The Francisco Peaks and Wupatki National Monument using a 300mm telephoto lens.

Telephoto Camera Lenses: 3 Essential Techniques For Producing Powerful Images

Text & Photos by Chuck Place©

One of my favorite lenses is my Canon 300mm f2.8 telephoto. Sure, it’s big, it’s heavy and it’s really pricy. And although I only occasionally photograph sports or wildlife, the most popular subjects for these big telephotos, the images I create with that lens are always captivating. Let me walk you through the 3 techniques I employ most often when shooting with a telephoto lens. Let’s see if you agree?

Reach, Isolate or Compress—those are the 3 main reasons to own a telephoto lens. 

Long lenses, or telephotos, have a narrower field of vision than a normal lens. This narrowing or cropping of our normal field of vision effectively magnifies the objects or main subjects in our image.

Bull rider in a rodeo captured with 300mm lens
Bull rider action in a rodeo photographed with a Canon 300mm f2.8 lens

This, of course, leads us to the main use of telephoto lenses—reaching out to fill the frame with our main subject. This creates the effect of placing the viewer right in the action, whether it is a young bull rider in a rodeo hanging on for dear life or a sailboat crew hustling to set a spinnaker during a race in San Francisco Bay. 

sailboat race photographed with 70--200mm f2.8 zoom lens
sailboat race action photographed with 70–200mm f2.8 zoom lens

Telephoto lenses come in a range of focal lengths and in both fixed focal lengths, like the 300mm lens, and various zoom configurations. My go-to telephoto lens for events like the Tournament of Roses Parade is a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens. It covers short to medium telephoto ranges and gives me the ability to change the degree of magnification so that I can move in tight on an amazing parade float while cropping out distractions like the parade crowds.

Tournament of Roses Parade photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens
Float in the Tournament of Roses Parade photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens

It is also possible to increase the focal length of a telephoto by placing a teleconverter between the camera body and lens. Mine converts my 300mm to a 420mm telephoto that can transport a viewer twenty feet up in a tree to view, up close, one of the Monarch butterfly migration roosting sites here in California.

Monarch butterflies photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Monarch butterflies photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens and teleconverter

Having that kind of reach for a photographer is invaluable.

Reach is only one aspect of a telephoto, however. The ability of a telephoto to isolate a subject is not only a function of reach but often depth of field as well. It’s no accident that both of my telephoto lenses are f2.8 lenses, capable of creating images with very shallow depth of field. Picking out a single dancer at a Cinco de Mayo celebration has more impact if the surrounding area is softened with very shallow depth of field. 

dancer photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Cinco de Mayo dancer photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens

Also keep in mind that the longer the telephoto focal length, the softer the background becomes. For this very reason, telephoto lenses are often used to produce portraits with very soft, buttery backgrounds, creating a wonderful separation between subject and background.

portrait created with a 300mm telephoto lens
portrait created with a 300mm telephoto lens in a grassy meadow

The third creative technique for which I employ a telephoto lens is compression. 

Unlike a wide angle lens, which creates a feeling of greater depth in a scene, a telephoto lens has the ability to pull the distant components of a scene closer to the foreground subjects, compressing the distance between near and far objects. I find this technique especially powerful for visually linking two distant subjects into a single storyline.

A 300mm telephoto lens was used to connect the ruins of an ancient pueblo in Wupatki National Monument, see the featured image above, with the distant San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona. The San Francisco Peaks are one of four peaks in this part of the Southwest considered sacred to the Navajo and other Native American groups. Located many miles apart, the long telephoto compressed the scene, producing a dramatic image with a strong storyline connecting the two sites.

Golden Gate Bridge photographed with a 70-200mm zoom lens
Golden Gate Bridge photographed at 200mm setting with a 70-200mm zoom lens

Use a telephoto lens to combine the Golden Gate Bridge and the skyline of San Francisco or a snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains Peak and the Alabama Hills framing the foreground. In each case, compressing the distance between near and far subjects creates the dramatic visual storyline that we strive to produce.

Sierra Nevada Mountains was photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens
Sierra Nevada Mountains with Alabama Hills in foreground was photographed with a 300mm telephoto lens

Next time you are out shooting with your telephoto lens, keep in mind that your lens can do much more than just reach out to capture a subject. Open your aperture to its widest setting and try separating your subject from the background with shallow depth of field. 

And don’t forget the compression effect. Line up two distant but related objects in your frame and stop down the aperture for maximum depth of field. Use your telephoto’s ability to compress a scene and create a unique storyline.

