Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Tips For Photographing Small Animals

This past summer, my daughter asked me if she could have a pet rabbit. It took her a while to convince me, but eventually I agreed. It occurred to me that I hadn't taken that many pictures of animals recently so this seemed like a good opportunity.

There are a few things I keep in mind when photographing animals, especially the smaller ones.

1. Focus On The Eyes

 I think it's even more important to focus on the eyes when taking pictures of animals. Seeing the eyes can get you thinking about what might be going on in their heads. Take the shot below for example. This little guy is Benny. He is about eight months old. He is used to seeing me because I feed him occasionally. But this is the first time I've been this close to him with a camera. The look in his eye tells me he is not quite sure what to make of it. It's almost like he's saying, "Okay, I know you feed me sometimes, and that's great. But I don't know what that black thing is that you have pointed at me, and I am this close to being out of here."

2. Camera Settings 

Obviously you want to keep all the attention on your subject. These shots were taken later in the day with an 18-55mm lens. In this next shot, Benny is hanging out munching on some grass: ISO 200, f/5.3, 1/80s, with a 40mm focal length. He wasn't moving around that much in this shot, so I could afford to go with a longer shutter speed. Keep in mind that some small animals can be a little skittish, so you might need to increase your shutter speed to at least the 1/200s - 1/500s range. I was happy with the lighting that the ISO of 200 gave me, so I didn't bump that up. The photo above was taken from a different angle. Because of the difference in the light, I needed a little more sensitivity so it was shot at 500 ISO. You can see that I was able to get a little closer on this shot below also. That brings me to the third point I wanted to share.

3.Get Low And Close

There are a couple reasons why I think it's best to get as low as you can with small animals when photographing them. Even though I am no expert on animal behavior, I think it's fair to say that most feel a little threatened when confronted with something that is greater in size. In the first shot, Benny looks like he is ready to take off at the first sign of trouble. On the shots above and below, I was kneeling down. Then I lowered the camera all the way down to his level and took the photo. This last shot is a little underexposed, but it still works for me. Benny is looking right at the camera, which isn't more than a foot and a half away from him. To me, this shot is so much more interesting. It's probably the one I like the most because Benny let me get that close. The eyes told me that he was more relaxed than in the very first photo.

Those are three easy things to keep in mind when photographing small animals. Their eyes can tell you so much about what they might be experiencing, so focus on those when you plan your shot. Your camera settings will vary depending on the time of day, assuming you are outside. The goal is to bring all the attention to your subject. You will want to play around with the settings to give you the desired exposure and depth of field. Remember that the smaller animals that tend to move suddenly may require a faster shutter speed to eliminate any potential blur. And finally, get as close as you can and get right on their level. This will give you much better perspective than taking the shot standing up. It can also help put the subject more at ease. What are some of your favorite animals to photograph? Feel free to share your thoughts and pictures if you like. That's all for now. Have fun! Until next time . . .


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Color vs. Black & White: When Should You Convert?

Digital photography has given us two things since arriving on the scene nearly 30 years ago. The first is instant feedback with no additional costs. If you don't like the photo you just took, you can just take another one. In fact, you can take as many as you want because unlike shooting with film, it's not costing you extra money. The second thing digital cameras have allowed us to do is experiment in ways that we couldn't before. And one of those ways is figuring out whether the photo you took would look better in color or in black and white.

There are many reasons why you would want to go with a color photo. If vibrant colors are the main theme, and you have several distinct hues present, it is obviously the best option. Here is an example of what I am talking about. The shot below is the starting line of a half marathon run in Phoenix last week. One of the fun things I like about these races is seeing all the different colors people wear.  You see everything from basic black to the brightest neon.  I liked the different combination of colors in this shot. That is the main reason I wanted to get a decent photo of the runners at the start of the race.

But take a look at the same shot in black and white. It has lost much of its appeal since you can't distinguish between the colors the runners are wearing. You can't see the neon green and bright orange shirts or all the different colors of running shoes. In this case, converting the shot to black and white has removed the most appealing aspect of it. At least to me it has.

Now I wanted to share a photo from the same race that I think is enhanced by converting it to black and white. Here is a shot of one of the race leaders. In fact, he is fourth from the right in the photo above and ended up finishing second.  I was standing about 150 yards from the finish line when he came by me.

There are a couple things I like about this shot. First of all, I know exactly what he is feeling at this moment. He is digging deep to find any remaining energy to get himself to the finish line. With an ISO of 1600, and an aperture of f/3.5, I feel like I've gotten the desired depth of field that keeps you focused on the runner and what he is experiencing. But I don't like the red tape in the background. It was there to separate the half marathon home stretch from the 5K, which was on the other side of the street. Cropping it out was not an option because I would have cut off the runner's arms at the elbow. That would have looked pretty silly. Then it occurred to me that I didn't need color to tell the story in this photo. The runner's bright green shirt and colorful racing bib had nothing to do with the shot. And even though I tried to minimize the impact of the red tape by going with a more shallow depth of field, it is still a distraction.  The story of this photo was all about the physical duress that this runner was dealing with just 15-20 seconds from the finish line. That is what I wanted to convey. So I converted it to black and white.

The converted photo is a significant improvement to me. I've said before when it comes to sports action photography, it's the emotion that brings the shot to life. And in this case, the conversion to black and white eliminates all the distractions and focuses your attention right where I want it; on what this runner is physically experiencing as he guts out the last 150 yards of a half marathon. The shot feels a lot more gritty now. It's not hard at all for me to imagine what this runner is going through. I just don't think the color version of this photo comes close to achieving the same effect.

