How-to: Photographing the stars and star trails

https://youtu.be/w3X_R_6cslU

 Tips on capturing the stars and star trails.

  Sony a7RII w/ Rokinon 14mm 25 secSony a7RII w/ Rokinon 14mm - 34 MINUTE Exposure When taking star photos you can end up with star trails or no star trails. It all depends on your focal length and shutter speed and whether or not you follow the 500 rule. Over view for Star Trails (or stars as points of light if you follow the 500 rule explained below)You need a camera with bulb mode - all modern DSLRS and mirrorless cameras offer this - Bulb mode lets you shoot as long as you are holding down the shutter button. that could be 31 seconds to 3 hours!! Now you don’t actually want to hold your shutter down so you need an intervalometer or even better - the Triggertrap dongle and app - I have separate videos about this but it has a mode specifically for star trails and the default settings work so well, plus it does so much more  I highly recommended it. You also need a lens - the kit lens at 18mm with f/3.5 will work but if you can get a hold of something wider with a faster aperture it will be even easier with better quality results. The Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 is great. So is the Tokina 11-16 f/2.8. And you need a sturdy tripod. Depending on the time of year or location you could also use hand-warmers and a rubber band - if you have dew on the grass in the morning it would be a good idea to rubber band the hand warmer to the end of your lens - it helps prevent your lens from fogging up during the shoot.So gather your gear and head out to your selected spot. Setup and decide your composition - if you have picked a nice dark spot it’s probably really hard to see -SO I RECOMMEND YOU DO A LITTLE TRIAL AND ERROR... EYEBALL THE COMPOSITION AS BEST YOU CAN AND RAISE THE ISO TO SOMETHING RIDICULOUS 4000, 8000  THE GOAL HERE IS NOT TO CREATE A NICE IMAGE BUT TO SIMPLY GET AN IMAGE QUICKLY AND JUDGE YOUR COMPOSITION.You typically want some of earth in the shot, trees, water, buildings can all add a nice balance to a big starry sky. Set 8-10 seconds on the shutter, ISO very high 4000, 8000 and fire a shot. Use the resulting noisy image to adjust your composition and repeat. You also should be checking focus at this time - setting your lens on infinity. Not all lenses focus marks line up perfectly with true infinity so it may also take some trial and error.  This can be something to figure out during the day - use AF on a distant object and make note of where the focus mark lines up.  Or at night find a distant light, radio tower, something you can see to focus on - either carefully by magnifying live view or using autofocus if it is a large enough and bright enough target.So you have focus and the desired composition- Now we need to test our actual settings. Plug in your intervalometer or triggertrap - The default in triggertrap is 2 minute exposures with a 5 second break - You can get decent start trails from just 40 minutes of shooting these 2 minute exposures. Why not just leave the shutter open for 40 minutes? You get heat build up and additional noise, light pollution builds up too and if anything goes wrong during that 40 minute exposure the whole thing is ruined. If something goes wrong during one of your 2 minute exposures it is likely salvageable.So 2 minute exposures, I usually set aperture as wide as possible and star at ISO 800. One more tip - set your WB to tungsten for a nice blue look to the night sky and you should be shooting RAW. Try one exposure at these settings. Wait 2 minutes and review - The stars won’t be points of light but short streaks - you should still be able to zoom in and judge focus but you are really looking at exposure - adjust ISO accordingly and review again if needed, otherwise start the app - as I said 20 frames at 2 minutes each will give you decent results- longer will be better so get comfortable - a great time to watch for meteors or just listen to the sounds of night. Be careful if you are out there with a flashlight you want to avoid splashing that light around and haphazardly lighting the landscape. I use a headlamp with a little red mode that doesn’t ruin my night vision and isn’t bright enough to light up the landscape but you still want to make sure you don’t shine it into or across the lens.  You can do some fun light painting or purposefully lighting cool buildings or trees too. At the end of your sequence take one shot with the lens cap on for a dark image reference - helps the StarStax program deal with hotpixels.So you should now have 20 or more images- import those into Lightroom and let’s do a little post processing - I don’t have any hard or fast rules about editing - I usually just play around until I see something I like. Some tips - Cooling the WB more, boosting exposure, contrast and clarity- adding more clarity really helps the stars pop! Once I have an image the way I want I will sync all of the images in the sequence. I also take a moment to inspect the images for annoying plane trails or anything else that you might want to fix/clone out. now export all of these at 90 JOEG, full resolution. We could take these into Photoshop but there is a free program for mac and windows called StarStaX that works even better. It’s linked above and while free you should donate a few bucks if you find yourself using it more than once. We have exported the shots, open StarStaX and import the images, import the one dark frame and leave everything set as default except the blending mode - change that to Gap Filling. Have fun and be sure to share any shots you get on my Facebook Page or tag me on Instagram.

500 Rule for Star-trail-less Photos

The 500 rule states that your shutter speed needs to be faster than your focal length divided by 500.  Some places you see 600 used but safer is 500.  So if you are shooting at 50mm you take 500/50 and get 10 seconds.  BUT that only applies to folks shooting with full frame cameras, if you have a crop sensor camera like the Canon Rebel Series of the Nikon Dxxx series you need to multiple your crop factor times your focal length and then divide that by 500.   Nikon crop factor is 1.5 and Canon is 1.6.Here is a handy chart to use as a starting guide- Numbers are your maximum shutter length in seconds before you will start to see the dots of the stars turn into streaks.500 Rule Star Trail ChartColumns B through D give you the number of seconds before you will probably start seeing star trails. You can of course go shorter, longer and you will start to see star trailsFor a starry sky you often want to go as wide as possible. 18mm if using the kit lens but if you have access to anything wider- use it.  Starry skies look great with a wide angle lens like the 14mm Rokinon. You can go even wider if you want. See my Rokinon 14mm post for budget friendly suggestions of wide angle lenses.

A good starting point

8 second shutter

Aperture f/3.5 (wider if possible with your lens)

ISO 4000

The trick is focusing and composition.  It is often helpful to include some of the landscape in your composition but judging if you have a straight horizon and focus in pitch black is difficult. A solution is to take some test shots using a VERY high ISO and a shorter shutter speed - these will be very noisy images but you can, without waiting a full 10 seconds at a time, judge your composition and probably your focus.Focus Tip - If your lens has any type of distance indicator you want it set near infinity, that is not a guraguaranteet the stars will be in sharp focus but it is likely. Use the test shot suggestion to judge focus and make adjustments as needed.   If there is a silhouette or a building, anything in the distance you can use that to manually focus, radio towers with their little blinky red lights can also be helpful.  Anything further than a 1/2 mile away is going to give you a target that will set your camera on infinity focus and that should give you sharp stars.Keep warm and keep shooting.Recommended Gear-Sturdy Tripod: Dolica Proline Tripod |MeFoto Travel Tripod (Review of both Tripods)Intervalometer or TriggerTrap for using Bulb Mode or just firing your shutter without shaking the camera.Wide Angle Lens:  is one of the best and most affordable lenses for photographing stars. 

