Digital Photography: Polarizers Are Not Just for Blue Skies

REFLECT1Fact: As an outdoor photographer, you absolutely need to have one of these filters on your lens at all times. While you can Photoshop some things, it can’t do what a polarizer can do.

One of the biggest misconceptions new photographer have about polarizers is that they are only good for bluing up a sky. And that is one way to use them, however, there are three more uses:

  • remove reflections
  • saturate colors
  • act as a neutral density filter.

Remove Reflections

Because a polarizer can blank out light reflected off of surfaces, it allows the true color to come through. And while this works great when shooting through glass or other reflective surfaces, it  works great for nature photographers shooting moving water such as streams, creeks and rivers.

A polarizer is the key to great fall color photography. Leaves (especially when they are wet) reflect light. With a polarizer, you cancel all of that out. Without the reflected light, you capture the true colors.

Saturate Colors

Blue in a blue sky is the only color that a polarizer actually changes in hue. Other colors except white are not changed, but intensified. They go from dull to vivid. So even your muted earth tones of fall color “pop” out. Polarizers work great with rainbows by saturating the colors.

Act as a Neutral Density Filter

If you are shooting slow moving water in bright light, you may not be able to get the slow shutter speed you want to get the “cottony effect”. Using a polarizer acts as a two-stop neutral density filter.

The Best Ways to Use a Polarizing Filter

Here are a few more tips on the best ways to polarizers:

  • There are two types of polarizers available. For a DSLR, use a circular instead of a linear.
  • Rotate the front element to dial in the amount of polarization you need. Simply turn it till you think you have the best results.You’ll see the change in the viewfinder as you rotate it.
  • Polarizers don’t work well in cloudy situations, but work great in sunny and hazy skies.
  • Ideally, the sun should be at an angle of 90 degrees to where you are standing.
  • Polarizing filters work best when they are used with lenses longer than 35mm.


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What’s In Your Camera Bag?

Tamrac Sling BagBeing this is a question I often get asked, I thought I would address it in a blog post. Basically I always ensure I have the following 8 items with me and then add in other items I might need specifically for the assignment I’m shooting.

1. Battery

Always carry a spare fully-charged battery, or a set of batteries if your camera takes more than one. If you use your LCD back screen or on-board flash a lot, it can eat up battery life quite fast in addition to the shooting you’ll do. So I always keep a spare battery in my bag and a spare set of batteries for my external flash.  I also refrain from turning my camera on and off a lot. My Canon 60D has an auto off feature that I have set for 5 minutes, so after that amount of time of not using it it goes into a sleep mode. Pressing the shutter button halfway down wakes it up and uses less power than re-powering it on from the totally off position..  With today’s digital camera, without battery power, you might as well pack up and go home, so always have backup power with you.

2. Spare memory card

It is not unusual for an image to take up to 20mb of room on your storage media card. And because I shoot both a JPEG and RAW with every press of the shutter I tend to use up media card room twice as fast. When you run into that once-in-a-lifetime shot, that is not the time to not have room for that one image of a subject or scene that you may never see again. And I never trust all my photos from one trip to just one memory card. I split the images up between at least two cards. That way if one card is defective, ruined, stolen dropped in the ocean, lost, etc, all my photos are not gone with it. I still have at least half of them on the other card.

3. Microfiber cloth

Without fail, every camera bag should have at least one of these. Not only can you clean off dust and dirt from a lens (very carefully I might add) or camera body, but they make a great wrap for your lens and/or flash to keep it from being scratched or damaged.

4. Lens

If you’re using a DSLR camera, keep a spare lens for it in your camera bag. Not only will it expand your image possibilities, but it will keep you shooting if your other lens gets damaged or quits working. I keep a 70-200mm on my camera and carry an 18-85mm as my spare. That way I have focal lengths covered from 18mm to 200m. Oh … and I also keep a polarizer on each lens. Not only does it protect the front element of my lenses, but it improves most of my images by using it.

5. Flash

While almost all DSLRs have on-board flashed I always carry an external one too. The only way to get rid of red-eye in photos is to have your flash at least 12 inches from your lens. The only way to accomplish that is with an external flash and a synch cord.

