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 Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Laser Light Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon
A laser-like beam of sunlight reaches 130' below the ground to the floor of Upper Antelope Canyon. I highly recommend a wide angle zoom lens when shooting at this popular location. There is a lot of sand blowing into this slot canyon (and the 4 other slot canyons I was in during this trip), so any lens changing should be done inside a protective bag. A towel or other protection for the camera and lens would also be a good idea.
 
I captured this image back in 2010, but it remains one of my favorites. I took advantage of a recent Canvas On Demand 50% off deal (ends today) to have a 56x37" canvas print of it created. The canvas looks great and is leaning against the wall in my studio awaiting me to hang it.
 
Apparently, photos of light beams in slot canyons are quite valuable right now. I'm taking offers. :)
 
See this image larger on Google+, Flickr and Facebook.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
16mm  f/8.0  5s  ISO 100  3744 x 5616px
Post Date: 12/10/2014 1:20:28 PM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Tuesday, December 09, 2014
How to Stop a Galloping Horse with the Canon EOS 7D Mark II
If you can script the action, the odds of getting a great action photo increase dramatically. If you can repeat the script, those odds skyrocket far higher. And, being able to pick the time of day for the shoot is golden. For this galloping horse shoot, I had full control. But even with full control, you still need to know how to get the shot.
 
I often test camera and lens AF performance using a rider on a galloping horse. This is a challenging subject that I am familiar with, allowing me to best appreciate a camera and lens' capabilities. I often share sample pictures from these shoots and thought you might appreciate the "How To" behind these shots. To dive right in, let's select a lens.
 
Select your Lens
 
Tracking a fast-moving subject requires a fast, responsive-focusing lens. I prefer longer focal length lenses with an effective 400-500mm angle of view being ideal for my situation. A narrow angle of view allows me to isolate the horse and rider against a relatively small area of strongly blurred background. The longer focal lengths keep the horse and rider in the framing sweet spot for a longer duration.
 
There are many lenses capable of tracking this action, but the Canon L telephoto lenses are generally my preference. When testing a camera, the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens and Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens are usually my first choices. I completely trust these lenses to perform amazingly in all regards and their narrow depth of field at wide open apertures shows me exactly where AF placed the plane of sharp focus.
 
If the lens has IS mode 3, that is the mode I use. Otherwise, I turn off image stabilization.
 
The Camera Setup
 
The camera itself is of course an important component in stopping a galloping horse. If you have only one, that is the camera to use. If you have a choice ... the faster and more accurately a camera auto focuses on a fast-moving subject, the more likely it will be able to keep the horse's rider in focus and the faster that camera's frame rate is, the more likely you are going to capture the ideal horse position. The Canon EOS 1D X and Canon EOS 7D Mark II (used for the included image) are my top 2 choices.
 
Since you know that the subject will be in motion, use the camera's AI Servo AF mode. In this mode, the camera will predict where the subject will be at the precise moment the shutter opens.
 
I also recommend using the fastest frame rate burst mode your camera offers. Some people refer to this mode as "Spray and Pray", but ... just because you can create a catchy saying that has negative implications does not mean that the implications are right.
 
The fastest frame rates available today have a purpose and that purpose includes allowing the photographer to concentrate on framing the action while capturing a large variety of subject position(s) to later choose from. The faster the frame rate, the more likely the ultimate subject position will be included in the results (be sure to use a fast, high capacity memory card). You can alternatively release the shutter when you think the subject will be in perfect position, but ... know that horses can move very fast. This American quarter horse was approaching at an estimated 35-40 mph (56-64 kph). Good luck timing even a short shutter lag with all four hooves off of the ground.
 
For the galloping horse photos, I always use manual exposure mode. I select the widest aperture my lens has available, which is most often f/2.8 or f/4. The wide aperture allows more light to reach the sensor, allowing the use of faster (shorter) shutter speeds and lower ISO settings. I usually select a 1/1600 sec. shutter speed. I can get by with a modestly slower shutter speed setting, but 1/1600 practically eliminates motion-blur issues for this subject (same in most people-in-action photos).
 
I use the ISO setting to adjust the final image brightness delivered by the selected shutter speed and aperture. If ISO 100 is not low enough (such as under bright sunlight at f/2.8), I use a faster shutter speed. If the light is rapidly changing (clouds cause this), I use an Auto ISO setting, but this is not my preference.
 
When shooting in the late-day sun (the ideal time of day for this scene), the light level typically goes down throughout the shoot. I watch the histogram between passes and adjust settings as necessary.
 
Because this action scenario is not unique and because I shoot action with some frequency, I have Custom Mode 1 programmed for the above parameters on all of my cameras. If I am shooting action, I simply turn the dial to Custom Mode 1 and tweak the settings as needed.
 
I want the rider's face to be in focus as the rider is more important than the horse for my photos and an important choice to be made prior to shooting is the AF point selection. There are a lot of AF point options with some of the newest high-end camera models. As a rule, the center AF point is a camera's best-performing AF point. However, in the horse galloping situation, the center AF point tends to fall on the horse's nose. Since I choose to shoot with a shallow depth of field, focusing on the horse's nose places the rider out of focus.
 
There is more than one AF point option that can work as I desire and I often use more than one in a shoot, though I seldom select more than a single AF point option. Placing the left-most center AF point on the rider's boot and the saddle area works well. I also like to use the top-most AF point placed on the rider's head. Because the horse and rider are going up and down very rapidly, it is difficult to keep the horse's ear from capturing the camera's focus attention when using this AF point. The latest and greatest cameras can have their AF parameters tuned and instructing the camera to not be too quick to focus on distractions can resolve this specific problem.
 
You might find that an AF point placed low on the horse's chest places your rider adequately in sharp focus, but ... the lack of contrast in that location may challenge the camera's AF system.
 
Setting up the Action
 
The horses I am primarily shooting are running on a slowly curving trail at the top of our field. As the rider is warming up the horse, I am adjusting my shooting distance to ideally frame the subjects and to align both horse and rider with the background (I also dial in my exposure during warmup).
 
