Photographing lightning – followup!

As a follow-up to my article on how to photograph lightning here are instructions on building a lighting activated camera trigger, to make it even easier!

I don’t have the electrical engineering experience to even attempt something like this- but if anyone does, I’d love to know how it performs.  Seems pretty cool.

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Photographing 2d artwork (part 1 of 2)

Every visual artist faces a similar problem at one point or another. While they may not necessarily be a photographer, photographs are a necessity in the art world. Websites, portfolios, slide, prints – all require high quality, accurate photos of the artist’s paintings/drawings/whatever. Any artist who has just thrown up a painting on the wall and snapped it with a camera knows that getting a good image of a painting *isn’t as easy as it sounds*

but fear not! with a little know-how and a few simple tools, anyone can take a portfolio-worthy photo of their artwork!

note: I started writing this as a single-piece article, but it began getting so long that I decided to split it into 2 installments. Part 1 (this) will deal with, equipment, setup and using natural light. Part 2 will deal with studio or artificial light.

First off,

While photographing artwork does not require a huge amount of gear, there are a few things that are necessities if you want the best results.

– a camera (obviously!) a dslr will give you more flexibility, especially in terms of lens selection, but a point-and-shoot is usable in a pinch
– a tripod. Photographing artwork is all about maximum detail, and camera shake will destroy any fine detail. a tripod will hold the camera steady, to avoid camera shake
– polarizing filter – especially when using artificial light, a polarizer will cut down on glare and reflections from the pice – the bane of photographing artwork!
– a cable release (optional) like the tripod, this will help cut down on camera shake. if your camer does “mirror lock up” when using the 2s timer, that is an acceptable substitute (check your camera manual for “mirror lock up”)
– optional – a tripod bubble level. This will help “square up” your image. it’s not necessary, especially with the vast amount of correction tools available in photoshop etc… but it will help avoid perspective skew when photographing what is essentially a flat plane.

For the rest of the article, I will assume you are using a dslr, but the techniques are equally applicable to a P&S.

lens selection:
Selecting a lens for photographing artwork is not as straightforward as for some other applications (eg. sports = fast telepohto, street=wide angle to normal etc…) what focal length is appropriate – do you use a telepohoto and back up from the piece? do you use a wide angle and get close in?

before even deciding on focal length, let us consider the 2 main criteria (in my opinion) to look for in an “art” lens:
1. sharp throughout the frame
2. low distortion

we need a sharp lens, because no one wants their painting to look blurry on the edges, and we need low distortion since we don’t want to warp the perspective of the artwork.

To me both of those criteria point to a singly type of lens: the macro lens. Macro lenses are *known* for their sharpness and low distortion, perfect for photographing art (who said macro lenses are only useful for super-close-ups!) Now when it comes to focal length, a lot depends on the size of the art, but the standard 50mm macro (which becomes appx 75mm on a cropped slr sensor) works for most applications. I have used a 50mm macro for everything from a 2″x3″ miniature all the way up to a 6’x6′ monster piece. Just back up as needed 🙂

now if you don’t have a dedicated macro lens, and don’t want to spend the money on one, just pick your lens with the lowest distortion and field curvature (probably a standard zoom in the middle of it’s range or prime, and stop it down until the edges are sharp throughout. If you are using a P&S, set the zoom to wherever the image is the sharpest (probably somewhere in the middle of the range) and stop the aperture down to a mid-aperture (something like f/5.6 or f/8. “Stopping down” a lens usually increases it’s performance, as few lenses are at their best at max aperture.)

Now that we’ve got our camera and gear, lets get set up!

The primary concern when photographing artwork is to eliminate/minimize glare. 2d artworks, especially paintings are essentially flat, reflective surfaces (moreso if varnished!) When light hits them they tend to just reflect it back, causing ugly “hot spots” and blown out areas in the photo. NOT conducive to good reproductions!

To avoid glare, we need “soft” light – something diffuse and indirect that will not create “hotspots” (or “specular highlights” if you want to get technical!) There are many approaches to this, and vary depending on whether you are using natural or artificial light. Both methods (natural and artificial) have pros and cons, lets examine them separately.

natural light:
The good thing about natural light is that it requires no special equipment or tools. It’s cheap and easily available. It also requires very little modification to make it nice and soft. The downside, of course is that it is not always available, and it can change rapidly – altering your exposure. Still, in terms of bang for your buck it’s hard to beat!

Now in terms of natural light, the softest light you can get (more or less) is from a northern exposure, preferably on a bright but overcast day. I *love* this light, it actually makes photographing paintings quite easy since it is so soft and even. Other artists have had good luck using natural light outside, in the shade (to avoid direct sunlight), but since I live in an apartment with a northern exposure and big windows, that’s usually the way I go!

