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!
Since today is World Smile Day (and we love to smile), we thought it was perfectly appropriate to share a few tips we’ve written that help you better create infectious grins throughout your circle of fans.
Keeping your smiles safe, sharable, and profitable:
- Smug Tip: Take Your Photos Further With These Smug Features
- 3 Flavors of Privacy: Are You Using the Right One?
- Share Photos to Make Lots of Money
Start smiling more… with photography:
- 10 Ways to Get Out of That Photography Rut
- Glare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses
- For the Love of Photography: How to Organize a Photowalk by Scott Jarvie
- 5 Killer Locations for Your Photo Shoots
- Tony Corbell’s Top Tips for Stellar Portrait Sessions
- What Not to Wear (to That Photo Shoot)
Inspirational smile-grabbers (AKA People who get to do this for a living):
- SmugMug Films: Extreme Filmmaking by Devin Graham
- SmugMug Success Stories: iSmile Studios, Inc.
- Making Magic: Stylists in the Fashion Photo Shoot
- Sportraiture: Punch Up Your Portrait Photos with Levi Sim
- SmugMug Success Stories: Smilebooth
- Picture Perfect Pet Photography
Enjoy the day, and don’t forget to capture it in pictures!
The Smilers at SmugMug
They say your first 10,000 pictures are your worst, or that it takes 10 years to become an expert. While we can’t necessarily refute those words of wisdom, we can share tips from our team of passionate photographers that may help shorten that climb to the top.
1) f/8 Is Usually Best
Without getting too deep into the details about optics and light paths, your lens has a sharpest point within the range of f-stops that you see on it. As a rule, the largest and smallest ends of the range are the softest, or least sharp, and f/8 or somewhere in the middle is where you’ll get the sharpest images. This varies by lens of course, but we suggest shooting your own test shots of the same subject at different apertures, zooming in, and seeing how that affects your images.
Tip: Don’t know what f/8 translates to in your photos? You can search for any kind of photo on SmugMug and then refine your search to see just the photos shot within a specific aperture range. Neat!
2) Cropping is OK
Unless you’ve jumped straight into big league macro or wildlife communities (where cropping is “cheating”) it’s totally fine to take your original photo and crop it so you have a better, stronger composition. Or maybe you just used the wrong lens and need a bit more zoom. Either way, it’s your trade secret and artistic decisions like this are part of what makes you – the photographer – unique.
Tip: You don’t have to crop before you upload to your SmugMug galleries. Use our handy Photo Tools to crop your images, or even Make a Copy and crop that one so you can compare the two and see which version you like best.
3) Renting is OK
You don’t have to own the gear to shoot with the gear. So you can’t drop $14K on a 800mm lens to shoot the next game? No problem – pay a pittance to have one for just the time you need, then send it back and call it a job well done. We can’t all be big spenders… even if we strive to get the perfect shot every time.
Tip: Our friends at Borrowlenses.com have a huge variety of photo, video, and lighting gear for every reason that needs a camera. You can even customize the amount of time you rent, if the standard time spans won’t work for you. Plus, SmugMug customers get an extra 10% off your entire order.
4) Editing is Essential
While we’ve stressed before that getting your photos right SOOC is good practice, it’s rare when a photo looks better raw than polished. Even the most perfectly-lit, powerfully-composed photo can benefit from a few finishing tweaks to color, sharpness, and other aspects that make pop to the eye. So even if you think that sunset couldn’t get better than it is, just give it a boost and see what happens. You just might like what you find.
Tip: You’ve got the power of Photo Effects (in your Photo Tools) and Picmonkey for the photos that live in your SmugMug galleries. But take it a step further with Lightroom: with the ability to sync and publish direct to SmugMug and pro-worthy features simple enough for beginners, we think you’ll be hooked. Check out the tutorials and see why.
5) Technique Can Solve (Pretty Much) Anything
Backlit subject? Contrasty sunset? Wind in your umbrellas? White dress, red walls? All of these scenarios (and thousands more) can throw a monkey wrench into how you thought the shoot would go, but you can still get the final photo you had in mind with practice, practice, practice. Study hard, stay inspired, experiment, and make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. The more you know, the more you can overcome challenges that would throw photo greenhorns into despair.
Tip: We can’t promise to have a ready answer to every problem, but we’re trying. As photographers ourselves, we strive to write and deliver photography-, website-, and business-focused articles on our blog, the SmugMug School website, and through our email newsletters. It’s our mission to help make photography (and whatever you do with it) more fun.
