DIY Business Cards [tutorial]

No doubt there are dozens of ways to make business cards. I choose to design and create them myself, and I know many other people who do as well. Recently I designed new cards for SE.com, and it occurred to me that I could considerably speed up the process by putting all the tedious parts into a Photoshop Action.

SE_BizCards02

After designing a single card, I then duplicate and arrange it on an 8.5 X 11 sheet of paper. I’ve found that if you arrange them all end-to-end you can maximize the space and get 12 cards from a single sheet as seen below.

SE_BizCards02Sheet

So, what I’ve done is compile all the boring, non-design stuff into an Action that anybody can use. It’s designed to save time and let one concentrate solely on the design. Here’s how to use it.*

Steps

    1. First of all, you will need to download the Action here. I suggest saving it in the program folder for Photoshop, but that’s up to you.
    2. From here, you need to import the Action into Photoshop. To do so, bring up the Actions palette (ALT + F9) and click on the triangle in the top right corner to open the pop-out menu. Then click on “Load Actions.”
    3. Navigate to the file you just downloaded; select it, and hit “Load.”

ActionsPalette

    1. You should now have a new folder in your Actions palette called BusinessCards.atn Within that folder are two separate actions. One is titled “Biz Card Single” and the other “Biz Card Sheet.”
    2. Click the Action called “Biz Card Single” and then click the play button at the bottom of the Actions palette. This will create a new canvas and end with a message prompt. Simply follow the instructions, and then play the “Biz Card Sheet” action when you have finished and flattened your design.

BizActionMsg

Notes:
If you desire to create a vertical business card, rather than a horizontal one, go ahead and rotate the single card (Image > Rotate Canvas) and design until your heart’s content. However, for the Action to work, you must rotate the card back to the horizontal position before playing the “Biz Card Sheet” Action.

This Action is designed to make standard-sized business cards (2″ X 3.5″).  Other dimensions will not work using this layout.

Don’t forget to save the single card as a .psd before you flatten it! You wouldn’t want to lose your layered version of the file.

Print the cards on heavyweight card stock. I prefer the look of matte card stock, but you might like glossy better. That’s up to you.

The cards are lined up end-to-end which means two things: 1.) There is no bleed boundary on the single card canvas.   2.) You will have to cut the cards yourself.  Depending on your design, you might have to be extremely accurate with your cuts.  I definitely recommend a paper cutter.

Personally, I save the sheet as a .pdf and then take it to Kinko’s to have them print it on matte card stock.  Save yourself a headache, and print a test copy on your own printer first.

You can also use this to print something on the backside as well.  If you follow the same steps above you can be certain that your sheets will have the exact same alignment.  Printer discrepancy is a different story altogether…

*Though the Action is intended to save time, it cannot design the card for you. This tutorial assumes moderate proficiency with Photoshop.

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On-Site Printing [tutorial]

As I mentioned in an earlier post I had two clients ask if I could print photos on-site so that the attendees would have something to take home, kinda like a party favor.  I did some research and found it to be more affordable than I initially thought.  So, I ordered a couple printers and decided to give it a shot.  So far I’ve had two opportunities to put this system to use, and I’ve had great success with it both times.  This tutorial describes my setup, workflow, and what I’ve learned along the way.

Background Info:
I needed a printer that could deliver photo-quality prints quickly and affordably.  My research immediately pointed me to dye sublimation printers.  They use an altogether different technology than inkjet or laser printers.  As far as I can tell, it’s the same technology they use in the self-service photo printers at CVS, Wal-Mart, Kinko’s etc.  Additionally, I needed something that could print straight from a memory card and from a computer.

Blasphemy!

I landed on the Selphy CP760 by Canon.  It’s a compact photo printer, it met my requirements, and it’s only a hundred bucks.  I knew I would have a pretty demanding output volume, certainly higher than the average consumer, so I ordered two of them.

So, with the addition of my printers here’s a look at the key components of my setup:

  • Two Cameras: Nikon D300 and Minolta Maxxum 7D
  • Two printers and enough ink and paper for over 500 prints
  • Five memory cards
  • One MacBook and memory card reader
  • Adobe Lightroom

Given that I had never used a printer like this before, I did a few test shots and test prints to see how everything flowed.  The printer is super simple to use.  Pop in a memory card, the images show up on the small playback screen, tell it how many copies you want of each, and then hit print.  The quality is exactly what I needed to.

PrinterAndPrints-4321

The Setup:
First of all, set your camera to shoot “RAW + Jpeg.”  Most printers cannot read RAW files.  Lightroom, on the other hand, works better with RAW files, so be sure that the option to “Treat jpeg files next to raw files as separate photos” is unchecked in the Import Preferences dialog box in Lightroom.

LR_prefs

Another invaluable asset is the DPOF option in most digital cameras. Digital Print Order Format allows you to setup a run sheet for the printer. Within the camera you make note of which pictures to print and how many. That information is then saved to the memory card and read by the printer. The printer then says, “Hey, I see that there is a print order file on here, do you want me to print these?” (paraphrased, mind you). Simply hit the print button and you’re in business.  Check your camera’s instruction manual for information about DPOF.