I have also found the easiest (and most effective) way to photography small-to mid size pieces using natural light is to lay them flat on the ground, with the camera pointing straight down from above (obviously this won’t work for really big pieces, since you can’t practically get the camera high enough to get the whole thing in frame 🙂 This is good for 2 reasons 1) it provides an even more diffuse light and 2)it makes sure the piece is “flat” to the camera.

set up the camera on the tripod, use the level to make sure it is straight vertical and you are ready to go. Usually aperture priority works the best – set a medium aperture for optimal lens sharpness and to ensure the whole piece is in focus. zoom to fill the frame as much as possible with the artwork (without cutting off the edges, you can crop in PP) I usually use manual focus, as autofocus often has trouble locking on to a flat artwork. Set your cable release and timer, and you are good to go!

but wait! there is one more consideration before you begin snapping away – Assuming you are photographing something other than monochrome charcoal drawings, color balance is an issue. We need to make sure the white balance on the camera is set correctly, else there will be ugly color casts on the final product. Now you may rely on the camera’s auto setting for “daylight” or “shade” but for best results, it is good to set the white balance manually. There are 2 ways to do this:

1. if you camera has a “custom white balance” setting, turn it on. Put an 18% grey card (or a plain white piece of paper) in place of your artwork and photograph it using the same setup and lighting that you will use for the final piece. This will give the camera a “reference” point to base WB on for the rest of the shoot. Note: if you are using rapidly changing natural light, you may need to do this more than once, and option 2 might be better:

2. if you are shooting raw (and/or your camera does not have an custom-wb feature) simply include the edge of a greycard or pice of paper in the actual frame when you photograph the artwork (it is unlikely that the piece will fill up the entire frame of the camera). that way you can use your post-processors white balance feature to select the grey/white area of the picture and base white balance off that.

So now we’re set up, got our artwork flat and framed, got our natural diffuse light, set our white balance, focus, zoom. now grab your cable release and click away! Presto – professional quality slide results in your own home 🙂

Personally I like natural light, and If I’m not in a rush to get my work repro’ed, I’ll save up a bunch of pieces waiting for a good day and photograph them all together. However, sometimes using natural light is just not an option (slide deadline, or at night or whatever), in which case we must resort to using artifical light which will be covered in part 2 of this article.

Click here for part 2 – using artificial light!

CLICK HERE to subscribe to the RSS feed to get the next installment as soon as it is published!

Resolution and DPI explained

“Resolution” or “DPI” (dots per inch) is a concept in digital photography that is very often misunderstood, even by experienced photographers.

In this article, Aaron Bieber, of Single Serving Photo does a *great* job of breaking down the myths and misunderstandings of digital image resolution. A great read!

Single Serving Photo – Resolution is a myth

Shoot fireworks like a pro!

Philly Fireworks #1

Independence Day is coming up, and that means fireworks shows! Now admit it – we’ve all been guilty (at one point or another) of whipping out a little pocket camera and snapping away at the fireworks, handheld, in P mode, probably with the dinky little on-camera flash going too. Yeah, I’ve done it too…


with a little effort and a bit of technical know-how you can go from blurry, underexposed, globs-of-color-on-film shots to beautiful, crisp, rainbow bursts that will be the envy of your friends and neighbors! (grin)

(note: a lot of the techniques here are similar to the ones in my article on photographing lightning, so you may want to read that as well (LINK -opens in new window))

First things first:

most of this will be assuming you are using an slr/dslr. You can shoot fireworks with a pocket digicam, but it is harder. If you have one with manual controls, most of this info will apply, but pocket cams have never been known for good long/low light exposures so YMMV.

you will need:
1. a camera (duh). at least something that lets you control the aperture and has a “bulb” mode (meaning the shutter stays open as long as the button is held).
2. a tripod. we’re talking exposures of several seconds, it is impossible to hold the camera steady. Tripod is a must (the sturdier the better to cut down on “mirror slap”)
3. a cable release. used for bulb mode. Note that most wireless remotes will *not* do “bulb”, only set exposures. There may be some out there that do, but most likely you will need a *corded* remote release.