If you are only using your telephoto to reach out to a subject, you are missing out on much of the potential of that lens. Try these techniques to expand the creative possibilities of these long lenses. You may be surprised at what you can create.

 


Forced perspective wide angle lens image

3 Exciting Ways To Use Wide Angle Camera Lenses To Capture The Adventure Of Life

My favorite lens is my 24mm-70mm f2.8 Canon Zoom Lens. I use it to create a vast majority of my images and often shoot at either end of its zoom range. It’s my “walking around” lens and the most versatile lens that I own. I tend to keep it set on a wide angle setting which I use more often than the longer focal lengths. Wide angle images are just more fun.

Vineyard photographed with a 24mm wide angle lens at sunrise.
Vineyard photographed with a 24mm wide angle lens at sunrise.

I work with full-chip bodies, meaning the sensor is the same size as original 35mm film, and a normal focal length lens on my camera is 50mm. This covers the same angle of view as human vision and anything with a wider angle of view is considered a wide angle lens. If you shoot a small-chip body, a normal lens is more like 38mm and anything wider is a wide angle lens.

Scenic 24mm wide angle lens image of Monte Alban Archeological Zone
Scenic 24mm wide angle lens image of Monte Alban Archeological Zone near Oaxaca, Mexico, during a storm.

OK. That gets rid of the technical definitions.

Personally, I don’t care about the technology. Everything in photography seems like magic to me. I only care that my equipment gives me the results that I visualized before hitting the shutter button. 

Vista Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, using a 28mm wide angle lens.
Vista of Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, using a 28mm wide angle lens.

Wide angle lenses do just what their name implies—they capture a wider angle of view than we can see without moving our head. The only part of this that captures my attention is how can that unique ability of the lens help me to create images with impact and a meaningful storyline? That’s all that matters, right? Let’s see what we can do.

You can break wide angle images down into 3 broad categories with the first being the most obvious—the sweeping scenic. 

28mm wide angle lens view of Badwater
28mm wide angle lens view of Badwater and the Panamint Range at sunrise, Death Valley National Park, California

Broad natural vistas such as National Park Viewing Points make beautiful wide angle images. The park terrain and features are dramatic and a wide angle zoom lens allows us to capture as much of the vista as we want. Add in great lighting or weather events and you have a great image. The same can be said for city views or even cloud patterns or lightning storms. This is often the first subject photographer’s capture using a wide angle lens.

28mmn wide angle lens is used to capture Island In The Sky
28mmn wide angle lens is used to capture Island In The Sky mesa at sunset, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Because wide angle lenses have “built in” depth of field and most objects are distant in a scenic, it isn’t necessary to stop down very far to get everything in focus. This is another advantage of these lenses.

Scenics, however, are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wide angle images.

A wide angle lens makes it possible to in tight spaces
A wide angle lens makes it possible to shoot inside of a hot air balloon.

Shooting in either a tight space, such as inside a hot air balloon, or in a situation where you can’t back up, such as a church plaza in a city in Mexico, often calls for a wide angle lens. This situation is especially common in architecture where it is often necessary to stop down your aperture further to get greater depth of field to keep everything sharp. 

Photographing a church plaza in Mexico with a wide angle lens.
Photographing a church plaza in Guanajuato, Mexico with a wide angle lens.

Another consideration is convergence. If you can keep your camera lens horizontal, vertical lines run straight up and down, but if you have to tilt your lens up slightly to capture the tops of buildings, vertical lines will converge. 

If this leaning in of buildings is too extreme, then it feels like the buildings are going to fall in on the viewer. Unless that is the effect you want, going to a wider focal length with its wider angle of view and stepping back a ways allows you to lower your lens into a more horizontal position reducing the effect of convergence. Conversely, if I am shooting down on a structure, like a huge multi-storied shopping mall in China, vertical lines will spread apart or diverge.

Shooting down on a mall with a wide angle lens
Shooting down on a mall with a wide angle lens in Guangzhou, China, creates divergence.

My favorite use of a wide angle lens involves the distortion properties of that type of lens. This is where a wide angle is really fun!

Forced perspective view of steam engines
Forced perspective view of steam engines at Golden Spike National Historic Site is created with a 28mm lens.

Forced perspective creates the illusion that a viewer can just about reach out and touch the foreground subject. This is especially effective in landscape photography, where desert wildflowers become huge in the foreground, or architecture, where the nearest structure becomes monumental relative to the rest of the scene. 

24mm image of dune primrose in desert.
24mm image of dune primrose in desert.

