Archives for Photo Techniques category

Photo of fourth of july fireworksA quick Google search will turn up everything you need to know about how to photograph fireworks.  So rather than reinvent the wheel I have a few quick tips here and then a directory of some of the better fireworks photography sites I have found.

Quick Tips for Photographing Fireworks

1) Tripod – It goes without saying (although I am saying it), you MUST use a tripod for decent fireworks photographs.  With the longer shutter speeds required for night photography the steadiness a tripod provides is essential.

2) Aperture – You might think that since it is dark out you want to open you aperture up to f/5.6 or bigger.  Makes sense, but actually I have found that keeping your aperture around f/8 is ideal.  You need to balance the night and the great amount of light that the fireworks give off.  Use your aperture priority setting as well so you can determine the f/stop and the camera can set the shutter speed accordingly.

3) ISO – My Sony Alpha 850 can go up to an ISO of 6400.  For extreme low light situations that might be perfect.  But remember that even in the best cameras the higher the ISO the more noise you are going to get.  Since you are already using a tripod you can set your ISO lower and take advantage of the steadiness of the tripod to use longer shutter speeds rather than higher ISO.  If possible keep your ISO at around 100-200.

4) Focus – It is not easy to focus on the distant horizon and leave it focused while you wait for the fireworks to explode while on auto focus.  One good trick is to let the camera focus while on auto and then while holding that focus switch it to manual so that you basically lock in the focus.

For more great fireworks photography tips here are some additional resources.

Tips for Photographing Fireworks

How to Photograph Fireworks Displays from Digital Photography School

Photograph Fireworks – Wired How-To Wiki

Thanks to Matt at Awesome Toy Blog for pointing out this great Photography Cheat Sheet designed by Miguel Gantioqui.  It has all the things you need to remember for capturing a great photograph without relying on the auto setting of your camera all awesomely designed into one “cheat sheet.”

Example of an HDR photographHDR or High Dynamic Range is a photography method that allows you to capture the range of color and light from the lightest to darkest areas of your subject as the human eye sees it.  Even the highest end digital cameras lack the ability to capture the full range of intensity as we see it with the naked eye.  With HDR imaging you shoot a bracketed series of images with normal exposure, over exposure and under exposure and then use a post-processing software program to merge the images and manipulate them to a more true to life representation of the subjects light and color range.  Much of the HDR process is in the post processing of the image.  But these seven quick tips are all related to the first part of the process, capturing the images in your camera.  For post-processing tips there is a plethora of how-to videos on YouTube including the one I included at the end of this post which deals with one of the most popular HDR processing software packages, Photomatix Pro.

1) Keep your camera set to Aperture Priority (A, Av, AP depending on the make and model of your camera).  This will allow the camera to bracket the shutter speed while keeping the aperture consistent.

2) Different Cameras will have different options, but you can generally select either 3 or 5 bracketed images.  Start with 3 and see what kind of results it gets you.  Then see if 5 gets you even better results.  Or you can always manually bracket and go up to 7 if you want.

3) Again, the number of stops your camera’s automatic bracketing works with will vary by brand.  But I have found that 2 stops works pretty well.  Start with your higher number of stops and then try a few images with a .5 or .3 bracket to see how that works.

4) Always shoot in RAW.  This gives you more control in post-processing.

5) Let the camera auto focus and then lock in that focus by switching to manual focus without losing the auto focus setting.  Some cameras may also have a focus lock option to can select once auto focus has set the focus.  this will prevent the focus from changing during the bracketed shots.

6) Tripod, tripod, tripod.  It is almost impossible to do quality HDR photography without using a tripod.  You need keep the camera steady and focused on the exact same spot for each of the bracketed exposures so that when they are merged every aligns properly.

7) To further help keep things steady use a cable release or your camera’s self timer.  Even the slightest touch from your finger pressing the shutter button can shake the camera enough to misalign the images.

This photo collection was taken at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ on a moon lit night.  I used a light painting technique where you shine the outer edge of a flashlight beam (not the full center light) on to  your subject for about 1/3rd of your exposure time.  So for the 15 second exposure you leave the flashlight on for about 5 seconds.  Then you turn the light off and continue with the exposure.  This provides enough light to highlight the subject without making it appear as though it was day light.  These photographs had the advantage of a full moon night so there was an additional source of light that a moonless night would not provide.  In addition, the garden is in the city so the ambient light was brighter than it would be in an isolated or rural area.  You will need to keep the other sources of light in mind when deciding how long to leave the flashlight on the subject.  The 1/3rd is just a guideline, not a rule.  Experiment with different exposures and amounts of time you leave the flashlight on to see what works best for your subject and lighting conditions.

