Sunlit Wings: The Story Behind the Photo

By Chandra Brooks

Sunlit Wings Chandra Brooks (1/2500, f/8.0, ISO 800, Sony A9, 100-400 GM)

I had the opportunity to go on the James River in Virginia where osprey and bald eagles are frequent visitors. I wanted to be sure I’d catch them in flight, so before we got on the boat, I had my camera settings locked in. Most cameras allow specific settings to be mapped to a custom button enabling an effortless change of settings. My shutter speed was 1/2500. (It should
be at least 1/1600 to 1/2000 for most birds in flight). Aperture was set at f/8.0 for a good depth of field on the bird but less detail in the background. ISO was set at 800 since we had good morning light. I also made sure my camera was set to Continuous AF, wide-area tracking, and its highest frame rate.

Photographing birds in flight is always a challenge. I was surprised at just how fast these amazing creatures really are. When they spot a fish and tuck their wings to drop to the water, it’s a challenge to even keep them in the frame. The key is to lock focus and start tracking the birds as soon as possible. I use back button focus, so I would pick a target bird, hold focus, and track them until I saw a flight position I liked. Then I would start to shoot and follow the action.

Often multiple birds are making hunting passes and there really isn’t any time to fuss with settings. It helps to know your camera, be able to change settings without looking, know how its AF system works, understand the behavior of your species, and just practice. If you’re interested in osprey, Mark Smith has a YouTube channel with some fantastic videos.

Living the Still Life

Does anyone really have anywhere they can go right now? Maybe it’s the perfect time to start crafting your images for our February 2021 contest!

Since still-life subjects tend to be … well, still, it’s important to get every detail right. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Photo by Carolyn V from Unsplash.com

Put the life into still life

Typically, still-life subjects are inanimate objects that are also relatively commonplace. The challenge is turning something you might overlook on a table into something you would hang up on a wall. To do that, you’ll need to consider many factors, including the arrangement of items, light, composition, color, and so much more.

Photo by Carolyn V from Unsplash.com

Choose carefully

Shooting a still life is much like creating a painting. And you have all the time you need to compose a masterpiece. So carefully consider your equipment, subject, and point of view (both the camera angle and your own personality).

Almost all camera types can be used for still-life photography, including cell phones. Usually, subjects are represented as they would appear in real life, so you’ll want to use a lens that doesn’t distort the view. Anything from 50mm to 125mm should be fine. A 50mm prime lens is the favorite choice of many. Keep in mind that it will work more like an 80mm on a cropped sensor. So you will lose some of the area surrounding your subject, which may not be a bad thing.

Photo by Carolyn V from Unsplash.com

Subject matter ranges greatly for still-life photos. Food and flowers are very common choices. The end result is less about what you choose and more about how you capture it. But picking an interesting subject is a good start. On the other hand, doing something amazing with a boring object may be more impactful.

The angle of your shot also matters. The most common perspectives are slightly above your subject or directly overhead. The object isn’t going to move, so the photographer should. Take the time to see what angle looks best. It often boils down to what emotion you’re trying to evoke.

Prop it up

Photo by Jane Ackerley from Unsplash.com

The use of interesting props can delight your viewers and keep them in the photo longer. But props can also work against you. Try to select items that are in the same visual key:

  • similar shapes and tones
  • complimentary colors
  • items that belong together

An antique pocket watch might look odd next to something modern like a cell phone, unless that contrast is the point of the photograph. Too many attention-grabbing items will compete with each other, unless you use depth of field and color choice to manage the presentation.

Photo by Clarissa Carbungco from Unsplash.com

Have a hierarchy. Remember, the eye typically goes to the brightest spot first, especially if there is strong contrast. Color can also attract or distract, so use it wisely. In general, simpler is almost always better, so choose your props judiciously.

Stay focused

Since your subject is sitting still, there is really no excuse for it to be out of focus. A tripod will help immensely here. After you’ve determined the best angle for the shot, clamp your camera down to keep it in place. Then use a shutter release or the two-second timer on your camera to prevent any shake caused by your finger pressing the shutter button.

And stay in manual focus mode.

