Creative Light Blog

Don’t Just Look…See!

Rock Pool, Weston Beach, Point Lobos, CA
Rock Pool, Weston Beach, Point Lobos, CA

When exploring a new location it is often easy to be taken by the grand beauty of an area. The consequence is the certain temptation to grab your camera and begin firing away, at times worrying the light might quickly change, dashing hopes for that epic image capture. I’ve been there for sure. And there will no doubt be times when the light is changing so fast that the necessity for quick response is in order. However, what I often see during workshop sessions are students, even after admonition to the contrary, quickly grab their camera and tripods and rush to the a given spot and start firing away. What is the result? Often this will lead to mediocre shots and at minimum lost opportunity to really explore the full potential of available subject matter.

Take a Walk

Alternatively, It will often pay dividends to explore an area without camera in hand. Walk around. Take time to observe things like quality and direction of the light. Would a different time of day make a big difference? Soft light? Backlight? What lens would best tell the story or communicate your vision?

Compositional Aid

Much like I did when I shot 4×5 I will often carry a viewing card (sometimes now called a viewfinder card) to approximate potential compositions. This can be quite useful in fully exploring image possibilities without the burden of equipment hanging around your neck and back. As you hold the card with the cutout closer to your eye, it resembles a wide-angle perspective; the further from your eye, a telephoto perspective.

Quite easily made as well. I use some scrap 4×6 black mat board and cut out a 3×2 (35mm or our DSLR aspect ratio). The 4×6 size will fit in many pockets or easily in your camera bag.

Rock Pools, Weston Beach, Point Lobos

You should also look all around. It is not just about that beautiful rock formation or rushing waterfall. What about the detail at your feet? What is behind you? Look up! Fully explore your surroundings. You may find gems many would never otherwise notice. You begin to “see“…not just look.

Abstract Patterns and Seaweed

Lichen Covered Cypress, Point Lobos, CA


Conkle’s Hollow in Hocking Hills

Conkle’s Hollow Gorge Trail

Conkle’s Hollow is comprised of 87 acres of lush Eastern Hemlocks, birch, ferns, wildflowers and towering Black Sandstone cliffs that surround what is said to be one of the deepest gorges in Ohio.   There are two trails at Conkle’s Hollow; Rim Trail and the lower Gorge Trail.

Small Flowing Water Fall in Conckles Hollow Sony A7R IV, 24-105mm G

Years ago, I used to photograph this area in both the Spring and Fall, mostly preferring the Rim Trail in the Fall because of its beautiful view of the valley adorned in fall color and the sandstone outcroppings along the gorge’s rim.  During these times I would seldom run across other hikers, having the place almost entirely to myself, especially during the early morning hours.

Two hundred feet below is the Gorge Trail, which on this short visit I explored to re-acquaint myself with this, one of the many photographic gems of Hocking County.

The Gorge trail is about a mile long and a very easy hike along an improved trail that even accommodates those of lesser abilities.  The trail is will offer numerous photographic opportunities during your hike, including various macro photography subjects such as ferns and wildflowers in season.  The gorge is strewn with rock from years of erosion of the sandstone cliffs and one large boulder, known as Slump Rock, located about ¾ mile down the trail.

Small Hemlock takes root on slump rock Sony A7R IV, Sony 24-105mm G

The trail slowly narrows to as little as 300 feet as you approach the end where you will see the small waterfalls.  On this occasion there was very little flowing water because of the time of year, and it was already beginning to ice over after a very cold few days and an overnight temp of only 3 degrees.  During the Spring, water flow should be much higher and can make for same great waterfall images.

Hope you can join us as we explore this entire region during our Hocking Hills Photography Workshop, May 11 – 15, 2020.    Could make an excellent Christmas Gift and would beIt will be an experience to remember.

Please feel free to leave comments. We love to hear your thoughts

Harkening Back to Simpler Times

by Craig McCord

Winter Beech Tree, Zone VI 4×5, Tri-X

While driving to town a couple of days ago, I noticed a large maple tree in what appeared to be a slight fall transition. It’s a little early yet for any fall color but for some reason its color made it stand out. Catching a glimpse of this tree brought back an old memory of a large red maple I photographed years ago in south central Ohio. The memory of the tree was not important other than it made me reminisce of past times when our photography was so much simpler in many ways.

