Monthly Archives: August 2013

After the Shutter Clicks

For many photographers, pushing the shutter release button ends the process of taking a picture. They hear that satisfying, “click,” check the image on the camera’s LCD display, smile approvingly and move on to the next photo op. Later, the image gets uploaded to Facebook, Flickr, Google+ or another social network so friends and family can share in the moment. The photo, however, was done when the shutter closed. Pushing the button and hearing the click completed the image-making process.

I’d like to encourage you to adopt a new approach, one where the process of creating a photo is just getting started when you push that button. After the shutter clicks, there are simple tools you can use to transform a good photograph into something special.

What makes a photograph special? Well, it begins with good composition. Everything visible within the frame should help tell the story of the photograph. Since stories typically have beginnings and endings, a good photograph will often lead the eye from one area to another. Exposure is another critical element of good photography. Lighting creates the mood of the scene you’re trying to capture. Proper exposure conveys that mood through the photo to the viewer. Investing a few minutes of your time to work with a raw exposure in image editing software to enhance these important qualities can rescue marginal photos and transform good photos into great ones.

A web search will reveal a host of good options for free and reasonably-priced image editing software. GIMP, Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery are some of the free apps you’ll encounter. Adobe offers a diverse suite of excellent image management and editing software. I happen to use Photoshop Elements, which is a stripped down version of their well-regarded Photoshop product. Apple, Microsoft and others also offer excellent image editing apps. I’m not going to advocate for one over another. I will suggest you choose an app able to perform, at a minimum, the following functions: brightness/contrast adjustment, hue/saturation adjustment, crop and unsharp mask.

This JPEG is an unedited conversion of the original RAW exposure from which the below photograph was created. Comparing the two, look for modest brightness/contrast, color saturation, crop and unsharp mask adjustments.

This JPEG is an unedited conversion of the original RAW exposure from which the below photograph was created. Comparing the two, look for modest brightness/contrast, color saturation, crop and unsharp mask adjustments. (Bill Ferris)

Brightness/contrast adjustment is the first tool I use to help an image pop! One of the benefits of shooting landscapes early in the morning or late in the day is the way light from a low-hanging sun sculpts a scene. Shadows create contrast. They separate the foreground from the background and define an image. Well, if you’re on vacation and take a lunch break at a scenic overlook, the sun will be high overhead and the landscape before you will be almost devoid of shadows. A raw image of this scene won’t have the pleasing level of contrast and detail you desire. Opening the exposure in your app of choice, decreasing the brightness and increasing the contrast will enhance what little contrast there is in the image.

After making modest adjustments to brightness and contrast, the next tool I reach for is hue/saturation adjustment. Very rarely will I make any change to the hue of an image. Most digital cameras do a pretty good job of rendering colors accurately. If whites look white, skin tones look natural and the sky looks blue, the hue is good and can be left as is. Saturation is another matter. Think of saturation as the depth or intensity of color in an image. I also think of saturation as the it factor.

When standing on the rim of Grand Canyon or at the edge of another spectacular vista, there is something about being present in that place which makes colors feel more intense. It’s difficult to convey that feeling with a photo that renders colors merely as they are. By enhancing the saturation, you help the photo convey the way the scene felt to you, the way you experienced that moment. To those of you thinking, “There he goes again, getting all abstract and mushy,” I can respect that. Rich colors may not be your thing and that’s OK. Photography is a big tent hobby with plenty of room for disparate views on what works. Pushing the color saturation works for me and, if you give it a try, I think you’ll find it makes your photos more powerful, more memorable.

Crop, is the next tool up in my image editing kit. You should know, I invest considerable time studying and adjusting composition prior to taking the raw exposure. As a result, I don’t often use the crop tool during processing. However, this isn’t because composition isn’t important to me. It’s because I try to get composition right, before pushing the shutter release. I’m not always successful in this regard and, when I do get a photo with extraneous space or odd framing, I have no reluctance to make a correction. That’s when the crop tool gets used.

Crop is useful for removing distractions that prevent the viewer from seeing the subject of your photo and understanding the story you’re trying to tell. If you see a brilliant waterfall and think, “Ooh, there’s a great photo,” do all that you can to fill the frame with the waterfall. If the subject is a family member, let that person fill the frame. If the story you’re telling with the image is about the relationship between a person and the vista they’re amidst, crop the image so that the person and the landmark they’re admiring define the frame.

