'Photography Tips' Category

Is a Picture Worth 1,540.2 Miles?

I’ve been interested in the night sky for several years now.  In those years I’ve bought a telescope, several books, a planisphere , and four apps to go along with all of the camera equipment I already own.  I’ve gotten some decent pictures from nearby and not nearby (mostly National Parks in the West).  The one photo that eluded me was a shot of the Milky Way.  My goal required some planning and some traveling.

To get a photo of the Milky Way you need a very dark, very clear and moonless sky.  We have some dark skies around here, but most are too close to populated areas that produce light pollution.  You need to be out in the middle of nowhere for this to work (if you live in the middle of nowhere, please invite me over for some night photography).  Once you identify an appropriate place, you have to identify the right time.  The moon will drown out many of the stars, so you want the make sure the moon has set or plan your trip during a new moon (consult a lunar calendar).  Next you need to find the Milky Way (use the planisphere).  While we are in the Milky Way and parts are always visible, photographers look for the part near the constellation Scorpius.  This dense part is visible to the south and remains visible most of the night in June and July.  Depending on how dark your sky is, you may see a wispy cloud to a defined group of stars. Remember, the sun sets late in summer and it takes almost two hours after sunset for the sky to get completely dark.  In other words, plan on staying out very late.

Our destination was The Headlands International Dark Sky Park is in Mackinaw City, Michigan.  It is one of ten dark sky parks in this country and one of the closest silver tier parks (all of the gold tier parks are in the West).  Round trip mileage is about 1,100 (the rest of our mileage was from sightseeing in the Upper Peninsula).  The park is small, but wonderful.  The skies are the darkest I’ve seen east of the Mississippi.  In addition, you look out over the Mackinac Straights which are lovely in their own right.  During the day (while you are waiting for sunset), you can take one of the many ferries to Mackinac Island for some wonderful landscape photography or take a tour of one of the many Great Lakes lighthouses.

Astrophotography requires two things: a sturdy tripod and a camera with manual settings.  If you do not have these two things, just lay back and enjoy the stars.  Use the fastest, widest lens that you have. I used a fisheye and a 2.8 24mm lens.  You want to take in as much light as possible.  Use a very high ISO setting to increase the light sensitivity of your camera.  I used settings between 2,000 and 4,500.  Use a remote shutter release to prevent shaking the camera.  Set the shutter to between 20 and 30 seconds, any longer and you will start to see the stars moving in the sky (blurry instead of pinpoints).  Take a lot of photos! We’ll discuss photo stacking and other post-processing methods next time.

So, was it worth all of the miles? You tell me. Go to http://gallery.youreonit.com/stars and leave a comment.

Milky Way From Headlands Park

My Photo Resolutions for 2014

Welcome 2014 – it’s time to get my ducks in a row. My photo ducks, at least.  Here are my five photo-related resolutions for 2014.  I’ll let you know at the end of the year how well I did with them.

Back-up.  Don’t get me wrong, I DO back-up all of my work.  Unfortunately, I usually go overboard and save different versions often in multiple places. Now while this means that I generally don’t lose anything, it also means that it can take me a while to find something (and it uses a lot of space).  So I resolve to back-up my work and delete earlier and working versions when I have completed the project.

Process and delete.  I usually shoot in RAW and shoot more photos than I want to keep.  This means that the files are quite large and many are extra.  To process my photos I need to convert them to JPEGs, delete what I don’t want and make any edits with color or cropping.  Photos can sit on my computer (and back-up) for months before I get to this.  So I resolve to process and delete my photos in a timely manner and then delete the original files.

Share. We learned to share in kindergarten and I’m not, not sharing. I first have to get the files ready (see above resolution) and then second actually do it.  Perhaps the biggest misconception about digital photography is that it makes it easier to share photos.  While this is technically true, I always found that I gave more photos and got more photos when we had them developed.  Towards the end of film it was cheap to have another set of prints made and most people did just that.  So I resolve to burn discs and share them with family and friends no later than one month after the event.

Print.  I haven’t printed photos in years.  Sure, I’ve made many individual photos for frames, but my photo albums are woefully out of date (another casualty of digital).  So I resolve to print or, better yet, create photo books in a timely manner.

Scan.  I have been made the official archivist of my family and as a result have literally boxes of old photos.  I need to get them scanned.  So I resolve to scan, process, share and create photo books of all of my family photos.

I guess I’m going to be fairly busy this year!


