Jun 2010

Night Photography

Here is another fantastic article from Dave of DCSteps. I think you will enjoy this as much as I did.

Urban Nights and Lights

So far I’ve been talking here about bird photography, but I thought I’d cover how to make use of some of the same equipment in an entirely different vein of photography. For most of my bird photography I use a sturdy tripod combined with a strong ballhead and a gimbaled head. If I take the gimbaled head off and substitute a wide-angle lens for the super telephoto used in bird photography, then I’m set for urban night photography.

I dabble in architectural photography, but really enjoy combining that with night photography. In some ways, getting a dramatic night shot is easier than getting a really “special” shot in the day time. The same rules of composition and perspective still apply, but the addition of artificial lights on a building seems to make things more dramatic, at least to my eye.

Well lit downtown areas tend to offer good subjects. One of my examples below is Radio City Music Hall in New York, which you might consider “cheating” to shoot something so iconic, but the other is Boston Avenue Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thinking of the places that I’ve lived, the bridges in Jacksonville, the lit up buildings and streets of Dallas, Denver and Tulsa all offer great subjects. Try to find subjects locally but, when you travel to New York City or Vegas or Paris, pack the tripod.

In addition to the tripod, I also use a remote, wired shutter release to avoid any movement when I release the shutter. My DSLR has a function called “Live View” that puts the reflex mirror up and shows the scene on the camera back’s LCD. Raising the mirror and then using a remote release avoids any shake when the shutter is started and then closed. If you don’t have a remote release, then you might use your camera’s delayed release, combined with the mirror lock-up, if it has it. Point and shoot cameras don’t need to worry about mirror shake, but a remote release is still good, to avoid moving the camera as you press the Shutter button.

I use two primary methods for night exposures. Sometimes I use Aperture Preferred automated settings and let the camera calculate the exposure and other times I use the “Bulb” setting an experiment. When the subject fills a large part of the frame and you’re not trying to do things like catch blurred traffic in the same image with buildings, then the Aperture Preferred method generally works very well.

DCStep June 30a

See DCStep for a larger image.

For this Boston Avenue Church image I used the Aperture Preferred method. Since the background was largely black and the building was brightly lit, I used -1EV to avoid over exposing the building. (Whenever a portion of a subject is well lit and most of the background is totally dark, the camera will typically over expose the highlights while trying to give you a good average reading). Remember, you can change the exposure after you look at the Preview of your image and it’s either too dark or too bright. Be sure to look at it large size (if your camera allows) to make certain that you didn’t over expose some small detail area, or didn’t have enough exposure to bring out shadowed areas. Generally you’ll have time to bracket up and down 1 or 2 EV, to see how it impacts your final results. Remember, once you’ve paid for your equipment, extra images are essentially free.

I screwed up on the Boston Avenue Church images, forgetting to bring my remote release on the trip. You can see that I got a nice shot, but I ruined a few others with camera shake when I released the shutter. I knew of this risk and took some extras to be certain that I had a sharp image.

I like to use a true wide-angle lens for most architectural photography. I use a full-frame Canon body (the EOS 5D MkII), meaning that the digital sensor is roughly the same size as 35mm film. The full frame sensor gives a wider field of view through my EF 24-105mm f/4L IS than when the same lens on my “crop-sensor” 7D. In fact, at 24mm on the 7D, the equivalent focal length is just over 38mm. I think that 17mm to 24mm is the best focal length range for architecture on a full-frame camera.

This image was taken at 24mm, f/8.0, ISO 100 and -1EV, resulting in a shutter speed of 2.5-seconds. The low ISO setting is critical, because large parts of the image are under exposed and will show much more digital noise at higher ISO settings. I could have used ISO 3200 or 6400 and handheld this shot, but the noise would have been very intrusive. With the low ISO the blacks are deep and rich, highlighting the building dramatically.

DCStep June 30

See DCStep for a larger image.

For this image of the iconic Radio City Music Hall I used the Bulb setting to get the building sharp, but allow the streaks of taillights from the moving traffic. As with the Boston Avenue Church image, I used a low ISO 100 to minimize digital noise. Once again I had the 24-105mm zoom lens all the way wide at 24mm because I like that perspective, but I used a smaller f/16 aperture which allowed me to leave shutter open longer without over exposing the building itself. I wanted the building well exposed, but I also wanted the lights of heavy traffic to be obvious in the image.