Without a doubt, modern day cameras are technical marvels. Large LCDs to provide immediate feedback on our shot, exposure meters and histogram readings make it almost impossible to get a bad exposure. Auto bracketing, 4k video, and high frame rate per second shutter capabilities are all common place. Issues or concerns of film reciprocity failure and narrow dynamic range are both overcome by the ever increasing advances in sensor technology. Even resolution of high end DSLRs is approaching that of medium format digital cameras. So why then would one long for the old days.

Pickets, Zone VI 4×5, Tri-X

Years ago, I would often grab my camera and tripod, jump in my car, and just go. No photographic objective in mind, no destination, just a mindless search for something that catches my eye. Admittedly not the most efficient thing to do. In fact, there were times after hours of driving I would fail to find anything that moved me. But the hunt was always an adventure. And when I did happen upon something that had promise, my mind really began to explore the compositional possibilities and I could work that subject for what seemed like hours. So what is different today?

Canon 5DSr, 24mm Tilt Shift TS-E II

I would suggest that the wonderful technological marvels that our cameras are today can actually interfere with our creativity. Back in the day, all one had to concern themselves with was turning the aperture ring on the lens to the desired f-stop, setting the dial to a corresponding shutter-speed for proper exposure and/or effect, focus for hyper focal distance (for landscapes) using the markings on the lens barrel, take the shot. Today’s digital wonders have multi-layered menu systems, histograms, white balance settings, blinkies, exposure compensation setting, auto bracketing setting, delayed shutter releases, continuous shutter, HDR in camera, internal intervalometers, 4k video, large LCD playback and too many more features to mention. Don’t get me wrong. The modern day advancements in camera technology have revolutionized how we take pictures and have overcome challenges or obstacles of the past, or further allowed us to do things that were impossible in the film era. The exploding genre of night sky photography is a good example.

Rokinon 12mm, f/2.0, 25 sec,

While it might have taken 15 minutes to become familiar with my old clunker Pentax 67, it more likely takes hours or longer to set up and familiarize oneself with the functions and features of todays DSLRs. And with the increased complexities comes another dynamic—proficiency!

It’s not enough to be familiar with your camera but you must be proficient and maintain this proficiency. This is the area or the point at which I posit a lack of this familiarity and/or proficiency is a sure roadblock to creativity while in the field.

All too often, while conducting a workshop, it becomes quite apparent that one or two students have no idea of the features of their camera or how to access them. Let’s take a look at your histogram for this exposure, I might ask. I’ve heard of that but I don’t know where it is, might be a typical reply. This may simply be an example of someone not familiar with their camera. But equally, it may be someone who has not used their camera often enough to be “proficient” in its use. In the old days proficiency was not much of a factor. Today, if you don’t use it—you lose it.

When this happens your brain cannot truly shift into the creative right-brain state. You are too concerned about the technical challenges of finding and setting camera features or other details that you cannot really relax and focus on being creative. My Creative Light Photography Workshops partner, Jane Palmer, recalls the first time she realized that she had been working a photographic subject and camera seemed like it was just a part of her. “How liberating a feeling” she recounted. She was totally in a right-brain state and her camera was just an extension. She did not have to search for buttons, settings, or search menus. She not only knew her camera inside and out, she was proficient in its operation.

We often hear suggestions on how to improve your photography. Well…here’s another one. Become familiar with your camera’s operation to the point you can operate it with your eyes closed. Then use it often enough that you maintain that same level of proficiency. Doing so will allow you to totally focus on being creative, using a camera simply as a tool to communicate your vision without it being an obstacle.

I am certainly interested in your thought and hope you will leave a comment. Also please consider sharing and subscribing to the Creative Light Blog.

Think Tank’s Airport Security V3.0 Photo Bag Review

ThinkTank Airport Security V3.0

ThinkTank’s Airport Security V3.0 Rolling Case — A Review

If you are like me, you have been through a number of gear bags over time, some great and others just not what you had hoped for. And while I am currently very happy with another ThinkTank product, the Shape Shifter 17V2.0, which I also did a video review on a while back. I always moaned thinkin of having to carry my camera backpack, as well as another backpack with other personal non-photo related items. I usually have a fair amount of gear to carry and doing so navigating airport terminals can be quite fatiguing.

