Photography Tips from my photography tours in Haines, Alaska

I have been a photo tour guide in Haines Alaska for a few years, and I always photography tips to optimize exposure, including ISO, aperture and shutter priorities as well as the fundamentals of wildlife photography. Guests often ask if a summation of these photography tips that I have covered is available. Well, here it is! I am happy to receive any suggestions or questions as this page evolves.

Elements of a good photograph

There are five elements to a good photograph, in my opinion. These are:

  1. Exposure. Perhaps the most fundamental of all the elements. There are three pillars of exposure: ISO, f-stop (aperture), and shutter speed. Each of these elements are discussed in some detail in my following notes. An easy way to judge the adequacy of your exposure is a quick glance at the histogram, which shows the tonal distribution of your photo across the range of light between black (underexposure) and white (overexposure). A wonderful article describing how to understand this histogram can be found at: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/understanding-series/understanding-histograms.shtml
  2. Lighting. The photographer’s best friend. Ansel Adams said a good photograph was a matter of standing in the right spot. What he failed to mention was how long you might have to stand there to find the optimal illumination.
  3. Sharpness and focus. This consideration has a great bearing on whether you choose to control your aperture or your shutter speed.
  4. Subject. What to leave in, and what to leave out! Make sure your audience knows what they are supposed to be looking at.
  5. Composition. Very closely related to subject, and in my opinion, the most important element of a good photograph. Volumes can be (and have been) written about compositional elements of a good photograph, and I would encourage you to search the internet for many articles on this consideration.

ISO

The very first photography tip we cover is to set your camera’s ISO. ISO refers to how fast your camera records an image of the light coming through the lens. In the days of film, the “speed of the film” was referenced by the ASA number. Digital camera manufacturers have corresponded the “speed” of the digital camera to the old ASA number with the ISO. The higher the ISO number, the faster your camera will record light, and this can give you an advantage with respect to shutter speed. While a higher ISO will allow you to shoot faster, or obtain better exposure in low light situations, it does come at a cost. The higher the ISO number you use, the more noise (aka grain in film vernacular) you introduce into your picture. There is software to eliminate noise, but this too comes at a price. Noise reduction software will reduce detail in your picture (not always a bad thing in terms of water, sky, or wet fur on a bear in the river) and adds one more step of processing to your digital image (the prevailing thought being the less processing a picture needs, the better.)

In the low-light environment of Alaska I generally recommend an ISO of 400.  A bright sunny day might suggest a lower ISO, but I like the advantage of the slightly faster shutter speed and 400 ISO is a very safe setting with regard to noise artifacts. Camera manufacturers are claiming astronomic ISO capabilities of their cameras, but I don’t trust the claims. I have done testing on a Nikon D300 (DX, or cropped sensor body) and a Nikon D700 & D800 (FX, full-frame sensor) and feel comfortable pushing the DX up to 800 ISO, and the FX up to 1600 ISO without much introduction of noise in the picture.

I do NOT recommend leaving your ISO set to automatic. You will find the results of your photography are unreliable if you do leave your camera to determine what is best. I have seen results where the camera’s metering system determined two radically different ISO requirements for subsequent shots of the same scene with unhappy results.

I DO recommend leaving white balance on automatic, as I find it far easier to correct color temperature in processing digital photos than worrying about that setting in the field.

RAW or JPEG?

I have dodged this bullet for some time on this page. There is a lot of debate, and good points on both sides. I like to shoot in RAW for the editing headroom this format allows me in post processing. I would like to refer my interested clients to review an excellent article on the pros and cons at: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/understanding-series/u-raw-files.shtml

Aperture priority mode and f-stops

What is aperture, and what is a stop? Aperture refers to the opening, or hole, through which light travels through your lens to your camera’s film or sensor.  Aperture is measured in f-stops, sometimes simply referred to as ‘stops.’ They are often referred to as f/numbers, for example f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/16, f/22, etc.  A stop refers to doubling or halving the amount of light that travels through the lens when you take a picture. Moving from one f-stop to the next doubles or halves the size of the amount of opening in your lens, and hence the amount of light that travels through.