After I set up my tripod, I’d wait until traffic was coming and then, with the mirror up in my camera’s Live View mode, I’d hold the shutter open on Bulb for a few seconds. At the time I knew that I was holding the shutter open three or four seconds, but I had no idea that it was actually 3.2-seconds. I’d take an image, look at the Preview and either increase or decrease the exposure by a little. Shooting in RAW there’s great leeway to bring the exposure level up or down, but I tried to get the building lights about right.

If you look at the EXIF data for this image you’ll see that the camera was set at -2/3EV. That’s meaningless on Bulb settings. I’d taken a couple of shots of the building using the camera’s exposure, hence I set it at –EV to avoid over exposing the many lights. In Bulb mode you’re overriding all the camera’s calculation, so it doesn’t matter if it’s set at 0EV, -2EV or +4EV. I cropped this square because the building is kind of square.

By the way, my technique for setting the tripod position is to set the lens at the focal length that I want, then set up the tripod and look at the subject. If the subject is too small in the frame I move forward and if the subject is too large I move away. I didn’t end of standing in the middle of a street for either of these shots, but if I did, I’d change the focal length of the zoom lens. Getting close and using the lens’ widest focal length generally gives a more dramatic perspective. It usually only takes a little more effort to move the tripod rather than zooming in or out from wherever you happen to be standing, but I think the results are well worth that effort.

If you have a good tripod and a wide-angle lens for your camera, then you can take these types of shots pretty easily. The remote shutter release is a nice added accessory, but not absolutely required. I’ve started making night photography part of my travel plans by packing the tripod, even when bird photography is not on the agenda.

Happy shooting,




This past weekend we were at Steamboat Lake in Colorado. As we were eating our lunch my daughters and their cousins started to gather dandelions from the grassy field. They decided to decorate the local picnic table. They had a great time and the table looks great.



Last summer I went with my daughter on a hike once a week. This hike was memorable for two reasons. First she told me she was not going to the college she had been accepted to. She did change her mind about the college and had a life changing time. The other reason was the temperature was over 100 degrees. We came across this small stream. There was only enough water to slightly dampen the path. Every insect imaginable was here. I took this photo of a wasp getting a quick drink. I love the DOF surrounding the wasp.

The Specs:
hand held

Thanks for visiting today




This photo teaches a great lesson. Great equipment helps you get good photos, but in order to get the photos you must get out and take the pictures. This photo is the first picture I took with my new macro lens two years ago. I took this photo with in minutes of receiving the new lens. So get out and take lots of pictures.

Thanks for visiting.


When Size Matters

Here is another edition from Dave of DCStep. Dave has some incredible photos. His descriptions on how he took them are detailed and very educational. I think you will enjoy this post as much as I did. After reading this post, please take the time and look at the many wonderful images that Dave has collected.

When Size Matters
I thought it’d be interesting to compare two very similar images taken with two of Canon’s very sharpest and most popular lenses for bird photography, the EF 400mm f/5.6L and the EF 500mm f/4L IS.

The subject in each image is a Western Meadowlark, known most for its strong and beautiful song that can be heard throughout the Rocky Mountain region and many other parts of the USA. Its back is a complex brown, but its breast, throat and part of its face are a rich, photogenic yellow that really shows off well in morning and evening light. They also look like they’ve got a little black bib on their upper chests. Particularly endearing is the gusto used in the delivery of its song, as it rears back and belts out a melody that can be heard for couple of hundred yards.

One “trick” used in both of these images is taking full advantage of the Canon 7D’s high shutter burst rate of 8-frames per second. Back in the old dark ages of film I might have waited and tried to time my shot to happen at the peak of his song delivery. Now, with glorious digital where multiple images are almost free, I simply press the shutter when he starts his song and hold it down until he finishes. I use a 32-gigabite Compact Flash (“CF”) card in my camera and carry an 8-gigabite “spare” so that I never worry too much about running out of space for another shot. Remember, once you’ve invested in the equipment, digital shots are almost free. Shots are not “wasted” if you take twenty and only use one because the unused nineteen allowed you to get that one “special” shot.

Another couple of techniques that both images have in common are using my “car blind” and hand holding the camera/lenses while resting the lens on my arm which is resting on the car window. You can approach many animals much more closely in your car than you can on foot. Their comfort zone seems to at least double when you’re inside a vehicle. I took advantage of this by slowly cruising Colorado’s Cherry Creek State Park in my car, with the windows down while listening for meadowlarks, spotting them and driving my car as close as practical.

