Photo Experiment: Freezing Bubbles

Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble Freezing Bubble

The cold season with its frosty temperatures offers a whole range of unique photography subjects – theoretically, at least. For this to work, it has to get cold enough in the first place, and in this respect, the current winter so far failed miserably. There hasn’t been a single day with the high temperature below freezing. Thus, I had more or less given up hope on checking off the still open topic “Ice Crystals / Snowflakes” on my photo board this winter.

Last week, however, a “polar cold front” moved in after all, with clear blue skies and temperatures as low as 15°F in the morning. So it was clear that I would use the short time between breakfast and leaving for work to take pictures. There still wasn’t any snow, hence I picked up a very popular idea from the internet: freezing soap bubbles.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • Standard zoom lens
  • Soap bubble liquid
  • Straw
  • Outside temperature below 20°F
  • Warm clothing
  • Optional: external flash with color gel
  • Auto-focus
  • Aperture priority mode (A/Av)
  • Aperture ca.  ƒ/8 – ƒ/11
  • ISO 100 – 200
  • With flash: manual mode

THE SETUP

There isn’t much to set up, but the conditions have to be right. On the one hand, it has to be sufficiently cold outside; 20°F or below is optimal. On the other hand, there should be close to no wind at all, because the soap bubbles are extremely sensitive to wind and even the slightest breeze will let them burst quickly. Finally, you need a suitable surface, onto which you will place the bubbles. Wood, stones, moss, or – if you happen to have any – snow work well, for instance. I also tried metal, but that didn’t work at all. No matter what you choose, of course it should look nice.

Last but not least, the lighting has to be right. Strong backlighting makes the ice crystals stand out best, so an ideal time to take these pictures is right after sunrise or right before sunset. This allows you to benefit from the low sun, and it also creates a beautiful colorful mood. If this doesn’t work for you, maybe because the sun is hidden behind trees or buildings, then create your own backlight with an external flash that is controlled by a remote trigger. You can vary the mood of your images by attaching a color gel to the flash.

THE SETTINGS

The final settings depend on the actual light conditions, thus take the recommended settings given below as guiding values. I selected my “Always-on” as the lens, because its focal range of 17-70 mm (equals 27-112 mm on a full-frame camera) provided me with the desired flexibility for framing the image. In order to have sufficient depth of field, I chose an aperture value between ƒ/8 and ƒ/11. I set the ISO value to 100 or 200, mostly depending on where the sun was. I aimed at keeping the shutter speed below 1/25th of a second. Thus, thanks to the good image stabilizer of the Sigma lens, I was certain to avoid motion blur from camera shake.

I used auto-focus with a single focus point to fixate on the ice crystals. Since it only takes a few seconds for a bubble to freeze, this allowed me to quickly change position or adjust the framing of the image. However, the camera did have its problems with focusing on the intended side (front or back) of the bubble. The ideal solution is to use a lens that offers manual auto-focus override – a feature my Sigma unfortunately doesn’t have.

By chance, around this time of the year the sun shines perfectly through a gap between neighboring houses and trees onto our terrace, so I didn’t have to fiddle with an external flash for the necessary backlight. With flash, set the camera to manual starting with the values indicated above (ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/25) and then adjust as needed. The idea is to choose the settings so that the resulting image, without flash, is underexposed by one stop. Then, you add the flash. In case you do not position the bubble on the same spot every time, the most convenient option is to set the flash to auto-exposure (TTL) and use flash exposure compensation to adjust its brightness as needed.

THE SHOOTING

Burst!
How to not do it: a light gust of wind was enough to burst the half-frozen bubble and let it flutter in the breeze. In addition, due to the aperture set to ƒ/11 and ISO 100, the shutter speed was too slow at ⅛ of a second, thus the image is also blurred because of camera shake.

Experience shows that when you blow the bubbles through the usual plastic hoop, they rarely land where you want them to – if they do, they pop immediately. Much more reliable results can be achieved by using a straw: take it into your mouth, dip it into the soap bubble liquid and then block the opening at the top with your tongue (don’t suck; believe me, it tastes awful!). Then place the bottom end of the straw above the target spot and carefully inflate the bubble to the desired size. It won’t work every time, but the success rate is sufficient.

It takes a few seconds until the bubble starts to freeze. This will give you enough time to put the straw aside and bring the camera into position. Ice crystals will start to form at the bottom rim of the bubble, where it touches the surface, and from there they will grow upward like ferns. If it is really cold, crystals will also start to form at the top of the bubble; these will grow in different patterns. How the crystals grow is entirely random, and it takes some luck to get really beautiful ones. This phenomenon works because a soap bubble consists of three layers: two layers of a soap with a thin layer of water in between, and the water freezes quicker than the soap does.

After about five to ten seconds, the bubble is fully frozen; this is the time window you have for taking pictures.  A fully frozen bubble is dull and flat, and structures are barely visible. Thus, it is difficult to take appealing images with more than one bubble.

You’ll quickly get the hang of the timing and the best size for the bubbles. What remains is to play with different backgrounds, to vary the framing of the image and to try different camera settings. The more bubbles you photograph, the more varied patterns you will discover in the ice crystals.

The required frosty temperatures also limit the duration of the shoot. On the one hand, after a while you will be so cold, that it will become difficult to hold the camera steady enough. On the other hand, the soap bubble liquid will start to freeze in its container; it will become so gooey that it is no longer possible to blow and bubbles. This means it’s time to go back inside, warm up with a nice cup of coffee, and review the pictures taken thus far.

TIPS & TRICKS

Finally, some helpful hints for you to get a bit more comfortable and to increase the success rate:

  • Use gloves. These should be thick enough to warm your hands, but also thin enough to allow for easy camera operation.
  • Set up wind protection. The soap bubbles are unbelievably sensitive to wind. I put some cardboard boxes onto the table next to the bubbles, positioned in a way that neither the boxes nor their shadows appeared in the image. Take care not to use colorful items, as their reflections will show up in the bubbles.
  • Take the images together with a friend. This way, one of you can blow the bubbles while the other one makes the pictures. This saves time, and it will also allow you to quickly change location.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If it gets cold enough where you live, definitely give it a try! It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch the ice crystals grow over the bubble. I could watch it again and again, even without taking pictures of it.

What I’ve learned: Don’t be scared by the cold. If you want to have special photos, you’ll need to take special actions. And the resulting images are by all means worth the effort.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

On a personal note: System decision – Why Canon APS-C?

Canon 760D

When you are new to photography, or think about switching to a different camera, the predominant question is which system to go for. A compact camera or one with interchangeable lenses? Single-lens reflex or mirrorless? Micro-Four-Thirds, APS-C or Full-frame? Each of those has its applications, its specific strengths, but also its particular weaknesses – there is no “one size fits all”. Of course, there are “all-round” cameras – usually, they turn out to be Jacks of all trades, masters of none. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on what you are looking for.

The decision for a particular brand comes later. The technical differences between comparable cameras of different manufactures have become almost negligible. Thus, the choice is often one of personal taste: What controls and menu system do I prefer? Which cameras did I own before? To come to a good decision, there is one central point to ponder:

What do I want to photograph?

Calendar 2018

I already went through all these considerations once, about two years ago, when I picked my current equipment. Now that I am thinking about switching to a camera with a wider range of functionality, all these questions come up again.

DISCOVER THE POSSIBILITIES

There are many different disciplines within the area of photography that all have their own requirements. The following – drastically simplified – list gives a short overview of typical criteria:

  • Landscapes – great dynamic range
  • Portraits – shallow depth of field
  • Nightscapes – good image quality (little noise) event a high ISO values
  • Wildlife – long range with telephoto lenses
  • All-round – wide selection of lenses
  • Travel – light-weight, compact size
  • Video – good video auto-focus, connections for peripherals

It is clear that some of these criteria contradict each other: if you want to take classic portraits with minimum depth of field, you will need a full-frame camera and a lens with a wide aperture. A Canon 5D Mark IV with just its kit lens already weighs around 3.5 lbs.; with a portrait lens such as the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 it’s over 5 lbs. This might not be a problem in a photo studio, but when going on a hike, you will think twice before lugging it along. A Sony RX100 III, on the other hand, weighs less than a pound, is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and still gets highly recommended by many photographers as a very good travel camera. It has its limitations elsewhere.

For taking pictures at night, the best choice is a large sensor with low resolution, so that each pixel can gather a lot of light – such as the Sony A7S, for instance. This is a full-frame camera with just 12 megapixels, but outstanding low-light performance. For wildlife, a smaller sensor has its advantages, because it provides a longer reach with telephoto lenses due to its narrower field of view. A Canon 80D has 24 megapixels and a crop-factor of 1.6, which means that with a 300mm lens, it provides a view similar to a full-frame camera at 480mm.

Hence, the question you should ask yourself is not: Which camera is the best? You should ask yourself: Which camera is the best for me?

All packed up for the next photo excursion
All packed up for the next photo excursion

WHY I DECIDED FOR CANON APS-C BACK THEN…

Looking ahead on the upcoming upgrade, it is worthwhile to revisit the original considerations. Foremost: What has changes since then? Essential insight from back then: I am mostly an all-rounder. I do not have a particular area that I deeply specialize in. I photograph whatever I like: landscapes, but also people at events. Sometimes nightscapes, sometimes animals. A tiny detail here, the ‘big picture’ there. I want decent image quality, but I also want to be able to carry the camera along an entire day without it becoming a millstone around my neck.

After thorough consideration, I decided for the Canon 760D. In my blog-post about the camera, I have described in detail why. I’ve never regretted this decision.

The crucial points were the articulated touch screen, the (for me) intuitive handling, and most of all the huge range of lenses that are available from various manufactures. Last but not least, the price played a role as well, of course. The 760D has more than fulfilled my expectations, and I was able to take many great pictures with it – far beyond what I had originally thought of.

I have learned a lot over the past two years, and with skill, the requirements grow as well. Hence, I have asked myself increasingly often over the past few months: Is a camera like the 760D still the best camera for me?

…AND WHY I HAVE DECIDED NOW TO STICK WITH IT

Over the course of time, I have purchased numerous lenses of various brands (Canon, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Samyang…). In order to keep the financial impact of an upgrade at bay, it was clear from the beginning that I would stay with a Canon camera. That still left three options: mirrorless, full-frame, or an APS-C upgrade.

