I’d love to start today’s blog with an evil laugh—a deep, throaty “muwahahahah” that tells you something-wicked-this-way-comes. (That’s the only proper way to start a blog about Halloween, isn’t it?) But I don’t have anything fearsome to share as we barrel toward Halloween…unless you count NIGHTTIME PORTRAITURE as a fearsome undertaking.
Use what the night gives you!
Halloween is actually an excellent opportunity to improve on your nighttime portraiture skills. Great spooky shots of costumed creepers aren’t hard to take if you do a little homework in advance. And they can make for great cards to share with family and friends:
- If you’re inexperienced with nighttime photograph and have a camera with a “night portrait” mode, that’s a fair place to start. This mode combines a long exposure with a flash. Your subject will be captured by the flash while the long exposure will allow the background to fill in.
- The night portrait default setting white balances for the flash, and the result is often a warmer cast than people want. Play with your camera’s white balance until you find the cast that captures or creates the mood you’re going for.
- Ambient light is your friend for nighttime portraits. If possible, shoot near the glow from streetlights (or in the glow just after sunset). See what you can manage without your flash, but definitely don’t be afraid to use a combination of your flash and the ambient light.
- If your camera has a rear-synch flash option, try it out. This option fires the flash at the end of the exposure instead of the beginning.
- A high ISO setting of 800 or even 1600 is helpful when lights are low, but it can result in grainy photographs (not always a bad thing when you’re trying to go for a spooky feel). If you want to avoid too much graininess, then rely on your flash instead of the higher ISO.
- If your camera’s flash keeps washing out the photograph, try adjusting the intensity down a stop or two, or use a flash diffuser. If you can’t do either of these things, try covering the flash with a translucent piece of paper such as wax paper.
- Stillness is your best friend in night photography, but it’s tough to keep little costumed creatures from fidgeting, and many of them don’t realize that the photograph isn’t done just because the flash has fired. Ask them to hold as still until they hear the shutter click. Use a tripod or steady the camera by setting it on a shelf, table, or other fixed object.
Grainy with high ISO setting and a flash
Halloween photographs are often an ideal place to use the funky features of your photo-editing apps and software. For example, converting images from full-color to monochromatic color—especially rust-toned palettes—and increasing the “noise” can give them an old-timey feel. I don’t know what it is, but even the most innocent of old-timey photos can run a chill up the spine if nobody’s smiling or acting out in them. Snap a photograph of a child wearing a simple mask and a cape, run it through these filters until it looks like an 1800s tintype, and voila (I mean, “muwahahahahaha”), operation spooky is a success!
Get a few inside with good lighting…just in case!
Ever heard of Vivian Maier? A nanny with a keen eye for street photography, she shot her first photograph in the late 1940s and her last in the late 1990s. Though she amassed more than 100,000 negatives in her lifetime, nobody knew about them until she was two years from her deathbed. That’s when she lost a storage locker to public auction after getting behind on payments. Whether by luck or providence, that locker fell into the hands of a historian. Realizing he’d found a treasure, he later shared the photographs with the world. That was in 2007. Maier died in 2009.
Photographers and critics from sea to sea have been buzzing about Maier’s work for several years now. One thing I can’t help but consider when I look at it: She shot with a medium-format camera. Though medium-format cameras produce higher-resolution and higher-quality images, that’s not why I keep thinking about this. What gets me is the average number of shots that can be taken on a single roll of film. We’re talking 12. I bet she really took her time choosing her shots. You know: waste not, want not.
Photo credit: Vivian Maier (VivianMaier.com) New York Circa 1953
Today, we don’t have to be so choosy. We can burn a thousand images into a memory card, so what’s to lose? Well, it’s great that we can increase our odds of getting the great shot by making a bazillion attempts. But liberty comes with a price. And I think our price is this: We move at the speed of the world around us rather than slow down—think Matrix slow-mo—and really look hard at what’s worth photographing. And because we can, we let luck play a bigger role than it should.
So, today I’m posing the 12-shot challenge to all you photographers out there. Forget you have that memory card and pretend that the next dozen shots you take must really, really count. Slow down. Think harder. Imagine there’s no delete, no Photoshop, no bazillion tries. Put your very best effort into every click of the shutter. Just 12 shots. What will you create?
Ever look through your old snapshots and notice someone hamming it up for the camera, in the background of your shot? Though photobombing has become trendy of late, I suspect it’s been around as long as cameras have.
Photo credit: Shewasabird.com
How fascinating that a whole person can appear within a photographer’s frame without being detected by the human eye. That’s in keeping with what science tells us about how our brains see. That is, we see far less than we think we do. Even when we make a real effort to take in a whole scene, our brains don’t comply. They edit things down. They are selective. They try to figure out what’s most important and piece it together into a whole. In doing so, they miss stuff.
