Planning on hitting the snowscapes with your camera? There’s plenty of cold-weather advice on the web, but our in-house landscape adventurers offered to share some of the more practical tips to help you stay focused on having a good time. From one photo lover to another, it’s about getting the shot and having fun – not freezing your fingers off. Here’s what they said.
1) Keep Those Hands Warm
Your hands are the second-most important part of you in photography (after your eyes), so treat them well. There are many kinds of gloves that keep your appendages toasty while still giving you tactical function: traditional, fingerless, convertible mitten/glove, or just regular gloves that you remove to hit the shutter. Go to the store, try them out, find what works best for you and your shooting style. As a bonus, get a couple of chemical hand-warmer packets and throw them into your pockets.
2) Hold Your Breath
It’s pretty neat to exhale plumes of smoke like a dragon in winter, but you probably don’t want this getting into your shot. If it’s frosty out and you’re trying to capture clear, pristine views, hold your breath when you hit the shutter to be sure you’re not polluting the pic.
3) Bag It! (Your camera, that is)
Your house is significantly warmer (and damper) than the naked outdoors, and this can wreak havoc on your camera when you come inside. When you’re finished shooting, try sealing your camera in a Ziploc bag, pack it away, and wait for it to come to ambient temp after you get inside. Why? A cold camera in a warm room can cause moisture in the air to condense into water droplets, which is a risk your inner electronics probably don’t want to take.
4) Beware the Tripod
Given how tripods are a bit of an investment, we don’t recommend that you go out and buy a new one just to shoot in the cold. But if you are shopping for one and plan on doing a lot of winter landscapes, certain materials like carbon fiber don’t get as cold when you grab them. The last thing you need are sweaty palms that get you stuck when you’re packing up! If you do have a traditional metal tripod, try wrapping the legs with insulating fabric where you grab them, or cover the parts closest to the ground in plastic to prevent salt, water, and other damage. You know those long, rectangular plastic baggies you find at incense shops? Those are perfect.
Way-over-the-top tip: If you’re super hardcore, wood tripods are a great compromise between cold resistance and vibration stabilization. It’s not likely you’ll be spending your winter standing in icy rivers, but if you were, we hear wood’s the way to go.
5) Plan Ahead
If you know what you’re doing, you’re less likely to scramble. And this is especially important in uncomfortable situations like bone-freezing cold, so plan your shoot as best you can. Scout the location, check the weather and sunrise/sunset times, keep cables and cards within reach, and have an idea of the final image so you bring just the gear you need. The less time you spend switching lenses or moving around, the more time you can spend focusing on your shot. (Plus, it’ll probably be dark.)
6) Thaw Properly
Stay warm and creative this season! If you’re feeling ready for snow and need more inspiration, don’t forget to check out our short film about Arctic surf photographer, Chris Burkhard.
- 6 Low Light Photo Ideas Every Shutterbug Needs to Try
- Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark! Taking Pictures in Low Light
- Adding photos and videos to SmugMug
- All the ways to share your photos from your photo home
- Gear reviews by the photo lovers at SmugMug
- Winter Blues? How to Get Out of that Photo Rut
- 5 Lies Your Camera Likes to Tell
- Share Photos to Start Making More Money
- Arctic Swell, a look behind-the-scenes at surf photographer Chris Burkhard
Astronaut Don Pettit has become one of the most prolific astronaut photographers during his expeditions aboard the International Space Station. He could (and did) saturate downlink transfers with photos for three full days from just one 30-minute photographic session in space. While photography is part of an astronaut’s job requirement, Pettit’s engineering ingenuity and natural curiosity has led him to create photos that are as stunning for their artistic beauty as they are for their scientific value.
What led you to become an astronaut?
Becoming an astronaut was something I became aware of as a kid when John Glenn flew. I filed that away in the back of my mind. After I popped out of graduate school with a PhD in chemical engineering, I realized I was qualified to apply to NASA to become an astronaut. And so I put in an application. After being rejected three times, the fourth time was a charm.
What was that experience like?
It was like walking in the clouds when I first found out I’d been selected. Of course, the euphoria vanishes quickly when you find out how much work it’s going to be. But it’s fun work. It’s like going back to school.
You start off with basic astronaut training, which I like to think of as Astronaut 101. We spend two years training full time, which is about equivalent to a four-year college degree.
Physical. Academic. Flying. Tangible skills. We fly T-38s, supersonic twin-engine after-burner training aircraft, for spaceflight readiness training. A lot of the skills involved with flying these are applicable to working in the cockpit of a spacecraft during highly dynamic phases of flying. And we hone these skills in a real environment, not a simulator, where a mistake could cost you more than a reset button.