Mirrorless cameras are clearly on the rise, not at least because their live-view auto-focus systems, for a long time the Achilles heel of this type of cameras, has significantly improved. A DSLM would certainly have advantages for me: the electronic shutter can take thousands of pictures for a time-lapse video without wear, and focus-peaking makes focusing manually a lot easier. The problem, however, are the lenses. In theory, I can keep all my lenses and use them with an adapter, on a Canon EOS M5 for example. Reviews from many sources show that in practice, it’s not so easy. Not every lens works with every adapter, and oftentimes, autofocus issues remain. Of course, there are lenses made specifically for mirrorless camera – but that would mean an additional investment. Also, the limited battery life of most DSLMs is a factor for me. Last but not least, there is a very irrational reason: the feeling to have a “real” camera in my hands and the clunking of the mirror are an integral part of photography for me. The bottom line is, mirrorless is not (yet) the way for me.

That leaves full-frame. When the new Canon 6D Mark II was released recently, the temptation was big to go for it. I compiled a list and compared the overall costs of switching to full-frame with an upgrade on APS-C, and the advantages and disadvantages of each choice.

On the assets side, I listed realistic (compared across several platforms) selling prices for my current camera as well as lenses that are for APS-C only, such as my “always-on“. On the spending side, I listed the costs for the new camera, as well as for the replacement lenses needed to complete my lineup again. For the APS-C upgrade, the price difference of the camera was the only factor.

All in all, I concluded that switching to full-frame would cost me around 1,500 € more, mostly due to the lenses. I asked myself: Is it worth it?

The headline already gave it away: No, it’s not. The gap between APS-C and full-frame has become significantly smaller over the past few years, much owing to lenses such as Sigma’s 50-100mm ƒ/1.8. This allows you to take great portraits and nightscape shots even with a smaller DSLR. Of course, some gap remains. But the occasions where this would really make a difference for me are so rare that this is not worth the extra 1,500 €. And there are other disadvantages as well: A Canon 5D with its kit lens is in every dimension (width, height, length) four fifths of an inch wider than my 760D with the ‘always-on’ lens, and it weighs one and a half times as much. What good is a great camera if I don’t take it with me because it’s too bulky?

Hence, I will stick with Canon APS-C DSLRs. For me, they are the ideal compromise between size, flexibly, functionality and image quality. Current rumors indicate that in the spring of 2018, the successor to the current Canon 80D will be released. If this comes true, I will take a very close look at that camera. The main reasons for the upgrade can be summarized quickly: increased functionality and vastly improved auto-focus. Until then, I will certainly enjoy my 760D, and the pictures I’m taking with it, a lot.

I hope these considerations have also been helpful for you.

– Jochen =8-)

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Water Droplets

Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets Photography with Water Droplets

Another dull weekend. Time to work on another indoor photography idea. As it happened, I just recently came across a video on YouTube showing how to take beautiful abstract images by shooting through a glass pane with water droplets on it. I already had most of the things I needed to do this myself at home – the rest was gathered quickly with a trip to a local hardware store and investing a few Euros.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • 1-2 external flashes
  • Remote trigger for the flashes
  • Tripod with pivoting center column, or boom stand
  • Remote shutter release
  • Glass pane
  • Spray bottle with water
  • Manual focus
  • Manual mode
  • ISO 100
  • 1/125 second
  • Aperture ƒ/22
  • White balance: flash
  • Flashes: manual mode, 1/8 power

THE SETUP

The most important requisite for this setup is of course the glass pane. It should be free of scratches and stains, and wiped clean. It doesn’t need to be large; 12″×16″ is enough. You’ll something to support it; I improvised with water bottles and drinking glasses. Finally, I used some construction paper as the background.

The setup for the camera on the other hand was quite a challenge. I couldn’t use the auto-focus, because in most cases it focused on the objects under the glass pane, rather than on the droplets on top. With manual focus, even at ƒ/22, the depth of field is so shallow that when shooting handheld, the inevitable swaying when standing bent over the table caused most many of the pictures to be out of focus, so I needed a different solution.

Many large (and expensive) tripods have a center columns that pivots for such purposes – my little travel tripod doesn’t. Hence, I tinkered with my light stands. By combining one with a reflector holder and a spare tripod head, I created my own boom stand for the camera. I weighted down the feet of the light stand and made sure all bots and clamps were tightly secured, but still, it was a quite rickety construction. For very careful handling of the camera I needed to use a cable release for the shutter. In the end, this provisional arrangement fully served its purpose.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Droplets"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Water Droplets”: The glass pane is resting on four water bottles (~12 in. high); later, I put it on lower drinking glasses. In addition, I varied the distance of the camera. When positioning the flashes, you need to ensure that the edge of the glass pane does not cast a shadow into the image.

I placed the flashes on opposing sides of the setup. With a number of a test shots I made sure that the light from the flashes doesn’t create any unwanted reflections on the glass. You also need to avoid that the edge of the glass pane casts shadow lines into the image.

Next, I added the water. I treated the glass with a rain repellant for car windows. This creates a kind of ‘lotus effect’, so that the water doesn’t create just a big puddle, but nice individual drops. Then I sprayed on the water with a simple spray bottle, until there were sufficiently many and large enough droplets.

Finally, I gathered all the items I wanted to place underneath the glass pane to shoot them through the droplets: fruit, a flower, as well as fabric and some utensils from my wife’s treasure chamber ♥.

THE SETTINGS

The final look of the images mostly depends on three parameters:

  • Distance between the glass pane and the object underneath
  • Distance between camera and glass pane
  • Focal length of the lens

Depending on how you vary these, you can fit items of different sizes into the frame, as well as changing the ratio between the sizes of the item and the water droplets it is seen through. The photos in the gallery give an impression on how different-sized drops affect the image using the same background object.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Droplets"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Water Droplets”: ISO 100, ƒ/22, 1/125s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Godox X1c, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

I tried various focal lengths; most of the images were taken either with the Tamron SP 90 mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, or the Canon EF 50 mm ƒ/1.8, while using identical camera settings. These can be quickly explained:

  • Aperture: ƒ/22. I wanted to have a large depth of field, so that the water droplets as well as the objects underneath would be shown sharp in the final image. I tried different aperture values as well, but I liked the images taken at ƒ/22 the most.
  • ISO: 100. Since the flashes rendered enough light, there was no reason to compromise image quality.
  • Shutter Speed: 1/125 second. The exact value doesn’t matter that much; the important thing is that a photo taken without using the flashes is completely dark. This way, there will be no unwanted distracting reflections of windows or other ambient light sources on the droplets.
  • Flashes: 1/8 power. I set their output in manual mode so that the photos were correctly exposed. When I used very bright or very dark items, I adjusted the power accordingly.

It took a few attempts until everything was how I wanted it to be – but not too long, and then I was ready to start.

THE SHOOTING

After everything was set up, the main challenge was to play around with different items and see how they look like seen through the water drops. In general, colorful items give the best results; however, the patterns should not be too small. Otherwise, the image will be very busy due to the manifold repetition of the pattern in the droplets.

In addition to the objects, I also varied the distance to the glass pane, the focal length and the aperture value. Another possibility for changing the size of the droplets in the image, and thereby alter how the pattern is repeated, is to move the glass pane. Typically, you’ll find larger drops in the center of the sprayed area, and smaller ones further out. This also changes over time. As water evaporates, the smallest drops will disappear entirely, and only the bigger ones remain.

Every time the distance between the camera and the glass pane was changed, or I chose a different focal length, I needed to refocus manually. I used the camera’s live view at 10× magnification. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, due to the rickety construction of my makeshift boom stand. But with a steady hand, I accomplished the focus adjustments as well as taking the images.

TIPS & TRICKS

As often is the case with such experiments, the devil is hidden in the details, and some problems only show up once you view the images on a large computer screen.

  • The glass pane should really be free of scratches. Even miniature scratches, barely visible with a naked eye, will clearly stand out in the final picture due to the large magnification. This is enhanced by the fact that while the droplets are round, scratches are mostly linear, hence show up as a distracting element. As a result, I deleted all images from my first attempt, and replaced the glass table top by a glass shelf from a display case. The glass from a picture frame might be suitable as well, if it doesn’t have any scratches.
  • A large depth of field requires lots of light, which is why I resorted to using the external flashes. Since the items under glass pane usually don’t move by themselves, it is also possible to take these pictures using only ambient light. You’ll need to watch out for reflections on the glass pane and the water droplets, though (ceiling lamp, windows, TV…). In addition, due to the slow shutter speed, the camera needs to be mounted in a very steady manner.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Recommended for imitation – a nice photography variation for a dull weekend. The images created this way make beautiful backgrounds for smartphones, tablets, or slide show presentations.

What I’ve learned: Improvisation. You don’t always need expensive studio gear to take great images, if you know how to help yourself with what’s around the house. And thus, you can turn rather boring items and turn them into interesting pictures.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Light Painting with Airplanes

Night Traffic

Long exposures are one of many means to photograph something in a way the naked eye doesn’t see it. Which is one of the reasons why photography fascinates me the way it does. The most popular images of this kind are night-time images of cities, in which driving cars paint long streaks of light through the frame.

This inspired me the other day, when I was looking at one of the many airplanes climbing into the sky nearby during an evening stroll. All airplanes taking off from Frankfurt’s southbound runway 18 fly towards our house, so in the dark evening sky, you can clearly see their bright landing lights and blinking navigations lights. Thus, the idea came up to give it a try and see what this can be turned into.

FOR THE IMPATIENT

Gear Settings
  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Remote trigger
  • Appropriate clothing
  • Beverages
  • Reading material
  • Flashlight
  • Manual Focus
  • Manual Mode
  • ISO 100
  • 30 seconds
  • Aperture ƒ/11 – ƒ/5.6
  • Continuous shooting
  • White balance: daylight

OVERALL SETUP

A few days ago, the conditions were ideal: the weather was clear and dry. A few clouds were there, but they were high enough so that they wouldn’t be illuminated by the bright airport, and the climbing planes also wouldn’t immediately vanish into them. So I grabbed my gear and walked out into the fields.

There, I looked for a spot from which I had a good view on the planes as they take off, without having the bright streetlights of the next village in the image as well. Most of all, I wanted to avoid any cars passing by that would shine their headlights into the camera.

I had no idea up front what a good field of view would be, so I packed several lenses. I liked the view at a focal length of 35 mm the most, so I mounted the Sigma A 18-35 mm ƒ/1.8. I was able to capture several great night-time photos with this lens before. Since I never opened the aperture any wider than ƒ/5.6, this image could have also been taken with a standard-zoom kit lens.

With long exposures in mind, the camera was of course mounted to a tripod, and I had my remote shutter release with me as well. The main reason for using the cable remote is that I can lock the trigger button, so the camera takes several images in direct succession when set to continuous shooting mode.

