Monthly Archives: November 2013

Fall colors in Northern California

Out here in Northern California, there are wonderful fall colors, wherever you look.  You simply cannot miss it.  What do you think about these three images, that I made last Thursday?

Fall leaves, Milpitas, CA, USA

Fall leaves, Milpitas, CA, USA

Fall leaves, Mipitas, CA, USA

Fall leaves, Mipitas, CA, USA

Fall leaves, Milpitas, CA, USA

Fall leaves, Milpitas, CA, USA



7 Lessons from a Waterfall Image

Fall leaves and small waterfall, Uvas Canyon, Morgan Hill, CA, USA

Fall leaves and small waterfall, Uvas Canyon, Morgan Hill, CA, USA

  1. In overcast conditions, look for colorful subjects (flowers, foliage etc) to make intimate landscapes.  Given the time of the year (mid-Nov), photographing fall leaves was a no-brainer for me.
  2. If possible, emphasize something in the foreground, against the background subject.  In this case, I found this colorful leaf for the foreground to anchor the shot of a background waterfall and more leaves.
  3. Photograph extensive depth images with a wide angle lens.  I used my 17-35mm f2.8.
  4. Use f22, if there is a foreground object very close to the lens, along with background that is far away.  This ensured front to back sharpness due to extensive depth of field.  My lens was about 9 inches away from the foreground leaf.
  5. Use your camera’s native ISO to keep the noise to the minimum.  I used ISO 200, native to my Nikon D300.
  6. Use a tripod.  The shutter speed for this shot was 30 s.  I could not have done it hand-held.  I used my light GK1580TQR5 tripod, coupled with my Kirk BH-1 Ball head.  This tripod is light enough and small enough to actually fit inside my camera backpack.  At the same time, I was not impressed by the ball-head that came standard with this tripod.  I therefore took it out and fitted my Kirk BH-1 ball-head to it.  I now have a fine light tripod, with an extraordinary ball-head.  This tripod provides the stability to shoot long exposures.  This ball-head provides ability to quickly and easily fine-tune my composition, once the tripod is setup.
  7. Do not trigger with your finger.  Use an electronic cable release.  I used one for this shot, to eliminate any camera shake, resulting in a sharp image.

Staged Outdoor Baby Portraits

This post is about photographing babies in a staged outdoor setting.  If you are looking for a procedure to make candid unplanned photographs, please skip this post.  While there are many ways to photograph babies in an outdoor setting, this is my favorite method.

  1. Pick the date of the shoot and figure out the sunset time for that date, using any one of the sunset calendars available online.
  2. Find a good park with good foliage near your home.
  3. On the day of the shoot, in addition to the baby, carry two comforters.
  4. Arrive at the location of the shoot 60-90 minutes before sunset.  The light gets sweeter closer to the sunset.  Light in the middle of the day is not suitable for outdoor portraits.
  5. Setup one comforter for the baby and the other one for the photographer, such that when the photographer is shooting the photographs, the baby is getting side-lighting.  The sun should be on the baby’s left or right, not front/back.  Side-lighting provides a lot of depth to the image.  Front lighting is flat and not recommended, if you can avoid it.  Backlighting, although interesting, is not widely appreciated for outdoor portraits.  Furthermore, set the two comforters such that the background is far away from the baby.  Instead of setting the baby near a background wall or a bunch of background trees, these backgrounds should be far away.  In the park, the photographer should be nearest to the border and the baby should be inside the park, such that the other end of the park is far away.  This will allow you to blur out the background, intensifying the attention of the viewer on the baby.
  6. On the photographer’s comforter, place the tripod, as low to the ground as possible.  This will enable you to shoot from the child’s eye-level.  Do not shoot portraits from up looking down.  It is best to shoot portraits from the eye-level of the subject.
  7. Mount a long lens on the tripod.  My favorite lens is the 70-200mm f2.8 lens.  This lens sits on the tripod.  The camera body hangs on the lens.  A telephoto blurs out the background much more than a normal or wide angle lens.  In addition, a telephoto lens does not have the distortion so common in the wide angle lenses.  Finally, the coverage provided by telephoto lens is most appropriate for portraits.
  8. Mount the camera on it.  I use a Nikon D300.  Mount an external flash on the camera. The on-camera flashes are not good enough.  I use the SB-800 speedlight.
  9. Set the camera to aperture priority exposure mode.  Set the aperture to f2.8 or f4.  This will provide the shallow depth of field to blur out the background.
  10. Choose to shoot with a single focus sensor turned on.  Furthermore, using the jockey at the back of the camera, get comfortable in moving that sensor around as necessary.
  11. Turn on the external speedlight in TTL (BL) mode (Nikon) or eTTL mode (Canon).  This will simply put out some fill light without overwhelming the subject with flash light.  Even if the ambient light is sufficient, this is necessary – it introduces a catch light in the eyes and provides some light to fill the dark shadows.
  12. Place baby on its comforter and let him/her play around.
  13. Start shooting pictures, with the focus sensor on the baby’s eyes.  Even if parts of the baby are not in focus due to shallow depth of field, it is extremely important for the eyes to be tack sharp and in focus.
  14. Keep shooting images, starting from about 30 minutes before sunset, all the way till the last light is all gone.  You should have several hundred frames done.
  15. Go home and pick your best.  Develop the image in Lightroom or similar software.