Next, you’ll want to install the printer on your computer so you can print directly from Lightroom. Fortunately I had no problems with this whatsoever. I installed it first on my PC at home, and then on a MacBook for the events. The printer ships with a CD-ROM that includes drivers for both operating systems, so you can be up and running in no time. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you will have to setup the printer preferences in Lightroom so that it will print properly on the 4×6 postcard size paper.

Printing from a computer provides some advantages that you can’t obtain by printing from the memory card, but it also contains some disadvantages. Here’s a look at them.

Pros:

  • You can print edited photos.
  • It’s easier to find a specific photo.
  • You can print your logo or website on photos,

Cons:

  • The photos must be imported and exported before printing starts (ie. it’s more time consuming).
  • You can only use one printer unless you have a second computer.

Whether you decide to print mainly from the computer or memory cards will largely be determined by your equipment setup. In either case I suggest you follow this principle: Use the DPOF for what it does best –printing pictures quickly.  Use the computer for what it does best –printing edited pictures and printing photos per request.

General Workflow: Set DPOF as you’re shooting and then print on the standalone printer first. After the photos have been printed, upload them to the computer. Review the photos and note any ones that need to be edited and re-printed, or any ones that will likely need extra copies. Add those photos to the Quick Collection in Lightroom. If you need to start another batch while the standalone printer is busy, then go ahead and print DPOF from the second printer. Try not to let the re-prints sit in Lightroom too long before they are printed.  Clear the DPOF info from the memory card next time you insert it in the camera, otherwise you’ll end up printing multiple copies of the same photos.

Lightroom Workflow: Import the RAW photos directly from the memory card. In other words, don’t copy them as DNG files; doing so will only slow down your pipeline. Remember, speed is paramount when printing on-site. Add to the Quick Collection* any photos that need to be edited or have extra copies made. The QC then serves as your printer queue. View the QC and edit the photos as necessary; create virtual copies for any photos that need additional prints. Then switch to the Print Module, select all the photos and click print.

*Simply select a photo and press “b” to add it to the QC.

Adapt your workflow to your setup and your delivery requirements. There is no “one size fits all” approach to printing on-site. Prior to the shoot, gather as much information about the event as you can, and then use that information to decide the best way to handle things.

The decision to hire an assistant is based largely on the nature of the event. As a general rule, if the client is okay with you devoting 1/3 of your time to making prints, and therefore only 2/3 of your time taking photographs, then you can handle the printing yourself. If the client requires that you are available to take photos the entire time, then you’ll need an assistant. You’ll need to charge more if you hire an assistant, so make sure you give the client an overt benefit for having one –more prints, faster, and more coverage.

Ideas for Newbies:
Test your ISO settings on the printer.  Shoot a series of photos in a darkish room and increase the ISO each time until it’s maxed out.  Next, print them and decide what is an acceptable level of noise for printing.

Test the Image Optimization settings in the printer. Print a photo with it turned on and a second with it turned off.  Which do you like better?

If you need to get your feet wet first, try printing some photos at a house party for your friends. It’s a fun way to get some experience under your belt without the pressure of having a job to do. For the hospitable folks out there, why not host a party for that very reason. Besides, once your friends see what you can do, they’re much more inclined to tell other people about you, and that’s how you land a job. As a bonus, anything you buy for the party is a business expense!

For an extra touch of class, print envelopes with the client logo on it. The envelopes will help protect the pictures, as well as serve as an advertising tool for you.

Lessons Learned:
While shooting, just be a photographer. Don’t get bogged down thinking about all the printing stuff. Stay creative and professional.

Distance yourself from the customer while printing; a separate room is ideal.  If you give them a chance to see you working they will invite themselves to look over your shoulder and become your artistic director.

Take extra care to make sure you’re getting good pictures of people.  If someone sees you take a picture of them, they will expect a print.  They will also expect the photo to be in focus, well lit, and a perfect expression on their face.  If any of those factors are missing, take another shot and print the best one.  The guests can lose confidence pretty quickly if they see other photos printed but not theirs.

Both the printer and the ink/paper are available at several local stores.  Try checking out Penn Camera, Staples, Best Buy, or Target and save yourself $50 on overnight shipping.  …yeah, that would’ve been nice to know.

Set DPOF information in the camera as you’re shooting, particularly for those times when you take multiple versions of the same thing.  Pick the best one and set the DPOF.

Don’t forget to pack: a screwdriver (or something comparable) for winding the cartridge/ribbon, power strip and extension cord, USB cable for computer-to-printer, and a memory card reader for the computer.

Create a sign to be displayed with the printed photographs that says:
1.) Prints will be available approximately __ minutes after it was taken.
2.) Please take an envelope to protect your photos.
3.) Re-prints and extra copies (no more than five) can be printed once the current batch is finished.
4.) Photos can be brightened, darkened, cropped, and color-corrected upon request.
5.) Photos can be viewed online at: Pictage.com/123456
6.) All photos have been paid for by: client name
4.) This service is provided by Mud Productions. Visit mudproductions.com
5.) Enjoy!

Assistant:
1.) Use a cell phone headset or 2-way radio to communicate with assistant.
2.) When dropping off a memory card to be printed, let the her know if there are any photos that need to be edited before printing. She will decide if those specific photos should be uploaded or printed first.
3.) Use this Printing Checklist to note which memory cards have been printed and uploaded, and at what time.