Photo by Ornella Binni from Unsplash.com

Keep in mind that other factors will affect the sharpness of your photograph. Prime lenses are typically sharper than zoom lenses. Selecting a small aperture (f/16 or beyond) may cause some diffraction, so try to shoot a little more open, e.g. f/8. Of course, this will reduce your depth of field, so you may want to stack the focus.

Focus stacking is done by simply taking a series of images while moving the focal range from foreground to background, whatever you want to be sharp in the final image. Then use Photoshop or another post-processing software to combine the shots and create a final image in which every important part is in perfect focus.

See the light

Lighting may be one of the most important aspects of still-life photography. Many photographers like to work with natural light because of it’s beautiful qualities; however, that varies with time and cloud cover. Artificial light is more controllable, but not everyone has access to that equipment. Your on-camera flash will rarely give you a pleasing result. Still life images are often lit from the side to accentuate textures and add dimension.

Some pros recommend having the light come from the left side which puts the shadows on the right and helps direct the eye through the image. If you’re using artificial light, play around with angles and distance and see how it affects your shadows. Also, use reflectors to fill in the dark areas and soften the contrast.

Tell a story

Photo by Mae Mu from Unsplash.com

It’s quite a feat just to capture an image that is well lit and composed. But photos that evoke some emotion from the viewer will score even better. One shot may create a sense of nostalgia (like an antique leaning on a dusty table). Another may have a slight edge (like a Popsicle about to drip onto a white lace tablecloth). Or maybe it’s just creating energy with color and shapes, like this eggs-and-milk image.

So think about your shot. Should you use low-key lighting to create a dramatic mood? Or should you try high-key lighting to show more detail? Those images could also come in handy for our April 2021 contest (High or Low Key Images).

Sweat the details

Still-life photography is less about capturing a moment and more about creating one. Everything in the photo should be contributing to the overall impact. Choose a background that matches your intent. Some are completely neutral because they are to be ignored. Others are textured, or colorful, or chosen because they help tell the story. Foreground elements are often out of focus and simply help lead the eye toward the subject.

Photo by Daniel Cheung from Unsplash.com

Make sure everything is clean, unless it’s supposed to be dirty. Remove dust, fingerprints, and any other distracting marks or smudges. If you’re shooting shiny objects, be careful about reflections and/or any hot spots they may cause in the image.

Place your most important elements using the rule of thirds, unless you have a good reason to break the rule. Remember that clusters of odd-numbered items tend to be more visually pleasing than evens. Vertical and horizontal lines communicate stability. Diagonals add some tension and excitement.

Photo by Loli Clement from Unsplash.com

To better assess your shot’s composition, try using the live view on the back of your camera or tethering to a laptop.

This was a long article, but there’s much more to know. Consult the internet for pages that will inform and images that will inspire. Good luck in February and all of 2021!

Slam Dunk: The Story Behind the Photo

By Nancy Abby

boy sitting on rim of hoop holding basketball
Slam Dunk Nancy Abby (Sony 7R III, f/4, 1/100, ISO 320, 65mm)

Getting unique poses for boys is extremely difficult. Finding the ‘different’ for senior pictures is an ongoing challenge. I think this fit the square for unique.

This photograph was taken on an indoor half-court gym in a barn—humidity controlled, wood floor, the works. No external flash was used. We leaned a ladder up against the backboard and he climbed on. Nothing was Photoshopped in or out. (We moved the ladder, so there he sat!)

To get the background more consistent in color, I used an adjustment layer with the kid masked off. Then I used the eye dropper to force the background white, reduced opacity to make it realistic, added another adjustment layer and did a 70% mask black to hide 70% of the forced white on the goal to bring back some green for depth and realism.

Looking for Nectar: The Story Behind the Photo

By Dick Dodds

Looking for Nectar by Dick Dodds (ISO 100, 1/800, f/4.0, 105mm)

My wife and I were in Vail, Colorado, in August 2020 escaping the Texas heat for a couple of weeks. We were walking along the main street of Vail village among a blaze of colorful flowers. All of a sudden, my wife spotted a beautiful hummingbird near one of the flowers.