6. Plastic bag

If it has not happened to you yet, it will. You’ll be out shooting and get caught in a rain storm. While a plastic bag with a hole in the bottom for your lens to stick through will protect your camera and keep you shooting, there are also “rain coats” you can get for your camera. These are the ones I use.

7. Mini tripod

When carrying a full size tripod isn’t practical, I like to keep with me a travel or mini-tripod strapped to the outside of my camera bag. While not as sturdy as full size ones, they do provide a certain level of camera support that you wouldn’t otherwise have. They are perfect in low light situations or really anytime where you can’t handhold your camera to prevent camera shake.

8. Manual

This should be a no-brainer, but I see photographer’s out in the field all the time without their manual. You might be shooting and get an error code or you might want to use a function that you don’t often use and forgot how to do it. Things happen and if you have your camera manual with you, you can always look it up.

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Digital Photography: How to Create a 3-Dimension Image Using a 2-Dimension Medium

Using myself as scale to show the size of the rock beside me.

Using myself as scale to show the size of the rock beside me.

One of the most difficult things for new photographers to grasp is how to record a three-dimensional (3d) scene using  a two-dimensional (2d) medium – photography. However, to show depth, which is the third dimension, it is important to use perspective and scale.

The human eye automatically relates the size of something in relation to its distance from the camera. If we look at a row of trees, we know they are all basically the same size. However, the ones farthest away look smaller than the ones closest to us. A photographer can use this diminishing effect of spatial relationship to enhance the 3d effect.

The tools in a photographer’s toolbox used to create the 3d effect, are lenses. Wide-angle lenses appear to stretch a scene by showing near objects larger than distant objects. Telephoto lenses compress objects so they appear stacked or closer together than they really are. According to the diminishing scale concept, you imply depth in a photo by showing objects of similar size getting smaller as they get farther away from the camera.

To emphasize this effect, use a wide-angle lens and move up close to the first object of a line of repeated objects. With a wide-angle lens, the depth of field will be great and the whole scene will be in focus. The objects farthest away will appear to be touching due to diminishing scale.

With a telephoto lens, the effect is much different. The first object will have to be further away from the camera because a telephoto lens doesn’t have the close depth-of-field like the wide-angle lens. The diminishing scale look is somewhat different due to the compression of the elements in the scene caused by the telephoto lens.

The last object in the photo won’t be much smaller than the first, but the objects will appear closer together. If you don’t have a foreground object, but do have middle and background objects, consider using the telephoto lens.

If you are photographing parallel lines, such as a road, railroad tracks, or a windrow of grain, then linear perspective will work for you. This is the effect when parallel lines appear to come together in the distance. For a wild effect, try shooting straight up the side of a tall building or stand between two tall buildings and shoot straight up. You can maximize this effect by having the camera closer to the ground than eye level. Lying on your back works great!

SCALE (Size Recognition)
We will discuss scale in terms of foreground, middle ground and background. The challenge is to identify something, which will reveal or show the expanse that lies before the lens.
Humans are all basically the same size, so we instantly recognize that if someone appears small in a photo, they must be far away from the camera. You can use this effect of distance and scale to show the 3rd dimension depth.

Animals, cars, buildings, rocks, crops, flowers, trees, huts, and houses can all be used to show scale. To balance out a scene, try to place your foreground object one-third of the way into the scene. In bad weather, concentrate on showing the foreground. Little else besides the foreground and middle ground will be visible.

Including a human, or one of the other objects used to show scale, can show the size of the main subject in a scene. If you see a person in the distance hiking on a mountain trail, the person will appear small. The viewer of that photo will instantly know two things. One, the person was a great distance from the camera and two, the mountains were enormous.

If you have that same person closer to the camera in the foreground, the effect will be the mountains are a long distance from the camera.
Without the person in the foreground to show scale, it would be harder to ascertain both the distance the mountains are from the camera and the size of the mountains.

Lastly, place yourself in the middle of the scene. It gives the viewers the effect that they were really there with you. This effect works really well if your scene happens to include a stream, creek or small river flowing toward your camera. The water comes at the camera and just keeps on flowing. Use a slow shutter speed of at least 1/8 of a second or less. You’ll have to experiment with the shutter speed in order to get the “cottony” effect as the effect is directly related to the speed of the flowing water. Of course at these slow shutter speeds, the use of a tripod is a must.