There is not a lot of foreground in my galloping horse pictures, but you can readily see the background and that is very important for the overall image. I try to select distant landscape (mostly small mountains) that is pleasing but not distracting. I prefer the high contrast line between the sky and the forest to not go through the rider's head, but above or below is good. My choice is usually to shoot from a very low position – typically squatted behind a monopod-mounted camera and lens. This low position places the rider higher into the background.
 
Capturing the Action
 
When the horse and rider are warmed up and ready, it is time to go live. The rider typically lets me know that they are ready, I check the camera's electronic level to insure that I am (nearly) perfectly vertical and let the rider know that I am ready.
 
I carefully watch for the rider to appear over the horizon. As soon as the subjects appear, I place the AF point in the desired position and begin AI Servo AF tracking by pressing the shutter release half way (pressing the rear focus button also works if the camera is so-configured). As the subject approaches the ideal framing distance, I fully press the shutter release and follow the subject until too close for usable framing.
 
As the horse and rider trot back for another pass, I check the results just captured and make any adjustments needed. Since I am usually testing a camera or lens when shooting this rider on a galloping horse scenario, I shoot many passes.
 
Reviewing the Take-Home
 
With a fast camera and many passes, I am often looking at a thousand or more images to review. Reviewing is a time consuming process and, when using a top-performing camera and lens combo, selecting down the keepers can be a huge task. While making the first pass through the images, I mark all that are out of focus for immediate deletion. If the camera, lens and I did our jobs properly, the keeper selection challenge grows considerably after the first pass. I have favorite positions for the horse, prefer to see open eyes on both the horse and the rider and also look for something unique in the image (such as a big tail swish).
 
Not Just for Galloping Horses
 
As you likely guessed, these instructions can be used for photographing much more than just galloping horses. While galloping horses may have some unique challenges, a significant number of in-motion subjects including many in sports action scenarios can be properly captured using this technique with or without tweaks.
 
Safety First
 
I'll leave you with a quick warning: Don't lose sight of safety. I described a large and potentially dangerous subject rapidly approaching the photographer who is concentrating through the viewfinder. It is easy to become consumed with capturing what is in the viewfinder and failing to get out of the way of danger. Be aware of what is happening around you. It is always best to live to try again.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
300mm  f/2.8  1/1600s  ISO 250  3648 x 5472px
Post Date: 12/9/2014 9:13:55 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Thursday, December 04, 2014
Canon EOS 7D Mark II and EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens for Bird Photography
While the Canon EOS 7D Mark II is without a doubt an awesome bird photography camera, the Canon EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM Lens is near the bottom of my bird photography lens list. Don't take me wrong – the 24 STM is a great little lens (a great bargain), but making a bird large enough in the 24mm frame to be relevant requires a very short subject distance or a short subject distance and a very large bird.
 
But, as this image proves (to me at least), the 24mm focal length can capture birds under ideal conditions. These ideal conditions with a wild bird in them come very infrequently, but ... one came to me this week. Here is the story:
 
I was outside giving the 24 STM lens a workout prior to wrapping up its review. We had a light snow followed by freezing rain overnight and warming air temps created a dense fog. Dense fog means low contrast which means evaluating lens image quality performance is compromised. But, these conditions can make for moody images and I was searching for something interesting.
 
After exploring the yard and surroundings, I came to like this lightly snow-and-ice-covered spruce tree best. I honed in on the set of branches shown in this image, working on placing the lines of branches and needles into an interesting composition. Still, I was looking at an only average image. It needed something.
 
Then my daughter walked out of the house announcing "I have a cardinal!" The unfortunate bird had made a navigational error and impacted a window of the house. Brittany had rescued the bird from the shrubbery.
 
In this part of the world, at this time of the year, no other bird is as beautifully colored as the cardinal and perhaps no other subject can make a snowy image pop more perfectly than a cardinal. As the bird gathered its wits, I placed it on the ideal branch in my composition and captured some images of it – from any distance I desired.
 
I knew that I wanted the cardinal large in the frame. Large in the 24mm frame meant moving in close, which also helped reduce the amount of background showing in the modestly-wide 24mm angle of view (on an APS-C/1.6x DSLR). Being close enough to the bird for the ideal large-in-the-frame composition meant that I had to be very careful to not make one part of the bird (such as the wing) look unusually large in relation to the rest of the bird (perspective distortion). A slightly forward-of-the-bird position seemed to work the best and the spruce branches provide leading lines to draw a viewer's eye to the bird (in case the color contrast was not enough). The bird was not completely still and capturing the right head position (looking slightly toward the camera) required good timing.
 
To have this ideal subject show up and cooperate for a few minutes at this exact time was divine. The cardinal flew away, apparently unharmed, not long after this picture was captured.
 
A larger version of this image is available on Google+, Flickr and Facebook.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
24mm  f/8.0  1/30s  ISO 200  5472 x 3648px
Post Date: 12/4/2014 11:46:15 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Monday, December 01, 2014
Capturing the Spirit of Baltimore's Inner Harbor with the Canon 24-105mm STM IS Lens
The historic Inner Harbor seaport is a showcase of the city of Baltimore, Maryland. While I was looking for interesting and creative photos in general on a day trip to this location, my ultimate goal for was to come away with a picture that captured the spirit of Inner Harbor in a single frame. Since I had only the latter part of the day to shoot, I was targeting sunset and the blue hour for that photo.
 
My afternoon scouting showed that the west side of the harbor offered my favorite view, one that included the most photogenic landmark buildings including the National Aquarium and Baltimore's World Trade Center. From the selected vantage point, the Hard Rock Cafe and Phillips signs also stood out and all of the colorful lights reflected in the water.
 
Not all waterfront is harbor, so the Lightship Chesapeake and the USS Torsk submarine docked in the background helped depict this waterfront properly as such. Of course, what finishes off the capture of the spirit of Baltimore's Inner Harbor better than a boat aptly named Inner Harbor Spirit docked in the foreground?
 
