Sunsets are often underexposed when shooting in Aperture Priority exposure setting.

Aperture Priority–The Auto Exposure For Photographers

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I almost always have my camera set to “Manual” exposure. I admit it. I’m a “Manual” snob. Taking full control of my camera’s shutter speed and aperture, or f-stop, gives me perfect exposures no matter the subject or the lighting.

Making the leap from “Program”, where the camera makes all the exposure decisions, to full “Manual”, where the photographer is in charge, is a big step however. Let’s face it, “M”, or “Manual”, can be rather intimidating.

Are all the auto-exposure settings a waste of time? No, of course not, but one is better than the others.

Back lighting for Aperture Priority exposure of sailboarding

Back lighting of sailboarder in Aperture Priority exposure can be tricky.

Let’s break down exposure. Assuming a proper exposure is the final result, shutter speed usually just needs to be fast enough to produce a sharp subject. Whether 1/500, 1/1000 or 1/2000—they all will look the same, assuming you aren’t photographing a hummingbird. Shutter speed is generally used to freeze motion—and give you a proper exposure, of course.

Set Aperture Priority exposure for great depth of field in landscapes

Set Aperture Priority exposure for great depth of field in landscapes

Aperture settings, or the f-stop, also control exposure, but determine depth of field in an image as well. Depth of field, or how much of the image in front of and behind the plane of focus is sharp, is one of the most powerful tools in photography. Changing from great depth of field to very shallow depth of field completely changes how a viewer “reads” your photograph. The storyline of an image changes dramatically with a change in depth of field.

Aperture Priority works well for dusk images

Aperture Priority works well for dusk images but a tripod may be necessary for the long exposures.

Aperture, or f-stop, is the exposure setting that a photographer must control absolutely!

Conveniently, there is an auto-exposure setting on most cameras that allows a photographer to set the proper depth of field while the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed for a correct exposure—“A” or “Aperture Priority”.

Photographing people often requires shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

Photographing people often requires shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

If you want to separate your subject from the background of an image, set your aperture, or f-stop, to a wide opening of f2.8 to f5.6 for a shallow depth of field. Conversely, if the background or environment is as important as the subject, pick an f-stop that creates greater depth of field, say f16 or f22. The photographer must make the decision on how much depth of field is appropriate, then the camera picks the shutter speed to create a proper exposure.

Aperture Priority for travel subjects

The Aperture Priority exposure setting is perfect for travel photography under changing light.

“Aperture Priority” is especially useful in situations where the lighting changes quickly, like sports, weddings, travel, concerts and street photography. It’s fast and eliminates half the work of “Manual” exposure.

Is it foolproof? Well, no.

Pick shallow depth of field for food shots using Aperture Priority exposure settings

Pick shallow depth of field for food shots using Aperture Priority exposure settings

Your camera may still underexpose sunsets like the one above, light-colored buildings and backlit subjects just like it did on “P”. Much of the time, however, the exposures will be great and each image will have the depth of field that you want, rather than what the camera “thinks” is correct.

Even in the tricky lighting environments listed above, the exposure will be close and can be corrected in post-production. Not that I advocate fixing everything in post—quite the opposite—but the “A” exposure setting makes setting exposure relatively fast and painless. Take control but make it easy. Shoot in Aperture Priority and relax!


Photo Capture–Only Half The Battle

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Today’s photography software is amazing, especially post-production software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom. Capturing an image is now only the first step in producing a finished photograph. How an image is processed can either emphasize what was obvious in the original capture or change it completely.

Standard processing of the original RAW file

Standard processing of the original RAW file

Ironically, we have traveled a long way to end up with a process similar to long-established black & white darkroom printing techniques. Change the contrast and exposure—no problem. Dodge and burn selective areas of an image—done and done. Now we have even greater control and we can manipulate color at both the global and localized level as well. All this processing power can be daunting and I have found that if I can pre-visualize the final image during capture, post-production goes quite smoothly.

That’s right, I shoot specifically for post-production.

