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Photography Tips: Backlighting with Plants

Skill Level: Beginner

When beginners set out to photograph things like flowers and leaves, the natural inclination is to approach the subject from the front, in sunlight, with the sun hitting the front of your subject. It makes sense after all - you need some light on your subject in order for the camera to take a picture. There's even the old adage in photography to shoot with the sun to your back.

But this approach to photographing a subject tends to yield boring results. Front lighting (that is, when the light is hitting the front of your subject) just isn't interesting. Front lighting flattens out your subject, squashing depth. Think of deer in headlights or on-camera flash. It may get the job done in terms of being able to see your subject, but it definitely isn't pretty.

You could, of course, utilize side lighting to rake across your subject and create depth. You could also opt for overhead lighting which, depending on how strong the light source is, may or may not be flattering. Better yet, you could utilize soft lighting like that of an overcast day. But one really fun and really interesting use of light in photographing plants is backlighting.

Backlighting (that is, when the light is coming towards you from behind your subject) gives semi-translucent subjects like leaves, flower petals, and ice crystals a sort of glowing effect that adds a nice bit of "pop" to your photo. With brightly colors flowers and fall leaves, backlighting can be a great way to accentuate the color, making the pigment glow like a neon sign. It's also a great way to bring out all the little veins and texture in a leaf.

And if you can position yourself so that the backlit plant has a dark, shadowed background, those leaves or flower petals will glow like fireworks on the fourth of July. Check out these examples to see what I mean:

Finding backlighting is easy. Just head outside on sunny afternoon or morning and find yourself a leaf or flower in direct sunlight. But instead of approaching the subject from the front (where the light is hitting), move around to the back of it so that the sunlight is coming towards you. This works best when the sun is lower in the sky. So avoid high noon and stick to morning or afternoon. But don't worry, this doesn't have to be done right at sunrise or sunset.

Working with backlighting can be a little tricky. To make it easier on yourself, keep these points in mind:

  • You don't want the sunlight actually hitting the front of your lens. Your lens needs to be shaded by a tree, overhang, lens hood, or a carefully placed free hand. If the sunlight does hit the front of your lens, you'll get lens flare - that's those little semi-translucent circles of red, orange, green or purple spread across your picture.
  • You don't need to have the sun directly in front of you to get backlighting. The sun can be quite a bit higher or to the left or right of the picture. But if you get the glow on your subject, all is good.
  • Unless you're shooting in manual, your camera may want to make the picture too dark as a result of the backlighting. Camera's don't do very well with backlighting. Make sure you stay in control of the brightness by using the exposure compensation tool on your camera.
  • Try the picture at different brightnesses using the exposure compensation tool. A much darker or lighter version may look really cool.
  • Your camera may have a hard time focusing when working with backlighting. You may need to manually focus your lens.

When winter rolls around, try backlighting on icicles or frost-covered plants to get a great sparkly effect. Like this:

Backlighting can keep you busy for hours when photographing flowers and leaves. So the next time you're out enjoying nature's beauty, give backlighting a try.

Photography Tips: Understanding DSLR Lenses

Skill Level: Beginner

If you've ever shopped around for a lens, you know that the titles of lenses can get pretty lengthy and confusing. With all the different abbreviations, numbers and labels, the name of a lens can look more like a complex algebraic equation than a product title. So that's why I've decided to put together this blog post to help bring some clarity to the convoluted science of naming a lens.

Here are 2 examples of what a lens title might look like:

I mean really...it's a little ridiculous how complicated those titles are. I'm sure they make perfect sense to the marketing geniuses who came up with all these fancy titles, but to the average person, it's practically a bunch of meaningless letters and numbers. So let's break the names down and look at each part of it individually.

1. Lens Focal Length Range

Starting with the core of the lens title, we have the lens focal length range. The lens focal length is always measured in millimeters and it basically indicates how "zoomed in" the lens can go. Higher focal length numbers (e.g. 300mm) mean the lens will zoom in further, whereas lower focal length numbers (e.g. 20mm) mean the lens will have a wider view. For instance:

On the left: 28mm. On the right: 70mm (full-frame camera).

If the lens has a range of focal lengths, like 55-200mm, then the lens can zoom from 55mm all the way out to 200mm. Lenses that don't zoom are called "prime lenses" and they will be indicated with just a single focal length number - like the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM.

2. Maximum Aperture

After the focal length range, the title will have an aperture number or a range of aperture numbers. This indicates the lens' maximum aperture. In other words, it tells you what the widest available aperture is for that lens. For instance, on the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM, the widest aperture you can use is f/1.4 (remember that the smaller the f-number, the wider the aperture).

But then what's the smallest aperture you can use? Well, you'll have to dig a little deeper into the lens specifications to find that out. The minimum aperture for a lens (that is, the smallest opening) is never indicated in the title. Only the maximum aperture is. That's because the majority of customers don't care what the smallest aperture is. Most people want lenses that let in more light, not less. Only us landscape photographers care about the smallest aperture a lens can use.

Alright, now it gets a little tricky, so stay with me...

Some lenses have a range of apertures indicated after the focal length, like the Nikon AF VR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens. In this case the maximum aperture for the lens is listed as "f/4.5-5.6". When you have a range of apertures like this, that means the available maximum aperture will vary depending on how zoomed-in you are. The first aperture in the range indicates the maximum aperture for the short end of the zoom range. The second aperture in the range indicates the maximum aperture for the long end of the zoom range. This is called a "variable maximum aperture."

