Q&A: Are your images “Sharp enough” or “Sharp!”

Does it matter if all your images are tack sharp?  Well, that depends on what you want to do with your images.  Or who and how you plan on showing them to others?  For posting on the web and on social media… sharp enough is usually good enough.   Facebook, Instagram, and other social media formats shrink and compress the image files and the images don’t always look great even from a really sharp image… but a good quality image does help it stay looking good when the are done with it.   Also it is important to note, when editing a really sharp image that is properly exposed, over editing them is not always as apparent so the overall image looks much better also when done.

Below are two images taken within the same exact second with a 5D Mark 4, using a Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens using a 2x converter for a total of 600mm.  A 5D Mark 4 takes 6.6 to 7 frames per second, so that is not surprising.  And for a fast moving subject like birds in flight, depending on the angle, they can really challenge the auto focus systems of any camera and photographer, because it takes both to get a sharp image.  Technique being way more important more often than the camera for moving subjects, even with newer cameras are getting better all the time and lenses with image stabilization that recognize panning motions help as well, but good technique will increase your “keeper” image rate drastically.   You don’t need a $10,000 dollar camera to take great photographs of most subjects on a sunny day, but try a moving subject or even a subject sitting still in a snow storm.

Both of the images were 1/2000, ISO 1000, and f/7.1 at 600mm so the technique had to be spot on since the bird was coming at an angle off to my slight right so it was almost coming toward me.  The closer it passes, the faster it will appear to be moving, and the harder it is to keep the focal point on the eye of the subject and the depth of field was getting smaller.   The eagle was coming by for a relatively low close flyby, but thank goodness not too close, and I was handholding the camera, which I usually do when out shooting birds in flight, or birds period unless I’m in a blind type situation.   It was about 25 degrees out and sunny, so the air was clear and free of moisture that can add haze to bird in flight images and why the sky was so blue.   It was a two pair of gloves day with everything covered including my eyes with sunglasses.

The first thing I look at is the “catch light”, which can be in the birds eye or on other reflective parts of the bird.  You would be surprised how often, there is a catchlight on the claws or beak on bright sunny days.  Sometimes, the catch lights are on drops of water near the birds face, but in most cases if you have a small catchlight that doesn’t look like an over exposed blurry square, that is a great sign you have a really sharp well exposed image.

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Sharp eagle closeup!

Sharp enough for most…when not 3x regular size as it is below.

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Dull eagle close up… sort of

After that, Start looking at the feathers and the depth of field to make sure the image is clean.  The longer your lens and the larger your aperture the smaller your Depth of Field (DOF) relative to distance to your subject.  And for the bird you also have to pay attention to the Plane of Focus as well.   If you are using more than the single point of focus, your camera will focus on the closest point to the camera of your subject, like the tip of the wing.  If you have a shallow DOF, which you likely do shooting birds, then you may get a great photo of the wing closest to you and the body of the bird is out of focus.  For most photographers, it takes a lot of practice to keep a single point of focus on the head, eye or a centered focal point of the subject to keep your small moving subject.

When evaluating my images the uniqueness of the behavior gives some breathing room to allow for the images being less sharp.  But that is mostly for images posted to the web, large prints are not as forgiving.

Next, look for the lines around the edge of the head or subject center of focus, is it a really thin line enlarged, or a little wide… thin is good.  Below is the sharp image that the was focused very well .

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Sharp actual image

Below is the image that is sharp enough for the web or Facebook, but cropped a little closer to make it easier to see, it is not as clean as the image above but doesn’t look that bad.

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“Sharp enough” for web or small images

I take photos of what I want, when I want and post what I want all for me.  I use Facebook to look back at previous years to see where I went to take photos, and look back and see where I had fun.    I like taking photos of moving subjects, because of the many challenges associated with moving wildlife and sports.

My photographic journey is for me.   Most days I go out shooting for just for the practice and to be ready when the light, subject, and I are all in sync and can capture something cool.   And if you follow me on Facebook and Instagram, you will know, I share shots from every weekend, when I go to a contest or just go for a walk.   I’ve met some great people and made some friends along the way, but in the end,  it comes down to is the image sharp enough for me?