I had my Canon 6D set on aperture priority for taking street scenes. I immediately switched it to shutter priority and set the speed to 1/800th. I wanted to freeze the body of the bird but still have some blur on the wings to show motion. I was already in burst mode and Auto ISO. I zoomed in to 105mm, and I was able to shoot 30 images in about four seconds. The bird then flew away after 30 seconds!

Boo-tography: Learn a Few Tricks to Create Great Photographic Treats

Photographing kids is scary, especially in bad light. Here are a few tips to help you be less afraid on the year’s scariest night.

Understand the basics

Most Halloween activities take place at dusk or later. When you’re shooting in low light, remember to crank up your ISO, open your aperture, and/or slow down the shutter speed. All three of those steps will help your camera see better, but they all have consequences. Higher ISO will add grain. Larger apertures decrease depth of field, which can come back to bite you in group shots. Slower shutter speeds require a steady hand and still subjects.A good starting place may be to choose auto ISO and stay in shutter-priority mode. To guard against blurry images, set your shutter speed to one over your focal length, e.g. 1/200 sec for a 200mm lens.

Change your perspective

Photo by R.D. Smith from Unsplash.com

When photographing kids, it’s always a good idea to get down on their level. But it makes even more sense for Halloween. Big monsters are much scarier than little ones, so shoot from a low vantage point to give their costumes the full effect. But remember to get some shots to showcase their actual size. You’ll want to remember just how little they were. So be sure to pose them next to the kitchen counter, a sofa, a car, a family pet, or an adult. And remember to get a shot with the mask off, so you can remember who was who twenty years from now.

Celebrate the shadows

Photo by Kevin Mueller from Unsplash.com

Normally, we all strive to have a nice balance between light and dark areas in our photos. But if there were ever a holiday to skew your images to the dark side, this would be it. Just imagine how much less impact the cat image on the right would have if the shadows were brought up to see more detail in the fur. This image is all about the eyes. So remember what the focus of your image is and the mood you’re going for, and expose accordingly.

Flex your flash

Photo by David Menidrey from Unsplash.com

The easiest way to overcome poor lighting environments is to use your on-camera flash. But there are some drawbacks: lost backgrounds, dimensionless faces, and red eyes (which could actually be cool with the right costume). Instead, you may want to try bouncing flash off a white ceiling or wall. You could also set up some off-camera flash for portraits or hand hold a flash unit for candids. You may even want to try dragging the shutter to freeze some action in the foreground, but allow enough time for lower-lit background items to show up on your sensor. Flash is tricky. See next point.

Experiment early

Photo by Kevin Mueller from Unsplash.com

Because of the challenging lighting issues, you might opt for a trial run a few days before Halloween. Practice on jack-o lanterns or kids who are eager to wear their costumes. This exercise will make you more confident and faster on the big day (when kids won’t want to sit still while you fiddle with buttons).

Create ghosts

Another way to get more light in the lens is to purposely stage long-exposure shots. A slower shutter speed can create some spooky effects, especially if you have a tripod. Set up for a two-second exposure and have your subject walk slowly through the frame. Or have them stay still for a beat, then move. Or take a faster shot with them in the frame and make a double exposure of a blurred “ghost” behind them. Some cameras make it easy to do this, or you can combine the images in Photoshop. And don’t forget about light painting. Use a light source to add extra light to certain parts of your shot or to “write” messages or shapes.

Capture the prep

Photo by Janko Ferlič from Unsplash.com

There’s magic in the preparation. Just ask a wedding photographer. This is not only an opportunity to capture a kid candidly but a normally camera-shy parent too. And in better light!

Happy Halloween!

This is the first year that even the adults wear masks. Stay safe, everyone.

Skeleton Grin: The Story Behind the Photo

By Larry Marx

Skeleton Grin photo of spider in web by Larry Marx

Skeleton Grin by Larry Marx (Canon EOS 5D Mark III, f6.3, 1/250, ISO 800, 300 mm)

I was in East Texas with family walking through the woods. I never would have seen these little guys if my sister-in-law, an A&M grad and school district science coordinator, hadn’t followed a slender spider thread to a tiny spider hanging between trees. It looked like an armored smiling jewel or shield. (They are called the Spiny Orb Weaver or spiked spider.)