Notes:
It takes a little over one minute to print a photo, and if you do the math you should be able to print 100 photos per hour (using two printers).  Practically speaking, it will probably be substantially less than that.  Between the two events I shot, I averaged only 41 prints an hour.  I know there are some things I can do to streamline it further, but I don’t think you could reasonably get more than 65 prints an hour with this setup.

I was able to print DPOF straight from the memory card even while the computer was attached. The instruction manual says not to do this, but I did it on a MacBook and didn’t experience any problems.

Lifespan of printers has not been determined as of this writing. I’ve printed 468 photos between the two printers without a single mishap.

For much bigger jobs, a high-end printer would be preferred though it comes at a price.

Conclusion: On-site printing can be very demanding.  Without a good workflow it’s easy to get overwhelmed.  The guests/customers/attendees will test your patience if you let them.  Make sure you’ve done a few small tests before the shoot and do your best to take everything in stride.  It’s extremely rewarding to hear people comment that they like the photos, but it takes a lot of hard work to get there.

Creative Lighting Without a Flash [Tutorial]

The more I study photography the more I realize the importance of lighting. It seems to me that the difference between an exceptional photographer and a decent photographer is that the former has a solid understanding of light. Light defines this visual medium.

Backlight only. White background. No direct light. Directly above. Close. -1EV

Most photographers, myself included, prefer to shoot in natural light, but the downside is that it cannot be controlled. In order to achieve complete creative control over the lighting of your scene, you need to work with other light sources. Anybody who has shopped for lighting equipment is aware that this thing you once called a “hobby” is suddenly a much bigger investment. Good equipment isn’t cheap, but resourcefulness and ingenuity are priceless.

My goal in writing this tutorial is to help you understand the effects of light, how to control it, and how to do it on a non-existent budget. Here’s a look at the tools I used to make it happen. Chances are, you already have this stuff lying around your house somewhere.

  • Lights – I purchased this lamp from IKEA. It cost six dollars. It comes with a clamp for attaching it to a desk, and it uses up to 100W bulb. I have three of them.
  • Reflector – I used a big white envelope (12″ x 12″). You could tape two pieces of printer paper together, or better yet, tape the paper to a piece of cardboard for support. You can also make a reflector out of aluminum foil and cardboard.
  • Foam Core Board – Four pieces from an office supply store (24″ x 32″) two black and two white. I think I paid $4 for them.
  • White Poster – i.e. “big white piece of paper.” I used the back side of a standard wall poster.
  • Tripod – I paid $30 for my tripod. It’s cheap, it’s not built to last, but it’s extremely convenient. (In all honesty, I used my sister’s tripod [$200ish] for this tutorial. It’s faster to work with and a bit more stable, but when it comes to the image you capture it makes absolutely no difference.)

Background Info In order to get creative we first have to know what is considered normal. Three-point lighting is pretty much standard in most visual arts, so we’ll begin our study by taking a brief look at that. It consists of three lights in relation to the subject: key (main) light, fill light, and back light.

Three-point Lighting setup.

Key Light only.  Above, left.Fill Light only.  Above, right.Back Light only.  Above, behind.

Put ’em all together and what you end up with (below left) is a well-lit shot that comes reasonably close to simulating natural light (below right).

Three-point LightingAll natural light.  Large, north-facing window to the left.

That’s the nutshell version of three-point lighting. There is much more to be said, but it falls outside the scope of this tutorial. Basically, the three lights work together to provide the feel of the scene, to reveal details, and to distinguish your subject.

Similarly, there are three main components or levels to Creative Lighting:

  1. Understanding Shadows
  2. Revealing Details
  3. Capturing Highlights and Reflections

Each one builds off the previous one, so I suggest you start with shadows and work your way down the list. If you prefer, you can view this tutorial in its entirety by following this link.

Be sure to check out the Advanced Techniques, and Lessons Learned.

Creative Lighting: Understanding Shadows

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

The first thing I did was set up my scene. I found it easiest to work with a small card table in the middle of my room. If you have a blank wall, you can shoot against that as your background; otherwise you’ll need to place something behind your subject to give it a solid black or white background. I used the backside of a poster, taped to a piece of foam-core board (as seen below).

Three-point Lighting setup.

By using a single sheet for the wall and the floor it eliminates the seam where the floor meets the wall. Appropriately enough, this technique is called a “seamless” [background]. (Thanks, Mariano!)

The whole idea of creative lighting is to be able to control the light; therefore I recommend that you shoot at night with all the blinds and doors closed. You don’t want any light leaking onto your subject from another source. Be sure to turn off any computer monitors or other unsuspecting sources of light.

The subject you choose to shoot is quite important. For now, pick something simple. We’ll shoot more exciting objects later, but to start you want a subject that’s not too intricate. I used a wooden model, but you could try a vegetable, Willow Tree figurine, or small toy.

For this first exercise, Understanding Shadows, I recommend that you put your camera on Aperture priority. Initially I tried shooting in Manual, but I quickly found that the exposure values can be quite different simply because of the position of the light. Set your ISO as low as it will go –not Auto. You’re camera is already on a tripod, so you don’t need a fast ISO. Put the focus on Manual too. Your setup won’t be changing so there is no reason for the camera to re-focus each time. Affix a lens hood if you have one. Lastly, take your White Balance off of Auto. I mention more about WB later in this tutorial.

Once you have set up your scene and camera the way you like them, it is very important that you do not move your subject or your camera. The best way to observe the effects of different lighting setups is to keep all other factors equal (namely perspective and composition). By keeping your subject and camera in the exact same position you can scroll through the images on your camera’s LCD screen and easily see the differences from one frame to the next. If your perspective changes, it throws everything off and makes it very difficult to learn from what you’re doing.

The following images were taken using only one light. I put the lamp in a different position each time to give the picture a different feel. To simplify things, I never placed the lamp to the left of the camera.

If you hover your mouse over any image you will see a brief description of the light placement. By the way, if you view the photos as a slideshow you will more easily be able to see the differences from one photo to the next. This is especially helpful when the changes are subtle. Look for “slideshow” links throughout this tutorial.

Side-front. Above. Close.Side-front. Level. CloseSide-back. Level. CloseSide. Low. Medium distance.Side. Low. Close.

Side-front. Above. Medium.Straight on. Light directly above the lens.Straight on. Light directly below lens.Side-front. Above. Very close.Above, pointing down. Slightly front. Close.

Directly above, pointing down. CloseAbove, pointing down. Slightly behind. CloseBehind. Above. Slightly right. Close.Side. Low. Mostly bouncing off floor. Close.Side. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close.

Side. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVFront. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVBehind. Low. Completely bounced off floor. Close. -1EVBehind. Low. Shining on background. No direct light (all bounced). Close. -1EVBehind. Above. Far. Pointed at subject.

Behind. Above. Close. Pointed at subject.Directly above. Close. -1EVMostly above (halo), slightly front. Far. -1EVMostly above (halo), slightly behind. Far. -1EVDirectly behind. Close. -1EV

Above. Far. Shining on background only (no direct light).Directly above. Behind. Close. With pop-up flash.Pop-up flash, only.

Notice how different the photo can feel simply by changing the position of the light. The same wooden model can look like a friendly neighbor saying hi, an angel pointing to Heaven, or a sinister villain ready to attack. The only things I have changed here are the position of the light, and the Exposure Compensation. None of these images have been edited. They all came straight off the camera.

I hope you’re beginning to realize just how much the shadows and lighting can affect the feel of the image. Not only do shadows provide shape and form for the subject, but they direct the audience’s emotional response. A simple change can make a dramatic difference.

Continue to Part II: Revealing Details

Creative Lighting: Revealing Details

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

The second component of creative lighting is revealing the details and textures that make the subject unique. I used a completely different setup for these examples because I wanted to emphasize details rather than just shadows. A piece of fruit, a watch, flower, or tv remote should work well here. Building off what I learned with my wooden model, I started my second series.

I placed an orange on a black piece of foam-core and positioned the light behind the orange. As you can see in the first image (below left) there is virtually no detail visible in the orange. (Why do I keep typing “oranged”?! It’s driving me nuts!) Anyway, instead of positioning another light, thereby complicating the scene, I grabbed a big white envelope to serve as my reflector. I held it between the camera and the orange but just off to the left of the frame. The second image shows the results. This effectively revealed the texture of the orange, but it still seemed a bit flat.

Almost directly behind. No reflector. Almost directly behind. With reflector to the left.

To remedy this I repositioned the light above and slightly behind the orange, and then I fired the third shot (below left). This simple adjustment simultaneously gave me a strong backlight, plenty of texture, and solid shape. I thought the texture could use a little more depth, so I added the reflector and fired the last shot. The orange now has more form, texture, and color.

Above. Behind. No reflector. Above. Behind. With reflector.

Normally I wouldn’t place something like an orange against a black background –it just seems out of place. BUT, think of how different the image would feel if I used a white floor/background. All the light would be reflected back at the orange. After all, my reflector was nothing but a white piece of paper. Think back to the photos of the wooden model. How do you think it would appear if I used a black background instead of white?? Remember that your shooting environment accounts for a lot of the bounced light. Just because you don’t intentionally put a reflector in the scene doesn’t mean there won’t be any reflected light. Try to keep this in mind as you set up your shot.

Next I ate the orange and then placed my watch on the foam-core. The next series of images follows a similar pattern: Shoot a photo, reposition the light, use the reflector as needed. Those are the only things I changed in this next series; it didn’t get any more complicated than that. Again, hover your cursor over an image for a brief description. Click here to view as slideshow.

Directly above. No reflector.Front-left. Above. No reflector.Front-left. Above. With reflector to the right.Behind. Above. Left. No reflector.Behind. Above. Left. With reflector.

Above left.Behind. Right. No reflector.Behind. Right. With reflector.Above. Right. With reflector on left.

Careful attention to detail will easily put your photos a step above most others’. Using a reflector is an excellent way to accent those details. The beautiful thing about a reflector is that it can never be more powerful than the original light source. It’s entirely possible to use a Fill light to reveal details, but just be careful that it doesn’t overpower your Key light. On a random note: watches are almost always photographed with the time reading “10:10.” They say it’s the most aesthetically pleasing time. Go figure.