Below are a few more quick edits, mostly eagle shots, from the same morning Jan, 8th in Green Pond, S.C. as we were thawing out from a really odd long cold spell for the area.  I had hoped that the freeze would make all the birds hungry and the fish slow, and I got lucky.  I took over three thousand photos that morning.  I could clean them up, likely a lot, but they are sharp enough from me.   Even after taking photos for over 30 years,  my best photos to me are the ones I will take next time!

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Egret toe drag, was one of the shots I was trying to get that morning because the water was so smooth!
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The ice broke up my of the eagle reflection on this dive, but I was not too broken up about it.
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Again, the ice broke up the reflection and the egret was just glad he was not the fish.
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Snatch and grab.  I had slowed down the shutter to 1/800 of a sec to help show some wing tip motion and it worked out great on the splash of the fish.


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Eagle going for the fish in the ice.   I missed the next shot, I was so close, and they duck their head and lower their wings when they hit the water unlike osprey that go right in, so I missed a few shots at this angle, but I know for next time now.

Built in Camera settings on the Canon 7D Mark II with Sunflowers

When using a Canon Camera, it has a few built in JPEG or JPG image processing options, that can be set to tell the camera how to process the RAW image file at the time of capture.  It uses these settings in combination with the White Balance selected,  and saves the file as a JPEG, in camera and drops all the extra information and compresses the file after getting rid of the excess baggage that all the other presets save into the RAW file.  This JPEG creation process also is a lossy compression image option.  The process of creating the JPEG file drops detail and adds compression artifacts that need to be repaired to have an image that is captured as a JPEG look as good as a RAW image file.

When shooting some sporting events,  I’ll shoot JPEG to make editing the images after the event easier.  If the weather and light is constant, then applying the knowledge of how each preset can impact the JPEG process, letting the camera’s software process the image, saves time when processing the images after the event.    If I shoot JPEG,   I like the finishing touches that  Topaz’s Dejpeg 4 and Topaz’s DeNoise 6 provide as additional tools in combination with Lightroom CC.  They help refine the images, or clean them up, to get the final image quality that I would want for a print or to display on a really large detailed monitor.  If you are not a photographer, you may not even notice the improvements.  

If you elect to shoot JPEG, knowing how each setting impacts the final image really helps you to determine which setting to use.  Changing them later in Lightroom, is possible, but it can degrade the quality of the final output.  When the original  JPEG file was created, in camera, it dropped all the other information captured in the RAW file that would have been used to support the other White Balance Settings optimally, for example.  And that could have been used for other settings.

If you shoot RAW, you can take some RAW files and look at how each of the settings would have impacted the final images in Lightroom yourself.  But if you don’t have access to Lightroom CC, below is the same image capture today in RAW, but exported multiple times, only changing the settings that the camera would use to help create the JPEG file, based on how the camera was configured at the time of capturing the image.  Some of the differences are very subtle and some are easily noticeable.

Since RAW files do contain all the image details and data captured at the time the file was created, pushing the limits of editing images created in difficult light or even with the exposure slightly off can be addressed without the loss of image quality.  Try to brighten a really dark JPEG file, and the noise can make it look pretty rough, but with RAW,  lightening a file by a F-Stop or two, is usually not an issue.

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Camera Standard As Shot WB
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Camera Portrait – As Shot WB
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Camera Neutral – As Shot WB
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Camera Monochrome – As Shot WB
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Camera Landscape – As Shot WB
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Camera Faithful – As Shot WB
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Adobe Standard – As Shot SB

The rest of the images below all are shown with the Camera Standard, but I chose each of the Preconfigured White Balance settings.  White Balance is set based off the Temperature of the light and a Tint setting and deserves a whole article someday, maybe.  If I get around to it.

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Camera Standard – Auto WB Temp 4050 Tint +30
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Camera Standard – Flash WB
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Camera Standard – Flourescent WB
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Camera Standard – Tungsten WB
20160626- 2016 - Donnelley WMA-CameraStandard_Shade
Camera Standard – Shade WB
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Camera Standard – Cloudy WB
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Camera Standard – daylight WB

Maybe you never shoot an image in RAW, or take the time to learn all of the default camera settings and how they impact your shots.   But knowing a few of the more important ones, and how they impact your final images may help to save a life time of memories in a more vibrant light.

