On macro and close up photography

Macro photography has been around for a while, in fact, William Henry Walmsley defined the term photo-macrograph way back in 1899 (he also defined photo-micrograph but that’s a topic for another time).   He originally went to school to study botany but had to drop out so that he could support his family.  Eventually he found work in the field that he enjoyed by preparing slides of insects and plants for a number of scientists.  Today, if you do a quick search for macro photography you’ll see that plants and insects are easily the favorite subjects of photographers – and with good reason.  If we take the time to see these small objects magnified, it’s like a whole new world is revealed to us.

Strictly speaking, most of what we’ve come to think of as macro photography is more accurately called close up photography.  See, the definition of a true macro image is that it has to be at least a 1:1 ratio in object size to the size media is is recorded.  That is, the image that you record on your sensor (or film if you are old school) has to be at least life size.  Don’t think of that in terms of the print, but the physical size of the sensor.  Check out this amazing graphical representation of a penny and a digital sensor to help you understand.

Imagine the rectangle is your camera's sensor and the circle is a penny - that is the 1:1 size ratio that defines macro photography

Imagine the rectangle is your camera’s sensor and the circle is a penny – that is the 1:1 size ratio that defines macro photography

Okay, so now that you have that little factoid stored away for some future trivia night, let’s get on to something a bit more practical:  tips for close up photography (macro or otherwise).

This is not a true macro even though it was made with a macro lens.  It is a close up photograph of Spring's soft front parts.

This is not a true macro even though it was made with a macro lens. It is a close up photograph of Spring’s soft front parts.

If you are using a point and shoot type camera, you are likely limited to what you can achieve.   Point and shoot cameras usually have a macro mode which allows you to focus closer than you can in the regular focusing mode.  If you are using a digital SLR camera or a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, then you can get the best results by using a dedicated macro lens.  If you don’t have a macro lens, and you are very careful, you can also try this trick – take your lens off of your camera, turn it around, and hold it against your camera’s lens mount (be very careful not to scratch the lens!).  You won’t have any of the automated features but your lens will now allow you to focus MUCH closer than when you have the lens on the right way.  If you think that’s pretty cool, you can even buy inexpensive mount adapters so that you can attach the lens to your camera backwards.

Gear aside, there are two main considerations.  First is that macro photography generally takes a lot of light.  And second is that it has a VERY, VERY narrow depth of field (DOF) – like millimeter wide areas of sharp focus when you shoot with your lens wide open.  If you decide to stop down your lens for a larger DOF, then you might get another few millimeters or (gasp) even a centimeter.

My grrrl Spring's right eye.  Notice that there is only a very narrow plane that is perfectly sharp (look at the fur more than the eye).

My grrrl Spring’s right eye. Notice that there is only a very narrow plane that is perfectly sharp (look at the fur more than the eye).  This is typical for macro photography.

So I’m guessing you know where that’s leading, and you’re right – macro photography is usually best done with a tripod.  The lighting is of course enough of a reason to use a tripod because you’ll want one to avoid camera shake but the bigger consideration is the depth of field.  Using a tripod will also allow you to carefully frame your subject because a very little movement can change your composition drastically.  A tripod will allow you to better study the composition to determine what should be in the frame and which part of the image should be in the sharpest focus.

This was a quick cell phone snap of the setup I used for the flower gallery images this week.  You can see that I not only brought extra light to the scene, but I also had my camera on a tripod and I used a remote to trigger the camera to avoid bumping the camera when I pushed the shutter button.

This was a quick cell phone snap of the setup I used for the flower gallery images this week. You can see that I not only brought extra light to the scene, but I also had my camera on a tripod, and I used a remote to trigger the camera.  The dynamic range (range from light to dark in the scene) was too great for my cell phone resulting in ‘clipped highlights’ in the flower.

So there you have it – macro photography in a nutshell.  Let me know if you have any questions and happy shooting!

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Photography as art

Last week I wrote about photography as art and promised to continue the topic today.    I said that I believed that (in my opinion) not every photograph created is a work of art.  I went on to say that a certain amount on intent is needed for a photograph to become a work of art but I’ve also said in the past that something not originally made as a work of art can later become a work of art if an ‘authority’ deems it worthy.    So then, let’s get to the reason this topic has been on my mind.

Peter Lik is a master photographer.  He earned that M. Photog. title by competing in the Professional Photographers of America International Print Competition.  A photographer can submit up to four images a year and if they meet an exacting criteria as judged by a panel of four judges, the images can earn a merit.  A photographer needs 25 merits in order to earn the M. Photog. credential.   He has also been recognized for his work by the Australian Institute of Professional Photography and the British Institute of Professional Photographers.  All of which is to say that Mr. Lik has been recognized by other professional photographers as a master of his craft.  I encourage you to visit his website to see some of his work.