Continue to Part III: Capturing Highlights and Reflections

Creative Lighting: Capturing Highlights

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

Now we turn our attention to the third and final component of creative lighting: highlights and reflections. Obviously, you will need a reflective or transparent surface like a wine glass, cologne bottle, sunglasses, vase, or kitchen utensils. The tricky part about shooting a subject like this is that you need to define its shape and reveal its details without blowing out the highlights or causing any undesired reflections. It’s a tall order for sure, but once you get the hang of it you will be more attentive to the fine details of an image and your photography will improve because of it.

For the next series, I had a particular image in mind that I wanted to capture. I wanted the image to have a dark feeling overall, yet a rich, regal boldness to it. (These are the sort of useless guidelines you get when someone tries to verbally describe something visual =) That being said, I knew in my head what I wanted, and I set out to capture it. I started with a black floor and background, and a single key light.

Fill/Key Light only.

For starters, the glass looks flat and formless. The wine (which is really just water and red food coloring) looks cloudy and black at the top, and the glass is riddled with ugly reflections and glaring highlights. Clearly a strong key light won’t work, so I turned it off and took another photo using only a backlight shining on the background.

Backlight only. Shining on background (no direct light).

Now we’re getting closer. It’s still a little too dark; there’s not much color in the wine, but at least it’s not suffering from terrible highlights and reflections now. From here, I took a series of images that combined the backlight with the fill light. I had more success in the latter half of the images where I used a reflector to bounce more light at the glass without blowing out the highlights. The last couple images are close to what I wanted, but not quite it. View as slideshow.

Backlight. Fill Light side, level, very close.Backlight. Fill Light behind, level, medium distance.Backlight. Fill Light directly above (halo).Backlight. Fill Light behind, close, level. -1.5EVBacklight. Fill light pointed at subject. Directly above lens.

Backlight. Fill light pointed at subject. Side, level, medium distance.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector in front, slightly right, very close.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector above, side, right, close.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector above, behind, right, far.Backlight. Fill light pointed at reflector right, level, close.

After all this, I decided that the best way to get what I was aiming for was to use a white floor and background. This means that my environment will now work as a reflector, so I shouldn’t even need any fill light. Sure enough, I changed my setup from black (below left) to white (below right), and then captured the following image right away.

Black background setup. White background setup.

Backlight only. White background. No direct light.

I also did a similar shot with a cologne bottle, but this time I wanted to emphasize the importance of White Balance. The only thing that changed in the following images was the WB.

White Balance 2357KWhite Balance 2706KWhite Balance 3191KWhite Balance 4381K

Don’t overlook the importance of color in your photos. Particularly when you’re using desk lamps the Auto WB setting on your camera will likely give the image a yellow-orange tone.

For my final example, I chose to shoot an old hard drive that I dismantled. I was amazed at how reflective the disks were –just like a mirror! I knew this would add another layer of difficulty, so I pulled together everything I knew to capture the following images. View as slideshow.

Key Light above, left, medium distance.Key Light above, almost front, medium distance.Key Light directly above (halo).Key Light directly behind.Key Light bounced off ceiling, front, left. Fill light above, right.

The biggest difference for this one was adding a “ceiling” to the environment. Since the disks were so reflective I was seeing the ceiling of my room in the reflection. The picture below shows that I suspended the second piece of foam-core as a ceiling to ensure that the reflections were smooth and free of distractions.

As you can see, the game changes quite a bit when you start shooting transparent or reflective surfaces. Backlighting no longer produces only a rim of light around your subject, but it can illuminate the body of it. Bounced lighting can do more than simply reveal detail, it can serve as the main light source in the scene.

To sum it up: Shadows provide form and shape to the subject. Fill Light reveals its details and texture. And Highlights bring it to life. All of these aspects are controlled in three-point lighting. What I’ve done here is simply isolate each one and then observe how they all fit together.

Continue to Part IV: Advanced Techniques, and Lessons Learned.

Creative Lighting: Summary

This post is part of a larger tutorial called Creative Lighting Without a Flash

Advanced Techniques – If you need a bigger reflector try using a sun visor (like the ones you put in your windshield). Some of them are identical to professional reflectors except that they are designed to fit in a windshield.

Position all three lamps next to each other to create “one” bright, soft light. With the combined intensities you may be able to photograph bigger objects and use a faster shutter speed.

Shoot in context. Instead of using a black piece of foam core board, use a board game as your background and let your subject be the game pieces. Try to create an engaging product shot that would sell or summarize the game. A sharp-looking chess set would be a perfect place to start.

Try lighting something with a screen, for example: a compact camera, iPhone, GPS device, or digital clock. First make sure the screen is displaying something, then see if you can capture a well-lit shot without the screen being washed out. Watch out for glares and reflections.

Lessons Learned – You don’t have to use expensive equipment to achieve stunning results. Creative thinkers with some ingenuity will always be leading the way in the photography industry. Don’t let yourself be stifled by what you don’t have.