This is the processed final version of the above RAW exposure. Brightness/contrast and color saturation adjustments make this image pop more than the original. The applied crop removes my distracting shadow and emphasizes the relationship between the hiker and the distant butte. Finally, a modest unsharp mask gives this image a bit more impact by helping fine details stand out.

This is the processed final version of the above RAW exposure. Brightness/contrast and color saturation adjustments make this image pop more than the original. The applied crop removes my distracting shadow and emphasizes the relationship between the hiker and the distant butte. Finally, a modest unsharp mask gives this image a bit more impact by helping fine details stand out. (Bill Ferris)

To put the finishing touches on my photo processing, I reach for the unsharp mask. A light touch with unsharp mask will enhance fine detail in your photo in subtle but impactful ways. Again, the net result of a modest unsharp mask is an image that seems to pop just a bit. It’s similar to that moment when the focus is just right in pair of binoculars. You turn and turn the focus knob until, pop, the image is crisp and clear. That’s what unsharp mask delivers when applied with subtlety and discretion.

Using image editing software and these simple tools, you can elevate your photography to a new level. And in so doing, the images you create will do a better job of conveying the dynamic nature of a scene which inspired you to reach for your camera.

So, get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | August 2013


 (Bill Ferris)

r Late on a summer day while finishing a long hike from the South Rim of Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back, I stopped along South Kaibab trail to capture this image. Twilight bathes the inner canyon, rendering the temples and buttes ghostly silhouettes. This photo was taken with a Nikon D70 and Nikkor AF-S 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens. (Bill Ferris)

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Canon and Nikon won’t tell you this but, as fantastic as their high end professional lenses are, you don’t need them to take great photographs. The kit zoom lens that came with your entry level camera body is perfectly capable of taking a great photo. So, if you’re just getting into photography or are about to make the transition from shooting film to shooting digital, don’t let smug comments about amateurish kit lenses deter you.

Canon and Nikon are the dominant manufacturers of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. updates their “Best Sellers in DSLR Cameras” list on a daily basis. Canon and Nikon are typically the only two companies in the top 20. In the Under $700 category, Canon’s EOS Rebel T3 and T3i, and Nikon’s D3100, D3200 and D5100 are top-selling DSLR’s. All come with 18-55mm kit lenses. Of course, you can purchase just the camera body or substitute another lens. However, there is a strong case to be made for getting the kit lens with your entry level camera body.

Let’s look at the specs for these optics. Canon’s kit lens is the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II. The Nikon variant is the AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR. On paper, both offer the same focal length range, aperture range and built-in image stabilization technology. Designed for use with crop sensor bodies, the effective 35mm zoom range for the Canon lens is roughly 29mm at the wide end to 88mm at the long end.  Nikon’s DX format sensor is slightly larger than Canon’s. The Nikkor 18-55mm delivers a 35mm zoom range of 27mm to 83mm. Both are street priced under $200, offer good optical performance and excellent value.

These mid-range zooms offer versatility that will meet the needs of most photographers. You’ll be able to shoot everything from wide angle scenics to portraiture. Their plastic construction means these are not rugged lenses. They’ll crack or break, if treated roughly. And they’re not weather sealed. If it starts to rain, you’ll want to stow the camera until the sun comes out. But these high value optics are also lighter and more comfortable to wear around the neck all day than professional grade zooms.

What are the hallmarks of a professional optic? As already mentioned, professional lenses offer more rugged construction with metal parts and tighter seals to protect against the elements. They’re also optically faster. At the wide end, the above-mentioned kit zooms operate at f/3.5. In other words, the focal length is 3.5x the aperture (opening) of the lens. Professional lenses typically offer focal ratios of f/2.8 or faster. In other words, the lens aperture is larger.

Why is this of value? Well, the larger the aperture with respect to the lens focal length, the shallower the depth of field. So, if you simply must have a lens allowing you to shoot portraits with super sexy bokeh (out of focus background) or freeze the action during an outdoor athletic event at night, you should invest in fast optics. But if you do most of your shooting during the day, if you enjoy crisp landscapes, or if you’re satisfied by modest soft focus in your portraiture, the kit lenses Canon and Nikon package with their entry level DSLR bodies are more than up to the task.