CAMERA SETTINGS

This was a matter of trial and error. A few settings were clear from the start: I set the ISO value to 100. This reduces the noise in the image and makes for longer exposure times. As the light changes during dusk, I chose a fixed setting for the white balance, namely daylight. Finally, I focused manually on the horizon and switched the shooting mode to continuous.

Next, I worked out the shutter speed. Looking through the viewfinder and using a stop watch, I tracked an airplane from the moment its lights appeared above the tree line. It took about 80 seconds until it left the frame.

So, what is the best exposure time? Two contradicting factors need to be considered. On the one hand, a faster shutter speed generates more images. This also means there will be more gaps in the light trails, as the camera always makes a short pause between pictures. These gaps have to be closed manually in post-processing. This can be avoided, or at least minimized, by using slower shutter speeds. Unfortunately, this has an adverse effect on the image quality: the longer the exposure time, the weaker the light trails will appear.

I took a few test shots, and viewed the results using maximum magnification on the camera display. The two images below show the difference between a full-minute exposure and a half-minute exposure:

Light Trail (60 sec.)
Detail view of a light trail with 60 seconds exposure time at 200% magnification. The dots painted by the blinking navigation lights are now barely visible.
Light Trail (30 sec.)
Detail view of a light trail with 30 seconds exposure time at 200% magnification. The trail is much brighter compared to the background, and the dots from the navigation lights are now clearly visible.

Finally, I settled for a shutter speed of 30 seconds. The light trails stood clearly out from the background, and a flight time of 80 seconds for each plane to cross the frame meant that I would have to close two gaps in each trail – a reasonable compromise. This also happens to be the longest exposure time the camera supports in manual mode. Even longer exposures require using the ‘bulb’ mode, which makes operating the shutter more complex.

That last value I set was the aperture. I set it so that the overall exposure of the image looked OK to me. The main goal was to make sure the sky didn’t become too bright, to simplify combining the images later. I started at ƒ/11, and then, as it gradually became darker, opened the aperture step by step to ƒ/5.6.

SHOOTING

When everything was set, all I had to do was wait – not for long, though. As soon as I saw the lights of a plan emerging above the trees, I pressed and locked the trigger button on the remote shutter release. Thus, the camera took three pictures in a row. Often, the next airplane was already in sight at the end of taking the third image of the previous one. If not, I let the camera pause for a while.

Over a period of about one and a half hours, from quarter past nine to the last takeoff at 10:45pm, I took 75 pictures in all. Even though it was close to 70°F during the day, it cooled off rather quickly once it became dark. The warm jacket I packed now really came in handy, as did the beverages and reading material.

In retrospect, time passed rather quickly. After the last plane left, I packed everything together, used a flashlight to make sure I didn’t forget anything in the dark, and walked back home.

POST-PROCESSING

The next day, I went about assembling the final image from the individual pictures. The first step was to import everything to Adobe Lightroom CC. I applied a few adjustments to all photos: I activated lens corrections (lens profile and chromatic aberration), and increased the contrast and clarity to make the light trails stand out from the background even more.

Then I picked the image on which I liked the sky the most, and edited it to my liking regarding colors, contrast and details, to make it the background image. The result looked like this:

Night Sky
Night Sky – I liked the sky the most on this image. Thus, I used it as the background and added all other light trails onto it.

In Lightroom, I selected all 75 images, including the background, and chose “Photo” → “Edit in…” → “Open in Photoshop as Layers…”  to transfer them over to Photoshop. This took quite a while, but then all pictures were layered on top of each other in a single project.

The first thing I did was moving the background layer all the way to the bottom, so that all other layers covered it. Then I turned all layers but the background invisible. The next step was selecting three images belonging to the same flight and making them visible again:

Single light trail, part 1
Single light trail, part 1
Single light trail, part 2
Single light trail, part 2
Single light trail, part 3
Single light trail, part 3

The crucial step now was to change the layer blending mode from “normal” to “lighten”. As the result, only those parts of each layer that are brighter than the underlying image are shown – in particular, the light trail drawn by the plane. The outcome of this first step can be seen in the image below:

Adding one trail, before editing
The three parts of the one light trail, with the layer blending mode set to “lighten”, before removing unwanted artefacts and closing the gaps.

This is already quite close to the desired result, but there are a few disturbing artefacts: First, there was another plane flying across in the image in the background, which caused the red and white dotted line near the horizon on the left-hand side of the image. Second, the stars in the top right hand corner are now duplicated, because they moved compared to the background image. And finally, the glow from the airport can be seen behind the trees.

Thus, I collapsed the three layers of the light trail into a single layer, and added a layer mask. Then I masked out all unwanted artefacts in the image – basically, I painted the entire mask black except for the light trail.

The final step was using the clone stamp tool to close the gaps resulting from taking three images. I set the sampling to “current layer”, and opacity and flow to 100%. Here’s the final result:

Adding one trail, after editing
The finished light trail: The gaps have been closed, the trail of the landing plane has been removed, just like the duplicated stars and the glow the behind trees.

After completing one light trail, I hid the respective layer and started on the next trail. I worked on each one individually, because this simplified closing the gaps and removing unwanted artefacts. It also enabled me to adjust the brightness of each trail independently using levels adjustment layers.

The final step was to make all layers visible, collapse everything into a single layer, and export the final image:

Night Traffic
Night Traffic – The final image. Composed from 75 individual pictures, it shows the light trails painted into the evening sky by planes taking of.

TIPS & TRICKS

Some additional information in case you want to try this out yourself:

  • When taking photos of this kind, it is better to take several images with shorter exposure time, and subsequently combine them in post-processing, than to take a single long exposure. This will improve image quality, and even more important, it reduces the risk of losing several minutes of action because, e.g., a car drives by and shines its headlights into your lens.
  • I’ve linked two video tutorials below; one from Canon Australia on photographing light trails, and one from Jimmy McIntyre on post-processing them. They both used cars instead of airplanes, but the procedure is the same as in the image above.
  • With long exposures, there are two factors to consider for the composition of the final image: the static background, and the patterns drawn by the moving lights. It takes some practice to imagine the final picture before actually taking it, so try it out when you find the chance.
  • Taking such photos requires patience – for planning, for shooting, and for post-processing. I spent two hours on the field, plus another three one the computer. Take your time, it will be worth your while!

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: When you have an evening off – go for it! Grab your camera and your tripod, and go to the next street bridge, railway station, airport, local festival – wherever there are moving lights. This way, you can capture amazing and sometimes surprising motion patterns.

What I’ve learned: I’ve gathered some good experiences, for instance how the exposure time affects such long exposures and light painting images. The same goes for working with layers and the clone stamp tool in Photoshop.


LINKS:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

What is…? – Terms, Abbreviations and Lens Designations

Terms, Abbreviations and Lens Designations

Everyone who takes a deeper dive into photography for the first time, gets drowned by a flood of strange terms and abbreviations. Test reviews, tutorials, and online communities are just full of them. What confused me even more in the beginning, was the fact that there is often more than one designation for the same thing – or, vice versa, one and the same shortcut has several different meanings. I am currently replacing some of my gear, so I had to make sure I was adding the correct designations to the respective item descriptions. And since I was at it anyway, I’m writing it down here for future reference – yours, as well as mine.

BASIC TERMS

Photography fills an abundance of books and videos, which describe the basic steps, give instructions, and explain the terminology. I do not intend to compete with that. However, I do want to give an explanation in my own words of the terms I am using regularly in my blog posts.

For most of the terms, I have added links to the respective articles on Wikipedia, in case you want to read more about a certain topic. And if you’re interested in all the details, I highly recommend Mark Levoy’s “Lectures on Digital Photography”.

Aperture

From a technical point of view, the aperture is the opening in the lens through which light hits the sensor. Usually, it can be varied in size (⇒ Wikipedia).

From an artistic point of view, the aperture is the most important tool for creating an image. It controls the depth of field, i.e. the distance range that will be shown sharp in the picture. This makes the difference between a portrait with a soft background, and a landscape photo where the entire frame is in focus. It also influences the amount of light passing through the lens, in particular when using a flash.

  • The aperture setting is always given in relation to the lens. The aperture value is calculated by dividing the focal length of the lens by the diameter of the effective opening. As the size of the opening is the denominator of this fraction, it means that the aperture value is the smaller the larger the opening is.
  • The aperture values are set so that switching from one value to the next always corresponds to either doubling or halving the amount of light let through. This is equal to doubling or halving the size (area) of the aperture opening. The area of a circle with radius r is generally known to be π * r². If I want to double that area, that means: 2 * π * r² = π * 2 * r² = π * (√2)² * r² = π * (√2 * r)². Hence, you need to change the radius by a factor of  √2 ≈ 1.4, if you want to double the area.
  • Thus, the aperture values are always multiples of √2: ƒ/1, ƒ/1.4, ƒ/2, ƒ/2.8, ƒ/4, ƒ/5.6, ƒ/8, ƒ/11, ƒ/16…
Lens with aperture set to different values for comparison (Source: Wikipedia)
  • Since on manual lenses, the aperture ring clicks into place at each of these values, they are also referred to as ‘stops’. Accordingly, the terms ‘stop of light’, ‘stop up’ and ‘stop down’ all relate to doubling or halving the amount of captured light. These phrases are used even if the effect is not achieved by changing the aperture, but by other means, such as changing the exposure time, ISO value, or flash output.
  • Between these ‘full’ values, there are usually values for ±⅓ stop, i.e.: ƒ/2.8, ƒ/3.2, ƒ/3.5, ƒ/4.
  • This notation makes the aperture value, respectively its effect on the exposure of the image, independent from the lens and camera used. Consequently, an image taken of a particular subject and correctly exposed at ‘ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/200th sec.’ will be correctly exposed with every camera, regardless of size and brand, on which I can dial in these settings. What will be different, though, depending on focal length and sensor size, are the field of view, the angle of view, and the depth of field.
  • When mixing ambient light and flash, the aperture controls the amount of light from the flash in the image, while the ambient light is controlled by the shutter speed.
Bokeh

The term is derived from the Japanese word for “blurred”. In photography, it describes the quality of the out-of-focus areas in a picture taken with a wide-open aperture (⇒ Wikipedia). The bokeh depends on the construction of the respective lens, and the quality of the individual lenses it is comprised of. In particular, portrait lenses usually produce a nice bokeh, to create smooth backgrounds that do not distract in any way from the subject. There are, however, lenses that produce a rather fidgety bokeh, for instance because contours get doubled in out-of-focus areas.

Chromatic Aberration /
Color Fringing

When light passes through drops of water, the individual colors are refracted differently. Sunlight gets split into its individual colors, which we see as a rainbow. The same happens when light passes through pieces of glass in a lens. This means the individual lenses need to be tuned in a very specific way to ensure that on the camera sensor, all the different colors match up again in the intended way. Where this fails, green and purple color fringes appear on contrasting edges in the image, for instance at branches of a tree against a bright sky, or the white frame of an otherwise dark window (⇒ Wikipedia). Chromatic aberration can be corrected in many image-processing software tools, such as Adobe Lightroom.

Crop Factor

To be able to compare different camera types, the main parameters such as the focal length are always converted to the so-called full-frame format. This designation applies to cameras with a sensor the same size as a negative of a 35 mm miniature film (24 x 36 mm). The crop factor equals the ratio of the length of the diagonals (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • Popular formats include APS-C (crop factor 1.5 (Nikon) or 1.6 (Canon)) and Micro-Four-Thirds (crop factor 2 (Olympus, Panasonic)).
  • To compare focal lengths, the values are multiplied by the crop factor: 50 mm on a Canon APS-C camera thus equal – times 1.6 – 80 mm on a full-frame camera. This correspondence applies only to the field of view, however, and not to the angle of view.
  • To compare depth of field, the aperture also gets multiplied by the crop factor. The rear camera on Apple’s iPhone 7, for instance, has an aperture of ƒ/1.8 and a crop factor of 7.2. This roughly equals ƒ/13 on a full-frame camera, which makes it clear why it is almost impossible to get pictures with a blurred-out background using a cell phone camera (large aperture number = large depth of field).
Depth of Field

Depth of field refers to the distance range, within which objects are shown sufficiently sharp in the image (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • In principle, only objects exactly in the focus plane are shown 100% sharp on the image.
  • The further something is away from the focus plane, either in front of it or behind it, the more blurred it becomes. This is a gradual transition, and where an object is still “sharp enough” depends on the resolution of the camera as well as the eye of the beholder.
  • Depth of field is controlled by three factors:
    1. The aperture: low aperture number = shallow depth of field; larger aperture number = large depth of field.
    2. The focal length: the shorter the focal length, the larger the depth of field.
    3. The focus distance: the further away the subject is, the larger the depth of field. Beyond a certain focus distance (depending on focal length and aperture), the depth of field becomes infinite. This distance is called the hyper-focal distance.
  • For this reason, portraits are usually taken with a long focal length and wide-open aperture. Thus, only the face is in focus, while the background becomes as blurred as possible. For landscape pictures, on the other hand, usually a short focal length is used, together with a medium or narrow aperture (such as ƒ/8), to get as much of the picture in focus as possible.
Exposure Triangle

Illustrates the correlation of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting for the correct exposure of an image.

  • Each of the three parameters has an exposure component and an artistic component:
    • Each component can make the image darker (fast shutter speed, narrow aperture, low ISO) or brighter (slow shutter speed, wide aperture, high ISO)
    • The shutter speed can either freeze motion (fast) or show motion (slow)
    • A wide-open aperture creates a shallow depth of field, so only the subject is in focus, while a narrow aperture results in a large depth of field, where most of the image is in focus
    • Low ISO values create a clean image, while high ISO values will cause a noisy (grainy) image
    • Depending on the type of photo you want to take, you set one or two of them depending on your priorities, and let the camera figure out the rest.
    • The blog ‘Hamburger Fotospots‘ offers a great cheat card, which illustrates the three parameters listed above, along with their respective effects. The web page is in German, but the ZIP package you can download includes an English version of the cheat card:
Source: Hamburger Fotospots
  • First example: If I cut the exposure time in half, but double the ISO setting, the exposure stays the same (motion blur is reduced, but the picture quality decreases)
  • Second example: If I change the aperture from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/5.6, I can quadruple the exposure time without changing the exposure (motion becomes more visible, but the depth of field is changed, too).
  • All theory is grey, so here are two YouTube videos that illustrate this very well:
Exposure Time /
Shutter Speed

The time interval during which light hits the sensor. Most cameras allow adjustment between 1/4,000th of a second and 30 seconds (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • Higher-range camera also offer 1/8,000th of a second
  • For long exposure times beyond 30 seconds, there is the so-called ‘bulb’ mode, where the shutter is controlled manually by either pressing and releasing the shutter button, or by pressing it twice.
  • See below for more information about the shutter.
Flash Sync Speed Identifies the shortest exposure time at which a flash without special ‘high speed’ capability will render a fully exposed image. This depends on the build of the shutter (see below), but with most cameras, it is around 1/200th of a second.
Internal Focus On a lens with internal focusing, all moving elements for focusing on your subject are inside the lens. This means that in particular the front element of the lens does neither extend nor rotate when focusing. This is important when using filters that depend on the correct orientation to get the desired effect, such as polarizing filters or graduated filters.
ISO

The name of the International Organization for Standardization in Switzerland. As the shortcut for this organization would be different in every language (in English, it should actually be IOS), ISO is used as a proper name. It is derived from the Greek syllable “iso”, meaning “equal”. In photography, the ISO value describes how sensitive an analog film or digital sensor is to light, as defined in the standard ISO 5800 (⇒ Wikipedia).

  • The default value with most cameras nowadays is ISO 100.
  • The higher the ISO value, the more sensitive to light the film or sensor is. This goes along with an increasing reduction of image quality by increased grain or noise. How strong this effect is on digital cameras depends on the build of the sensor, in particular the size of each individual pixel – the larger, the better. This is why low-light cameras usually have low resolution.
Minimum Focus Distance

The minimum focus distance is the shortest distance on which the camera can still focus with the respective lens. It is important to know that this distance is always measured from the sensor, and not from the front element of the lens. The position of the sensor is marked by a symbol (0) on the camera body. If it is given e.g. as 5 inches, but the distance from the sensor to the front element is already 4 inches, then there is just 1 inch of space left to the targeted object. In general, the minimum focus distance increases with the focal length; for telephoto lenses it can easily be 5 ft. or more. Macro lenses are an exception, because they are built specifically to focus at very short distances, to achieve the large magnification.

Shutter

The shutter is a mechanism inside the camera that allows light to hit the sensor only for the chosen exposure time (⇒ Wikipedia). There are two main types of shutters:

  • An electronic or digital shutter actually isn’t a shutter in the original sense, because light is hitting the sensor all the time. The sensor gets reset (all values set to zero), and after the given time, the values of all pixels are read out. The advantage is that this happens completely silent, as there are no moving parts. Most video, cell phone, and compact cameras work this way, as well as DSLRs in video mode.
  • SLRs usually have a mechanical focal-plane shutter, which allows for very precisely controlled exposure times, as short as 1/8,000th of a second. It is usually built as a pair of two curtains. At the beginning of the exposure time, the first curtain, which until then had completely covered the sensor, slides away. At the end of the exposure time, the second curtain moves out of its resting position, follows the first curtain, and covers the sensor again. At higher shutter speeds (less than 1/200th of a second), the two curtains move so close to each other, that at no point in time the entire sensor is exposed at once. Instead, a slot moves across the sensor so that every region of the sensor gets exposed for the chosen time interval.
    • This slow-motion video on YouTube shows very well what happens inside a camera when taking a picture.
    • Due to the way the shutter works, flashes need a special ‘high-speed synchronization’ mode for working with fast shutter speeds. Otherwise, a black bar would be visible in the image, because only that part of the sensor that was visible between the two shutter curtains when the flash fired, was exposed.
    • Design and way of working of the shutter also explain the terms ‘first / second curtain‘ for firing the flash at the beginning or at the end of the exposure time.
  • Both shutter types do not capture the entire image at once, but the exposure rather moves across the frame. This caused by reading out the pixels row by row with an electronic shutter, or by the movement of the curtains of a focal-plane shutter. The downside is that fast moving objects become distorted in the final image (so-called ‘rolling shutter effect‘). There are also cameras with a so-called ‘global shutter’, which capture the information of the entire image at once. This technology is typically used in rather expensive high-speed cameras.
  • Robert Hall has a video on YouTube where explains the differences as well as the pros and cons of the two shutter types.

ABBREVIATIONS

There are an almost infinite amount of abbreviations in photography. I have selected the ones I often use myself. This section leaves aside all abbreviations that designate lens characteristics; you will find those below in a table of their own.

AF

Auto-focus – The system your camera uses to focus on the targeted subject. There are two distinctly different auto-focus systems: Phase detection is what single-lens reflex cameras employ when using the optical viewfinder. Edge detection is applied when looking through an electronic viewfinder or using the display, for instance on a cell phone. Phase detection is faster, while edge detection is more reliable. In addition, depending on your camera and lens, there are different types of drives moving the lenses accordingly; also see the lens designations below.

APS‑C

Advanced Photo Systems-Classic – This designation embraces digital cameras with a sensor size between 22.5 x 15.0 mm (crop factor 1.6) and 25.1 x 16.7 mm (crop factor 1.5). Basically all interchangeable lens cameras with a retail price under 1,000 € have such a sensor. APS-C is not a standardized label; the actual sensor size varies between manufacturers. Nikon calls their APS-C cameras “DX”.

The designation goes back to the APS system, which was invented back in the 1990s for analog film. The image size is about ⅓ of a 35 mm miniature film. This made it possible to build much smaller cameras, and to store additional information on the film. Due to the quickly emerging digital photography, however, APS never became accepted for analog film, and quickly vanished again.

APS-C as a classification of the sensor size is not related to the camera sensor technology APS (Active Pixel Sensor). This is a type of so-called CMOS sensor, which, due to their compact build and low energy consumption, are used in almost all cell phones and compact cameras.

ILC Interchangeable Lens Camera – A camera where you can quickly change the lens. Often used as a generic term for mirrorless or single-lens reflex cameras, to distinguish them from compact cameras with a built-in lens.
DSLM Digital Single-Lens Mirrorless – Digital cameras without optical viewfinder. They are often also referred to a System Cameras (Example: Sony Alpha a6000). “Single-Lens” means that the image in the viewfinder is captured through the same lens as the actual photo. On older compact cameras, the viewfinder often had its own optics. Nowadays, basically all cameras are digital, the D is often omitted and just SLM is being used. In addition, there are several synonymous acronyms: MILC (Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera), MSC (Mirrorless System Camers) and – my favorite  :mrgreen: – EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens camera).
DSLR Digital Single-Lens Reflex – Digital cameras with an optical viewfinder that uses the same lens as the image sensor (Example: Canon EOS 760D). Again, the D is often omitted and just SLR is used.
MF Manual Focus – Interchangeable lenses usually allow for manually focusing on your subject. This is meaningful in difficult lighting conditions, e.g. for night photography, or for pictures where a moving object shall be captured in a certain position and the auto-focus wouldn’t be fast enough.
MFT

Micro-Four-Thirds – A sensor format with crop factor 2, used primarily by Olympus and Panasonic. “Four Thirds” relates to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the sensor, in contrast to the otherwise usually 3:2.

