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!
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!
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: