See Beyond the Subject

If you believe there is beauty and interesting stuff around you, you will see it, more and more, as you open yourself up. You just need a willingness to explore and find what’s extraordinary in the ordinary things around you. Seeing beyond the subject is a good way to expand you vision. For more on this topic, look up the practical tip I wrote in the post See Beyond the Subject on Blue Hour Photo Workshop’s blog.

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A Low Hanging Sun

Learning to understand and use light is one of the key elements to make your photographs stand out. But it’s also a challenging skill to master. Light can come in so many forms and have so many qualities. If you want to handle light, the best way is to practice one kind at a time.

On my workshop blog, I have written about one that almost never fails to produce captivating photos. If you are an experience photographer you probably already know all I am writing in the post, but otherwise, check it out on Blue Hour Photo Workshops.

Natural Light Indoor

Nothing beats natural light. It’s versatile, always changing like a facet, thus always surprising and so beautiful. Even in places, you recon you would need to use artificial light; you may take advantage of natural light. Think indoor. Your first thought may be to turn on the flash, but instead of its harsh and contrasting result, here is a different approach.

If you are interested in this practical tip, you will find more about it on Blue Hour Photo Workshop’s blog.

Capturing the Atmosphere in Night Photos

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One of the changes coming with my «new» blog this year will be a complete new layout. This is still work in progress. However in addition, throughout the year, I will add new features to my blog, and today I introduce one of them.

Every so often, I will publish practical tips about how to get better photos. This blog, though, is mostly about creativity and although it’s based on my approach to photography I hope it have relevance to other creative disciplines as well. Thus, very concrete tips on shooting don’t really belong here. Instead, I will post them on the educational blog for Blue Hour Photo Workshops and only make a reference with a link here on In Flow.

This is the first tip I will present this way:

When you want to capture photos in the night, there is in particular one thing you should be aware of. Obviously everything is going to be darker and thus you would most likely need to use a tripod or at least amp up the ISO-setting significantly. Otherwise, the captured photo will be very blurry—which of course can be used creatively if that’s your intention.

However, what I really have in mind is quite something different. Look up this super advise for better night photos.

On a different note: As announced a couple of times I will draw a winner who will be able to participate in my online photo workshop «Finding Your Photographic Voice» later in May. The deadline is now passed and the drawing will take place later this week. The winner will be announced in my blog post on Monday.

The Blessing of Insecurity

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I believe insecurity is good for the shooting process. When you are out in the world with your digital camera and see something, you raise the camera, frame, and make a photograph. Nine times out of ten, you will look at the screen and respond to what you see previewed there and maybe try again. You might repeat this process three or four times before you «see» the result you want or expect on the screen. Then you move on.

When shooting with film, obviously you don’t have the benefit of seeing the results immediately, so you work with some degree of insecurity, having no idea if you «got it». Actually, the thought of «I got it» isn’t part of the equation at all. The instinct is more to stay within the relationship you established when you responded to something in the first place. You keep working, shooting, and keep trying as many variations as your attention allows. Your attention is not continuously shifting between the world and your tools.

I was brought up with film, so to speak; therefore, it’s been natural for me to adapt a similar opus operandi when shooting digital. What I have noticed in my own process is that photographs that interest me on my contact sheets or in the editing of the shoot later on are often far from what had grabbed my attention initially. Most are the seventh, eight or later variation into the investigation.

With this in mind, you should ask yourself if, by being able to look at your results immediately, you are just confirming what you immediately responded to and capturing what you expect? Or are you actually using the «preview» as a tool to keep working and to discover something transcendent, beyond your expectation? There is capacity for both to happen. You just need to avoid the feeling of self-satisfaction that disrupts the shooting and results in only the former and not the latter.

Another argument for not looking at the preview screen during the shooting process is the fact that you take your eyes off the subject when doing so. You might actually miss the Picture with capital P because of this defocus. (I wrote about this in my post A Curse and a Blessing).

I would like to suggest shooting photographs without looking at them in the moment. Work with a bit of insecurity lingering over your shoulder and see what happens. Put black tape over the preview screen if the draw to look at it is too great—which of course requires that you have a viewfinder to see what you actually shoot (or you can even playing with not seeing what you photograph. You are maybe in for an interesting surprise).

Do you use the preview screen all the time? Or do you take chances and turn it off?

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Lumix LX7 using a 4.7 zoom setting (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Shutter speed: 1/1000 of a second. Aperture: f/2.8. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Controlling the Flash

Tivolivakt ved Coney Island, Brooklyn

Do you want to have full control of the flash? Here comes an explanation that will get you on the way to really be able to master the use of flash—at least flash mounted on the camera. There is of course a lot more to flash photography, but that will have to way to another time—and many more posts. This tip here will hopefully without too much work help you understand how you can control the flash in some ways.