On the evening of March 11, 2005, the Moon and Mercury set together shortly after the Sun. This photo, taken from Sunset Crater National Monument just north of Flagstaff, captures the event. (Bill Ferris)

The Moon and Mercury hang in a twilight sky cradled in the branches of a silhouetted tree.. This photo, taken from Sunset Crater National Monument just north of Flagstaff, was made with a Nikon D70 DSLR and Nikkor AF-S 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens. (Bill Ferris)

Back in 2004 when I made the move from a classic Nikon F3 35mm film camera to the highly regarded Nikon D70 DSLR, I purchased the AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G kit lens. In 2010 when my D70 body was damaged beyond repair during a backpacking trip in Grand Canyon, I upgraded to the 12MP Nikon D90. But I kept the 18-70mm kit lens. It’s been a good performer for me, as evidenced by the above images. I have added two lenses to my kit in the last couple of years. They are a Tokina 12-24mm f/4 Pro DX wide angle zoom and a Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR telephoto zoom. Both compliment the old, trusty 18-70mm and the thee-lens set delivers an 35mm equivalent zoom range from 18mm to 450mm.

Now, I’m not here to blow smoke up your tailpipe. I’ll admit it, I covet the so-called holy trinity of Nikkor glass: 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm. All are AF-S, f/2.8 zooms delivering images so sharp they cut glass. This covetous condition is a common malady affecting many photographers. However, not having these lenses has not stopped me from doing photography or from capturing the occasional great image. Would these lenses allow me to take photos for which my current stable of glass is not suited? Yes. Do kit lenses and affordable third-party lenses render one incapable of doing great photography? Absolutely not!

Get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | August 2013

Black & White

This dramatic black & white image presents a classical view of Yosemite National Park's Half Dome. (Bill Ferris)

This dramatic black & white image presents a classical view of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome. (Bill Ferris)

The above HDR image of Yosemite National Park’s iconic Half Dome was originally shot in color but I prefer this black and white treatment. Black and white is sometimes better at conveying the timeless beauty of a landscape. This is one of those times.

Just about anyone who appreciates and enjoys landscape photography is familiar with Ansel Adams. Born in 1902, Adams’s creative eye and mastery of photographic technique allowed him to produce timeless images of the American west. Ansel Adams defined American landscape photography in the 20th Century. Many of his greatest works are black and white compositions of dramatic vistas. Adams’s, “Moon over Half Dome,” is an iconic American image.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing myself to Ansel Adams. However, like many landscape photographers, I am inspired by his work. My black and white Half Dome image is my own small tribute to a great photographer who showed that a well-composed image captured in the right light has the power to touch a person’s soul. Adams made that magical one-on-one connection countless times during his career. Every day, it is my goal to do the same. Produce an image that connects at some level with another person.

Black and white photography as an homage to the pantheon of early great photographers is one reason the genre has a special ability to convey something timeless about a subject. Another reason, is the symbolic nature of this technique.

 (Bill Ferris)

Years of neglect have stripped this ranch building to nothing but the frame. But that framework remains solid and strong, still resilient years after abandonment. (Bill Ferris)

Symbolism is a powerful thing. At least, it can be. This photo of an old ranch building is symbolic of issues related to the passage of time.

The building has been abandoned for years. The floor is pealing and disintegrated. Wall slats lie scattered about. It may have been well-used and central to ranching operations in years past. But today, this building stands forgotten and in disuse. In contrast–or possibly defiance–to its current state, the frame of the building appears to stand straight and strong. You almost get the impression the building is patiently waiting for a time when people will find value in and use of it, again.

This is representative of exactly what we feel as we age. We fear being abandoned, forgotten and lost in the shadows of history. We fear having a sound mind and stout heart, but being trapped in an aging shell that prevents us from being actively engaged with the world.

