Over the past few months, several people have messaged me on Instagram and the book of faces asking how I get the water in a lot of my shots to be so clear and colorful. Well, this seemed like a great time to pass along a little of what I have learned over the years.
First I will answer the most common question I am asked on this subject, No, I didn’t use photoshop to paint in colors and detail. As you can see in the image above, the water in the foreground is very vibrant and clear. You can see the rocks and details under the water, and it looks almost a tropical color.
As much as I would like to say I have some secret skill or a magic wand that creates this look, It’s really much more simple that most people think. So in the majority of my outdoor landscape images, I use a filter that is called a Circular Polarizer. Here is a little of the science behind the filter.
The light that reflected off of a non-metallic surface becomes polarized. This effect is strongest at angles about 56° from the lens. A polarizer rotated to pass only light polarized in the direction perpendicular to the reflected light will absorb a lot of it. This allows glare reflected from water to be reduced.
So to simplify that, as you are looking through a lens with a Circular Polarizer attached, if you turn the polarizer you will notice the glare reduction and in some cases, disappear. There are 2 images below that illustrate this.
Both images are with the same settings, with a circular polarized and have the same post-processing adjustments. The image on the right is un-polarized and as you would see if there were no filter on the lens. The image on the left is the polarized image after turning the polarized about a half turn. You can see the difference mainly in the reflections off the water. The polarized image has very little reflection which allows you to see the detail under the water. In addition to the detail, you can see more of the color through the water.
For this image, I actually went with a semi-polarized shot because the contract created by the reflections improved the overall look. That’s just my opinion though.
There are a variety of Circular Polarizers on the market from a number of manufacturers. After using several different types, I am now using the LeeFilters system. They have wonderful clarity in the glass and the system is easy to use. If you are interested in learning more, there is a link HERE.
Hopefully, this has helped answer some of the questions you may have about photography. There are always new techniques and products coming out, I am learning more and more every day. Let me know if there is something more you would like to know and I will see about getting an answer for you.
The Milky Way…. For me, there’s always been something about images of the Milky Way that has fascinated me. I don’t know if it’s the idea that something as small as a DSLR camera can capture colors of gasses hundreds of thousand miles away that cannot be seen with the naked eye or the childhood obsession I have with space. For years I have wanted to capture a good shot of the center of our galaxy. And though I haven’t gotten what will be that one magical image that I have chased for so long, I am getting closer and am starting to get the hang of it.
To be up front and honest, I am far from an expert in the realm of Milky Way photography. There are many many photographers that are leaps and bounds beyond my skill level when it comes to this genre so please keep that in mind. This is just my learning experience over the past 2 years, and it is ongoing.
There are a few basic things you are going to need if you want to capture a shot of the Milky Way.
A camera that has the ability to take a 20 second exposure at an ISO of 3200.
A lens with a wide aperture capability.
A good tripod so you don’t get motion blur over the 20second exposure.
A dark place.
This is the very first attempt for me shooting the milky way. It was taken in my back yard just north of San Antonio Texas.
First off, the camera; I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark iv which has some amazing dynamic range capability. It isn’t the best for shooting night exposures but it is far from the worst. For the camera settings, as mentioned above, I use an ISO of 3200 with a shutter speed of 20 seconds. This is just a starting point and there are adjustments to be made depending on the darkness of where you are shooting and the aperture range of the lens with which you are shooting. If your camera has “noise reduction”, be sure it is turned on. This will help your final image and reduce the “graininess” that comes with high ISO speeds and also reduce star trails that are caused by the earths rotation.
The lens I use is a Canon 14mm f/2.8 L. I mentioned the importance of the lens aperture, this is one of the factors that is key for allowing those colors you can’t see with the naked eye to be absorbed on the film sensor. Normally I start with the aperture wide open at 2.8, and to be honest that’s normally where it stays. I have had luck with other lenses and smaller apertures up to 4.5 though. This all depends on the darkness that you are shooting in.
For focusing, set your lens to manual focus and focus all the way out to infinity. This is normally indicated with the ∞ symbol. Once I have set my focus, I put a peace of blue painters tape across the focus ring so I don’t unintentionally knock it out of focus. If you do this, use what tape you want. I use painters tape because it doesn’t leave a sticky residue when I take it off. I would also recommend checking your focus from time to time to be sure it hasn’t changes. It is very hard to see how sharp your focus is through the viewfinder or in the preview screen.