Photoshop and Duct Tape

Photoshop is a wonderful tool that even the great Ansel Adams would have embraced.  But like any tool, it can be used properly or improperly.  With improper use, we run the risk of turning Photoshop into the digital equivalent of duct tape. Sure, duct tape might work, but wouldn’t it look better if it were done properly from the beginning?

Start with a great photo. Photoshop is not an excuse for poor or lazy photography. Get as much straight out of the camera as possible.  Do not rely on the blur tool to create a fake bokeh, learn how to do it by adjusting your aperture. Lighting changes (sources rather than exposure) are particularly difficult to adjust in Photoshop.  Learn photography basics and your camera.

Stay away from making size changes when combining photos. I like to call this “The Anne Geddes Effect”.  Mind you, I have nothing against Ms Geddes. She is a skillful photographer who found a hugely marketable niche.  Unfortunately, many people try to copy her with Photoshop and most do it very badly.  Please keep your butterfly photos and your baby photos separate from each other.  Both are lovely the way they are!

Don’t turn everything into black and white.  Lately I’ve noticed a trend to desaturate every photo in the thought that it makes the photo more dramatic or important.  While certain photos lend themselves to black and white, like some portraits and scenes with high contrast, most should be left with their color in them.  If you do convert a photo, make sure to use all of the Photoshop tools (not just the auto setting) to customize the monochromatic image.

Experiment, but delete it if it’s not up to snuff.  Choose your filters and effects wisely and know when to stop.  Just because they are there doesn’t mean you have to use them.  If it’s not perfect, delete it. Nothing makes a photo look worse than a bad Photoshop job.  Make sure to make your changes to a copy or on another layer so you can return to your original image.

Ansel Adams and Photoshop

Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it”.  I’ve always loved that quote, especially in the digital age.  There have always been two elements to film photography:  recording the image and developing the photo.   Adams is the most widely known American photographer because he was a master at both. After scouting his location and waiting for the right conditions to “take” the photograph, he would spend days manipulating a negative to “make” the photograph (all the while taking detailed notes so the print could be precisely duplicated).  He used two tools at his disposal, dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) perhaps better than anyone.

Dodge and Burn are darkroom methods used to either increase or decrease exposure in a print.  With them you can lighten or darken specific areas to improve tonal quality and contrast or to highlight a certain area to make it a focal point.  These tried and true methods were incorporated in the original version of Photoshop in 1990 and remain in the current toolbars of both CS and Elements (and every other editing program out there).  The Dodge tool is represented by a lollipop-type icon and the Burn tool uses a closed hand as its icon.  Unlike other enhancements in Photoshop which manipulate the entire image, these two tools allow precision changes.  If you have never used them, I strongly urge you to give them a try.  There are more settings than some of the easier tools, but don’t let that throw you.  After you bring in an image, make a duplicate layer to work on.  Both tools allow you to select a brush size, the amount of exposure change (start out with a low number) and the affected range (highlights, midtones or shadows).  Experiment with all settings to see how they work. You’ll soon see their value.

Adams did not live to see digital photography or Photoshop, but I think he would have embraced them. While not an excuse to be a lazy photographer (more about that next time), Photoshop’s tools are a mean to an end. That end, of course, is making a better photograph.

The face in the first photo is overexposed, see how the dodge tool improved it.

melanie_04    melanie_04a


10 Ways To Be Photogenic

Does the camera really add 10 pounds? Well … yes and no.  Unflattering lighting, lens issues and bad angles combined with the inherent problems of transferring a 3D object to a 2D medium can lead to some pretty awful photos.  The other problem is that a photo is not what we see in the mirror, it’s what the mirror sees (the aptly named mirror image). This is why we are often harder on photos of ourselves than of others.  So what can we do about it? Remember, there are two players in any photograph – the subject and the photographer and both can work together to improve a photo.

Rules for the Subject:

#1 – Don’t sabotage the photo. You hate to have your picture taken and it shows.  You offer up what you know to be a weak smile or stupid look and then remark – “See, I told you I take awful pictures!” Please stop doing this and just let me take the photo.


#2 – Spend some time at the mirror. Since no one is perfectly symmetric, one side of your face looks better than the other. Determine which your “best” is (remember right and left are reversed in a mirror). Turn your face and see at what point you look your best (a ¾ view is flattering for most people). Work on your “picture smile” in front of the mirror. This may seem like the height of narcissism, but you will look better in photos.