Links to love:
- Smug Features You Didn’t Know You Had (like EXIF search)
- Cropping in SmugMug
- ClubSmug for exclusive photo discounts
- Getting the shot right the first time (and other tricks to speed up your workflow)
- Using the in-SmugMug Photo Tools to apply color effects
- Beginner-to-advanced Lightroom video tutorials
- How to use the free SmugMug-to-Lightroom plugin
- SmugMug School: By photographers for photographers
- See what you missed in our newsletter archives
CJ Kale and Nick Selway long ago fell in love with Hawaii and founded Lava Light, a photography gallery focused on capturing the ever-changing landscape created by an active volcano and crashing waves—and sometimes both together when the conditions are just right.
And if swimming with fire and dodging lava bombs weren’t challenging enough, these photographers believe in creating their images completely in camera. Balancing exposures between sky, water, and lava can be incredibly tricky.
Luckily, Lava Light has shared some tips to help you get the shot without combining exposures or using HDR.
Photo Tip #1
To capture lava and stars together, put a neutral-density (ND) gradient filter on your lens upside down to balance the extreme exposures between the lava and stars.
Photo Tip #2
When photographing lava in the daytime, use the ND grad right side up to balance the light from the sunrise, because the sun will eventually be brighter than the lava is.
Photo Tip #3
For front-lit scenes, a hard ND grad balances light from a bright sky and a dark foreground, allowing you to darken the sky and deepen colors. For example, in this shot I used a polarizer to intensify the rainbow, but it left the sky a fraction too bright. So I added a 1-stop hard ND grad across the entire sky to darken it and get its depth and color to match with the lava and everything that’s front lit below.
Photo Tip #4
To capture the little curvature of a wave, a shutter speed around 1/3 of a second is usually enough to get a little light blur to the water but keep that shape in the wave.
Photo Tip #5
If you’re trying to capture a really misty feel, where the water almost looks like fog, use a 2- to 3-second exposure.
Photo Tip #6
Since we capture everything in camera, sometimes we have to compromise on exposures and accept some clipping of highlights or shadows. So maybe a rock by the lava won’t have any detail in the shadows because I want to capture the detail in the lava instead, and I prioritize my exposure for the lava.
Photo Tip #7
Prepare the right gear for the day. My normal, hike-out-to-the-volcano kit includes a Nikon D800e, Canon 5dMkIII, 16–35 L lens for Canon, 14–24 for Nikon, a 50mm and an 85mm prime, and a 50–500 Sigma telephoto. Because sometimes you want a wide-angle shot, like the rainbow and lava, and others you want to zoom in on the drip, which requires a telephoto.
Check out the SmugMug Films artist profile of Lava Light below. Thanks for the tips, Nick and CJ!
Find Lava Light online:
Today’s guest post is part 2 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 a few beginner’s tips on avoiding glare and maintaining color fidelity when photographing artwork.
All example images were lit and shot using the following:
- Einstein 640W/s Flash
- X-Rite Classic Color Checker Card
- Nikon D800 Digital SLR Camera
- Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G
- Canon 5D Mark III Digital SLR Camera
- Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L USM II
- Shoot-Through Umbrellas
Artwork courtesy of Code and Canvas, which brings artists and technologists together in shared spaces to foster creativity and innovation.
When photographing reflective surfaces, lighting becomes a game of billiards. In my last post on photographing people in eyeglasses, we relied heavily on this following rule:
Angle of Incidence = Angle of Reflection
To review, the angle at which a light beam hits an object will reflect light out at that same angle. Ignoring exceptions involving certain textures and refraction, we can depend on light to travel in a straight and predictable line.
You may find yourself in a position of having to photograph something behind glass. The rules are largely the same as when you’re photographing someone wearing glasses but you also need to be certain that the colors are being represented accurately as well.
Copy work, or a copy job, is when the photographer is reproducing a piece of artwork such as paintings, illustrations, and antique photographs. The conditions under which you have to shoot some of these things can be tough (stuck on walls in small rooms, leaning against something and under fluorescents, etc) but knowing the most basic copy work setup and remembering your family of angles will get you out of most glare binds.
Family of Angles
What the camera can see will determine our family of angles. In a typical copy work lighting setup, you will have 1 light on either side of your subject but the angle is very important.
Placing my light heads anywhere within that circle will likely result in glare because it is inside the danger zone of angle of reflectance. Our instinct is to put lights in front of the thing we want to light but when dealing with reflective surfaces we have to imagine a ball of light coming from the flash and into your painting in a straight line and bouncing back out again. If the bounce-back appears to be within the family of angles for what your camera is seeing then move those lights outside that zone or, in this case, more to the side. This allows the bounce-back to not glare back into the lens.