Airport Security V3.0 to the Rescue

I believe the folks at ThinkTank have experienced this same issue, at least it seems. They have designed this roller case making air travel with your gear much more pleasant. Main features of this bag inclued:

  • A well designed interior that can hold a huge amount of gear and still meat carry on requirements for most airlines. Dimensions: 14x22x9
  • Padded laptop and tablet compartments, capable of holding 17″ computer and a 10″ taplet. While I typically don’t carry my computer or tablet this way, these compartments can be used in other ways.
  • TSA-accepted zipper locks and a cable with combination lock that allows you to lock you compartments and secure the bag to some object, like maybe the airport benches at the gate. I particularly like this because it would allow me to run across to grab a cup of coffee or snack without having to lug my gear with me.
  • There are actually three handles, top, bottom and side. This really makes it convenient and easy to grab and lift the bag in a number of circumstances
  • The roller wheels are of high quality and the telescoping handles very smooth to extend.

The image to the right shows how the inside is arranged as packaged. It is completely customizable depending on your needs.

After reconfiguring, I was able to get most of my gear in and still have room for another camera body and a couople more lenses.

Take a look at my video here for a much more in-depth review. Let me know what you think.

Also use the following link to search for ThinkTank products and get free shipping and a free gift for any purchase over $50: THINKTANK

How I Got the Shot: Oregon Coast

During a recent workshop on the Oregon Coast, I was presented with a common problem: I wanted to do a long exposure shot to enhance a somewhat boring sky, but the wind was blowing around grasses in the foreground and they would be hopelessly blurry with a long shutter speed image. How to handle this?? Here is my 3 part strategy!

Visualize the End Result in the Field!

I am often heard to say that you should be thinking about post-processing when you are in the field, getting ready to press the shutter! That is truly the only way to be sure that you have collected everything you need while on location in order to produce the image you have in your mind.

In this particular situation, the sky was not the light show that we had hoped for. But there were some nice clouds and they were moving slowly across the sky. There was gorgeous golden light on the tall grasses in front of the lighthouse along with some pretty yellow flowers, and they were swaying in the constant wind that blows at this spot.

So with post-processing in mind, I realized that I would need to capture two images, with my camera securely on my tripod: one with a long exposure to blur the clouds and one with an equivalent exposure but much shorter shutter speed to keep the grasses sharp.

Gather Your Assets

Now that I have my plan in place, it’s time to capture the images. I determined a proper exposure using my histogram and selected a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the moving grass. I put the focus point midway between my camera and the lighthouse, knowing I would get sufficient depth of field with my wide angle lens, and used manual focus. I used a remote release and triggered the shutter. This RAW image is shown here:

I then placed a 6 stop neutral density filter on my camera. Because I am using manual focus, I don’t have to worry about trying to focus through an ND filter. I added 6 stops of light to my shutter speed, to keep the exposures the same between shots. This blurs the clouds nicely! Here is that RAW shot:

With my images properly captured in the field, now all I have to do is combine them in Photoshop!

Post Processing

I begin my processing in Lightroom. I do my normal adjustments to the first image, tweaking white balance, exposure, and doing lens corrections and sharpening. I then sync those same settings to the second image.

I select both images and edit them as layers in photoshop. I can then easily blend the two images using layer masks so that the sharp grasses are revealed and the blurry clouds are maintained. Here is a screenshot of my processing of the already blended image:

Final Result

Here is the final image! This is a result of my visualization while on location, my ability to capture everything I needed for later work and finally some post-processing magic. I like to put a frame around my images when I display them online!

We are offering Lightroom and Photoshop classes to some of our workshops as add-ons because of the importance of considering post-processing while taking your photos. Hope to see you there soon!

November 2019 Introduction to Lightroom Class:

Soft Focus Fun with Lensbaby Lenses

I’ve spent most of my photography career concentrating on tack sharp focus and learning the techniques required to accomplish just that. I’ve even resorted to focus stacking as a way to get infinite sharp focus when it wouldn’t have normally been possible! So why in the world would a person deliberately take a photograph with large areas of soft focus? Yes, it seems counterintuitive and I never saw myself as someone that would embrace the genre, but here I am in the midst of a romance with Lensbaby lenses! And I’m loving every second of it!! How did all this begin?

Glorious spring dogwood with the Twist 60.

I got a Lensbaby lens many years ago as a gift from my husband. I was a relatively new photographer, and after trying the lens a few times, I ended up sending it back. The idea of soft focus didn’t appeal to me at that time. I was still trying to figure out sharp focus!

Recently, I found myself in a creative rut where I was turning out similar images over and over–different location, same theme. I needed something new to spark my imagination and make me want to pick up my camera. I saw an ad for a new Lensbaby lens and decided to take the leap! And I’ve never looked back!