Before we start, as you may know; in October last year I started what I called a new instalment for me. On and off I wanted to show and write about simple tips, tips that can improve anyone’s photography. I have written about using long shutter speed to make different photos, I have talked about moving close to the subject to create relationships and I have mentioned how you can using natural reflections—such as sunshine reflected from the streets in through doors—to create beautiful light in your photos.

Alas, I have also had a couple of posts about how to get most out of the camera-mounted flash or the built-in flash on compact cameras. It’s time to take the flash one step further. As written in previous posts you can adjust the amount of flash that is emitted by dialling up or down the flash compensation dial. At the same time you can also adjust the general exposure by the exposure compensation dial where you can make the picture darker or lighter by increments of ⅓ or ½ exposure values (E.V.). The latter will influence both the exposure of the available light as well as the exposure by the flash.

Now this means that you can actually adjust the ratio between the available light and the flash light and thus fine-tune your exposure. This may sound a little complicated, but hopefully it is not. Try to think—when using a combination of both available light and flash—that you are taken two images at once, one with available light and the other with the flash. These two images are then superimposed upon each other (of course this all happens as one exposure in the camera. What I am writing here is just to create a visual image in order to understand how the camera is dealing with the combination of available light and flash).

The flash light has a limited range and will only affect objects closer than one and half to three meters (or yards) away from the flash head depending on the maximum emitted light possible from the flash. The available light, on the other hand, will expose everything within the frame, up front and in the background. Now let’s go back to this idea of two different exposures superimposed upon each other. First the camera takes a photo with the available light and then one, in which it adds the flash (again this is not how it actually happens; it all happens in one take, naturally). Now if the exposure by the available light is correct and makes a perfectly exposed photo, then when you add a flash on top of this the objects that are close enough to be reached by the light from the flash will be overexpose. The rest, further away, will still be perfectly exposed (only by the available light). To compensate for this the camera needs to underexpose the available light on whatever is reached by the light from the flash. However, the camera cannot do this partially, thus everything will be underexposed in the first photo taken only by the available light. And then when you now add the flash, those objects in the reach of the flash will get added light and thus (if everything is correctly added) be properly exposed while the background will be somewhat underexposed—which is generally quit OK.

This is usually done automatically by the camera, and can be used in different ways as I wrote in the previous posts about flash photography.

Now I want to raise the stakes. So far I haven’t been dealing with situations where the available light is different in different parts of the scene. Particularly when the foreground is dark and the background is well illuminated, the use of flash can improve the photo significantly. In this case you can get around the problem by thinking that the background is going to be exposed only by the available light hitting it while the foreground is illuminated by only the flash.

You work it out this way: Figure out the correct exposure for the background. In many ways setting the camera to Manual exposure mode is the simplest in this case, but if don’t want to I suggest selecting Aperture Priority mode (if you have a compact camera set the mode to Slow Sync). You may have to underexpose the subject since the foreground is so dark and will influence the cameras evaluation for a suggested exposure. Maybe start with dialling in –1 E.V. At this point you have a background that is exposed as you want to.

Now it’s time to add the flash. Turn it on. Give it a try without any compensation. Since the foreground is dark, it might be just the perfect exposure. If you are not quite happy with the exposure from the flash, just dial up or down the flash compensation dial till you have what you want. One thing to keep in mind: Sometimes when you are in Aperture Priority mode and turn on the flash the camera will automatically underexpose the general exposure. In this case you will have to compensate for this, by making the available light brighter. For instance, you may have to go from –1 E.V to no compensation at all—or even more like +⅓ E.V. However, since this compensation also will affects the exposure of the light from the flash, you have to do an equal amount of compensation on the flash, but the opposite way. So in the example above, you will either need to set the flash to –1 E.V. or -1⅓ E.V.

The photo above is an example in which I used this technique. I used the available light to expose the background and the sky and then used a flash to light the guy in front. (By the way it’s a photo I have shown before on this blog).

If you have any questions to this technique, please don’t hesitate to ask in comments below. I will answer to the best of my abilities.