So in this example, the maximum aperture of the lens when you're set at 80mm will be f/4.5. But when you zoom the lens into 400mm, the maximum aperture decreases a bit to f/5.6. Having a variable maximum aperture like this allows the manufacturer to make the lens more compact and less expensive.

If your lens has a zoom range, but only 1 aperture listed, that means the lens' maximum aperture will be the same throughout the entire zoom range. For instance, on the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, the lens can open all the way up to f/2.8, regardless of whether the lens is at 70mm or 200mm.

3. Features and Other Fancy Marketing Terms

All the other letters and abbreviations in the title of a lens will indicate features, quality and other marketing terms. For instance, if the maximum aperture has an "L" after it on a Canon lens - like the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II - then the lens is classified in its professional line of lenses. That means it'll most likely be weather sealed, the glass will be better quality, the image quality will be top-notch and the overall build will be more rugged.

There are a ton of different labels indicating all sorts of features and specs. Nikon especially has a very convoluted, over-complicated set of designations. Since there are so many, I won't bother defining all of them here, but I will address some of the most common ones. For a complete list of Nikon lens labels, check out this great article at DPanswers.com. For Canon's, here's a good article over at BobAtkins.com.

CANON

  • EF - "Electronic Focus" - This is the designation for all lenses fitting modern EOS bodies
  • EF-S - Same as "EF" except the lens is specifically designed for and will only fit APS-C format DSLRs like the 60D, 7D and Rebel series cameras (in other words, it won't fit full-frame cameras like the 5D or 1Dx)
  • USM - "Ultrasonic Motor" - This is what Canon calls their ultra-fast and ultra-quiet auto focus motor. USM lenses focus quickly, quietly and will typically have full-time manual override
  • IS - "Image Stabilization" - These lenses have built-in optical image stabilizer to help combat camera shake
  • L - This will come after the maximum aperture and it designates Canon's line of professional-grade lenses
  • DO - "Diffractive Optics" - This is a technology Canon uses in a few of its lenses that allows them to make telephoto lenses much more compact
  • Macro - A true macro lens will allow you to focus closer than a non-macro lens - good for photographing close-ups

NIKON

  • Nikkor - This is just Nikon's brand name for their DSLR lenses
  • AF - "Auto Focus" - If the lens has "AF" only (not "AF-S"), then the lens auto-focuses using the AF motor built-in to the camera. In other words, the lens itself has no AF motor. It relies on the camera body to drive the focus. Some Nikon cameras don't have a focus motor in the body, so they can't auto focus with these lenses.
  • AF-I - These lenses autofocus using an internal (that's what the "I" is for) AF motor built in to the lens instead of into the camera body as described above
  • AF-S  - The "S" indicates that it utilizes Nikon's current "Silent Wave" motor to auto focus. This type of AF motor is quieter and typically faster than the older AF-I motor
  • VR - "Vibration Reduction" - These lenses have built-in optical image stabilizer to help combat camera shake
  • D or G - It's kind of complicated. Check out this explanation at DPanswers.com
  • DX - This indicates that the lens is designed for and will only fit Nikon's DX "digital format" DSLR cameras
  • FX - This indicates that the lens will work on full-frame Nikon DSLRs as well as digital format DSLRs
  • ED - "Extra-Low Dispersion" - Indicates that the lens utilizes some special glass to help reduce chromatic aberration
  • IF - "Internal Focus"  - This means that the lens focuses by moving elements inside the lens barrel instead of moving the front element. As a result, the front of the lens won't extend out or rotate when focusing.
  • Micro - Nikon's indication for a macro lens

Photography Tips: When to Break the Rule of Thirds

Skill Level: Beginner

This photography tip was taken from the curriculum of my online course "Composition for Dramatic Landscapes." It's just a little tidbit taken from Week 1: Compositional Basics.

The rule of thirds is a pretty common compositional tool (notice I said tool, not rule) for creating better compositions in most scenarios. It's covered in beginning books everywhere and is one of the first composition tools you'll learn in photography. The idea is simple: just imagine your frame divided into thirds horizontally and vertically like so...

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

Then, place your main subject on one of the crosshairs and/or divide your landscape into 2/3 foreground and 1/3 background/sky. It will often times result in a better composition, but not always.

It's a great tool no doubt, but I've found that in landscape photography, there is one particular situation where breaking this rule of thirds and doing the dreaded "horizon through the middle" actually works much better. That's when you want to highlight symmetry.  In these instances, it can be most beneficial to put your subject or horizon right in the center of the frame. Doing so highlights the symmetry better than placing it off-center, per the rule of thirds.

For example, all of the following images are about symmetry through reflections. You'll notice I divided the frame into 1/2 foreground (e.g. lake, sand) and 1/2 background (e.g. sky, mountain, rocks) instead of the guidelines laid out by the rule of thirds.

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

This last example is a little less obvious, but I wanted to highlight the symmetry between the texture of the rocks with the textures of the clouds. The clouds seemed to be mimicking those rocks and I wanted to show that in the final image. Breaking the rule of thirds and putting the horizon through the center was just the right recipe for showing that symmetry.

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

There you go! So don't be afraid to break the "rules"!