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Photography Tips: Bug’s View

Skill Level: Intermediate

I think flowers are probably one of the most photographed subjects on this planet. They're beautiful, they're interesting, they're colorful and, most importantly, they are cooperative - they never get bored of posing and they never complain that you made them look fat.

But because these beautiful plants are so often photographed, it can be really difficult to get an original shot. Most flower photos end up looking about the same when you really break them down. That's why when I go to shoot flowers, I try to do everything but my first approach. Whatever my first inclination is in framing, composition or angle, I try to do something else. That's what led me to today's tip.

Next time you're out shooting some flowers, leave your macro lens in the bag and strap on your wide angle. With a wide angle lens and a really low point of view, you can get this really great effect of looking up towards the sky from beneath the flowers that makes you feel as if you are viewing the world through a bug's eye. Here's an example demonstrating this technique:

Not your average flower shot, eh?

It's quite simple to get this effect, but there are a few things you need to pay attention to in order to get the best shots possible. First off, as I mentioned, put on your wide angle lens. This gives that distorted, wide view that really makes the final viewer feel like they are in the picture.

Next, you have to make sure your exposure is going to come out right. You'll be shooting up into backlit flowers with the bright sky behind it. This lighting scenario is going to trick your camera into making the picture too dark if you don't do something about it. If you know how to manually meter, just lock in your exposure before you start snapping away and you'll be good to go. If you're going to shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Program, push the exposure compensation up to something like +1.3 to +2.0 in order to make the picture brighter. Take a couple test shots to nail down the right compensation value.

Your camera's autofocus system is going to drive you nuts in this scenario. The AF can't focus on clear blue sky and it doesn't do well with backlighting, so chances are it's just going to be searching for focus nonstop and really slowing you down. So, just switch it to manual focus and pre-focus to the closest possible distance.

You'll want a pretty decent depth of field, but your wide angle lens has a big DOF as it is, so I'd recommend shooting somewhere around f/8-f/16.

Lastly is composition and how to actually take the shot. You're going to need such a low point of view that your camera will literally need to be on the ground. This won't allow you any room to look through the viewfinder, so you'll have to use the "shoot and pray" technique. Basically you will hold your camera down into the flowers, pointing upwards toward some flowers you think will make a good composition, and then just fire away. You won't see what your camera is seeing, so you'll just have to sort of guess what it's looking at and "pray" you got a good angle on it. Change your camera angle slightly between shots to cover a wider range and snap 5-10 pictures, then review on your screen to see how you're doing. After that, try an entirely new angle and composition and repeat. Shoot until you're sick of it or until the light's gone - whatever comes first.

Depending on how wide angle your lens is, you may find yourself getting some accidental self-portraits. Try to stretch away from your camera as best you can to avoid getting in the shot while you have it pushed down into the flowers.

This technique can be a little trickier than it sounds, but if you keep all the above tips in mind (especially on the exposure and auto focus), you'll do fine. It can be addictive, so go nuts! Now go out and get some new points of view on those flowers!

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: Getting Sharp Handheld Images

Skill Level: Intermediate

This photography tip was taken from the curriculum of my online course "Introduction to DSLR Photography." It's just a taste of Week 4: The Shutter Speed.

The shutter speed is a factor of time, so that means it's going to affect motion blur in the final shot - that means the motion of the subject AND your own motion. Whether your shutter speed is fast or slow will determine whether that motion is frozen or blurred in the resulting image.

When handholding your camera, you need to consider the fact that you are moving (ever so slightly). Even with perfect handholding technique and stance, you aren’t all that stable. Breathing, your pulse, trying to hold the weight of the camera — all these things contribute to instability. And you need a fast enough shutter speed when handholding your camera to freeze all of this motion.

It seems to be floating around the photography community that 1/60 of a second is fast enough to freeze your motion. This is false! If anyone teaches you this or you read it somewhere in another resource, ignore it because it is just plain wrong! I don't know if this gets spread around because some of these "experts" really aren't experts at all or because it's just easy to remember...I'm hoping for the latter but suspecting the former.

The correct rule of thumb for an acceptable shutter speed to handhold your camera is

The focal length of your lens is that little number indicated on the lens barrel like “28” or “70”. This number is actually indicating millimeters, but the millimeters have nothing to do with how far away your subject is, should be or needs to be. This number is basically indicating magnification with the higher numbers (e.g. 300mm, 500mm, 600mm) being much higher magnification and the lower numbers (e.g. 25mm, 50mm, 75mm) being lower magnification. This focal length number can range from 10mm to 800mm depending on the lens.

So, the slowest shutter speed you can get away with when handholding your camera is 1 (over) your lens focal length. It'll look something like this:

You can always go faster than this, but if you go any slower, you risk blurring the image from your own motion. And this rule of thumb only affects your own motion blur, not the subject. So if you’re shooting at 100mm, but your subject is a hummingbird, 1/100 of a second will freeze your motion, but it will not freeze the hummingbird’s motion.

The reason this rule works is when you zoom in with your lens (meaning you move to the higher focal length numbers), everything gets magnified — including your own motion — so you need a faster shutter speed to freeze your motion when you zoom in.

Here's an example... Both of these images were taken with a 200mm lens. The first I took handheld at 1/40 sec. This breaks the rule of thumb for handholding and results in a blurry image.

This next image was taken, again, at 200mm, but this time with a shutter speed of 1/400 sec. This follows the rule of thumb for handholding and results in a sharp image.

See how much blurrier the image that broke the rule is?

Keep in mind, though, that this is just a rule of thumb. You might find you need to shoot with faster shutter speeds to freeze your motion, or maybe you’ll find you can shoot with slower shutter speeds and still get a sharp image.

The most common reason for blurry photos is TOO SLOW of a shutter speed when handholding! So really understand this rule and start using it. Utilizing this handholding rule of thumb will prevent blurry photos the vast majority of the time.

Good luck and happy shooting!