After selecting the specific location I wanted for my key photo, I captured a variety of photos using various lenses and focal lengths (there was no getting closer happening here). The scene shown in this sample picture was my favorite and I have it captured at various times during sunset including some with nicely pink clouds in the sky. The image shown here was captured just before total darkness. At that time, a 30 second exposure allowed a smooth motion blur of the very calm harbor, an f/16 aperture caused the lights to show a starburst effect without imparting a too-severe amount of softening of the image (due to diffraction) and the combination of 30 seconds and f/16 allowed a deep blue sky color to be retained.
 
The Canon EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM Lens is a nice lens and the Canon EOS 5D Mark III is of course an awesome camera. This photo is basically as-shot. Based on the Standard Picture Style (in DPP), I cloned out a few paint tiny imperfections on the ship and reduced the brightness of the Hard Rock Cafe sign, Phillips sign and the side of the aquarium using an HDR technique that utilized a darker exposure showing through the primary exposure at those positions in the frame.
 
A larger version of this image is available on Google+, Facebook and Flickr.
Post Date: 12/1/2014 10:00:00 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
How the Canon EOS 7D Mark II Performs when Shooting Birds in Flight
"How well does the Canon EOS 7D Mark II perform when shooting birds in flight?" has quickly become a frequently asked question. The Canon EOS 7D Mark II, especially because of its high performance AF system, high density imaging sensor, fast frame rate and modest-for-what-you-get price, is quickly finding favor with bird photographers. And, one of the biggest challenges faced by bird photographers is maintaining focus on birds in flight. Thus, the question is getting asked.
 
I had the privilege of spending the larger part of a day shooting bald eagles below the Conowingo Dam in northern Maryland with the 7D II this week. My goal was to discern how well this AF system could track the often-erratic movement of these beautiful birds in flight (and to hopefully come away with some nice images).
 
The day's moderate-to-heavy cloud cover eliminated any harsh shadow issues, but made the sky a white canvas (white sky is OK, but is not my favorite) and provided low light to further challenge the AF system. The bottom line is that I'm really impressed with my success rate from this day.
 
I was using the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens with and without a Canon EF 1.4x III Extender behind it. Tracking these fast and erratic-moving birds with such a narrow angle of view was quite challenging, but when I kept the selected center AF point or one of the 4 neighboring AF points (based on the AF area I was using) on or even close to the bird I was tracking, most of the images were properly focused. Especially impressive was the ability of this camera to maintain focus on the birds even with backgrounds that the birds visually blended into and even more impressive was this camera's ability to maintain focus on the birds even with high contrasting backgrounds including electrical line towers and bare tree branches against a bright sky. I was using the AF Case 2 to instruct the camera to be slow to leave a tracked subject due to obstacles.
 
This camera is a great choice for bird photography. The consensus that I'm hearing from the other photographers frequenting Conowingo Dam is that their 7D Mark II experiences mirror my own.
 
After catching its dinner, this eagle in the above picture flew directly toward the camera. I began tracking and shooting at 10 fps. I have numerous good images of this eagle, but this was the most-frame-filling that did not cut off any significant amount of the bird. This image is essentially right out of the camera. I extended the canvas slightly to the bottom, added the extreme tip of the two bottom-most feathers and removed imperfections from a couple of other feathers. I changed the Picture Style to Standard (in DPP), changed saturation to "1", white balance to "Cloudy" and added a touch of noise reduction.
 
I have added a 10 fps burst example of flying eagles (a juvenile chasing an adult with a fish) to the Canon EOS 7D Mark II Review. The wing positioning shown in this series of images will assure you that 10 fps is definitely not too fast and at times, I needed a frame between the neighboring frames – such as at the moment the eagles grabbed a fish in the water.
 
A larger version of this image is available on Google+, Facebook and Flickr.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
600mm  f/5.6  1/1250s  ISO 1000  5472 x 3732px
Posted to: Canon News
Post Date: 12/1/2014 8:00:00 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Thursday, November 20, 2014
Trout Surfacing in Alta Lakes, Telluride, CO
The drive to the abandoned mining camp at Alta Lakes in the Uncompahgre National Forest just south of Telluride is a treat – if you have a high-clearance 4x4 vehicle and you know how to drive off-road. The AWD crossover SUV I had rented was marginal in meeting that first qualification, but I'm apparently at least somewhat qualified for the second requirement as I managed to navigate the vehicle to Alta Lakes. Unquestionable is that the drive to this amazing scenery was worth taking.
 
When at a high elevation, strong wind is generally what you find. OK, more like always what you find. Even at about 11,000' of elevation, there was no wind on this day and the Alta Lakes (3 of them, Upper is shown here) were absolutely calm.
 
Give me a mirror-smooth lake with something attractive behind it and I can be entertained for hours. OK, more like days. The snow-covered Wilson Mountain easily qualified as "attractive".
 
There was one exception to the mirror-smooth water surface and that was the occasional trout feeding on the surface, sending rings of ripples across the lake surface. When this happened, I would pause my shooting until the lake was again smooth. Then the nicely-time trout rise happened.
 
I was shooting HDR images to insure that I had lots of flexibility in final image brightness. One frame was exposed to hold the highlights, preventing the brightest clouds from becoming blown (pure white with no detail). The second frame was exposed to maintain the shadow details including those in the evergreen trees. The third frame included a trout's jump that synched perfectly with my 2 second self-timer release. I find the trout, though small in the frame, to add a positive element to an image that I already liked.
 
I generally share images because I like them. It seems that images with clean frame borders very frequently bubble up in my selection process and this image again has this trait. From a compositional perspective, placing the horizon in the middle of the frame with a reflective lake in the foreground virtually guarantees a perfect vertical balance to the image.
 
A larger version of this image is available on Google+, Facebook and Flickr.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
24mm  f/11.0  1/25s  ISO 100  5760 x 3840px
Post Date: 11/20/2014 9:55:20 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Thursday, November 13, 2014
What to Look for When Selecting a Mountain
I love mountains, but not all mountains are created equally. Height is great, but a flat or round-top mountain, even if extremely high, is difficult to make photogenic. Give me a craggy, jagged-topped mountain with character and I can entertain myself for days. Add some color for an over-the-top mountain.
 
