How to Shoot and Stitch Panoramas with a Drone

Drones allow photographers to capture images and video from unique perspectives and vantage points. Although digital cameras on modern consumer-level drones have come a long way, they are still quite limited when it comes to sensor size and resolution. As a result, images that come out of drones often lack the amount of detail that is needed for high quality prints. Thanks to the ability of drones to hover in the sky without any movement, it is possible to shoot vertical or horizontal aerial panoramas. In this article, I will go through the process of capturing panoramas with a drone, then discuss how you can use post-processing software to create high-resolution aerial images.

First, let’s go over focal length and exposure considerations.

Focal Length, Focus and Exposure Settings

The process of shooting aerial panoramas with a drone can be somewhat complex, because there are a number of variables at play. First of all, you need to look into the focal length of the drone and see what type of panoramic photography you can do with it (typically, the longer the focal length of the drone lens, the better it is for aerial drone photography). While most drones on the market are armed with a wide-angle lens (typically 24mm or 28mm FoV equivalent in full-frame), some have longer lenses, or potentially even offer a zoom range. For example, the Mavic 2 Zoom has a 24-48mm equivalent focal length range, which can be very useful for doing aerial panoramas. Now you might be wondering why longer focal length lenses in drones are more suitable for panoramic photography. The main reason for this is the same as when shooting panoramas on a tripod with an ultra wide-angle lens – stitching such panoramas can be quite painful in post-processing due to extreme levels of distortion. It is simply a lot easier to stitch panoramas that are captured at longer focal lengths. So if you have a zoom lens on your drone, make sure to zoom in before starting to shoot an aerial panorama.

The second variable to consider is aperture. While most consumer-grade drones will feature one fixed aperture, more advanced drones might offer full aperture control, allowing you to stop down the lens to yield better contrast and sharpness. If your drone has this capability, my recommendation would be to stop down the lens to the aperture that gives you the best detail. This obviously depends on shooting conditions – if there is insufficient light, it might be best to choose a wider aperture rather than longer shutter speed, especially if you are dealing with windy conditions.

Next is shutter speed. The overall size and weight of the drone does impact its stability in the air, especially when it comes to combating light winds (generally, larger and heavier drones will hover with more stability compared to their portable and lightweight counterparts). As a result, the shutter speed you choose will primary depend on several factors such as shooting conditions, drone size / weight and overall drone stability while hovering. Even though some drones might offer a “tripod” mode, it does not mean that you can shoot long exposures – things like drone rotor vibrations and wind can easily result in enough shake to make images look unusable, so keep this in mind.

Since the goal is to generate a high-resolution panorama with as much dynamic range as possible, always make sure to choose the base ISO of the camera, which is typically something like ISO 100. Make sure to turn off Auto ISO, as it will mess up your exposures and make it extremely difficult to stitch images later in post.

Lastly, make sure to properly focus before your first shot (typically by tapping on the part of the scene that has enough edge contrast) and verify that you are properly focused, especially if you have previously zoomed in or out (if available). The last thing you want to end up with is a bunch of out of focus images!

As we have previously explained in our panoramic photography tutorial, always make sure to keep your exposure and focus settings the same when shooting panoramas. This means that once your focus is solid, you should pan from one side of the scene to another and note any serious changes in brightness – if one part of the sky is too bright, you might want to increase your shutter speed to reduce the potential for overexposure. Keep in mind that compared to your digital camera, you are going to be working with a small sensor drone that might have much less dynamic range to work with, which will limit your shadow and highlight recovery potential in post. Therefore, choose your settings wisely!

File Format / Crop Settings

Just like you should be shooting in RAW format when taking pictures with your camera, make sure to shoot in RAW with your drone! Also, pay close attention to image crop options – make sure not to crop your images and pick the native aspect ratio of your drone’s sensor. For example, if you use a DJI Mavic drone, you should pick 4:3 aspect ratio, since that’s the native aspect ratio of the drone’s sensor. Picking a different aspect ratio might end up cropping your RAW image, which is not what you want!

Shooting Conditions

It goes without saying that shooting conditions are extremely important for doing aerial panoramas. While light constant wind might be easy for your drone to deal with, sudden wind gusts and heavy winds will move your drone and mess up your panoramas, so you should avoid shooting in such conditions. Another thing to keep in mind is freezing cold temperatures at higher elevations – batteries don’t do well in cold environments and if you don’t plan properly, you might not have enough time to properly shoot a panorama. Lastly, if you are planning to do complex multi-row panoramas, you must make sure that the lighting conditions don’t change drastically in-between, so shooting sunrises and sunsets might not be ideal. My recommendation is to always start with a single “safe shot” when shooting a sunrise / sunset. This way, if your panorama does not work out or if the light conditions change drastically, you still have a single image you can work with.

Horizontal vs Vertical vs Multi-Row Aerial Panoramas

Whether you shoot with a drone that has a single focal length lens, or with a drone that has a zoom lens, you can shoot a number of different types of panoramas with it. A horizontal aerial panorama is typically comprised of two or more drone images in a single row, which results in a thin horizontal panoramic image. Horizontal panoramas are the easiest to capture, because all you need to do is pan the drone camera from left to right or vice-versa, then capture images while overlapping between them by 20-30%.

A vertical aerial panorama is typically taken with two or more images that result in a single vertical panorama, which is sometimes referred to as “vertorama”. If your goal is to capture a thin vertical image that showcases your subject as well as the sky, a vertorama is relatively easy to capture and can be shot with any drone. When using wide-angle lenses, my recommendation is to increase the amount of overlap between images when shooting with wide-angle lenses to 50% or more.

A multi-row aerial panorama is the most complex type of panorama to shoot. It requires proper planning and depending on the focal length of the lens, might require a lot of overlap, in addition to quite a bit of distortion correction in post-processing software like Photoshop. Multi-row panoramas take some practice, but once you learn how to do it right, produce the best results. The best candidates for multi-row panoramas are those drones that have lenses with focal lengths of 35mm and longer (in 35mm / full-frame equivalent).

To shoot a multi-row panorama, I personally start from the top left side of the frame (typically the sky, with a small portion of the ground), then shoot a bunch of horizontal images that overlap at least 50% until I am beyond the end of my frame. Then I move the gimbal down a little and go from right to left in the same manner. Depending on the scene and the drone I am using, I do between 2-5 rows, which can yield images over 10,000 pixels wide.

Stitching Aerial Panoramas

The process of stitching aerial panoramas captured with longer lenses is really no different than what one would normally do in something like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop – you just select the images you want to stitch, then use the panorama merge tool to create a Spherical, Cylindrical or Perspective panorama.

Where things get complex is when stitching panoramas captured with wide-angle lenses. In such cases, you might end up with a funky-looking panorama that looks like this:

Depending on what you are shooting, some panoramas might not work out at all no matter what you do, especially if they involve a lot of straight lines and architecture. However, when shooting landscapes, a heavily distorted image like the one above can be more or less “fixed”, although I would probably replace the word “fixed” with “artistically enhanced”, because the distortion correction tools you will be using are probably going to heavily influence the final look of the image (which might end up looking quite a bit different compared to the way the scene looks in real life).