SOOC

Straight Out Of Camera – This abbreviation is mostly used in online forums and photo communities, and means that the picture it refers to has not been post-processed on a computer in any way.

LENS DESIGNATIONS

Acronyms on lenses tend to be especially confusing, because the manufacturers use different labels for the same functionalities and characteristics.  The table below summarizes the most prevalent shortcuts for the brands I use.

I have left out all terms related to the ‘optical formula’ of a lens, i.e., which specially shaped lenses are built in, and which specific coatings they have. This would go far beyond the scope of this post. In the end, all that matters it their effect on the image quality (distortion, flaring, and chromatic aberration).

Function Canon Samyang Sigma Tamron Tokina
Lens for Full-frame Cameras EF DG Di FX
Lens for Cameras with APS-C Sensor EF-S CS DC Di II DX
Lens for mirrorless Cameras EF-M FE (Sony E-Mount) DN
Image Stabilizer IS (Image Stabilization) OS (Optical Stabilizer) VC (Vibration Compensation)
Auto-focus USM (Ultra-Sonic Motor)

STM (Stepping Motor)

 AF HSM (Hyper-Sonic Motor) USD (Ultrasonic Silent Drive)  AF
Internal Focus IF IF IF IF
Professional Lens L (Luxury) A (Art)

S (Sport)

EX (Excellence)

SP (Super Professional) AT-X Pro
Consumer Lenses C (Contemporary) AT-X
NOTES:
  • Canon: Lenses with internal focus, as well as consumer lenses, do not have a dedicated designation.
  • Samyang: Lenses from Samyang are sold under several different brands, including Rokinon, Bower, Opteka, Pro-Optic, Vivitar und Walimex. They are technically identical, but their prices vary drastically. Full-frame lenses do not have a special label. No lenses with image stabilization are available. Finally, Samyang does not distinguish between different product lines.
  • Tamron: As far as I know, Tamron does not offer any lenses for mirrorless cameras. Consumer lenses do not have a specific label.
  • Tokina: There are no lenses available with image stabilization, or for mirrorless cameras.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: When you get started, all those terms and abbreviations seem rather confusing. But don’t let yourself be scared by that! To learn the basic terms in the beginning, a book can really help; but in the end, it’s ‘learning by doing’. In particular, the exposure triangle needs closer attention, and you’ll need to memorize the creative possibilities (How do I blur the background? How do I freeze motion?).

What I’ve learned: A lot  😀 And I’m still learning. Even writing this article helped me to better understand a number of things…


LINKS

In addition to the Wikipedia links, additional information can be found here:

Picture credits: Title image: own graphic.

In Focus: Changing the Perspective

Through nature with different Focal Lengths

The little detail or the big picture: from a photography point of view, nature can be captured in many different ways. With their abundance of blossoms and colors, as well as the beautiful golden light in the morning and evening hours, spring and fall in particular invite one to grab the camera and venture outside. In your own garden, in the street in front of your house, or in the next forest – there’s more than enough to photograph!

ONE MOTIF – DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES

The advantage of an interchangeable lens camera is the enormous bandwidth of focal lengths it supports. With my Canon 760D, for instance, my lenses reach from 8 mm with the Fisheye lens to 300 mm with the telephoto zoom lens. This equals roughly 15-480 mm on a full-frame camera.

This offers great creative latitude. Close-up images of individual blossoms, colorful leaves, and other details are classic subjects, of course. For this purpose, you usually select a medium to long focal length to get your subject filling the frame. Or you go straight for a dedicated macro lens, such as the Tamrom 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro. I have included several example images in my blog post about that lens, hence I am skipping the topic of macros here.

Magnolia Blossom
Magnolia Blossom. The intent here was to capture a single blossom. The aperture is set to ƒ/8 to have most of the blossom in focus.

But you can also go to the other end of the spectrum and use a rather short focal length, such as an ultra-wide angle lens, or even a Fisheye. These will also allow you to show an object large in the foreground; the difference compared to longer focal lengths is that due to the wide angle of view, you will also capture a lot of background in your image. It will also not be as blurry. As a result, your subject will be shown in the context of its surroundings, i.e. it’s not a “single blossom”, but a “blossom on a blooming tree”. The two pictures of our Magnolia tree illustrate this clearly.

Magnolia Tree in Full Bloom
Magnolia Tree in Full Bloom. It’s not primarily the large blossom in the foreground that is the main subject of the image, but more the entire tree with its many blossoms. The distortion from the fisheye lens is clearly visible in the upper half of the frame, but does not disturb the image as a whole. Due to the short focal length and the aperture set to ƒ/11, basically the entire picture is in focus.

I want to show you some of the creative possibilities for the various focal lengths. Not all flower photos have to be the same!

FISHEYE & ULTRA-WIDE ANGLE

I have two lenses in this category: The Samyang 8 mm ƒ/3.5 Fisheye, and the Tokina 11-20 mm ƒ/2.8 Ultra-wide Angle. Both offer a very wide field of view, which means you will get a lot into your pictures. The short focal length also means that objects at a distance will seemingly be pushed much further away. If there is nothing interesting in the foreground, the resulting images can look empty and boring. However, the background requires some attention as well. At such a short focal length, you won’t be able to blur the background much, even with a wide-open aperture, except when you get the camera very close to your subject. And even then, the background will still be recognizable – in particular with the Fisheye lens. Nonetheless, you can deliberately utilize this.

Rose in our Garden
Rose in our Garden. The intent of the image is to show not just a rose, but a rose in our garden. The framing makes the strong distortion typical for the fisheye lens less noticeable.

Here are two examples for this: the image of the rose above was taken with the fisheye lens, and the little red flower below has been captured using the Tokina. In both cases, it is clear what the subject of the image is; at the same time, it easy to see where the scene is located. The Tokina, with its wide-open aperture, even allows you to blur the background a bit despite the short focal length when being so close to the subject, so that the plant is standing out more. The rose in the image above was at the same distance from the camera, but due to its even shorter focal length and an aperture of ƒ/8, almost the entire garden including the house is in focus.

Little Flower in the Cops
Little Flower in the underbrush. Hidden under a large hazelnut bush, these little blossoms strive for sunlight. The short focal length includes a lot of background in the image, thus showing this scene is located in a garden. The wide-open aperture isolates the subject.

No rule is without exception: of course, you can use a short focal length deliberately without anything in the foreground, if you want to emphasize the size and vastness of the space you’re in. This is what I did when capturing the fall forest in the image below: I put the camera down on the ground and pointed the Fisheye lens straight up. Indeed, the biggest challenge when taking this photo was to not appear in the frame myself. I took a similar picture with my “always-on” standard zoom lens; the result was “a tree in the fall forest”. Using the Fisheye, I was able to capture the entire fall forest.

Fall Forest
Fall Forest. The Fisheye lens, with its enormous wide angle of view, captures practically the entire forest in a single frame. It also emphasizes the height of the trees. The straight lines leading to the center of the frame render the Fisheye effect almost imperceptible.

STANDARD ZOOM

This relates to the “default” zoom range, which is covered by the usual kit lenses. For an APS-C camera, that typically is 17-50 mm; equaling 24-70 mm on a full-frame camera. For reference: the back camera on an Apple iPhone, depending on the model and converted to full-frame, has a focal length of 25-30 mm. This should not imply that this “default” range is boring – on the contrary. Depending on whether you want to capture an entire tree, a plant, or just a couple of leaves, there’s a lot of creative leeway.

Colorful Maple Tree
Colorful Maple Tree. I wanted to capture the entire tree, to show that all fall colors appear in one and the same tree. This requires a default wide angle; the aperture is stopped down to ƒ/8 so that the entire tree is in focus.

It is worthwhile to play with zoom, aperture, and object distance; even, or in particular, with the kit lens. The most important recommendation in this context is: change your perspective! The usual snapshots taken from eye height quickly become boring. Hence, when you’re out and about: look straight up – what is above you? Get down on your knees and photograph the little mushroom as it pushes through the leaves into the grazing light of the setting sun…

Mushroom in a Forest
Mushroom in a Forest. The short focal length shows the mushroom in its environment; the wide-open aperture isolates it as the main subject of the image.

If there is such a thing as a “must have” lens for every photographer with a single-lens reflex or mirrorless camera, then it certainly is the 50 mm ƒ/1.8, and for a simple reason: value for money. Basically, every camera manufacturer offers one for a little money; it usually costs around 100 Euros. It is small, light, and versatile, which has earned it the nickname “nifty fifty”. On a full frame camera, this is a standard focal length, perceived to offer a very natural perspective similar to what the human eye sees. On an APS-C camera, the field of view equals 80 mm, so it can be considered a slight telephoto lens.

The distinguishing characteristic is its wide open aperture of ƒ/1.8. Most kit lenses have a maximum aperture of ƒ/4 or ƒ/4.5 at 50 mm, that’s a difference of 2-3 stops. This means that the “nifty fifty” not only lets in a lot of light; it can also provide a much narrower depth of field. This makes it a popular all-round lens, which is often used for portrait work. So why not take some portraits of colorful plants?

Maple Trees in Fall
Maple Trees in Fall. At 50mm, you can show not only a single leaf, but entire branch. Using an aperture setting of ƒ/1.8 still allows you to clearly separate the branch from the background.
Maple Leaves in Fall
Maple Leaves in Fall. The narrow depth of field helps to focus the view on the leaves in the center of the frame.

TELEPHOTO

This category basically covers everything with a focal length of 70 mm and up. There are essentially two types of lenses: the telephoto zoom lenses, like my Tamron 70-300 mm ƒ/4-5.6, and the prime lenses, especially macro lenses, in the range of 90-150 mm. The main difference is in how close you can get to your subject. With my aforementioned 70-300 mm zoom lens, the shortest distance I can still focus at is 1.5 meters. With the 90 mm macro, I can get as close as 30 centimeters!

This obviously has a significant impact on the creative possibilities. However, keep in mind: a macro lens can take more than just macro images, and you can use a telephoto zoom not only to capture things that are far away. You can probably guess where this going: I’m talking about perspective again.

Garden Flower
Garden Flower. Due to the narrow depth of field at 90 mm, the ground is already blurred despite using an aperture of ƒ/8.