Once one was discovered, it was fun finding others in several different colors, including bright orange.

Photographing one successfully was difficult. They are so small that auto focus doesn’t see them, and manual focus was pretty hard hand-hold. They tend to move in the breeze, and it’s hard to stand still enough to get one in focus.

I’m looking forward to returning in a few weeks to the family farm with some better equipment to take closeup photos. I may see how many color varieties I can capture!

The Golden Hour:

How to get the most value out of this precious time.

Photo of grass at golden hour by Anton Darius from Unsplash.com

Photo by Anton Darius from Unsplash.com

Just after sunrise and before sunset, light refracting through extra atmosphere creates the “golden hour.” It’s named for the color of light, but the warm, soft glow may also add some value to your images. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Be ready to work fast.

This is no time to wander around looking for something to shoot. Know when the sun sets ahead of time and have a plan. Check the chart for the sunrise and sunset times in our area for the rest of the month. Also, technically, the golden hour may not be an hour long. The quality of light is based on the sun’s location in the sky, so latitude and the time of year figure in to the equation. According to this website, the golden hour in the DFW area currently
lasts 33 minutes. But it’s 57 minutes if you want to shoot in Alaska.

2. Check the weather.

While some clouds at sunset can create exciting drama in the sky, too many can block out the light and greatly reduce the effect of golden hour.

Photo by Joshua Earle from Unsplash.com

Photo by Joshua Earle from Unsplash.com

3. Adjust your white balance.

If you have your camera set to auto white balance, it will probably shift the color temperature of your shot. So the golden hour’s beautiful hues will end up looking a little bluer. Try setting your camera’s white balance to “shady” or “cloudy.” And shoot in RAW to make it easier to do additional adjustments in post.

4. Explore your options.

You can’t position the sun, but you should photograph your subject with the sun’s location in mind.

  • Front lighting: At this time of day, the light is directional but very soft. People and animals can often look toward the sun without squinting, and the light is very kind to faces.
  • Back lighting: Keeping the light behind your subject will often create a warm hazy glow around your subject. Consider using a reflector to fill in the shadows.
  • Rim lighting: If the sun is directly behind your subject, you might get a bright outline that separates it from the background, especially if the background is dark.
  • Silhouette: To accentuate the shape or profile of your subject, you can expose for the light behind it, making the subject go dark.

2020-09-golden-hour-sunflower-portrait5. Play with the light.

Shooting toward the sun opens up some other possibilities for your image.

  • Flares: Position the sun just outside your camera frame and see where the sun creates spots of light in your lens. Putting the sun on the very edge of your subject can also create interesting streaks of light in your image.
  • Haze: If the sun hits your lens directly, you may get cloudy overexposed areas in parts of your image (like the sunflower picture above). This is usually something to be avoided, but it can also create a beautiful glow that works well for some images.
  • Bokeh: If you widen your aperture and shoot toward the sun, you will increase your chances of getting little geometric spots of light in your image. This can really increase that magical feeling and make an average shot really special. See the effect it had on grass on the previous page.

6. Accept the challenge.

The whole point of Procrastinator’s Delight is to force ourselves to try new techniques and just get shooting. Go have some fun!

Momma Moose with Baby: The Story Behind the Photo

By Lynne Rogers Harris

photograph of momma moose and her baby

Momma Moose with Baby by Lynne Rogers Harris (ISO 200, f4.0, 1/320)

I have a friend that has a cabin in Colorado near Rocky Mountain National Park. Three of us girls took a weeklong trip up there to get away and also do some wildlife photography. We were able to social distance quite nicely (well, except the plane ride, which really wasn’t bad at all).

The cabin is near a small lake so moose can often be seen around it, but this particular day we decided to go into the park and do a small hike. Lucky for us, we saw this momma moose and her baby crossing the creek directly in front of our parked car just after arriving. Of course, this was the highlight of the day.

When you have a momma and baby, you take the opportunity to shoot continuously and then later delete 95% of your images. One thing to always be careful of is that you want something — a tree or car or big bush or anything — between you and the moose; and you really don’t want to be too close. We were probably less than 50 feet from these two, but we had several cars and trees we could get behind.