Processing RAW file for an edgy look with Lightroom settings visible

Processing RAW file for an edgy look with Lightroom settings visible

The image above illustrates this process. This fitness studio caters to a certain age range of clients and the windows look out on a parking lot. The model was lit with a large softbox but I allowed the view out the window to over expose. The soft light was flattering to my subject and the blown out windows produced a high key feel to the setting while hiding all the cars.

Using my standard Develop settings in Lightroom, Clarity at 25 and Vibrance at 35, the image turned out as my client and I expected. Wanting to give my client some choices, I also processed this image with an edgier look, setting Clarity to 100 and Vibrance to -55. This look appeals to a younger audience. See the screen shot above.

Processing for normal black & white using Lightroom b&W preset

Processing for normal black & white using Lightroom b&W preset

We could have gone with a basic black & white look as well, or even a high key black & white treatment. Lightroom has a set of black & white presets and you can then alter those settings as your vision dictates.

Processing a high-key black & white image using a Lightroom preset as a starting point

Processing a high-key black & white image using a Lightroom preset as a starting point

One of the brilliant aspects of Lightroom is that it is a non-destructive software. For each unique version you create from a single image, Lightroom merely creates a low-res preview file. The original is never altered. Only when you export a file is a whole new derivative file created. Every version of your original image is saved as a text file that records the processing steps, saving tons of disk space. Brilliant!

How do you learn to pre-visualize a certain look that you create in post-production? Well, you have to play with images in Lightroom. Have fun trying out different slider combinations. Find a look that speaks to you and works well with the subjects you like to photograph.

I even have different Lightroom settings depending on whether the original RAW file comes from my Canon cameras or my DJI drone.

Remember, if you haven’t begun to master post-production, you are only working with half the available photography tools out there. If you want to get a better feel for what is possible using Lightroom, look into my Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit Class “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” or Bruce Burkhardt’s SBCC Non-Credit Class “Adobe Lightroom Essentials”. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.


Portrait of Hostess at a Winery Tasting Room

Directing Your Models–A Photographer’s Guide

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

On a recent Saturday, my workshop students and I spent the morning photographing produce, vendors and street musicians at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. I had found a vendor with an interesting face, nice display and a farm banner that hid their truck. I asked if I could photograph him and he looked at me for a moment and then said “Since you asked, yes”.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give your subject something to do with their hands.

He immediately squared his shoulders, dropped his hands to his sides and stared at the camera. Where I had started with an animated vendor, I now had a ridged statue. This happens more often than not when I ask to photograph someone and it’s my job to turn them back into a living, breathing, engaged individual.

When photographing people, there is a check list in my head that I usually follow.

First, is the subject in the best light for a portrait?

Although this changes depending on what I want to say about the person or their job, I usually want diffused, horizontal light. Maybe I need to move them to a better location within their environment. Maybe they need to be turned slightly or moved only a foot. Don’t be shy about asking. This helps establish your authority on the shoot and their trust in you will quickly grow, especially if you explain why they will look better in the new position.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Find the best light within your set for a portrait.

Second, and equally important, do they have any mannerisms I can use?

Do they use their hands when they talk? Do they smile easily? Is there something unique in their mannerisms that I can incorporate into the image?

Watch for small mannerisms

Watch for small mannerisms that you can use during posing.

Third, give your subject something to do with their hands.

Give them something to hold, something to move, something to pour. Make sure it is something they would normally do so it feels familiar. Give a subject something to do with their hands and they will visibly relax in front of your camera. It’s an easy fix.

Give your model something to hold.

Give your model something to hold. Be careful, of course, about what you give them.

Remember, photographing a model is a partnership between yourself and your subject. There has to be trust and respect and you only have 5 to 10 seconds to establish that trust. Show interest in the person and what they do. By showing interest in the individual, you encourage them to be themself, not just a photo target.

It sounds daunting, but each time you photograph a stranger, it becomes easier.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Some portraits are as much about the job they do as it is the individual.

Get the technical stuff worked out before you approach your subject. Give your model a role to play. Become the director. Careful! You may start to enjoy this.