The Maroon Bells Scenic Area has mountains with character and Sievers Mountain, just north of Maroon Lake, is one of my favorites. Along with having character in its shape, this mountain has color character including the namesake "Maroon" with bands of light-colored rock running through it. While the top of this mountain alone can make a good photo, I worked a set of colorful aspens into the foreground so that the tops of the trees somewhat matched the craggy-ness of the mountaintop and added strong contrasting color. With some room to significantly change my shooting position, I adjusted the perspective so that the amount of trees showing in the frame was balanced relative to the amount of mountain showing. Said another way, the closer I approached the trees, the higher the percentage of the frame consumed by those trees and the larger the trees would appear relative to the mountain.
 
With the perspective I wanted, I then made use of a zoom lens to retain only what I wanted in the frame. In this case, that meant zooming to 57mm.
 
With a partly cloudy sky, good timing (note that the odds of good timing are greatly increased by patiently waiting) was required to get a dark foreground base, bright trees, shade on the mountain directly behind the tree tops and some direct sunlight on the mountain above. Blue skies are beautiful, but I often prefer that they remain a small part of my landscape images. In this case, the blue adds another color to the image and forms a solid, uninterrupted top margin to this scene that keeps the viewer's eye from leaving via the top of the frame.
 
I made strong use of the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens on this trip. Nearly every shot I captured with this lens was tack sharp. It is an awesome choice for tripod-mounted landscape photography.
 
A larger version of this image is available on Google+, Facebook and Flickr.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
57mm  f/11.0  1/40s  ISO 125  5760 x 3840px
Post Date: 11/13/2014 9:46:22 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Wednesday, November 12, 2014
The Story Behind the Rainbow over Aspen
Something that all landscape photographers need to know is that the worst weather can bring the best photo conditions. For example, without rain, there are no rainbows.
 
I would like to say that I had spent all day climbing to the top of some remote mountain to capture this image, but ... in this case, I was simply driving from a gas station back to the hotel. When the clouds on the western horizon broke open just enough for the sun to shine under the heavy cloud cover and into the rain, I simply pulled off the road at a safe location and started shooting. In this photo, the very warm-colored last sunlight of the day is illuminating the rain along with an aspen grove at the top of a mountain near the town of Aspen, CO.
 
From a compositional perspective, I would like to have moved the bright aspen grove and mountain peak to the right (or left) to about 1/3 of the way into the frame. To do that would have required me to drive to a new location. Rainbows and the sun shining through small openings in clouds are both fleeting opportunities and I was not going to chance missing the opportunity.
 
The leftmost rainbow was easily the most eye-catching subject, so I placed it in the 1/3 (maybe 1/4) frame position. The strong, bright rain easily balances the bright rainbow and the small, faint rainbow remains in the frame on the right. The dark land in the base of the frame works with the dark cloud at the top of the frame to bring the viewer's eye inward. The near-centered mountaintop then works for me in this case.
 
Without being able to significantly change perspective at this very long subject distance, a telephoto zoom lens allows flexibility in final subject framing.
 
I love unplanned images such as this one. The only requirement (beyond knowing how to use your gear) is being there. So, be there!
 
A larger version of this image is available on Google+, Facebook and Flickr.
Post Date: 11/12/2014 9:20:30 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Tuesday, November 04, 2014
Pilings at Brooklyn Bridge Park with Manhattan Skyline during Blue Hour
With a seven hour round trip drive included, fitting the PDN PhotoPlus Expo trip into 24 hours makes for a huge day. Increase the drive time to 10 hours (thanks to traffic), include a 1 hour wait at the show admission line due to a system outage (yes, I was preregistered), attend seven planned meetings plus a dinner meeting and I am left searching for a word that means much bigger than huge. Perhaps mammoth?
 
Still, with the show floor closing at 5:00 PM and rest seeming so unproductive, I decided to plan a shoot between the show and the dinner meeting. This year, I headed over to Brooklyn Bridge Park near Pier 1 (in Brooklyn) to the pilings shown in this picture.
 
I got onto the shoreline rocks beside the boat ramp and positioned the camera so that the opening between some of the pilings curved into the frame. I adjusted the focal length (with some mostly minor variety used) for a good size balance between the buildings and the pilings. An ultra-wide angle would emphasize the pilings while a standard or short telephoto lens would place more emphasis on the buildings. Another consideration is the levelness of the camera. With the camera vertically level, the buildings toward the sides of the frame remain vertically straight in this image.
 
The Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS USM Lens mounted to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III was the perfect choice for this scene. Perfect for both the angle of view/focal length range and for the impressive image quality it provides.
 
I was in position in front of the piers as the sun set. While I have images captured during sunset that I like, including the sun against the horizon with the last sunlight of the day reflecting on the water, the city lights were not showing at this time of the day and the colors were not as attractive to me as the late blue hour example shown here. I also have some shorter exposures of this scene, but the choppy river did not attract my eye like the buttery-smooth blurred alternatives. I used neutral density filters and adjusted the aperture slightly (between f/8 and f/11) to keep my exposure times at or near 30 seconds as sunset turned into blue hour and then into dark. I started with a 6-stop ND, moved to a 2-stop ND and removed that filter as darkness came.
 
While this may seem like a long time to shoot a single scene, this was the shot I wanted and I wanted a variety of options to choose from. I was shooting 3 bracketed frames (this is an HDR image) with the longest exposure at or near 30 seconds in duration and I had long exposure noise reduction enabled, meaning that dark frames were captured for an equally long period of time. This means that I was spending several minutes for each potential final image. With exposures that long, one cannot predict the large boats and other detractants that will possibly influence an image and I threw away some frames for this reason. In the end, I had a nice amount of images, but not a crazy number.
 
Likely, only a few of the images from this shoot will see the light of day. But, I really like those few images and consider the time and effort well spent. I can cross "Pilings at Brooklyn Bridge Park" off of my location bucket list.
 
The day started at 5:00 AM and ended at 2:45 AM the next morning. The overall results from the day, including the meetings and the show, were totally worth the effort.
 