Now, on to the specifics:

first, set up your gear. make sure the tripod will not be disturbed/bumped during the exposures. Set up the camera on the tripod, attach the cable release. Frame the anticipated “action” area.
Before the show starts, put your camera in Aperture priority mode and take a few “test” shots to determine a good exposure, (I prefer slightly on the dark side). I like to adjust it to an aperture that will give me a decently exposed image at a shutter speed of about 2-4 seconds (since this is usually about how long I open the shutter with the release.) this isn’t an exact science, it’s just to get a rough estimate the the aperture needed for your approximate exposure time. Since the actual bursts of light will expose regardless, we are basically just calibrating the exposure for the ambient light here. Once you are comfortable with the exposure, leave the aperture set as it, and switch into M (fully manual) mode. Turn the shutter speed all the way down until it goes into “bulb” mode. Now you can manually control your shutter – when you press the button down on the cable release, the shutter will open, and stay open until you let go of the button. This way you can exactly control when the exposure stops and starts.
note: make sure you camera is set to manual focus, else you will lose shots while it “hunts” for a focus lock. Most likely focus will be set to infinity, but if you are really close/have a long lens you might need to adjust. Regardless, get it set and leave it.

There is a “rhythm” to photographing fireworks, once you get the feel for it, it’s pretty easy to “anticipate” the exposures. You can usually hear the rocket going up, a second or two before it bursts. This is when I like to start the exposure. Hear the rocket – CLICK – burst – wait a second or two for the “trails” of the burst to expose – release shutter. That’s basically it! I find most of my exposures are in the 3-5 second range. As the show goes on you will probably adjust your aperture, or even set a “preset” exposure as you find the “pattern” of the show. Either way, you still generally want to be starting your exposure right as the rocket goes up before it bursts. The exception to this is when the show gets really “intense” and many rockets are going at once, it can be difficult to tell by sound alone. In these cases, hopefully you have a general idea of the exposure needed, and I will sometimes just set an “average” exposure and just keep clicking the shutter. Kind of “spray and pray”, if you will 🙂


What lens to use?
– this really depends on 2 things: how far away from the action you are, and how tightly you want to frame the shot. Farther away = longer lens, closer = wider. The examples on this page were shot with an 85mm lens (equal to 127.5mm when using a 1.5x crop camera, like most dslrs) I was about 4 blocks away, shooting from a balcony of a high rise apartment building. I like a pretty tight framing, as it allows the actual fireworks to dominate the picture, rather than extraneous elements, so I tend toward longer rather than wider.

Framing the shot / vantage point
This is a matter of personal taste, but I like to include the surrounding scenery in my shots to give “context” to the fireworks. (As opposed to pointing the camera up an having just the bursts against an empty sky). Usually the best way to do this is to get to a high point, so you have an unobstructed view of the surrounding area. I happen to be lucky in that my apartment’s balcony looks out over the Philadelphia Art Museum (where the fireworks show occurs), So I’ve got a great vantage point without leaving the home. But even if you don’t you can probably find something. If you live in an urban area, many high-rises have roof decks that make great spots. Tops of parking garages are also good. If you’re in a rural area, this might not be as much of an issue, since there is probably more space, and less “stuff” to get in the way of the shot, but a high vantage point is still good.

– The clearest shots often come at the beginning of the show, and after pauses in the shooting (of fireworks that is, not photos!) this is because the accumulated smoke will either not be too bad yet, or have had some time to dissipate (respectively).

-Speaking of smoke; if possible, is is advantageous to set up in an orientation where the wind is blowing at a 90 degree angle to your position. This way, the accumulated smoke from the rockets will blow out of the picture frame as quickly as possible, leaving less to “muddy” your shots.

Capturing multiple bursts.
– A cool trick if you are using bulb mode is to capture multiple bursts in one exposure. Basically they way you do this is to use bulb mode to keep the camera’s shutter open, expose one burst, then cover the lens with something to block out extraneous light, but *keep the shutter open* until the next burst, uncover the lens to expose the burst, re-cover it and so forth…

The trick here is to have something that will block light out of the lens, but NOT TOUCH IT, as the vibrations of bumping/touching the lens will ruin the shot. One common method is to use a black/dark colored baseball cap – the “bowl” of the cap will block light from entering the lens without touching it (this is what I do). You could also use a black piece of cloth, a black cardboard cylinder with one end capped etc…

Basically the sequence goes like this:
– As the first burst starts, expose normally using bulb, however, when the burst ends, instead of releasing the shutter, leave it open and with your other hand, cover the lens with your cap/coth/whatever, being careful not to bump/touch it.


-As the next burst starts, remove the covering for the lens, expose the burst.

Repeat as desired (note,you may have to close down the aperture for these kinds of shots to compensate for the increase in ambient light over the length of the exposure)

Finally when you have enough bursts, release the shutter to finish the exposure.

I hope these tips help you all get the most out of your holiday fireworks pictures. Photographing fireworks is not all that difficult once you get the hang of it, and can yield some spectacular results.

Enjoy the holiday everyone!
philly fireworks 2