the same things, and this doesn’t exactly drive the creative urge. So yesterday I took off for the wildlife refuge, as I do fairly regularly, and poked around a bit to see if there was anything interesting going on.  Apart from a large quantity of boring little birds I didn’t recognize, I saw almost nothing. It was a nice visit, and serene enough, but I came back without anything interesting to show.


This has been happening to me a good bit lately and it troubled me as I was on my way home.  What to shoot, and what to experiment on, what to write about—this series of questions was bothering me later as I sat doing some editing at my dining room table. But then it hit me—I’m frequently in the same spots (home, work, wildlife refuge, etc.), but those spots aren’t always the same; I asked myself, what has changed here in the past day, or in the past week?  I looked around an spotted almost immediately the flower that is attached to this post. And dove right in!


I shot about 30 frames with this flower, at varying settings; this is not the best composition of the bunch, but I really liked the color.  Learned a lot in this shoot—adjusting colors in Elements, playing with the settings on the camera to get the best color reproduction…heck, I even learned that my Canon 60mm EF-S Macro lens reports subject distance! (For those keeping track, I shot this at f/10 in Aperture Priority mode, with my Speedlite 430EX bounced off a near-white ceiling some four feet above the flower; the camera picked 1/60 second and that drove ISO 400.)

I suppose the lesson here is this…finding something to shoot doesn’t always require loading up a bunch of gear, slogging through the mud, or even leaving your home—if you run out of ideas, look around you and think about what’s different. I’ll bet you can find something interesting that’s right in front of your eyes! 

Don’t even breathe!

One of the problems I’ve found in the short time I’ve been shooting with my 60mm EF-S Macro lens is the incredibly shallow depth of field that you get at macro distances.  Put simply, depth of field is the amount of the objects in the photo that are in focus, usually measured as a range of distance from the lens (or more correctly, the sensor).  In the case of macro lenses, when focusing up close, this distance might be measured in millimeters—for those who are metrically challenged, a millimeter is around 0.04 inches. That means if you are trying to hand-hold your camera and you even take a breath while you’re shooting, you might move enough to get the important part of your subject out of focus.

Recently had a chance to shoot a very nice little orchid plant belonging to a friend at work. Nice flowers, great color, and since it’s quite likely that he’s going to find a way to kill it eventually, I thought we’d keep a record of how the plant used to be! So I chose my macro lens, and set about to work on shots of this orchid.

In the last post I alluded to “bokeh,” that soft, out of focus background that makes many professional (and even amateur) shots so appealing.  Let me explain a little bit about the relationship of bokeh to camera settings.  Primarily, bokeh is a function of aperture size, and I’ve been told it also relates to the distance from the background to the sensor (or film). Not sure how to use the latter element, but I do know that when I use smaller f-numbers—larger apertures—I get more background blur.  Since I wanted the background to be out of focus for this shot, I picked the largest aperture I could…and since I was shooting inside, this would give me the most light coming in, too.  Camera shake wouldn’t be an issue, because I’d get a reasonably fast shutter speed. Everything pointed to the smallest number for this lens…the largest aperture…f/2.8.  In Av or Aperture Priority mode, this means that the camera picked 1/80 second and ISO 500. Perfect. Right? Yeah, sure.Image

What I DIDN’T consider is that I was going to be breathing during this shoot.  And that I didn’t have a tripod.

I steadied my camera by putting my elbows on the table—in a shocking breach of etiquette—and moved the camera as close as I could get it and still focus; then I blasted through about twenty shots, at varying exposure compensation settings. And when I looked at the images on the PC later, I saw immediately where I had failed. There’s not enough depth of field on the subject, and unfortunately, I decided to breathe!

This shot is the best of the bunch and still not all that good.  What I was going for was the sharpest point in the image to be inside the “guts” of the flower.  Kind of got it, but I would have been much better off with another half an inch in focus.  The focus point is just barely off of where I wanted it to be, and that seems to be because I moved during the act of shooting. The lesson here is that when shooting macro, close your aperture into the range of f/8 or so, and compensate for the loss of light in other ways (slower shutter speed, higher ISO) and use a tripod to make sure you keep the focus you’re aiming for.  This would have been a much crisper shot if I’d followed these simple premises.

Incidentally, I know that this shot is overexposed (too bright, with the corresponding loss of detail)—that’s the look I was going for.  Call it artistic license. The camera metered for the shadows inside the center of the flower, so the computer inside the camera tried to get that part of the scene bright enough.  In doing so, it overexposed the petals.  I like it, and I think once I’ve had a chance to mess with it in post-processing, I’ll like it even more.

As usual, questions/comments are welcome.  Shoot me a note!

Through the “Macro”-scope

Every once in a while a photo comes along that just generates attention. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a couple of those since I started shooting. But I’ve never had an experience like I’ve had with the shot shown here.

I received my Canon EF-S 60mm Macro lens last week on a day when I had a lot going on. I thought about waiting until I got home later, going through the whole unboxing thing, documenting the whole process and writing about it here over a period of time…but unfortunately, as Jimmy Buffett once said, “the temptation got the best of me.” So I decided to take a few test shots before I took off for an appointment.

I’ve concluded that there are several distinct categories of macro photography, including plants (mostly flowers) and insects. But the category that has always fascinated me the most is water droplet photography. Because of that, in addition to the household shortage of insects (fortunate) and flowers (unfortunate, at least in the eyes of The Cake Lady), I turned the faucet on and let it drip. And this is what I got…Image

As you can see, there’s a few drops here. The main drop at the bottom of the frame is my favorite, because you can see evidence there (to those who’ve been in my house) that it was really taken here. But the drops coming off the faucet, just out of frame at the top, give it some depth that the bottom drop by itself wouldn’t have presented.

Technically, there’s no real surprises here. All of the typical rules apply–if you want to stop motion, you need to have a relatively fast shutter speed (in this case, 1/250 second). To ensure this fast shutter I took this picture in Shutter Priority mode, or Tv, as Canon designates it. I used the on-camera flash to illuminate the scene because I didn’t really have time to get out my speedlite–I suspect this would have been an even more interesting shot with off-camera flash. The camera picked an aperture of F/2.8, giving the wonderful “bokeh” or blurred background. (For the rest of the technical, I had an ISO of 400, that I think I set manually, and the exposure was centered.) I set a high-speed burst mode, turned on a trickle of water, and shot a hundred frames. Literally. Just about ten at a time, without really even looking.

One of the more inspiring photographers I’ve followed over the past couple of years, Martin Bailey (find him at www.martinbaileyphotography.com), occasionally opines that luck plays a great role in certain types of photography. There’s no question that I got really lucky with this shot. Good gear, good setup, a bit of patience, and the right technique put me in position to get the image, that’s for sure; but if the water hadn’t dropped the way it did, this shot would have been as ordinary as the other ninety-nine. Instead, I have six separate requests for prints of this image. It’s a real thrill for someone like me–who never was an artist–when someone asks if they can have a print of one of my shots. If that’s what luck does–I’ll take it!

I know I still owe the report on the 60D. Fact is, I’m still learning, and I don’t yet feel qualified to report on it. All I can say is, it’s coming–I promise.