The main advantage of working with desk lamps is that you can “see” the light and sculpt it instantly. When using strobes you have to fire a test shot, review it, make adjustments, and then fire another test shot. These little desk lamps, on the other hand, allow you to instantly see how the position of the light is affecting your subject. If possible, reposition the lights while looking through the viewfinder to observe the changes.

Learn how light “works” with little lamps first and you’ll find yourself much less intimidated by more complex lighting equipment.

It’s easiest to compare differences in lighting if the position of the camera and the subject remains unchanged.

Subtle changes can make a huge difference.

Desk lamps don’t put out nearly as much light as a strobe. Because of this, you will most likely be using relatively long exposures; that means you need a tripod and a stationary subject. Also, this means that if you try adding a flash to the mix it will significantly overpower the other lights.

Light intensity diminishes with distance (*quadratically, if you care to know). Therefore the further the lights are from the subject, the less effective they will be. This essentially limits you to shooting very small subjects –probably nothing larger than one cubic foot.

Don’t complicate it by adding every lamp you own. Do as much as you can with a simple setup. A creative thinker once said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. ”

The most common barrier between a good photographer and an exceptional photographer is the ability to see and capture light.

Reverse-Lens Macro Photography [tutorial]

There is no better way to capture the intricate detail of flowers, bugs, or other small objects than by delving into macro photography. Typically this is done with a special lens that allows you to focus on subjects very closely. However, with a little ingenuity (and some less-than-orthodox techniques) you can produce some amazing close-ups without a macro lens. This tutorial will show you how.

UPDATE: This tutorial originally included some tips for capturing macro water drops and refractions. That section has now been expanded and moved here. This post now focuses exclusively on the reverse lens technique.

Background Info: I am quite new to the world of macro photography. In fact, it was exactly one month ago today that I first experimented with this new technique, but I feel like I’ve learned so much already.

Macro photography can be one of the most creative and fun ways to take pictures. Photography, perhaps more than any other art form, naturally lends itself to a keen observation –the more you look, the more you see. However, when you slow down and look beyond the surface level, you discover a whole new world (cue the Aladdin theme song) through the lens. A flower garden is no longer just a pretty splash of color, but an endless playground of possibilities.

…That’s quite enough buttering it up. Here’s how to do it.

How To: There are numerous ways to get great results, but for this tutorial I want to focus on one particular technique. First, I must give due props to Alan Walker for telling me about it. I’m calling it the Reverse Lens technique. Basically, you take a second lens and set it up backwards against the lens on your camera (see image below). If you’re really hard core, like Alan, you can tape the two lenses together like this.

If you’re anything like me, then your curiosity has already gotten the better of you =) You will probably save yourself some frustration if you read the rest of this before trying it yourself, so allow me to explain how this works. The lens on your camera is designed to take a wide angle of view and focus it onto a much smaller plane (traditionally, a strip of film). This allows you to capture huge landscapes on a frame of film only 35mm wide. Zoom lenses work by altering the angle of view (see diagram 1). To simplify it a bit more, just remember that a single lens takes the subject from “big to small.”

diagram 1

Now, imagine if you flipped the lens around. (see diagram 2) The subject would go from “small to big.” This is essentially how the lens on a projector is set up; it takes the small image and enlarges it. As I understand, you can get great macro results with a single reversed lens like this, but you need a special “reversing ring” accessory.

diagram 2

Now lets take a look at what happens when you put the two lenses together. The reversed lens takes a really small subject, and magnifies it. The attached lens then takes that magnified image and shrinks it back to fit on the “film.” The result is that the small object now fills the frame of film -exactly what we want!

diagram 3

Still with me? I hope so. It gets a little more complicated, but it makes perfect sense once you think about it. If your second lens is a zoom lens, then you can actually zoom in closer or farther from your subject. In other words, not only can you do shots that are pretty typical for macro, but you can also do shots that are the verge of being classified as microscopic. It’s important to remember that the lens is backwards, so your zoom will be backwards too. If you “zoom in” the reversed lens, it will appear that you are zooming out in the viewfinder. The more the lens is zoomed out (“wide angle” or “short focal length” for you technical buffs) the more extreme the change in scale, but when you zoom in, the scale shrinks. I feel like this is a very difficult concept to describe, so instead let me just show you the diagram below.

diagram 4

If the diagram doesn’t help, then don’t worry about it. Just remember that the lens is backwards so the zoom will be backwards too.

The above diagrams were designed to help describe the techniques outlined here. They were not designed for technical accuracy.

Based on my experience and what I’ve read elsewhere, it’s best to use a fixed 50mm lens as the one attached to the camera. These lenses typically have a very large aperture and the image quality is superb because there is comparatively very little glass for the light to pass through before reaching the film. For my reversed lens I used a 28-80 zoom lens. I also tried the setup with an 18-200 lens attached to the camera, and the same 28-80 lens reversed, and I experienced no problems. That all goes to say that you should be able to pull off this technique with nearly any two standard-range zoom lenses.