When outside my car, I typically use a sturdy tripod and gimbal head for shooting birds, but in the car I find it very effective to rest the camera on my forearm which is resting on the windowsill of the car. I scrunch down a little and get a good view through the viewfinder. Lenses that are 400mm and longer are really hard to hold still, even when the lens has Image Stabilization (“IS”). My 500mm lens has IS, but the 400mm lens does not. Many people use beanbags on the car window sill and a few actually mount a gimbal head on their car window.

The first image shown below was taken with my EF 400mm f/5.6L lens on my Canon 7D body around 4 p.m. using Aperture Priority at f/5.6 (wide open for this lens), ISO 800, +1EV (to account for slightly soft light), resulting in 1/3200-second shutter speed. I could have used ISO 400 and still had plenty of shutter speed, but the light was changing fast and I didn’t want to under expose.
DCStep June16a

The resulting image is the most “Interesting” on my Flickr site, as determined by Flickr’s formula that considers the number of views, number of comments and number of viewers that mark the image as a Favorite. Note the background bokeh, the bird’s tongue showing, the nice perch and, of course, the singing pose, which are all positive elements.

This next image was taken with my EF 500mm f/4L IS with the EF 1.4x Extender attached, also on my 7D. As usual, I used Aperture Priority, set at f/8, ISO 800 and -1/3EV due to bright sun, resulting in 1/2500 second shutter speed (I’m always ready in case a bird flies). Using hindsight, I would have had plenty of shutter speed at ISO 400.
DCStep June18

The Flickr members also like this image and it’s quickly moved up in my “Interestingness Set”. Some of the elements that people like are the pretty bird with rich colors, nice background bokeh, pleasing perch and the classic meadowlark singing pose. Comparing the two poses, I prefer the second slightly because the head is turned toward me where in the first his profile is slightly away from the camera, but that negative is offset somewhat by his tongue showing. There is no highlight in the eye of the second shot, which is a small negative, which I could fix in Photoshop by cloning a pixel or three from a light area into the eye.

In both cases I had about twenty images of the same bird and chose the strongest pose for posting. I often arrive at a photo opportunity and take some “safe” pictures of a bird that’s sitting with its back to me, or somehow posing in a less than ideal position. Often, if I keep waiting and keep taking shots, the bird will finally move to a better pose. This may involve waiting and watching for fifteen to thirty-minutes and sometimes more. On Memorial Day, I spent two-hours and took close to 1,000 images of a group of American white pelicans in their cooperative hunting behavior, trying to get them all lined up, with the right light, simultaneously going through their motions. I got some nice stuff, but never got the image that I had in mind.

The range on both images was in the 60 to 80-feet distance. With the 500mm lens and the 1.4x extender, I did very little cropping of the RAW image, but with the 400mm lens I had to crop ten times as much. The first image’s compressed jpeg file is 734KB while the second image’s compressed jpeg is 7.8MB!

Comparing them at this size (95KB for the first image and 86KB for the second) you can see that the second image is a little sharper and shows a little stronger contrast, but that’s only evident when you try hard. Small, internet image sizes are a great equalizer. Flickr viewers seem to like these two images equally well, so the compromise in quality seems small, even though I had to crop the image taken with the 400mm lens ten-times more severely than I had to with the 500mm and the 1.4x extender.

Differences become more apparent as you compare the images in larger sizes. This link takes you to the first image (taken with the 400mm lens) at its “
Original” size.

This link shows you the second image at its “
Large” size.

No sharp eye or magnifying loop is required to see that the second image is much clearer, more detailed and shows better contrast. Still, if you’re never going to look at large sized image files, then it may not matter to you and spending six-times as much to go from a 400mm to a 500mm lens may seem like a total waste of money. Many people, maybe most, never look at image files larger than those shown in the body of this blog.

I don’t tend to make large prints of my images and mount them on the wall, but if I did, the 500mm images are the more likely ones that I’d chose to print. One thing that I do regularly is view my images on a 47” HDTV at 1080 resolution. At that size, even from a normal viewing distance, it’s easy to see the differences between the two lenses. If you don’t already view your images on your HDTV, I highly recommend that you try it.

Oh, I just realized, some of you may be asking, “Why not put the 1.4x extender on the 400mm lens?” I would, but the f/5.6 maximum aperture is too slow for the autofocus to work on my 7D. I’ve tried it and it’s just too slow for anything moving. The 7D and most modern digital dslr cameras are not designed for manual focus, although you can change the image screen in the viewfinder if you want to attempt manual focus.