For more on photographing people, see our blog post  “The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease”


Wildflower bloom on Figueroa Mountain

Photographing The Beautiful Flower Show On Figueroa Mountain

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

If you are a photographer, you can’t help but know that this has been a big year for wildflowers in SoCal. Superblooms like the California poppy explosion down near Lake Elsinore drew such big crowds that the nearest freeway exit had to be closed. Anza-Borrego Dessert State Park was also overrun with tourists.

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

We are fortunate to have our own flower bomb going off on nearby Figueroa Mountain—without the huge crowds.

As you climb up Figueroa Mountain Road, starting just across the highway from Los Olivos, whole hillsides in the distance appear orange and purple from blooming fields of California poppies and lupine. Hillsides are covered in soft green grasses and the oaks are just leafing out with pale green foliage.

Owl's Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Owl’s Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Nestled among the grasses are all kinds of exotic blossoms, from shooting stars and chocolate lilies to patches of owl’s clover. These are all “belly Flowers’, meaning you are going to have to lay on your belly to view or photograph them properly.

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

If you want a really intimate image of wildflowers, try a little trick I learned from one of my students.

Preset your camera exposure, set your wide angle lens to autofocus and place your camera on the ground beneath some flowers, shooting up toward the blue sky. Don’t try to look through the viewfinder. Just keep shooting as you move the camera around. It’s a lot of fun and I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the unusual bugs-eye-view of your patch of flowers.

Using a camera to capture both the grandeur of these massive blooms and the intimate delicacy of each flower is a challenge, but it can be done using a simple tool—backlighting. Light passing through a translucent flower petal will always be more saturated than light reflecting off the same surface and has the added advantage of highlighting all the tiny hairs, pistils and stamens that make flowers such exotic creatures.

Goldfield blooms

Sometimes a little lens flair is useful in creating a sense of tangible sunlight

Although it is a simple technique, backlighting does have a couple tricky aspects. First, make sure to check your histogram for exposure. Many cameras tend to underexpose backlit situations. You are essentially exposing for the shadow side of your subject and if you are using manual exposure, overexpose by about 2/3 of a stop. Second, avoid flair by checking the front lens element to make sure no direct sunlight is hitting the glass. If necessary, use something to shade the lens, like the brim of a hat or a gray card. Flair tends to lower contrast and hide details and nobody wants a blob of off-colored light in the middle of their image. See our previous post “The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting” 

California poppy photographed from a low level

California poppy photographed from a low level

A few things to keep in mind when you go. Take water, snacks and warm clothes. Go with a full gas tank and drive slowly. Some of the roads up there can be challenging, as can some of our fellow drivers. If you are a photographer, try to take some kind of macro lens. Many of the most unique blossoms are hidden away in the grass and rocks and it will take some “belly time” to find them.

Wildflowers on the Mountain have a short season, so don’t take too long to get up there. It’s quite a show and you don’t want to miss it. After all, who knows when it will rain again?

 

 


medium altitude aerial of coastal sunset

Drone Photography–It’s All About Altitude

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

Often I am asked if composing a photograph with a drone is the same as creating an image at ground level. It is similar, of course, but being able to make large adjustments to the altitude of a camera adds a whole new dimension to the process.

Low altitude aerial of Knapps Castle at sunrise

Low altitude aerial of Knapps Castle at sunrise

When I am out shooting landscapes, I use a tripod and continually adjust the camera height from 1 foot off the ground up to about 5 feet high. Some times, adjusting the camera up or down just a few inches can have a big impact on a composition.

Low altitude aerial of lake produces better reflections

Low altitude aerial of lake produces better reflections than a higher altitude

Imagine having a tripod that can extend from ground level to 400 feet with infinite adjustments in between. For that matter, any photographer that can carry a 400 foot tripod would be equally impressive.

Welcome to the age of photo drones!

In an earlier post on drone photography, I mentioned that I shoot within three general height brackets—Sky High, Way Up and Tall Photographer—that cover every altitude from 10 feet to 400 feet. Notice I keep stopping at 400 feet above ground level. In the United States, that is the maximum allowable altitude for a drone. Manned aircraft have a minimum altitude of 500–1000 feet. Only a fool, or someone who gives little thought to the safety of others, flies a drone higher than 400 feet above ground level.