When you first put the two lenses together and look through the viewfinder it will probably just look black. This is mainly because the aperture of a lens will shrink to it’s smallest setting when it’s not attached to a camera. In other words, most of the light is being blocked. While it is indeed possible to take pictures like this, it’s not very easy. If you look on the back of your reversed lens, you will see a small lever.

apertureLever

That lever controls the opening of the aperture. If you slide it to the other side it will open it as wide as it can go. Doing that will allow you to have considerably faster shutter speeds even at low ISO values (of course, make sure the aperture of the attached lens is open as wide as it will go too). Since the lever is spring-loaded, you will need something to hold it in place. I cut and folded a piece of card stock (i.e. “thick paper”) and wedged it in place. Be careful not to damage the lens while doing this, and make sure you don’t accidentally drop something down that slit. (Note: this paragraph was written based on my experience with Minolta equipment. It may or may not be applicable for Nikon or Canon.)

Before you get started, there are a few things to keep in mind.

1.) The two lenses have to be literally butting up against each other. Unless you tape the two lenses together you will need to be careful that they are held tightly together so that light doesn’t leak in from the side and wash out the image. On more than a few occasions this caused me to think the Exposure Compensation was all whacked out because the images weren’t consistent.

2.) Set the focus to manual. Autofocus simply won’t be able to help you. You won’t be able to adjust the focus by turning the ring but by moving the entire camera closer to your subject. Note that very small objects probably won’t be in focus until they are less than 1 inch from the end of the lens.

3.) If your second lens is set to a wide angle (remember that this is will appear to be zoomed in, in the viewfinder) you will most likely get a vignette. With the lenses I used, I wasn’t able to avoid it when the focal range of the reversed lens was inside the 28-50 range. You can crop it later if you really don’t like it, but it’s just something to be aware of.

4.) Keep an eye on the exposure; chances are, the camera’s metering system won’t give extremely accurate results since you are shooting through a second lens. I found that I often needed to turn down the Exposure Compensation. Setting the drive mode to Manual (M) is a better alternative if you’re comfortable with that.

5.) Turn off the flash. Unless you have a wireless or external flash your subject will be too close to the lens that the flash will cause a shadow to fall on it. This is called “self-shadowing.”

6.) Make certain that you have a UV filter or lens protector on both lenses. If you scratch the lens itself, there’s virtually nothing you can do to fix it, but if you scratch the $20 UV filter, you can always pick up another one. I always keep a UV filter on all of my lenses, for what it’s worth.

7.) Using a tripod is completely impractical.

8.) A cable release or remote would be ideal since the slightest change in position can throw the whole image out of focus. Pressing the button on the camera often “bumped” the position and caused the focus to shift. Using a remote allows you to trip the shutter without bumping the camera. Likewise, you could use the self-timer, but that requires an extraordinary amount of patience.

Examples: The three pictures below emphasize how powerful this setup can be. The first image was taken with only the 50mm lens; it’s as close to the subject as I could get while keeping it in focus. The second was taken with the reverse lens set to 80mm, and the third was set to 28mm.

texasCloseUp1texasCloseUp2texasCloseUp3

Or consider the following example: In the image below you see a very small speck right in the middle of the image. That speck is actually a bug.

PICT0633

I wasn’t able to focus any closer with my 50mm lens, but when I added my reversed lens set to 28mm I was able to get close enough to see the bug’s eyes.

PICT0631

Advanced Techniques: You can purchase accessories like extension tubes, reverse rings, macro flashes and others specifically designed for macro photography, but I’ve never played with any of them. As far as I can tell, none of them really enable you to do anything that you can’t already do with a reversed lens, but rather they are designed to make things easier.

I don’t think these really count as “advanced” techniques, but you can also consider cropping your photos to give the impression that you used a more powerful lens. You could also hold a magnifying glass in front of the lens for a little extra reach. Or you could throw down some cash and invest in a real macro lens. Experiment and see which one suits the needs of the photos you want to capture. Better yet, make up your own!

Lessons Learned: Using a reversed lens is mad fun, but it can also be frustrating. Initially it seems like the magic bullet for extreme close-ups, but, like everything else, it is not without drawbacks. It requires a lot of patience, which isn’t always the case with photography. Trial and Error will become your closest companions, and Curiosity your mentor.

The reversed lens is a great “tool” to have in your toolbox, but don’t let it define you or your style. Make the technique fit into your workflow and become yet another thing that makes people think, “Yep, that looks like so-and-so’s work.” It’s not the paintbrush that makes an artist great, neither does the lens make the photographer.

Have fun with it. Learn from it. And for cryin’ out loud, go do something with it! =)

Time Lapse Photography [tutorial]

Time lapse photography (TLP) is the technique of filming very slow-moving objects and then playing them back as a high-speed video. There are two parts to it: setting up and shooting your scene, and editing the output as a video. This tutorial focuses on the first part, and only briefly mentions the latter since it requires a familiarity with video editing software.

Background Info: I’ve been playing with TLP for the first time, and I’m lovin’ it! I’m sure you’ve seen the effect on tv before –it’s really big on the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth series right now. In the smallest of nutshells, it is the technique of filming something for several hours (and sometimes days or weeks!) and then speeding up the footage. Common examples include: cloud formations, sunsets, and flowers blossoming; basically anything that happens so slowly that we don’t typically think of it as something that moves.

Most people assume these shots are done with a video camera, but that is simply not the case. For all intents and purposes, video cameras record at 30 frames per second. That’s great when you need to film something that is moving at a normal speed, but it is nothing short of excessive if you’re filming, say, the movement of a sunset. Instead, a still camera is used.