The focal length of the 500mm is 25% longer than the 400mm and the aperture is only a stop larger, but the lens is around four-times as large and cost six-times as much. You can reduce bulk, weight and cost by either shortening the focal length or slowing the aperture speed, but one or the other has to give. The Canon’s 500mm is more of a “no compromise” lens.

The 500mm lens’ f/4 aperture is fast enough that the 1.4x extender does not slow its autofocus function appreciably, so I leave it on almost all the time. I take it off when I plan to shoot birds in flight because it’s too hard to accurately track a fast bird when the 1.4x extender is installed. That’s a human failing, not an equipment failing. As I practice more and more, I hope that I’ll be able to track ducks and other fast birds with the extender installed, but my skill level hasn’t reached that high yet.

I took the extender off yesterday to shoot an American Bison allowing more than its head and shoulders in the shot.

So, you see, for taking pictures of small birds, size matters, but it may matter little or none, depending on how you plan to use the images.

Click here for my most “
Interesting” images on Flickr.


Lewis River

Lewis River

Two weeks ago when we were in the Teton’s and Yellowstone the weather was rainy and less then ideal. This was one of the brief windows we had of no rain and some sunshine. This was the point at which things started to go against my plans. My sinus headache started and I realized I had left my tripod at home. This area was spectacular. There were small waterfalls everywhere. They were being fed by the three feet of snow still on the ground. For this photo I walked through the snow to the edge and quickly took a photo. This was the last I took during our time in Yellowstone. The sinus headache was too painful.

I processed this HDR from a single exposure and then finished the look with a touch of Topaz Adjust.

Thanks for visiting today.


Jenny's Lake

Jenny's Lake

This photo was taken at Jenny’s Lake in the Grand Teton’s. This photo was taken by my ten year old daughter using my Nikon D300 with an 18-135 lens attached. I processed this one in much the same way I did the earlier version. I used Lightroom 3 and then finished up by enhancing the details and color with Topaz Adjust 4. The final touch was to reduce the noise.

I like this photo because it shows the rugged life of the rocky mountains.
I like the waves and ever so slight reflection.
I like the color of the water.
I like the mountains on the top and the water being framed by the trees on the bottom.

The specs:
Iso 200
1/125 second

Thank you for visiting today.


Jenny Lake

Jenny Lake-1

Last week we travelled to Wyoming to visit our daughter and to participate in her wedding open house. We left a day earlier so that we could drive through the Teton’s and Yellowstone. I was looking forward to this trip. There would be many new opportunities to capture new photos. We left in plenty of time to reach Cody on time and stop for several photos. As soon as we arrived in the Teton’s it started to rain. By the time we made it to Jenny’s Lake it was a steady rain. I was disappointed, but decided to try for a few photos.

The photo above was taken in Raw. I did an initial process in Lightroom. I transfered the photo to photoshop to remove some spots. As I was looking at the photo it was grey and drab. I decided to try the plugin Topaz adjust. I cranked up the effects to reach this look. Then I ran the photo through a noise reduction software. The Topaz software brought out the details of the photo and helped to define the mountains.

Thank you,



Today we I am pleased to have Dave Stephens as a guest blogger. Dave and I met through flickr. I was drawn to his amazing nature photos. He has some incredible action shots of some of natures most beautiful animals. In his blog he describes how he takes the photos and describes some of his incredible equipment. I have the opinion of my friend Jon Adams that the best camera is the one you have. Through Dave’s blog and flickr photo stream it is very evident that great equipment does help to make a photo that much better. I hope you enjoy the time reading Dave’s blog and that you enjoy his photos as much as I do.

Darrin asked me to contribute guest blogs, focusing on my interest in bird and wildlife photography. Let me briefly introduce myself and then I’ll blog about a recent photography.

I met Darrin on Flickr, where we both post. I live on the Eastern side of the Rockies, near Denver, and he lives on the Western side, so naturally we seem to like similar scenic images and we were drawn to each others’ photographic work.

I’ve been interested in photography for over fifty-years. Starting in junior high, I was lucky enough to take “Graphic Arts” under a teacher that spent a couple of six-week periods showing us how to make our own pen-hole cameras, load our cameras in the dark room, take a photo of our classmates and then process our negatives and produce our own prints in the darkroom.

Ever since that class I’ve been involved, off and on, in photography for fun. After a long “off” period, I decided that digital photography had developed enough for me to give it a serious try, so I bought Canon’s top end point and shoot camera of the time, a G7. That was followed by a G9 and then by my first DSLR in late 2008, the Canon 5D MkII.