Aside from his technical and aesthetic achievements, Mr. Lik is very, VERY, good at marketing his work AND he has been fortunate enough that his career has brought him to the right places at the right time.  That isn’t to say that he hasn’t earned his achievements through a lot of hard work, just that, as Louis Pasteur famously stated, “fortune favors the prepared” and Mr. Lik has worked hard to put himself in a position to benefit from that fortune.

I’m sure you’re beginning to wonder why I’m going on and on about Peter Lik.  Well, that’s because he recently made history – he sold the most expensive photograph of all time in November, 2014.  In fact, he now holds four of the twenty spots on the list of most expensive photographs ever sold.  His November sale included Phantom which sold for $6.5 million, Illusion for $2.4 million, and Eternal Moods for $1.1 million.  He made the list for the first time in with the sale of One which sold for $1 million in December 2010.  That list is full of people that I lecture about in my history of photography class so I’d say Lik is in very fine company.  Very fine indeed.

Phantom, by Peter Lik http://www.lik.com/news/newsarticle57/, accessed 1/15/15

One would have a tough time arguing that his work is not art.  Yet that’s just what one art critic did.  Jonathan Jones is a journalist and art critic that, since 1999, has written about art for The Gaurdian.  He had this to say about Lik’s Phantom:

This record-setting picture typified everything that goes wrong when photographers think they are artists.  It is derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste.  It looks like a posh poster you might find framed in a pretentious hotel room.
-Jonathan Jones, December 10, 2014

In that same article, Jones also states that photography is not art but rather is a technology.  Again, that is the exact same argument that people have been making since photography was introduced to the world in 1839.  In a previous article, Jones states:

A photograph in a gallery is a flat, soulless, superficial substitute for painting.
-Jonathan Jones, November 13, 2014

So what do you think?  Is that fair?

As you might imagine, Jones’s articles have been popular.  As of this morning, the article written in response to Peter Lik’s historic sale has been shared nearly 41,000 times and has nearly 2000 comments.  In fact, it has been so popular that The Guardian felt the need to publish a counterpoint to the article.  Written by Sean O’Hagan, the article offers a number of solid counterpoints to Jones’s article.  The one that I think is most relevant is that photography is a distinct visual media from painting and the two should not be viewed as being in a competition with each other.

Personally, I can’t help but think that Jones’s recent articles were written not so much as to convince people that photography is an inferior artistic media but rather as a way to drive readers to his articles and to The Guardian.  I think this is supported by the fact that The Guardian has a prominent link to O’Hagan’s article at the top of the December 10 article.  Mostly, my opinion that he is stirring the pot for the sake of controversy is based on the fact that Jones has been writing for the guardian for some time and it wasn’t that long ago that he has claimed that photography is the art of our time.  He wrote:

Photography is the serious art of our time. It also happens to be the most accessible and democratic way of making art that has ever been invented.
-Jonathan Jones, January 10, 2013

He goes on to say:

The greatness of art lies in human insight. What matters most is not the oil paints Rembrandt used, but his compassion.
-Jonathan Jones, January 10, 2013

So then, what’s one to believe?  In the end, I don’t think it matters whether or not Mr. Jones has had a change in heart, is purposely writing controversial opinions, or something else entirely.  Whether or not he appreciates the work of Peter Lik is entirely besides the point, after all, we all have our own tastes and preferences, so it doesn’t matter what he personally thinks about one particular artist.  What does matter is that he is using his platform to get people to think and write about art and photography.  And that is something that I can fully support.

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On photography and art

Today’s topic is one that I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.  There are a number of factors that lead to this week’s topic including my prep work for the start of a new semester teaching the History of Photography class at Washington State University.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's (1826) "View from the Window at Le Gras"

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s (1826) “View from the Window at Le Gras”

Photography was introduced to the world in 1839 but there were efforts to create a permanent image with a camera leading up to that time.  The above image was made by focusing light onto a pewter plate covered in what you can basically think of as asphalt (Bitumen of Judea).  As the light hit the plate, it essentially hardened the asphalt in a way that was directly related to the amount of light that it received (more light, harder bitumen) so that when the exposure was complete (we think it was at least 8 hours but maybe days), the bitumen in the shadow areas could be washed off leaving a permanent image.  This image is believed to be the first permanent image ever made.  This achievement sparked the research that lead to two competing photographic technologies being introduced to the world in 1839.  But here’s the thing – they didn’t consider these earliest ‘photographs’ art but rather viewed them as scientific advances.

Except that might not be entirely true.  See, even from the start, there were people pushing for photography as art and others that pushed for photography as a technique for recreating a scene – and they both kind of had a point.   Fast forward to today (which skips some pretty important photographic history) where we are decades into the post-modernist art movement (where the concept can be the art) so you’d think any question of whether or not a photograph is art would be long dead, but guess what, there are still naysayers claiming that photography is not art.  Could their arguments have any merit?