Thank you for your attention.  If you found this procedure to be useful or even if one aspect of this enhances your technique in any way, please let me know.  Feel free to forward this post to anyone that might benefit from it.

Thank you.

Which DSLR camera should I buy?

This is a very common question from beginners.  To many of them, the answer is not simple due to the large number of options available in the market today.  Let me see if I can simplify and provide a simple path for beginners.

As a photography coach, I have trained hundreds of beginners from all over California and have talked to other photographers from all over the world.  More than 95% of them use either a Nikon or a Canon DSLR.  While any DSLR camera made today is capable of fine images, these two camera makers offer a full suite of lenses and accessory choices.  Is one better than the other?  In my opinion, no.  They are both good, so pick one and stick with it.

You have a few more decisions to make.  Even within the Nikon and Canon camera lines, there are many choices.  How does one boil down to a particular camera body?  This requires understanding of the key differences between the consumer, semi-professional and the professional camera bodies.

Consumer Camera Bodies – These are obviously the entry level bodies that are inexpensive.  For most people, the image quality possible with these cameras are more than sufficient.  I have seen National Geographic Photography competition winning images made with a Nikon D3200.  Consider these, if budget is tight.  The Nikon consumer bodies at the time of this posting are: D3200, D90, D5300 and D7100.  The Canon consumer bodies at the time of this posting are: EOS Rebel T3i, T4i and T5i.  These bodies may be purchased for about $ 1000 or less.

Semi-Professional Bodies – These cost more in the $ 1000 – $ 2000 range.  What is the extra benefit for paying more money here?  Basically, more buttons that perform functions quickly, rather than going into several layers of software menus.  For example, in my Nikon D5100, I have to go into software through several layers of menus to change the ISO for a particular shot.  In my Nikon D300, I am able to make that change using a dedicated ISO button.  It is simply quicker and more efficient to change settings using the semi-professional bodies compared to the consumer bodies.  These bodies also offer a larger number of focus areas for your frame.  For example, my Nikon D5100 offers only nine points on the screen that can be used to focus the scene, while the Nikon D300 offers me 51 focus points.  Can I live with my D5100 and still get the same kind of quality images that I make with my D300?  Absolutely, no question about it.  Is it a little easier to work in the field with a Nikon D300?  Absolutely, without a doubt.  Once I am used to a semi-pro body, I find it hard to operate a consumer body that has most functions hidden several layers within the software menu, interfaced through the LCD screen.  The semi-professional bodies in the Nikon line at the time of this posting are: D300S and D610.  The semi-professional bodies in the Canon line at the time of this posting are: EOS 60D, EOS 60Da and EOS 70D.  If you are serious, consider one of these bodies – you can gradually pick up the use of the buttons and features offered, but beware, once you get used to using one of these bodies, it is pretty hard to go back to a consumer body.  Again, it is the convenience offered by the various buttons and quick adjustments possible that you are paying for.  Not necessarily for image quality.  In addition to these qualities, most of these semi-pro bodies come with an all metal construction that results in rugged reliability in the field.  I am simplifying here, there are a few other marginal benefits to these semi-pro bodies, but don’t want to get too complicated here.

Professional bodies – these are the top of the line bodies that are impervious to dust, rain and snow.  In addition, these bodies come fitted with the highest quality lowest noise sensors and have very high frames per second continuous shooting rates.  These bodies are nicely suited for wildlife, sports and night photography.  For example, my Nikon D300 body can only go up to ISO 6400, but a Nikon D4 can be extended to ISO 204,800.  The professional bodies in the Nikon line are: Nikon D800, D800E, D3x, D4 and Df.  The professional bodies in the Canon line are: EOS 7D, 6D, 5D MIII and IDx.

