Thursday, December 23, 2010

Learning to Focus - Part 3


You must own a tripod! That 3 legged support structure is one of the oldest tools known to mankind. They hold pots over a fire, were used in sacrificial ceremonies and support machine guns in war time.

Now, tripods provide portable stability and sharper images for a variety of photographic techniques. Long exposure pictures taken in low light that would blur if the camera moved can be sharp and vibrant with the stable support of a tripod. A telephoto lens will amplify any camera movement and easily blur your picture. A tripod, and, in fact, any stable surface, can help keep those pictures in focus.

Note: Nikon recommends that you turn off Vibration Reduction (VR) when using a tripod. VR starts a gyroscope when you hold the shutter release down halfway that helps stabilize a hand held camera, but can induce movement and vibration when the camera is supported on a tripod, especially when using a telephoto lens.

Heavy lenses come with their own tripod mounting bracket to correctly balance the weight.

Tripods come in a variety of sizes, strength and quality as do the camera mount heads. What you need depends on your camera and application and is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that heavier cameras require stronger (and more expensive) tripods. Here is a nice informational article on Wikipedia.

But there are tips to improve the performance of any tripod. First, check the bottom of your camera. Most have the standard size (1/4 inch, 20 threads per inch) screw socket, ready to attach to a standard tripod. Camera mounted? Let's go.

Keep your tripod short. Shorter is more stable. I do not extend the legs any longer then I need to. And I only raise the center pole as a last resort!

Add weight. Since a heavier support is more stable, you can improve the performance of your inexpensive tripod by hanging weight from the center. Some tripods include a hook at the bottom of the center pole. I carry a bungie cord for this purpose and use my camera bag as the weight. Tying the tripod to a secure point embedded in the ground is even better but less portable. This is a big help for long exposures.

A little weight can help stablize a lighter tripod.

If it is windy, I will stand upwind with my coat open like a flasher trying to protect the camera from moving. Every little bit helps.

Small tripods for small cameras are useful too. Gorilla Pod makes a popular flexible leg tripod that will wrap around a pipe or chair back.

This size Gorilla pod is perfect for my Flip camera.

Some people make their own tripods. You can see a wide variety at

I find that an unintended advantage to using a tripod is that it slows me down. Moving and framing takes more effort and I find myself spending extra time thinking through the shot.

You might want to add a mono pod to your collection. They add stability, are easy to carry and can be used in places where tripods would be awkward or forbidden. Even using a mono pod, I look to support it against something solid, such as a railing. Place the base firmly against your foot or even inside your shoe. And, again, shorter is more stable. Only extend it as far as you need to.

The idea is you can improve the sharpness of your photographs simply by creating a positive stable platform for the camera, whether it be on a $1000 tripod or the top of a fence post.

More focus to come...

Friday, December 17, 2010

Learning to Focus - Part 2

Camera Movement

Another seemingly obvious bit of advice is to not move the camera while taking the picture.
The small size and live view LCD screens on point and shoot cameras make it a challenge to hold those cameras steady. While electronic innovations such as Image Stabilization (to be covered later) are extremely helpful and work well, moving the camera can and will reduce the sharpness of your pictures. Take positive control and keep that camera still.

Shutter speed can overcome camera movement and will be covered in another post.

Composing the picture on the LCD screen on the back of the camera seems like a great idea. But holding the camera out at arm's length is an unstable posture. And then you push on the top of the camera to take the shot. Gravity, mass, balance and inertia are all working against your efforts to keep that camera still and capture a sharp picture.

I moved the camera before this 8 second shot had finished.

One solution is to use the view finder, if you have one. Placing the view finder to your eye adds a point of contact and helps steady the camera. If your camera does not have a view finder, well, I suggest you look for one on your next camera.

Otherwise, steady your arms by leaning against anything, put your elbows on a table, or your shoulder against a wall. Keep your arms close to your body.