Do you also train for the photography?
We have training on all kinds of topics. From taking care of the systems on space station to flying a robotic arm to going out and doing spacewalks to doing the scientific experiments.
We also get training on photography and the use of the cameras on space station. And these are professional-level cameras that have a lot of buttons and menus. They’re almost like a little computer in themselves.
We have a cadre of folks here on the ground, professional photographers as well as trainers, who not only teach us how to use the cameras, but also about the specific equipment we have on station. Like how to set it up in that space environment to get the best pictures.
There’s a lot of engineering photography that we do. We have to take macro images of pins in an electrical connector or a bit of grunge in a hydraulic quick-disconnect fitting or little patterns that might develop on the surface of one of the windows. These things need to be documented so the images can be downlinked for engineers on the ground to assess what’s happening to the systems on space station. We get training specifically on doing these engineering images, which, for the most part, are not really interesting to the public.
Photography plays a big role in what you do.
Photography on the space station is more than just taking a bunch of pretty pictures. We take pictures of Earth and the surroundings of earth, and these pictures represent a scientific data set recorded now for over 14 years. About 1.2 million pictures were taken as of July 2012. That number’s obviously ticked up.
These images are also art. They illustrate to people what space is like for those who don’t get a chance to fly in space.
What are some of the differences we might not think about when photographing in gravity versus weightlessness?
As an example, we have one of my favorite telephoto lenses here: the 400mm f/2.8. It weighs quite a few pounds and definitely requires a tripod down here on Earth. In weightlessness, this becomes a beautiful piece of equipment to use. You can completely control it by grabbing on to the camera. And it’s heavy enough that small things like your heartbeat won’t make the lens jiggle. If you pick up a camera body with a small lens on it, the pulse in your fingers will make the camera shake.
To get around that. I taped a stick on the back of the camera in the center of the optical axis. Then when I was moving the camera, I would just have two fingers on the end of the stick. That way I could fly the camera around without physically having my fingers on the camera. And since the stick was aligned with the optical center, I could slowly rotate the stick with my fingers and make the camera rotate through 360 degrees.
In some respects, the more massive the camera, and the more massive the lens, the easier it is to manipulate in a weightless environment because small shakes have a smaller diminished effect on the imagery.
What’s the perspective like from space?
Looking at Earth from space is amazingly beautiful. You can see things on the length scale of half a continent. However, I argue it’s no more beautiful than Earth from Earth. It’s just a different perspective of what we’re used to seeing. We find Earth from space exceptionally beautiful because we’re so polarized to the natural beauty around us when we’re walking on Earth.
What have you learned from your adventures photographing from space?
Astronaut imagery of Earth is an example of learning what you need to take pictures of and how to take the pictures. Initially, you would just have a camera with whatever lens, point it out the window, and start shooting. And then you find out there are certain details you may want to focus on in this huge orbital vantage point. In order to take advantage of that, you need to use wider-angle lenses.
If you use telephoto lenses, you could come back with pictures that are just about as good as what you could download from Google Earth. So you need to ask yourself what kind of imagery is going to be the most useful. Telephoto imagery via astronauts can point out things that satellites aren’t programmed to take pictures of.
Once we make some interesting discoveries on imagery from space, then you can program a satellite to do the same thing and do it more frequently and probably collect a better data set. But often times it takes a human being in the loop to take a picture of something that nobody thought would be worth taking a picture of.
What are some of your photographic challenges in space?
The traits that make a good photograph on Earth still apply to taking a picture in space. Focus is really important. And exposure.
In space, you can have huge variations in brightness. The sunny-16 rule sort of applies, but you have to add or subtract about 2 more f-stops because the full exoatmospheric sun on the tops of clouds is really bright. If you just take a standard picture, the cloud tops will all be snow white with no detail at all. So you need to underexpose your picture when you have a lot of clouds within your field of view.
Aurora is also tricky. The green part of the aurora is about two stops brighter than the red part. If you expose for the greens, you won’t see the reds. If you expose for the reds, the greens will be saturated. We see these same things on Earth, compromising between what you can and can’t see.
Composition is important, too. Do you have a bit of the window frame in your field of view? Do you have the whole window frame or exclude it entirely? When you’re looking at Earth, where does the horizon cross your image plane? Is it right in the middle? In thirds?
What about compensating for the speed of the earth and station?