The process to tackle such panoramas involves the use of Photoshop’s “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool. Here is the way I personally process such images:

  1. Merge all images to panorama in Lightroom. This way I end up with a DNG image that I can easily edit / post-process in Lightroom
  2. Perform the main edits in Lightroom (correct white balance, recover highlights and shadows, etc)
  3. Open the image in Photoshop
  4. Use the “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool to address distortion issues
  5. Perform final edits in Photoshop and save

Let’s go through the above image and see what we can do in Photoshop CC’s “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool. Once you fire up the tool, click the “Constraint Tool” on the top left side of the window, then draw a line between the areas that are curved, but should be straight. In the above image, I know that the mountain tops are more or less even in terms of their altitude, so I started by drawing a line from one of the mountain tops, as can be seen below:

Holding the “Shift” button before placing the other end will force Photoshop to straighten and level that part relative to the whole landscape. After I went through the first ridge, I then did the same thing with the second mountain range, but this time, I used the rotate part of the tool to make sure that the line goes straight again. I repeated this for the whole mountain range, then corrected the curved lines on the sides of the mountain, as shown below:

Then I clicked “OK” to save and close the tool. There was a lot of empty space left to the sides of the image, which I then had to crop using Photoshop’s crop tool. The areas of the sky that were empty I filled with Content Aware Fill tool, which did a very nice job. After a few additional adjustments in Photoshop, here is the final image:

This image took some effort, but thanks to the Adaptive Wide Angle tool in Photoshop, I didn’t have to mess with any other post-processing software and still ended up with a usable image.

Hope you find this article useful. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below!

Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S Field Report

After two weeks and more than 2600 photos taken with Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 S, I wanted to share my initial impressions with this new Z-mount lens. Just in case you are impatient and want to hear my short verdict here: this is the best zoom lens I have ever used. Here is why.

Why I Bought It in the First Place

Until recently, I preferred to shoot with 20mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm primes (all f/1.8 G) when photographing events and people. But since I do more and more reportage-style of coverage of different events where I need to be very quick – be it coverage of press conferences or photoshoots with kids – I realized I need a fast, basic zoom lens to compliment my trusted 70-200mm VR II telephoto zoom.

Sure, I could go with the 24-70mm f/2.8 G lens. Both the VR and the non-VR versions are very solid performers. However, I always found them very heavy and pricy. The non-VR version was sharper for my uses, but I realized that I’ve missed a number of photos with other lenses in the past because of their lack of VR (vibration reduction). Hence, neither of the F-mount 24-70mm lenses seemed to be future-proof enough for the upcoming bodies.

So, I got quite excited about the new Z mount Nikkor S 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, which, in its specifications (MTF-curves), seemed to be flawless. On top of that, the combination with the IBIS of the Z bodies was exactly what I wanted to get. Well, except for the price, and except for the fact that I did not own any Z body back then. This lens made me buy the Z6! I wanted to test the Z system anyway, and this lens was the last straw that swayed me. And so I emptied my account… but I have no regrets.

Starting to Use the Lens

My newly-bought Z6 could not arrive in the promised delivery date, so I got a loan of the Z7 body instead. That is why some photos in this article are taken with Z7, which obviously is much more demanding to the lens in terms of its optical performance. After three days with Z7, my Z6 finally arrived, so I had to give back the leased Z7 body. I have shot on only the Z6 ever since. I can compare the f/2.8 version also with the 24-70mm f/4 lens that I bought in the Z6 kit set.

I made quite a bold plunge from DSLR into MILC system: After only a couple days of testing the Z7 with the new 24-70mm lens, I used it for a big assignment (photographing an international political delegation in Prague for a whole day). At the end of the day, I could also take several cityscape photos of Prague during the sunset and blue hour. In the next days, I took pictures in various situations – mostly outdoor, photographing insects (bees in flight), portraits, family photos, products, flowers in my garden, and landscapes.

Assessing Performance

The Z cameras and 24-70mm f/2.8 S combo have not disappointed me a single time so far. Frankly, I was never worried about sharpness, but I did wonder about autofocus at first (more due to the Z body than the lens). I was also curious to know how it feels to have a quite bulky lens on a Z body with a rather small grip in my hand for the whole day. Here I can say that it feels very balanced, and my hands did not get too tired.

During the big assignment with the political delegation, the vast majority of the shots with this lens were keepers. I was glad the lens (and the Z7 with 2.0 firmware) could focus in low-light. It could acquire focus even when people were sitting in front of a window and their eyes were hardly visible (people were mostly silhouettes). I used the lens wide open all the time (at f/2.8). The shots taken at 24mm were visibly sharp at 100% magnification. The other focal lengths seemed very good as well, albeit a tiny bit less sharp. Nasim has a full article comparing 24-70mm lens sharpness, and this lens is the sharpest of all. In total, I was very happy how the assignment panned out with the new lens. I do not think I missed the focus more than 5% of the time, which is excellent given that most of the time I was shooting in difficult light conditions (indoors during a rainy day).

It was only the end of the day, however, that the moment of joy came. I ended my assignment in the centre of Prague at 9pm when the sun was setting down. I decided to go to Oldtown square and for the first time I was able to photograph outdoors with this lens. It was getting dark, and I needed to use shutter speed of around 1/30 to 1/15 second with the wide open aperture of f/2.8. Yet, all the shots I took were razor sharp at 100% magnification.

I could take hand-held photos of Prague even some 40 minutes after sunset without raising ISO beyond 400. I was excited!

In Combination with Eye-AF

The other “wow moment” came when I was testing the new autofocus feature of the 2.0 firmware of the Z bodies. It can pick both in the single servo (AF-S) and the continuous mode (AF-C) any human face (even with dark sunglasses) and pick the eye as long as the face fills roughly 10% of the frame.

If you have very lively kids who do not enjoy being photographed, you probably know how hard it can be to take good photos of them. My 2 year old nephew is such a case. As soon as he sees a camera in my hands, he does anything so that I cannot really photograph him. I usually fail to take any good candid shots of him with my D750 and different lenses.

Now I picked the Z6 body and the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, put the AF-C auto-area autofocus and used the screen (not the viewfinder) to frame and focus (often in “stealth” mode, by pretending that I was not photographing). And just the fact that I our eye-contact could be kept and not disturbed by a gadget in between us made a difference. But the real magic came when I realized that the camera did a great job in focusing on the face – and, in roughly 75% of the photos, picking the eyes and focusing on them accurately. Here and there, some nitty-gritty pixel-peepers could argue that perhaps eyelashes were sharper then the iris of the eye. But hey, I could never get nearly as good photos with my trusted DSLR.

Disclaimer: I do not argue that this is better or worse than how other brands (such as Sony) would fare. I just compare this with my D750 performance. And again, I know how to nail focus with DSLR when people are not moving or are moving predictably.

Ever since, I’ve used this functionality with this lens while photographing moving people, and it works great for me. You could argue that the credit should largely go to the Z6 body with its new firmware, but I really think it is the native Z-mount fast lens that makes this feature really perform well.

Astrophotography Use

Nikon is bragging about the exceptional corner to corner performance of the 24-70mm f/2.8 S. While I knew after a couple of shootings that this certainly holds for sharpness, I was really curious about the coma, aberration performance, and vignetting.