Forced Perspective is a powerful storytelling tool that I use often for impact and content.

Depth of field has a big impact in this kind of image. It is critical to pick the proper point of focus and stop down all the way to get maximum depth of field. Everything should be sharp, but especially the foreground subject. By exaggerating the wide angle distortion, you are telling a viewer that the foreground is the most important part of the image. Make sure you pick a dramatic foreground structure to support this effect. 

Victorian front porches are captured with a 24mm wide angle lens
Victorian front porches are captured with a 24mm wide angle lens positioned horizontally creating parallel vertical lines.

Practically every camera out there comes with a wide angle to short telephoto zoom lens. The wide angle range is much more than a tool to capture wide open spaces. Use it to create a sense of great depth or produce an image with a dramatic foreground. Work with the distortion and pump up the impact of your images. That is why wide angle lenses are fun, and in my view fun is the whole point of photography.

Try it out! 


Line of margaritas with soft background

Shallow Depth Of Field—Photography’s Most Powerful Technique

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

It has always seemed ironic to me that, as a professional photographer, the technique I use most often is something I can not see with my own eyes. Shallow depth of field is a product of camera optics and I can only “see” it as I previsualize an image and on the back of my camera, of course, after I shoot.

Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field
Powwow dancer photographed with shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field is such a powerful effect that I carry my camera with the lens set to f2.8, no matter what focal length lens I have mounted on my camera. I can always stop down the aperture for more depth of field if I need it—see my previous post—but most of the subjects I like to photograph appear best with shallow depth of field. People, food, flowers, wine—they all “pop” with shallow depth of field. 

Let’s start with “Why” we would use shallow depth of field and then get to the “How To”.

Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background
Shallow depth of field separates a vendor from the background of a busy Farmers Market

Shallow depth of field is used to separate our main subject from the background and sometimes even from the foreground. This sharply defined subject forces our viewers to focus on our main subject first and understand that the softly focused environment is secondary in importance to our main subject. It helps create a visual storyline, something I strive to create in all my images. 

If everything in the frame is sharp due to great depth of field, as in a landscape, a viewer tends to wander around the image visually and decides for themselves what is important and what isn’t. Leading lines and forced perspective can guide the viewer to some extent, but the photographer is telling their viewers that everything in the frame has equal importance. 

It all depends on your storyline!

Shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping
Very shallow depth of field portrait of a young kitten sleeping on a chair

The first step in creating shallow depth of field is setting your lens to a wide aperture or f-stop. F2.8 to f4 or so will do the job and because these settings let in lots of light, a fast shutter speed is often necessary for a proper exposure. This is a bonus when photographing people, wildlife or sports.  

Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8
Snowy egrets photographed with a 300mm lens at f2.8

Shooting a longer focal length lens also help soften the background behind your subject. The longer the lens, the softer the background becomes. Keep in mind that wide angle lenses have built in depth of field and it is pretty tough to do a wide angle shot with shallow depth of field, even with your aperture wide open.

Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8
Orchids photographed with a 100mm macro lens at f2.8

The last step is rather counter-intuitive but makes sense if you think it through. Move closer to your subject. As the camera to subject distance gets shorter, the camera to background distance becomes relatively greater and the background becomes softer. Try it and see. Keep in mind the focal length should remain the same and because of that you will need to crop tighter on your subject as you move closer.

Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field
Roasted chicken photographed with very shallow depth of field to separate it from the background dish

There you have it. For sharp subjects with soft, buttery backgrounds, open your aperture wide, shoot with a longer focal length lens and move closer to your subject. 

Whether you are photographing people portraits at a busy Farmer’s Market, creating the perfect image of a margarita in a crowded restaurant or capturing an intimate moment with the kitten your kids just brought home, shallow depth of field pulls your main subject out of the background with great visual  impact.  

Don’t you wish your own eyes could work that way? Give it time. They will.


Black and white of the Paradise Cafe

Black & White Photography–The Journey Continues

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

I am continuing my quest to learn black and white photography through the process of converting a number of my color images to b&w. If you didn’t see my last post converting landscapes to black and white, jump back there and take a look.

Each photographic subject, whether sand dunes or deep forest, has presented its own unique challenges. I have been especially struck by the amount of burning and dodging that was necessary for images that look quite good in color.

Black and white of oaks in fog

Black and white of oaks in fog

It has also been a challenge deciding how much contrast I want, especially in the details. I like some velvety blacks in my images, but it is easy to go too far with contrast—almost like too much saturation in color images.