Pushing the shutter release is the next problem. Tiny cameras held at arm's length will move as you take the picture. Remember (from part 1) to push the release halfway and wait for autofocus to do its' thing. This is when Image Stabilization works too. Now you only need a tiny bit more pressure to take that shot.
DSLRs have more heft and are easier to hold steady, that is unless you have been shooting all day, then it feels like a lead weight. I recommend using live view only when you need it, like to shoot over the heads of a crowd using that fancy swing out and swivel LCD screen. Otherwise, use the view finder to get that extra contact point. Keep your arms close to your side. Lean against something, especially when using slow shutter speeds. Prop the camera itself against the wall too for an additional contact point. One foot forward is more stable then side by side. The more stable you hold the camera, the slower the shutter speed you can get away with and the lower the ISO you can use.

Even your breathing can create camera movement. That is what makes the biathlon an Olympic sport. The athletes control their breathing to steady their aim. Photography is not yet an Olympic event but to get every ounce of sharpness, think about your breathing while shooting. Just before taking the picture, take an easy breath, let half out, hold it and snap the shot.

The message here is to think about how to steady your camera with every shot. It is something you can control. Do not rely totally on Image Stabilization, auto focus, high ISO and a fast shutter speed, not if you are aiming for the sharpest picture you can get.

More focus to come...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Learning to Focus - Part 1

Tack sharp focus, Unsharp mask, out-of-focus, bokeh, Gaussian blur, motion blur, shallow focus, depth of field, soft focus. These are all terms used to define the quality of the sharpness of a picture. And they are all good keywords to have in the beginning of this post.

Photographers may artistically use the full range, from exact focus to completely blurred, often in a single picture. As you will see, there is quite a bit to think about and my intention is to explore and document the various techniques used to achieve that desired focus on a consistent basis. As always, this blog is primarily for my own education. And I hope you benefit as well.

In focus or out of focus, it's your choice.

I will start this multi-part journey simply. Folks show me their pictures and I enjoy looking at them. So many are unintentionally out of focus, often due to the simple misunderstanding of how modern cameras use auto focus.

Push the shutter release halfway down and hold it there before taking the picture. This activates the auto focus and auto exposure functions and allows the camera time to adjust to a generally good picture.

This seemed obvious to me, until I met someone that did not realize that this is how cameras work. There was instant and dramatic improvement in their pictures when I pointed this out. This instruction is probably on the first page of the first chapter of your camera manual, but many people do not realize its' importance. Many folks are used to Instamatic cameras with fixed lenses. That shutter release has only one function, to release the shutter. When they buy their first point and shoot camera, they assume it works in a similar manner.

There is more to this halfway shutter release that we will use in a variety of focusing techniques. It also performs other functions. If you are viewing a picture or have the menu up on the LCD screen, it resets the camera in preparation to take a picture. It turns on telemetry in the view finder or an information window so you can check a variety of settings. It is the most used function on digital cameras and crucial for getting the most out of auto focus.

More to come...

Monday, December 13, 2010

What camera should I buy? Part 2

Let's assume that you will buy a new camera. If you are going to create serious art, sell your services for weddings and portraits or even make it a serious hobby, an SLR (probably a digital) will best suit your needs. They allow you the most creative options with large image sensors, interchangible lenses, filters and attachments.

On the other hand, if you are looking to document your life, want ease of use and the best quality a point and shoot camera can deliver, consider the Canon G12, the Nikon P7000 or the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5.
These top of the line point and shoot cameras are what many professional photographers carry when they are not working. They take excellent pictures and allow full manual control. The specs are slightly different for each camera, but they have Image Stabilization, 5x to 7x zoom, HD video, hot shoes and are as good as a point and shoot gets in low light. Lenses are not interchangible, eliminating that concern making them much easier to carry.

I do not own any of these cameras but one is on my wish list. The links take you to Amazon where you can read many user reviews and associated comments yourself.

You will see many cheaper point and shoot cameras.  When you evaluate their features and quality, these are the cameras that they should be compared to.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What camera should I buy?

It seems everyone wants a better camera and I am often asked for advice on what camera they should buy. Considering the sheer number and variety of camera types, I tend to respond with a series of questions. Will you be creating serious art or casually documenting your family vacations and how much money can you spend are usually the first few. Several more questions follow before I suggest some internet searching.