#3 – Hide what you don’t like. A strategically placed bag, arm, couch pillow or child can go a long way. Just make sure that you don’t look like your hiding. If you don’t like the way your teeth look in photos, perfect a pleasant toothless smile.

#4 – Strike a pose. Have you ever liked a photo of yourself that it taken square-on with your arms flat at your sides? Probably not, so try these moves: Turn slightly away so you are not square-on, move one foot in front of you pointed at the camera and rest your weight on your back foot.  Shoulders back, chest out and stomach muscles tight (but don’t look like a soldier at attention). Move your arms slightly away from your body and bend them gently and relax your hands.  Force your face forward just a bit (this will feel very unnatural, but it will avoid a double chin). Add that smile from the mirror and – bingo – we have a good photo.


#5 – Look your best. With cell phones it is arguable that every day is “picture day”; however there are times when you know there will be a camera around. On those days (think holidays and weddings), be sure to wear an outfit that flatters you or at least avoid what you know doesn’t work for you. For women – keep the shine away, moisturize and at least wear mascara (this is so much more important as we age).

Rules for the Photographer:

#1 – Watch the lighting and your angles. Avoid the midday sun, it will leave harsh shadows. If you have no option, get into the shade or use your flash to get rid of the shadows.  Never shoot people from below. Granted, they may look taller but the other distortions will not be appreciated. Shooting from eye-level or slightly above is your goal. Take a step or two back and zoom in a bit to fill the frame. If you are too close with your camera on wide, it will distort their faces.


#2 – Try to get candid shots. Many people freeze when they see a camera; try to catch them unaware. Most of my favorite photos are stealth ones.

#3 – Gather people close together. Photos always look better when the subjects are close to each other, but avoid the line-up. Also, keep an eye on the background and avoid the clutter.


#4 – Delete awful photos. You are bound to take some terrible photos now and again.  Please use that delete button and in the name of all that is holy – DO NOT POST THEM ON FACEBOOK!

#5 – Edit a little. If you are familiar with an editing program, make a few minor adjustments.  Just keep the changes very subtle. An over-edited picture usually looks worse than the original.

Photographing Fireworks

fireworks at cliff's

It’s almost time for fireworks again! Fireworks are always a popular subject; here are some tips for better photos:

  • Cameras with full manual ability and a sturdy tripod are required.  If you do not have both, just sit back and enjoy the show.  Feel free to have fun with your phone, but don’t plan on making the photos any larger than your phone screen (they will not be clear enough).
  • Location is everything!  Find a vantage point with an unobstructed view of the area that is upwind.  Often, this will be away from the crowd.  Check your view for errant light like street lamps.  Fill the frame with the burst (using a zoom) or pull back to include water, buildings and bridges.   Don’t forget to photograph the spectators’ faces.  A silhouetted crowd or structure is also a good shot.
  • Plan on using all of the memory and battery power that you have.  You will take MANY photos and will not have time to delete during the show.  Be sure to keep enough in reserve for the finale.
  • Settings – aperture f/8 or f/11, ISO 100, manual focus to infinity, no flash. Let me repeat – no flash! It will not improve your photo and WILL annoy the person next to you.
  • Shutter speed will make or break you.  Experiment with the shutter open from 2 seconds to 30 seconds.  In general, a professional show will require a shorter shutter speed than a backyard show (professional grade fireworks are bigger and brighter).  A small device called a shutter release is worth its weight in gold.  It holds the shutter open with one click and closes it with the next.  You’ll have complete control over the shutter and won’t need to touch (and perhaps shake) the camera. With this, you can keep the shutter open for several minutes and capture multiple bursts.  Check the manual to see if your camera accepts one.
  • As with all fast-action photography, you have to shoot before it happens.  Open the shutter when you hear to explosion and close it when the light trails start to disappear (somewhere between the oohs and the ahhs).
  • Don’t get so absorbed with the photography that you forget to watch the show!

Send in your best fireworks photos to share!  Email your jpeg to me (cindy@YoureOnIt.com) and I’ll post them on my Facebook page.