Because most entry-level and prosumer drones have built in wide angle lenses, at low altitude, near objects appear larger than the same objects farther away and assume more visual importance, just as if you were shooting at ground level.

Low altitude aerial of windmill and vineyard

Low altitude aerial of windmill and vineyard produces the same wide angle lens effect as at ground level

As your drone climbs higher, everything is at a distance and appears proportional to their actual sizes. Buildings and roads may be revealed that were not visible from ground level. Patterns as well. The monitor on your controller will show you what the drone’s camera actually sees, but the screen is small and the image is not easy to view in strong sunlight. Just like ground-level photography, pre-visualization is critical.

High altitude aerial of coast shows greater range of sea cliffs

High altitude aerial of coast shows greater range of sea cliffs

Pre-visualization is the key to most great photography and working with a camera drone is no different.

Block out the arrangement of components in your head so that the composition feels balanced. Fly your drone to an appropriate position and see how it looks. Usually you will fine-tune your composition by adjusting altitude or position to hide or reveal objects and then adjust your camera angle to control framing. Adjust exposure and shoot away. Then make a big change in your altitude and create a totally different image. That’s the beauty of a drone. You are working with a 10-400 foot tripod. Anything is possible.

Medium altitude aerial shows the pattern of marinas and boats in a harbor

Medium altitude aerial shows the pattern of marinas and boats in a harbor

If you are interested in drone photography, start cheap. Many photographers crash their first drone. Some crash their second and third drones. Learn to fly safely, then learn to shoot with a drone. It’s a great tool, but it can be tricky.

Future drone posts will examine camera angle and lighting direction. Check out our earlier drone post at https://santabarbaraphotographicworkshops.wordpress.com/2018/10/17/aerial-drone-photography-capturing-the-view-from-above/.

Stay safe out there.


Location photography workshop Spring 2019.

Join A Location Photography Workshop In Spring 2019

Join professional magazine photographer Chuck Place for 5 fun location photo shoots on consecutive Saturday mornings starting March 23 in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country and Santa Barbara area. With input from Chuck, fine tune your photographic skills and develop a personal style while exploring towns, locations and events like Los Olivos, Solvang, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Figueroa Mountain and the Summer Solstice Parade or the Santa Barbara Harbor and Seafood Festival. 

Each photo shoot will be at a different location, depending on events and season. Get feedback on your images each week from Chuck and your fellow students and learn how a professional photographer approaches various subjects and lighting environments. Class size will be capped at 10 so that Chuck has plenty of time to spend with each student. See Class and Workshop Recommendations.

Tuition is $300. for all five weeks of the workshop payable at least three weeks in advance.

Cancellations two weeks or more before the start date will receive a full refund. Cancellations between one and two weeks before the start date will receive a 50% refund and there will be no refunds for cancellations the week before the start date. For more details, please e-mail Chuck at chuckplace@cox.net.


A level camera creates parallel arches

Great Photography Tool For Leveling Your Camera

Text and Images by Chuck Place

I love my cameras! There, I’ve said it. Neither my Canon 5D MkII or MkIII has ever quit on me. They give me consistent, predictable results. The quality is great and if an image does not resonate well, I know it is not the camera’s fault.

Fall aspen trunks converge with lens tilted slightly up.

Fall aspen trunks converge with lens tilted slightly up.

And once in a while, I discover a function hidden away in the black hole of the Canon “Menus” that I actually need, like a built-in level. Who knew?

Built in camera level

Simulated camera with built in level at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. Level camera side to side and raise and lower lens axis until a green line runs all across viewfinder.

I am shooting more architecture lately and keeping the vertical elements in a scene straight up and down and the horizons level is critical. To achieve this, the lens axis and camera body must be perfectly level to avoid convergence, divergence or tilting horizons.

A leveled camera keeps vertical elements parallel to each other.

A leveled camera keeps vertical elements parallel to each other.