Let’s see how black and white conversions work with images of people.

My first portrait conversion was almost monochromatic to start with. While teaching lighting at a design school in China, I used the schools lighting kit—two fluorescent lights with umbrellas—to demo beauty lighting. These were tight head and shoulder portraits and I was going for a clean, graphic look.

Black and white portrait of student in China

Black and white portrait of student in China

I chose a student from the first row as a model and had her position her hands to help frame her face. The images looked pretty good, but I wanted a little more impact so I had her close her eyes.

The twin arcs of her dark eyelashes on her pale cheeks worked well and seemed to be a natural for black and white conversion. Using the HSL slider, I darkened her sweater and lightened her skin. The last step was pushing the Clarity Slider to -15, giving her skin a soft glow. Ridding this portrait of color seems to have created a more dramatic yet serene image.

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Tight head and shoulder portraits seemed to convert well, but what about environmental portraits with all their location details? This, I found, was similar to converting a forest scene. Detail contrast was critical and some of the presets in the Develop Module proved useful shortcuts.

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Subtle vignetting using the Radial Filter helped focus the viewer’s attention but a fair amount of burning and dodging was still necessary, just as it was in the landscapes.

The one thing that changed drastically from the tight portraits was the Clarity Slider. A slight negative Clarity setting smoothed out skin texture, but with less skin and more detail in the environmental portraits, I defaulted to my usual Clarity setting of plus twenty or so.

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

My “street photography” is often busy restaurant interiors, like the image at the top of this post, shot in the venerable Paradise Café.

Converting this image to black & white seems to pump up the energy of the scene, stripping away the soft mood of warm afternoon light and replacing it with pure vibrance and hard-edged light.

Black and white of an Old West town

Black and white of an Old West town

I’m starting to actually see the possibilities in a color image before I convert it. Decisions on the processing steps are getting a little more intuitive and the particular “style” of black & white that I personally prefer is also coming into sharper focus.

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

I’m getting a terrible urge to start printing some of these images, but I know my eye for black & white needs to develop further. A box of archival matte paper is already on my shopping list along with extra black ink cartridges, just in case my willpower fails.

If you are making this exciting journey to black & white along with me, let me know how you are progressing. This is turning out to be quite challenging but also a lot of fun.

For a listing of my tuition-free Spring 2020 Non-Credit classes at Santa Barbara City College, please click here.


Carvings on Mayan Pyramid in Mexico

Travel Photography with Chuck Place

Travel Photography is much more than shooting snapshots of your vacation. Images created during your travels should transport you back to the magic you felt as sunset light washes over an ancient Mayan pyramid or recall the drama of colorful powwow dancers as a late afternoon storm builds behind them in the distant mountains of New Mexico.

Travel Photography Class with Chuck Place

Join professional travel photographer Chuck Place in a new 6-week course in the Brooks at UCSB Program, learning to capture the magic of new places, people, events and flavors. Each 6-hour class will include a 2-3 hour location shoot here in Santa Barbara and then classroom lectures and assignment critiques covering such travel subjects as architecture, landscapes, people, activities and food.

Learn to capture memories and create images with impact. Join Chuck Place this fall and immerse yourself in Travel Photography.


Photography Backlighting

3 Photographic Techniques For Creating Beautiful Direct Sunlight Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of the most challenging lighting environments a photographer will face is creating portraits in direct sunlight. This light source has a strong specular quality that produces harsh shadows and strong highlights. The contrast range is often greater than your camera can capture and the portrait is anything but flattering. There are, however, several techniques that allow you to modify the sun’s light to create beautiful portraits with softly diffused, directional light.

Don’t settle for bad lighting—modify it.

The most commonly used, and easiest solution, is to shoot your portrait early or late in the day. Sunlight is softer at those times with a rich, warm color temperature and a definite direction—perfect for portraits. Early and late sunlight creates drama in a portrait that adds an extra layer of emotion to any image.

Sidelight with photographic reflector

Late in the day sidelight with a warm photographic reflector

For many years National Geographic Magazine has used this technique to set their photography apart from other publications.

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

The second technique is used while side lighting your subject during the day, but modifying the light with a diffusion panel. Diffusion panels come in a wide range of sizes, from big “silks” large enough to light a car to small, folding models that can be carried in a camera bag all the time. I myself carry a diffusion panel and a reflector on my camera bag, each of which is 8 inches across when folded and opens to 23 inches wide.  They essentially weigh nothing.

Diffusion panels are placed between the sun and your model and the larger the panel, the softer the light.