Photo tour with Doug Gardner on Lake Marion

Took a few pics at Lake Marion with Doug Gardner and a few friends one a photography tour.  We had a great time.

Also I included a few other photos from the same weekend at Magnolia Gardens.  See if you can tell which are which.

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Perfect Light, Interrupted

As as a photographer, you might have noticed that I practice a lot. Always in the hopes of great light and cool subject coming together and capturing something that I want to look at over and over again. Maybe someone else too, but that is really not important.
Primarily I shoot handheld or on a monopod, so technique and knowing my limitations and my gears limitations is paramount. How slow of a shutter speed can I hold my 300mm on a crop camera, and constantly have sharp focus? (3 out of 4 shots at 1/15’s of second with my new lens, so far on a good morning.)
I also walk or drive around thinking about what the camera settings would need to be to capture images of things passing by.   What lens would I use, what time of day I’d want to try to capture the image.  Or if I have my camera, I’ll “guess” the settings and take the shot to see how close I was to what was needed.  It is a fun way to pass the time between real subjects.  So I take more photos than most photographers everywhere I go.  But that’s OK.  Like I said, it is practice for those rare moments of great light and cool subject.
I also spend a lot of time studying my subjects or shooting it repeatedly, if living,  so I know if it has any patterns of movement, being able to anticipate what it is about to do, because, if you see it through the lens, it is over already and you missed it.  Different birds have different hunting habits and knowing how they are going to move and how fast, really helps to know when pressing the shutter, might catch something cool.  
This morning the light was perfect, diffused natural light provide by some clouds and some soft 20160501- 2016 - Magnolia Gardens-35early morning sun.  I was also having a great steady morning.  My warm up practice shots were going well.  My first 50-200 shots are warm ups everyday, as a part of my daily or weekly practice process.  I was still shooting some of my warm up shots, when I noticed something was about to happen, and got a bad photo of the one that got away.
I was starting to catch some images in great light that I liked.  The three attached are RAW shots out of camera, with crops only.  No cleanup or sharpening yet.  If you know your digital processing, all RAW images need to be cleaned up.  Out of camera, RAW images are like a digital negative image straight from the sensor without sharpening or any normal cleanup added that is done to JPG files in camera automatically.
Now, ready for something cool to happen, and hopefully capture it, everything was great and I was ready, or at least I thought I was.
Just then the phone rings, and my son had a small car emergency and in seconds I’m running out of the swamp, leaving perfect light and a few interesting subjects for another day.  Glad I at least got to finish my practice shots and grab a few pics I like to look at, before the phone rang.   See more of my practice photos at www.carymcdonald.com .
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Last shot before the phone rang.
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2016 – Photography goals

Since 2011, and getting back seriously into my hobby, I’ve been focusing on taking lots of images and attempting to master capturing the image that I envision of the subject in the camera.  After over 200,000 images and many hours taking photos of various subjects in various light conditions, my goals have started to change.  My goals are becoming more refined to achieve the envisioned end results.
To that end, for 2016 most of my photography goals are around photo editing.  Working on stretching the limits of the digital medium and correcting the deficiencies captured in the digital bits stored on the computer’s hard drive. All digital images have noise.  All Lenses have imperfections in refracting the light and other imperfections.   All cameras have different strengths and weaknesses.
The others goals for 2016 are around getting a new lens and capturing certain sports images with the new lens.  The new lens will allow me to get improved quality sports images from further away from the subject.  Last year, to get the images I wanted I had to get closer to my subject.  Standing in the ocean to get surfing photographs or standing in or sitting water up to my chest to get skiing images that I wanted.  The new lens will allow me to stay out of the water, or in shallower water, at least,  and get the images I want.
While saving up for the Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens that will likely cost more than my youngest son’s first car, I’ll be focusing on the editing side of my goals.  So to find images that need more fixing, I’m going back to images that were taken with a camera and lenses that had more imperfections that need to be addressed.
That may seem strange, but editing images on the computer is very much like it used to be spending hundreds of hours in a darkroom getting the image you saw in your mind on the paper, but now it is bringing that image  onto your computer screen and into print in some cases.    I decided to stop using Aperture 3 while back and I purchased Adobe Creative Cloud, Nik Collection for B&W editing, and some of the Topaz Labs DeNoise 6 software.
I’ve got 40,000 images from the last four years to play with and below are a few as I learn how to use DeNoise 6.   All of the money earned with my images goes towards new lenses and cameras and your support is appreciated.   Buy some images to use as screensavers or to print or purchase professionally printed images online at my at www.carymcdonald.com. If you see a subject you like let me know and I bet I have more images as well.    Happy shooting!
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RAW image from 2014 edited with Topaz DeNoise
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RAW image from 2014 edited in just lightroom
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JPG from 2015, smoothed out with Topaz DeNoise.
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Great Egret from 2015 Edited with Topaz DeNoise.