The image above was taken just west of Seguin, Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8
The next thing is the tripod. I use a Manfrotto 190 Aluminium 4-Section Tripod with a Manfrotto XPRO Magnesium Ball Head. Any sturdy tripod that will hold your camera perfectly still will work. As you probably already know if you have been interested in photography for a while, motion while shooting translates to a blurry image. This is amplified many times when you are using long shutter speeds like 20 seconds. Any movement over the course of the shutter being open will show on the final image. This can be as small as a footstep depending on the firmness of the ground your tripod is on so I try to remain as still as possible while the shutter is open.
A Dark Place
Lastly, a dark place. Now I’m not talking about a dark field 20 miles outside of the city. I’m talking about a place that can be rated on the Dark Skies registry. This for me, was and continues to be a challenge. I currently live in New Braunfels, a small town just north of San Antonio and south of Austin Texas. Being sandwiched between two of the brightest cities in Texas, I have to go pretty far to find some truly dark skies. This is where dedication to getting the image comes in. To get a good shot of the Milky Way I have to drive at least 2 hours to find a spot that has both dark skies and a foreground that provides some interest.
Fortunately, there are some tools that can help find your closest dark skies area in the form of apps and the good old world wide web. I use an app on my phone called Dark Sky, which was free to download. You can also go to the Dark Skies website to find an area with minimal light pollution near you, there is a link here.
Seguin Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8 / Comparing this shot to the ones below taken at Enchanted Rock State Park, you can see how light pollution can change the image making the milky way almost unnoticeable. This was about 40 miles outside of San Antonio but the bright city lights were just too much for the shot to come out how I wanted.
If you have never ventured outside the bright lights of the city you will probably be amazed that once you are in an area with minimal to no light pollution, you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye. It doesn’t appear as you see it in most pictures with all the vibrant colors. It’s more of a cloudy contrast of black and gray that crosses the sky. This may be difficult to find though depending on the time of the year that you are out. The summer is the best time to get shots of the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere, from what I have read at least.
You can still find the Milky Way even if you can see it with the naked eye by using one of several apps. Sky Guide, Sky View, and Star Chart are a few that are available for most smart phones. I use an app called PhotoPills. It isn’t a free app but it will allow you to plan a trip so you aren’t trying to figure out composition at that last minute, it allows you to find where you would like to shoot and then look into the future to see where the Milky Way will be a day, week or even months in the future.
As I mentioned above, I use a 20 second exposure, ISO 3200, and an aperture of f/2.8 as a starting point. This is something I set my camera to in manual mode before the sun even goes down. Depending on the darkness of where you are shooting, your first images can be over exposed. If this happens I adjust the ISO before anything else. As you may already know, the higher the ISO, the more “noise” you get in an image. Lowering the ISO when at all possible will help in the final image.
This is one of the most important parts in my opinion. If you just want to take a picture of the milky way to see that you can do it as I did from my back yard, there isn’t much planning at all needed. But if you want to capture an image that you can show off and hang on a wall, you’re going to need a plan. Below are the things I consider before I head out the door to capture any night shots, and most of this I do a month or more ahead of time.
Location: For me, its not enough to just take a picture of the stars. I like to have a foreground that is going to make the starry night stand out. I am a big fan of the Texas State Parks so I start by finding those on the Dark Sky map to find one that is within my driving distance and will allow some interest in the shot. I also pre-scout the location. I visited Enchanted Rock State Park 2 times before my trip to find the spot I liked and plan a route to get there and back in the dark.
Timing: Its important to know when the Milky Way will be viable when planning your trip. Its best to go during the New Moon cycle. This is when there is no to little moonlight that can contaminate your shot, the beginning of the month. Also, summer is better for catching the Galactic Center of the Milky Way. This is the brightest and most colorful part that really stands out in pictures. As I mentioned earlier, I use PhotoPills to locate where the Milky Way will be on a given date so I can compose my image prior to the trip.
Weather: Keep an eye on the weather leading up to the trip. Of course you want to know if there will be bad weather so you don’t get in a bad situation out in the middle of nowhere, but this also goes for clouds. Driving for a few hours just to sit under cloudy skies can be a big downer so knowing what you’re getting into can save wasted time.