There is one general rule that the professional photographers agree on. The best way to capture the images you are considering for conversion is to shoot them in the RAW format. You have a lot more flexibility that way. You can check out how the image looks in black and white without losing any of color information in the event you want to make some changes later. If you were to shoot them in black and white and then save them to a JPEG format none of the color information would be stored.

So when you are thinking about converting a color photo to black and white, think about the story you want the photo to tell. Ultimately, the direction you decide to go is completely up to you. Like anything else when it comes to photography, the more practice you get, the more you will get a sense for when to convert the image and when not to. If you determine that your decision has increased the impact of the shot, you have made the right choice. Have fun practicing! Until next time . . .

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Top 5 Photos From the Phoenix Half Marathon

I took up recreational distance running a little over 11 years ago, mostly to shake up my workout routine. But I got so into it that I've wound up running seven marathons, nine half marathons, and six 10K races since then. These days, I stick to the 10K races due the the heavy time commitment that those longer races require. But I still enjoy being in that environment. There is a lot of great positive energy.

So this past weekend. I decided to get up early and go downtown to take some shots at a local running event in Phoenix that featured a half marathon, a 5K race and a 10K race. I had actually run that particular 10K four times, but it was the last race scheduled to start, so I wanted to focus more on the half marathon and 5K races.

My blog post from a few weeks ago was entitled "5 Tips For Taking Better Sports Action Photos." The third one listed was "Get the Faces." That was my primary goal for this particular outing. Having experienced a wide range of emotions while running these races, I felt like they would result in teh most compelling shots.

I liked this shot because the runner on the left is all business, while "Waldo"
seems to be having a great time. The facial expression says it all. 
I got to the racing venue at 6:00 AM, so that gave me an hour to scout things out before the half marathon started. I spent some time playing around with my settings to see what would work best for the different locations I was planning to be. Because of the way the course was laid out, it was easy to get around it quickly. The start and finish lines were within a block of each other and it was basically an out and back design. I used my Nikon D5300 with a 70-200mm f/8 Nikkor lens the whole time I was on the course. After some experimentation, I decided to set the ISO at 1600. When the race started it was about 10 minutes after sunrise, and due to being downtown, the tall buildings created quite a bit of shade. So I needed a little more sensitivity to make up for the lower lighting conditions and the faster shutter speeds. Besides that, I was okay with the depth of field being a little shallow since I wanted to draw people viewing the photos to the runners' faces. The aperture wound up at f/3.5 with the shutter speed ranging from 1/2500s-1/4000s using bursts at 4 fps.

Now when it comes to shooting these types of races in particular, the best piece of advice I got was not to worry so much about getting the entire body and shoot from about the waist up, focusing directly on the face. That was my most important takeaway from shooting at this particular event. Here are some of the photos with a brief explanation of what I liked and/or didn't like about them.

 The winner still has a laser like focus less than 200 yards from the finish line. 
This first shot is of the guy who won the half marathon. It was a pretty flat and fast course, and he absolutely destroyed it. Here, he was at the Mile 13 marker, with less than 200 yards to go. As you can see, his eyes are focused right on that finish line. At 1/4000s shutter speed, the camera has absolutely stopped his motion, so what you can't see is that he was really moving. This was the last frame of a burst of about 15 shots, I thought I picked him up early, but he was past me before I knew it.

The next shot is of the runner who finished second. It is one of my a favorite ones because the expression on his face is more typical of someone who is trying to get to that finish line on a tank that is close to being empty. He was battling hard, and even though he is laboring, his finishing time was over a minute better than the guy who won it last year.
Trying to keep from hitting "the Wall" in the last mile. 
Getting back to the facial expression; anyone who has run a distance race of any kind knows what this feels like. Your lungs are burning, and your legs are telling you that they've had just about enough. But you keep putting one foot in front of the other as many times as it takes to get yourself across that finish line. For most of the shots I took, I didn't have a sense for whether or not it would be a good one until I got home and downloaded them to the computer. But when this runner was approaching and I began to fire off my burst, I had a feeling that this particular frame would best tell his story. He definitely left everything out on the course. I absolutely love the intensity being shown here.This guy is running on fumes right now, but he is still pushing himself to the finish line. That's pretty awesome.

These two competitors were dueling all the way to the tape. 
The next two photos show two runners who were competing in the 5K wound up locked in a head to head dual over the last 150 yards. My only regret on these shots was that I was on the opposite side of the road. The two races shared the same final two tenths of a mile. There was a tape running down the middle of the street to keep the runners separate. There was no way to get to the other side of the street in time so I did the best that I could from where I was standing. These guys were in an all out sprint to the finish line. You can see the taller runner watching to see if his pursuer has one final kick left. Trust me, these guys were absolutely flying down the home stretch. The one thing I didn't like about these two photos is that I wound up cutting off some hands and fingers. That might not have happened if I had been on the other side of the road. But since I was focusing on the runners' faces, I can live with this result. Even though the shorter runner is wearing sunglasses, you can get a sense for how hard he is working by seeing him grimace as he fights for that last bit of energy to push him past his opponent. In the second photo you can still see his mouth, and the position of his arms show that he is pumping them to keep his form and gain any advantage he can. To end the suspense, the taller runner hung on to win by one second. It was a great finish.                                       
The taller runner had enough left to hold on for the victory.

So those are some of my favorite shots from the two races I covered. Overall, I felt like I was able to accomplish my goal. Getting to the venue early allowed me to figure out where I wanted to be during different parts of the race. Experimenting with my settings helped me to be ready to capture the shots I was looking for without wasting any unnecessary time. And specific to running, I definitely saw the value in concentrating on shooting from the waist up. This helps you take the people looking at your photo right to the runner's face, which tells the whole story. Until next time . . .