Leaves, Pumpkins and Other Orange Things


The variety of trees in the Ohio River Valley usually provide a wonderful display of color each fall that brings out the photographer in all of us.  Even if this summer’s drought leaves us with a more subdued show, here are some tips to get the most out of your fall photos:

  • Use a polarizing filter (DSLR) or the “vivid colors” setting to enhance the colors and filter out reflections (remember to change the setting back when you are finished).
  • Like all outdoor photography, the best sunlight is very early in the morning or very late in the day.
  • Overcast days usually result in a more saturated (bolder) color; just don’t include much of the gray sky in your photo.
  • Close-up shots on individual leaves can be very interesting; be sure to use a macro lens with a wide aperture (small number) or your camera’s macro setting.
  • While an expanse of different colors may look wonderful to our eyes, it will not transfer to a photograph.  Be sure to include something other than leaves in your photo like a road, water or some sort of structure (covered bridges work exceptionally well in fall photos).
  • Fall flowers like mums are always popular subjects; be sure to kneel so you aren’t shooting down on them.
  • When photographing scarecrows or a stuffed dummy, use the photography rules for people (fill the frame and don’t crop at the joints).
  • Fill the frame with your jack o’ lantern and try several angles to maximize spookiness (shooting from below is usually good).  For best results, don’t include the candle in your shot and take the photo before it is totally dark.
  • Take advantage of the full moon on October 29th and include it in your photographs.
  • Arranging your shot is not cheating.  Feel free to move things where you want them.  If the wind didn’t blow the leaves in that creek, add a few and take the picture (no one will ever know).

The Photographer’s Ephemeris


I know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and that the positions and times differ throughout the year.  I know that the moon does the same throughout its 28 day cycle. I also know that the full moon will rise exactly where the sun did six months prior.  My knowledge of astronomy isn’t bad for a psychology major; but somehow, I never could wrap my mind around it. I’d take charts with me on vacation and end up looking in the sky and guessing.  Those days are gone thanks to The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) – a graphical sun and moon calculator developed for photographers by a photographer.

Unlike many online ephemerides that force you to choose from a set list of places, TPE uses Google Maps to search for and plot any place in the world. As such, a data connection is required to display the maps, but it will hold your last place and display the basic information without a connection.  That basic information – moon phase, sun and moon rise and set times and the angles for these events would be enough to make TPE a useful tool, but there is so much more.  A slider tool displays the paths of the sun and moon over a 24 hour period or a one hour period for more detail.  In other words, you can plot where the sun (or moon) will be at a given time, at a given place, on a given day with little effort.  In addition to the path lines, the azimuth and altitude are listed for precise placement.  Azimuth is measured in degrees and might not be a familiar concept. Just think of a circular map – the very top is North (0⁰), East is straight right (90⁰), South is the very bottom (180⁰) and West is straight left (270⁰).  Azimuth combines with altitude (how far above the horizon something is), to give you the exact position of the sun or moon. The feature that puts TPE in a tie for the title of coolest app ever (Star Walk is the other), is its ability to adjust rise and set times for changes in elevation.  When and where will the sun rise over this mountain? When will the light of the setting sun hit this meadow? When and where will the moon come into view over these buildings? TPE can make these calculations for any day of the year. Granted, this requires some work, but there are tutorials on their website and on YouTube.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris has become an integral part of my outdoor photography. The usefulness for landscape photography is clear, but I use it for weddings too.  Never again will I have to drive to a location a few days early to “see where” the sun is. TPE can be downloaded to your computer for free from photoephemeris.com and is available for iPad ($8) and Android ($6).  The tablet versions are optimized for touch screen and gyro sensors for increased functionality and worth it at three times the cost. Now all I have to do is reconfigure the camera bag for my trip to Acadia National Park; I’m sure I’ll get the iPad in there somehow.

Camera Math

It’s back to school and time for math class.  Don’t worry, I won’t be asking you to solve quadratic equations (remember FOIL?); we’ll be doing camera math. So pay attention, this WILL be on the test!

F stop: Officially, it’s the focal length divided by the diameter of the aperture; in practice, this is your aperture setting.  In low light situations, your pupils dilate to allow in extra light.  In bright light, they close (think of walking out of a movie in the daytime).  The aperture on a camera lens can be set to allow in a lot of light (wide aperture) or a little light (narrow aperture).  Here’s the tricky part: because of the way they are calculated, the f stop settings are the opposite of what we might think.  A low number – f/2.8 – is a very wide aperture that lets in a lot of light.  A high number – f/22 – is a very narrow setting that allows in much less light.

Shutter Speed: Shutter speeds are expressed in fractions of a second.  A setting of 1/400 means the shutter will be open for 1/400th of a second.  A shutter that is open for a short time is said to be “fast” and one that is open for a long time is said to be “slow”.  So the smaller the fraction, the larger the denominator and the faster the shutter speed (or the larger the fraction, the smaller the denominator and the slower the shutter speed).  Remember, 1/400 is smaller than 1/60 even though 400 is larger than 60.