 Photographing Meteors

When photographing meteors you want to avoid any star trails, you want the little streaks left by the meteors to stand out so follow the chart.First task is to find a suitable location with a clear view of the source or radiant. In the case of the Perseids you want a dark sky to your north east, in the direction of the Perseids meteor shower.  I intent to use the the Google Sky App on Android | iOS options.   You really want to make sure the sky is dark, these longer exposures quickly pick up any light pollution and are going to blow out the bottom of your image.Picking a focal length and focusing - You want to go fairly wide here, under 50mm but not really wide as that will likely give you puny little streaks that take up a very small percentage of your image.    Focusing is tricking.  If you have a light tower or something contrasting against the sky, like a mountain, in the far distance you can use that. If you have a distance scale on your lens you can set it just shy of the infinity mark.   Neither of those work for you?  Raise your ISO to the highest possible and take a few shots, a very high ISO will allow you to take a shorter longer exposure so you aren't sitting around for 30 seconds wondering if you have focus.  Take a series of test photos until you are sure you have nailed focus.Camera settings - You have your shutter speed from the chart above, your aperture should be close to wide open and your ISO should be as low as possible.  You might be better off with even shorter exposures, longer exposures will dim any streaks you get. I hope to use my Triggertrap long exposure (star trail) feature to automatically take photo after photo, their star trail feature lets me specify a long exposure and the gap between images.  You can use a standard intervalometer too but that isn't quite as elegant. You could also use a remote and have the camera set for the desired shutter speed and least desirable you push the shutter button - if you use this method make sure you use the 2 second delay so that you pressing the button doesn't jiggle the camera creating blurry images.Your Camera must be sitting on a sturdy tripod.Sit back and enjoy the show.(this is one reason I am going to let Triggertrap do the work, I want to be looking at the sky, not the back of my camera all night. More about the PerseidsThe best budget lens for astrophotography.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TSrFKLzsrQShare your thoughts, tips and comments below.   

Lightroom: Guided Transform Tool - Easy fix

There are three ways to straighten horizons and fix leaning buildings in Lightroom.

  1. Use the crop tool to rotate the horizon
  2. Use the level tool to draw a guiding line along your horizon or vertical surface
  3. Use the Guided transform tool to fix both horizontal and vertical lines at the same time - corrects perspective control too.  Options 1 and 2 do not.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErDkU7IzWtU&feature=youtu.be A recent Lightroom update brought a new panel - The Transform Panel with the powerful Guided Transform feature. Learn the ins and out of using the Lightroom Crop tool and the Transform Panel to fix horizons and straighten leaning buildings BUY MY LIGHTROOM SERIES - Save 20% OFF (LIMITED TIME)Visit http://photorec.tv/lightroom/ 

Lighting 101 - Basic 3-point lighting setup

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4u_92uRsWc 

Lighting 101: 3-Point Lighting

  For this setup you will need:Key Light -  The Key Light defines the most visible lighting and shadows on the subject and acts as the primary source of illumination.  You can use just about any light source as your Key Light, whether it be the sun, a window, a lamp, or a video/photography light. For this video, we’ll be working entirely with constant lights for portrait lighting. Fill Light - The Fill Light softens and extends the illumination provided by the Key Light, making the subject more visible and softening the harsh contrast and dark shadows cast by the Key Light. Your Fill Light can simulate natural light from the sky, or secondary light sources such as a table lamp. A lamp or video light can be used, or one can use a reflector to do this as well.Rim Light - The Rim Light creates a bright line around the edge of the subject, to help visually separate the subject from the background and bring them further into the foreground of the photo. This too could be a carefully positioned reflector or another light source.Let’s get started:Step 1: You will want to set up or turn on a work light to establish your subject and frame. Bear in mind, this setup can be completed within 15 minutes but can take up to half an hour or longer depending how much adjusting you do, so you’ll want to make sure your subject is comfortable before you begin or use a stand in for practice until your talent arrives. Once you have your subject and frame established, you want to block off any natural light in the room that will add a glow or ambient light to the room.Step 2: Now we’ll set up our Key Light. You will want to position your Key Light 15-45 degrees to the right or left of your camera, to illuminate your subject. This will create a strong contrast between the light on the near side of your subject, and the dark shadows on the far side of your subject (away from your Key Light). You will want to elevate your Key Light a foot or two above the height of your subject, until you just begin to see a Rembrandt Lighting pattern (link to video/show short clip of the pattern). Your Key Light should be your brightest and strongest lighting source, and the additional lights will work to soften and shape the base light from the Key Source.Step 3: Next, we’ll add in the Fill Light. This is the point where you’ll begin to shape the light on your subject. The position of the Fill Light will be 15-45 degrees to the side of your camera, opposite the placement of your Key Light. So, if we placed the Key Light on the right side of the camera, our fill will come from the left side. Your Fill Light will be about half as bright as your Key Light, to soften the shadows cast by the Key source, without beginning to cast shadows of it’s own, which will often look unnatural and draw attention away from the subject.The Fill Light may be raised to the subject’s height, but should remain lower than the Key Light. Adjust the height of the Fill to see what appeals to you aesthetically. Alternatively, you can also bring in a reflector or bounce to act as your Fill Light, reflecting light from the Key Light back onto the subject to fill in the darker shadows.Step 4: Lastly, we’ll bring in our Rim Light. The Rim Light will be placed behind your subject, across from the camera, just off frame, and raised above the subject at level with the Key Light. Adjust the Rim Light to give you a bright outline, highlighting the top or side edge of your subject. The intensity of your Rim Light can be as bright as necessary to achieve the intensity of the highlight you want around the edge of your subject. The positioning of your Rim Light and the focus of light behind your subject is key, to ensure the light falls only on the subject and does not illuminate the background. You want to keep your background darker, so the Rim Light around the edge of your subject pulls the subject forward and away from the background.And that’s it. Three Point Lighting can be a great starting point for lighting just about any subject, person or otherwise. With this basic setup, you can adjust the height, positioning, intensity and source of lights to create your own look and feel for any lighting setup. For a darker, moody look, pull back the intensity of the fill to give the shadows a darker contrast. For a mysterious look, focus on backlighting your subject, and lower the intensity of your Key and Fill Lights. There are many options for you to customize the look and feel of each setup you want, but don’t feel like you have to have professional lights at your disposal to accomplish the looks you want. This setup can be implemented with basic table lamps, or even outdoors using the sun and a reflector.