Sweet 35 Composer ProII made this still life very special

My first Lensbaby was the Velvet 56. I loved the sharp focus in the center and the creamy dreamy blur that drifted outwards. I tried different apertures until I found the effect that I liked. I tend to shoot most of my flower images with the Velvet at f4-5.6. But don’t take my word for it–experiment!! That is the fun of the lensbabies! The artistic effects that you can achieve will push you to try new things and play with your camera and renew your love of nature photography.

Tulips are wonderful subjects for the Velvet 56

Once I began exploring soft focus, I found that I was looking for subjects that would benefit from this effect. Of course, flowers are an obvious choice. But don’t stop there! The only limitation is your imagination. Portraits with the Twist 60 are nothing short of glorious! Put your subject in front of a beautiful, distant background and get ready to be amazed!

I’m now the proud owner of a Composer Pro II and sweet 35 as well as the Twist 60. Each lens has a different soft effect, and I find that I enjoy swapping lenses more than ever.

Wild geranium captured with Velvet 56.

Lensbaby is a wonderful company and they graciously provide Creative Light with lenses for many of our workshops. So if you are joining us on an upcoming workshop and you want to try out a particular lens, just let me know ahead of time and I’ll do my best to get that lens for you to play with during the workshop. We featured several different Lensbabies at our Ozark Springtime workshop a few weeks ago and they were a huge hit! Those spring flowers never looked as good as they did through a Lensbaby!

Check out Lensbaby lenses and discover their outstanding customer service at their website:

Long Exposure – Getting the Shot

Pier Ruins Bandon Oregon

Arriving in Bandon, Oregon a couple of years ago, I was preparing for a workshop that was to begin in a couple of days. As I checked into the hotel, I was contemplating how to spend what remained of a blustery and misty afternoon. Just didn’t seem I would be doing much photography.

Realizing the marina was close by, I thought I would drive by in search of possible photo subjects and grab some great chowder or fish and chips at Tony’s Crab Shack. As I drove along, I noticed it was high tide and then came upon what looked like the remains of an old pier or support pilings for some structure long since seen it’s better days. Then it occurred to me. Wait, I thought. What a perfect spot for some long exposure photography. I retrieved my gear and hurried to the water’s edge and began to work the scene. Okay, I contemplated, what am I going to need? Of course my sturdy tripod. My neutral density filters as well, knowing to achieve the effect I was looking for would need a rather long exposure. And while it was overcast and not a bright afternoon, the ambient light was still too much to allow the exposure I would need for what I had in mind. Lastly, I grabbed my shutter release knowing my exposures would be long and most likely up to several minutes, which would require a rock solid camera absent of shake caused by even the most careful hand touching the camera.

Arriving at water’s edge, I proceeded to work the scene to settle on an optimal composition. Focusing as I would normally, based on a hyperfocal distance method to ensure needed near-far apparent focus, I was now able to calculate my exposure. I would note here that I use a back button focus configuration but if I did not, I would otherwise need to turn my auto focus off to eliminate the possibility of changing focus once I apply my neutral density filter.

Depending on your camera and the density of your ND filter, not only will you not likely be able to focus with the filter attached, neither will you be able to accurately calculate exposure. So what do you do? We’ve already addressed focusing, but for exposure what you may need to do is calculate the correct exposure for the scene without the ND filter attached. Take a couple of test shots. Check your histogram and make adjustments until you have it dialed in. Also at this point make any fine tuning adjustments to your composition. Now, add your ND filter(s). Here comes the tricky part.

You now have to calculate the adjusted exposure based on the factor of the density of the filter applied. If you applied a 10 stop filter for example, you must calculate the adjusted exposure needed for an equivalent exposure given 10 stops of additional time. Trust me, trying to do this quickly in your head can lead to a chance for error. Modern technology comes to the rescue though. There are numerous smart phone apps that can quickly and accurately do this for you. I personally use Exposure Calculator for Android, but there are many out there for both Android and iPhone. After determining your required exposure, quite likely longer than 30 sec, you may need to be sure your camera is set to the bulb mode. Now dial in your exposure time if using an intervalometer or just activate your shutter using your cable release and manually time the exposure. Now push the button and wait.

The image above of the pilings at the Bandon marina was 572 seconds @f/16, ISO 100, 10 stop Lee Big Stopper.

Sea Stacks, Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon. 179 seconds @f18, ISO 100

In a similar fashion, I happened upon this scene during my scouting. The weather was really ugly. I was the only person in the area, wind blowing, light rain hitting my face feeling like pellets of sleet, an angry churning sea crashing against the sea stacks. By using the techniques described above I was able to turn this into quite an ethereal scene.