For night photography, I used the lens 90% of the time wide open, and I noticed that there is noticeable vignetting, even though some correction is automatically applied in the Lightroom in the RAW files. Still, I could see it.

The first night shots confirmed this impression, and I could see the light fall-of in the night images. Nasim provides exact details on this in his tests.

On the other hand, the lens deals very well with coma correction – i.e., circles in the corners remain their regular shape, with only a slight hint of transforming circles into a cross shape. It is definitely an improvement over the G version (F-mount) lens.

Critique

Does this lens have any drawbacks? There are a few issues where I would rate the performance as mediocre rather than superb.

The bokeh is decent – and not bad given this is a zoom lens – but it is not on par with fixed primes.

I also think that this lens has some flare and ghosting issues. Again, it is not very bad, but you will see very colourful reflections of the sun in the photos from time to time. The good thing is, however, that the contrast does not decrease by much in such situations. I would rate this lens similar to 20mm f/1.8 AF-S lens, which also has some ghosting issues.

Subjectively, I find the zoom ring traction a bit too tight. I am not able to re-zoom from 24mm all the way to 70mm with a single hand movement, which is surprising to me. This is caused not only by the tightness of the zoom (which prevents the creep of the lens while hanging perpendicular, i.e. one can also say it is a good thing), but also by the size of the lens. It is a bit bulky (though not heavy).

And although I do I like the aesthetic design of the lens, I have some doubts whether the deep indenting of the function rings will keep out dust and other dirt (given that I do shoot in rough conditions).

All these things are minor issues for me and are outweighed by the positives listed above.

My Conclusion

The first conclusion shouldn’t be a surprise for you by now: This lens is very sharp wide open, actually insanely sharp at 24mm. But this is not the main reason why I am excited about the 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens.

Before buying new gear, I always ask myself: Will I be able to get some shots that I would otherwise not have been able to get? And yes, this is the case with the new f/2.8 lens and the IBIS technology in the Z bodies. When photographing in cities, I really hesitate whether to take tripod, as it not only burdens my back, but it also slows down my workflow during the short period of the blue hour. Now I can take tack-sharp photos of night Prague without any significant ISO increase. I knew immediately that this is going to be my go-to street photo lens.

And just as importantly, I can now photograph people with a reliable face-detection (and eye detection as well) from very low perspectives while using display rather than the viewfinder. This gives me a completely new range of options for photographing tricky portrait subjects.

So, that’s why I love this lens. It is now my go-to lens for street photo, events (such as weddings), and family portraits.

Have you used this lens or are thinking about getting it? Let us know your impressions and experience below.

A Failed Landscape Photography Expedition

To be brutally honest – some plans are doomed to erupt in flames the moment they meet reality. That isn’t a surprise; the only twisted part is that we almost always know what’s about to happen, yet keep chugging along anyway. I found myself in that position last week while attempting to photograph the Milky Way over mountains in Colorado. Still, there’s always something to learn from failure.

The story is quite simple. I wanted to photograph the Milky Way for a few articles and videos to publish on Photography Life. I did some internet research and found a “moderate” rated hike to a mountain lake in Colorado that looked pretty stunning. My goal was to start the hike late in the day and get to some good views by midnight. (There were, of course, no drop-offs along the way, or I’d never have attempted such a hike at night.)

The first part of my plan worked stunningly well – take a nap before the hike. To my dismay, the rest of the trip didn’t go as smoothly. The clear forecast turned into a rainy nighttime slog, with deep snowbanks covering the entire length of the hike. I didn’t bring along my snowshoes, thinking the path would be mostly clear, so each step meant sinking up to my shins or more. It was perhaps the most grueling hike I’ve ever done, despite being nowhere near the longest nor the coldest.

Mistake #1: Planning a hike with the assumption that this year’s June conditions would be the same as last year’s June conditions.

This past winter, Colorado had an impressive snowfall. Overall, that’s great news. More snow means more snowmelt – enough to end the two-year drought across large parts of the state. As a result, the outlook for summer 2019 is fewer wildfires and more stable reservoirs, a welcome sight indeed.

For hiking, of course, it means that many of the main trails are nowhere near “summer conditions” despite the time of year. A number of high-altitude roads remain closed due to snow (yes, even now, almost two weeks into summer). While researching the trail I planned to hike, I read reports from last year’s hikers in June, and even May and April. They experienced only minimal snow, in comparison to the astonishing amount present this year.

Mistake #2: Believing that online reports accurately represent an entire hike, rather than just the highlight(s).

It wasn’t just the snow conditions that I misinterpreted from my research online. Even more importantly, people’s photos from the hike showed beautiful conditions for Milky Way photography – spectacular mountain views and a lot of sky.

Yet, the hike itself was very different. Other than the last 0.5%, the entire thing was in a forest with essentially no clearings. I’m certain it would have been a very pleasant hike during the day, but I was going along at night with the sole goal of seeing as much Milky Way as possible. That certainly didn’t work out.

As the lack of good views became more and more obvious during the hike, I should have turned around. But nature, ever the perfect carnival operator, knew how to keep me hooked. Every time I was tempted to cut my losses, something kept me going just a bit longer . The cold rain let up. An amazing Milky Way started to peek through the trees, which thinned out a bit. The lake at the end of the hike – which I knew would be great, regardless of the views beforehand – grew nearer with every step.

Mistake #3: Feeling that a shot – any shot – is a must-capture, and that it is worth going beyond your normal limits to photograph because conditions are perfect.

Anyone who has tried Milky Way photography knows how difficult it can be to get the perfect shot. For maximum Milky Way visibility, you need to shoot in the dead of night (beyond nautical and even astronomical twilight) on a day with minimal clouds and no moonlight. Plus, you have to be as far away from light pollution as possible, even small towns. Photographing the stars is not easy.

Yet, all those variables lined up perfectly during the hike. Combined with the photos of this location I had seen online – a spectacular mountain basin with big sky views – it was the perfect formula for pushing it too far. Sure, I was in a seemingly endless forest, but some good view of the sky had to be close.

It wasn’t. The destination took several hours longer to reach than I had expected. And although the Milky Way grew truly beautiful around midnight, some clouds started rolling in shortly after. When I finally made it to the clearing at the end of the hike, it was nearly sunrise, and the Milky Way had vanished.

Worst of all, the clouds faded away again at sunrise, making for a bland sky when I finally did reach the (admittedly very beautiful) destination.

From a hiking standpoint, the whole thing was pointless. I walked for hours through difficult terrain without seeing any scenery at all, except what my headlamp illuminated. From a photography standpoint, the whole thing was… nearly pointless. I got a few borderline-usable photos (the ones in this article), but even those have some major flaws.

One big consolation, at least, is that I was never in danger of anything except taking bad photos. I had plenty of water, two GPSs, extra batteries, and warm layers. People knew where I was going and when I would be back. Although I flirted with heavy exertion – not something to trifle with – I did carry a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag, allowing some rest along the way to keep my energy up.