For the previous posts on flash photography, please look up: Flash Away the Shadows, A Flashy Look and Flash for the Night.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon T90 camera (with analogue film) and a 24 mm lens. It was captured at ½ a second and f/2.8 (set to expose the background as I wanted it). Flash was added and set to -⅓ E.V. No tripod. Finally the photo was scanned and processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Flash for the Night

Kullgruvearbeider ferdig med dagens skift

Last week in my series of simple, practical tips to enhance your photography, I wrote about using flash to accentuate contrast, colour saturation and draw the focus to the main object within the frame. In the post I also made a point of not using the on-camera flash when you would usually think of using it, that is when the subject is dark and badly lit. Usually that will only result in – when for instance photographing people – people in the foreground being burned out completely by the flash light with white faces and every thing else in the background going pitch black.

The technique for using the on-camera flash for some special effects that I mentioned in A Flashy Look, I pointed out was only to be applied in daylight, not when it’s dark. However I wasn’t telling the whole truth then, because the same technique can actually be used when it’s dark. You just have to be aware of the side effect that comes with this technique.

Because you are mixing available light and flash with this technique the shutter speed will often be longer than what is usually recommend for handheld camera use. Of course you can crank up the ISO-setting, but then maybe you don’t need the flash at all. So, once again this technique is best for achieving some special effects. The effect when using it in darker environments or when it’s dark is a combination of a subject that appears both ghost-like and rendered sharply at the same time. The reason is the combination of a longer shutter speed and a very short burst of flash light. The former renders the subject blurred while the latter render is frozen and sharp. The two shapes then seem to be superimposed on top of each other.

The technique is exactly the same as I explained in the post A Flashy Look. Select Aperture Priority mode on your camera (although other modes may work too, but that differs from one camera to another). If you have a point and shoot camera, put the mode to slow sync. Turn on the flash, shoot and let the camera do the rest. Because you choose either Aperture Priority mode or slow sync the camera will set the camera speed so you get a correct exposure of the available light in combination with the light from the flash.

Usually when shooting handheld you are recommended to not use a slower shutter speed than either 1/125 of a second or 1/60 of a second, because of possible camera shake. But with this technique I describe here you can easily use the camera handheld down to at least one second. Keep in mind, though, that the longer the exposure time, the more ghost-like or halo like the image will look like. However, creatively used, this can produce some both special and interesting results.

Have fun experimenting with you flash!

A Flashy Look

Using an on-camera flash often feels difficult to master, whether it’s with a built-in flash or one mounted in the hot shoe on top of the camera. The problem is simply the size of the light source itself (very small if we don’t use some devices to make it bigger such as reflectors or umbrellas) as well as the direction of the light, close to and following the axis of the lens.

Nevertheless there are easy ways to use an on-camera flash with amazing results. Paradoxically enough, it often means not using a flash when you think you should use it (for instance when it’s dark), but rather when you don’t need to but can add some stunning effect by using it. Such was the case I showed in the post Flash Away the Shadows a couple of months ago. And today I will show you another easy way to use the flash for a special effect.

This is a good way to increase both saturation and contrast for instance when shooting during an overcast day. In addition this method puts increased attention to the main subject. So when you need something like this, you might consider this way of using the on-camera flash for a special effect. In addition – and best of all – it’s very easy to do.

Simply mount the flash on the camera and turn it or or turn on the built-in flash if that’s what you have. On more advanced cameras, usually the ones without a built-in flash, I recommend turning the exposure mode to Aperture Priority, that is you choose an aperture suitable for your subject and the depth of field you would like to have, and the camera will automatically choose a correct shutter speed. You may also choose Shutter Priority, but then you will have to make sure the exposure will be within the range of what the aperture is capable of. As a general rule, don’t chose Program mode as this often – and normally – will set the camera to the synchronization speed for the shutter, and thus destroy what you try to accomplish with this effect.

On a point-and-shoot camera, you will usually set the camera for slow sync. That’s it. The rest you let the camera handle. If you can compensate the flash light, make sure flash adjustment is set to 0, that is neither over nor under exposed.

What happens is that the camera automatically adjusts for the added flash light so the main subject – or the subject that is lit up by the flash – will be exposed correctly. On the other hand, the rest of what is within the frame, further away and not lit up by the flash will be underexposed. The effect, as I mentioned earlier, is increased attention to the main subject as well as increased saturation and contrast.

If you want to understand what actually happens, think of it as two exposures happening at the same time. One exposure is by the flash while the other exposure is by available light or the natural light. Where both flash light and available light lit the subject there will be too much light, since one is added to the other. Thus the camera compensates for this overexposure. It does so by choosing a faster shutter speed (if you have put the exposure mode on Aperture Priority). Changing the shutter speed doesn’t affect the flash, but a faster shutter speed will make the available light darker. So where the flash doesn’t light the subject, the result is a darker exposure.