But I have recently added a question to that list that I often ask myself whenever I get the urge to purchase the latest technically advanced offering. Am I getting the most out of the camera I own? Do I understand everything my camera can do? Am I taking advantage of those features I have? Am I getting excellent pictures and, if not, is it the camera's fault or mine?

Be honest. Will I use the new features? Can I afford the accessories, the additional lenses, the tax and the shipping and insurance? Will I auto-magically get better pictures?

To me, photography is about composition and exposure. All cameras help with exposure but they have their limits. You will often get a better picture if you take some level of manual control over the exposure settings. Your present camera will most likely allow you to do that. Composition is entirely up to you and has little to do with the camera. And again, you want the ability to take control over the automatic functions, like focusing for example, as you compose the photograph. More zoom is nice, but you can move closer too. You will need these skills with the new camera as well.

Taken with a Nikon D80, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, ISO 100 and a shutter speed of 0.6 seconds.Taken from about 60 feet away in a fairly dark grove of eucalyptus trees. The D80 is not known for low light performance. Cropped and tweaked in Photoshop.

So, study your camera first. Read the manual. Understand every mode and how to push your camera's limits. Two things will happen, you will confirm what you really need in a new camera and better yet, you will instantly take better pictures.

Get more out of your camera by experimenting. Professional photographers would save the last frame on their film to experiment with settings. Do that any time you have your camera in hand (and after you get the important shots you went out to take).

If you truly need a better camera for an event, rent what you are considering buying and test it out. You just might find that your present camera is not so bad. I find the claims a bit exaggerated on all the cameras I've rented. Then search the forums for the opinions of others.

Maybe take that money and upgrade your computer or software. Take classes. Study composition, color and Photoshop. Invest in a new lens. A quality lens on a mediocre camera will take better pictures then a terrible lens on a good camera.

Once you are getting everything you can out of your present camera, a new one can take you to the next level. Check out this article by Scott Bourne to help your search. But first, consider these thoughts. They might make more difference to your photography then a new camera body.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz #19

It's Monday, but a week late on this answer. I'll take a break from the quiz and write some deep thoughts on photography for your reading pleasure and my own education. Scroll on down.

We vacationed in Northern California last summer to fullfill Lori's fishing needs. I captured some nice shots and read Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World". I took a series of pictures of a small river and forest that I think will make a really nice panorama.

Lassen Volcanic National Park was mostly closed due to heavy snow. It is home to a potentially active volcano seen here reflected in Manzanita Lake. It is a short hike to take this picture. The park is another example of the many dramatic natural landscapes found in the United States. Slightly out-of-the-way, this area sees less tourist traffic and can make for a relaxing yet facinating vacation.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz #19

Know what "mountain" this is? Don't say but you can still leave a comment. I'll try to post the answer on Monday.

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz #18

Yes, this is "The Thinker" by Rodin. If you are good with Wikipedia and Google Maps, you could positively identify the location from the seesaw sign in the background. Scroll down for more.

Originally named "The Poet", the sculpture portrays Dante contemplating his poem about the gates of hell  depicted below at the same location.

These pictures were taken at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. There are 10 full size bronze versions of The Thinker in the United States, 2 of them in the bay area at Stanford University and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

The museum in Philly had a large collection of hand sculptures. I knew little about bronze sculptures before this visit. The originals were carved in wax which are then used to create molds which in turn were used to cast the hollow bronze statues. A complex series of levers is used to exactly duplicate a sculpture into other sizes. The original wax versions are eventually lost.

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia hosts a great number of excellent art, history and science museums. Check'um out.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz #18

There are 10 of these full size bronze sculptures in the United States. I left a clue or 2 in the picture to help you locate where this one is. Don't say here. I'll provide the answer on Monday.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz #17

Any idea where these trees are? Scroll down for more.

These trees are located in Ferndale, California and are locally known as Coast Cyprus or Gumdrop Trees. I have found little information about that species on the internet but they were fun to look at and must be quite a trick to maintain. Ferndale is a great little town filled with Victorian style houses.We stopped by on the 4th of July during a winding tour of Northern California back in 2006 (I think). Thanks for playing!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz #17

Do you know where this tree is? Feel free to say so but don't reveal the answer. I'll do that on Monday. click the picture for a larger view.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz #16

Did you recognize the reflection in this picture? Scroll down for more.