Garrapata Morning Surf, Garrapata State Park, Big Sur Coastline, California

Along the Big Sur coast, I was able to turn the early morning scene at Garrapata State Park into almost a painterly impression using an exposure of 6 seconds. The early morning hours and lower ambient light allowed me to capture this image without a need for neutral density filters.

In the example to the left, of tree skeletons on the northeast coast of Florida, I used a long exposure of the clouds to create diagonal leading lines to help draw you into the image.

All in all, long exposure photography allow you to convey a sense of motion or mood. And in some cases, the images are almost surreal, like the image below of sea stacks at night at Bandon, Oregon.

I set out one night for some milky way shots. Weather was predicting clear sky. There was a New Moon, perfect conditions, right? A forecast on the Oregon coast is only good for about 5 min, and as luck would have it, there would be no milky way shot this night. So I just experimented. Ambient light from some of the coastal homes gave enough illumination for the sea stacks and churning surf at high tide to provide a mystical scene

30 sec, @f/2.8, ISO 3200

Important equipment items for successful long exposure photography

  • Good sturdy tripod. I often see workshop students show up with tripods acquired based solely on cost and weight. These are considerations, of course, but making sure you have a sturdy tripod will save you money and frustration in the long run.
  • Neutral density filters. These come in a variety of strengths. Lee filters offer square varieties. A popular one is the Big Stopper, which is 10 stops. They also have introduced a new one that is 15 stops. Circular NDs are now also more readily available in a variety of strengths. My favorites are made by Breakthrough Photography. They are well constructed, high quality optical glass, and a neutral color bias. I do not recommend the variable ND filters, as they are more suitable for video applications and can cause issues in still photography using wide angle and strong densities.
  • A cable release. You simply cannot hold a shutter down with your finger for long exposures. I would actually recommend a intervalometer because this could also come in handy for night photography, which is a whole other genre I’ll talk about in a future post.

Long exposure photography is becoming increasingly popular as a way of expanding our creative vision in ways not possible, or at least more difficult, just a few short years ago. Some applications to consider might also include:

  • Cityscapes with light trails of vehicles
  • Light Painting
  • Star trails and other night sky photography
  • Abstract compositions involving mostly blurred motion
Arch Rock Point, Oregon Coast

With just a few simple additions to your camera bag, you can create compelling photographs or increase the dynamic impact of your images by incorporating a few of these simple techniques while in the field.

During our workshops, we always look for long exposure opportunities. Any scene that has both moving and static elements offers potential for excellent long exposure captures.


Hocking Hills–Reflections of a First Visit

Craig and I just returned from a scouting trip to Hocking Hills in southeastern Ohio. We are planning a workshop here in May of 2020 and needed to visit the area to check out potential shooting locations and nail down an itinerary. This was my first visit to this area of the country, and I’m happy to report that I can’t wait to go back! Incredible shooting locations, more waterfalls than I can count and the very friendly people of Ohio made this a must see place for anyone that enjoys landscape photography.

I haven’t done a lot of winter photography, so I was somewhat hesitant to head out in February to scout out a new area. But I was careful to plan ahead and took the right type of clothing that would allow me to be comfortable while being outside for hours, potentially standing still shooting. I wasn’t cold at all, especially once I saw the beautiful locations that were around every turn!

The majority of our time was spent in the Old Man’s Cave area, a gorge that has multiple waterfalls along the way. The walk along the bottom of the gorge takes about an hour if you are a hiker, but if you have a camera in hand and are even slightly attracted to waterfalls, it might take you all day!

Let’s take a closer look at two of the waterfalls in this area, and go over what shooting strategies I used to end up with some images that really capture the essence of Hocking Hills.

The first feature you come across in this area is Upper Falls, and this just might be the most photographed waterfall in all of Hocking Hills. It has an arched bridge over the falls, lovely flow into a bowl of green water and multi-hued red sandstone walls on either side of the falls! And it is a 5-minute walk from the car!!!!!

When I first approach a scene that I want to photograph, I tend to leave my gear tucked away and just walk around to get a feel for what I see and how I feel. Spending this time just taking in the scene helps me refine what I want to say with my images. In the case of Upper Falls, it is easy to immediately feel overwhelmed! I had just stepped out of the car and walked a short bit and now here I was, standing in front of this incredible scene! How was I ever going to be able to compose a shot that would do this justice?

A cellphone shot of my first view of Upper Falls.