It all reminded me of a hike I did many years ago in Iceland, where, from the edge of a canyon, I saw a giant, unnamed waterfall in the distance. Stubbornly focused on the goal of reaching the falls, and knowing it was within my capabilities to make it there (though not without plenty of discomfort), I spent the rest of the day hiking to that spot. When I finally reached it, the falls were less interesting than almost all the others I had seen on the trip. Combined with the dullest of dull light, I didn’t get a single keeper that day.

I’ve written before that you shouldn’t confuse backstory with quality – i.e., your memory of taking a photo with how good the photo actually is. Today’s article has a related, though distinctly different takeaway: Before you take a photo, during the planning stage, don’t think that more effort will lead to more results. At a minimum, you need to put that effort in the right direction.

The other point of this article is beyond obvious, but it still bears repeating: Learn from your mistakes. I made several on this failed landscape expedition, more than just the three big ones I emphasized here. I can’t say for sure that I’ll never make the same mistakes again, but I do think it’s less likely. That’s especially true in terms of how much credibility I’ll give to online research – whereas the art of chasing doomed photos may be a flaw I’m stuck with!

After all, in hindsight, this plan was always going to fail. Everything needed to go perfectly, from the weather opening up at the right moment to trail conditions allowing a normal hiking speed. It could have worked out, but any success would have been pure luck. Don’t get me wrong; lucky breaks are great. But you can’t rely on them.

Instead, if your landscape photography plan is rock-solid, nearly everything can go wrong – except the light – and you’ll still get a good shot. If I manage to meet that standard next time around, I’ll have some Milky Way content to publish on Photography Life soon. But if it does end up being another failure… hopefully, at least, it’s another failure that starts off with a great nap.

Photographing the Vivid Sydney Festival

I suppose we all develop a unique attachment to the place where we were born, raised or have otherwise spent a significant portion of our lives. In my case, that’s Sydney, Australia. I’ve travelled extensively through the USA, Europe, the Caribbean and South East Asia. Along the way there have been trips to wonderfully visual cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Mumbai, Kolkata, London and others. Still, every place has its own unique style, colour, culture, and architecture. The quality of the air, light, sounds, scents and mix of people in each location also creates an ambience which dwells in the memory long after returning home. Being a photographer, I think, gives us an impetus to notice aspects of our environment and details which otherwise might be overlooked, or considered banal. Photography heightens your visual acuity.

I decided on writing this article to focus mainly on the Vivid festival, held this year between May 24 and June 15, during the evening hours 6pm-11pm. During the festival, important landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge are illuminated with graphic displays of laser lighting. There are also music concerts, seminars, and film festivals. In collating some of the images I wanted to use in the article, I realized that Sydney – and especially Sydney Harbour and the surrounding suburbs like Manly – are visually spectacular in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I suppose the eye-watering cost of Sydney real estate is evidence enough of that. Most of the images here concentrate on the Vivid festival, particularly areas of Sydney close to Sydney Harbour. I think of Sydney Harbour as a crown and the Opera House as the jewel. It’s the masterpiece created by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. When the Opera House was declared a world heritage site in 2007, Utzon was only the second person to be recognized in this way during his life.

Contingent on that thought, I’ve included some additional images in an attempt to convey some of my visual impressions of parts of Sydney that I’m familiar with. Some of the images are of Darling Harbour; some are of the Manly area where I live. Sydney as a city is bound by and defined by water, by the clarity and vibrancy of the light, by vivid colour, beaches and large tracts of national parks and the stunning valleys and escarpments of the Blue Mountains, around a 2 hour drive from the CBD. Sydney presents a bounty of visual opportunities for photographers, from the natural landmarks to the theatrical events and concerts I photograph professionally.

I’m an event photographer specializing in photographing stage performance under theatrical lighting while an audience is in attendance. I just bought a Nikon Z6 because it will allow me to be more inconspicuous. The shutter of a Nikon D4 on high speed continuous is not something desirable during a serious dramatic performance with the audience a few feet away. I think although photography and digital imaging is ubiquitous, to explore the visual medium and try to create meaningful and lasting work is incredibly challenging and requires a great deal of effort and commitment.

People may equate your professional activity with their own (how many people turn up with cameras when you’re photographing a wedding) yet the technical expertise and equipment required to reliably produce high level work involves using complex lighting, creative composition, sophisticated communication and software post production skills – skills which easily rival the demands of my former career in computer programming.

I rarely go anywhere without at least having a camera in the car; one of my favourite recreations is taking long exposures of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. During the Vivid festival, many photographers are attracted to the sight of complex animations projected onto the various focal points of the harbour. Of course, there are also many thousands of people using mobile phones to capture the scene, although most photographers will almost certainly know that without a tripod, decent camera, lens, and remote shutter release, it can be very challenging to get a decent image.

In my case, I pack a range of lenses, my Nikon D810, shutter release, and a Manfrotto 190 tripod with a geared three-way head. It’s a little heavy, but very stable, and the head allows me a very precise foundation for my camera. As a local, I can usually avoid the expensive parking in the Sydney CBD by parking some distance away and walking to my preferred location. One of those locations is the walkway which traverses the Harbour bridge from Kirribilli on the north side to Circular Quay, which has a large ferry terminal. It’s a spectacular, amphitheatre view of the harbour and Opera House from an elevated location. If you have deep pockets, there are guided tours to the top of the bridge archway, although cameras are not permitted.

The bridge walkway has its own set of challenges as a location for long exposure photography. For example, most of the length of the bridge is subject to the vibrations of passing traffic. The one stable location is a viewing area below the southern pylon – where a lot of photographers congregate during Vivid. This platform is surrounded by metal fencing, which makes it difficult to position a tripod. Nonetheless, it’s an especially great view of the harbour and Opera House from an elevated location.

At the far end of the walkway across Sydney Harbour, there are usually thousands of people milling around Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the walkway along Bennelong Point to the Opera House. It can be challenging to set up a tripod, but seasoned photographers will know instinctively that establishing a good location to take your images is a very crucial aspect of photography.

Another popular location for night photography is the roof of the Circular Quay railway station. There is an elevator to the eastern end, which leads to a great viewing platform with plenty of space to set up a tripod and a spectacular view of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I’ve found a focal length of 24mm to be ideal for this location, and a number of the images here were taken with the Sigma 24mm Art, using long exposure to capture the ferry and boat trails coming in and out of the Circular Quay wharves.

Another great location for night photography during Vivid is the overseas passenger terminal nearby. The beauty of this location is that you can get a great side on view of the Opera House and usually some space to set up a tripod, despite a lot of people milling around.

Tips for Bird Photography

In this article, 20 Tips for Bird Photography, I have penned down what matters most to me for photographing birds in the field. Nasim & Elizabeth already have great articles on the most common tips. So, the thoughts below are simply a way to gather the most useful tips I’ve found, as well as common mistakes a lot of bird photographers make at first.

Understand Your Subject

I have put this as the first above all else. This is because, when it comes to bird photography, if we do not understand our subject’s temperament we will end up with no subject at all.