Fort Point is a National Historic Site and part of the the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was built between 1853 and 1861 to protect San Francisco during the Civil War. It is the brick building in the bottom picture in the foreground underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

The fort is open to walk around Friday through Sunday and is free. The entire fort is also a museum hosting a recreation of civil war era life. Climb the granite circular staircases to the roof for spectacular views of the bridge, the bay and the city.

The bridge was specially engineered to save the fort from demolition and is a "must see" stop on my tour of the city.

It was raining during my last visit. Thanks to my sister for suggesting reflection shots in the puddles. I received several correct answers this week. Thanks for playing.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz #16

Know where this is? Leave a comment but not the answer, I'll provide that on Monday. Click the picture for a larger view.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz # 15

Did you know how this image is generated? More details follow the pictures.

MonkeyLectric from Jade Ajani on Vimeo.

I'm all about the light. MonkeyLectric is a company that makes an LED imaging product that you mount on the spokes of your bicycle wheels. It takes advantage of our brain's persistence of vision ability and creates whole pictures using linear rows of lights.

You can see the circuitry, batteries and rows of LED lights in the second picture.

I took these pictures (not the video) at the 2009 Maker Faire where you where able to draw your own pictures which can programmed and appear on this spinning wheel.

Check out their web site at:

Thanks for playing.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz # 15

Can you describe how this image is produced? Email me if you know or leave a comment that does not reveal the answer. I will provide that on Monday.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz # 14

Did you guess what this is a picture of and where it is? Read more details below the pictures.

If you guessed Abraham Lincoln's eyeball, you are correct. You can hike up very close underneath Mount Rushmore and take pictures from a different point of view, one that brings out the detail in this enourmous sculpture.

I find the importance of a "catch light" in the eyes translates to all forms of art. The artist here took great pains to carve out the eyes in a way that left a block of white granite to create the illusion of a reflected light that makes eyes come alive, a very important feature to consider in portrait or animal photography.

It wasn't quite the right time of day to get that Rembrandt lighting portrait photographers strive for. They all have racoon eyes or look like they are wearing masks. Next time.

Mount Rushmore is a US National Memorial in South Dakota. It is worth a visit along with many natural and man-made curiosities in that area of the country.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz #14

Can you tell me what you see here and where it is? If you know, don't post the answer. I'll do that on Monday. You can email me with the answer or leave a snarky comment.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz # 13

Only a day late with the answer. It was a busy Monday. Do you know this waterfall? I received one correct answer via email. For the answer, continue reading below the picture.

It was very crowded and hot the day we visited McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park and we decided not to hike to the base of the falls. So this is the only view I have. Check out this link for an overdose of pictures from Google Images.

Burney Creek orignates not far away due to the porous nature of the volcanic rocky ground. The falls are fed by snowmelt, numerous springs and a large underground reservoir, creating a wide and misty basin. Of course it is another California state park.

More information here.

Thanks for playing

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz # 13

Another water fall and a double at that. Do you recognize it? Feel free to say if you do but don't reveal the answer. I'll do that on Monday.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz # 12

Did you know what's going in this picture and the event that took place this last weekend? Read on below the pictures.

These pictures were taken at the Great Reno Balloon Race in Reno, Nevada in 2009. It is the largest free hot air balloon exhibition in the nation and the 2010 race was this past weekend. I didn't go this year, but it is a great opportunity for photography and the wonderment of getting close to these hot air balloons.

When I say close, I mean that the pilots will actually let you inside the balloon while it is inflating with the fans only (which they use before the propane fire breathing blasters). You can walk through the field of 100 balloons rising at once with no restrictions or cost. I have a stop action animation of the mass ascention at this link.

It is an easy drive to Reno from the San Francisco bay area and it is possible to avoid the downtown casinos all together if you want.

Plan on getting up early if you want the "Glow Show" and "Dawn Patrol" pictures. They start at 5am. The entire 3 day event is over by 10am each day.