#firstselfie #notreallydead #isitart

Hippolyte Bayard (1801 – 1887) is credited for making the first ever self portrait and the first ever photographic narrative. #firstselfie #notreallydead #isitart? #1840

First, I’ll pose a few questions to you to get you thinking.  Do you think every image made by a photographer is art?  If no, does it depend on the intent?  If yes, can we expand that to include any image made by a camera?  How about automated exposures (like those made from infamous red light cameras)?

Personally, I think it is fair to make the claim that a certain amount of intent is needed for a photograph to automatically be deemed a work of art.  I’d even go so far as to say that not every photograph that an artist makes would qualify as art.  After all, I use my cameras to create images solely for the sake of documentation and I think it would devalue the idea of what art is (even if that is tricky to define) by saying that every image I create is photographic art.  Maybe a photographic equivalent to King Midas exists in the world but I’ve not been introduced to their gift yet.

I made this masterpiece because I wanted to have a record of the phone number on the sign.

I made this masterpiece because I wanted to have a record of the phone number on the sign. Contact me for pricing information. Oh, and can I suggest that you opt for the gallery wrapped canvas instead of a Giclée?

I think I’ll leave it at that.  Give some thought to these questions and let me know what you decide.  Next week I want to pick up where we left off and discuss the topic in the context of the work of master photographer Peter Lik.  If that name sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen him (on the Weather Channel) or recently saw that his work was in the headlines because of a recent sale of his work.  Check back for details next Friday.

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Tips for Winter Photography

Happy New Year!

I hope the holidays treated you well and that 2015 will be a fantastic year for you all.

We started off the year with snow here in Tucson which got me thinking that it was the perfect time to share some tips for winter photography.  This week’s post will be relatively short and sweet so that you can get out there to make some great photos.

Snow topped prickly pear.

Snow topped prickly pear.

Have you ever thought that a snow filled scene would make a great photo only to be disappointed with an underexposed image?  If so, this first tip is for you.  It all comes down to understanding how your camera works.  Today’s cameras (and their light meters) are very sophisticated but here’s the thing, the cameras don’t know what you are pointing them at – they just measure the amount of light hitting the sensor and calculate the exposures based on the tonal values of an average scene.  So what’s average?  Middle gray – and that’s the problem with a snowy scene – you want your snow to look fresh and white, not dingy and gray like the Wisconsin snow you see piled up mid-February (or mid-April for that matter).

So I know what you’re thinking and no, you do not have to use your camera’s manual mode to make a correct exposure.  The trick is to use what’s called Exposure Compensation (EC) and it is something that should be available on your camera too (yes, even your smart phone camera).  The general rule of thumb is that you need to add about +1.5 to your EC setting for a snowy scene (you’ll probably want to bracket making exposures at a few different settings from maybe +1 to +2 EC to be safe).  Of course you’ll need to read your camera’s manual because just about every brand and model is different when it comes to the way the setting is changed.  For example, on my professional camera, it is as simple as pressing the shutter button half way, releasing the button, then rotating a dial but on my smart phone, it is buried in the settings menu.  Learning how to change your exposure compensation setting really is worth your time and not just for winter weather.  Another example of a time you might need a positive EC exposure would be when you escape the cold to hit the beach (the wet sand reflects a lot of light too).  Or perhaps you are shooting a sunset and it is coming out too bright, then dial in a negative EC value.  Play around with the setting and I’m sure you will quickly get the idea.

Check out these examples (note the first two pictures are both relatively unprocessed to show how the image looks out of the camera followed by an edited version of the brighter photo for the sake of this comparison).

This image was made allowing the camera to use the default exposure setting.

This image was made allowing the camera to use the default exposure setting (0 EC setting). Kind of dreary, right?

This image was made after setting the camera to adjust for the brighter scene and is much closer to how the scene actually looked.

This image was made after setting the camera to adjust for the brighter scene and is much closer to how the scene actually looked. I used a +1.33 EC setting for this image.

This is the same photo as above after a bit of post-processing.

This is the same photo as above after a bit of post-processing. The snow is nearly white without losing detail.

I promised tips but if you take anything away from this post, focus on the exposure compensation. To give you an idea about how important of a setting it is, unless I’m shooting in the studio, it is a setting I adjust on just about every shoot. So then, read on for the rest of my winter photography tips.

Snow covered Santa Catalina Mountains.

Snow covered Santa Catalina Mountains.

Dress for the weather.  If you are cold, then two bad things will happen – you’ll rush (so you’ll miss opportunities) and you’ll shiver (so you are more likely to introduce camera shake and have blurry photos).  One of the things I’ve found to be very useful is a pair of gloves with no finger tips but with a fold back mitten flap.  They come in a wide variety of styles but mine are a basic black.