Full frame sensor vs Crop factor sensor – A full frame sensor has the same size as the 35mm film, which was 36mm x 24mm.  A crop-factor sensor is usually about 24mm x 16mm.  For most beginners, you will not know the difference between these two sensors.  Do not go out and buy a new camera just because you have a crop-factor sensor and the new one is full frame.  The main limitation comes in wide angle landscape photography, wherein, a 17mm lens appears as 28mm or so, given that the sensor is cropping the image projected by the lens onto the backplane.  For beginners, mastering the use of wide angle lenses for landscape photography, takes a while and for the most part, the full frame sensor will not be missed until an advanced skill level is reached.  After practicing for eight years and after using my crop-factor camera, the Nikon D300, for five years, I am finally running into the crop-factor sensor limitations.  In my widest lens, the 17-35mm, I am often shooting landscapes at 17mm and wish I could go wider.  However, in the beginning, it was very difficult for me to compose at 17mm.  I would never reach this lower limit and hence going to a full-frame sensor would not have helped me at all.

My recommended sweet spot camera for beginners: Nikon D7100 or Canon EOS 70D.  Both these cameras have enough controls as dedicated buttons and yet, they may be purchased for around $ 1000.  Once you have used one of these bodies diligently for a few years, you will be able to decide whether to upgrade to a higher level body or not.

CAUTION 1: If you already have a camera body today, please do not go out and buy a new camera based on reading this post.  Just use the camera you already own, to its best.  Then, have a very clear-cut reason to upgrade.  “A new camera is just released.  I simply need to buy it” – does not cut it.  For example, my position is as follows – “I have used my Nikon D300 camera for five years now.  I have made nearly 100,000 images using it.  I continue to use it today, but I am limited.  I love making night photographs in the street, hand-held.  My ISO 6400 is very noisy and many times, it is not sufficient.  I need the high ISO capability of a D4.  Furthermore, as a landscape photographer, I am constantly running into the limit of 17mm on my widest lens and unable to go wider.  I know I can competently use a wider angle than 17mm on my crop-factor lens, and therefore using the same lens on a new D4 with the full frame sensor would do me good.  I am an avid wildlife photographer and could use the higher frames per second offered by the D4.  Plus the D4 has a built-in vertical grip that will be ergonomically better for my shoulder.”  With these reasons, I can justify my next camera purchase, the Nikon D4.  However, I have not pulled the trigger yet, because this camera costs $ 6000.  In digital photography, you have to be careful on how much you spend!

CAUTION 2: Megapixels is not important – this is the first thing people look at when trying to decide on a camera body.  Unless you are a professional fine-art photographer, making poster size prints all the time, megapixels is not important.  99% of the photographers that I have talked to, simply post their images online or enjoy the images on their computer screens.  A majority of them have never printed images beyond 8×10.  At 300 dpi, an 8×10 image would need 2400×3000 pixels, which is 7.2 megapixels.  That is it.  I don’t know of one camera that produces an image less then 7.2 megapixels.  If you are like most people, enjoying your images on your computer screen or posting online, you will not need more than 2 or 3 megapixels.  So, going out of your way to buy a Nikon D800 camera capable of 36 megapixels is sheer waste of money.  The only reason you should consider these high megapixel cameras, is if you are a fine art gallery photographer, making a living by selling 24×36 or larger prints.

I am sure you have come across people, taking for ever to make the jump into DSLR photography, because they are still trying to determine which camera to buy.  If they are beginners and could use some simple direction, please send them a link to this post.

Thank you.

Five Techniques for Night Photography

This post is meant to help beginners get started with night photography.  Five different techniques are described and examples presented.

  1. Aperture Priority Long Exposure with Tripod.  This method works when you want to get your shot in one single exposure.  This is also the simplest technique of all the possibilities and therefore the easiest for absolute beginners.  The result can be much better if you use one of the other techniques described in this post, but this is the simplest way to begin.
    • ISO  = Native.  My Nikon D300 has a native ISO of 200 and my Nikon D5100 has a native ISO of 100.  This gives the best noise performance (least noise).
    • Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field.  For images with extensive depth of field, an aperture of f22 is appropriate.  If the subject is relatively flat with not much depth, you can get away with f5.6 or similar wide open aperture.
    • Metering = Matrix or Evaluative.  Matrix or evaluative metering works best if the image does not have disproportionate extreme tonalities.  The assumption is a night subject or landscape with average tonality.  If your image has half of it very bright and half of it dark, the matrix metering will work well most of the time.
    • Shutter speed = auto.  Let the camera determine the shutter speed automatically in the aperture priority mode.
    • Post process in Lightroom or similar software to reach desired look.  In today’s environment, it is a given that people are touching up their images in the computer.  I use Lightroom, Photoshop and Nik Software for my post processing.
    Shanghai Night Skyline