You’re moving at 8 km a second—that’s faster than a speeding bullet. And Earth goes by really quickly. If you’re using a long lens, you need fast shutter speeds. You also need to compensate by panning the camera along the axis of station to cancel out orbital motion. If you just use a fast shutter speed, they’ll be acceptable pictures, but they’ll be a little off in terms of sharpness. So you have to be able to slew the camera at the same rate of orbital motion while you’re taking pictures to actually get the sharpest imagery.
Do you adjust manually?
Yeah, manually! And it’s not easy. Some crewmembers really have the knack and can take really sharp telephoto lens imagery. It’s a skill.
What are some challenges of shooting in the cupola?
Windows. Some of the windows are designed for photography, others are designed for engineering observations and point toward the solar panels and things like that. The cupola windows are designed for getting views of station when flying the robotic arm, and they also happen to look at Earth.
There are the shutters that cover the windows on the cupola to protect them from micrometeorite damage, which is significant. They also act as a thermal barrier due to the heat radiation of space. Things get too cold or too hot, so we’ll close the shutters when we’re not using the windows. When we do use the windows, the shutters open and we have this marvelous view of Earth.
The crew tends to congregate a lot in the cupola. We’ll have maybe six to eight cameras all staged with different lenses so you can just grab a camera and start taking pictures. There might be two or three other people in the same window with you for an interesting pass.
Say a volcano’s going off. Maybe one crewmate has a 400mm, maybe one has a midrange 85-180mm lens. And then someone’s shooting with a wide-angle lens. We’re all shooting at the same subject at the same time in this rather small space. You have to learn not to stick your elbows out and interfere with your partner trying to get the same images.
If you want to take pictures to show the dynamics of what’s going in the cupola itself, I would typically use a 16mm fisheye lens on a full 35mm format digital camera.
When you’re in the cupola, particularly during night time photography, you’re plagued by window reflections. There are four panes of glass you have to look through, separated by about 6 inches from the innermost pane to the outermost pane. So there’s a couple inches between each window pane. They have anti-reflection coatings, but you still get reflections—mostly from internal lights—and they can spoil your imagery.
Is that when you use that black sheet?
It’s like a big turtleneck sweater that’s flattened out, and you stick your head through. It shields all the windows from light coming in from behind the cupola. Or you can make something we call a witch’s hat, where the peak of the witch’s hat fastens onto the camera lens and then flares out to cover the window.
I prefer to have all seven windows shaded, and I’ll have six or seven cameras set up instead of having one window shaded with one camera and one witch’s hat.
How did you create your star-trail images?
Star-trail images have been photographed by amateur astronomers for years. You put your camera on a tripod, point it some place up in the sky, then as Earth turns while the shutter’s open, the stars make trails.
I tried the same thing from station. The dynamics are the same, but the physics behind the motions are different. You still see stars going in circles, but they’re not going in circles around the north star, they’re going in circles around the pitch access of station as it goes around Earth.
You also see cities streak by on the surface of Earth. They move with a combination of our orbital motion and Earth turning at the same time. Then you’ve got the atmosphere on edge, and it glows. Scientists call that air glow. You can’t see it with your bare eye on Earth because it’s too faint. But when you’re on orbit, you can see the air glow with your own eye. It’s like looking at something that’s illuminated with a black light, and it’s fluorescing with a cool green glow.
When you take a timed exposure, the green glow shows up quite vividly. In some pictures it almost looks like a slice of key lime pie that got flopped on the edge of Earth. And the scale height of that in the images is about 100 km.
You get to see these time-integrated exposures of the atmosphere on edge and there’s all kinds of other delightful physics and natural phenomenon that you can see in these pictures. I can talk about one picture for a half hour just on the physics of what you can see.
Aside from that, you can sit back and say these pictures look really cool as an art form.
Any other favorite subjects you love to photograph from space?
My favorite subject is the earth at night. Aurora is just amazingly beautiful. It’s this glowing upper part of the atmosphere that crawls around like amoebas in the sky.
Other aspects of nighttime photography: atmospheric air glow. Originally people thought the atmosphere glowed more or less uniformly. But the pictures we’re taking on station show that there’s spatial structure in the atmospheric air glow.
Then there’s polar mesospheric clouds, also known as noctilucent clouds. These are clouds in the upper part of the atmosphere, right on the fringes of space, that are sort of a scientific mystery in terms of why they form. In space you can collect a data set that folds in with observations made from Earth and with other platforms.
And cities at night. The way human beings sprinkle their light bulbs around is a fascinating statement on how we as human beings define our urban areas. It’s a juxtaposition between geography, technology that you choose, and culture. There’s a lot of things you can learn about human beings in the way that they sprinkle their lights out at night.