With long hedges or bushes as shown below, you can try a “grazing shot”. It shows the details of the leaves and blossoms as well as the extent of the hedge in a single image. In a frontal picture, you could only see one of the two, depending on the distance. This works in the same way horizontally on a flowering meadow. It’s not a macro in the original sense, but I make use of the wide-open aperture and resulting narrow depth of field of the macro lens to show just a small stripe of the Kerria bush in focus.

Narrow Depth of Field in a Kerria bush
Narrow Depth of Field in a Kerria bush. At 90 mm and an aperture setting of ƒ/2,8, only a narrow band of the bush is in focus.

I have taken the following image with my Tamron 70-300 mm, even though at 92 mm, I could have taken it with the macro lens just as well. I didn’t have it with me, though, and I actually preferred the flexibility offered by the zoom lens on that photo excursion. The blossoms are at the minimum focusing distance (1.5 m). In the end, the best lens to take a picture with is always the one you have with you.

Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun
Apple Blossoms in the Morning Sun. Focal length and aperture help to emphasize the blossoms in the foreground, while the blurred blossoms in the back show it’s just one branch of a blooming tree.

Of course, the distinguishing feature of telephoto lenses is to pull in distant objects. This allows for capturing details to which you cannot get close, for whatever reason. Blossoms in the crown of a tree are a good example. The narrow angle of view also allows controlling the background, or getting rid of it entirely. The image of the Japanese Maple above shows an almost evenly yellow background, made from trees with yellow leaves. I could have gotten closer to the leaves and used a shorter focal length, thus a wider angle of view. But then the house on the right side, and the garden shed on the left side, would show up in the frame and the background would no longer be evenly yellow.

Japanese Maple in Fall
Japanese Maple in Fall. Again, the telephoto lens at 300 mm and aperture ƒ/5.6 help to pull in the details while at the same time blurring the trees in the background into an even yellow backdrop.

How much the background gets blurred not only depends on the focal length and aperture setting, but just as much from the ratio between the two distances; camera – subject and subject – background. The two images of the Japanese Maple above and the Cherry Blossoms below were taken with identical settings, and the trees in the background were at about the same distance in both pictures. However, the maple was much closer to the camera, hence you can see a substantial difference in the appearance of the background.

Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms. With the telephoto lens at 300mm, you can get quite close to your neighbor’s cherry tree. At an aperture of ƒ/5.6, the trees in the background get blurred enough to no longer distract.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Well, that’s quite obvious in this case, isn’t it? Go outside and try it out!

What I’ve learned: In the end, it doesn’t matter which camera or lenses you have – interesting perspectives can be found all around you. Up close, far away, from above, from below, wide angle, telephoto, with or against the sun… It’s worthwhile to simply grab your camera next time you go on leisurely stroll or walk your dog.


LINKS

Last but not least, some YouTube videos with further inspiration:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames

What do you do when you want to go out and take pictures, but it’s nasty and wet outside? Well, of course you could argue that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong kind of clothing – but then, if you’re not deliberately going for bad-weather shots, there are probably more comfortable alternatives. So, you start looking for indoor photography ideas. Which is exactly what did.

Starting from the tutorial videos for photographing water splashes, I quickly came across guides to smoke and flame photography. I especially liked the idea of taking pictures of matchsticks right when they light up. Starting from the ideas given in the videos, I thought about my own setup, and then kindled for an entire afternoon – with results that definitely exceeded my initial expectations.

THE SETUP

Foremost, I wanted the images to have a completely black background, to give the smoke and flame as much contrast as possible. Much of this can be achieved by choosing the camera and flash settings accordingly; nevertheless, I decided to darken the room to be on the safe side. Now for the setup itself.

I’ve taken the images with my Canon 760D. Initially, I used the Tamrom SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro, but then later on switched to the Canon 50mm ƒ/1.8 STM. Its shorter focal length captures a larger portion of the set, thus making better use of the available space, and it also renders a larger depth of field. As the smoke spreads quickly, and in three dimensions, both facts are relevant. The camera was of course mounted on a tripod and triggered with a remote shutter release.

I used a boom stand with a clamp holder to hold the matchstick in place. I placed a metal tray underneath it to have a fireproof base. The match was enflamed by holding a burning candle a few inches under its head. I used black cardboard as background, approx. 1.5 ft. away. The camera was lined up so that, with the 50mm lens, the black cardboard just filled the frame, and the matchstick was positioned in the bottom quarter of the image.

Finally, the flashes were set up. I tried out various arrangements and optimized them during the shooting. I will describe here only the final layout, which rendered the best results: One of the flashes (Yongnuo YN565 / YN568) was positioned about 45° to the left of the camera; the other one exactly opposite. I attached a flag made from another piece of cardboard to the rear flash, to avoid its light spilling onto the background. This mix of front and back lighting gave full effect to the smoke. Both flashes were positioned above the match to light up the smoke, but they were also pointing downward enough to illuminate the matchstick itself in the final image. The flashes were controlled by means of the Yongnuo YN622C(-TC) wireless remotes.

This is how the final setup looked like:

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Smoke and Flames"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Smoke and Flames”: The flashes are set so that the background remains black. The matches are lit up using the candle.

THE SETTINGS

The settings got me thinking for a while, due to the fact that natural (flame) and artificial (flash) light sources had to be mixed. Using the candle, I started by adjusting the camera settings so that the flame was captured as bright as possible, while not overexposing more than just a small portion of it. I also had preset the shutter speed to 1/200 of a second. This is the shortest exposure the flash without high-speed sync (the YN565) supports. I also didn’t want to keep the shutter open longer than that, to avoid motion blur when the flame heftily flickers when the match ignited (that still happened in several images). The initial results, taken with an aperture of ƒ/8.0 (for good sharpness and depth of field) and ISO 100 (for good image quality), were quite satisfying.

The next task was to set up the flashes. My idea was to work with the lowest possible power setting (1/128), for two reasons: At this setting, the flash duration of speedlights like mine is about 1/20.000th of a second – this guarantees razor-sharp freezing of the smoke’s motion. Also, at this low power setting, the capacitor in the flash is recharged so quickly that I can use the camera’s continuous shooting mode with almost no delay, which vastly increases the chance of capturing great images. I actually tried it with a setting of 1/64 as well, but that had a considerable impact on the frame rate, due to the longer recharging time of the flashes.

Taking all of this into account, I found the ideal balance between the brightness of the flame and that of the smoke illuminated by the flashes using the following settings:

  • Camera: manual mode, ISO 200, ƒ/8.0, 1/200 sec., continuous shutter (with the 90mm lens, as well as later on with the 50mm one)
  • Flashes: manual mode, 1/128 power, zoom at 24mm (I flipped out the diffusor disc on the front flash)

Needless to say, you’ll need to adjust these settings to your particular setup and lighting conditions to achieve comparable results.

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Smoke and Flames"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Smoke and Flames”: ISO 200, ƒ/8.0, 1/200s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Yongnuo YN622C-TX, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

I manually focused the camera on the match, using the 10x magnification in Live View. I put a mark on the clamp holder so that I could put every new match in almost the same position, which spared me refocusing the camera every time. The camera was set to continuous shooting, to be able to capture a number of images in quick succession, and the white balance was set to automatic.

THE SHOOTING

After the test shots to get the exposure right, it was show time. The biggest challenge was to find out exactly how I had to hold the candle under the matchstick. The flame had to be so close that its head would get hot enough to ignite, but not so close that it would be visible in the image when match ignites. How long I had to hold the candle there varied, not at least because every match is a bit different. And finally, each match burns differently: some flame up in a short intense burst, others keep going for about 2 seconds until the head is burned up and only the burning wood remains.

The procedure was always the same: in one hand, I held the remote shutter release for the camera, the button already pushed half-way. In the other hand, I held the burning candle. Then I held it under the match, and as soon as it flamed up, I pushed the shutter button all the way and let the camera capture 5-7 frames. By then, the exciting part was mostly over. Just as with the water splashes, I quickly learned the right timing to trigger the camera.

Afterwards, I put the candle down on the tray, and as soon as the camera had finished writing all image data to the memory card, I blew out the flame. I took another 5-7 photos of the resulting smoke. Depending on how you blow out the flame, or wave your hand a bit, the smoke creates rather fantastic figures.

With a fresh matchstick in the clamp holder, the next iteration began.

Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames
Photo Experiment: Smoke and Flames. Here you can see how the match is enflamed using the candle. The picture is unedited, straight out of camera. Compare it to the final version in the gallery.

At the end of the session, I had burned 36 matchsticks and shot close to 600 images. On the computer, I filtered the pictures in several steps. First, I deleted all test images and the ones that were obvious misses because they were either completely black, out of focus, or taken too early. This reduced the number of photos by more than half. Then I went to picking the images that were outstanding in one way or another. Finally, I kept 40 images for editing, and you can see the “top ten” of those in the gallery above.

TIPPS & TRICKS

This is another case of ‘practice makes perfect’, so here are a few points to improve for next time:

  • Fire protection: a sufficiently large, fire proof base below the match and to put down the candle is absolutely mandatory. It also doesn’t hurt to have a big glass or pitcher of water handy. And don’t forget: if the room you’re doing this in has a smoke detector, disable it before you start (and turn it back on when you’re done!)
  • Whether you darken the room or not, you need to have sufficient ventilation. Also take a break in between, and aerate the room. Unfortunately, the smell of the smoke is rather persistent.
  • The candle you are using to ignite the matches should be easy to handle, but also safe to stand when you put it down. I used a pillar candle left over from last year’s advent wreath. Its flame should be rather large, but without flickering or giving off sooty smote. You can cut down the rim of the candle with a tinker knife, and pour off some of the molten wax.
  • As for the matches, I recommend using the longer kind, usually sold for lighting fireplaces, instead of the small regular ones. The ones I used were about 5 inches long, compared to the regular 2 inches.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Definitely give this a try! In particular, during the dark winter days this is a nice handicraft challenge with which you can create moody images. By the way, this also works with sparklers.

What I’ve learned: Once again, I’ve learned quite a lot about the correct alignment and setting of the flashes, in order to create the desired effect – especially in the combination of natural and artificial light.


LINKS:

  • YouTube: Smoke Photography made simple
  • YouTube: Photographing flames and smoke
  • Note: Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any decent tutorial video in English on how to photograph matches when they light up. If you find any, please let me know. In the meantime, also have a look at the German version of this page…

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

Photo Experiment: Splashy Fruit

Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit Photo Experiment: Water Splashes with Fruit

They are omnipresent on the decoration shelves in furniture and garden stores: pictures of fresh fruit and vegetables, dropping into water with big splashes. The idea obviously isn’t new, but it poses a challenge nevertheless: how do you take such photos? This is the perfect task for a grey and windy weekend when you don’t want to go outside.