By using perspective, scale and the proper lens for the scene, your two-dimensional photo will have that three dimensional look deep look.

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Digital Photography – Fun At The Zoo

MALLARD01This issue focuses (no pun intended) on how to shoot photos at zoos, wildlife parks, aquariums and nature sanctuaries. As in any type of animal photography, patience, persistence and creativity are the secrets.

One of the first considerations is composition. Here, the best advice is to vary your composition.

Take some shots with the subject looking straight at you and some with the subject looking left or right. To achieve this you may have to reposition yourself several times. This is the part requiring the patience and persistence. Use a tripod to maximize the sharpness of your photos.

The other part of composition is subject placement. Use the rule of thirds. To use this rule, visually breakdown the photo you see in the viewfinder into thirds both vertically and horizontally thus forming an invisible grid in your mind; Like a tic-tac-toe board. The rule is to place your subject on one of the intersecting points in the grid.

The second consideration is time of day. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to shoot. From sunrise to about 2 ½ hours after and again about 2 ½ hours before sunset to sunset, produces photos illuminated with a soft, golden, highly directional light. The light during these two times of day brings out the color in everything.

Illumination of a subject occurs from one of three possible directions: the front called frontlighting, the back called backlighting, or the side called sidelighting.   Frontlighting minimizes shadows and thereby texture, but it will intensify color.

Backlighting creates a rimlight effect. This type of lighting creates a glow around the subject giving it a halo type of look.

Sidelighting creates a 3D effect by forming small shadowy areas and thereby accenting the texture of fur. Texture defines the surface of an object. People relate to how a certain object feels when they see the texture of that object in a photograph. Of the three types of light, this one is the best because of the accenting of texture.

One of the best reasons for shooting early or late in the day is because it is the least crowded during these times. Another reason is the animals are most active early and late in the day. In the wild, this is when they normally hunt and eat. During the middle of the day, they are more lethargic and not as photogenic.

If you are trying to show the animals without their containment, you will want to avoid showing the bars, barriers and wires if you can. When this is impossible, their presence can be minimized by using a long lens and shooting at wide apertures to blur the foreground and if necessary the background too.

To make a chain link fence disappear, put the front of the lens up to the fence and centered in one of the openings. Set the lens aperture to wide open and shoot. This will give you a very shallow depth-of-field thereby obliterating the wire of the fence and softening the background.

While shooting in this non-natural environment, shoot close-ups to minimize any of the environment. In wildlife parks, where the environment is more like it would be in the animal’s natural habitat, create an environmental portrait by including more of the animal’s surroundings. Here, you will want to use a smaller aperture to hold the foreground and background in focus.

If you are in a wildlife park with a driving route, shoot from inside your vehicle. Accomplish this by using a window camera mount or by shooting from a bean bag. Be sure to shut off your vehicle’s engine to minimize camera movement.

For glass barriers, try to find a piece of clean glass and place the lens hood up against it to minimize reflections. If using a flash, use it off camera and hold it at a 45 degree angle to the camera and up against the glass.

For the outside type shots, use a slow ISO such as 50 or 100 film. For aquarium shots, using an ISO of 200 or 400 will perform better.

Shooting at the zoo is exciting. Where else can you get, in one location, a collection of animals from around the world. Take your time, plan your shots and enjoy the photography of animals.


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Digital Photography: Focus Modes in Digital Cameras

YELLOW LADYSLIPPER04While some of the least expensive digital cameras have only automatic focus, meaning the camera does all the work on bringing your subject into the best possible focus, most SLR digital cameras offer three different focus modes: manual, single auto focus and continuous auto focus. All three of these will be addressed here.

With manual focus, the camera stays out of the focus equation and you, the photographer, make all the decisions regarding getting your subject in focus. This is done by setting the aperture to set the plane of focus or how much of the scene will be in focus both in front of and behind the subject. Then the focusing ring is rotated on the camera lens or the barrel of the camera lens is slide in or out to achieve optimal focus. For those who like to have complete creative control of the finished product, this is the best focus mode.