What's in our bags? Travel to Greece & France Edition

We are headed to Greece with McKay Photography Academy. Here is our gear listPhotography Gear 

Paris/Greece Photo/Video Gear Packing List

Paris/Greece Packing List- We are stopping for a few days of fun in Paris too.Our main goal on this trip is to produce some videos for you- thus our gear list is video focused. Links go to gear on Amazon or B&H Photo. Using any of these links to buy anything is an easy and free way to support our work. Thanks!Carrying EverythingThink Tank Airport Backpack (smaller backpack style to ensure fits in smaller island hopping flights in Greece)Ona Bag Brixton (Christina is using a different bag so I get to look stylish with the Ona, Our Review)Christina has a Herschel Backpack with an ONA bag insert and an Ona CapriCameras

Lenses

Metabones Speedbooster EF to MFT http://bhpho.to/1LUcFfjCommlite EF to E Mount http://bit.ly/1i94y4QSpare SD Cards64GB, 32GB, 32GB(generally I leave cards in camera - download the footage/photos each night and continue to use the cards until full)

Christina’s List

Nebula 4000 -http://bit.ly/PRTV_nebula4000Power Cord for charging ^Hex Wrench for adjusting ^Mefoto Travel Tripod - http://bhpho.to/1XJ3Mvo (Not Pictured)Manfrotto Monopod - http://bhpho.to/1UFGuT1DiCAPac Smartphone case - http://bhpho.to/1ObLTl0LG G4 - http://bhpho.to/1hVAFnL (Not pictured - used to take the photo)RetiCam SmartPhone Tripod Holder -Rode Lav + - http://bhpho.to/1ETpAyiSure VP83F Shotgun micAccessoriesTranscend Military Drop Tested 1 TB USB 3.0 (2x, one for me, one for Christina)XRite Color CheckerRetiCAM® Smartphone Tripod Mount -http://bit.ly/1Fx321cCircular Polarizer filtersPeak Designs Capture ClipPeak Designs Slide Lite (Not Pictured)Bike MountXCom Modem - Stay connected as you travel http://www.xcomglobal.com/plansRocket Blower - http://bit.ly/1ivRc2kSensor Cleaning bits - (blog post)Power Converter 2x -Plug Adapters - I just read the reviews - yikes, hope they work.Monster Power strip

Tips & Ideas: Photographing Fire

MMM Lobster

Safety first, you're playing with fire so take a few precautions.
  • Plan ahead where things are going to go and do a dry run before it gets too dark.
  • Fire is bad, water is good, but water is also bad for a camera. Remember to have a bucket of water to put the fire but don’t fill it so full that it's going to spill everywhere if you accidently knock it over.
  • Wear cotton or wool will burn normally so you can take it off in a hurry if it does catch fire. Materials like polyester and nylon will melt onto you and then you're going in for a trip to the ER.
  • Remember your camera is plastic, don’t get it too close to the fire if possible. If you still want to be close shroud the camera in something that isn’t immediately going to burn up to protect it.
  • Watch where the fire and especially the embers are going. Keep track of your lighter and any gas so you don’t cause any accidents.
  • Finally if you live in California don’t play with fire, it’s the last thing you guys need at the moment.
Composition & ExposureIMG_5720

Just because it's a bit chaotic doesn’t mean fire cannot be composed correctly. Take the time to setup your shot and get the rule of thirds going or break the rules and go for another angle. Remember fire can be very versatile for shooting as a main element to a photo, a supporting character for the subject, a fiery background, or just a light source for another subject.Normally when you look at a subject the default for your camera is evaluative metering. In this case the whole area is used to determine what the exposure should be, which for fire is bad to a degree. Setting up for a center weighted average or spot metering allows for a more accurate method of finding the correct exposure settings, especially in modes such as P, and Av.Shooting fire on its own can be easy as it's a lightsource but shooting multiple elements in low light with fire can be hard as it's not emitting a lot of light. With fire your best option is to underexpose your shot and bring it back in post for the most detail. For those using the automated modes your best bet would be to drop exposure compensation around to -2 or lower, for manual it's a bit trickier. Like always for a low light shot using a tripod would be recommended and a remote also helps remove camera shake.Depending on the amount light the fire is putting out its going to be a low ISO of 100-400 with an aperture of F/8 or so to get plenty of detail, the big issue is speed. As its a lightsource if you are only shooting fire you can go with a faster aperture at the cost of ISO and lock the fire in place. If you're shooting people with fire it depends on the amount of light. If it's daytime you can stick with the above rule but if its night you're going to have to raise the ISO and sacrifice speed. Remember to check your image preview for the “blinkies” aka clipping warnings (for canon hit info while reviewing an image) as your underexposing you don’t want to accidentally lose part of the photo that you need to bring back later.The goal would be to have a fast shutter speed to freeze the fire, but it's not a perfect world, and if you're trying to get enough light for a portrait that's just not going to happen. In low light there isn’t one correct answer to fix your problem but rather three major options. Since the fire wouldn’t be the main subject in a portrait you exposure to get the person with the glow of the fire rather than the fire itself as it would be overexposed. Alternatively get the best of both by using Photoshop to combine multiple exposures (camera bracketing certainly helps). If worst comes to worst and your problem is low light you can always add more and fight the fire with a flash.If you try to shoot with a flash you need to add to the light, not beat it, so its hard to pull off correctly. You need to set a low flash exposure compensation of -2 to -3 which dims it down enough that you're not losing the fire. In the case of a portrait or another subject separate from the fire snooting your flash helps keep it away from the flames as it makes it go from a shotgun effect to a focused beam. While they do sell snoots for speedlights online in a pinch there are plenty of DIY approaches that work. As your flash is set for a daytime white balance you will have an issue with color, a orange gel would be best otherwise you will have to fix it in post.Expoimaging Rogue Gels Universal Lighting Filter Kit is Available From B&H and Amazon

Ideas

Try to Think Outside the BoxIMG_4971Lots of things use fire or create fire so try to think of things beyond your standard campfire such as:

  • Hot air balloons
  • Fire starters, starting a fire
  • Firefighting or a wildfire
  • Matches being lit, lighters
  • Tobacco: cigar, cigarette, or a pipe
  • Volcano or magma
  • Making glass or steel