When I am trying to compose a shot, I tend to look for interesting things that I can put in the foreground so that my image has depth. I was lucky enough to find a beautiful log positioned in just the right place! Perhaps a photographer placed it here long ago?

Hmmm, this log just might make an interesting foreground!

I loved the leading lines provided by this stump and after some walking around, I decided to get down low and use a wide lens (16-35) to accentuate the foreground and draw the viewer into the scene. I was careful to make sure my camera was level, and I tried out various shutter speeds to get just the right look to the flowing water. (Collect all your assets!) Note that I left a little bit of breathing room at the bottom of the stump, and a bit of room above the bridge so that the image didn’t feel cramped. I also loved the leading lines provided by the amazing colors of the sandstone walls.

Finished Image of Upper Falls

As we were leaving the Upper Falls area, we noticed some gnarly tree roots and an icy patch that had foreground potential! I spent quite a bit of time setting up this shot, and while it isn’t a “wall hanger,” it does tell part of the story of this scene and thus is a worthwhile image.

Tree roots and dripping icicles made for an interesting foreground to the Upper Falls scene

At the other end of Old Man’s Cave Trail, you find Lower Falls. Fitting bookends you might say! After climbing down lots of stairs, you find yourself at a large beach area with a tall and very full waterfall. The water was particularly green under this waterfall, and I again walked around the scene, trying to find a composition that I liked. This was fairly challenging because the large, flat beach area was uninteresting and I struggled to find a way to convey the size and sheer force of the waterfall without it looking flat. The straight shot that revealed itself immediately was not exciting!

First impression of lower falls. Ho hum…

I noticed some logs laying to the side of the waterfall, but they were not positioned in a way that added to the composition. (What happened to the photographer that so carefully placed the stump at Upper Falls??! Guess he didn’t make it this far down the trail!) Notice how the logs laying from left to right seem to stop your eye as you try to visually enter the scene?

Lower Falls, Old Man’s Trail

I began to doubt myself, maybe I couldn’t find a compelling composition at this location? I kept walking around the beach, going to the right (no luck) and finally ending up to the far left side of the waterfall. Voila!! This unexpected perspective of the Lower Falls was a winning combo of leading lines (the rock perfectly shaped to point to the falls), heavy water flow and beautiful green hemlocks to add a lush background. This one just might end up on the wall!!

Lower falls as seen from the far left side

The workflow that I have just described above is my normal approach to landscape photography. I get a feel for a location before grabbing my gear. Then I search for compelling compositions as well as supporting images that help tell the story of a place. They aren’t all wall hangers-but then, not everyone can be the prom queen! Even the lesser shots have value when you look back on them and remember how your felt when you stood in front of something beautiful! And isn’t that what this is all about?

Consider joining us when we return to Hocking Hills in May of 2020. We will spend time with you in the field, teaching you how to approach a scene and how to use your camera to make a photograph that makes you remember not just what you saw, but how you felt. And maybe by then, someone will have rearranged those darn logs!

Using Shutter Speed to Tell the Story

by Jane Palmer

In the next few posts, I want to closely examine each of the 3 legs of the exposure triangle. The exposure triangle is something all new photographers have to come to terms with. Learning the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO is a fundamental skill and a deep understanding of how to use these elements to craft your photograph is crucial to a successful image. By looking at each one individually, I think it will help new photographers gain confidence when they set up an exposure in the field. Today, let’s talk about shutter speed.

Shutter speed (SS) is the amount of time that the sensor is exposed to light. It is measured in fractions of a second up to 30 seconds (on most cameras.) We commonly refer to a shutter speed of “a 250th” or “125” as a shorthand way of meaning 1/250 of a second or 1/125 of a second.

It is important to understand the effect of SS on the final image, so you can make a good choice when you are capturing the photograph. Let’s look at some examples of the effects of SS on an image.

A fast SS is often used to “freeze” action such as in sports or wildlife. Because the shutter is open for such a tiny amount of time, the subject seems to be frozen in mid action. Use this type of SS when you want to be sure that you have sharp details in a moving subject. I start to think of SS as fast when I get above 1/250th of a second, but often I will go much higher depending on the speed or type of movement of the subject.

In this photograph of a loon and her chick, I used a SS of 1/1250. I wanted to be sure to freeze the water sheeting off of her feathers as she surfaced after a dive, and to keep her interaction with the chick in sharp focus. I was surprised that a change from 1/1000 to 1/1250 made a significant difference in the sharpness of the details on the water droplets! I discovered this after experimenting with different SS during that morning of shooting.