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We use aperture mode to control depth of field. Depth of field (DOF) refers to that range of distance that objects in your photo are in focus. It is often used to isolate the subject of your photo from the foreground or background. If you’re not careful, you can also inadvertently have part of your picture (in the foreground or background) be out of focus when you didn’t want it to be out of focus. A large depth of field means that the foreground and background are going to be in focus relative to each other. A small depth of field means the object you are focusing on (presumably the subject of your shot) will be isolated and objects in front of, or behind your subject, will be blurry. This perspective control is a powerful compositional tool. Simply stated, the smaller the f-stop number (i.e., f/2.8) then the smaller the DOF. The larger the f-stop number (i.e., f/22) then the larger, or greater DOF. (The confusing aspect, and one that I often ignore in explaining aperture choices to clients in sake of simplicity and clarity, is that a small f-stop number indicates a large aperture, while a large f-stop number indicates a small aperture.)

Another consideration in choosing which f-stop to use is in overall picture sharpness. Generally, the larger the f-stop (smaller aperture), the sharper the picture will be. There is however a serious consideration that needs our attention here, and that is with respect to shutter speed. While your camera is in aperture mode, it is still operating in an automatic function, in that your camera’s metering will adjust your shutter speed based on your aperture choice to obtain what it considers to be the proper exposure. It is time to carefully consider what is happening at this point to see how three basic settings on your camera come together. The smaller the aperture (large f-stop) the more time it is going to take to allow the required amount of light through the lens to obtain a good exposure. This means a slower shutter speed. Now, if you bump up your ISO setting to a higher number, for the same aperture the camera will be able to increase the shutter speed to get the proper exposure because the ISO has made your “film” faster. (Conversely, as you use larger apertures (smaller f-stop) for any given ISO the camera will be able to take the proper exposure at a faster shutter speed. Take some time to let your head get around this balancing dance between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

In summation, my photography tip is to use aperture priority mode to control depth of field and overall picture sharpness.

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Shutter Priority Mode

Having come to the understanding that aperture settings and ISO can affect shutter speed, we need to be aware of the possibilities and limitations of shutter speed, and when we might want to switch from aperture priority to shutter priority. Shutter speed indicates how much time your lens stays open, allowing light to pass through the aperture. I use shutter speed to freeze motion. But what if your scene isn’t moving? Even if your scene is stationary, maybe your hands are not. Telephoto lenses are more susceptible to camera shake since small hand movements become magnified. Try looking through high powered binoculars and you will see the same effect. Longer focal lengths require shorter exposure times to minimize this blurring caused by shaky hands. So how fast is fast enough? The old rule of thumb was that you need to use a shutter speed which is the reciprocal of the focal length of your lens. For instance, if you are using a 200 mm lens, you would need to shoot at 1/200 of a second to attain a sharp shot that doesn’t have any blur. A 500 mm lens would require a faster shutter speed of 1/500 of a second. With today’s vibration reduction and image stabilization built into lenses, manufacturers claim we can shoot 4 stops down with safe results. (Half of 1/500th is 1/250th, half of that is 1/125, half of that is 1/60, half of that is 1/30 … that’s four stops. I would NOT feel safe shooting at 1/30 of a second with a 500 mm focal length.) So what is a safe speed to shoot at? VR (IS, OS) will give us a good edge on reducing camera shake, but I don’t like pushing the limit any more than I have to. I like sticking to old rules of thumb. On a static scene, I’m happiest if I can shoot at 1/250. I am okay with 1/125. I will go to 1/60 if I need to, but I am starting to get a bit nervous, and look to rest against a tree or set my camera on a pack or some other object to help me stabilize.  OR, we can use a tripod, which is always my best recommendation. With a tripod, you can shoot at any speed with good sharp results, assuming you are shooting a static scene.

While VR (IS, OS) will reduce blurring caused by camera shake, it will do nothing to reduce movement within your scene. It seems the breeze is always active when we are trying to take pictures of wildflowers. Hopefully the eagle will take flight. Bears are always moving from one fish to the next. When the scene is in motion we need to set our camera to shutter priority (TV … time value … on a Canon). On wildflowers, your setting will depend on the amount of breeze. Experiment. I would suggest starting at 1/250 to start, and move it up or down as results indicate.

In summation, my photography tip for is the use shutter priority to control sharpness (or lack of) of subjects that are moving in your field, particularly wildlife. As to wildlife, let’s move to the next topic.