Bring a tripod.  Even if you plan to dress for the weather, you still might be cold.  A camera mounted on a tripod with a cable release is the best way to avoid camera shake.

Bring an extra battery or two and put them in a pocket inside of your coat.  The cold will have a big impact on your battery’s charge.  It isn’t enough to have a spare or two, you need to keep them warm to maximize their charge.

As much as possible, avoid taking your camera (and lenses) from one weather extreme to another.  If you are going to work at multiple locations, put your camera in its bag in your trunk so that it will stay cool (go ahead and bring the battery into the warm car though).  Under the wrong conditions, you can fog the lens elements.  If you are really unlucky, the moisture will leave water spots on your lens and your only option might be to send the lens in for a cleaning.  After the session is over, leave your camera in its bag so that it slowly comes up to room temperature to avoid this problem.  Throwing a desiccant in your bag might also help.

Finally, experiment.  Take the shot (or shots) that you had planned but then give yourself the freedom to play.  The last photo that I’ll leave you with today was made because I spent a few extra minutes outside.  I didn’t plan to make an image like this when I went out but I’m glad that I took the time to look around before heading back in to the warm house.

Silhouette of a prickly pear back lit by the sun sparkling through thousands of drops of water.

Silhouette of a prickly pear back lit by the sun sparkling through thousands of drops of water.

That’s it.  Thank you for starting 2015 off with me.  Tune in next week for a discussion on photography as art.

Happy shooting!

 

 

 

 

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Tips for night photography

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  And of course, let’s not forget that Hanukkah is also called the Festival of Lights.  Even if you don’t celebrate any holidays in December, I’m sure you’ll agree that the holiday lights are dazzling and you might be thinking about documenting some of that holiday cheer with your camera.  That makes it a perfect time to share a few tips about night photography.

As I’ve mentioned before, you really have just three settings to adjust so that you can make a good exposure – aperture size (larger hole lets more light reach the sensor), shutter speed (the longer the shutter is open the more light reaches the sensor), and ISO (the higher the setting, the more sensitive the sensor).  Before we get too far, if that doesn’t sound familiar, you might want to review my post about exposure.

Also, it probably goes without saying that these tips are great for any night photo session.  Like anything else in life, a bit of practice goes a long way so if you are disappointed by your first results, don’t give up hope – just keep trying.  And of course it is a whole lot nicer (for most of us anyway) to try our hand at these skills when the weather is pleasant because the cold definitely complicates things a bit.

M_Kloth_Moon_3270

The holidays are not the only reason to bring your camera out at night.

The first and best tip I can offer for better night photography is to use a tripod.  Or lacking a tripod, find a way to create a stable base for your camera.  It is difficult to hold a camera perfectly steady for long exposures (especially if you are shivering!) so finding a stable platform for your camera will allow you to get a sharp image regardless of the shutter speed.  The trick to making a good tripod mounted exposure is to make sure that you are careful when you press the shutter because even that little amount of force can nudge your camera causing camera shake.  If you are cold or you don’t think you have a delicate enough touch, then give your camera’s shutter delay feature a try.   That ten second wait or so can make a big difference in ensuring your camera is perfectly still for the entire exposure.

The Parkway in Richland, WA photographed on Christmas Eve 2008

The Parkway in Richland, WA photographed on Christmas Eve 2008. Notice everything is relatively sharp? That’s because I didn’t use the widest aperture setting for this shot.

 

The next step is to consider your aperture setting.  Again, opening up your lens so that the aperture is as wide as possible will allow you to have a faster shutter speed which might allow you to hand hold your camera.  Just remember that a wide open shutter speed will give you a shallower depth of field (area of sharp focus) so just be sure that you set your focus so that the most important part of the scene is sharp.

Richland in December after it snowed on Christmas Eve, 2008

Next, crank up the ISO if needed.  Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of having a tripod handy and your lens aperture can only be opened so far.  If that’s the case, then increase your ISO setting because sometimes even a photo with a lot of noise is better than no photo at all.

Finally, consider that including an entire scene might not be the only way to convey the mood of your scene.  If you get in close, then those Christmas lights are a whole lot brighter to your sensor which will allow you to have a faster shutter speed.   (Warning – physics here.)  The inverse square law states that every time you double the distance between yourself (or camera) and your light source, it will only be one quarter the strength because the light will be covering four times the area.   Don’t believe me?  Well next time you have your flashlight out in a dark room, shine it against the wall.  The closer you are to the wall, the smaller the area that will be illuminated but that area will be much brighter than when you shine your light at it from farther back.

This is a macro photograph (extreme closeup) of Christmas lights.

This is a macro photograph (extreme closeup) of Christmas lights. If I had moved two feet back, my 1/15 second exposure would have had to have been about four times longer (roughly 1.2 seconds).

So there it is – four tips for night photography to help you capture that Christmas cheer.

Happy holidays!

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