A little research on the internet quickly showed: it actually doesn’t take that much. The only thing missing here was a suitable, rectangular glass vessel. Our vases are all round, which doesn’t work for this setup because the flash would be reflected in the image. After some consideration, I decided for a 25 ltr. (6.5 gal.) aquarium from a local hardware store. I will certainly use it for more experiments like this in the future, so the expense of 20 Euros was easily justified.

THE SETUP

The pictures were taken on the dining room table, and the setup can easily be explained:

  • I used my Canon 760D with the Tamrom SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Macro
  • The aquarium was placed on top of a box, so that the tabletop behind the aquarium didn’t show in the images
  • The first external flash – a Yongnuo YN568 EX II – faced into the aquarium from the left, at the same height as the water level.
  • The opposite side was covered with aluminum foil, which served as a reflector
  • The second external flash – a Yongnuo YN565 EX II – was directed onto the backdrop, a white foldable reflector, which was placed approx. 3 ft. away.
  • The flashes were adjusted and triggered using the Yongnuo YN622C(-TX) wireless remotes.
  • I used a simple cable remote for the camera.

The entire setup looked like this:

Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Splashes with Fruit"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Splashy Fruit”: 6.5 gal. aquarium, one external flash for the fruit and splashes, aluminum foil as reflector. The second flash and the white background are used only for the bright images.

THE SETTINGS

Auto-exposure won’t be of any help, because the images need to be deliberately over- or underexposed (for white or black background), and autofocus is useless as well because it won’t pick up the falling fruit in the water; at least not fast enough. So everything needs to be set manually. The first thing I did was to place a roll of wrapping paper across the aquarium, and then let a ruler dangle from it at the point where I wanted to drop the fruit into the water. Then I used the camera’s Live View mode to manually focus on the ruler. Next, I set the exposure:

  • Camera settings: ISO 100, ƒ/8.0, 1/200 sec.

The settings are chosen so, that an image taken without flash will be completely black. I used an aperture setting of 8 to have the depth of field big enough so that the fruit would still be sharp even when I don’t drop them at the exact point I focused on. If you work on this experiment yourself and you still see some of the surroundings (e.g., a bright window) in the image with these settings, close the aperture even further to e.g. ƒ/11. If you want to use a faster shutter speed, you need external flashes that support high-speed sync. However, the shutter speed is not relevant for these images anyway, because the motion is frozen by the duration of the flash – which is much shorter than 1/200th of a second.

The flashes are set next. You will have to adjust these to your respective lighting conditions, so the values given here are just for reference. For the images with the white background I started by adjusting the rear flash. I turned the over-exposure warning (the ‘blinkies’) on my camera on, and then set the flash so that part of the background was shown to be over-exposed. You shouldn’t set the flash too bright, though, because otherwise the white background will outshine the water splashes and the rims of the fruit.

Following that, I used a few test images to adjust the aquarium flash so that the white areas of the lemon slice were not over-exposed. This flash will use a much lower setting. You might have to adjust it depending on the target object; a darker orange slice will need more light than a bright lemon. For the images with black background, the rear flash was simply turned off, and the aquarium flash was adjusted accordingly, because of the missing backlighting.

  • Flash settings for white background:
    • Background: 1/4 + 0.7
    • Aquarium: 1/64 + 0.7
  • Flash settings for black background:
    • Background: off
    • Aquarium: 1/8 + 0.3
Setup for the Photo Experiment "Water Splashes with Fruit"
Setup for the Photo Experiment “Splashy Fruit”: ISO 100, ƒ/8.0, 1/200s, manual focus adjusted using live view. The flashes are adjusted and triggered via the Yongnuo YN622C-TX, and a cable remote is used to trigger the camera.

THE SHOOTING

With the proper fruit at hand, I stood next to the aquarium, holding the remote shutter release for the camera with one hand, and then started my routine. It was easier than I thought it would be. You’ll quickly get a feeling for how to drop the fruit and when to press the shutter release. I only had a few frames where the timing was completely off.

Some luck is required however, for how the various objects hit the water. It may happen that you’ll see the lemon slice edge-on, or that the apple wedge casts a big shadow onto the orange.

All in all, it was a lot of fun and made for an entertaining afternoon. The required effort and equipment are very reasonable – you can take these images even with just one external flash; instead of the aquarium you might just as well use a square vase, and for the background you can use some cardboard, or a tablecloth.

TIPS & TRICKS

When you do something like this for the first time, you’ll quickly learn that there a number of details you didn’t think of initially – and which you can improve on next time. Here’s an overview of my ‘lessons learned’, with no guarantee for completeness:

  • After every (literally every) drop, wipe dry the front and rear glass panes of the aquarium – a microfibre cloth is perfect. This is a bit tedious, but it will save a lot of time in post-processing; especially in the images with black background.
  • When working with citrus fruit, take the images with black background first, the ones with white background later. At every drop, these fruit will shed little pieces of pulp, which float around in the water as bright fuzz. This is much less noticeable in the white images, or at least it can be more easily removed in post. At some point in time, you will have to replace the water entirely. If you also have other objects you want to drop, use those first.
  • Take care with the background and the surface you set everything on: I put a plastic blanket on our wooden table to protect it from the water. A blue plastic blanket. With red balloons on it. Haha. Find the mistake. The glass panes of the aquarium as well as the water surface relentlessly reflected this pattern – when you take a close look at the images above, you will see the blue with red dots in some of the water splashes. Next time, everything will be covered black or white.
  • If you want to capture fruit and splashes above as well as below the water, the flash pointing into the aquarium has to be at the same level as the waterline. At first, I had positioned it a bit lower – with the consequence that its light was diverted by the surface of the water, and everything above the waterline remained dark. An alternative setting is to position the flash high above and a bit to the side, pointing down into the aquarium. This will mimic a natural light setting, as provided by the sun.

CONCLUSION

Recommendation: Kids, do try this at home! It’s the ideal occupation for a dreary afternoon, and as a bonus you’ll learn to work with your flashes and how to set up the lighting correctly.

What I’ve learned: Practice makes perfect – I’ve already written about most of my learning experience in the Tips & Tricks above. I will certainly make more experiments of this kind in the not too distant future…


LINKS:

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.

My Gear: Vast Spaces – Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 DX

Tokina AT-X Pro SD 11-20mm ƒ/2,8 DX on the Canon 760D

The main reason for me to get a new camera in the fall of 2015 was the unique opportunity to photograph the Milky Way in the mountains on the edge of the desert in New Mexico (USA). This also meant: I needed a lens suitable for astro-photography. From research on the Internet, I quickly learned two essential criteria:

  • widest possible angle, to catch plenty of sky
  • widest possible aperture, to gather enough light

For APS-C cameras such as my 760D, “ultra wide-angle” means a focal length between 10 and 20mm.  A wide variety of lenses from different manufacturers are available in this range. Most of these have a variable aperture, from ƒ/3.5 or even ƒ4.5 to ƒ/5.6, which means they do not let in a lot of light. But then there is one lens with a quite unique setup.

TOKINA AT-X Pro SD 11-20mm ƒ/2,8 (IF) DX

Tokina AT-X Pro SD 11-20mm ƒ/2,8 DX
Tokina AT-X Pro SD 11-20mm ƒ/2,8 DX

The Tokina has a constant wide aperture of ƒ/2.8 and thus lets in a lot more light (about two to four times as much) than the other lenses in this focal range. With a price tag of around 600 € (Jan. 2017), it is also the most expensive lens, though – aside from Canon’s professional lenses such as the 14mm ƒ/2.8 for around 2,000 €. If you want to capture the night sky and hence need the wide aperture, the Tokina is well worth the investment.

BUILD QUALITY

A wide aperture always means a lot of glass, hence the lens is big and heavy. Together with the camera however, it balances well in your hands. It feels solid, and even though the casing is made from plastic, it doesn’t feel too “cheap”. The focus switch, however, is subject to critique: the lens has a push-pull mechanism, i.e. you move the focus ring back and forth to switch between manual and autofocus, as can be seen by the respective markings on the image above. Most of the time this won’t work without wiggling and you’ll inadvertently shift the focus point. Aside from that, the autofocus is reliable, and the manual focus is smooth and precise. The lens doesn’t provide image stabilization, but at such short focal lengths, this is not really needed in my opinion. The lens comes with front and back caps as well as a lens hood. Due to the wide angle of view, the hood is short, but has a very large diameter. This means it doesn’t fit into most pouches along with the lens but needs to be stored separately.  Because of its size and weight, I don’t take the Tokina with me whenever I go out, but pack it only when needed.

USE AND RESULTS

I use the lens on a regular basis now. Of course I use it for capturing the night sky, as can be seen in the examples below. There are other uses as well – it also lends itself to taking pictures in confined interior spaces, in particular with atmospheric lighting. For instance, the picture of the steam engine cab, which was illuminated just by a simple lamp, would not have been possible with a longer focal length because of the limited space. It is also great for landscapes, such as a sunrise at the beach. These uses technically do not require the ƒ/2.8 aperture, but it still offers the advantage of reaching a sharp image throughout the frame earlier than other lenses when stopping down.

The example images below have all been taken at the short end – i.e. at 11mm – because that is what I bought the lens for. Even though I do have alternative lenses for the long end with the Sigma C 17-70mm, or the Sigma A 18-35mm, the Tokina’s zoom range up to 20mm offers the flexibility to snap a “regular” wide-angle shot in between without having to change lenses.

I am quite happy with the image sharpness the lens renders. It’s always sharp in the middle; the corners of the frame however are perceptibly softer at ƒ/2.8. This can be seen in the shot of the Milky Way below, by comparing the sizes of the stars in the center of the image to those in the corners. This behavior is typical for all ultra wide-angle lenses, and stays within acceptable bounds for me. When you stop down, the image gets sharp from end to end at ƒ/5.6 at the latest. If you close the aperture even further to ƒ/11, you’ll get beautiful sun stars. However, when shooting into the light, the lens will create very prominent lens flares. They can look stylish, but often they are not desired.


CONCLUSION

Recommendation: If you want to photograph at night, to take pictures in moderately lit confined interior spaces, the Tokina is definitely worth the investment. It is solid, reliable and renders good image quality. It’s not flawless, however, and the recommendation is primarily based on its unique feature, the constant wide aperture of ƒ/2.8.