Q&A: How does shutter speed impact photo sharpness?

20151107- Magnolia Gardens flowers-175The photo above was shot at 1/125 of a second, F/5 and ISO 100 at 200mm non image stabilization lens.  (70-200 f2.8 L non IS canon lens)

First, what is shutter speed?

In photography, shutter speed or exposure time is the length of time when the film or digital sensor inside the camera is exposed to light, also when a camera’s shutter is open when taking a photograph. The amount of light that reaches the film or image sensor is proportional to the exposure time.  

Read here to find out more about the exposure triangle and shutter speed and camera shake.

With the longer focal lengths, the shorter the shutter speed the more likely you will be able to achieve a sharp image.   The rule of thumb for a 35mm lens is 2 x focal length x Crop factor = min shutter speed to hand hold lens.

The image above was shot at 1/125 a second when based on the formula above it should have been at 1/320 a second or higher.  So how did I get a sharp image?  Why did I want to shoot at 1/125 a second?  I was at f/5.0 and I could have gone down to f 2.8  from f 5.0 with my lens or raised my ISO and easily used a faster shutter speed.

A few reasons.

  • ISO 100 on a properly exposed image has the least amount of digital noise for the cleanest possible image.
  • At f/5 and 200mm and 180 inches from the subject the DOF was just over 3 inches.
  • I spend countless hours practicing holding a camera still for just such an occasion by improving my handheld technique.
  • Using a slow shutter speed allows for the proper exposure in early low light situations and also allows for creative exposures as well.

Creative exposures allow for images to show movement or blurred parts within an image making them more unique or giving a more intimate image.  I took about 40 images trying to capture the image below with the little blue heron shaking the water out of it’s breakfast.

Knowing how to break the rules on purpose is one of the many challenges of photography.

Happy shooting.
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#photography #shutterspeed #sharpimages #cary_mcdonald @cary_mcdonald



Q&A: Why are my images sharper with a lens with a larger aperture?

Lenses with a larger aperture are called faster lenses.  Look at the image below and think about it.  When a camera focuses, it uses the light coming through the lens to focus.  The more light that comes through the lens the more information the camera sensor has to use to focus the lens.  The aperture shutter opening is as large as possible until you push the shutter button.   So the camera can focus the lens faster with more light.

The more expensive the lens, the and the larger the aperture, the more glass and heavier the lens will be usually.  If you don’t have a nifty fifty for your DSLR, you should have one as it is the best lens buy that exists at around $99 if you shop around.  It is a f 1.8 lens, but at F/4 it is a super sharp lens and very clean.  At 10 feet away from your subject on a crop sensor camera, it acts like an 80 mm lens and has a DOF of about 22 inches.   From 6-10 feet is a great portrait lens.  Focus at 30 feet away, at f/16 and you have a great landscape lens and everything 15 feet from you away will be in focus because of the hyperfocal distance.  This lens may hunt for focus sometimes in really dark situations, but that is usually when any other lens would not even try to focus in a very dark room.

Add a small extension tube, and it makes a great macro lens, which is what I used for the image above.  The “Nifty Fifty” is always in my camera bag.  If someone is just getting serious about photography, this should be the first lens that is purchased to compliment stock camera lenses.  It has enough range to challenge and test the best photographers in many normal situations.   Again, I’m not going t get technical, but Cambridge in colour is a great website to find out more about photography terms and concepts.