Photograph of saguaro cactus in the moon light.

f/5.6 – 20 sec – ISO 400 – Focal Length 50 mm

Photo of a Native American dwelling at night.

f/5.6 – 30 sec – ISO 500 – Focal Length 28 mm

Photo of the moon rising over cactus at the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden

f/5.0 – 2.0 sec – ISO 400 – Focal Length 100 mm

Photo of a yucca with the moon in the background

f/5.6 – 15 sec – ISO 400 – Focal Length 35 mm

Photo of a saguaro cactus in the moonlight

f/5.0 – 15 sec – ISO 400 – Focal Length 75 mm


Sometimes  you have a once in a life time shot but it is on a grey and dreary day.  Or you have to get a building photographed and the deadline is fast approaching so you can’t wait for the perfect sky to appear.  Or in order to get the scene perfectly exposed you sacrificed the sky.  In all of these situations you may feel like you photograph is sub-par because the sky distracts from what would otherwise be a great photograph.  But fear not.  There is a quick and easy way to replace your bad sky with something that does the image more justice through Photoshop.  And you don’t have to be a Photoshop wiz to accomplish this.  Here is a step-by-step guide to replacing the sky in your digital images using Photoshop.

1) Open your image in Photoshop.  We are going to replace the sky before resizing, cropping or making other adjustments.  As you can see in this image taken at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ the exposure was optimized for the building itself which left the sky a bit washed out.

A photo of taliesin West before replacing the sky in Photoshop

2) Now you need to find your perfect sky image.  It should be one that  you exposed for the sky.  The rest of the image doesn’t matter.  You also want an image that has a good portion of sky in it, 1/3rd or more if possible.  You may want to keep a few “prefect sky” images in your files to use when a sky replacement becomes necessary.  For this example we will use another photograph take on this same visit to Taliesin.  Go ahead and open this image as well in Photoshop.

Photo of Taliesin with the sky we will use to replace a bad sky in another image

3) Now that you have both images open you want to select all on the replacement sky image and copy it.

4) Now go to the image you want to replace the sky in and do and Edit>Paste.  This will create a new layer containing the image with the replacement sky.

5) Next you will create a duplicate copy of the original background layer by right clicking on it and selecting Duplicate Layer. This is just a good practice so that you are not making changes on the original should you need to go back.

6) Click on the Background copy and drag it to the top of the layer list so that it will also now be the image you see on top of the main screen.

7) Using the magic wand tool you will now select the sky in the original image.  Depending how rough the edges are in your image you may want to refine the edge by a couple of pixels to make sure you get everything.

8) Select the eraser tool and change the brush size to something rather large and the opacity to about 30-40%.  Starting at the top of the image run the eraser over the selected area removing the sky in the one image a revealing the replacement sky form underneath.  You may want to repeat the erasing a few times to reveal darker sky at the top and then fade it down.

9) Last thing to do is to deselect the sky and merge your two layers into one.

And there you have it, a perfectly exposed main subject and a beautiful sky as well.

A photo of taliesin West before replacing the sky in Photoshop After image once the sky has been replaced with Photoshop


Lifehacker recently reported on a handy little web app called StolenCameraFinder.  The concept is relatively simple although I think the “results may vary” disclaimer needs to be strong on this one.

Stolen Camera Finder uses EXIF data that most digital cameras embed in your digital image files.  EXIF stands for EXchangeable Image Format and it essentially hold the information about the camera and settings used to take the photograph.  In many cameras (although not all – my Sony Alpha 850 is not among them – see a full list of supported cameras here) the serial number of the camera is part of the EXIF data.  So StolenCameraFinder uses that bit of information to attempt to track down your camera.  Simply drag a photo taken with the camera in question into their app and it extracts out that serial number and tries to find other photos across the internet that match it.  If it finds a match to your camera you may have gotten one step closer to finding the thief, or the person who bought the camera from the pawn shop that the thief sold it to.  I’m not sure what you are exactly supposed to do after that, but it could make you feel better knowing you have tracked down the little thieves.

A few caveats:

  • Not all camera makes and models write the serial number to the EXIF data
  • This only works with JPEG files.  If you shot all your images in RAW and then converted them to JPEG, that doesn’t work.
  • The new “owner” of the camera can delete the EXIF data or with one click of a button in Flickr chose not to share it.
  • What do you do once you find an image taken with your camera?  I’d speculate chances of getting it back are still pretty slim.

However, the concept is still pretty interesting.  And maybe there are other uses for it.  Like see what the that camera you bought at the Goodwill was up to in its previous life.

When photographing flowing water such as a stream, river, waterfall or the like you have two choices. 1) Stop the motion of the water or 2) show the water’s motion.  Both of these are accomplished through the exposure settings you select.  It is pretty basic actually.  When you want to stop the motion of the water you need to increase your shutter speed and open up your aperture (smaller f-stop).  The faster shutter speed will result in freezing the water’s flow while the wider aperture will help make sure you are still getting enough light to the sensor to properly expose the scene.  For showing the motion of the water you do the opposite.  Decrease your shutter speed to get a longer exposure and close down your aperture by selecting a larger f-stop (smaller opening).  The slower shutter speed allows for the blurred water effect indicating motion while the smaller aperture compensates for the increased shutter time by letting in less light to prevent overexposure.

These two photographs were taken at Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona.  Although they follow the basic premise outlined above I would have liked to have gotten more pronounced results by decreasing the shutter time on the one and increasing it on the other.  But the hike had to go on and I was a bit rushed.