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Wildlife Photography

If I am shooting wildlife, I always go to shutter priority or manual mode to fully control the exposure parameters of my camera. Wildlife moves, and if you are not ready for the action, you will end up with a blurry picture and a memory card full of regrets. When I am photographing bears or similar animals, I find that a shutter speed of 1/500 of a second is pretty ideal. Take some test shots when you get to your location to make sure you are happy with your exposures. In the poor light of Alaska, or with the onset of evening lighting (pretty common when shooting wildlife) you want to make sure you have a reasonable exposure. Adjust the ISO if necessary, or bump up your camera’s exposure compensation (I often do both). Remember if you are shooting RAW, you have more editing headroom, but increasing the exposure value in the editing software often increases the noise/grain of the picture and we don’t want that if we can avoid it. Set your camera’s auto focus mode to continuous servo  and dynamic area auto focus in anticipation that the scene will be moving. I like to set my metering on spot or center-weighted,  but usually the former.

Birds present a greater challenge, and eagles in particular pose the greatest challenge.  A bird in a tree will decide suddenly to take flight, and at that point you need to be shooting with a very fast shutter speed or you will end up with a blurry picture. I find 1/1000th of a second to be essential to obtaining a good result. Remember to take some test shots to determine if there is enough light to provide an adequate exposure. If there isn’t enough light, you should settle for a well exposed shot of the eagle posing amidst spruce cones and sacrifice the action shot for another day under better conditions. Take LOTS of shots. It is interesting to me to see how expressive eagles can be from one moment to the next, just as people’s expressions change from moment to moment. If light allows you to shoot at the faster speeds, and the eagle takes flight, pan! That is to say, move with the eagle, trying to keep the bird in the center of the frame, so your camera is moving as the eagle is moving. Again, continuous servo and dynamic area auto focus, along with continuous shutter mode (the camera continues to click off shots as you hold the shutter button down – test this, as your camera has a memory buffer issue and you can only get off a finite number of shots before the camera has to catch its breath) give you the best chance of having some quality shots in the collection. Practicing this technique will pay off. The more you practice panning while a bird is in flight, the better the chances are that you will nail a winning shot when it counts. If eagles are not around, I practice with seagulls, because they rhyme with eagles! A tripod may or may not be handy to your cause. Often eagles are off in the distance and the chance of getting a clean shot is greatly improved if you are shooting on a tripod. With a ball head mount you can keep the set screws somewhat loose so that you can pan with the camera on the tripod. I use a pistol grip ball head mount so that I can quickly release the head with my left hand while holding the camera and operating the shutter with my right hand. If the bird decides to fly over your head or behind you, the tripod truly limits your range and can be a hindrance. This is a judgment call for each of us to make. And at this point, I must say that nothing beats a long lens. The Sigma 150-500 mm lens is an excellent option but doesn’t work well with teleconverters. If you are serious, the 500 mm prime lens with teleconverters takes the day and you will be proud to stand toe to toe with the big boys with their big toys. Prepare to sell your truck or mortgage your house. I have both lenses, and the Sigma is generally my go-to lens for portability. It is amazing how much detail there is available in a picture that is taken from some distance. If you have a good clean shot you can crop and make your photo look like you are closer than you actually are. Practice! Lots of shots, safety in numbers.

The greatest challenge in taking pictures of eagles, in my opinion, is exposure. The head of an eagle is a very reflective surface and is often overexposed after your camera’s light meter determines the optimal exposure for a scene. You end up with what I call a 100-watt eagle. There is no way to recover those overexposed highlights. At this point you should take full control of your camera and go to Manual mode. Set your shutter speed to the desired time value. Then set your aperture. There are two ways to approach this setting. The easy way is to spot meter on the eagles head, take your picture, and set your camera to display highlights by blinking at you where you have over-saturated the whites. Stop your aperture down (larger f-stop number) until the blinkies go away. Conversely, you can reduce your exposure-compensation setting on the camera. I prefer setting aperture, personally. Another approach is to take something white (I often carry a golf ball in my vest pocket, or the foam cushion in a filter case works similarly well) and meter on the object with the camera faced in the general direction of your subject eagle. Change your f-stop until the camera’s light meter indicates a proper exposure. (This assumes the eagle is in a similar lighting condition as your ‘white card.’ If you are in the shadows, and the eagle is in the sun, this method isn’t as good as the first suggestion.)  Having done all this, and leaving the camera in manual mode, if the eagle goes flying off, your camera wont be reevaluating the exposure values as the background changes, and your bird will continue to be well exposed. All this can take a while, so don’t forget to take those ‘insurance shots’ first so you have something to take home regardless of what happens next.

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