Check to see how where your lens’s peak performance settings are at this link for canon camera lenses.

Why is a smaller number better?
Full F-stop images

Q&A: Why is “knowing where to stand” so important to getting a sharp image?

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”– Ansel Adams

This is one of my favorite photography quotes by Ansel Adams, but you have to take into account that he was a master landscape photographer. One of my favorite images of him is the iconic image of him on top of his car to capture an image.   So when he said knowing where to stand, he was really talking about perspective.   Moving yourself and your camera to have a unique view or finding the most flattering angles for a flattering image of your subject with a visually appealing composition. But also about the phase angle of light to provide contrast and detail in your images.

For sharper or more detailed images, knowing the phase angle of light and when a polarizer would be beneficial will make your images sharper and contain micro shadows that provide detail.  Again, I’m not going to get technical about it, but learning how a polarizer works will help you know where to stand or when to put one on your lens.  When shooting a living moving subject, I usually choose to leave off the polarizer filter.  Reaching out towards the end of your lens to your subject might scare it off before being able to make the best use of it.

All of the images below were from an outing on Tuesday Nov. 24,  2015. I started out at the bridge and went to Magnolia Gardens.  Almost everyday I go out to shoot, I have a rough plan or idea of what I’m going to practice.  I know which lens I’m going to take with me when I leave the car and try to stay on task, but try to be flexible enough to see what is around and adapt also.  It was initially a very cold morning and frost was on the ground when I left the house and I didn’t think any birds would be out early.

My goal for the morning was “eyeballing creative and balanced exposures” for some landscape shots.    I was not going out to capture anything specific, but wanted to get some images without using the back of my screen or my histogram until I was done shooting at the location.  Before leaving a location, I will look at the images to see how I did on the exposures and see if need to try again.

Why do I do this?  If you “know” what the exposure should be approximately as you are walking up evaluate a shot,  getting the camera setup the way you want it is much faster with less trial and error.  So knowing where to stand becomes the hard part, and the exposure settings become second nature.

If you go out taking photos often, you will find that those special moments where the light, location and subjects are just right to create a unique and spectacular image are few and far between.  Anything you can do to practice or be ready for those moments helps.

Recognizing those moments is one challenge and then being ready to take advantage of those fleetingly changing elements as efficiently and effectively as possible is another challenge that practicing and pushing yourself helps accomplish.

After my 2nd location of getting some trees and moss “eyeballing” exposures, I walked up towards my third spot.  This thirds spot was a softball. I believe could almost shoot this location blindfolded I’ve been there so often, but as I was walking up I saw a immature  little blue heron(Bert) that had been there a few times the last few weeks.   If you follow me on facebook you would have seen some of the previous shots of Bert the last two weeks.  I spent so much time with him, I gave him a name.  lol  When I saw him, I turned around and “ran” back to the car, all the while thinking about what I wanted to capture when I returned.

I had my 17-40 L lens on which is my goto landscape lens and knew I wanted more length.  My previous visits with Bert, I had on my 300mm L IS f/4  lens, but a few times, I was able to get too close for the 300mm to have a DOF that I wanted.  At 10 feet from your subject at 300mm at F/8 that is just over one inch DOF.   (F/8 is where I start with my 300mm f/4 lens for the best quality image, corner to corner and I’ll blog about it later.)

I was planning to be closer  than 15 feet and wanted a deeper DOF,   so I grabbed my 70-200 f/2.8 L lens.  It does not have IS, but is one of my favorite lens when trying to be creative.  Also at 200mm at 10 feet, it has a 3 inch DOF at f/8 or  6 inches at 20 feet or at 100 mm 6 inches DOF at 10 feet.

As I headed back to Bert, I also knew that I wanted to get as low as possible  to smooth the background and get the light reflected from the water at the strongest point possible.  Also the lower you go as you get close the closer you can get before the bird feels threatened. Also you have to approach silently as possible.   Getting any animal at eye level or just below is a great angle for wildlife.  This is a wild bird, so it is going to go where the food is and it feels comfortable.