In the spring of 2009 I was on vacation at Melbourne Beach, Florida when a chance encounter with an osprey fishing from the top of our hotel rekindled an interest in bird and nature photography. Soon thereafter I’d invested in a 400mm lens. I told myself that if I’d taken more than 1,000 images with the lens over the next four months that I’d keep it. I ended up taking 10,000 images in my “test period.”

Recently I took a deep plunge into wildlife photography by investing in Canon’s EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens. It’s big, heavy, expensive and so powerful that I felt like I was “cheating” the first few times that I used it. In the few weeks that I’ve owned it I’ve taken close to 5,000 images. (We’ll discuss the need to take multiple images of wild subjects as I blog about specific images).

Click here to view my most “Interesting” images, as determined by some Flickr algorithm.dcstep-1
Click here to leave a comment for Dave.
Click here to view in large size.
Click here to view in original size.

This Roseate Spoonbill image was taken while I was recently in North Florida for my high school reunion. I grew up in Florida on the banks of the St. Johns River between downtown Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean, yet I’d never seen a Roseate Spoonbill. I knew they were there, but I’d just never sought them out.

While they are fairly common in Florida, they tend to cluster in rookeries that are deep in the swamp and literally surrounded by alligator infested waters. In fact, two popular locations to photograph them are at Gatorland, near Orlando and The Alligator Farm, in St. Augustine. I chose Guana Park, because it was near to where I’d be staying at Jacksonville Beach.

Like any good expedition I needed to plan ahead. My weekend would be full visiting with family, friends and my old classmates. I only had one morning that I could dedicate to bird photography, so I needed to know where my subjects would most likely be. Fortunately for me, my brother still lives in Jacksonville and knew a birder/photographer that knew where to find the Roseate Spoonbills. One weekend before my arrival, my brother and his friend went to Guana Park to make sure that the birds were in their usual place and for my brother to learn how to get there.

It turns out that the birds were about a 45-minute walk from the park entrance, on a small, island, not too far from shore, but surrounded by swamp and alligators. With my brother as my guide, we arrived before sunrise and walked in to the East side of the birds as the sun rose, giving us great light. The last fifty-feet involved walking through a peat bog while avoiding snakes. When I set up my tripod it sank about 8-inches into the peat.

We spent about an hour photographing the spoonbills and the wood storks that shared the same rookery. The pre-dawn start assured us of good morning light. The park is large, but I could have found the birds myself, without guidance, but it would have taken several hours.

For wildlife and bird photography, knowing where to look is half the battle. When I see birders and/or other photographers I ask, “What have you seen and where.” We help each other. I’ve gotten some good results by taking off blindly into the woods and listening for birds and moving quietly toward them, but my odds increase when I have a plan.

For this image I used my Canon EOS 7D with the EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens attached with an EF 1.4x Extender, all mounted on an Induro C414 carbon fiber tripod, with an Arca-Swiss Z1 ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick gimbal. (I’ll talk more about why I use certain equipment in future blogs). The exposure was at 1/2500-second, at Aperture Preferred f/8, ISO 800 and -2/3EV. The relatively high ISO resulted in a high shutter speed in case I caught a bird in flight. The -2/3EV was used to avoid blowing out the highlights in the very strong, direct morning sunlight. Whites and pinks are particularly prone to blow out in strong light.

Don’t be too daunted by the huge focal length equivalency that I’m using here. The 7D’s crop-sensor gives a 35mm film-equivalent focal factor of 1.6-times, such that a 100mm lens gives an image that looks like a 160mm lens would look like on a 35mm film camera. So my 500mm lens, plus the 1.4x Extender equals 700mm, times 1.6x equals 1120mm equivalency! As you might imagine, I need to crop very little. If you were there beside me with a 400mm lens on something like a Canon Rebel, you could have got a pretty nice image by using a lower ISO, slowing the shutter speed and cropping heavily. Particularly at internet sizes, your results can be pretty pleasing. My equipment increases my “keeper ratio” and results in a higher IQ (image quality), but for purposes of posting on the internet in relatively small images sizes, many people will never know the difference. The fun of the “hunt” is just as good, so long as you have a decent chance to get a pleasing image.

In future blogs I’ll talk more about the “keeper ratio” and how it’s simply a fact of life in wildlife photography.

Click here to view my most “Interesting” images, as determined by some Flickr algorithm.