Elementsfire-ice-06While fire is versatile it's also complicated, remember that you’ve got multiple elements of a fire to use and that it's a also an element by itself. Try shooting embers coming off the fire, smoke being lit up by the fire, show heat through the air refracting light, or even shoot through the fire to get the wavy texture. As an element itself try pairing it up with an opposite such as fire and water or another similar element such as fire and steel.For fire and ice shots real ice works but Acrylic ice still looks the same to the camera. With fake ice it can take a bit more abuse and won’t melt screwing up an entire image. As acrylic ice gets quite expensive for professional grade, http://www.trengovestudios.com/acrylicice.htm, you can try to buy something cheap I.E. http://www.amzn.com/B00VZSA5N8/?tag=ptrv_roy-20. Good acrylic ice is hand made while the cheaper variety is mold made, they will have a few bubbles and seams that you will have to edit in post.For something different try adding fire to a water and ice photo for a new look on a overused trick. http://www.diyphotography.net/how-to-photograph-the-perfect-fire-and-ice-cocktail/LightpaintingPhoto by Von Wong, taken with a smartphone if you can believe itAs they put out a lot of light you can draw with fire and sparklers. With Toby’s article below you can try this yourself. You can try drawing words with a sparkler, making lines in the sky of fire, to even complicated effects such as wings of fire from Von Wong.http://photorec.tv/2013/06/how-to-sparkler-photos-long-exposure-light-painting/Abstract FireWant to try a fire and black background shot? If you want a lot of fire in a small spot for abstract fire photos use a ping pong ball. An actual ping pong ball, not the cheap plastic ones,  are made out of nitrocellulose which combined with the large air ratio burn strong for a photo. You won’t have time for a lot of photos with one but being relatively cheap you can go through a few to get the photo you want. With a ISO 100, mid range to high aperture, and high shutter speed as long as it's somewhat dark out your background will become solid black.Colorcolor-Edit Fire is not just one color so you have the opportunity to think out of the box. While the standard flame is nice you can get blue through a torch or alcohol for example. Using chemicals or photoshop you can extend that to many more colors. Not to mention the multiple colors and patterns of a firework you have to work with creatively.You can use household chemicals to make a rainbow of fire or go for just a ethereal green flame. As a bit of a warning some of these can be a bit toxic, others a bit smelly, do it outdoors so you have proper ventilation. Soaking wood in the chemical or adding a bit beforehand to the fuel provides the longest amount of flame but it does take a bit longer to get everything ready. For photos where you just need a small fire using methanol in a small dish provides the best color, commonly found in Heet antifreeze for cars.How to Make Colored FireColored Fire - Where to Find Metal Salts for ColorantsIf you just want something quick and easy they sell rainbow color packets to throw in a campfire (small fire not bomb-fire). They burn up fast but make for a short show you can shoot with a bit of color. They are quite cheap on amazon for a 12 pack so it’s worth a shot if you're interested. http://www.amzn.com/B008LM32QS/?tag=ptrv_roy-20.Another method you can use for constant color is tiki fuel. You can it find at your local Walmart in green, red, and blue.http://www.tikibrand.com/Torch-Fuel-Lamp-OilLike always you have the option of cheating to get your desired result as well. In lightroom reduce the saturation of the photos then use split toning to change the flame to the color you want. Since there is only the fire and black in this case it's a bit easier. Choose a color in Hue for highlights and adjust the saturation to get the desired color.If you have more items and a background it gets a bit trickier. Since you cannot effect the image on a global scale you have to use local adjustments to a similar effect. Set desaturation and a color effect then paint over only the fire. It’s a bit heavy handed of an approach as it requires you to be quite exact in painting and effects everything painted. Painting gets a bit challenging to near impossible if there is background color showing through the flame. Photoshop would do better but if you don’t have photoshop this way will work in a pinch.In Photoshop the process is somewhat the same, just use a hue/saturation layer to accomplish the same effect. Create a hue adjustment layer in place of split toning (layers > new adjustment layer > hue/saturation). Where it's set for the master channel select yellow and drag the hue to the color you want then repeat for red. If you need to only affect part of the image select the layer mask for the adjustment layer (white box on layer panel next to the hue layer name). First turn the effect off by inverting the layer mask with the invert tool image > adjustments > invert. At this point with a white brush you can paint the effect back on where it's needed.ScienceThe PyroboardGet your inner science geek on with a bit of fire!

  • A Fire Tornado
  • Reigniting Smoke
    • Most people don’t realize it but smoke is flammable, with good timing you can actually catch it burning. Get a candle going and blow it out, when the smoke rises light it again with a match and it will relight. With the camera on burst mode you can actually shoot the flame running down the smoke.
  • Ruben’s Tube, Sound + Fire!
    • Not a DIY but ask around, you might find someone in your area with a Ruben’s Tube. If you remember from any science demos this is a pipe using fire to visualize sound. The Pyroboard photo is actually a 3d representation of this demo.
  • Fire in a Bottle
    • Get a glass bottle and add a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol. Shake vigorously. Timing is a bit tricky but if you start a burst of photos while your lighting the vapor you can photograph a explosion.

FireworksIMG_9829With July 4th coming up it’s time again for some fireworks photos. Definitely one of the more colorful things you can shoot it makes for a nice shot and an easy one at that using the the DPR articles below.

  • Fireworks: http://photorec.tv/2011/06/fireworks-how-to/
  • Macro Sparks: http://photorec.tv/2015/06/macro-sparks/
  • Sparks with Steel Wool: http://photorec.tv/2014/02/steel-wool-photography-quick-how-to/
  • Remember the black snake fireworks you used as a kid that grew when you lit them? Well now you can try the same thing, in mass, and its actually pretty cheap overall. Make yourself a army of growing snakes by following the recipe below.
    • 4 parts sugar + 1 part baking soda, add rubbing alcohol or lighter fluid and light. Ammonium Nitrate instead of sugar has a stronger effect but is more expensive.
  • Paper Lanterns & Other Special Eventslantern-fest
    • Check your area to see if they have any special firework events. Using my state of Michigan for example Grand Rapids has a Lantern Fest each year in October.

 

Backgroundsfire-wall-10Wall of Sparks via Steel WoolUnlike spinning steel wool you can get sparks oriented with your subject which makes for a nice background for a portrait.  This one requires a bit of elevation to get the effect which gets a bit tricky as you're going to end up with someone on a ladder or up in a tree with an extension cord. It makes for a nice effect as unlike the spinning sparks this creates a shower background. You can even add to the show by integrating the background, for example having a couple hold an umbrella that's getting hit by a few sparks that are falling.Take chimney starter (or a pipe with a catch on the end) and add a layer of steel wool, use a 9v battery or lighter to get it started. Now use a hair dryer or even better a heat gun to blow air through the pipe and unlike spinning it this way you can get a wall of sparks oriented straight with your subject. By doing this behind your subject you can use gravity to feed the sparks down while walking left or right to make a complete wall.Wall of FireFor a bit more of a dramatic background that adds contrast to a photo you can try making a firewall. Essentially its the same process as lightpainting but done on a much larger scale. Like the wall of sparks above it does require a bit of help but makes for a great shot overall.http://www.diyphotography.net/how-to-create-a-wall-of-fire/CookingcookingFire and cooking just go together, and it’s an excuse to pull the grill out this weekend. For you foodies it's a nice way to stand out for fire photos and makes for a nice photo overall. As a bonus you get some nice food so its a win-win.

  • Grilling
  • Cooking with alcohol
  • Over a campfire
  • Cooking with a wok
  • Cooking for show, such as the Benihana Onion Volcano
  • Birthday cake

Melinda FireLeave It to the ProsLastly be safe, no unnecessary risks for a photo, if you think it might be dangerous it's best to avoid it. One of the local photographers in town here has a scar on his hand from trying to hold two steel balls while they were on fire. That said if you know someone trained to do it, or have an event in town, take a few shots just be safe doing it.