The abandoned building reflects reflects these themes. The structure was built for a purpose and, presumably, served that purpose, well, for some period of time. Like mortal man, no building lasts forever. Time and the forces of nature work on us. Just as a man can return to the earth from which he first arose, so too can a building disintegrate into nothing. However, to be abandoned is arguably worse than to be destroyed. If destroyed, there is at least a rationale for disuse. That which no longer exists cannot be used. However, to be capable of serving a useful purpose but to be abandoned, that is a terrible thing. It is the very definition of loneliness.

Black and white strips an image down to its bare essentials. Gone, are the aesthetic elements of color. Gone, is the photograph’s function as an objective document of the subject. All that remains are elemental qualities: brightness, contrast, tone, texture and composition. Black and white is elemental. It is symbolic…at least, it has that potential.

Get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | August 2013


To the Ends of the Earth

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O'Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. (Bill Ferris)

What motivates you to walk out the door with your camera? Is it the siren song of an image you’ve been wanting to capture? The desire to create something original and beautiful? The challenge of using a single, static image to create a lasting record of a moment in time? The hope of reinventing the mundane as something magnificent? All of the above? What reward are you seeking when lifting the camera and framing another shot?

I’m motivated by the idea that there are countless shots in the world that have yet to be taken. Even the most photographed subject on the planet has potential. You might chuckle at the notion that anybody could possibly take an original photograph of the Eiffel Tower, the New York City skyline or anything at Disneyland. But consider this, every first-time visitor sees these places with fresh eyes. And anytime a pair of fresh eyes looks for the first time upon something or someone, there is the potential for magic.

Now, I’m not talking about spells, witches and wands type magic. I’m talking about the magic of something happening for the first time. There is magic in a first kiss, first love or even something as simple as the first time a child tastes chocolate ice cream. And the beauty of firsts, is that they happen to everybody every day. When you walk out the door, you’re seeing the world…for the first time that day. There is magic in the promise of a new day. Yesterday may have been lousy, no better than a bag of rocks. Today offers an opportunity to make a fresh start. The headache that made you grumpy, yesterday, is gone. The co-worker who spilled coffee on you desk is out of the office for the day.

Today is new. It’s never been seen, before. It could be a day like any other or it could be something spectacular. And you play a role in deciding what kind of day today will be. You can make it happen.

One of my favorite outdoor activities is hiking. I spend an average of 30 minutes each day on the treadmill, get out and hike a local trail most weekends and make it a point to spend a couple weeks each year backpacking Grand Canyon. For me the attraction of being outdoors is multifaceted. I enjoy the physical challenge of backcountry route finding. Northern Arizona has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to stunning natural vistas. And for every inspiring scene to be easily found along the rim of Grand Canyon, there are countless gems to be discovered below the rim.

It is the potential to discover and photograph a stunningly gorgeous scene that, as much as any other reason, calls me back to Grand Canyon. And let’s be honest, if there’s anything better than capturing a lovely image of an iconic scene, it is capturing an image of a magnificent scene for the first time. I’m not talking about the first time for me kind of first time. I’m talking about the first time for anybody kind of first.

This ancient granary can be found in Stone Creek in Grand Canyon. You can get there by boot or by boat. It's a place few people every visit but is well worth the trip. (Bill Ferris)

This ancient granary can be found in Stone Creek in Grand Canyon. You can get there by boot or by boat. It’s a place few people ever visit but is well worth the trip. (Bill Ferris)

This photograph was taken in Stone Creek in Grand Canyon National Park. Stone Creek is tucked away in western Grand Canyon. It’s not reachable by car, mule or even along a maintained trail. It took me three days of hot, hard hiking to get here in October 2010. I wasn’t the first person to see this sight but, within the context of the nearly four million people who visit Grand Canyon each year, I was probably one of fewer than 100 people to visit this place that year. How many others photographed this scene? How many invested the energy in lugging a good quality DSLR to Stone Creek? How many took the time to compose an interesting shot?

Capturing a great photo of an iconic subject can be very satisfying. Taking a great photograph of an almost unknown subject can also be very satisfying but for different reasons. The notion of bringing to public attention to a place that is virtually unknown is appealing. Even if a photo does not garner public attention, there’s something pleasing about the thought of being one of the few photographers on the planet to have that picture. To be the only photographer to have that photo. Now, that’s appealing.