Lighting Outside the Family of Angles
When photographing artwork, placing your lights at acute angles in reference to the subject (90º or less – think of on-camera flash as being 0º) is generally bad and placing them at obtuse angles (greater than 90º) is generally good.
For this painting by Calixto Robles, I can already tell from my modeling lamps that I am probably within the family of angles to receive glare. Eyeballing it, I could tell that the light was going to shoot out of the glass and back into my lens — especially since I am also shooting directly instead of reflectively, like with a bounce umbrella.
An easy fix for this is to place my flashes outside the family of angles, more obtusely-angled in relation to my subject.
Placing my lights more to the side gets them outside my family of angles. Remember, too, that using a wide lens will increase the size of your family of angles. If you have the space to shoot copy work using a long lens, your choice of lighting positions increases.
These are all unedited so they would normally need a bit of tweaking but my glare is gone and that is a great starting point for perfecting the shot.
Raking the Light
This kind of obtusely-angled lighting is referred to as “raking the light.” It’s great not only for avoiding glare, since the angles are so extreme that they are often outside the family of angles for reflection, but also for showing texture.
In this detail shot of Vivien Sin’s work, I have glare, washed out colors, and a little too much texture in places where I don’t really want it.
These yellow arrows represent my family of angles. I have placed my flashes well within the danger zone.
Moving my lights more to the side, further away from my family of angles and at a more oblique angle, improves this. I probably could have raked the light even further by placing the lights nearly parallel to the painting, bathing it in light — especially if I were bouncing the light from inside an umbrella or softbox. Sometimes you might not have modifiers on-hand so knowing you can still work with “bald” lights is key.
Much better. However, how do you know these colors are even accurate? After all, I am showing you a copy of the painting through my photography and you are trusting me to portray it accurately. This requires another useful tool: the color checker.
Color Checker Cards and White Balance
White balance is largely not an issue in this age of RAW files. Most of the time, our cameras are excellent at reproducing color and predicting proper white balance. With artwork, though, such subjectivity can ruin your presentation. Using a color checker card will give you a set of specially prepared colors and grayscales that give you a frame of reference for objectively correct colors. It also helps you find a precise, neutral white. When you’re editing something with a color checker in one of your frames, you can much more easily keep the colors in all of your frames consistent and accurate.
With all of the deep, rich colors in Vivien Sin’s painting, I want to make sure they remain consistent across editing multiple files and also that I have a white balance that is set based on the most neutral target possible for color fidelity.
You can use a color checker card just as a reference and white balance corrector without any further calibration. However, its performance is maximized when you calibrate your monitor and printer and create custom profiles using free plug ins with your editing software.
To start, take a sample of a neutral color or shade. I used the gray square second to the left next to 100% white.
I have the X-Rite free ColorChecker Passport software installed in my Lightroom. You don’t have to have this to get a read on color accuracy but it allows you to create custom profiles under different lighting conditions and quickly apply those profiles to images in an entire collection for consistency. This was done by taking a picture of the color card in the same environment as Vivien’s painting, adjusting my white balance around a neutral gray on the card, and saving it as a profile (exactly how to do this varies with your editing software and X-Rite has instructions for each of them).
Instead of relying on one of my camera’s profiles, or Adobe Standard, I can use a profile that is built around colors as they should be viewed objectively given the environment it was shot in, custom-named so that I can remember what I shot with to create it.
The difference might not be obvious but notice the reds in the lower corner. Adobe Standard rendered them slightly more orange than they should be. It’s a subtle change for the extra work but if you remember to take just 1 shot with a color card it gives you the option to fine tune colors and white balance later. This is important for not only copy work but for real estate shooting as well, where interior paint colors might be very important to the person you are shooting for.
Copy Work Shooting Basics
If you are starting out with shooting anything reflective, especially artwork, remember:
- The Angle of Incidence = Angle of Reflection
- If the flash is within 90º of the reflective surface, it is likely to give off glare. Place your lights obtusely and sometimes even as far as parallel to either side of a painting.
- Raking the light in this manner will also show texture.
- Use a color checker card to verify color accuracy and white balance in post production.
Flash and Artwork Damage
The jury is still out on this but the general consensus is that a lot of stuff can affect paintings, including UV light, pollution, and temperature. Artwork can even be a danger to itself when off-gassing under tight framing. Art is exposed to flash for a short period of time during copy work and the consensus is that it’s not a problem. That said, if you’re shooting for a client, find out their comfort level for flash exposure before proceeding.