  • Fire dancing, breathing, eating, swords, poi, etc
  • Holding fire
  • Being on fire
  • Big explosions
  • Flaming aerosol
  • Flash paper
  • Fire arrows

Don’t forget to enter this weeks fire Instagram challenge ‪#‎PRTV_Fire

Squarespace Tips: Easy Blogging & Custom Video Thubmnails

As photographers with fairly static galleries we need a way to add content that provides an incentive for viewers to return to your site- Squarespace's easy blogging tools give you just that AND I show you how to use an animated GIF as a cover image for videos - What better way to grab attention.  Would you like to see how I converted a video into a GIF? Hit thumbs up and I will publish a how-to soonTryout Squarespace for two weeks, no credit card needed: http://squarespace.com/toby

Build a Photography Portfolio w/ Squarespace

There are many reasons you should have your own portfolio site - in this video I outline the reasons and show you just how easy it is to have your own piece of the web. Build a complete portfolio site from scratch in just 15 minutes!SQUARESPACE - Save 10% off your purchase and get a 14 free trial - SQUARESPACE7 the all new all in one hosting and building platform. Use coupon code: TOBY at http://squarespace.com/toby

6 Reasons You Should Own a Prime Lens

Yes the video is just 5 reasons but in this post you get a bonus 6th reason you should own a prime lens. Watch, read and let me know your thoughts on prime lenses in the comments below.

What is a prime lens?

A prime lens has a fixed focal length; it doesn’t zoom. Why would you want a lens that doesn't zoom? 5 Reasons below!

What are the advantages of prime lenses?

  1. Prime lenses often offer very wide maximum apertures, ideal for isolating your subjects from the background and capturing beautiful bokeh(background out of focus).

Screenshot 2014-07-06 12.18.09

  1. Those wide apertures also allow you to maximizing the light entering your camera. Keep your aperture wide and you can then keep your shutter speed higher or your ISO lower. This makes prime lenses a good choice for low light photography.

Screenshot 2014-06-30 14.56.12

  1. Because of their smaller and simpler construction, prime lenses have fewer moving parts which means less distortion and better quality images than your typical zoom lenses.
  1. Reasons 1 through 3 means you get a better value for your money as primes are often hundreds of dollars cheaper than zoom lenses.
  1. They are often smaller and lighter compared to typical zoom lenses - making primes a great choice when you want to travel light.

Screenshot 2014-07-06 12.28.47BONUS REASON

  1. Forcing yourself to use a prime encourages you to move to achieve the frame you want, as opposed to the lazy zoom in out and approach and moving and thinking critically about your framing is a good habit to build as a photographer.

Let me know in the comments your favorite prime lens and your favorite reason(s) for attaching a prime lens to your camera.I have recommended prime lenses for Canon and Nikon and 5 tips for sharper images

Photo Assignment #3 - Show Motion & How-to Panning

We are nearing the end of photo assignment #3 (this was announced a few podcasts ago)- Your task is to show motion, but no flowing water. Assignment #3 is due by 12pm EDT 6/30/14 - paste a link to your flickr/500px as a comment or watch for the call on Facebook. We recently had a brainstorming session on Facebook with some of the options including panning with cars (or planes) in the example below, people walking, kids running and oh so much more - be creative, think outside the box :) Screenshot 2014-06-25 11.29.22 Panning is one way to show motion and I thought I would give you some quick tips.Panning is the act of moving your camera with a subject - see example above.  The trick is to find the right shutter speed that blurs the background but still lets you get your subject in sharp focus. It will take practice and your keeper rate when shooting panning shots is going to go down.

  1. Set your camera on the fastest burst rate you have available.  The more shots you take in a panning series the more likely you will get one that works.
  2. Set your shutter speed (see table below) and determine your exposure. Avoid situations where your exposure is going to change greatly over the pan- if it is consider using Auto ISO.
  3. Pre focus on the spot your subject will be passing through, you can wait and focus on slower moving subjects but anything moving faster than a brisk walk is going to give you fewer chances for focus AND a good series of shots.
  4. Determine the point of your subject you will track and use one of your focus points as a guide to keep your camera aimed at the same location. Eyes are great point for tracking, or a wheel - keep your target small!
  5. Start(anticipate and start moving before your subject enters the frame) and end your pan in one smooth motion while shooting a burst of images. - This smooth motion increases your chances of getting a sharp shot.  As you move try to minimize your movement, just twist on your hips keeping everything else steady.
  6. Don't trust your LCD- Your subject can look in focus on that small screen- zoom all the way in and check at your point of focus.

 Screenshot 2014-06-25 11.41.42 Got more tips for panning shots? Leave them in the comments below.  This isn't the ONLY way to show motion - just one that I shared a few tips on.

How Focal Length Affects Perspective

Picking the right focal length when photographing a landscape or a person is extremely important. Watch the video above for some examples and suggestions or just remember - if you are photographing a person you usually want to be about 80-85mm(crop sensor camera users, that is closer to 50mm on your cameras)- that will create the most flattering look of a persons features.Outside Focal Length and your BackgroundPeople or Portrait photos and the Focal Length you choose matters!

70D Center Focus Point Issue

It appears that some models of the 70D has issues with accurate focus when using the center focus point through the viewfinder with lenses wider than f/2.8.  The images below illustrate the problem on my 70D.   To be fair I had to go looking for this issue and in the 6 months that I have used the camera I hadn't noticed an issue.  It is unclear how widespread the issue is. Many German users are unhappy while here in the United States I haven't heard a peep from a single user.  Is it because so few of us have used fast lenses and carefully pixel peeped?  Or?  At this time I don't want to speculate more. I have contacted Canon and am waiting for a response.  Please don't assume if you have taken a blurry photo that your 70D also has the issue.  Watch the video and follow the directions below for testing your own 70D.tl;dr 70D doesn't focus properly using the center focus point with lenses faster the f/2.8.  Use the LCD to focus and take photos at those wider apertures. Full Image 50mm f/1.2- Rollover to view image taken with LCD. See the difference? Slight change in sharpness.[himage]EF50mm f/1.2L USM ViewfinderEF50mm f/1.2L USM LCD[/himage]