Of course, this holds true for any wildlife, but it means all the more when it comes to birds. Some birds are very cooperative and allow us to get really close, while some will take off at the slightest sign of any movement. Even more so, the same individuals behave differently with respect to different environments. Take an example of the Sarus crane below, which I photographed in the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. I was pretty close to the bird when I shot this photograph:

Inside the confines of the sanctuary, the cranes do not care much about humans. But, the same individuals fly off to nearby farmlands where they start to get very shy. This is because, in the sanctuary, no human tries to shoo them away. In the farms, farmers are always vigil of their crops guarding them from birds.

Some birds are seen only during certain hours of the day, like the Himalayan Monal. Monals feed on grassy patches during the early and late hours of the day. They would be nowhere to be seen during mid-day. This knowledge comes in handy when photographing such birds. Along the same lines, a lot of birds are migratory, sometimes traveling far and wide enough to traverse the earth. Other birds display vibrant colors during breeding but are not as colorful at other times of the year.

So, you should be aware of the time of year if you are planning a bird photography trip. I have seen quite a few photographers leave on a bird photography trip the moment they have their holidays approved – only to realize that the most interesting birding season has already passed in that location. Research beforehand and plan your trips to harness the maximum opportunity.

Don’t Fire on Sight

At one point in time, I kept doing this, and I am certain many of us do it: The moment we see a bird, we start firing in Continuous mode.

It is true that our anxiety to grab a photograph before the bird would probably take off is understandable. But a photograph is much beyond just the subject. It includes the story that is being told, the light that adds emotion, the background that adds to the aesthetics and many more. To understand all these, you need to relax for a few minutes, understand the scene and then press the shutter. Such a picture will almost always be better than the one you clicked the moment you saw the bird. There might be patches with good light and the ones with not so good light. A photograph of a bird in shadows with harsh sunlight all around will get it nowhere. Similarly, there might be patches with distracting background. Move around to see if you get a better angle or a less distracting background. It takes a few minutes to process it all, and if you end up taking a photograph before that, it would very likely qualify to get culled.

Mind Your Camera Settings

Every scene is distinct, even if one frame falls a few inches away from the previous one or a few minutes after. There is no single group of camera settings that would allow you to photograph all through the day without modification. (This issue is again one more reason for tip #2.)

For example, you might have set your camera to photograph a bright bird with a dark background, and the image looks good. But the same settings could be catastrophic for a dark bird a few feet away. Always remember your previous photo or the previous setting.

Take a look at the two pictures below. I initially had the camera on group-area autofocus. I focused on the bird’s right eye, which was less illuminated than its beak. The camera acquired focus on the high contrast forehead, leaving me with blurry eyes. Then, I shifted the focus to the left eye which was properly illuminated, giving me a shot with sharp eyes:

It’s not only focus settings that matter so much. Another critical one is exposure compensation, something we might end up forgetting most of the time. If we leave exposure compensation as it was for the previous photo, it is easy to over- or under-expose a set of photos. Sometimes we might be able to fix issues in post, but, as always, nothing beats getting it right in the camera.

I personally have developed a habit of looking into the settings display every once in a while to remind me of the settings that are currently in use, so that I change it when the scene changes. If you do not actively keep track of your current settings, especially vital settings like focus and exposure compensation, you are not going to remember to change them when the scene changes.

“Record Shots” Are Seldom Good Photographs

Bird watching is very different from bird photography. At the same time, if you are one, there’s a good chance you’re also the other.

In bird watching, a “record shot” is merely a picture of a rare bird, and it most of the time serves as a proof that you have seen such a bird. But this sort of documentary shot will seldom make it a good photograph unless it conveys a concrete message and/or portrays the bird with all its textual details. I personally have quite a few pictures of very rare birds and mammals that are sleeping in my hard drives. None of them will never make it to any exhibiting platform.

Many times, I have seen a lot of photographers spot a bird, take a few photographs and move to the next spot. Most of these photographs are likely to be just record shots which would not be interesting for most viewers. Instead, spending more time with one subject will yield better photographs than trying to click every bird that flies around you. So, if your purpose is to capture the highest quality bird photos rather than a plain documentary record of what you saw, you will need to put in some extra effort.

Don’t Ignore Common Subjects

Along the same lines as the previous tip – All of us love to come back with brilliant photographs of rare birds and animals. Great if we get such images. But, most of the time, we tend to ignore common subjects that make great photographs.

For obvious reasons, most viewers might not admire a common crow or a household sparrow. But do not forget that a photograph is much more than merely the subject! It goes beyond that – things like light, behavior, and composition are just as important if not more so. Below is a picture of a humble Indian pond heron, which is a very common bird in India, but the light and the frame were too good to miss.

On top of that, there is only one way to master photography: Practice! Photographing common birds is a great way to practice, which one day will help us out tremendously when we are photographing rare birds.

Get Close to Your Subject

Bird photography is, in part, about getting the textual details. This is where most photographers say, “Reach is almost everything in bird photography.” It is true to a certain extent. But there is a difference between you getting close to your subject and getting a similar frame using a large focal length.

Personally, I do not think most photographers would need anything more than a 600mm reach (in full frame terms). Beyond that, issues like haze come into play, which affect the overall contrast and colors to a noticeable extent. A person sitting closer to a bird shooting at 300mm is likely to get more textual details as compared to one getting a similar composition at 750mm.

It does depend upon the gear to a large extent, but most of the time we get much better pictures when we are at the closest possible to our subjects. Also, the closer we are to the subject, the better the quality of bokeh that aids in subject separation.

Approach Your Subject with Patience

Now that we know there is no substitute for getting close to your subject, the next question would be, how to get close? Below are a few pointers that I use, and it works out most of the time:

  • The speed with which you approach your subject is indirectly proportional to the probability of it flying off. In other words, the slower you are, the greater are your chances of getting the shot.
  • Most birds seem to have a circle of comfort. They will be cool until you cross a particular radius, after which they become very cautious. This circle will vary with every individual.
  • Once a bird gets cautious, it will look around to take off – and, worse, it will turn away from you. If you see the bird take a deep breath, it often means it is going to take off. Once you see that the bird is stressed, you have probably entered its circle of comfort. Stop moving. There is a chance it will cool down and stay. Sometimes, the bird will even come close to you. If your subject gets comfortable with you around, your chances of getting a head-on shot maximize. The bird is also more likely to display its natural characters.
  • Stay low. Crawl toward your subject if possible. Crawling freaks out your subjects way less than walking at full height.
  • If you see a bird in a particular perch, chances are you might see it in the same perch again later. If you find feces on one particular perch, it means that’s a favorite.

Get to Eye Level

This could be a cliche, but an article on bird photography is incomplete without it. The best bird photographs are mostly eye-level shots. The feel and the connection that eye-level shots give is unmatched. Especially, if you get your lens to the eye level of your subject or a bit lower and get your subject to look into the lens. Then there is nothing more you can ask for.

Eye-level shots also throw out the best possible bokeh. When you are above the eye of the subject, you mostly get the ground which most often tends to be distracting. If it happens to be water it is even less desirable as the reflections from the surface make it way too distractive. Eye-level shots mean that the background is farther away by comparison, making it more likely to look interesting and less distracting.

Don’t Crop Too Much

Let’s admit it. Most of us do it. Cropping becomes almost inevitable with bird photography. But, in reality, the quality of my pictures increases exponentially when I do not have to crop my images to 30%, 50%, or almost 100%.