Cities at night were much tougher to photograph during your first expedition.
On my first spaceflight, digital cameras were in their infancy. The highest ISO we could use was 400, which is pretty slow. Taking pictures of cities at night required a half-second to one-and-a-half-second exposure, and the orbital motion would make the images blurry. You could try to compensate by hand, but you really couldn’t do an outstanding job of cancelling out orbital motion.
Now you jump 10 years in the future and cameras have useable ISOs up to maybe 12,000. Coupled with our fast f/1.4 and f/1.2 lenses, we can now hand pan the camera and take beautiful pictures of cities at night.
It sounds like so much to keep track of at once: the star trails being on the axis of station, the lights of the city, plus the air glow—all lining up. And you were doing it manually.
You cannot get a picture where the stars are sharp and the cities on the surface of Earth are sharp because they’re all moving at different rates, and they all require different exposures. However, you can do HDR images, where in rapid succession you take an image that’s exposed properly for the stars and then you take an image that’s exposed properly for cities on Earth, and then maybe an image or two exposed properly for the green part of the aurora and then the red part of the aurora. Then the work comes later on the ground when you take five of these images and put them all together to make a single HDR composite.
We heard a bit before about the labor involved in downloading all the photos you took on station.
Right, once you take the pictures, then you’ve got to get the pictures back to Earth. We can beam them down using the Ku-band satellite asset, but we still have a finite bandwidth. And it can take hours to get your pictures down.
For example, when I was there, in one night pass I could easily shoot 60GB of RAW files, and we could download only about 20GB a day. In one 30-minute period, I could saturate the downlink for three days.
Does that mean you’re eating up the bandwidth for others?
Yep, which is why the bandwidth allocated for imagery was 20GB a day. I had almost every hard drive on station filled with a backlog of images. Imagine 60GB of images in 30 minutes with hard drives that were 120GB, and only being able to download 20GB a day. You could quickly saturate everything with this big bottleneck.
Thankfully, the folks on the ground figured out there were times when bandwidth wasn’t being used, and there were other, more efficient, ways of using the bandwidth. So they figured out a way to get all my images down and speed up the process.
Today they’ve added more channels of Ku band so bringing down these kinds of images is no longer a problem. But when I was last there in 2012, we had these issues and I probably deleted 500GB of images that I just wasn’t able to downlink given the circumstances. I quickly went through the images and the ones that I thought were substandard—maybe there’s a corner of the window frame in the field of view or a big reflection that showed up—those were the ones I flagged for deletion.
Fortunately, I wasn’t required to delete all my pictures. I deleted maybe 10% of them. And I was doing this to show that I was working to do my part to try to help the ground get the images down.
What’s your favorite part of astronaut photography?
I had a friend of mine in New Zealand who took one of my star-trail pictures, made a print of it on fabric, and made a jacket out of it. It’s neat to see people using these images.
That’s exactly what, as a photographer, you want people to do. You want people to use your pictures. And all the pictures that I take with NASA are in the public domain, so people can use them for their own purposes.
It makes my heart sing to see people using my pictures. There’s no point in taking pictures and hiding them in a closet. You want to take pictures and share them freely with anybody who’s willing to look at your photography. And that, to me, is more of a compliment than anything else.
Subscribe to the SmugMug Films channel to watch and see future installments as soon as we set them free. If you enjoyed the film with Don Pettit, you may like these artist profiles on adventure photographer Chris Burkard, underwater photographer Sarah Lee, and lava chasers Lava Light.
So far this season we’ve shared a few basic dark-friendly photo tips, but winter’s not over yet. Here’s a few more ways you can stay creative with the camera even when the nights are long and there’s never a lot of light.
1) Use Your Bokeh
Bokeh is the blurring of the out-of-focus areas you’ll see when you’re taking pictures with your lens opened all the way (low f-stop numbers). It’s a great way to draw the viewer’s eye to a part of the scene, since everything else fades into a creamy blur.
Bonus tip: Lights (like Christmas lights) usually appear as circles, but did you know that you could make them any shape you want? Simply cut out a shape in dark paper and tape it over your lens like a lens cap, then take your picture through the hole at your lowest aperture value. Voila! Your background lights will automagically be hearts, stars, snowflakes, or whatever else you’ve cut into your 10-cent bokeh-maker.