    Shanghai Night Skyline, shot from the Bund.  Nikon D300, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 lens, f16, 8s, ISO 200.  Gitzo 1340 Tripod, Kirk BH-1 Ball-head, Shutter release self-timer 10s.


  1. Auto-ISO Hand-held Exposure.  This is the method to adopt if you are walking around in a tourist destination with just your camera/lens, without a tripod or other accessories.
    • ISO = auto.  Granted, this will result in noisy images with consumer or prosumer cameras.  There are professional cameras these days, that can produce virtually noise-free images at ISO 6400 or even ISO 12800.  However, for those of us, that do not have professional cameras, resort to noise reduction in post production.
    • Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field.  For extensive depth of field, use f16 or f22.  For shallow depth of field, use f4 or f5.6.  Even in situations where an extensive depth of field is required, I find it hard to shoot hand-held at night, with any aperture narrower than f5.6, due to unacceptable shutter speeds.
    • Metering = Matrix or Evaluative.
    • Shutter speed = 1/50s or 1/100s or 1/200s, depending on the whether the subject is stationary or moving and how steady your own hands are.  In addition to considerations related to moving or stationary objects, you must consider your own hand-shake to determine what works for you.  Run a test to determine acceptable hand-holding shutter speeds for you.
    • Post process in Lightroom or similar software to reach desired look.

    Buses and Clock Tower at the Bund, Shanghai.

    Buses and Clock Tower at the Bund, Shanghai. Nikon D300, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 lens, ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/160s, Hand-held.

  1. Manual Long Single Exposure with Tripod
    • ISO = Native
    • Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field
    • Metering = don’t care
    • Shutter speed = 1s, 2s, 4s, 8s, 15s, 30s, 1m, 2m, 4m
    • Review the results from the various shutter speeds in Lightroom or similar software and pick the exposure that is exposed most to the right, without losing highlight detail.  Then process that exposure to reach desired look.

    Austin Downtown and reflection in Colorado River.

    Austin Downtown and reflection in Colorado River. Nikon D300, Nikkor 17-35mm lens, ISO 200, f16, 60s. Gitzo 1340 Tripod, Kirk BH-1 Ball-head, Nikon Electronic Shutter Release.

  1. Manual Long Composite Exposure with Tripod
    1. ISO = Native
    2. Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field
    3. Metering = don’t care
    4. Shutter speed = 1s, 2s, 4s, 8s, 15s, 30s, 1m, 2m, 4m
    5. By reviewing the previews and histograms on the LCD screen, determine the shutter speed resulting in the exposure, that is exposed most to the right, without losing highlight detail.
    6. Using shutter speed determined in previous step, keep clicking several exposures of the exact same scene to capture different nuances of moving subjects (for example, fireworks, traffic trails etc)
    7. Using Lightroom and Photoshop or similar software, make a composite that overlays the various exposures made in previous step.

    Las Vegas at Night.

    Las Vegas at Night. Nikon D300, ISO 200, f22, Several shutter speeds and composited using the method described here.

  1. Manual Long HDR Exposure with Tripod
    • ISO = Native
    • Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field
    • Metering = don’t care
    • Shutter speed = 1s, 2s, 4s, 8s, 15s, 30s, 1m, 2m, 4m
    • In post production, review the fast exposures that still have highlight detail as well as the slow exposures that still some lowlight details.  Using these two exposures as extremes and including some additional exposures in between, export them to HDR Efex Pro 2 or similar HDR software and generate an HDR image.  Thumb through the various presets in the program and pick the one that most matches your vision.  Furthermore, fine-tune the HDR image in your software, until you are totally satisfied.


Austin Capilol Building at Night.

Austin Capitol Building at Night. Nikon D300, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 lens, ISO 200. Gitzo 1340 Tripod, Kirk BH-1 Ball-head, Nikon Electronic Shutter Release. HDR procedure described in this section.

Feel free to leave a comment.  If you like this post and benefited by it, please forward it to a friend who may benefit from it as well.  Thank you and I shall see you again soon.