Composition: What Do You Do When There Is No Subject?

Landscape photographers face a problem that other photographers usually don’t have: deciding on a subject.

By Jim Hamel

When a portrait photographer prepares to take a picture, there is no question what the subject will be: the person. Similarly, a wildlife photographer always knows what the subject of their photo will be: the animal. That’s not to say those types of photography are easy … but if you are a landscape photographer, you have, no doubt, spent countless hours driving or walking around looking for something — anything — to use as a subject. It is often the biggest challenge we face.

Now, sometimes picking a subject is not that difficult. If you have the Portland Head Light or the Golden Gate Bridge in your scene … well, it is pretty clear what your subject is going to be.

What about a standard scenic view though? Usually there are just some hills and trees in front of you with the sky as the background. It might be pretty. It might be a nice view. But what is the subject?

aerial photo of the Grand Canyon

Photograph by James Hamel

Even if you go to a remarkably scenic spot, you might still face the same challenge. You can go to the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley and still come home with nothing more than a bunch of snapshots.

So what do we do about this problem? Well, we cannot fix it entirely. We often just have to muddle through. The reality is that much of the world is just not that interesting or doesn’t translate well into pictures. That said, there are great pictures to be had even where there is no obvious subject. Further, there are some things you can do to mitigate this problem. Here is how I suggest you approach it.

STEP 1: Plan Ahead

Photography is in many ways similar to fishing. You can never guarantee success and some days will be better than others no matter what you do. Still, there are things you can do to improve your chances.

In fishing, if you simply drop your line into a random part of a lake, then yes, you do have some chance of catching a fish. The chances are not that great though. Real fishermen plan ahead with maps. They look for the structures where they know the fish hide. They race out to the best spots based on the intel they received. When they are on the water, they are using fish finders. They are constantly moving around to find the part of the lake where the fish are. In short, they make every effort to know where the fish are, and then get to those spots.

Similarly, in photography, if you simply walk around with a camera slung over your shoulder, then yes, you do have some chance of running into a beautiful scene that will translate well into a great picture. But the odds are not great. Rather, just as in fishing, you should plan ahead and find those structures and other things that might serve as a good subject or center of interest for your photo.

Here are a few excellent tools to find these subjects.

The 500px World Map:

This map will show you pictures taken by location so you can see what other photographers did in the area to plan to visit. (Editors note: I could not find this.)

Google Street View:

This feature of Google Maps will allow you to virtually walk around and explore an area ahead of time. The “pegman” feature will show you all sorts of angles and views. It is the next best thing to being there.

Simple keyword search:

If you are going to a distinct place, you can also run a simple search on that area through Google, Flickr, or 500px. Once you find a photographer or two that have specialized in that area, check out their websites.

There is a chapter devoted toward this subject in my book, so I don’t want to belabor the point too much here for those who have already read it. Just use the tools available to you to plan ahead and find features that might serve as interesting subjects. This will save you a lot of time.

STEP 2: Run Through the Features You Can Use

What features might actually serve as a useful subject for our pictures? Of course, such a list is nearly infinite. Anything from a blade of grass to a tree to a rock can end up being an interesting subject. But saying that doesn’t really help anybody.

In the context of coastal photography, here are some things to look for:

  • Old piers and docks
  • Lighthouses
  • Rock formations
  • Patterns in the water
  • Animals
  • Powerful waves
  • Clouds
  • People (for a sense of scale)
  • Reflections in the water

For landscapes, consider some of these subjects:

  • Old barns
  • Cows
  • Wind mills
  • Large rocks or boulders
  • Cliffs
  • Horses
  • Creeks
  • Bridges
  • Waterfalls
  • A hill or mountain peak
  • Abandoned cars or boats

STEP 3: There Just Isn’t Anything Here. Now What?

night photograph of tree by James Hamel

Photograph by James Hamel

When there just doesn’t appear to be a subject, just start looking for something you can use as a center of interest to tie the picture together. Sometimes it might be a cloud or one stand-out tree. Other times it can be the road.