2) Make Twinkling Stars
Grab your tripods and make it a starry holiday night even if it’s snowing up a storm. The opposite of creamy bokeh, taking pictures with your lenses stopped all the way down (highest aperture values) will turn bright points of light into little stars. Since this means little light goes through your lens, you’ll need to set your camera on a tripod, set a timer, and let it go for a while. The coolest thing? Every lens creates its own signature star shape, so have fun experimenting with all the lenses in your kit to see which one you like best.
3) Use Creative (and Available) Light Sources
Don’t be limited to your strobe if you’re out with your friends and want to catch the mood! Sure it’s dark, but there’s tons of ways to snap your shot even if you don’t have your whole kit bag. Street lamps, strings of holiday lights, open doors, fire pits, and even the flashlight function on your cell phone are all potential lighting sources for your next happy holiday shoot. Experiment with the kind of effect each one creates and think outside the box – maybe your best shot of the season is a simple silhouette?
4) Paint with Light
Paint the town… with light! If you’d rather not move your friends over to the light source, bring it to them. Flashlights are all you need to stand your subjects where you want them most, and help them stand out in the dark. Be sure to set your camera on a tripod, set a longer exposure, and cover them with photons. It’s especially great if you’re outdoors and want to pair a sharp subject in the foreground and warm house lights (or even stars) behind them.
You may need to try a few times to get it right, and to be sure that you get everything covered before your shutter snaps closed.
5) Make Happy (Light) Trails
While you’ve already got your tripod out, why not play with moving subjects? Light trails are a cool way to capture things the eyes don’t see, and to get super creative in the dark. Moving bright objects – like cars and friends waving flashlights – turn into lines during a long exposure, so try photographing a busy street in your favorite snowy location. Or have a friend practice his Picasso techniques by drawing pictures in the air.
6) Bring a Friend
If you’re afraid of the dark or just don’t want to learn alone, winter’s the perfect opportunity to warm up with a photowalk. You can experiment with all the techniques described above, or teach someone new who’s looking to learn. We’ve previously shared some tips about organizing social shoots from expert photowalk and community favorite, Scott Jarvie, so you can plan the best photowalk your town has ever seen… then pool them all in SmugMug so you can share the experience.
Stay warm, stay clicking, and stay creative!
While we have a deal going this week for new SmugMug fans, we didn’t want to leave our existing Smug friends out in the cold. Our photo friends at KelbyOne, MacPhun, and Clickin Moms have some super deals you’ll want to grab if you’re hungry to learn and want to amp up your photo cred.
KelbyOne: Photoshop, Lightroom, and Photography Education
Photographers and designers: KelbyOne hosts a massive party over Cyber Weekend with tons of disounts on education bundles, gift cards, and more. Check out their holiday deals before they’re all gone!
Join the conversation on Twitter with #KelbyOneCyber.
MacPhun: Inspiring Photo Software for Mac
The most inspiring Black Friday ever! Get four Macphun apps worth $210 for only $129.99, a 40% savings, plus a free $25 iTunes or Amazon Gift Card with every purchase. Offer good from November 25 – December 1, 2014. Check it out at their Black Friday deals page.
Clickin Moms: Click, The Magazine for Modern Photographers
Looking for a very special gift for a photographer? Send our Holiday Bundle! The Bundle includes a physical copy of the Nov/Dec 2014 Holiday issue delivered before Christmas, plus a one-year subscription (that’s 7 issues total), a silver camera key chain & $10 gift certificate to the CM Store! A $42 value for just $25. Grab your Holiday Bundle here.
SnapKnot: Professional Wedding Photographer Directory
Are you looking to connect with more brides and grow your wedding photography business? Don’t miss this opportunity to save 73% on a SnapKnot Pro Annual subscription! Discount valid through December 2, 2014, 11:59 PST. Redeem Here.
From all of us at SmugMug, have a safe, happy, and a very photogenic week!
Today’s guest post is part 3 of a series of tutorials on how to light reflective subjects and surfaces from BorrowLenses.com. Alex Huff is a staff photographer and copywriter for BorrowLenses and has photographed for Sotheby’s, Google, X-Games, and more. In this post, she gives an effective tip you should practice over and over again to avoid glare and control shadows when photographing rooms.
All example images were lit and shot using the following:
All diagrams made with LightingDiagrams.com
Photographing the inside of a room is tricky because there are a lot of reflective surfaces and lots of little objects everywhere to create shadows. Rooms are usually too dark to depend on natural light alone so I am going to show you one major trick that will build your confidence while shooting flash indoors, whether you hope to shoot interiors exclusively or if you’re simply shooting your own home for a listing.