I hope these tips help you take better photographs of the various copy work items in your life, whether it’s professional artwork or personal antique photographic keepsakes.
Water photographer Sarah Lee (recently featured in a behind-the-scenes artist profile for our SmugMug Film series) grew up in Hawaii, surfing and swimming competitively. One day, while at a swimming competition, she was handed a camera and hasn’t looked back since. She finds inspiration in the unpredictability of nature, creates art that captures the interplay of people, water, and light, and uses photography to find beauty in the chaos. If you want to take the plunge into underwater photography, check out Sarah Lee’s essential underwater photography tips below, plus get a close look at her underwater photography gear kit.
Underwater Photo Tip #1: Ask your models to channel their inner ballerina or yogi and trust them. Open body posture is key. This photograph was taken of adventure model and soul surfer, Alison Teal, somewhere in the warm waters of Fiji.
Underwater Photo Tip #2: I find it ideal to photograph people underwater in the late morning between 8-11am because you’re going to need a lot of natural light being underwater. Though, on occasion it’s fun to experiment with different times of day. This photograph was taken during the last hour of the day, probably in the presence of a few sharks too shy to make themselves known.
Underwater Photo Tip #3: Skin tones look the best within 1-5 feet of the surface. Beyond that, you start to lose the warmth and reds in their skin tone.
Underwater Photo Tip #4: Lately I’ve been using an Outex, which is a silicone water cover. It’s rad because you can use different lenses in it, and it has a tripod neck strap. It’s worked really well underwater in lots of different situations.
Underwater Photo Tip #5: You don’t always need a fancy camera or underwater setup to take a good photo. This photograph was taken on a GoPro. Read more about shooting with a GoPro on my blog.
Underwater Photo Tip #6: Working with props and clothes can be challenging underwater but worth the effort! In this shoot, I created a jellyfish from an umbrella, ribbons, and beaded curtains. Just be careful you don’t lose anything in the process!
Underwater Photo Tip #7: Within the realm of underwater photography, there’s not much in your control. It’s all about being in the moment and finding the composition within the “chaos.” Most of my favorite photographs were taken when I just let things “be” and used my camera as a way to interpret what is happening at the present moment, rather than trying to orchestrate and control any of it.
Underwater Photo Tip #8. Protect your gear. I alternate between surf housng and water covers depending on the conditions I shoot in.
Find Sarah online:
Stories are breaking on sites like Fstoppers and Brandsmash about private Boudoir photos that appeared on a creepy voyeur forum. It’s hard to imagine a more humiliating nightmare for a photographer or their clients.
Photos came from several sites, including SmugMug, and we paid extreme attention over the last two days to how it happened. We tried to take some comfort in observing that in every instance, it came down to passwords that were guessable in just a few tries.
The question for us was what could we do that we weren’t already? Over the past year, we’ve done considerable work around this problem, but yesterday we decided to expose some of the alerts our systems generate to our customers.
When our systems see several password attempts on a gallery or folder, they now send an email to the owner of the SmugMug site. It identifies the gallery, gives the first few digits of each password attempt with asterisks for the rest (bou***), and adds info like time of day and geographic location the request may be coming from.
Today our Support Heroes are receiving thank-yous from people whose family members couldn’t get in because they left the caps lock key on or forgot some aspect of the password “it’s a cap O (oh), not a 0 (zero)”.
And we read two help tickets from photographers who discovered that their boudoir galleries had password guessers. Fortunately, they had long passwords that were too hard to guess, but they are still making changes like removing the word Boudoir from the title, and making the gallery Unlisted so only people who obtain the link can know of its existence.
One of the security upgrades that came with New SmugMug is we don’t store passwords in a form that could leak in any way, including a systems breach, a bug, or a disgruntled employee. We use an industrial grade, Cryptographic hash function.
The breaking stories are about Boudoir photos, but we host incredibly sensitive photos (all cloud services do) of unannounced products and even, we remember, photos of an upcoming TIME Person of the Year.
1. Set a good gallery password before uploading photos!
2. Set galleries and folders to Unlisted. Unlisted means means no one can see them unless they have somehow been given a link. They cannot guess the link because it has a random string added to its URL. The combination of strong password + Unlisted is extremely secure.
You can learn more about how to protect your SmugMug galleries here.
We hope this helps, and thanks for being part of the SmugMug family!
Chris & Don MacAskill