Get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | August 2013

M, Is for Manual

This single exposure was shot at sunset from a vantage point below Desert View Watchtower on Grand Canyon's South Rim. Angels Gate, an iconic formation in the canyon, stands in silhouette toward the upper right corner. One of the reasons I like scenes such as this is they remind me of childhood school projects...cutting random shapes from different colored sheets of paper and layering them into some interesting pattern. (Bill Ferris)

This single exposure was shot at sunset from a vantage point below Desert View Watchtower on Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Angels Gate, an iconic formation in the canyon, stands in silhouette toward the upper right corner. (Bill Ferris)

If you’re up for having some fun with your new camera, rotate the program dial to the M setting. M, stands for Manual. In this setting, you get to choose the ISO, the aperture and the length of the exposure. I realize the thought of taking responsibility for these critical settings can be intimidating. But don’t let that stop you. Sometimes, it’s fun to be a little afraid or intimidated. And you know what, it’s actually pretty easy to take good photos in manual.

We’ll start by keeping the camera in Auto, framing a shot and taking an exposure. Next, review the image and note the three critical settings: ISO, aperture and length of exposure. Write down the numbers. As we’ve discussed, ISO is the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light. ISO settings typically range from a low end of 200 to a high end of 3200 or more. Pro camera bodies often have the ability to select an ISO as low as 100 and go to 25,000 or higher. Generally speaking, the lower the ISO, the more pleasing the final image will be. As ISO sensitivity increases, noise becomes more evident in the image. At very high ISO settings, the amount of noise or grain visible in the image is substantial.

Aperture is the diameter of the lens opening allowing light into the camera body and onto the sensor. In aperture mode, rather than selecting the size of this opening, you actually select the ratio of the focal length of the lens to the aperture. This is referred to as the focal ratio or f/ratio. If you are shooting with a 50 mm lens or with a zoom lens set to 50 mm, and if the aperture is set to f/9, you know the lens focal length is nine-times the diameter of the lens opening or aperture. If you do the math, the aperture should be about 5.6 mm. Suppose you select an aperture setting of f/4.5, the lens focal length would be four-and-a-half times the aperture. That works out to roughly 11 mm. So, as the focal ratio gets smaller, the aperture or lens opening gets larger.

Finally, the length of the exposure is the amount of time the shutter is left open allowing light to hit the exposed sensor. This is also referred to as shutter speed. If your goal is to freeze a moment in time, you’ll want a short exposure or fast shutter speed. With a fast shutter speed, moving people or objects will appear stationary–frozen in time–but as the shutter speed slows, moving objects and people look more blurry. Keep in mind that there are situations where you will want to use a long exposure to capture blurred movement. Flowing water is one such situation. We’ll talk more about that a little later.

Now that you’ve taken an exposure in Auto and noted the settings, turn the mode dial to manual (M). Use the camera controls to set ISO, aperture (f/stop) and shutter speed to the settings you noted. Frame the same shot you just took and take another exposure. Then, compare this with the first frame. They should look very similar, if not identical. If you’re shooting outside in natural sunlight, any differences between the two images will most likely be attributed to a change in lighting conditions.

Let’s talk about the adjustments you might make to improve the overall look of the shot. If the shot you’ve been taking is a general wide shot of the room you’re in, you probably want to capture a good depth of field. In other words, you’ll want the lamp in the foreground and the chair next to that far wall both to be in focus. For good depth of field, you’ll want to select an f/stop in the f/8 to f/10 or f/11 range. The relatively small aperture will ensure objects both near and far will be in focus.

Suppose you really like that lamp in the foreground and you’d like to isolate it in a portrait. One way to isolate a subject in a portrait is to use a fast f/stop to create a shallow depth of field. Rather than shooting at f/9, you’re going to rotate the command dial to select an f/stop as small (fast) as your lens is capable of producing. Hopefully, you can dial in at least an f/4.5 or f/4 setting. If you can go as fast as f/2.8 or smaller, do it.