Here is the one major trick: Pretend that lighting the space directly is simply not allowed. This will help you speed up your problem solving. Bouncing light off ceilings, walls, and white reflectors produces softer light and once you start doing it you will be hooked.
For those very new to flash photography, bouncing light is simply facing the front of your flash toward something other than your subject. Remember that light travels in a straight line so if you aim your light toward something reflective, like a white wall, you can depend on that light to bounce back off that wall onto everything nearby.
Why photographers love this:
- Bouncing a flash off of a large, white surface makes the light spread further and appear bigger than it is.
- Because of this spread, the light appears softer and more flattering.
- White boards or reflectors tend to be more portable and less expensive than giant softboxes and can often produce similar effects.
Examples of Bounced Light in the Home
In any home, the bathroom will probably be your most difficult room to shoot because of its size, the dominant mirror, and reflective shower door. You probably won’t even be able to get a flash inside without seeing it in the mirror.
Here is what it looks like when I try to light the room with the flash directly:
The light skirts well off of the mirror without causing a reflection but the hot spots and shadows are distracting.
Here is the same scene when I bounce my flash off of a white door in the bathroom:
The shadows are much softer and almost completely gone while the frame of the mirror is much more evenly lit.
When Bouncing Bites Back
Before you start thinking that bouncing light is a fool-proof practice, you still have to consider your Family of Angles. Even light that is bouncing off of something will produce a reflection or glare if you are shooting in the line of fire.
A review of the Family of Angles:
Whether bounced or direct, the Angle of Incidence = Angle of Reflection. If you are getting a reflection, it means that that your camera is pointed toward exactly where the light is hitting and bouncing back into the lens. Every light source produces a Family of Angles and you will want to make sure your camera isn’t placed on the receiving end of it.
Keep your camera out of the danger zone by thinking about where the light is hitting and where you predict it will bounce back. Keep your camera away from the area where the predicted bounce-back is. Your other options are to:
- Move your light.
- Change your lens.
- Change your light modifier.
In the example of my bathroom, using my door to bounce my light produced nice, soft light for a closeup shot. However, when I use a wide lens to capture the entire room I am now catching a reflection in my shower door! There are also some hard shadows coming from the toilet that I didn’t have to worry about in my prior shot.
The bathroom is too small for me to change where my camera is pointing and I can’t change anything about my door. I also must use my wide angle to capture the entire room so my only option is to change the position of my light.
I used a simple foam board you can get from a craft store and a light stand to bounce my light on. It is positioned high enough to miss the shower door but still producing enough scattered light to kill off harsh shadows.
There is definitely some fine tuning to be done, especially since I didn’t stage this scene, but this lighting tactic will get you off to a very good start – especially if you’re trying to graduate from on-camera flash.
You can use this method for every room in your house.
In this example of one portion of the living room, I simply pointed my flash straight at the scene. Unsightly shadows abound.
Practice this for awhile on everything you do. This works great for the following subjects:
- Interiors, as demonstrated.
- People. Learn more about the benefits of bouncing flash here.
- Family gatherings, especially if you’re stuck trying to take a family portrait in a tight space with unruly relatives and not much time. Don’t set up a whole lighting rig – just bounce the flash you have!
- Products, especially when paired with a lot of diffusion.
I hope this gets you out of the shadows and onto the path toward creating more pleasing images! Be sure to check out the other two parts of this series, Glare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses and The Art of Copy Work: Photographing Artwork Accurately Without Glare.
When you combine the imagination of Benjamin Von Wong with the photographic enthusiasm of SmugMug and the MacGyver-esque ingenuity of SmugMug’s facilities genius, Daniel Petrosian, you end up with a lot of chaos and cool photos. Von Wong’s persistence to coax the best out of his everyday models resulted in portraits that awed the models. Many had no idea a “beast mode” existed within themselves.
Learn more about the magic behind creating athletes out of SmugMug employees with the right lighting, motivation, and a bit of rain.
Step 1. Lights, Location, and Rain Rig
How did the idea for this shoot come about?
Von Wong: SmugMug President and Co-Founder Chris MacAskill, aka “Baldy,” wanted to fill up the SmugMug gym with awesome photos, and I happened to be in town, so he commissioned me. He wanted simple black-and-white shots, but I had to put that special Von Wong spin on it.
The day began quite normally: setting up lights, backdrop, and rain. Things started getting exciting a good hour and a half later when—I don’t know what happened! I think word spread that the photos were turning out great, so Baldy ended up coming out himself to see the photos and start filming.
It started off really small, and it expanded from there into full-out awesome.
What made you think rain would be perfect for this shoot?