If you cannot find one thing to be a subject, you’ll need to go in a different direction. Very often that means finding a pattern, shape, or line to serve as the centerpiece of your picture. A row of trees can sometimes work here. If you are dealing with a desert or barren scene, patterns in the sand can work well. Be careful though, as you often cannot see these patterns the way your camera does. You will need to look through the camera
a lot.

Black-and-white landscape photo with a road

Photograph by James Hamel.

Frankly, anything that you can turn into a line through your picture works as well. The line helps guide the viewer’s eye, which is ultimately what you are trying to do with a subject or center of interest in the picture. Roads and creeks are good examples. A winding pathway can work really well. You might also set up your shot so that a line or shoreline line runs through the picture. You can do the same with rows created by farmers or by hedges.

Remember that the subject of your photo isn’t necessarily a thing. It can be an idea. As long as the picture is held together visually by a pattern, shape, or line, the underlying subject can still come through.

STEP 4: The Wait

Sometimes the best pictures are created by setting up an interesting composition — even if there is no real subject — and then waiting for something to happen. Particularly in an urban context, it is often a great idea to set up your composition and then wait. A person may walk through the scene. Any number of things might happen to provide you with a great subject. Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for this technique.

Does this technique work in a remote location or a landscape context? Sort of. You typically aren’t going to have a lot of people or traffic coming through your scene (and, frankly, that is probably the last thing you would want anyway). You might get lucky with an animal or some birds coming into your scene, but this is not likely.

The best bet is to return to your location later, if you can. Come back when there is something going on — a storm is approaching or there is dramatic lighting. Anything to create that extra “something” that anchors or completes your picture.

Sunset photograph on coast

Photograph by James Hamel

STEP 5: When All Else Fails … Using “The Scene”

I should mention that this article stemmed from an email discussion I had with a reader who posed the question, “What do you do when there’s no subject?” We talked about a lot of the concepts in this article, and he raised the point that sometimes the subject is just “the scene.”

I am resistant to accept this notion because it sounds a lot like taking a snapshot to me. I have countless pictures on my hard drive that were “a good view” or “the scene” but did not translate into anything more than that. That said, he has a point. Again, very often the subject is not a thing at all. It is a feeling or an idea. In fact, those are frequently the best subjects.

Final Takeaway for Finding a Subject

I am not pretending that I can solve this problem for you. Finding a great subject is something you will struggle with as long as you decide to keep taking pictures. However, I am writing this article for two reasons.

First, to acknowledge the problem, so you won’t think it is peculiar to you or that you are doing something wrong. For landscape photographers, finding a subject has been a challenge, is a challenge, and always will be a challenge. There is no technological development that I see changing this. If you find this part of photography difficult, you are far from alone.

Secondly, I want to provide at least a few tips for dealing with this constant struggle. Hopefully, planning ahead and running through a checklist of potential features will result in clear subjects for you. If not, then creating a pattern or leading line may help.

Finally, don’t overlook just waiting around or coming back later. Whatever you do, remember to work the scene from several different spot and angles so that you can be sure you’ve covered everything.

Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel

Jim Hamel is not just a great photographer, writer, and teacher, he’s also one of our very own TAPC members. Check out his free photography guides and tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. You can also see this original unedited article.

The Best of Spring: The Story Behind the Photo

By Lynne Rogers Harris

photo of pink and purple flowers on a white background by Lynne Rogers Harris

The Best of Spring by Lynne Rogers Harris (ISO 200, f5.6, 1/2000)

Recently, I met a fellow photographer at River Legacy Park in Arlington, Texas, to try a new technique.

Another Trinity Arts Photography Club (TAPC) member had shared a video on how to shoot and process high-key images. This isn’t exactly high key, but the method used was about the same. I took a white board and placed it behind the flowers and shot a little over-exposed. This made it much easier to turn the background a nice white when editing in Photoshop.

I found that if I shot with the sun directly on the flowers, I had to do some maneuvering to get rid of the dark shadows. I actually shot several flowers that I thought turned out pretty good. I processed this with the white background, did a little cloning to take out
‘ junk,’ and voila — I had my image.

This photo is actually a composite of two shots. I thought these type of images with flowers made nice little cards, so I’ve printed several of them.