A larger version of this image is available on: Google+, Facebook and Flickr.
Post Date: 11/4/2014 8:36:58 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Wednesday, October 29, 2014
7x7 Bull Elk Bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park
My big lens choice for my Colorado trip was the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM Lens with the built-in 1.4x extender. The decision to bring this lens was not a difficult one. I was going to be primarily shooting landscape with access to certain views limited to very long distances. I also planned to photograph wildlife in a range of sizes when the opportunity presented itself. For both situations, the zoom focal length range was more important that a (potentially) 1 stop wider aperture for this lens choice.
 
I came across this large, fresh-out-of-the-wallow, bull elk trashing a thick clump of small trees with its antlers. After shooting this activity for about 20 minutes from a bad position (from-the-rear was the only angle available to me), I decided to move on. I didn't have much time in this park and still had a long distance to cover.
 
I was back at the SUV with the lens and tripod torn down/compacted for transport in a Think Tank Photo Airport Accelerator backpack when I saw the bull finally leave the thicket (I think one of Murphy's Laws covers this situation).
 
I rapidly re-deployed the setup and worked my way to the opposite edge of the clearing that the bull had entered. If I had a 400mm lens prime lens, I would have needed to move back into the woods, making a clear shot far more difficult. A 300mm prime lens would have framed the scene wider than I wanted. With the zoom, a quick adjustment to 350mm was all that was needed.
 
My preference is to shoot wild animals at their level (a below-level vantage point also works well sometimes), so I setup the Gitzo GT3542LS Tripod in its fully retracted position. Getting a clean background was not going to happen, but I like the trees being present in this case. I did make sure that the bull's head was framed between trees. I adjusted my position to get a just-slightly-forward of a direct side perspective with the head framed between the trees. In this position, a large number of focus points land on the desired plane of sharp focus that includes the all-important eyes. When the bull bugled, I was ready.
 
You can't tell in a reduced-size image, but even with a wide open f/4 aperture being used, this image is razor sharp even when viewed at 100%. This encounter with the large 7x7 bull elk was another confirmation that the 200-400 L is, in very many cases, the ultimate wildlife lens.
 
A larger version of this image is available on: Google+, Facebook and Flickr.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
350mm  f/4.0  1/800s  ISO 400  5760 x 3840px
Post Date: 10/29/2014 8:44:17 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Monday, October 20, 2014
The Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens Strikes Gold at Maroon Bells
I'm just back from an intensive 9-day photo trip to Colorado. Overall, the trip was great, though the weather was not cooperative for about half of the daylight hours. Bad weather can create the dramatic skies that are highly desired for landscape photos, but rain, snow and heavy fog can be especially challenging when distant mountains are a primary subject.
 
At the top of my distant mountains list were the Maroon Bells, a pair of fourteeners (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) located in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area near Aspen. These tree-less, maroon-colored peaks are generally considered the most-photographed mountains in North America. They are most-photographed for good reasons. The mountains are beautiful, the scene in front of them, including Maroon Creek Valley and Maroon Lake, is beautiful and the access is very easy. Getting this picture into the portfolio, however, was definitely not easy.
 
I mentioned that access to the beautiful Maroon Bells scene is easy. The hike from the relatively-small parking lot to Maroon Lake is a short one. I carried about 50 lbs. of gear to the lake in a Think Tank Photo Airport Accelerator Backpack and a Think Tank Photo StreetWalker worn as a front pack. But, this hike is the easy part of getting this photograph.
 
There are basically two ideal sections of the Maroon Lake shoreline to shoot from with a limited number of photographers fitting into them. Getting the perfect location requires you to be there before the other photographers wanting the same easy-to-get-to location (just getting a parking space can be a challenge). Factor a 30 minute drive from the nearest hotel to the early arrival time requirement at the parking lot (a limited amount of campsites are available closer to the location) and the result is a very early AM alarm. By the time this photo was taken, there were nearly 100 photographers standing beside Maroon Lake, and I assure you that many did not have optimal shooting positions (just hanging out with this many friendly, enthusiastic landscape photographers makes this trip worth the effort).
 
Aspen in their brilliant yellow (and red) fall foliage colors were my other primary photography target for this trip. There are only a handful of days each year when the aspen trees are at their peak, so the timing of this trip has to be perfect. Locals can simply watch the foliage reports and make the drive (just over 4 hours from Denver) when the trees are peaking, but the rest of us need to plan ahead with airline ticket purchases, hotel reservations and vehicle rentals. My strategy was simple: plan the trip for peak foliage dates from recent years. In Aspen, this strategy worked perfectly for me. Some trees were beyond peak and some remained green, but most were at or near peak color. Though this is a highly desired location most of the year, the peak foliage definitely factored into the large crowds I encountered.
 
To get the peaks of the Maroon Bells to glow at sunrise requires a clear sky in the east during sunrise and to get a perfectly clear reflection of the peaks requires no wind. I was not hopeful during my 2 hour lakeside wait. Unlike many of the other mornings on this trip, the sky was perfectly clear. But, there was enough of a breeze blowing to create mirror-reflection-destroying ripples in the water. A moment before this photo was captured, the lake became a giant mirror and remained nearly flat for the next 3-4 hours (this duration is unusual for Maroon Lake) until the sun lit the entire valley floor below.
 
With the right scene unfolding in front of me, capturing the right framing and exposures became the next challenge. The framing was not hard (it is hard to go wrong at this location), but the exposures required more attention. With direct sunlight hitting the mountain peaks and the light-absorbing evergreens in deep shade, there was a significant amount of dynamic range to be captured. Using a multiple exposure HDR technique was the key to capturing the entire scene and all I had to do in the field was to insure that, for each final image, I had proper exposures captured for the highlights (shorter exposure) and for the shadows (longer exposure).
 
Back home in the studio, the processing work was much more difficult than capturing the right exposures in the field. Blending the two RAW images into a natural-looking HDR image was a complex process. I'd be embarrassed to say how many revisions I've made to this image, and while I have many variations that I like, I can't say that I am completely satisfied yet. This is my favorite revision today.
 