This much said, you don’t need to understand the underlying and technical function of the camera to make use of the effect. But remember this is for daylight use, not when it’s dark. I used effect for the photo accompanying this post. It’s a photo shot during the celebration of Puerto Rican Day in New York.

Let the Sun In

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It’s about time to continue my little series of practical tips – tips that can be used to enhance your photos. In the last instalment of this series I wrote about using a long exposure time on freehand to create a more energetic and somewhat abstract expression (Time Elongated – A Practical Tip). Today I want to talk about light.

Light is one of the most important factors that influence the quality of a photo. Light can make or destroy an otherwise excellent photo. In traditional photo literature and how-to-books we often learn that midday sunshine is bad. It creates harsh and unforgiven light with dark and ugly shadows. Certainly, that can sometimes be the case, but I disagree with the notion that it’s bad light in general. There is no such thing as bad light, only suitable or not suitable light for whatever you are trying to express. If you use the harsh light creatively, it can generate some wonderful photos.

Here is a way to turn that harsh midday light into a more subtle, soft and glowing illumination. Simply go inside and leave the door open behind you. The sunshine coming directly from above reflects on the ground and showers softly through the open door and into the room behind. Use the indirect light from the sun to create and almost unearthly setting for you photography.

The result does depend on the ground, though. If the outside of the door is covered with newly laid and black asphalt, the amount of reflections may be close to none. Then this tip doesn’t work. But with a lighter ground outside, it’s a delightful (excuse the pun) to illuminate persons or a still life in an interior setting.

This works particularly well in areas closer to equator, be it Mediterranean countries, the Caribbean, the Tropics or Subtropical areas where midday light is particularly harsh. Like in Cuba, from where I have just returned. The photo following this post is all illuminated by harsh midday sunshine coming through an open door to the left (and yes some light is streaming through the open window behind, but not illuminating anything facing the camera). It shows the celebration of quinceañera or a girl’s 15th birthday in Cuba.

Time Elongated – A Practical Tip

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This is a good tip to get a different picture than most of us typically get. It’s also one that shows that breaking «the rules» isn’t a bad idea – although this tip is often enough used to maybe not be regarded as really breaking the rules any more.

Nevertheless, by using a longer shutter speed when capturing movement you are able to convey that flowing feeling of the subject being in motion. The longer shutter speed captures the movement as a blurring, elongated and very dynamic form. It creates a more moody expression than if the movement was frozen by a short shutter speed. Usually the rule is to use a tripod when you are going for a longer shutter speed, because the hands will no longer be steady enough to keep the frame fixed. My suggestion as part of the tip, though, is actually to shoot handheld with the longer shutter speed. Not only will the movement itself come out in the frame as a flowing motion, but the surroundings will also be blurred and add to that dynamic expression as well as add intensity to the photo. An additional benefit is that you never really know what you get. Which I think is exciting on its own. Of course, it also means that you often won’t capture a photo of any value, but every so often something magical comes out of the experiment. It’s just a matter of keep shooting long enough.

So true the longer exposure. More often than not, many photographers choose to freeze the movement. This creates often dramatic, singular moments. By blurring people’s movement, you create a different kind of moment, one that seems stretched out and more abstract. The longer the shutter speed the more abstract the result will be. If you are after an abstract expression, the longer shutter speed, handheld, can also be used on static subjects.

I used the technique in the photo accompanying this post. This is taken in New York, in the Wall Street area. Around lunchtime, I had noticed the businessmen and -women rushing to and from their office and a nearby coffee or lunch place. They seem rushed and don’t seem to have time to notice their lives passing by so rapidly. This sense is what I wanted to convey in the photo, hence the long shutter speed and a handheld camera.

To use the technique you need to set your shutter speed at 1/15 or longer. The «best» shutter speed depends on what you are after as well as the speed of the moment and its angle to the camera. The faster the relative speed is, the faster a shutter speed you may want to choose – and the more abstract an expression you are after, the longer a shutter speed is needed. There is really no right and wrong. Use the preview on the camera to experiment and find what works for you and the subject. This tip might not work on the simplest of point-and-shoot cameras but most camera, whether point-and-shoot or DSLR’s, let you choose a specific shutter speed (and if not, you may be able to get around it by shifting or dialing what the program mode has selected). If possible, choose shutter priority mode on your camera and then the appropriate shutter speed. You may have to lower your ISO-setting, too, to be able to get a proper exposure with a slow shutter speed.

This is another instalment of a series of tips that can improve you photography. However, as stated when I started this series, there aren’t really any simple and easy tricks that will magically result in great photography. Nevertheless, there are techniques and small secrets of the trade that may be handy to know about to handle certain situations or just to increase your creative toolbox.