I have also found that the closer to the subject I place the diffuser, the softer the light becomes. Diffused light tends to fill in shadows and wrap around a subject, creating smoother looking skin. A bonus in portraiture!

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

A reflector or flash fill can also be used to control the contrast of direct sunlight, but I personally prefer the look created by a large reflector. By moving the reflector, I can easily shape the light on my subject and create a strong three-dimensional feel in the image.

Heavy backlight with a reflector

Heavy backlight with a photographic reflector to help fill in the shadows

The final technique is one of my favorites—back lighting. Often when I photograph portraits in bright sunlight, I position my subject so that the sun is behind them and I expose for the shadow side of their face.

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

This approach has several advantages when shooting in direct sunlight.

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

The first is contrast control. The shadow side of your model, as well as everything else in your image, is the same exposure. Backlighting also produces a bit of a bright halo around your subject, helping to separate them from the background. Your subject can also keep their eyes wide open. There is no squinting when your model has their back to the sun. Lastly, as you adjust your exposure for the model’s shaded side, the background becomes brighter relative to the subject. This gives your image a bit of a high key feel, especially with a shallow depth of field.

Admittedly, avoiding lens flare and dialing in the proper exposure is a little trickier than front lighting. You can find an earlier post on that subject at

With just these 3 techniques, you can create beautiful, striking portraits out in direct sunlight. Mastering some simple equipment and positioning your model properly can lead to startling results. Control the light and then connect with your model. A portrait is, after all, a partnership between you and your subject. Have fun. That will always show in the final portrait.


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!


Slow panning image of a surfer at sunrise

Photographing The Shape Of Motion With Shutter Drag

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

My commercial photography business is all about creating very sharp images for my clients, but sometimes it’s fun to play with time and motion. Photography is basically the process of capturing light—it’s quality, color and direction. Time, however, can have a big impact on an image. The duration of an exposure, usually controlled by shutter speed, impacts much more than just the exposure. This is where the fun begins.

Most of the time we love fast shutter speeds. They “freeze” the moment. But on the other hand, fast shutter speeds also hide the beauty and grace of movement.

The swirl of a dancer, the sensuous shape of a breaking wave—these are all hidden by a fast shutter speed. Shutter drag, or lengthening your exposure, reveals a whole new world of fluid color and unexpected shapes.

Let’s explore the world of motion blur and see how we can use this technique to create more creative images.

A long exposure blurs some skaters and leaves others sharp

An exposure of 1/4 second blurs some skaters and leaves others sharp

Landscapes or seascapes with moving water are often captured at slow shutter speeds, due to the small aperture necessary for great depth of field. During that long exposure, moving water blurs and softens, contrasting beautifully with the highly detailed environment in which it flows. Very long exposures will even turn waves breaking on a beach into something that looks very much like fog or smoke.

Shooting with your camera mounted on a tripod is critical with this type of image.

Slow shutter speeds blurs traffic in L.A.

Slow shutter speeds blurs traffic in L.A.

This long-exposure approach is effective in any situation that has moving parts—traffic in L.A., a Ferris Wheel at a fair or skaters flying over the ice at a rink. Shutter speed will be used to determine the amount of motion blur you want to include in your image.

Panning produces recognizable team ropers and steer with a soft, blurred background

Panning with a shutter speed of 1/30 second produces recognizable team ropers and steer with a soft, blurred background

Panning is another photographic tool that makes use of shutter drag.

Subjects can be separated from a busy background using a slow shutter speed and panning the camera with your subject. Depending on the motion of your subject, backgrounds can become quite soft while the subject remains surprisingly sharp. This technique is often used in sports and wildlife, but takes practice in order to keep your subject sharp.

My personal favorite use of shutter drag is creating rather abstract images.

Athletes and dancers are some of my favorite subjects for this approach, but almost any subject will work. The trick in making this type of abstract image is to move the camera during exposure in a manner that is out of synch with the subject’s movements, leaving everything blurred to some degree. I usually try to keep the subject recognizable, although sometimes it’s a toss up. That’s the beauty of motion blur. You can make your subject as sharp or as abstract as you like. It just depends on your mood.

Flowers blowing in the breeze produce motion blur

Flowers blowing in the breeze produce motion blur with a shutter speed of 1/10 second

If you are interested in giving shutter drag a try, and who wouldn’t want to try it, give yourself an assignment. Spend an afternoon creating at least one image for each of the three shutter drag scenarios. I think that you will find that at least one of these techniques becomes a favorite. After all, many of us took up photography to see the world differently.

Give it a shot!