I love the convenience of my iPhone camera for spontaneous photos wherever I may be. If you’re among the 77% of Americans with a smartphone you probably make a lot of pictures with yours, too. Smartphone cameras have gotten significantly better over time, but they’re still not ideal for night-time photography. But you’ve got a camera in your pocket and you’ll shoot at night, especially the holiday lights on display this month.
Here are a few tips to help you make better photos of your favorite light display.
Your camera’s auto exposure system may not be able to figure out how to properly expose bright lights in a dark environment. You might get lights that are washed out or lacking much color or detail. The solution? Under-expose. With the iPhone’s Camera app, touch the screen to focus and notice the little yellow sun that appears. Now take your finger and drag up (to make the picture brighter) or drag down (to make the picture darker). What you see is what you get, so adjust until you have a nice balance of the lights and the environment. You’re usually going to want to darken the photo to hold detail in the lights.
My favorite time to photograph holiday lights is at dusk, 20-30 minutes after sunset. At the winter solstice in Bellingham, sunset is 4:15 pm so shoot at 4:35 to 4:45 to hold a little deep blue color in the sky.
Hold it Steady
Longer exposures are the norm when shooting at night, so you need to take extra steps to hold your camera steady. I like to find something solid to brace my camera on before I gently touch the shutter button. I’ve used walls, door frames, light posts, tree trunks, fences, the top of a trash can, a traffic control bollard, or the ground at various times for night photos with my phone camera. You can usually find something to brace your camera on.
Embrace Movement and Blur
Although I generally like my photos crisp and sharp, sometimes it’s fun to play around with moving my camera during the exposure. On my iPhone I use an app called Slow Shutter Cam ($1.99 in the App Store) for long exposures. Experiment with different shutter speeds and rates of movement. For the holiday lights on the Fairhaven Village Green I settled on a 2-second exposure to record just enough movement for an interesting effect. I like to start moving the camera and then press the shutter button for a smoother effect. Try both panning (sideways movement) or rotating your camera for different effects.
While there are lots of apps that let you add filters and effects at the moment you take a photo, I’m a firm believer in capturing the best possible exposure and then adding any enhancements later. I edit almost every smartphone photo I make before sharing it with anyone. My favorite editor is Snapseed, available free for both iPhone and Android. There are other apps with some of the same features, but I keep coming back to Snapseed. It’s powerful, flexible, and pretty easy to use. If you want to learn how to use it (and are afraid to play on your own) sign up for my iPhone photo class at Whatcom Community College (next offered February 27, March 6 & 13). You’ll be able to crop, adjust brightness, contrast, saturation, highlight and shadow detail. You can even adjust different parts of the picture selectively and edit out bits that don’t belong.
Print Your Favorites
Although it’s tempting to just keep your photos on your phone or share them on social media, prints are still a great way to enjoy and preserve your photos. You can print to your home printer or get prints made at Quicksilver here in Bellingham or at Costco. Both Quicksilver and Costco have apps that let you upload directly from your phone, order prints, and then pick them up a day or so later.
I made all the photos accompanying this story with my iPhone in the course of about half an hour walking around Fairhaven. I had fun playing and experimenting with my camera and then edited them when I was back home and curled up on my comfy sofa with a favorite beverage at hand. The point is to engage your playful spirit and have fun. Delete the experiments that don’t work, polish the good ones in your favorite editor, and then share as you see fit.
When we moved to our studio property in 2014, we decided we wanted to incorporate many of our wonderful native plants into the garden. Natives are drought-adapted, hosts to native insects that provide food for birds and other animals, relatively low maintenance, and best of all, they’re pretty to look at. When we walk in the woods and see an environment full of plants we’re seeing many years of growth. In a garden setting, starting from scratch, it takes a few years to go from bare soil to lush growth.
Three years in, we’re making slow progress. In some places our new beds are starting to mature and look good. But garden ideas don’t always work as anticipated the first time around. Continue reading →
Getting up in the air to photograph a subject from above presents options you just can’t get from the ground. And since I like beer, I jumped at the opportunity last September to photograph hops and the hops harvest in the Yakima valley. Continue reading →
Visit the high country of the North Cascades and other mountainous regions of the west during the summer and you’re likely to come across masses of pink mountain-heather, Phyllodoce empetriformis. It’s one of our very common low-growing woody plants, lighting up the hillsides for a short period of time with nodding bell-shaped brilliant pink blossoms. Some people call it pink mountain-heath. Continue reading →
It’s not exactly time travel, but you can freeze or expand time in your photos by choosing the right shutter speed. Grab your camera and take it out of its fully automatic mode and choose Shutter Priority instead. Now you can select the shutter speed that will treat moving subjects the way you want, rather than however your camera might randomly do it.
Moving water and sports action are two common subjects that benefit greatly from choosing the right shutter speed. Continue reading →
Sometimes you’ve just gotta put your face, and your camera, right down on the ground. Yep, down on your hands and knees, elbows in the dirt, maybe up close and personal with your subject.
If you’re like most of us, you make the majority of your photos from your standing eye level. You’re walking around and see something interesting so you put your camera to your eye and snap away. Nothing wrong with that, except that it gets boring when you’re always seeing the world from the same vantage point. Continue reading →
Every now and then when I’m hiking in the mountains I run across a really cool plant. Over Memorial Day weekend I was out with a group of friends on the trail to Lookout Mountain and Monogram Lake, off the Cascade River Road east of Marblemount in the North Cascades. We came across more candystick (aka sugarstick), Allotropa virgata, than I’ve seen in one place in the 25 years I’ve been hiking in the northwest. Continue reading →
Last month Natalie and I vacationed in Yosemite National Park. It was her first visit, and I hadn’t been there in over 15 years. We spent a week in the park, enjoying early spring weather, grand views, waterfalls at their peak, and a few early wildflowers. While I briefly considered NOT carrying a camera on vacation, I couldn’t bear the thought that I might happen upon really wonderful light and weather conditions and not have the tools that would let me capture a unique view of this very heavily-photographed park. So I packed all my gear, some 30 pounds or so, and hauled it around on my back nearly every day. Continue reading →
Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is keeping me very busy weeding our garden this spring. A pretty little perennial, native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, creeping buttercup has been introduced and become naturalized in nearly every state in the United States. Left to its own devices, creeping buttercup sends out creeping stems that take root at the nodes when they touch the ground, forming a dense carpet that shades and crowds out more desirable plants. Continue reading →
Photographs lie. You may think that a photograph accurately represents an instant of reality frozen in time, but that’s not quite true.
While a photo may come much closer to portraying reality than a drawing or painting, as creative individuals we’re always using the tools at our disposal to stretch the truth. At the most basic, we choose what to include and what to leave out of the frame by where we position the camera and which lens we use. Camera position also affects how we perceive the relationship of objects within the frame. For example, by simply moving to one side I can eliminate a tree trunk or post seemingly growing out of Aunt Martha’s head. Continue reading →