100% crop of above image 50mm f/1.2- Rollover to view image taken with LCD. See the difference? Slight change in sharpness. Point of focus is chip on far beam.[himage]EF50mm f/1.2L USM VF at 100%EF50mm f/1.2L USM LCD at 100%[/himage]
Now with the 85 f/1.2 lens. Shooting at f/1.2 and a distance of 15' - Your depth of field at this aperture and focal length is 5.04 inches (very shallow)[himage]EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM VFEF 85mm f/1.2L II USM LCD[/himage]
100% crop of image above. Brace yourself for this difference[himage]EF85mm f/1.2L II USM VF 100%EF85mm f/1.2L II USM LCD 100%[/himage]
35mm f/1.4 at 100% crop - The difference isn't huge but it is noticeable.[himage]35mm f/1.4 LCD 100%35mm f/1.4 VF 100%[/himage] More Samples can be downloaded from this Dropbox folder - All are labeled and should be self explanatory. There is a folder of the smaller 100% crops or just zoom to 100% of the images in the main folder.I was careful to eliminate ALL other variable.  I used a sturdy tripod, set a fast shutter speed at least 2x the focal length and used 2-second delay with mirror lockup to avoid any blur from movement of any kind.  For each image you see I took at least three others under the exact same settings and picked the sharpest of the four.  So  the sharpest viewfinder image vs the sharpest LCD image.  There rarely was little difference between the shots.What about Autofocus Micro Adjustment(AFMA)?  I tried it and could occasionally get a matched focus at one distance (meaning the sharpness of images taken using the viewfinder to focus was the same as the image taken using the LCD to focus) but at other distances it would still be noticeably different and AFMA should generally correct across the range.  I do plan on testing more.At shorter distances with some lenses no issues were seen and only presented themselves at 30'(roughly 10 meters). I also tested the 50mm f/1.4 and the 85 f/1.4 and saw equally disappointing results.Test your 70D
  1. Put a lens that shoots at f/2.8 or wider (preferably wider) on your 70D
  2. Put your 70D on a sturdy tripod and carefully aim it at a target about 30'(roughly 10 meters) away
  3. Turn mirror lock up on (how to turn mirror lock up on)
  4. Turn on 2-second delay
  5. Switch to Manual mode - set aperture to the widest possible for the lens. Set shutter speed to be 2x focal length and ISO high enough to center exposure(hopefully this isn't above ISO 2000 - if it is you should consider testing in an area with more light)
  6. Switch to your center focus point
  7. Focus through the viewfinder
  8. Take a photo and repeat several times - Use autofocus each time
  9. Switch to Live view  and choose FlexiZone single - the white rectangle should be on the same mark as the center point was when looking through the viewfinder - if you need to move it slightly you can.
  10. Take several photos
  11. Review these images on the LCD at full magnification- push the zoom button until the image doesn't increase any more.  Switch between the images taken with live view and through the viewfinder.  you WILL see a difference in sharpness - with the live view images being sharper. This is guaranteed and known.  By how much and whether you can correct it using AMFA is key.  The Digital Picture has a great set of AFMA tips.
  12. It may also be useful to review the images in Lightroom

Findings?  Leave them below- Let me know what lens you used. Questions? Concerns?Leave a comment. Please do not assume that if you have taken one blurry photo your 70D is broken.  You MUST make sure you have eliminated all variables except the method of focusing used.  

Steel Wool Photography - Quick How-to

Steel Wool PhotographyHad an opportunity to try some Steel Wool Photography last night and thought I would share my experience-You will need -

  • Steel Wool - Grade 0, 00, 000, or 0000. Don't buy grade 1 or higher.
  • Wire Whisk to hold the wool
  • Chain or dog leash to clip to the wire whisk for spinning- this should be 3'-4' long
  • Lighter or 9 volt battery to light the wool
  • Tripod or someway to hold your camera steady for 20-30 seconds.
  • Flash light or light source(lighter can work) for focus assist with the camera
  • Junky clothes including a hoody or a hat to protect your hair and eye protection
  • Space to spin that isn't going to catch on fire.*

*You will potentially be throwing sparks 15-20' possibly more depending on the wind and these are sparks or bits of wool that continue to burn. DO NOT experiment with this anywhere that potentially could catch fire and have someone with you keeping an eye out for for issues.  And when done do a walk through picking up any mess and making sure nothing is still burning or smoldering.Directions -

  1. Stuff the steel wool inside the whisk and rearrange the whisk so it is spaced evenly, closing any big gaps created when you stuffed the wool inside.  You can keep the wool packed or unravel and re-pack loosely.  The more tightly packed the slower and more consistent the burn.
  2. Attach the chain, dog leash to the end of the whisk and experiment with spinning the contraption.
  3. Using a flashlight, compose and get focus on the subject that will be spinning.
  4. Set camera on manual mode - suggested starting settings around 20-30 seconds, f8-f/10 and ISO 200-400 - not a bad idea to set the camera on 2-second delay to avoid any extra jiggling or use a remote to trigger the camera.
  5. Light the wool(you don't need the wool to be on fire - small embers are enough, once you start spinning it will catch fire) and start spinning.
  6. Review images and try again.
Results -
Alternative Ideas - Not interested in spinning burning steel around your head?  Use a glow stick, flashlight, electrowire- You won't get the sparks but can still create some very cool images using the same basic camera settings and setup.  Watch my Electrowire light painting videoFuture Plans - I'd love to try some more - locations with reflections, locations like tunnels where the flying sparks hit walls and define the space, spinning as I spin to create more of an orb look and one more than I am not ready to share yet.   Have you done any steel wool photos? Share them in my Flickr Group or on my Facebook Page.Questions? Comments? Suggestions for future video topics? Leave them below.     

Tips for Sharper Images

I published a video with five tips for getting sharper images with your DSLR. The comments and tips left by the DPR community where excellent and I used those in a second video - both videos are embedded below - sometimes though a quick text list is preferred over a video- here are all of the tips.

Tips for Sharper Images:

Sweet Spot

Don’t shoot wide open(wide open refers to your aperture). Stop down which means close your aperture down from its maximum. Sharpest photos for many lenses are going to occur between f/5.6 and f/9 and this is referred to as the sweet spot.  This sweet spot varies from lens to lens but f/8 is usually a safe bet for the sharpest images with any lens.    Please don't take this tip as a suggestion to only shoot with your prime lens, that might open up to f/1.8 or wider, at only f/8 - use that when you have enough light and you don't care about depth of field. Use your judgement when shooting and find a compromise  - Don't always shoot at f/8 and don't always shoot wide open.

Fast Enough Shutter Speed -

Keep your shutter speed faster than your focal length and keep your shutter speed fast enough to freeze moving subjects. This is a tip that I have talked about before but again and again I hear from readers with blurry images simply because their shutter speed was slower than their focal length.  If you have an image stabilized lens you can cheat a little and go slower but you will need to practice, test and review your shots to see how slow a shutter speed you can reliably hand-hold.  And remember that image stabilization doesn't help with moving subjects.  See the chart below for some suggestions on shutter speeds for moving subjects. These are just starting points and the higher shutter speeds should be used when the subject is moving across the frame as opposed to toward and away from you.

Subject Suggested Shutter Speed
Walking 1/60 - 1/125th
Dancing 1/160 (Slow Dancing)- 1/250th (Crazy Dancing)
Running 1/200th - 1/250th
Soccer /Football 1/250th - 1/500th
Horses, Dogs Running 1/320th - 1/1000th
Car Racings 1/1000th - 1/2000th

Center Focus PointUse your center focus point so you know exactly what you are focusing on. When you let the camera use all the focus points it may poorly determine where it should focus and you will end up with your subject blurry simply because the subject is not in focus.  Switch to and use your center focus point so that YOU know where you are focusing.  How to switch your focus point? Bonus - the center focus point is often more accurate than the surrounding points.   Be careful about recomposing after focus if shooting at wider apertures.

NO IS/VR/OS/VC

If you are using a tripod make sure Image Stabilization is off.  Some IS systems can be fooled when on a tripod and actually compensate for movement that isn't there creating soft images.  Mostly seen at slower shutter speeds.  IS = Image Satbilzation, VR = Vibration Reduction, OS = Optical Stabilization, VC = Vibration Compensation.  See my full glossary of lens terms/acronyms.