So, in which direction did you rotate the command dial and how many clicks did it take to settle on your desired f/stop? If you increased the f/stop (closed the aperture) then you’ll need to compensate by adjusting either the ISO or shutter speed. Increasing ISO will compensate for a large (slow)  f/stop by making the sensor more sensitive. A slower shutter speed will lengthen the exposure, allowing more light to pass through the restricted aperture to hit the sensor. if you adjust one or both of these settings in the proper direction by the same total number of clicks, you should be very close to compensating for the aperture change and creating a photograph that matches your expectations.

Which adjustment should you make? If you’re holding the camera by hand, you’ll want to use a shutter speed short enough to prevent any unsteadiness from creeping into the exposure. You can apply the reciprocal rule, in this scenario. The shutter speed should be no shorter than the reciprocal of the lens focal length. If you’re using a 100 mm focal length, you’ll want to shoot with a 1/100-second or faster shutter speed. The shorter the lens focal length, the longer your exposure can be when shooting handheld and still produce a sharp image.

The balance of the compensation can be made through changes to the ISO setting. Be aware that a significant increase in ISO to a setting of 1600 or higher stands a good chance of introducing unwanted noise or pixelation into the image. Of course, this is a situation where a tripod can be a godsend. If you’re able to mount the camera on a stable tripod, you can use shutter speed, alone, to compensate for a larger f/stop (smaller aperture) and still get very sharp images.

A silky water flow over Taliesin Dam at the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Taliesin, Wisconsin. (Bill Ferris)

A silky water flow over Taliesin Dam at the Frank Lloyd Wright home in Taliesin, Wisconsin. (Bill Ferris)

As mentioned, there are times when you’ll want to give priority to the shutter speed over the aperture. For example, a slow shutter speed (long exposure time) can enhance a photograph of a waterfall by giving the water a silky smooth texture. In this scenario, you’ll want an exposure of several seconds or longer. You can compensate for this by selecting a slow f/stop (aperture setting) of f/9 or f/11. Also, choose the lowest ISO setting available on your camera. And you’ll definitely need a tripod to produce a steady, sharp image with such a long exposure. If the resulting image still looks overexposed, try adding a polarizing filter to the front of the lens to further cut down the amount of light entering the camera. If the image is still overexposed, come back during that golden hour just before sunset to capture the scene at a time when the light level is reduced.

These are just a couple of ways you can begin to experiment with shooting in manual to give yourself more complete control over the photographs you make. It may not be something that immediately produces great results for you. But with time, patience and experimentation, you’ll gain a better understanding of how changes to the primary camera settings affect the final image. Ultimately, this is a path to having more creative freedom with your camera, taking better pictures and having more fun.

So, get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | August 2013

S, Is for Shutter Priority

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O'Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

A late summer afternoon glow fills Grand Canyon as seen from Yaki Point on the South Rim. Cedar Ridge and O’Neill Butte bask in the light in the foreground. (Bill Ferris)

When shooting landscapes, I will typically set my Nikon D90 to either Aperture priority or Manual. Aperture priority allows you to control the depth of field by selecting the aperture. The camera will choose an appropriate shutter speed to compliment the aperture setting. A setting of from f/8 to f/11 will typically produce an image with everything in focus, including the foreground, middle ground and background. It’s not a hard & fast rule but, as a general guideline, landscape images with crisp focus throughout can be very pleasing.

Manual mode also gives you, the photographer, control over the aperture setting, as well as control of ISO and shutter speed. When taking advantage of the dramatic, moody lighting at the end of the day, shooting in manual and experimenting with different setting combinations can produce a balance between the intensity of highlights (clouds & sky), and detail in the shadows (land) that pleases you. After all, if you don’t like the image, there’s no reason to expect anybody else will. But if you love the image, there’s a good chance others will enjoy it, too.

There are situations when you’ll want to force the shutter speed to either be very fast or very slow. At these times, shooting in Shutter Priority can lead to amazing results. One such situation is when photographing a landscape featuring flowing water. Water is an element with multiple personalities. On the one hand, a waterfall or churning river rapid can seem violent and dangerous. At the same time, watery landscapes have a beauty and a delicacy that is undeniable. Let’s talk about how to use shutter priority to capture the softer side of water.