Von Wong: I think rain, in a sense, symbolizes hardship. We wanted to make people look like they’re working out and putting forth an effort, and everything’s harder when it rains outside. You don’t want to go out. It’s just crummy and grimy. From a metaphorical sense, the rain adds a really nice dimension.
Then, from a photography standpoint, it suddenly adds all these nice beads of water dripping down skin, which looks really nice.
It’s one thing to have this idea, and it’s quite another to control weather.
Von Wong: Yeah. In my mind it was pretty easy to make a rain rig, which is essentially a glorified sprinkler system distributed along a longer cross section. I talked to people who were smarter than me—Daniel and Brent—and explained what I was looking for. We basically had one day, and they just pulled it together with about $20.
How did you go about making it rain?
Petrosian: We brainstormed a little bit, trying to think simple and low-tech. Things were happening so fast, we didn’t have time to rig up something sophisticated. Think simple, and things usually work out. And we thought PVC pipe and sprinkler heads might do the trick. So we went to Home Depot.
We bought different kinds of sprinkler heads to test them out and see what the flow was like, how fast the water would come out, and how we could control it. After some experimenting, we ended up using brass/copper old-school sprinkler heads.
We connected them together using PVC pipe and plumber’s glue, and then we just connected a hose to it and made it rain!
So now that you had rain, how did you go about photographing it?
Von Wong: With water, just like smoke, you photograph its reflections by backlighting it. Water looks really good when it’s backlit. We needed two hard bare-bulb lights to light the droplets, and a black background so the drops would show up. For the foreground, I used two big parabolic umbrellas. Any large, directional light source would work to bring in our characters so they’re nicely lit without rough shadows.
It’s a basic four-light set up. With the subject in the middle, you have two lights coming in from the back and two bigger, softer lights coming in from the front.
How did you get rid of the ambient light?
Von Wong: We initially wanted to do this indoors because, ideally, if you want to freeze water droplets, you need a short flash duration. If you want a short flash duration, the flashes have to be at lower power. And that’s usually done in a darker environment.
We thought about shooting inside the gymnasium by putting down a big tarp and pumping out the water with a shop vac, then we kind of stared at each other and said that’s going to be way too much trouble. So we went with Plan B: a shaded area outside underneath a tree.
I ended up shooting at 1/1500th of a second at F/5.6 or F/4.
Step 2. Motivate Your Models
What was the biggest challenge during the shoot?
Von Wong: This wasn’t a professional athlete photoshoot. We were taking average people who hardly have any photoshoot experience and trying to make them into something more. To show them like they’ve never been shown before. The true magic of the shots comes from people doing something they had never imagined they would before.
And that wasn’t achieved just by taking a single shot. It was achieved with this very persistent pushing of people and getting them to try different things until they were comfortable in front of the camera. Pushing people to get the best out of them. That’s where most of the work happened. If you look at the video, you see me trying to encourage people, pushing them, making them feel good about themselves.
Tell me a little bit about trying to coax the best out of people.
Von Wong: You don’t always know what a person’s capable of doing. In my experience, the best way to find out what they can or can’t do is to simply ask them to do a variety of different things. It doesn’t matter what they actually do, whether it looks good or not, you just keep throwing ideas at them.
Along the way, as things are getting better, you say, “Wait, I really like that. It’s looking great over there. Put your arm a little higher. Let’s try another angle.”
It’s a continuous conversation to keep people busy. If you let them think too much about what they’re doing, sometimes it feels ridiculous. What looks good in camera might not feel natural in position. Not every pose I came up with worked. Actually, a lot of them failed. We took about 2,000 photos that day. But that process of working through things, people start to trust you.
A photoshoot is one thing, but the other aspect to it is the experience. All those who participated really felt like they pushed themselves and found a side of themselves they had never showcased before. That’s very important.
Step 3. Process and Print—BIG
Can we talk a bit about your post process?
Von Wong: It was relatively simple because all we wanted to do was convert the images from color to black and white. There’s a beautiful little button in Lightroom called “B&W” that does most of the work for you. That got the shots 90% done. Because we had taken the time to set up great lighting and good location, we got the photo right straight out of camera.
What did you do for the other 10%?
Von Wong: There was a little tweaking of highlights, shadows, and clarity to make the image pop a bit more. The rest was cleaning up water droplets that were too dense in certain areas, like on the face, using healing and cloning to get rid of distractions. There was a little dodging and burning using curves to highlight different muscles and carve things out.
It was very simple—about 20 minutes per image for the post-production.
We love HUGE prints here at SmugMug. Were these tricky to print larger than life for a gym environment?