ISO:  ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization and why it isn’t IOS is way too boring of a story.  It’s a logarithmic scale used to represent how sensitive a film (or sensor) is to light. This one is straightforward:  the higher the number, the faster the film and the more sensitive to light.  So, a high speed film, say 800, is better in lower light or with shorter shutter speeds.

It’s almost time for the bell to ring.  Next class we will discuss the relationship between f stop, shutter speed and ISO and which settings to use in different situations.

Part II

Welcome back!  In our last class we defined F stop, shutter speed and ISO.  These three elements combine to form the exposure triangle. Understanding their relationship is the key to taking quality photos.

Think of exposure as a number line with perfect exposure at zero.  The further away from zero, the worse your pictures are.  If your photos come out dark, they’re underexposed (negative side).  To fix this you can open the aperture by using a smaller f stop, decrease the shutter speed or increase the ISO setting.  If your photos come out too bright and lack detail, they’re overexposed (positive side).  To fix this you can close the aperture by using a higher f stop, increase the shutter speed or decrease the ISO setting.  Often, changing one side of the triangle is enough to fix exposure problems; unfortunately, “which side” and “how much” to change depend on the situation.

ISO:  A higher ISO setting will let the camera make the best use of the available light, but set it too high and that image will be very grainy.   The lower the speed, the better the photo and most consumer cameras don’t do well beyond 400 ISO.  Change this side of the triangle when you need just a little more or less light.  Use it as a first step; it might be all you need.  Settings between 100 and 400 are low enough not to be grainy.

F Stop:  A full open aperture will take in a lot of light, but produces a very shallow depth of field.  This means that the camera will only focus on the items close to you and blur the background.  If you want the entire photo to be clear you must use a small aperture that takes in less light (higher number).   Adjust this side of the triangle when depth of field doesn’t matter and a fast shutter speed is more important, as in action shots.

Shutter Speed:  A slower shutter speed will take in more light, but too slow and the photo will be blurry.  In general, you can’t hold a camera and shoot below 1/60 without camera shake.  Change this side when you need to have the background in focus, such as landscapes or group photos (the mountains won’t move, but tell the people to stay still).

We’ll finish our discussion next class and review for the test!

Part III

OK class, settle down.  We have one new topic to cover before our exam – megapixels.  A pixel is short for picture element and refers to the number of tiny squares of storage, arranged in a grid, on your camera’s sensor; it’s also called the resolution. One megapixel equals one million pixels.  Total number of megapixels (MP) is calculated by multiplying width by height (like area); so 3,000 pixels X 2,000 pixels equal 6MP. Because this is a specific number and a simple calculation, the advertising world has latched on to the concept of MP. They have bombarded us with the idea that a higher MP is always better and the only indicator of picture quality; this is what we call “the megapixel trap.”

I have two main cameras: Canon’s Digital Rebel XTI and Canon’s 5D.  The 5D is a 12.8MP camera and the Rebel is a 10.1MP. Under identical conditions, the 5D will capture a superior image.  Why? Not because of the extra 2.7 million pixels, because it is a better camera.  One of the most important differences is the sensor size.  My 5D has a full-frame image sensor (about 36mm X 24mm) and my Rebel has a cropped image sensor (around 24mm X 16mm); the larger the sensor, the more light it “sees” and the better the picture.  Phones and compact cameras have even smaller sensors. When the manufacturers increase the MP count, they are not increasing the sensor size, just dividing it up into smaller pieces.  The other important factor in image quality is the lens used; the better the lens, the better the image (with everything else equal).  Phones and compact cameras have simple lenses, often with limited focusing abilities.  Their photos will always be inferior because they are from inferior equipment, not because of the pixel count.  That’s not to say you can’t get a good photo from them; they are fine for standard print or web photos and nothing beats the convenience.  So does pixel count matter at all?  Yes, but pixel count has to be quadrupled for any obvious improvement in quality.  This explains why the early increases in MP were significant (say 1MP to 4MP), but the more recent ones are not.

In summary, don’t brag to me about the 8MPcamera in your smartphone; I will not be impressed (at least, not in the way you intended).

In addition to megapixels, students should review the definitions of ISO, f stop and shutter speed and understand the relationship between the three. The quiz can be found at: www.YoureOnIt.com/quiz.html  (and you probably thought I was joking!).