At the bottom of Grand Canyon, the Colorado River flows past Tanner delta during evening twilight. Vishnu Temple's distinctive profile is centered along the far horizon with Apollo Temple and Ochoa Point featured more prominently in the foreground on the right. (Bill Ferris)

At the bottom of Grand Canyon, the Colorado River flows past Tanner delta during evening twilight. (Bill Ferris)

This image of the Colorado River flowing through Grand Canyon National Park is a twilight scene that was captured about a half-hour after sunset. The Colorado has a well-earned reputation as a violent, dangerous river. Numerous rapids within Grand Canyon are so far beyond the most violent rapids you’ll find in other waterways that river runners have established a classification system just for the Colorado and other Western rivers.

In seeming contrast to that reputation, the Colorado River flows slow and quiet through much of Grand Canyon. The bend the river makes at Tanner delta illustrates the softer side of this great Western river. Photographing this scene, I wanted to capture this aspect of the Colorado River’s personality. To do that, I shot in shutter priority and selected an exposure time of 30-seconds. This allowed me to select a small aperture (f/9) to capture sharp focus throughout the image and to use an ISO of 200 to eliminate graininess from this twilight scene. That combination of long exposure and small aperture resulted in an image where the silky flowing river stands in stark contrast to the crisply focused inner canyon landscape.

It’s a ghostly, almost other worldly scene, and one that illustrates when to use shutter priority to capture a specific image. Give it try. Get out and Shoot!

Bill Ferris | August 2013


A, Is for Aperture Priority

I don’t recall exactly how long it took before I was able to look at the letters on the menu dial of my camera and see anything other than alphabet soup. It certainly wasn’t overnight after first getting the camera, weeks at a minimum but probably closer to months.

In part this was due to the ability of the modern DSLR camera to auto select settings that produce good photos. Another factor was the menu of scene modes on my Nikon D70. When taking pictures of people, I used the Portrait setting. I also used the Landscape, Sports and Night settings. The names said everything I needed to know about their function and made it easy to explore settings other than Auto. Yes, I was getting all radical with my camera and trying different menu dial positions just weeks after getting it.

But the real experimentation started when I took the leap of faith required to dive into the alphabet soup settings on the menu dial: A, M, P and S. In addition to being an anagram for, spam, those four letters tease and temp a new photographer with hints of the unknown and mysterious. What happens when you choose, A? Will the camera even function?

The Command Dial on most DSLR cameras allows you to choose between a variety of scene and other settings, including Aperture Priority (A)

The Command Dial on most DSLR cameras allows you to choose between a variety of scene and other settings, including Aperture Priority (A) (Graphic used courtesy Creative Commons)

A, is for Aperture Priority, a setting where you manually select the aperture and the camera fill in the other settings. An aperture is an opening that allows light to pass through the lens and fall on your camera’s sensor. If you’re framing a shot at high noon on a sunny day, there’s a lot of light hitting your subject. This abundance of ambient light means your camera’s aperture can be small and still allow enough light to hit the sensor to capture a beautiful image with a short exposure. This brings us to the concept of f-stop or f/ratio. These terms mean the same thing, the ratio of the focal length of your camera lens to the diameter of the lens opening (aperture) allowing light to fall on the camera sensor.

Suppose your shooting with the kit zoom lens that came with your camera and the focal length (zoom) is set to 50 mm (millimeters). Put the camera in auto and take a picture of something. Then, play the photo and look at the information about that exposure. In particular look for the f-number. The number next the f tells you the ratio of the aperture to lens focal length. A picture taken with a 50 mm lens at f/10 had a 5 mm (1/5-inch) aperture. A picture taken with a 50 mm lens at f/4 had a 12.5 mm (1/2-inch) aperture or opening.

So, the smaller the focal ratio or f-number, the larger the aperture. In short, when you shoot with a small f-number, you’re letting more light into the camera to fall on the sensor. Or at least, your camera is trying to let in more light. When we started this discussion, we began by imagining a scenario of taking a picture at high noon on a sunny day. Let’s change the time from high noon to the golden hour, that first hour after sunrise or last hour before sunset when natural light is soft, warm and dramatic. The light quality is better but there’s not as much of it. So, in order for your camera to allow the same quantity of light on its sensor as a shot taken at noon, the aperture needs to be larger.