Gear: There is nothing worse than getting to where you’re going just to find that you have forgotten something. Normally I will get everything I need laid out, checked and rechecked the day before to be sure I have everything I need. It goes without saying that the camera, lenses, and tripod are all important, but that isn’t what I have forgotten in the past. Extra batteries, flashlight, water, chair, snacks… Depending on where you are going you may be there a while and its best to consider not just the equipment you will need, but your comfort while you are there and what you will need to get there. For instance, one night I got eaten alive by mosquitoes. I now take insect repellent with me every time.
The image above was taken just west of Seguin, Texas late October 2016, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 2.8
There are a few other things that are really nice to have when shooting at night, but not essential.
A cable or remote shutter release. I use a Vello FreeWave Wireless Shutter Release that was purchased from Amazon.com. It allows both corded and wireless shutter release capability and I have not had any issues with it to date. Above I mentioned how important a good tripod is to have to avoid camera shake. This is in the same category but there is a workaround if you don’t have one. When the shutter is open for 20 seconds, even the smallest bump to the camera will cause a blur. That can be a slight as your finger pressing the shutter release. If you don’t have the option of a cable or remote shutter release, simply use the cameras 2 or 10 second timer. This will allow any shake that your finger can cause to reduce before the shutter opens.
A good LED flashlight, red is best. I use a Princeton Tec Vizz Headlamp that I purchased from REI. When you start your shoot in the black of night, you will probably want to re-position or move for a different shot. Obviously a flashlight is important for this. Most phones have a flashlight that will work for this. I use a head torch with a Red LED option, listed above. The red light will help you to retain your night vision so your eves don’t have to re-adjust every time the light comes on.
As silly as it sounds, something comfortable to sit on is really nice. The first time I went to the middle of nowhere under dark skies the entire shoot was about 3 hours. Waiting for the Milky Way to get in the right spot, recomposing the shot… this was 3 hours of kneeling or sitting in a sticker patch, and I surely felt it the next day. Now I take a light weight backpacking chair, the Alite Monarch Butterfly Chair that I got from REI. It ins’t the most comfortable thing but does do the job. You can use whatever you can carry to where you plan to shoot from a lawn chair to just a throw blanket to avoid dirt and thorns.
Camera Settings to Remember
Shutter Speed 20 Seconds
Focus to infinity
Noise Reduction on
Again, the camera settings above are just a guide and you will need to make adjustments depending on the conditions and your lens. The image to the right is a shot of the back of my camera just after taking the picture. It is unedited and shows what your camera can capture under dark skies. The image was taken at Enchanted Rock State Park in Texas, below is the image after it was processed in Adobe Lightroom along with another that was taken the same night.
Both images above taken at Enchanted Rock State Park, July 2016 / ISO 3200, 20 Seconds at f/ 3.5
For post-processing, I use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshot. As a disclaimer, I am not an Adobe or post-processing expert. This is an area that I am still learning and fine-tuning my skills so you may want to refer to other sources as well. I can tell from my experience, the darker the conditions were that the image was taken under, the easier the post-processing is. I have listed a few links below to YouTube tutorials that I have found helpful.
If you are considering getting into Milky Way photography I hope you have found this helpful. As I mentioned, I am still learning myself. If you are interested in learning more there are a lot of resources on the internet that can be very helpful. You may also want to find an expert in the field and ask about taking classes. My favorite camera store in Austin, Precision Camera & Video, has regular classes in many different areas of photography from beginner to advanced. If you have a camera store in your area you may reach out to them for educational opportunities.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments. Photography has been a passion for many years and I love talking, learning and helping all thing that are involved. Have a great day and get out there with your camera. You will never get that magical image without taking the first step.
Have you ever thumbed through a magazine or surfed the web and come across a picture that was so perfectly staged it made you want to buy whatever is in the image? This is commercial photography. A mixture of planning, lighting, staging, and processing. If you’ve got all that down and a great imagination to bring a product to life, you just need to find a company that will give you a chance to show what you can do.
This may be my favorite type of photography. Though I do enjoy spending time outdoors waiting for the sun, clouds and subject to be just in the right spot, there is something I love about thinking of an image and planning to make it a reality. Now admittedly, I am not some master commercial photographer. Truth is I have made very little in this area due to my own lack of motivation to dedicate enough time to chasing this dream. But, I have fond that with social media being so prevalent these days, it’s very easy to get your images noticed by specific companies.