For more information, see the Great Reno Balloon Race web site.

Another similar but bigger event takes place in New Mexico, October 2-10, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with more of everything. I've never been there but this is the mecca, according to the balloonists I talked to. Good luck getting a hotel room at this date.

Well, thanks for playing.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Foto quiz # 12

What 's going on in this picture? And where was it taken? Hint, it's part of an event happening this weekend. If you know, leave an indication but not the answer. I'll provide that on Monday.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz # 11

Did you identify anything about the picture? More information below the photo.

This picture was borrowed from the Lighthouse's web site.

Pigeon Point Light Station is a California State Historic Park about 30 miles south of Half Moon Bay. At 115 feet, it is one of the tallest light houses in the United States and the tallest on the California coast. It first went into operation on November 15, 1872 using a Fresnel lens comprised of 1008 prisms which projects light as in the above photograph. That lens is no longer in use and is only fired up for 2 hours each year on the Saturday closest to the aniversary date. On that night, hundreds (thousands?) of people show up to witness the event and take pictures. The deteriorating condition of the lighthouse may stop the display indefinitely and you can no longer tour the lighthouse tower itself. The grounds and museum remain open and there is a working hostel on site.

If all goes well, the next lighting will be Saturday, November 13, from 6pm to 8pm. Some tips if you plan to photograph the next event. Wear warm clothes. Get there early, before sunset, if you want to park close by. Take a tour of the grounds, the museum, the hostel and the local beach. After lighting the lamp, the lens remains stationary for 5 minutes for photographers to capture the star formation and then it begins to rotate. Hope for some moisture in the air. Fog helps to define the rays of light. You will meet lots of other photographers with tripods. Consider using a red flashlight when adjusting your equipment. It's kinder on the eyes and less chance of spoiling other's photographs.

For long exposure camera settings, I start with an F/8 aperture. That is about the best quality aperture for my D80 and gives a decent depth of field. Experiment from there. I use the lowest ISO, again for best quality. Even though it is a low light situation, the lighthouse is not moving. You don't need that wide open aperture or a high ISO. Go for better DOF and low noise instead and use a longer shutterspeed. Use a tripod. Turn off image stabilization, at least on Nikon lenses. Use a remote shutter release or time delay to reduce camera vibration. Focusing is always tricky in the dark, but the lighthouse is pretty bright, so autofocus should work.  Be quick, the five minute grace period when the lens does not rotate goes by fast.

I'll probably be there, either to take pictures or as a docent. I recently volunteered to work there and begin training this Saturday.

Here is a link to their web site: The Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park

Thanks for playing the Friday Foto Quiz.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz # 11

How much can you tell me about this picture? It is not a product of photoshop except that I warmed it up a little. I prefer not to think about how cold I was when I took it. Please leave a funny comment but, if you know, don't reveal the answer. I'll do that on Monday.

Click the picture for a larger view.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Answer - Friday Foto Quiz # 10

Did you guess what this person is doing? Keep reading.

His name is Robbie Virus and, in this photo, he is playing a theremin with his San Francisco based lounge band, Project Pimento. They have a new CD out entitled "Space Age Love Songs".

The theremin is an early electronic insturment, "invented in 1919 by the Russian scientist Leon Theremin" and often used to create mood music in science fiction movies. This instrument is played without actually touching it. The loop on the side and the antenna on top create an electromagnetic field. Disturbing this field with your hands will create a tone. Moving the hands closer and away from the metal antenna varies the pitch and volume of that tone, not an easy instrument to play well.

Robbie is the best I've seen on this instrument, at least live. His band continues to ride the tiki lounge wave playing all your favorite James Bond themes, a very cool and unique show. I also saw his name listed as a theremin musician in the credits of the first Hell Boy movie.

Click here for the Project Pimento web site.

Click here for a Google search for theremin.

Thanks for playing!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Foto Quiz # 10

What is going on here? You can make comments, but if you know, don't reveal the answer which I will give on Monday. And it has nothing to do with my owl presentation on Saturday at the HMB Library. (See the next post down for more information on that.) Click the picture for a larger view.