A big advantage of using a still camera is that the resolution is typically much higher than the resolution of a video camera. Standard Definition video is 720 X 480; that comes out to about 0.3 megapixels. High Definition video is 1920 X 1080; even though it looks impressive on a big screen tv, it is still less than 2.1 megapixels. If you’re “only” using a three megapixel camera you can still output it to an HD video and have some pixels left over. That is very good news!

How To: First of all, you’ll need a camera that is capable of doing TLP. Now would be a good time to dust off your camera’s instruction manual to find out. Most digital SLRs are capable, but I doubt the point-and-shooters can do it. Note that some cameras call this the “Interval” feature. Also, you’ll need a tripod; the bigger and heavier, the better. I used my lightweight $40 tripod for the examples below, but they were shot indoors where there is no wind.

The hardest part is setting up the shot. Well, to some degree, that’s the only part, but… As expected, different camera models offer differing levels of control for setting up TLP. Each camera should allow you to set the following key features: number of shots, time between shots, and when to start. Depending on your environment (and if you have any control over it) you will also want to check the following settings; these will be explained in detail shortly: Focus, Drive Mode, White Balance, ISO, Instant Playback, battery life, and memory card space.

Examples: The video below shows my first two attempts at TLP. Full description following.

Having never done this before, I didn’t know quite what to expect. For the first shot, I told my camera to take a picture every 30 seconds for an hour, then I set it on my tripod and pointed it out the window. I set the focus to manual and adjusted it accordingly. Additionally, I turned off the image playback because that will wear down the battery much more quickly. It’s best to use a fully charged battery and a memory card with plenty of space.

Ideally, the only thing changing between shots should be the subject. You don’t want the camera settings (e.g. the focus) to be different from one shot to the next. For that reason, the more things you can set to manual mode, the better.

On my second attempt I set the time between photos to a full minute to get more variance from one frame to the next. All the other settings were the same as the first setup. If you look closely, you can see airplanes flash in a few frames. This is because they flew by as my camera took the picture. It serves as a good reminder of the sort of thing you can use TLP for. Planes are fast-moving objects, thus they don’t work well in time lapse.

After those two, I decided to do one that looks more professional. I wanted to do it in a controlled environment –something where there would be no variables. For that, I turned to my closet. Very “professional” indeed =) Cue the video…

I spent about half an hour setting up this shot. The clock is on a cardboard box, the camera on a tripod next to it. I turned on the overhead light, and I also set up a clip-on light. Once I closed the door to my closet the lighting would be consistent; that’s exactly what I wanted. Since the lighting wouldn’t change, I set everything on my camera to manual. Focus, drive mode, white balance, and ISO. This means that every picture will have the exact same exposure. That also raises the stakes because if one picture has a bad exposure, they all do.

Once everything was set, I hit start, closed the door, and went to bed (makes for a long night’s work =) Eight hours and 480 pictures later, it was time to upload them. As I mentioned above, the editing part of TLP is beyond the scope of this tutorial. In short, you will need to use a video editing or motion graphics program to string all the photos together as a video. I used Adobe After Effects in my examples. Refer to your software’s Help files to find out if it can do this sort of thing.

There is one thing that has left me baffled. A few frames in the video appear brighter than others –a subtle flare if you will. This is most noticeable right around the 10 second mark. Despite everything being on manual in a controlled environment, I still found these minor variations in a handful of the pictures. It’s nothing I couldn’t fix easily in Photoshop, but still, I have no idea why it did that. My only guess is that it is some random fluctuation somewhere in the process. Either inside the camera, or perhaps a voltage change in the outlets powering the lights.

Advanced Techniques: For a truly amazing shot, you can set your camera on a very slow-moving motion control device. This will show not only the motion of the subject, but add interest by having the camera angle change throughout the shot. Motion control devices are ridiculously expensive (several Ks), by the way.

Fortunately, you can fake the effect of of a motion control device without spending so much as a dime. Once you have strung your video together, use the video software to zoom in as the sequence plays. If you’re working with large images, you can pan/scroll through the video as well. Simply set a Scale or Position keyframe at the beginning of the video, and then a different one at the end. Granted, the effect is somewhat limited, and it won’t change the perspective as a true motion control shot would. It’s still fun to play with. This effect was used in the clock example above.

For the literally out-of-this-world shot, you can team up with the guys at NASA and do a time lapse shot of the earth from a satellite. =) I saw this effect on the Planet Earth series. They showed Antarctica from space as it doubles in size in the winter (because the surrounding water freezes). How they pulled the shot off simply blows my mind! They had to have a satellite snap a photo from the exact same position every day for several weeks. If you’ve seen the shot you know what I’m talking about. It’s simply a-mazing!

Lessons Learned: Have fun with it! Fortunately, that comes easily. The most important thing here is just to make sure you spend enough time setting up the shot. If you do that right, you shouldn’t have any surprises in the end. Don’t rely solely on the motion to make it look cool, do your best to frame the shot just like you would with any other photo. Just because it’s processed differently doesn’t mean you can’t apply everything you know about photography –it all works together!

That’s what I know. Now show me what you’ve got! =)