Have you ever heard of change blindness? It’s when you don’t see a change that takes place literally right before your eyes. Magicians capitalize on it all the time. Because of the way the human brain works, change blindness is really common. We all experience it, every day, probably thousands of times a day. You would not believe the things your brain doesn’t see! Example: I recently read about a study where people were asked to count the number of passes a team of basketball players made in a 30-second period. Few of them got the count right, but far fewer of them noticed the man dressed as a gorilla moonwalking through the scene partway through!
Other than psychologists, people didn’t talk much about change blindness until film editing was introduced in movies. That’s when film editors learned that little changes to the background, from one shot to the next, weren’t generally noticed by audiences. So again we come back to what cameras see versus what our brains notice. The two just don’t line up.
What can we as photographers learn from photobombers and change blindness? A lot, I think. We can learn that it’s important to take multiple shots of a given scene. We can learn that it’s important to try different angles. We can learn that it’s totally normal to have trouble with composition outside of a controlled environment, like a studio. We can learn how valuable post-production tools like Photoshop are. We can be reminded our cameras aren’t extensions of our eyes. They have their own eyes! We can try to make them see more like we do, or we can let them capture so much more than we noticed. No need to go only one way either. Playing with what happens between these extremes? That’s more fun than a barrel of photobombers.
Forgive me for the saucy title. I assure you it’s totally innocent and not something I pulled out of thin air (no cloud pun intended). If you’re a lover of photography who appreciates a beautiful cloud formation—and the art of social networking—you probably already knew that.
For those seeing the term cloudporn for the first time, let me explain. It’s one of countless hashtags people use on social networking sites such as Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Hashtags provide a simple way to label what you share online, kind of like connecting your stuff to a worldwide index. Take a beautiful photograph of clouds, post it on your social networks, caption it with #cloudporn, and voila: People who dig really cool photographs of clouds can now find yours, by searching for anything hashtagged cloudporn.
Cloudporn courtesy Steven Bauer
So now that we’re clear on cloudporn, let’ talk about how you can create it—and why it’s so gratifying! Simply put, clouds are great for drama and versatility. They come in countless shapes and patterns. They can do well playing the lead or in a supporting role. They can make a blue sky seem bluer, and help give complexity to sweeping landscape compositions. And they inherently complicate the natural light available to your camera, which can actually be fun to play with. Unfortunately, that last bit also explains why clouds can be so darn difficult to photograph. If you want to create cloudporn, here are some tips to get you started:
- Exposure. Clouds have a wide range of brightness, so metering is a challenge. Don’t rely on your camera’s Live View to help. Work with the brightness histogram and good old-fashioned trial and error instead.
- Filtering. A polarizing filter can help make the sky appear darker and manage all the contrast to better show off the clouds’ outline and intricate details. Polarizers are best used when the sun is completely to your right or left. A graduated neutral-density filter can help you show off the radiance of the clouds without getting blown-out highlights. And a sky filter can help you offset unnatural blue in the scene, a common cloud-photography problem.
- Composition. Decide if the clouds are playing a leading role or a supporting role. If they’re the lead, have them occupy the top two-thirds of the frame, and certainly not less than half. If you want them to simply enhance a landscape scene, give them only one-third. Keep foreground elements to a minimum, or lose them altogether, especially if the clouds are your primary focus. Play around with landscape versus portrait orientation. (People often forget to try portrait orientation with clouds.)
- Cloud types. Big cotton-ball clouds better known as cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds tend to be the most popular choice for photographers. Bright and puffy, they can evoke feelings of happiness. Dark and stormy, they can bring the drama. These clouds are usually best photographed from some distance. Their bases will appear darker so that their visual effect of an exploding upward will be highlighted and appear more dramatic. Don’t dismiss all the other types of clouds! Wispy, cirrus clouds can make for a wonderfully textured backdrop but also can have delightful sweeping patterns that make them almost Zen-like—and worthy of that top two-thirds of your frame. Flat, hazy, and often grayish in color, stratus clouds can be difficult to capture as a subject. They are really best used in a supporting role.
- Break the rules. In art, there really is no such thing as unbreakable rules. If unnatural blueness adds interest to your photograph, forget that sky filter. If the sun and the clouds are playing beautifully together, go ahead and let the sky hog up the entire frame if you want. In other words, take the guidance but follow your instinct where the rubber hits the road!
Have your own cloud-photography tips to share? We’d love for you to share them with others here—and would love to see your cloudporn, too. (Post them here—hashtagged #cloudporn if you want to go the extra mile!)