If you don’t need such a fast lens, I highly recommend the Canon EF-S 10-18mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 (Link to Amazon). It is considerably smaller, lighter, and most of all a lot less expensive (Jan. 2017: 230 €) than the Tokina. It also renders sharp images, but it lets in a lot less light – only a quarter of the amount compared to the Tokina – so you’ll be tied to brighter scenes, slower shutter speeds or higher ISO setting.

What I’ve learned: Taking pictures with an ultra wide-angle lens is a lot of fun – in particular because you can get a lot into your image even in a small space, or capture vast landscapes with just a single shot. This however poses the challenge of finding something interesting for the foreground, otherwise it’s easy to get lost in the scene because everything is pushed back – something I’m still working on. In particular with the Tokina, I have discovered the joy of astro-photography – even though that’s not an easy task considering the amount of light pollution in the area I live in.


LINKS

Picture Credits: All pictures – own images.


EXAMPLE IMAGES:

Sunrise on St. Simon's Island
Sunrise on St. Simon’s Island

 

Fire Basket on the Terrace
Fire basket on the terrace

 

Driver's cab of a steam engine (HDR)
Driver’s cab of a freight-train steam engine (HDR)

 

Milky Way over Albuquerque
Milky Way over Albuquerque

 

Mountain cottage in a full-moon night
Mountain cottage in a full-moon night

On a personal note: My photo board 2017

Photo Board 2017

With photography, as with many things in life as well, you get better by setting goals for yourself, making your homework, accepting challenges, and doing things you didn’t do before – at least not that way. So I asked myself: What pictures do I want to make? How do I achieve that? And then: what worked as planned, and what didn’t?

In order to not lose track of my ideas, I resort to an idea by Stephan Wiesner: the photo board. I’d like to share my own photo board for 2017 with you here – and of course, I will report on my progress here as well.

RETROSPECT

When I think back how my photography developed, there were three stages: At first, I simply took snapshots – I documented where I was and what I did without thinking too much about it. At times, some really great shots would come out of that, which I still like today, but back then, those were mostly coincidental.

Then came the time when I started to think more before taking a picture: careful choice of the field of view, the main motivation or item of interest in relation to its surroundings and background, the lighting etc. I became pickier with my images. I no longer simply photographed everything, but cherry-picked the things that interested me most. And I also deliberately chose to not take a particular picture, for instance when the lighting was completely off. However, the motto still was: “Ok, now that I’m here, let’s see what pictures I can take”.

This leads us to stage three, where this is becoming reversed. Now I ask myself: “if I want to make this photo, where do I have to go to get it?”. “When do I have to be there?”. Thus, the image becomes the goal for a trip or afternoon, and no longer is a mere side effect. This requires planning, not only on the where and when, but also: what equipment do I have to take along? Which lens? Do I need a tripod, a filter, a remote shutter release, an external flash…?

When I have an idea for an image, I start looking for hints and tricks on the Internet, gather suggestions, and then I go out and try it. This way, I managed to create a number of great images over the course of the past year, which I certainly could not have created in 2015. And in 2017, I want to raise the bar even higher.

PHOTO BOARD 2017

NIGHT CAPTURE / LONG EXPOSURE: SYKLINE

I always like nighttime photographs, especially of larger cities. In that respect, I am fortunate to live close to Frankfurt. With the combination of the Main River and its skyline, it offers a number of marvelous motives. I made several attempts on this image over the last year, but so far, the result does not meet my expectations.

But these attempts were not in vain. For instance, I have found my preferred vantage point: on Flößerbrücke (‘rafter’s bridge’). From there, you can see the Ignaz Bubis Bridge in the foreground, which is nicely illuminated when it’s dark, and then the skyline of the financial district in the background.

Foto-Skizze: Skyline zur blauen Stunde
Photo Sketch: Skyline during the Blue Hour

In addition to selecting a good spot, I was also able to try out and optimize my equipment. I will definitely take the picture using my Sigma A 18-35mm ƒ/1.8 lens, due to the outstanding sharpness it renders. Tripod and a remote shutter release are a given as well. In addition, I always take along a piece of black cardboard or something similar, because the Flößerbrücke is illuminated as well by strong floodlights mounted in front of the bridge – these will shine into the lens despite the lens hood and tend to created distracting artifacts in the resulting image. I also take along my neutral density filters. I have two of them: an 8x and a 1,000x. I will use them to slow down the shutter speed to make the water appear silky and smooth.

All that is missing is: a workday evening in winter, when it gets dark early and many of the offices in the high-rise buildings are still illuminated, and an interesting sky. No clouds at all is boring, and too many clouds isn’t good either – because then the sky doesn’t get dark, since it reflects the lights of the city and in particular the airport behind the city. I am mostly interested in the time period from sunset to about 45 minutes afterwards, the so-called “Blue Hour”.

CLOSE-UP / MACRO: EYE

Macros, or at least close-up images, are another area of photography that appeals to me. The reason is that these images expose details that are usually missed – either because they are simply too small to see, or because they move too fast to take a thorough look. This was important enough for me to get a dedicated macro lens: the Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC Macro. I went hunting for butterflies and bumblebees in the lavender bush with it, and took a magnified image of a dandelion.

While browsing the Internet for macro photography ideas and tutorials, one fascinating motive repeatedly came up: close-up images of eyes. This has become something I definitely want to try myself.

Foto-Skizze: Nahaufnahme eines Auges
Photo-Sketch: Close-up of an eye

Of course I’ve read a number of how-tos and tips, so what remains is to actually try and do it. I don’t know yet, for instance, whether it works better for me to take the picture outside in the sun, or inside with a flash. How does the light have to be set up so that the details in the iris are clearly visible, but the model does not squint from the glare, and so that I don’t cast a shadow on the eye with the camera or lens?

MACRO: ICE CRYSTALS / SNOWFLAKES

Let’s stay in the macro realm for another photo idea: ice crystals and snowflakes. However, this requires something that around here is a complete no-show for the third winter in a row now: snow. Or at least, long-lasting decent frost.

Foto-Skizze: Eiskristall-Makro
Photo Sketch: Snowflake macro

I was able to get a few “test images” with white frost on clear mornings at least – with promising results. But I am sure: there is way more to be seen. Preferably in the grazing light of the low early morning sun, but otherwise, a strategically placed flashgun will to the trick as well.

FREEZING MOTION ON A FOUNTAIN

This idea is basically the opposite of a long exposure: Here, I do not want to show the water in a silky-smooth way, but instead I want to freeze the motion with a high shutter speed so that every single drop can be seen floating in mid-air. With my Rebel T6s, this means: 1/4,000 second. Maybe I will manage the upgrade to the 80D, then I can even go with 1/8,000 – but there are other priorities to take into account as well. Anyway, because of its wide aperture and image sharpness, I will use the Sigma A 18-35mm ƒ/1.8 for this shot.

Foto-Skizze: Bewegung einfrieren am Springbrunnen
Photo Sketch: Freezing motion on a fountain

While I am rather sure on the “how”, so far I am missing the “where”. I am looking for a well with a nice fountain. Unfortunately, many of the fountains here in Darmstadt are permanently turned off, even in summer. Either due to lack of funding for necessary repairs of the ailing pipes and basins, or due to wanton damage and pollution.  So far, I haven’t had the patience to systematically look for fountains in the nearby cities, but it’s definitely on my list for 2017. If you know any beautiful waterspouts, I will gladly take any suggestions!

CAR PORTRAIT WITH AN EXTERNAL FLASH

This idea came from rummaging in the Internet for the questions: “what can you possibly do with an external flash?”. In doing so I came across a YouTube video by Christian Adams and immediately thought: what a great idea! The concept comprises taking many pictures, in each of which a certain area of the car is illuminated by a hand-held external flash, and then afterwards compositing them in Photoshop to get the final image with a “showroom” feel to it. Fortunately, a worthy model for such a picture has been a member of our family for 20 years now:

Foto-Skizze: Auto-Portrait mit Aufsteckblitz
Photo Sketch: Car portrait with an external flash

I’m still thinking about a good location, where there are no distracting reflections or background objects. Most of all, I want to be undisturbed, and also do not want to irritate anyone with all the flashing. Aside from that, all I need is the right occasion – and of course a fresh polish for the gem.

PLANES AT THE AIRPORT

For me, planes are kind of special, because they are tied to a very specific feeling: wanderlust. Oftentimes, when I am sitting in the garden at home, or I’m looking out of my office window, and see the planes climbing into the clouds I wonder: where are they going? What would be like to be on that plane now? And even when I am actually sitting on a plane for business travel every now and then, it still feels special to me to be at the airport.

Foto-Skizze: Flugzeuge am Flughafen
Photo Sketch: Planes at the airport

I want to try capturing this feeling in an image. At and around the Frankfurt airport, there are a number of photo locations that are suitable for that purpose. So far, I stuck to theory and research on that topic. I want to change this next year – go out to the airport, get a feeling for the views the various vantage points actually offer, and take pictures. I’ll definitely pack my telephoto lens, as well as my “always-on” lens – and a tripod.

FURTHER IDEAS

Of course, there are more ideas than that – but they are not as concrete or thought-through yet as the ones listed above, so they haven’t made it to the sketch / photo board stage yet. For instance, Darmstadt has a small but pretty zoo, called the Vivarium. It offers a wide variety of potential motives, ranging from butterflies to kangaroos, hence I definitely plan to go “hunting and shooting” there.

And I’ll keep looking around the local Railway Museum, for special lighting moods – for instance, when the setting sun floods the roundhouse with orange light through the old windows. Or behind the scenes, capturing sights usually hidden from the public eye.

Apart from that, I’ll keep my eyes and mind open for new ideas throughout the year…

CALENDAR 2018

I definitely plan to work on a photo calendar project again. For 2017, I had composed a calendar with a “best of” my pictures taken between October 2015 and October 2016. Some of my family and friends really enjoy having one, not only because many of the images have a quite different effect when viewed in A2 size (roughly 16×24″) compared to a small screen. I particularly liked the challenge of finding a motive matching each month.

Hence, I want to repeat that for 2018. This time, I tasked myself with creating a calendar in portrait orientation. I have started by adding a few images from this year to a short list. Probably not all of them will end up in the final calendar, since the fire and forge images are very similar, but I will take the final decision only when I have the rest of the images as well, to make sure they fit together.

Kalender 2018
Calendar 2018: The first candidates

Of course, some ideas from the photo board will make it into the calendar as well – even though not all ideas can be done easily in portrait mode. But this challenge is also what makes it appealing…

Stay tuned!
– Jochen =8-)

Picture credits: All sketches and photos: own images.

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