Keep your ISO low

The higher the ISO of your images the noisier or more grainy they are going to look and this will decrease the perceived sharpness of the image.  This is one of the reasons I am not a fan of Auto ISO- it can be quick to go higher than you need causing very noisy images.  If you must choose between slow shutter speed and higher ISO go ahead and increase your ISO.  Noise can often be reduced in post process and motion blur can't (although photoshop is working on it)

Additional Tips for better/sharper images submitted by viewers/readers

Make sure your lens(es) are clean.  A quick swipe with a soft lens cloth should do the trick.If your subject has eyes - human or otherwise - those should be what you focus on. This becomes especially important when working at a shallow depth of field(wide apertures).Be careful not to move the camera when you push the shutter button - big movements change composition and smaller movements shake the camera.  Use the two second timer if no tripod is available and hold camera as steady as possible. I used that technique to take this photo or a waterfall without a tripod. Using the 2-second timer allowed me to concentrate and hold the camera as steady as possible with no change when the camera snapped the photo.Use the camera's high speed drive mode - Fire off a series of shots and one is likely to be sharper than the others.  Use this when your subject is moving or you are working at dangerously slow shutter speeds(and have no other options)And keep in mind the the sharpest lens is a good tripod and a good tripod head.  Having a good tripod that can hold the camera rock steady will allow you to shoot at slower shutter speeds so you can keep your ISO down and your aperture up for sharp images.

Family & Group Photo Tips

I thought I would take a few moments and offer some advice and tips for getting a nice group photo. I mostly had Thanksgiving and the Winter Holidays in mind as I wrote these but  apply to group photos anytime. Have some tips of your own? I'd love to hear, leave a comment below.Take the photo soon after everyone has arrived. Don't wait - people will drink, slop food on their faces and generally get more disheveled looking as the afternoon/evening goes on. Maybe this is just my family but timing leads into the next tip...If you all are gathering earlier in the day you should have good light - warm enough to be outside? Light will be the best out there. Gather everyone just inside shade -under a porch, near a pine tree - just make sure the shade is even - you don't want sun spots on people's faces and you don't want people facing into the sun. Chilly outside? Gather inside near a window - basically your popup flash should be last resort so any natural light you can find will be helpful. Not sure if the spot you picked will work well? Practice on a guinea pig...Copyright Tobias GelstonInstead of practicing on the whole group and struggling or feeling pressured, grab a guinea pig for a few moments of practice before you call everyone over. Younger kids that are old enough to stay still for a few are often willing - have them model for you while you get your settings right and after you take a couple of photos spend a moment pixel peeping, use the zoom button to enlarge the reviewed photos and make sure subject is in focus and light is good...I like manual mode where you are in complete charge of the camera. Set the shutter speed around 1/200 of a second - fast enough to make sure everyone is frozen. Now determine your aperture - one small row of people in front of you? You can safely shoot fairly wide(if your lens allows) but if you are nervous f/4 is a safe bet. Big enough group that you are dealing with more than one row of people? f/5.6 is better. Once you decide you aperture you should look at your exposure meter and adjust your ISO to center the meter or expose just to the right of center...Everything all set? bring in the whole group and get them to squeeze together. There is something about photos that emphasizes distance between subjects so what might seem like a friendly gap between two looks like a family feud / canyon in the photo so really get them squeezing and that often encourages some friendly laughter too.Do you need to be part of the group? Self timer is one option and many models will allow several photos to be fired off at the end of the countdown - this gives you options, the general rule of thumb is at least one photo per person in the group. The more you take the more likely you are to have one where everyone's eyes are open and no one is making that weird face. Have a camera with WiFi built in? Use it as the remote but again make sure everything is setup before you slip into the group photo.Got younger kids in the group - I trick them into looking at the camera by asking them if they see the bird in the lens- seems mean as I write it but always seems to help in getting their attention directed toward the camera. Bribes work too and are totally fare game - whatever it takes to get the photo :)Bonus Tips/Suggestions:- Make sure you turn IS (Image Stabilizer) off if the camera will be on a tripod- Get Candids too - don't just do the group photo and don't let everyone pose all night- Snap some photos of the food too

Photographing the Stars - Quick Guide

Quick tips on capturing the stars and possibly a meteor or two if you are shooting during a meteor storm or have access to a very clear sky. During the peak of meteor storms you can see 80-100 meteors an hour for those with clear/dark skies. Normally that number is closer to 12 an hour, again skies need to be dark! Sony a7RII w/ Rokinon 14mm 25 secSony a7RII w/ Rokinon 14mm - 34 MINUTE Exposure When taking star photos you can end up with star trails or no star trails. It all depends on your focal length and shutter speed and whether or not you follow the 500 rule.

500 Rule for Star-trail-less Photos

The 500 rule states that your shutter speed needs to be faster than your focal length divided by 500.  Some places you see 600 used but safer is 500.  So if you are shooting at 50mm you take 500/50 and get 10 seconds.  BUT that only applies to folks shooting with full frame cameras, if you have a crop sensor camera like the Canon Rebel Series of the Nikon Dxxx series you need to multiple your crop factor times your focal length and then divide that by 500.   Nikon crop factor is 1.5 and Canon is 1.6.Here is a handy chart to use as a starting guide- Numbers are your maximum shutter length in seconds before you will start to see the dots of the stars turn into streaks.500 Rule Star Trail ChartColumns B through D give you the number of seconds before you will probably start seeing star trails. You can of course go shorter, longer and you will start to see star trailsFor a starry sky you often want to go as wide as possible. 18mm if using the kit lens but if you have access to anything wider- use it.  Wider lenses allow you to gather more light and often offer a wider maximum aperture.

A good starting point10 second shutterAperture f/3.5 (wider if possible with your lens)ISO 3200

The trick is focusing and composition.  It is often helpful to include some of the landscape in your composition but judging if you have a straight horizon and focus in pitch black is difficult. A solution is to take some test shots using a VERY high ISO and a shorter shutter speed - these will be very noisy images but you can, without waiting a full 10 seconds at a time, judge your composition and probably your focus.

Focus Tip - If your lens has any type of distance indicator you want it set near infinity, that is not a guraguaranteet the stars will be in sharp focus but it is likely. Use the test shot suggestion to judge focus and make adjustments as needed.   If there is a silhouette or a building, anything in the distance you can use that to manually focus, radio towers with their little blinky red lights can also be helpful.  Anything further than a 1/2 mile away is going to give you a target that will set your camera on infinity focus and that should give you sharp stars.

Keep warm and keep shooting.Recommended Gear-Sturdy Tripod: Dolica Proline Tripod |MeFoto Travel Tripod (Review of both Tripods)Intervalometer or TriggerTrap for using Bulb Mode or just firing your shutter without shaking the camera.Wide Angle Lens: Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 is one of the best and most affordable lenses for photographing stars. 

