Whatcom Creek thundered over the falls in Whatcom Falls and Maritime Heritage Parks on Wednesday morning when I went out in the snow to capture a bit of our fairy wonderland. The creek’s name derives from the Lummi word Xwotʼqom, meaning “noisy water,” and it lived up to its name on this crisp winter morning. Continue reading
Last night when Brian and went to the kitchen for an evening snack we looked out the window to the garden and were surprised to see moonlight casting shadows. It was crisp and cold (mid 30s F), which is when we tend to get clear skies in the winter. I set up my tripod, mounted my camera, grabbed my puffy coat and a warm hat, and headed outside. The view above is from our patio, very much like what we saw from the kitchen window.
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.
If you’d like some more tips, especially if you’re using a DSLR, read what I wrote about photographing holiday lights in December, 2013.
As photographers we can easily fall into a rut of always seeing and photographing our world just one way. We find something that works and repeat. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, and done well it can be an important aspect of your style. But if you’re always photographing from eye level with a 50mm lens you’re missing out on alternative ways to tell visual stories.
The spring 2017 issue of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) magazine, The Designer, features examples of my photography that show alternate views of the same garden. The story was written by Katie Elzer-Peters, a garden writer colleague I’ve known for several years. 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
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
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
Are you one of those photographers that dump all your photos into one “My Photos” folder on your computer without any organizing structure? If so, make getting your photos organized so you can find them one of your New Year’s resolutions for 2016.
Students in my photo workshops often ask me how I’m able to find all of the photos in my library. I’m a believer in having multiple levels of organization, from the physical way images are stored to detailed captions and keywords. This month I’ll address the bottom layer — physical organization — for digital files. There’s more than one way to address the problem, so figure out what’s going to work best for you in actual practice. The best system in the world is useless if you don’t use it. Continue reading
One of the strengths of compact cameras, and even cell phone cameras, is their ability to shoot wide-angle close-ups. These little cameras focus closest at their widest zoom setting. That seems counter-intuitive but it’s the way they work. So take advantage of this by going close to your subject, but leaving some space around it to show a hint of the environment, too. It’s a great technique for wildflowers, garden flowers, and other nature-type subjects, but not so good for people because the exaggerated effect that can make your sweetie’s face look fat and her nose like Pinocchio. Continue reading
One of the most powerful creative tools photographers have at their disposal is choosing which parts of a photo should be sharp and which parts should be soft. This sharp/soft contrast is a very good way to set a subject apart from the background. We call this depth of field because we’re controlling apparent sharpness from close to the lens to the far distance.
In the pair of landscape photos above, one was made at the relatively wide aperture of f/5 (left side of the slider)and the other stopped down to f/16 (right side). Notice the difference in sharpness in the foreground flowers. My focus point was on distant Mount Baker in both versions. These images were made with my lens at 70mm, a short telephoto. Continue reading