The iconic photograph of the Maroon Bells reflecting in Maroon lake with an apron of brilliantly-colored aspen trees lining Maroon Creek Valley was high on my bucket list and checking this line item off was my highest priority for this trip. No, this photo is not going to be unique (at least not completely unique). A lot of other photographers (close to 100 from this day alone) could have this or similar photos in their portfolios (if they executed and processed properly). I enjoy looking at photos taken by others, but this one is mine and there is something special about having iconic images in your own portfolio and having photos you created hanging on your walls. The memories these photos hold are part of their specialness. This particular image does not tell much of a story, but the story behind the image is big. That my father joined me on this particular trip was part of the specialness.
 
Because this shot was a priority, I allotted the most trip time (two full days and an additional half day if needed) to the Aspen area. The first morning was perfect (I shot from the side of the lake until about 11:00 AM and in the valley most of the day) and the second morning was an exact duplicate of the first until a breeze picked up just after sunrise (I moved to other shooting locations at this time – as planned).
 
Lakeside, I was simultaneously shooting with two complete tripod-based setups (one under the other when space was tight or to better protect tripod legs from accidents). With all of the effort and timing coming together perfectly and with the short duration of mountain peaks being lit, two rigs allowed me to maximize my take-home. This particular image was captured with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and one of the best landscape lenses ever made, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4 L IS USM Lens. They worked perfectly.
 
A larger version of this image is available on: Google+, Facebook, Flickr and Pinterest.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
35mm  f/11.0  .3s  ISO 100  5760 x 3840px
Post Date: 10/20/2014 12:04:51 PM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Tuesday, September 30, 2014
James and Amy's Steam Punk Engagement Shoot
By Sean Setters
 
A photographer friend of mine – James – recently asked me to shoot his engagement pictures. He and his fiancée were planning a steampunk wedding and wanted engagement pictures to match the theme.
 
If you're you've never heard of "steampunk," check out Wikipedia for a good introduction to the science fiction sub-genre.
 
James and Amy had spent countless hours hand crafting or altering Victorian age clothing, accessories and props. They wanted their engagement photos to showcase their passion for the genre. And considering James is a fellow photographer, I really wanted to bring my A-game to this shoot.
 
We planned the shoot for the late afternoon. I arrived at the location about 30 minutes early to scout out the location, determine my shooting angles and set up my gear. This is an important step if you shoot with off-camera flash – arrive early. Setting up light stands, wireless triggers, light modifiers and power options is time consuming. Arriving early allows me to hit the ground running once your clients arrive fresh on the set.
 
While setting up I realized that it was hotter than I thought it would be when I planned the shoot. About 20 minutes into setup I was already sweating through my t-shirt. I knew James and Amy would be wearing multiple layers of clothing (they had sent me a preview of their outfits). If I was already hot, they were going to be much more uncomfortable than I was.
 
I decided to purchase a few cold bottles of water from a nearby food vendor so that my clients could stay hydrated throughout the shoot. It was a small – but certainly appreciated – touch.
 
One big challenge for the location was that the front of the train faced the setting sun. This meant that my subjects would be staring straight into the sun whenever they looked into the direction of the camera. This caused two problems: 1) the subjects would be squinting and 2) the direct sunlight would make them even hotter in their multiple layers of clothing.
 
To combat these issues, I set up large 64" umbrella behind the camera's position so that it shaded my subjects from the sun. The umbrella didn't shade them completely, but it allowed the subjects to pose comfortably while the sun was making its way over the horizon in front of them. The shade umbrella also had another benefit – it provided a blank canvas to work with as far as lighting is concerned. It converted the sun into an ambient base instead of limiting it for use as a main light. That means I could position my main light anywhere to sculpt the scene as I saw fit while simply adjusting my shooting variables to obtain the base exposure I wanted (soft, ambient fill light on my subjects).
 
In short, here are the three things I did to help keep my subjects comfortable on this shoot:
 
  • Arrived early to set up equipment
  • Provided cold water to the clients to combat the hot afternoon
  • Used an umbrella to shade my subjects so that they weren't staring into the sun
And those small things combined to keep my subjects happy on this shoot. Throughout the shoot, James and Amy stayed fresh, fun and full of ideas. And it really paid off in the end.
 
If you'd like more details on the lighting setup, check out my description below the picture on Flickr.
Post Date: 9/30/2014 8:17:44 AM CT   Posted By: Sean
 Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Stamps Design Group - Greg Stamps
By Sean Setters
 
I tend to see the world in a 2x3 ratio frame. That's how my camera captures the world, so that's how I'm accustomed to framing the world in my imagination (with the exception of panoramas).
 
I also tend to like tighter shots rather than wider framed shots. I like seeing more detail in my subjects rather than the surroundings. Generally speaking, that's just fine. However, the value of an extra-wide environmental shot should not be underestimated.
 
The biggest reason? Facebook. Many of my clients these days are wanting images that can be used in a multitude of ways, whether they be for conference promotion, marketing material, business cards, social media or their own business websites. The aspect ratios required for these uses vary considerably. Therefore, you have to keep in mind that your 2:3 ratio image may need to be cropped down to a 1:1, 16:9 or 851:315.
 
851:315 – huh?
 
Yep, that's right – 851:315. That's a very thin strip of your 3:2 image. But right now, it's an extremely prevalent aspect ratio – thanks to Facebook. Facebook's cover photo is exactly 851x315 pixels. Not only that, but you have to take into consideration other issues like how much real estate the profile picture takes up on the left side of the cover photo. Check out this Facebook Cover Photo Size Helper for more details.
 
I was specifically thinking about the Facebook cover photo requirements when shooting the image for Stamps Design Group at the top of this post. On the whole, it works well at a 2:3 ratio image. But it also works well when cropped down to the aspect ratio of the cover photo:
 
Greg Stamps Architect Cover Photo
 
Yes, you lose a lot of content – the beautiful brick in the top and the scale model in the bottom portion of the image are gone – but the impact is still there when cropped down.
 