Photo demonstrating showing the flow of water

f/14.0 – 1/8 sec – ISO 100 – Focal Length 55 mm
To increase the motion effect in this image I could have brought the shutter speed down a stop
or two and prevented over exposure by taking the aperture up a stop or two.

Photo demonstrating stopping the motion of flwoing water

f/8.0 – 1/40 sec – ISO 100 – Focal Length 55 mm
This image still shows a fair amount of motion.  To further freeze that I could have increased
my shutter speed even more and brought my f-stop down if necessary.

I have loved architecture since before I really even understood what architecture was.  I built countless houses and structures out of Lego-like interlocking blocks as a kid (it was only recently that I got the real thing).  I sketched plans for very elaborate houses on my father’s accounting ledger paper.  And eventually I applied to and got into the architecture program in college.  And long story very short I got a degree in psychology.  But the love of architecture never faded.  I focus on architectural photography quite a bit in my photography and have had the opportunity to actually be paid for some of my work lately.  As a result I have picked up a few tips on improving your architectural photography.  Here are five quick and simple ones that can have a great impact on the final image.

1. Lighting – This one applies to more than just architectural photography.  But lighting can make or break an architectural photograph.  So pay attention to how the light is interacting with the building you are photographing.  Watch for shadows too.  Some lighting mistakes can’t be fixed in post processing no matter what you do so it is better to be aware while you are shooting.  As a general rule, the best times of day to photograph are often right around sunrise and sunset.  The “golden hour” light can show a building in a whole new light, so to speak.

Lighting can dramatically impact architectural photography

Sometimes waiting just a few minutes can have a big impact on the image.  The photo on the left was taken at 6:39 PM and the one on the right at 6:53 PM.
Not only is the sky very different but the artificial lighting on the building itself takes on a whole new effect just 14 minutes later.

2. Move – The first position you pick to shoot may not be the best.  Move around the building and check it out from all perspectives.  Where possible get up high and get down low to see how the architecture looks from various vantage points.  Step across the street and even go around back, you never know what the building might offer from a lesser viewed perspective.   If there is an obstruction often times it can be eliminated from the shot if you move over a few feet.

Pay attention  to the detail in architectural photography.3. Rearrange – Keep an eye out for things that could be a distraction in your shot.  Garbage cans, traffic cones, trash, even people can either just look bad in a nice clean architectural photograph or be a real distraction depending on their placement.  But if you scout out your scene first  you can easily spot the distractions and move them out of your shot.  Just be sure to put them back once you are done.

4. Be Aware – Sometime you so focused on the architecture itself that you are blind to the surroundings.  Just like the small distractions mentioned in number 3 above things like light posts, signs, vehicles and even other buildings can ruin an architectural photograph, especially if you did not intend for it to be there.  These things are much more difficult to just pick up and move.  So this is where you have to incorporate tip number two and move yourself or reframe your shot to eliminate these elements.   Worse case scenario you may have to figure out a way to make something you did not intend to be there just work.  Work it into the composition of your photograph.

5. Shoot – Depending on who you ask, some photographers will say to not push the shutter until you have composed the perfect shot and then just shoot once.  Others will say to shoot as many shots as it takes.  Given the flexibility of the digital format I follow the later school of thought.  Especially in a  field like architectural photography for a subject that can have infinite angles and perspectives.  I believe you should strive to perfect your shot as much as possible in the field (sometimes there is no going back) but when even a few minutes can produce an entirely different lighting effect or a few step in one direction and present a whole different perspective I say shoot as many images of your subject as you can.  You can easily sort through and delete the bad ones in post processing.

Photo of fireworksIt is the first of July, that means we are only a few days away from photographing fireworks.  I do not have a lot of experience in this area to offer solid first hand advice on how to capture the best fireworks photographs.  But I do have a few pieces of advice from my fireworks photography outing last 4th of July.  I have also complied what I feel are some great resources out on the Internet to help guide you through the process.

My Fireworks Photography Tips:

1. A tripod is ESSENTIAL.  I’d go so far as to say “don’t even try it without one.”

2. A remote shutter release cable can help significantly as well.  It allows you to release the shutter without touching the camera thereby reducing camera shake and blur.

3. Location is key.  It really helps to scout out the area where the show is going to be the day before to find a spot where you will get the best vantage point.

4. Read up on the best settings to use for photographing fireworks ahead of time so you can limit your experimentation during the show when time is limited.

5.  Above all else, have fun with it.

Here are some resources I have found that offer tips and tricks on getting the best Fourth of July fireworks shots:

Digital Photography School – This is a great resource for all things photography related.  Their How to Photography Fireworks guide is one of the best and well worth taking a few minutes to read. – The Fireworks Photography Guide from goes more into the technical aspects of getting the best shot.  Even if you are not familiar with all the technical aspects of photography this is a good read.  No time like the present to start learning anyway.

Canon – You don’t have to be using a Canon camera to take advantage of their advice.  The Canon Digital Learning Center’s Quick Tips: Photographing Fireworks article includes a helpful section on how to best compose your fireworks shots.

A quick introduction and overview of Depth of Field:

Understanding Aperture:

Understanding Shutter Speed:

What is ISO?