It is true that modern cameras like the Nikon D850 give us 48MP, and other brands are just as strong in the megapixel war, allowing us to crop quite a lot. To a certain extent, it does help. But if your subject is a tiny dot before cropping, you will end up with a low-quality image most of the time even if the image is acceptably sharp.

I have found that, regardless of what megapixel camera you use, if you crop a picture more than 50% you are compromising heavily on its quality. I generally make sure not to get over the 50% crop mark. Most of the time, the cropped portion is about 20% or less, where I have to straighten the lines or get a perspective that I want. But it takes some practice to get to that point, especially in terms of learning your subject’s behavior so you can approach close enough.

The reason why most photographers go for crop bodies when it comes to birding is, in part, the crop factor. The pixel pitch (no. of pixels per sq. inch) is higher in a 24 MP crop body than a 24 MP full-frame camera, meaning you can get more total pixels on your subject at a given focal length. This is certainly a good thing sometimes, but it is no substitute for approaching your subject properly and using the right lens. I would much rather be close to my subject on a full-frame camera than farther away on a crop-sensor camera with the same composition.

Lastly, there is one more issue with over-cropping. Most of the time with bird photography, we are forced to shoot at higher ISOs. It literally means more noise. By cropping the image too much, we are magnifying the noise. We could use noise reduction algorithms in post-processing. But noise reduction has its own problems, like loss of details, so it is best to keep at a minimum.

Wait for the Action

A close-up profile shot of a perched bird with all the textual details can sometimes make a good picture. But in many cases it makes it boring, as there is no activity going on.

This is another reason why it is not a good idea hopping from one bird to another after bagging their profile picture. Capturing a courtship dance, a hunting action, a flapping of wings or at least the fine art of preening makes a photograph all the more interesting. This is one more reason why subject knowledge becomes a must. You can actually anticipate an action. Some birds take a gulp of air before takeoff. Some birds stretch out their neck before preening. Some raptors poop before takeoff. Mating calls have a great chance of being followed by a courtship ritual. If you see two birds in close proximity there is a chance of a fight. And so on.

Whatever the action may be, anticipate it and be persistent until it happens. There is a chance that it might not, and you may have to walk away empty handed. But if it does, you will end up with one picture that will make the whole thing worthwhile.

Break Stereotypes

A photograph that surprises people will pull in a lot of attention. By comparison, a stereotypical photograph does not attract that much attention.

If I have seen a typical composition quite a few times before, no matter how appealing it is, it would not invoke much interest in me. Most of us are aware of rules like the rule of thirds, the golden triangle, and so on. Sure, they help some of us in making composition easy. But it has to be understood that they are merely guidelines, at most. Many of us follow those rules too strictly. Instead, getting out of the herd mentality will improve the individuality of your photos, which, in turn, leads to originality. A piece of work that involves originality – in composition or otherwise – is one that will have the widest reach.

Mechanical vs Electronic Shutter vs EFCS

Many cameras today, especially mirrorless cameras, let you pick between a mechanical and electronic shutter. Others – including a lot of DSLRs – have a third option called “electronic front curtain shutter” (EFCS) which is a blend between the other two types. Each shutter mechanism has several pros and cons, more than you might have realized. If you pick the wrong one, you could be harming your image quality.

What Is a Mechanical Shutter?

Today, mechanical shutters are the default shutter mechanisms for still photography. Many older cameras and even some new ones only allow you to take pictures with a mechanical shutter.

Mechanical shutters function using physical “shutter curtains”: two blades with a gap in between. When you take a photo, the blades slide rapidly in front of your camera sensor. Any light that hits the sensor between the blades will appear in your image.

You do not need to do anything special to enable the mechanical shutter on your camera. It is almost certainly enabled by default.

What Is an Electronic Shutter?

Electronic shutters are becoming more and more popular nowadays, but they still are not present in many modern cameras.

In general, electronic shutters work by reading data from your camera sensor line-by-line. A few cinema cameras have something called a “global shutter,” which reads the whole sensor simultaneously rather than line-by-line, but, at least for now, this technology has not found its way to consumer DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

To enable the electronic shutter, you will need to enter your camera menu. On some cameras, like the Sony A9, it is obvious how to change to the electronic shutter: Camera Settings 2 > Shutter Type > [Electronic Shut.]. However, other cameras hide this option under a “silent shooting” mode. For example, on the Nikon Z6, the only way to enable the electronic shutter is: Photo Shooting Menu > Silent Photography > On.

Again, not all cameras have an electronic shutter option, especially DSLRs.

What Is Electronic Front Curtain Shutter?

Lastly, electronic front curtain shutters are a blend between standard mechanical and electronic shutters. In this case, the first of the two “shutter curtains” is electronic, while the second is the traditional mechanical blade.

Enabling EFCS is easy on most cameras. For example, with the Sony A7 III, you simply go to: Shooting Menu 2 > e-Front Curtain Shut. > On. With the Nikon D810 and D850, go to: Custom Setting Menu > Shooting/display > Electronic front-curtain shutter > ON.

However, on certain cameras – specifically the Nikon D810 and D850 – turning on EFCS sometimes does not do anything. In order for it to work at all on the D810, you need to be in Mirror Up release mode; on the D850, you need to be in Mirror Up, Quiet, or Quiet Continuous release mode. Luckily, most cameras do not have this issue.

We talk about these limitations and more in our article on shutter shock.

Non-Image Quality Differences

Before diving into the factors that impact image quality, let’s take a look at some of the more general pros and cons of these three shutter types.

Fastest Shutter Speed

Which shutter mechanism lets you shoot at the fastest shutter speeds today? In general: Electronic, followed by Mechanical, followed by EFCS.

Electronic shutters on some cameras, such as the Sony A9, let you shoot at extreme shutter speeds like 1/32,000 second. However, not all cameras with electronic shutters will max out so high.

Mechanical shutters generally max out at 1/4000 or 1/8000 second depending on the camera. This is still quite fast – enough for typical needs.

Electronic front curtain shutters are usually the slowest of the group, often maxing out around 1/2000 second. Even on cameras that allow faster EFCS shooting, the manufacturer will often recommend against it due to potential uneven exposures. Although 1/2000 second is fast, it won’t always be enough in bright conditions.

Maximum Frame Rate

Another important point is that different types of shutter may have different maximum frame rates. If this applies to your camera, it’s usually the electronic shutter that can support the greatest number of frames per second. For example, the Nikon V3 can shoot 6 FPS with its mechanical shutter, and a whopping 20 FPS with electronic shutter. Your camera manual will say if yours is the same way.

Flash Use

Mechanical shutters are generally ideal for use with a flash. On many cameras, you can’t even use the electronic shutter in combination with a flash at all. On the few cameras that do allow it (such as the Nikon 1 V3), it will max out at a slow sync speed (1/60 second in this case).

Flash with electronic front curtain shutter is better; most cameras let you use it without any different restrictions. However, with high-speed sync and external flashes, you’ll often see very visible banding in your images around 1/1000 second. So, with flash, I would stick to the mechanical shutter.