So keep in mind – when shooting for clients, be sure to grab an extra wide shot so that it can work well in a variety of different aspect ratios, including the almost-panoramic 851:315 aspect ratio.
Post Date: 9/10/2014 8:51:31 AM CT   Posted By: Sean
 Tuesday, September 09, 2014
Billy Hollis by the Tree Headshot
By Sean Setters
 
Last month I posted about my experience regarding shooting headshots for Kim Frick-Welker, a local actress and theater director. The gist of the post – trust your instincts and find a way to capture the images that are in your imagination (even if the client hasn't asked for them specifically).
 
The point became relevant once more as I was shooting headshots for Billy Hollis, software designer, at his home in Nashville this weekend. Billy told me that his last headshot was "...taken about five years – and fifteen pounds – ago" and he was ready for an update. He wanted a few different versions of his headshot for display on social media, conference bios and various marketing tools. The only shot he specifically asked for was the "...boring, traditional on-white headshot." Other than that, I could shoot whatever I thought was appropriate (indoors or outdoors).
 
We decided to start with outdoor shots as the sky was overcast which provided a good, soft ambient base to work with. I found a spot behind his tool shed that provided an interesting combination of elements – a tree trunk, some limbs and an old window surrounded by weathered bricks. I used Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and a Canon 580EX diffused by a 24" Glow Pop Soft Box (camera right) to light the subject and a bare 580EX to light the background (camera left). His favorite from that series is shown at the top of this post.
 
Moving indoors, I created a white background setup by placing a Botero #037 Collapsible Black/White Background behind the subject (lit with three flashes). I used the same Glow softbox for the main light (camera right) and added a 580EX reflected into white umbrella for fill light (camera left). As I was firing my off-camera flashes with manual triggers, the first shot was simply a test shot to dial in the power of my lights; it was a throw-away. I'm usually pretty close on the first shot after setting up my lights. However, I had forgotten to change the aperture on my camera when moving to the indoor setup. With my camera set to f/3.5, my test shot was extremely over-exposed. I nearly deleted the picture right after seeing it, but I didn't.
 
Realizing my mistake, I set my camera to f/6.3 and the next exposure was in the ballpark. But after reviewing the images the next day, I kept coming back to the horribly over-exposed test shot. Something about it captivated me. I sent it to Billy and he's now using it as his Twitter profile picture. New lesson learned – make sure and take a good look at your "throw-aways" before actually throwing them away.
 
Billy Hollis Headshot Over-Exposed
 
After about 20 minutes of shooting (trying various shirts and poses), Billy had the standard headshot on white that was a "must-have" request.
 
Billy Hollis Headshot on White
 
But while we were shooting the headshot on white, I started formulating another shot in my mind – a profile shot. So before packing up, I asked him if he would like to try one more setup. He readily agreed. I asked him to change into a black shirt while I made a few changes to the setup.
 
While he was changing, I turned off all of the background lights and flipped the Botero background around to its black side. I then took my mainlight and placed it on the left side just beside of (and slightly behind) where Billy was standing. I added a grid to the softbox and angled it away from the background to keep it from spilling onto the background. I remove the umbrella from my fill light, added a Honl Speed Grid and moved it to the right side to illuminate the back of Billy's head. The shots that followed were undoubtedly our favorites from the day.
 
Billy Hollis Profile on Black
 
So again, let me reiterate something that I mentioned in the Kim Frick-Welker headshot post:
"It may sound obvious, but here's something to keep in mind – anyone who hires you was likely impressed with the work you've already created. So if a shot really inspires you, it will likely inspire your client as well – so try to devote a few minutes to getting the shot you want to get, even if it's not a part of your agreed shot list."
It was true then, and it was true again this weekend. Trust your instincts and shoot for yourself. Never leave your best shots on the table. ;-)
Post Date: 9/9/2014 8:52:30 AM CT   Posted By: Sean
 Tuesday, September 02, 2014
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS captures Black Bear Sow and 4 Cubs
Seeing a mother black bear with 4 cubs is a rare opportunity. To get a photo opportunity of the same is even rarer, and to get a decent photo of the same is ... priceless.
 
The cubs were very fun to watch. They were in non-stop motion, running around, climbing on things (including mom) and playing with each other (rolling over each other). This activity level meant that things happened fast. Getting all four cubs in a single frame was very challenging (an image with less-than-four cubs would be far less remarkable) and a decent composition of the same was nearly impossible. Having the 200-560mm (with built-in extender) zoom focal length range was extremely helpful in this situation.
 
In this specific scenario (my only 4-cub image worth posting from this encounter), I decided to center the primary subject – the apparently-not-happy momma bear. I generally like to compose animals (and people) with more space on one side frame – so that they are looking into the frame. But, the large bear was positioned straight forward and looking (more like glaring) in the same direction with cubs on either side adding balance. I moved the camera just slightly to the right of perfectly centering the large bear to give the cub on the right a little more room to look into the frame because it was a "stand"-out.
 
Selecting the ideal aperture was another challenge for this encounter. At f/4, I needed and an ISO setting of 800 to get a barely-adequate-for-the-activity 1/320 shutter speed. At 300mm, at this distance, the under-1' (.3m) depth of field provided by f/4 does not keep more than the primary bear's eyes in focus. Using a narrower aperture of course provides more depth of field, but it also requires raising the ISO setting.
 
Raising the ISO to 1600 would have been acceptable to me, but ... I didn't want to go to ISO 3200 and the resulting f/8 aperture would have provided a still-not-nearly-deep-enough DOF of about 1.5' (.5m). Yes, the cubs would be less out of focus with the narrower apertures, but the background would also be more-focused, creating less separation from the big bear. As is often the case, there were multiple setting combinations that would have worked for this example and a compromise was required. I'd probably make the same decision the next time.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
300mm  f/4.0  1/320s  ISO 800  5760 x 3840px
Post Date: 9/2/2014 7:58:19 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II Captures Monarch Butterfly
Capturing good butterfly pictures can be challenging. Perhaps the biggest two challenges to butterfly photography are constant, significant subject motion and tattered wings.
 