The begs the question, so what? Why should you care that the aperture needs to be bigger during the golden hour than at high noon? Well, aperture determines the depth of field in a photo. Depth of field is the range of distance within which objects or people will be in focus in a photograph. When shooting portraits, it’s often more pleasing to have a shallow depth of field. In other words, the person who’s the subject of the photo is in focus but anything in the foreground or background will be out of focus. This quality of an out of focus foreground or background is called, bokeh. Bokeh is a Japanese term describing the portion of a photograph that is obviously out of focus. When shooting a portrait, obvious bokeh in the background is typically very pleasing to the eye. The way to create bokeh in your shot is to shoot using a small focal ratio or f-number, the smaller the better.

Northern Arizona's summer monsoon calls forth brilliant yellow wildflowers near Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

Northern Arizona’s summer monsoon calls forth brilliant yellow wildflowers near Flagstaff, Arizona. (Bill Ferris)

Above, is an example of bokeh. The subject is in focus in the foreground and the background is obviously out of focus. This transforms the background flowers into a pleasingly abstract tapestry of hues and textures complimenting the subject of the photo.

Suppose you’re shooting a landscape at sunset. A wonderful, warm light is painting the temples and buttes of Grand Canyon. For this shot, you’ll probably want everything in your frame to be in focus. You’re not trying to capture just one temple or butte. Everything in your frame needs to be in focus. In this scenario, a shallow depth of field will put much of the frame out of focus. To put everything from the most distant butte to the blooming foreground wildflower in focus, you need to shoot using a large focal ratio. Typically, I shoot at f/9 when doing landscape photography.

 (Bill Ferris)

The last light of day paints Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of Grand Canyon a deep rusty red. Desert View overlooks the Palisades of the Desert and the Colorado River in eastern Grand Canyon National Park. (Bill Ferris)

This photo of Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of Grand Canyon was taken at sunset. My Nikon D90 was mounted on a tripod. The camera was in aperture priority at f/9, ISO 500, a lens focal length of 19 mm and an exposure of 1/30-second.

This brings us to the final question of this blog entry. What impact, other than depth of field, will shooting at f/9 have on your photo? As we’ve discussed, the larger the f-number the smaller the aperture or lens opening. If shooting at sunset to capture a landscape illuminated by that gorgeous, soft light, you can compensate for the small aperture by boosting the ISO setting. The same scene that can be captured with an ISO of 200 at high noon, may require an ISO setting of 800 during that dusky time around sunset.

But there is a price to pay for taking this approach. Boosting the ISO to make your camera more sensitive to light adds digital noise to your photo. With higher end digital cameras, images shot at ISO 800 often look very good. But if you’re shooting with an entry-level camera or an older DSLR, an image shot at ISO 800 will often looking grainy and rough. Rest assured, however, there is another solution.

Use a tripod. For landscape photography or any photography where you want to capture sharp, detailed images with good depth-of-field, a tripod is essential gear. Mounting your camera on a tripod allows you to precisely frame the shot. It also allows you to shoot at low ISO’s of 400 or less during the golden hour and still capture great detail. The scene that was perfectly captured with a 1/500-second expose in bright sunlight may require a 1/10-second exposure at a time of day when the quality of the light is warmer, softer and more dramatic.

Now, 1/10-second may not seem slow but trust me, it is slow in photography. As a general rule when shooting handheld, you want exposure times to be no slower than the reciprocal of the lens focal length. OK, in English. Let’s say you’re shooting with a 50 mm lens. If you’re holding the camera in hand for the shot, the slowest shutter speed you’ll want to use is 1/50-second. Faster would be better. Any slower speed will allow the camera to capture the vibration or unsteadiness of your handhold. That vibration will soften details and produce an image that looks out of focus. If the camera is mounted on a tripod, that rock solid platform will allow you to take longer exposures producing crisp, focused photographs.

OK, I’ve rambled long enough. The next time you’re out with your camera, experiment with using the A or aperture priority setting. Shoot the same subject using different apertures. Compare the ISO settings and exposure times for the resulting photos. Most important, compare how the photos look. Which one looks best to you? Write down or make a mental note of those settings and spend the rest of the day shooting with them. You’ll learn a little more about your camera and you’ll get some great shots.

Get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | August 2013