MacAskill: Our gym lives inside an old machine shop, and the available wall space—above the mirrors and equipment—curves. Even the ceiling is curved. So we needed a material we could print on that would, most importantly, look amazing, but also bend to fit the curved walls and stand up to the gym’s environment. And be large enough, of course.
We ended up printing each image with an Oce Lightjet at 68” tall on Kodak Endura semi-gloss bonded onto 1/4″ sintra, which is a lightweight PVC foamboard. We thought about adding a thin polycarbonate laminate over the prints to ruggedize them, but the prints ended up being hung so high we didn’t think they’d get exposed to sweat or medicine balls. So we didn’t laminate them. But it was a perfect option had we hung the photos any lower.
What did you love most about this shoot?
Von Wong: The greatest compliment was all those who didn’t participate were upset. I thought that was great. A lot of them felt like it wasn’t really their thing, but when they saw how the others’ photos turned out, they were amazed and sad they hadn’t done it themselves. That’s the best compliment you can get.
Check out an extra tip from Von Wong on how to achieve a similar look with a bucket of water and two speedlights!
Find Benjamin online:
As we roll into the season of longer nights, we don’t think the extra darkness this should cut down on the amount of time you spend with your camera.
Low-light photography can be intimidating if you’re new to photography, but it’s easier than you think…. and you can take some amazing photos that take much more patience to capture when the days are bright and long.
Here are a few simple tips to keep in mind to keep you shooting (and sharing) photos through the darkest time of the year.
Know Your Gear
Photography is all about physics, but even if you weren’t a science major you can take a few minutes to learn the only tip you ever need to learn.
Photography is about capturing light, so low-light shooting means maximizing the amount of light hitting your sensor. There are three ways to do that:
- Allow more light through the lens
- Keep the shutter open longer
- Boost the sensitivity of your sensor
How? Widen the aperture of your lens, slow down your shutter speed, or raise your ISO, respectively. If you’ve never done any of this before, dig up your camera’s manual (or Google for the PDF version) and get to know these three things now. Shooting in your camera’s Manual mode is the most tricky – but most surefire – way to learn these principles, but you can also try Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes to fix one of the settings and let your camera automatically calculate the rest.
Knowing which buttons to push and which dials to turn is a priceless skill to have, and you should commit it to muscle memory now so you don’t end up panicking in the dark.
Additionally, your camera and lenses often have specific limitations. If you have an older camera, for example, you may not want to push the ISO above 1600. And some lenses simply don’t open up wider than f/5.6. If you’ve been thinking about trying new equipment but aren’t sure it’s the right gear for you, check out our own, in-house gear reviews to get an idea of what’s out there before you drop thousands of dollars.
Embrace Your Grain
Even if your images come out a bit grainy from pushing your ISO, that’s OK. Think about all the film photos you’ve probably seen from 30 to 50 years ago and you’ll notice the grain adds a lot of character to the image. It makes sense to embrace it and get to know it a little better.
Grain itself can contain quite a bit of color that may not be found otherwise in your scene. To minimize it, try third-party noise-reduction software, or experiment with the noise-reduction feature in programs that you’re already using, like Lightroom and Photoshop. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Alternatively, try converting your image to black and white and playing around with the contrast. Photos that look weird at first look rock ‘n’ roll once the color’s stripped out. To do this, give it a quick conversion using SmugMug’s Image Editor, PicMonkey, or (our favorite) Lightroom.
Make More Light with Lightroom
Modern digital cameras give you quite a bit of leeway with the exposure, so if your image came out a bit dark (which happens because your camera’s LCD often gives a brighter impression of your image than you actually took), it’s OK to bump the exposure in post.
For most, pushing the “Exposure” slider is sufficient, but some pixel peepers may suggest using the more specific sliders you can find below that: highlights, whites, and shadows. These boost only the pixels you need without harming the rest. Experiment with what works best for you to get the look you want.
Once that’s done, don’t forget to publish your goodies to SmugMug and show the world what you’re capturing after the sun goes down.
Seek the Moment, Not Perfection
Above all, don’t stress about getting the perfect shot every time. Blurred motion, being too dark (or too bright) are all details that take your photo beyond basic shape and color. So be sure to capture the action, the intensity, and the joy of what you and your friends are doing. Even if it’s not textbook perfect, we guarantee that as soon as you share your photos, they won’t be thinking of anything except how much fun they had.
We’ll be sharing a few more low-light tips in the weeks coming, so stay tuned for more creative ideas to keep shooting in the dark!