Butterflies are seldom still and often have a mild fear of humans. Add a little wind to their lightweight, wing-dominated bodies and even a stationary butterfly has motion.
 
Tattered wings are often best overcome by finding a new subject. It is hard to get a great butterfly picture without a near perfect wings and butterfly wings seem to deteriorate rapidly in their short lives. Even good quality subjects can require significant post processing to make wing repairs.
 
Raise your own subjects and these two challenges are erased. Well, erased for a short period of time at least. The kids have taken such an interest in monarch butterflies that we now have milkweed (the monarch caterpillar's food source) growing amongst a section of our house landscape. I'm not sure what others think about these "weeds" in our landscape, but ... the girls collected some monarch eggs this summer and raised them indoors, out of the reach of predators. Last week, the monarch metamorphosis moved from the chrysalis stage to the butterfly stage.
 
A bit of warning is given before the butterflies hatch – the color of the chrysalis turns from bright green to transparent, showing the dark butterfly tightly packaged inside. But, it takes a watchful eye to see the chrysalis open as this event occurs very quickly. Once open, the monarch pumps its wings up rather quickly and then appears to remain the same – and motionless – for a long enough period of time to capture many photos.
 
I was ready for this particular hatching. I had the milkweed leaf holding the chrysalis in a Delta Grip-It Clamp that was sitting on the kitchen island. A moderate distance behind the main subject was a cardboard box with a sheet of printer paper taped onto it.
 
A Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II Flash was mounted to a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM Macro Lens and the lens was mounted to a Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR. A Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT Flash was in its shoe stand and configured as an optical remote slave to the ring flash.
 
The perfect-condition butterfly hatched and hung motionless from its chrysalis while I went into action.
 
The lighting I used for the butterfly image series I captured on this day, and a great technique for lighting in general, was separated by layer. The ring lite was providing the main subject layer lighting and the slave 600EX-RT took care of the background light with brightness levels individually controlled from the ring lite. With a white background and a set of Rogue Flash Gels, I was able to create a large variety of background colors for the images, but this particular shot's background was simply a green notebook. A variation I incorporated into some images, to create a less-even background color, was to use a coarsely crinkled sheet of aluminum foil as a reflector beside the printer paper.
 
After nearly two hours of posing, the butterfly became active and was released outdoors. After the forth butterfly hatched in as many days, I had enough willpower to just observe the process without a camera.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
100mm  f/11.0  1/200s  ISO 100  3840 x 5760px
Post Date: 8/26/2014 1:14:53 PM CT   Posted By: Bryan
 Monday, August 11, 2014
Kim Frick-Welker in the Lounge Chair
By Sean Setters
 
I run a small photography business and typically shoot high school senior photos, family portraits, maternity sessions as well as the occasional corporate work.
 
Last week I was hired by the Cookeville Performing Arts Center's Cultural Arts Program Assistant, Kim Frick-Welker, to shoot headshots to be used as promotional material for an upcoming show. After completing that assignment, Kim invited me back to CPAC to shoot another round of headshots for her own portfolio (Kim wanted various headshots because she occasionally acts in or directs theater performances).
 
Kim asked that her headshots be photographed using a black background. As she was wearing a black shirt, this requirement made the setup a little challenging. I had to push quite a bit of light onto the black curtain behind her (as well as use a hair/shoulder light) in order to provide enough separation between the subject and the background. Overall, Kim was happy with the images we got. The following was my personal favorite:

Kim Frick-Welker Headshot on Black

After shooting the headshots with the black background, Kim had what she had asked for. But the last time I was on stage, I was captivated by some of the set pieces being prepared for the upcoming play. I had imagined using the lounge chair as a prop and the understated, yet beautiful wallpaper as a backdrop. And I couldn't get that idea out of my head. So after we wrapped up the headshots Kim had asked for, I suggested we take a few more minutes and try something completely different. I explained to her what I was thinking and she readily agreed to extend our session a little longer. She decided a change of clothes might work better for the new setup, and I agreed.
 
Setting up the shot (seen at the top of this post) took 5 - 10 minutes. I used nearly the same lights and light modifiers that I had used in the previous setup, so it was merely a matter of moving around some furniture, a few light stands and my tripod.

Kim Frick-Welker Lounge Chair Setup

It only took a few shots to dial everything in. And after that, we captured some of the best images of the day. No, they weren't the images Kim had asked for – but she liked them even better (as did I).
 
So what did I take away from this experience? When clients hires you, they may have a set of guidelines (or restrictions) for you to follow in order to achieve specific goals. And there's nothing wrong with that. You have to give the client what they need.
 
But many times it's difficult to create the image that's in someone else's head, no matter how well they communicate it to you. So you do your best to give the client what they've asked for.
 
It may sound obvious, but here's something to keep in mind – anyone who hires you was likely impressed with the work you've already created. So if a shot really inspires you, it will likely inspire your client as well – so try to devote a few minutes to getting the shot you want to get, even if it's not a part of your agreed shot list. And then maybe both of you can walk away from the table getting more than you bargained for (in a good way).

Post Date: 8/11/2014 12:12:40 PM CT   Posted By: Sean
 Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II Flash and a Poppy
Macro lenses are among the most-fun lenses available and the Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II Flash makes getting great images with these lenses very easy.
 
The poppy is an especially big challenge to light from a top-down orientation. There are very few good methods to get light around the end of a macro lens without creating unwanted shadows deep inside this flower. The macro ring lite, with a pair of circular flash tubes positioned at the end of the lens, wraps a light around the flower's significantly-raised pistil while avoiding shadows created by the also-significantly-raised petals.
 
This result is what I was looking for. The lighting is somewhat flat, but there is plenty of color and detail in the poppy to keep me satisfied. This was a very easy picture to capture with the ring lite mounted.
 
Watch for a full review of the Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II Flash coming soon.
 
B&H has the Canon Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II Flash in stock.
 
Camera and Lens Settings
100mm  f/16.0  1/200s  ISO 100  5760 x 3840px
Posted to: Canon News
Post Date: 7/30/2014 8:27:56 AM CT   Posted By: Bryan
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