Canon EOS SL1 / Canon EF 100 f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens
Canon EOS SL1 / Canon EF 100 f/2.8L Macro IS USM Lens
The first product shots I ever seriously took was for a local bakery in New Braunfels, Texas. This wasn’t something I was hired to do and I didn’t make any money on the images. It was more for the experience and to see what I could do. Honestly, most of the time I just enjoy the process so much I would do it for free anyway. After posting them on the baker’s Facebook page, they reached out to me to see if they could use 2 of them on their website and possibly to print for business. I was pretty flattered and give them the images below as long as they left my watermark.
After getting a little confidence in what I could do with just photographing an object, I started to experiment with different lighting, doing a little more staging, thinking outside of that I though someone would normally do. Not as easy as I thought at first. It seems all the great photo ideas have been taken so most of my time was spent trying to find something I liked and elevate it. Below is a row of tequila shots that came from something I saw in a magazine. The original image just had 2 shot glasses and a bottle in the background.
Now you’re going to start to notice a theme here and will probably recommend that I start attending AA meetings. I think a lot of people stick close to what they know and well, I may know a bit about whiskey. My first attempts at shooting whiskey pictures were pretty boring and normal, but I was happy with them at the time.
I used what I had around the house for these. Whiskey, a mirror, glass, and some speed lights…. Not very interesting as I mentioned but a learning experience all the same. After shooting a bit with actual ice I realized how difficult this was going to be. The ice would melt pretty quickly and I was constantly trying to get the cubes into the right position before they moved. If you ever plan to do anything with ice, I would recommend buying some high quality fake cubes.I picked up a set of 40 1 x 1 cubes for about $20.00 on Amazon.com.
The shot above was done using a StopShot, something I covered in a previous posts about water drop collisions. This just came from an idea and wasn’t done for anyone pacific. Looking back, this could have been much better adding some branding or just better staging.
The picture above was taken in my spare time for a great veteran owned business here in Texas. They do a lot of outreach for veterans that are coming back from the war and may need some help getting back to normal here in the states. It wasn’t much but I wanted to do something for those that are always doing for others. After sending it to them and reaching out on social media, they let me know they were impressed and would really like to see something a bit different that they could use. I shot the picture below for them, it is still one of my favorites.
Below are a few more of my favorite shots from my “Vices” album. They are geared more toward cigars as you will see, but I didn’t get far from the whiskey.
If I could pick just one genre of photography to make a living on, this may just be it. Some of the really great commercial photographers can spent endless hours coming up with and idea, then days innovating and planning to make that idea come to life in a briefer second. I follow several on Facebook, YouTube and email newsletters like Karl Taylor. He’s pretty bad ass and I may have a little man crush on his work. One of my favorite shots he has done involves 2 “ski jump” like ramps used to launch 2 glasses of whiskey (complete coincidence) into each other. I have watching and re-watching videos of his processes, lighting, planning, and attention to detail like I have a final tomorrow.
Someone told me a long time ago, find something you’re passionate about and learn how to make money doing it. Though I agree with that, I think it needs to be expanded on. Find something you’re good at. Passion will get you so far but it is up to you to challenge yourself, expand on you knowledge and constantly improve on your craft. But what do I know, I’m still in the beginning stages.I just keep telling myself it just takes one. One image, song, report or sale. You just need that one thing to make you shine and be noticed by the right person. Maybe that person is you.
For many years I have had an obsession with trying to photographing water drops and water drop collisions. There’s something about seeing liquids collide and the beautiful chaos that ensues.
My first attempt at capturing a collision was a long drawn out process of trial and error, and after several hours and hundreds of shutter releases later, I was left with a nice drop but no collisions at all.
Though at the time I was happy to have caught just one drop, looking back it isn’t very sharp due to a low powered flash set at full power. This was staged with a scrapbooking glitter paper in back of a small bowl of water.
For the water drop, I went low budget that filled a plastic bag with water suspended from a tripod. I cut a small hole in one of the corners and gradually increased the size of the hole until the drops were large and frequent enough to get a rhythm. The difficult part for me was releasing the shutter just after the drop hit the surface of the water rather than anticipating the impact and pressing it just before.