Loon feeding her chick. Shutter speed 1/1250

In contrast, here is a photograph that uses a slow shutter speed to imply motion. Photographing moving water is one of my favorite things to do, and I am always careful to try different SS during a shoot to determine which one works that day. The speed and volume of the moving water have a major effect on the choice of SS, and the only way to find the ideal SS for the effect you want is to experiment.

Smoky Mountains stream in autumn. SS 1.3 second

When photographing moving water, be careful to maintain some texture in the water. It is tempting to use a long SS and really blur the water, but that often results in what I call “marshmallow fluff”–fine if you are making whoopie pies but not desirable for stream images! In the image below, notice that I used a significantly longer SS than in the above image (they were taken moments apart). Doubling the SS made the moving water look cottony and unappealing. I like to be able to see texture in the water and especially like the “fingers” that happen when water falls over a rock. We don’t see this with our eyes, so it tends to be very attractive when it shows up in our images.

Smoky mountain stream. SS 2.5 seconds

No discussion of SS would be complete without talking about long exposure photography. This is a special technique that often requires neutral density filters that limit the amount of light entering the camera, thus allowing for very long SS. The special effects of this technique can be quite stunning and seem to be most striking when something in the image is moving (becomes blurry or smooth) and something is still (remains sharp.)

As you gain experience with long exposure, you will recognize scenes that would benefit from this type of effect. The classic shot of the pylons leading out into a body of water is a good example of this technique. The long SS smooths out the water and blurs any surface motion, yet the pylons remain sharp.

Morning on the St Johns, 105mm 25sec @ f/16

Long exposure images of moving clouds will cause the sky to appear streaky and will imply the sense of a windy day. Because there is no way to easily predict the results of these types of images, the best approach is to look for opportunities to use long exposure, and then experiment in the field using different SS to see which image you prefer.

23 second exposure at Rocky Falls caused moving clouds to blur

A final thought. Have you noticed how many times I’ve mentioned the concept of “experiment in the field?” This is a major tenet of my workflow when I’m working a scene. I don’t ever want to get back home and discover that I left the photograph back at the location because I failed to try different settings or compositions. You’ve heard me mention this before: make sure to gather everything you need while on location!

The following photograph is a perfect example of this mantra. I was photographing the crashing waves on a very cold morning in Door County one January. I was caught up in the idea of using a slow SS to imply the motion in the waves. I took image after image, clicking away thinking I just needed to get the waves at the right time to get the image I wanted. I tried longer and longer SS and I just wasn’t happy. The shots were “ok” but that is seldom my goalpost when I’m in front of something spectacular!

As a last resort, remembering my advice to students to try different approaches while you are out there, I decided to try a fast shutter speed instead of the slow ones I’d been playing with. I took one shot at 1/500 and when I saw the image on the back of the camera, I was astounded!! The wave was frozen at it’s peak of action and the morning sun was shining through the water and giving it a greenish glow!! THIS WAS IT! I had spent so much time trying different slow SS that I almost missed a good shot.

Door Country Waves in Winter 1/500 SS

When I got home, I ended up processing only the fast SS shots of that morning! So remember my advice, gather all the assets while you are standing in front of your subject-you will have better shots and fewer regrets!

Next time, we will chat about aperture. Don’t forget to comment below and subscribe to be notified of future blog posts from Creative Light!

Using Perspective in Your Landscape Photographs

by Craig McCord

What is Perspective in Photography?

Before one can really take advantage of perspective and effectively use it to one’s advantage in compositions, there must be a clear understanding of what it is. Perspective is quite important as it helps overcome a challenge we photographers and even painters have, and that is creating a three-dimensional feel in a medium that is only two dimensional.

There are several types of perspective that should be considered, and the better understanding we have, the easier it is to incorporate their use in making compelling images.

Linear Perspective

Linear Perspective

Often referred to as a vanishing point because parallel lines tend to converge the farther away they go.  A common example of this is a road seeming to converge to a point at the horizon.  An even better example is the cliché of the railroad tracks seeming to converge in the distance.  This convergence is recognized by our brain to interpret as distance

Height Perspective

Height perspective is akin to linear perspective except rather than horizontal to the ground and vanishing in the distance, the vanishing point is on a vertical plane.  If you were laying down at the base of a tall tree, or a tall building, they would appear to grow smaller, or converge, the higher they were.

Overlap Perspective

When objects appear on the same visual pane, those closer to the camera will overlap and partially hide those that are further in the distance.  This is a visual cue that those objects overlapped are more distant.  This is rather obvious you might think but it still represents how our brain judges the spatial relationship.