In single auto focus mode, you still want to select the aperture, the camera automatically focuses where the selected focus point is pointing when you press the shutter button either all the way down to shoot a photo or half way down to lock the focus. This mode is useful when shooting static objects. Holding the shutter button half-way down lets you focus on your subject, and then hold that focus while you reposition the camera placing your subject in the viewfinder using the Rule of Thirds.

In continuous auto focus the camera continuously focuses on the subject in the photo. In this mode the camera continuously corrects the focus as the subject distance from the camera changes. This mode is useful when you shoot photos of moving objects, such as a race car speeding around a track or airplanes during an air show. You can hold the shutter button half way down and continuously move the camera to follow the object. The camera will continuously keep the subject in focus. When you have the subject properly placed in the viewfinder, finish pressing the shutter button to take the picture.

Like any other feature, automatic and manual focus modes have their pros and cons. The first step to using them to your advantage is to understand how they work and what they were designed for. The next step is to experiment by shooting photos using all three different focus modes and different types of subjects to see how the camera behaves. Once you have done that you will be ready to instinctively use the best focus mode for each photo situation. If you have that once-in-a-lifetime shot in front of you, that is not the time to figure out which focus mode you should be using or how to set-up your camera to use it. Now is the time to practice it!


Posted in Digital Photography Tips

Digital Photography: Improve Your Images By Using a Polarizer Filter

Have you ever wondered how professional photographers get the saturated colors and deep blue sky in their images? Their secret is simple – they use a polarizer filter. Who would have thought the reason they get incredible images is something as simple as putting a piece of specialized glass on the front of their lens.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle in Alaska Using a Polarizer.

You must use polarizer to improve your photography!

As a landscape photographer, I keep a polarizer filter on each of my lens 24/7/365.  I would rather have to think to take it off than remember to put it on. Probably 90% of my images are taken using a polarizer, so I rarely take it off.

How will a polarizer improve your photography?

In a nutshell, a polarizer works by blocking out reflected light.  It’s like wearing a pair of polarizing sunglasses. When you put on a pair, do you notice how much more hoya-polarizer.jpgclear everything is? It is because the sunglasses is blocking out light reflected off of surfaces. A polarizier works the same way.  Actually, a polarizer is 5 filters in one. It will:

  1. darken a blue sky
  2. increase color saturation
  3. remove reflections from glass and water
  4. penetrate atmospheric haze.
  5. protects the front lens element

It works best if you are using side lighting – where the sun is shining from either side of your camera. If you are using back or front lighting, you won’t notice much of an effect.

And a polarizer only works through a 90 degree arc. Assuming the top of the filter shows not effect, maximum effect would be ¼ turn in either direction. In that ¼ turn, the effect goes from none to maximum. You will see the effect change in the viewfinder as you rotate the filter through that arc.

New users of a polarizer tend to use too much polarization making a blue sky almost inky-black. Take several images at various settings through the arc of change to see which one you like best.

When shooting a subject containing glass, such as paneling, windows, mirrors and eyeglasses, reflections will be visible in your photos if you shoot them head-on. To reduce the effect, stand at an oblique angle (about 35 degrees) to your subject and use your polarizer. By slowly turning the filter, you’ll see the reflections disappear.

If I could only have one filter, it would be a polarizer.


3 situations not requiring a polarizer

As great s a polarizer is, there are certain situations when it is advisable to not use one:

  • When shooting in low light situations, you need as much light as possible. Take off the polarizer.
  • When you want reflections in your images, like shooting a mountain reflecting in a pool of water.
  • When shooting rainbows? Because the colors of a rainbow come from reflected light, using a polarizer would make the whole rainbow invisible.

Does brand make a difference?

In my opinion it probably does make a difference, but the amount of difference is so small that I’m not convinced it offsets the difference in price. You can a circular 67mm one from B+W for $129 or one from Tiffen for $19.00; Hoya is about in the middle of this range; they all do the same thing.

If you buy just one camera accessory this year (yea right, like buying just one thing this year is going to happen?), make it a polarizer. Invest in the most effective piece of camera accessory equipment money can buy and  then create images like the professionals make.

If you are interested in other filters you should have in your camera bag, check out my book How to Improve Your Travel Photography.


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