Since it was just above freezing, I was covered head to toe and I had on a black hoodie and gloves and the only skin exposed was behind my camera from the bird.  I was able to follow the bird for about 90 minutes total some of that time, standing in the swamp behind a tree and at another point I laided down where I expected the bird to feed as it made its way around the edge of the water.   I set up on where I expected the bird would feed and I would have an optimal view as long as nothing scared the bird away.  I also laid down where I could see into the water and not the reflected area behind it.  I did not need a polarizer in this case, to get the sharpest image.

This was one of those moments that I knew would not likely repeat itself with the same light angles and subject.  I took 600 photos during the 90 minutes following Bert.  500 of those shots were practice, anticipating the birds movements, catching the angles of the eyes, the subtle tilt of the head.  In this situation, I have a goal of 95% of the images to be in focus and on exactly on what I was aiming to be in focus, the eyes or the water droplets flying when eating.  (I’ll blog about my editing process later and my 95% goal.) When I done and I could not hold my arms up or still any longer, it was time for me to go home.

In this case, it was not about standing to get the best image, it was about laying down and getting dirty next to some cypress knees and letting Bert come to me.  I hope you have the chance to get to know your own “Bert”.

At 10 frames a second, there were only 10-20 seconds out of those 90 minutes that I was really looking to capture images of Bert that I thought were worth keeping. They are those moments that keep me going out to take photos every weekend.  But all of them are just as important to learn from.

Can you spot any of the images that I considered keepers?  I included only 4 shots of Bert that I would print.  Please, let me know which ones you think are my keepers are with comments on the images of Bert.








Q&A: How can you use Long exposures to make people disappear in a pinch.

Sometimes you cannot control when you have access to a location, or if you are the only people that are there at the same time.  This happened to me this weekend.  My wife and I visited Angel Oak on John’s Island, SC.  It is a very popular tourist site with a very old oak tree and definitely worth a visit.  The resurrection fern is really cool too, make sure you go during a wet season.

There were about 50 strangers walking around the old tree while we were there so trying to get a clear shot was impossible.  (I will go back on a bad weather day someday and get some cool shots, but I wanted something yesterday. )  The cover photo shows what I could get by waiting on people to leave, but the signs were still all over the place and I wanted to minimize their view as well.

I had a ND8 filter in my car and my tripod in the car.  So I set up some shots for over 10 seconds and if no one stayed still too long, they looked like little ghosts in the final images.  Are these my best work?  Not at all, but it was fun playing with long exposures and making people disappear.  Now I know I can do this at other locations and with a little practice, get some really cool images.


long exposure test
long exposure test
long exposure test
See the people that stood still for too long and almost appeared in the shot?

Q&A: How does DOF impacts image sharpness?

After you have been taking photos for a while, you may advance to a point where you are trying to limit the depth of field or DOF to make the subject of your images more pronounced or really stand out in your images.   When doing so, it can make your images soft and it is all about the math.   The more light that the lens lets in or the larger aperture, the less of what is coming through the lens is in focus.   More light means less overall detail in your image due to a smaller DOF  or plain of focus.   There is lots of info on the web about DOF and Cambridge in Color was one of my favorite places to read about photography to dig in deeper.

In most cases, better lenses let in more light and are more expensive.  On a budget, and you don’t have a nifty 50, get you one to play with and really learn about DOF through practice.   Download a free DOF phone app too and use it.  The better your lenses the more you need a calculator or to memorize the chart.

Below are three shots:  a sharp one, a close up of a missed shot and the full image of the missed shot.  Look at the closeup of the missed shot.  You can see the legs are in sharp focus, but the eye and face are soft.  This is where many photographer’s cameras focal points are not on the right spot to get the eye in sharp focus, which is considered necessary in wildlife photography.

Sharp shot with controlled DOF, creative exposure to stop motion and highlight the bird’s splash and eye along with the reflection.

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Close up:

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Close up of missed shot below – sharp feathers by the legs, but not the eyes.  

Missed shot:

Missed shot
Missed shot: If I had a smaller aperture, more if the image would have been in sharp focus, or if my focus point was directly on the Eye the limited DOF would have been at the right layer in the image.  The bird wandered really close to me.  F/8 was great when he was 20 -25 feet away, but when he walked within 10 feet, he was too close for my aperture setting.