I don’t like a grid in my viewfinder. I find it distracting when I am not shooting architecture. I have been using a bubble level that mounts on the camera’s hotshoe. It’s convenient and cheap, but not super accurate.

Viewfinder grid and bubble level

Viewfinder grid and bubble level for leveling a camera.

While watching a video by Scott Hargis on architecture photography, I almost fell out of my chair when he turned on the camera’s built-in level. Where did that come from? A quick replay showed it was hiding in the “Info” button. I normally use the “Info” button to occasionally check an image histogram, but I have never clicked it without viewing an image.

Even a long lens can be leveled for parallel vertical lines.

Even a long lens can be leveled for parallel vertical lines.

“Hiding in plain sight” is a phrase that comes to mind.

If you are tired of shooting slanting horizons or a landscape where all the aspen trees lean into each other, read the manual and see if your camera has a built-in level. If not, the bubble level works OK and there are always corrections in post-production, but you have to love a tool that is built-in, highly accurate, easy to use and essentially free.

I love my Canon 5D MkIII. Even more now!


Traditional Native American dancers sidelit by the setting sun

Magic Hour Photography: Get Creative And Capture The Drama

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Few photographers can resist shooting a beautiful sunset. Clouds build up, color starts to develop, you have a perfect ocean or lake surface for great reflections or you found some fascinating trees or buildings to silhouette against the colorful sky. It’s impossible to resist, isn’t it?

More often than not, however, at this time of day, I find myself turning my back on the sun as it goes down and watching for what it lights up instead.

Mesa Verde ruins sidelit

Mesa Verde ruins sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

That warm color of the low sun skimming across a landscape or buildings is pure magic. The soft, low-contrast sunlight at the end of the day is perfect for lifestyle images or dramatic portraits. It creates an ambiance to which everyone can relate. It’s the time of day we associate with relaxing and gathering with friends, enjoying a meal with others or just sipping a glass of wine. There is something truly magical about photographs created during the golden hour at the end of the day when the fleeting warm light mixes with cool-toned shadows to heighten drama and mystery in an image.

Native American Fancy Dancers sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Native American Fancy Dancers sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

There is more to producing photos with impact at magic hour than just turning your back on the sun, of course.

Death Valley sand dunes sidelit by the setting sun

Death Valley sand dunes sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

If you are shooting in JPEG format, make sure you turn off Auto White Balance and set your camera white balance to Daylight or Overcast. Auto White Balance, or AWB, works great in a lot of lighting environments because it neutralizes color in an image, but it will also neutralize all that warm light at sunset. There goes all your atmosphere and saturated color. The Daylight or Overcast setting will capture the warm color balance that you typically see at sunset.

Woman practicing yoga is backlit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Woman practicing yoga is backlit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Even better, shoot in RAW format if your camera has that feature. The RAW format ignores the camera’s white balance setting while capturing the maximum amount of image data. This extra data makes it possible to correct or change your image to a much larger degree, giving you more creative freedom than can be achieved with a smaller JPEG file.

One of my favorite techniques is using warm sunlight to side light my subjects, creating an exaggerated sense of volume and contrast. Side lighting also separates the warm, lit side of your subject with the cool, shadow side, producing a more dramatic image.

Mission San Xavier del Bac sidelit by the setting sun

Mission San Xavier del Bac sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Front lighting at magic hour produces rather flat lighting, but can be effective if the warmly lit subject is contrasted against a cool blue sky. Quarter back lighting is also effective at this time of day, especially for lifestyle and portrait photography. The soft, even lighting on the shadow side of your subject can be quite beautiful as long as the subject is not underexposed. Flair can be a bit of a problem when the sun is out in front of the lens, but flair can also create a strong ambience if it is controlled properly.

Aerial of the Alabama Hills front lit at Magic Hour

Aerial of the Alabama Hills front lit with sunset light at Magic Hour

Next time you are out shooting late in the day, break the sunset habit and turn your back on the sun. You may be surprised by the images you can create using sunset light, rather than photographing the actual sunset. It’s a magic time, after all.