Silent Shooting

For situations when you need the quietest possible camera, you’ll want to go with the electronic shutter. This is no surprise, since it has the fewest moving parts. It’s followed by EFCS, then mechanical shutter in terms of volume. However, note that even the electronic shutter may not give you totally silent shooting, since other components of the camera (especially aperture and focusing) also make sounds as you take photos.

Other Differences

There are some more minor differences between the three shutter mechanisms, too:

  • You will wear out your camera’s shutter curtains more quickly if you exclusively use the mechanical shutter.
  • There are differences in response time with each type of shutter (the time between pressing the shutter button and when the camera starts taking the photo). In general, mechanical shutters have a slightly slower response time, although this is not true on every camera.
  • At fast shutter speeds (1/2000 and beyond), electronic front-curtain shutter can result in uneven exposures.
  • Electronic shutter can prevent you from using certain menu items on some cameras. For example, on the Sony A9, you cannot use long exposure noise reduction or Bulb mode with the electronic shutter. On the Nikon Z cameras, you cannot use long exposure noise reduction.
  • On mirrorless cameras, the electronic shutter can eliminate viewfinder blackout (and live view blackout) from shot to shot. This can be useful for continuous shooting, making sure you never lose sight of the scene in front of you.

Next up, let’s take a look at image quality differences for each type of shutter.

Sunstar Flare

In certain cases (especially at fast shutter speeds), using the mechanical shutter can introduce a peculiar type of flare to bright objects in a scene. It is not really flare in the traditional sense, but instead a special kind of sunstar. If you have not heard the term “sunstar” before, it refers to the sharp edges of light seen in certain photos, like the one below:

Normally, sunstars are caused by aperture blades in your lens. But the shutter curtain can cause them as well, and things don’t look good when it does. I call this “sunstar flare” for lack of a better term:

Again, it’s the biggest problem at extremely fast shutter speeds. The image above is so extreme in large part because I’m shooting at 1/5000 second. However, until about 1/125 second (at least on my Nikon Z7), the effects can still be strong enough to be annoying. So, how can you minimize them?

Take a look at the following images, all captured at 1/2000 second and uncropped. Once again, the order is mechanical shutter, EFCS, electronic shutter:

That’s a pretty striking difference! The mechanical shutter has two distinct “sunstar flares,” while the EFCS has one (representing the exposure’s mechanical rear curtain). The electronic shutter does not have this issue at all.

Ranking:

  1. Electronic shutter
  2. EFCS
  3. Mechanical shutter

Flickering in Artificial Light

One of the other major effects of your shutter mechanism involves flickering/banding issues in artificial light. It’s most obvious in the following set of images. The order is still mechanical, EFCS, electronic shutter. Click to see full size:

As you can see, in this example, the only image to have noticeable banding issues is the third – taken with the electronic shutter. In general, that’s what you’ll see; mechanical and EFCS are not a problem in terms of banding. However, some specific cases with EFCS and artificial light can result in banding issues as well, especially when you are using fast shutter speeds like 1/2000 second. For example, take a look at the comparison below. Mechanical shutter is Before, EFCS is After. This is a moderate crop, roughly 1/5 the original area:

How to Photograph Fireworks – Everything You Need to Know

Photographing fireworks is a challenging, but worthwhile experience

Wondering about how you can photograph fireworks on 4th of July, New Year or some other event / occasion? In this article, we provide detailed information on how to best capture fireworks, what type of equipment to use and what camera settings to use during the process. Although the process is relatively simple, there are some things that might be worth considering, as outlined below.

What to Bring

Although you can certainly photograph fireworks with very minimal gear, you might want to go over the list of the recommended gear and accessories below while packing for a fireworks show:

  • Camera – any point-and-shoot, DSLR or mirrorless camera will do, as explained in camera considerations step below.
  • Lens(es) – ideally, you might want to bring two zoom lenses with you, such as a 24-70mm and 70-200mm equivalent, as explained in lens considerations step below.
  • Tripod – a must-have piece of gear to take camera shake-free images of fireworks.
  • Remote Shutter Release – while not required, a remote shutter release will allow you to take pictures in “Bulb” exposure mode, as explained in step #10 below.
  • Memory Card(s) – don’t forget to pack at least one empty memory card (preferably more if you end up taking lots of images).
  • Spare Battery – just in case, you might want to take a spare battery, especially if you are going to be shooting in cold weather, since low temperatures drain camera batteries quickly.
  • Flashlight – you might need a flashlight not just to see the buttons and dials of your camera, but also to be able to properly focus on a foreground subject.

Find the Best Location to Photograph Fireworks

The first thing you need to determine is where exactly you are going to stand to photograph fireworks. I would not recommend standing too close to fireworks, because you will be constantly looking up and you might not be able to find a suitable and interesting foreground to incorporate in your shots. In addition, if you are too close, you might need a wide-angle lens to fit the action into the frame. This might present another problem – you might end up including unwanted objects like buildings and trees into the frame (unless, of course, it is your plan to do so).

Therefore, the best thing to do is to stand further away in an open area (with short or no trees obstructing the view). Ideally, you should stand at a spot that gives you a maximum of 45 degrees view angle relative to the ground, as shown in the diagram below:

The further you stand when you photograph fireworks, the lower the angle and the more focal length you might need. Obviously, each situation is different, so just try to find a good spot with clear views of the sky in an open, unobstructed area that can give you a nice angle to photograph the fireworks.

Ideally, you should be at the spot early on. It is helpful to know exactly where the fireworks will be shot from, so that you can frame and compose your shot exactly the way you want. Don’t forget that fireworks draw a lot of people, so even if you pre-plan and work on your composition, you might need to adjust it later on. I personally have found that unless I am standing at a higher elevation, with no potential of anyone standing in front of me, I am always better off excluding the foreground completely. Once the fireworks start, you will have a hard time asking people to move just because they are in your shot.

Choose the Right Camera

The good news is that you don’t need an expensive camera to photograph fireworks. Any camera that allows shooting in manual mode will work perfectly fine! Many of the point and shoot cameras do, so double check your manual and see how you can switch to manual mode.

Another good thing about shooting fireworks, is that you will be most likely shooting at the lowest ISO levels, which means that there will be very minimal amounts of noise in your images. So you don’t have to worry about your camera’s capabilities, besides being able to switch to manual mode and lowering your ISO to 100. If you have a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you are all set, because you can do all this quickly and painlessly. Some cameras even have a “Fireworks Mode”, which works great and does not require you to change any settings on the camera.

Choose the Right Lens(es)

If you have a point and shoot camera, make sure that its lens can do at least 5x optical zoom (not digital). Optical zoom means that the camera lens will physically move to get more reach, while digital zoom means that the camera will simply cut out the image corners to make it seem like you are closer. With optical zoom, you are not compromising image resolution, whereas with digital you are.

If you have a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, you might wonder what lens to take with you to photograph fireworks. I have shot fireworks for many years and I find that telephoto zoom lenses such as 70-200mm or 70-300mm equivalent work best for fireworks, especially if you are going to be shooting from a nice vantage point, with fireworks exploding in the distance. If you are going to be shooting up from a relatively close distance, then a wide to telephoto lens, such as a 24-70mm or a 24-120mm equivalent is going to work best. You don’t need a large aperture prime lens to shoot fireworks – a zoom lens is ideal, since you can fine tune your framing without having to physically move anywhere. Personally, whenever I plan on shooting fireworks, I typically bring two such zoom lenses with me.