Overlap and Atmospheric Perspective both work together in this image of a blue hour looking Southeast from base of Mt. Hood

Atmospheric Perspective

The atmosphere is loaded with all types of particulates including moisture, smoke, haze, dust, etc.  The effect is that as objects appear in the distance the become less clear, colors muted.  Objects of similar color will be lighter in tone.

Diminishing Size Perspective

This is also an example of use of linear perspective

This type of perspective is when you have two objects of the same size, the one closest to the camera will appear larger.  The closer to the lens the closer object is, the larger it will appear.  This perspective I will further address in a moment.

Forced Perspective

Often used to create a special effect in photography, one technique would use forced perspective to make a larger distant object appear closer.  You likely have seen this in images of someone appearing to hold up the leaning Tower of Pisa with their finger, and similar novelty motivated images.  However, there are times when you can use forced perspective in conjunction with diminishing size perspective to your advantage in landscape photography.  Let me explain.

Being careful but close to these flames in the foreground I took advantage of forced and diminishing size perspective, creating a feeling of depth leading to the trees near the horizon.

During the period that I was shooting 4×5 large format, I would certainly take advantage of the tilt and shift features of this system.  In particular, I would use the tilt function with a wide-angle lens, very close to a foreground element, exaggerating the size of the closest element, a diminishing size perspective.  In my view, forced perspective and diminishing size perspective are two sides of the same coin.  Each of the mentioned perspectives work not in isolation but in concert with each other.  When we approach our composition using these as tools, we can be quite successful at creating a feeling of depth in an otherwise two-dimensional image, better holding the interest of the viewer.

My experience in 4×5 work helped me understand and really take advantage of the ability to make a foreground become not just a foreground but a key element in the composition, conveying both depth and context to the image.  To do this most effectively, I would get very close to the foreground with a wide-angle lens, thus exaggerating its size in relation to other elements in the composition.  I will tell my workshop students at times that if you think you are close, get closer.

Tilting the Focus Plane

When taking advantage of the forced or diminishing size perspective, I would do one other thing.  I would tilt my lens down at an angle, much like you would using the features of a 4×5 camera or a dSLR with a tilt/shift lens.  In doing so I can get closer or achieve the effect of further exaggerating the relative size of the foreground.  Now, some would say you should keep your sensor parallel to your subject to avoid unwanted issues with linier perspective, where parallel lines would tilt outward and look unnatural.  I have in fact been with photographers who went to great lengths to make sure their focal plane was parallel to the subject’s plane to avoid this perspective distortion.  In many cases, their resultant image failed to have the impact it could have.

This similar image was taken keeping the sensor plane more parallel with the mill subject. (Image courtesy of Andrew McDonald and Persistent Vision Photography)
This image of Falling Spring Mill was taken with sensor plane tilted down gives slight exaggeration of size helping the sense of depth.

While parallel perspective distortion can be an issue, particularly when elements of architecture are involved, it is most often unnoticeable in typical landscape compositions, unless of course your subject includes tall straight trees or similar objects.  Even then there are tools in Lightroom and Photoshop to help correct any minor perspective distortion.

Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Newport, Oregon

In addition to exaggerating the foreground element, there is another reason to consider tilting your fixed wide-angle lens when it’s to the advantage of the composition.  When you do this, you are shifting the lens plane, and thus somewhat adjusting the plane of focus to run more parallel to the ground.  This is what is called the Schelmpflug principle.  This principle states that if the lens plane is tilted down, when the extended lines from the lens plane, the object plane, and the film plane intersect at the same point, the entire subject plane is in focus.

Reflection pool at Klepzig Mill, Shannon County, Missouri

The use of this technique can both exaggerate the foreground and provide illusion of great depth of field, and sense or feeling of depth to the image itself. The only limitation is if there are some vertical elements such as nearby tree trunks extend above the tilted focus plane cannot be focused on while keeping the ground plane in focus. Being aware of this helps in your approach in taking advantage of the Schelmpflug principle. 

When I see a landscape subject I wish to photograph, I immediately look around for an interesting foreground to include.  But it also works the other way.  If I find a very interesting element that could be used as a foreground, I explore how I can use it in the larger landscape to tell the desired story.  Next time you’re out, play with that wide or ultra-wide-angle lens.  Get close, then get closer.  Work the subject.  You may find yourself pleasantly surprised with the result and may even modify your whole approach to landscape subjects.