After many, many more waisted attempts to catch a collision I broke down and made an investment in a StopShot. This is a great little setup that allows you to time precise drops down to the millisecond. The ability to fine-tune the size of the drops and time in-between shots allows for some stunning images.
These images are all of 2 water drops released within milliseconds of each other falling into a trey of water. As the first drop impacts the water and rebounds back up, the second drop impacts the rebounding drop causing several different reactions. Some impacts just flatten the water almost like a nail head and others splatter like an explosion. Adding food coloring to the water really brings out some great reactions. The image below as with red water drops falling into a pan of clear water with a little dish soap in it.
The small bubble in the stem is from the dish soap and you can see the swirl of the red food coloring mixing with the water if you look closely. I really like the “bending” of the water as the second drop falls around the rebounding drop.
The process is really very simple with the StopShot. The control box connects to the drop timer as well as a strobe light source, I used speed lights in most of these. The camera is set to bulb and I release the shutter. At the same time I press the release button on the StopShot that releases the water drops. Once the timing is down, the flash will fire as the drops collide and I close the shutter. This freezes the image as you see below.
This isn’t a plug in and go system. There is a lot of calibrating and trial to get the timing of the drops just right. But after a lot of attempts and patience, you can really get some great images.
For more information about the StopShot, click here.
Living in New Braunfels Texas and working in Austin has a few drawbacks. What started as an hour commute and gradually creeped into 3 and a half to 4 hours in my car every day. Gotta say that part sucks.
The Long Center for the Preforming Arts
It’s not all bad though. If you look past all the traffic of one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, there are some incredible sights to see. From cityscapes and urban grit to parks and nature, Austin has it all. One of my favorite spots in Austin is the Penneybacker Bridge, or the 360 bridge to the locals. Located on the Colorado River and Loop 360 in West Austin, this little cliff offers some amazing views.
Overlooking the Pennybacker Bridge in Austin Texas
It would be a great setting for bridal or portrait photography, but I recently went for some long exposure shots of the bridge. Below is a 20 second exposure at f/22 using a Lee ND graduated filter.
Pennybacker Bridge in Austin Texas
There is a 2 tier cliff area that you can early walk up to from a parking area just off of Loop 360. It is a big hangout for Austinites looking to catch a nice sunset while they partake in some of the devils parsley, Keep Austin Weird…
Another place I really enjoyed going for a few pictures during lunch was the Texas Capital Building. Very easy to get to and free to get it, finding parking isn’t always easy or free though.
The Texas State Capital Building
Being high noon under clear sky, I decided to shoot in black and white. The building itself really is amazing and all the architectural detail really brought out some contrast from the harsh shadows. To see one of my favorite parts of the capital you have to go inside. The day I went had some pretty high tempters and with all the walking, well I got a little overheated. Just when you go in through the main entrance, past the park rangers and scanners, there is a large picture f Davie Crockett just to you right. If you need to cool off, stand just in front of it. There is a vent that blows some much needed cold air.
Texas State Capital Building Rotunda
Above is a shot of the rotunda just inside the Texas Capital Building. I took it from the 3rd floor balcony to get the angle I wanted. If you look to the upper right part of the rotunda you can see the white spiral staircase leading up. There are tours that will take you up through the staircase. I didn’t have time that day but would like to go back to see whats up there. The rotunda is pretty impressive from the ground floor as well. There are a few shots below showing what you would see looking up just as you walk in.
Texas State Capital Building Rotunda
Just southwest of Austin, in Driftwood, there is a wonderful little swimming hole called Hamilton pool. Locate just just off of 3238 is the Hamilton Pool Reserve. Bring some comfortable shoes though, theres a little hike with some elevation to deal with. But when you get to the pool, its all worth it.
Hamilton Pool Reserve
At the time I only has a 28mm and it really doesn’t do it justice. I really need to go back with a wider angle to get what I wanted. Below are a few other shots I got while there. I would recommend going early if you are going to be taking pictures. This is a popular spot for cooling off during the summer and can draw in the crowds. There are also some great walking trails along Hamilton Creek and the Predernales River.
Hamilton Pool Reserve
As I mentioned, it’s not all bad working in Austin. Great people, food and entertainment all centered around wonderful scenery. There is so much more to see that what I have posted here. The key is getting out to experience it for yourself and see it through your own lens.