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
Before you press your shutter release, take a good look at what’s in your frame. Pause a moment and take care of any little details you see that might detract from your photo.
In this pair of photos of the daylilies growing by our back door, in the first frame you see all the spent blossoms. That might be OK if the story you’re trying to tell is that daylily blossoms don’t last long and they linger on the stems until they dry up and fall off. But if what you’re after is a nice photo of daylilies blooming, then I think the photo looks a lot better with the spent blossoms removed.
It’s always easier to clean up details like this before capturing the image. Imagine how much time it would have taken in an image editing program like Photoshop to remove the spent blossoms and replace them with plausible background material.
I apply the same principle when photographing people. Let’s get that cat hair off your jacket before I trip the shutter.
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
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
Now that December is here we can no longer pretend it’s autumn. Winter has arrived, even though the calendar says the official start isn’t until December 21. The mountains are buried under snow, days are short, the sun stays low in the sky, it’s cold, and the color palette in our lowlands has turned to muted shades of brown, gray, and dull green. Time to put your camera away, or turn to strictly indoor scenes? Not at all. Here are seven tips to help you create winning winter landscapes. Continue reading