 Photographing Meteors

When photographing meteors you want to avoid any star trails, you want the little streaks left by the meteors to stand out so follow the chart.First task is to find a suitable location with a clear view of the source or radiant. In the case of the Perseids you want a dark sky to your north east, in the direction of the Perseids meteor shower.  I intent to use the the Google Sky App on Android | iOS options.   You really want to make sure the sky is dark, these longer exposures quickly pick up any light pollution and are going to blow out the bottom of your image.Picking a focal length and focusing - You want to go fairly wide here, under 50mm but not really wide as that will likely give you puny little streaks that take up a very small percentage of your image.    Focusing is tricking.  If you have a light tower or something contrasting against the sky, like a mountain, in the far distance you can use that. If you have a distance scale on your lens you can set it just shy of the infinity mark.   Neither of those work for you?  Raise your ISO to the highest possible and take a few shots, a very high ISO will allow you to take a shorter longer exposure so you aren't sitting around for 30 seconds wondering if you have focus.  Take a series of test photos until you are sure you have nailed focus.Camera settings - You have your shutter speed from the chart above, your aperture should be close to wide open and your ISO should be as low as possible.  You might be better off with even shorter exposures, longer exposures will dim any streaks you get. I hope to use my Triggertrap long exposure (star trail) feature to automatically take photo after photo, their star trail feature lets me specify a long exposure and the gap between images.  You can use a standard intervalometer too but that isn't quite as elegant. You could also use a remote and have the camera set for the desired shutter speed and least desirable you push the shutter button - if you use this method make sure you use the 2 second delay so that you pressing the button doesn't jiggle the camera creating blurry images.Your Camera must be sitting on a sturdy tripod.Sit back and enjoy the show.(this is one reason I am going to let Triggertrap do the work, I want to be looking at the sky, not the back of my camera all night. More about the PerseidsThe best budget lens for astrophotography.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TSrFKLzsrQShare your thoughts, tips and comments below.   

HOW-TO: Sparkler Photos - Long Exposure Light Painting

For many summer means fireworks and sparklers - here are my quick tips(with video) on capturing cool photos using sparklers or really any small light source.

You need:

  • Camera with control over manual settings

  • Tripod

  • Flashlight or cell phone (for low light focusing help) OR Hotshoe LED light

  • Pile of sparklers or a glow stick or small flash light - any light source really

  • Remote shutter release - Not mandatory but helpful (Recommended cheap one)

First task is to do this all safely.  Don't hurt anyone in an effort to get a photo and make sure you are complying with all fireworks and sparkler laws in your area - beautiful photos can be made with glow sticks, flash lights and other non-dangerous light sources.

Your shutter speeds are going to range from 2 seconds on up to Bulb mode so the use of a tripod is a must.  

Setup your camera - manual mode (M), a good starting point is a 5 second shutter speed, ISO 200 and an aperture around f/4.5.

Have your subject stand still and hold up a small light source so you can focus on them, either auto focus or manual, zoom in. After you get focus switch to manual so that the camera isn't struggling to get focus in the dark.  You can also use back button focus to avoid this issue. They can now put away the little flash light

Once you have focus have them light the sparkler and start moving it around.  Use the remote release to trigger the shutter or gently press the shutter button on the camera (you really need to be careful not to wiggle the camera when you press the button, alternatively you can use the self-timer: 2-sec delay but that does require a bit more coordination with your subject.

A third option is to use the remote shutter release and BULB mode in your camera.  In the T4i/T5i bulb mode is activated by setting the camera to M and increasing the shutter speed past 30 seconds. This doesn't mean the shutter has to be longer than 30 seconds for your exposures, it will just stay open as long as you hold the shutter release button down.  This is great if someone is trying to write their name with a sparkler, you hold it down just as long  as it takes the subject, when you release the button the shutter closes. With sparklers I notice that the slower you move them the more sparky trails you get - fast moving sparklers leave a more smooth line of light.   You are limited by your imagination!

Video: Sparkler Photos - Long Exposure Light Painting

Related Video - How To Photograph Fireworks

How to Capture Lightning

The first rule of lightning photography is to be safe.   Do NOT put yourself in any danger to get a photo, ever. 

The story behind the photo.   With spring comes thunderstorms and I had been paying attention to the weather reports and thinking about possible vantage points.  I was looking for some place with enough elevation to get a good view without being at the top of a mountain myself.  I also wanted a view that was going to be fairly clear or artificial light, with longer shutter speeds those lights can really ruin a scene.  Though there are plenty of shots with cityscapes and lightning, but the area I am in doesn't really offer that.     I used my knowledge of the area and Google Earth to scout potential vantage points settling on a location that gave me a good view of the Connecticut river valley.

I brought my 5D Mark III, tripod and Triggertrap app on an iPad.    Now I don't have any pictures of the setup in the car, I was shooting out of the car window with the tripod spread around my lap.  It was not the most comfortable and roomy setup but I could live with it.  Truthfully I didn't end up using the Triggertrap app, for no reason other than I pulled up and lightning was happening so I rushed to setup everything. I should have taken a moment to plug in the app, the Star Trail Mode would be perfect for lightning photos.


Triggertrap Star Trails

Yes, contrary to popular belief you don't try to capture lightning by watching for a bolt and quickly pressing the shutter button - you will not be fast enough. What you do is shoot long exposures - anywhere from 6 seconds to 30 seconds can give you good results.  So the shutter is open, the sensor is recording a fairly dark scene and hopefully during the time the shutter is opening a strike will happen.   I have heard from one of my readers that if a strike happens in the middle of an exposure it is a good idea to throw  a black cloth over the lens to keep any more light from entering and potentially ruining the image.  I may try that in a future shoot.

Now when I first set up I took a few long exposures to get a sense of my composition, it was quite difficult to get a sense through live view or the view finder, so you can raise your ISO way up for a few test photos, this way your shutter speed only needs to be a few seconds - these aren't keepers, just trying to get a feel for what the camera will capture.

001_10.0 sec at f - 7.1It is a good thing I took her advice and adjusted my horizon, I would have cut off even more of this bolt.I was shooting around 40mm on a full frame camera.  That is about 22mm on a crop sensor camera like the Canon T4i/T5i.30 shots later I captured what would turn out to be the best of the night- Rollover to see the unprocessed straight out of the camera shot.  38mm on full frame at ISO 400, f/10 and 20.0 seconds shutter speed.

[himage]003_20.0 sec at f - 10

004_20.0 sec at f - 10[/himage]

I continued shooting for another 30 minutes, another 40 shots and captured a few more bolts but the storm fell apart and low level clouds rolled in making it difficult to capture individual bolts[gallery ids="3623,3622,3621,3620,3619,3624" orderby="rand"]SO if you read all of this, or skipped to this point let me give you the moral of the story.

  1. Be Safe
  2. You have a higher probability of making a cool photo with planning. Gear, Location and Knowledge all need to be considered in your planning.
  3. Be patient - I sat in my car, rain coming in the window for over an hour, in this case I was enjoying myself so it wasn't a hardship but you can't expect to roll up/show up to someplace and instantly snap something magical. Don't count on luck. Anytime I think about luck I think about Las vegas, none of those casinos are hurting for money, luck is NOT on our side most of the time.