The above exposure was pretty long – a total of 25 seconds. That’s obviously a bit too long of an exposure for fireworks, but the idea here was to start capturing the scene before the fireworks fired, so that I could get some of the foreground exposed. If you are more advanced in terms of your post-processing skills, you will be better off taking two exposures – one for the fireworks, and one for the foreground. You can then blend the two together in Photoshop in order to avoid cluttering up your shot with too many fireworks and potentially overexposing them.

A telephoto zoom lens proved to be useful to have for the above shot. Initially, I captured the image at a shorter focal length of 105mm, which allowed me to include a bit more of the foreground:

That’s why a zoom lens is a versatile option – you can try different framing options and have a better control over your composition.

Use a Tripod

It goes without saying that in order to properly capture fireworks and frame your shots, you will need to have a tripod. You will be taking shots that will be several seconds long, so having your camera on a tripod is going to be ideal for best results. The good news is, you won’t need a fancy tripod to take great shots of fireworks. Since exposure times are going to be rather long, make sure to grab a remote shutter release as well to keep your hands off your camera.

Use Proper Camera Settings

First, set your camera on the tripod and connect the remote shutter release (if available). Then, change the following camera settings:

  • Flash – make sure to turn flash off, as it won’t have the necessary power to illuminate the foreground anyway.
  • ISO – start out by setting your camera ISO to its base ISO level (100 on most cameras) and turn off “Auto ISO“, if you have it turned on.
  • Image Format – if your camera has the capability, shoot in RAW format instead of JPEG. This way, you can make adjustments to your photograph later on and do a lot of highlight / shadow recovery.
  • White Balance – if you shoot in RAW, set your White Balance to “Auto” (you can change it later in post-processing). If you shoot in JPEG, set your White Balance to “Daylight” – it works well in most cases.
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction – turn it off (if available). Keeping it on will double your exposure time, which is unnecessary.
  • Metering – I find matrix / evaluative metering to work the best, especially when shooting wide and including foreground elements.
  • Camera Mode – switch your camera mode to “Manual Mode”.
  • Shutter Speed and Aperture – set your shutter speed to 3 seconds and aperture between f/5.6 and f/8.
  • Image Stabilization – if you are shooting with a camera body or lens that has Image Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction in the Nikon world), you need to turn it off – it is of no use when shooting on a tripod.

Since it is probably going to be pretty dark at the time you will be changing your camera settings, you should not forget to bring a flashlight as well. If you forgot a flashlight, your smartphone’s flashlight will work just fine as well.

Properly Frame Your Shot

If you have not figured out your framing in advance, don’t worry about it before the fireworks begin, especially if you don’t know exactly where fireworks will be shot from. Just observe the sky and once the show begins, start working on framing / composition. You might have to constantly zoom in / out and re-frame your shots, so there is really no set rule for this. If there are brightly lit objects in the scene such as buildings and lights, it might be a good idea to include them as part of your composition. If the foreground is unattractive, it is best to exclude it completely and just focus on the firework explosions.

If the foreground looks good, but appears a bit too dark in your images, then try increasing your exposure time, or wait for a very bright sequence of fireworks to illuminate the foreground details. The fireworks might look too washed out and overexposed because of this, but as long as you don’t change your framing, you could use a more advanced technique to blend two different images together later on in post-processing. Make sure to capture at least one shot with a properly exposed foreground.

Make sure to straighten the horizon as well when including foreground elements. Lastly, consider both horizontal and vertical framing for your shot. While a horizontal shot often works great, a vertical shot might be necessary to fit both the fireworks and other elements of the scene in a single shot.

Lastly, watch out for distracting elements while framing. You do not want trees, power lines and other distracting subjects crossing the primary elements of your composition.

Acquire Precise Focus

This part is tricky, because you need to make sure that your focus is correctly acquired, no matter what you are shooting with. Focusing options with point-and-shoot cameras might be limited, so make sure to practice this beforehand. If you have a bright object that you can focus on, zoom in to that area via live view (make sure not to zoom in optically, or it will mess up your framing and your focusing) and try to focus manually. If there is no bright subject that you can focus on, it is best to wait until the fireworks start, since fireworks are very bright and your camera should not have a problem focusing accurately. As soon as your focus is acquired, make sure to turn off autofocus. Once you capture a shot or two, play back and zoom in to make sure that the fireworks appear sharp.

Focus and Turn off Autofocus

If you are shooting a DSLR or an advanced mirrorless camera, start out by setting your lens focus to infinity and then take a picture. Many modern lenses allow focusing “beyond infinity”, which might screw up the focus on your images. What I typically do to make sure that my focus is 100% accurate, is focus on a bright explosion using the camera’s autofocus system (by half-pressing the shutter release button or pressing the “AF-ON” button), then once the focus is properly acquired, I turn autofocus off completely. Turning off autofocus should be very simple – many lenses will have a focusing switch on their side that allow you to easily turn AF on and off. Since I do not move, my focus from that point on will be accurate and won’t change, unless I zoom in / out with my lens to change my framing.

Include Foreground Elements

If you are trying to incorporate interesting foreground elements in your shot and your foreground elements are very close, you might get disappointed to see that you cannot get both the foreground and the fireworks in perfect focus. The first recommendation would be to properly calculate hyperfocal distance, so that you have both the foreground and the background in focus.

However, if it is too dark and you do not have a flashlight that you can use to properly calculate the hyperfocal distance, or if all this sounds too complex for you, simply focus on your foreground elements and take a shot. Just make sure that you properly expose the foreground – don’t worry about the fireworks in the distance. After you take one or two shots where the foreground looks good, re-acquire focus on the fireworks without changing your composition and keep on shooting. This way, you will have two separate exposures – one for the foreground and one for the background, which you can blend later on in post-processing.

Control Shutter Speed

When the fireworks show begins, take a picture during a bright explosion and see if the image is underexposed or overexposed. If the image is too dark or too bright, use your camera’s shutter speed to change the exposure length. Since you are shooting in manual mode, it should be pretty easy to do that. Your aperture does not matter for the most part – it is the shutter speed that will be controlling how much light enters your camera. For some fireworks, you will find that it is better to have shorter shutter speeds, while for others, a longer shutter speed might be necessary to capture the trails coming from each explosion.

8 Zoo Photography Tips

If you want to up your zoo photography skills, the tips below will start you down the right track

Today we’re going to look at eight useful tips for photographing animals at the zoo. The first question we need to answer when it comes to zoo photography is probably “why would I want to photograph at the zoo?” Zoo photography tends to be fairly controversial among photographers. Some see it as a great opportunity to photograph animals they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see up close, while others consider it “cheating”. Many wildlife photography contests do ban zoo photographs, and passing off an image of an animal shot in captivity as an image taken in the wild is in fact cheating. But when it comes to personal work, zoos are a great opportunity to photograph animals you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.

I also suspect that the reason many photographers cringe at the idea of zoo photographs is that we’ve seen it done badly too many times. Capturing good zoo images is a different sort of challenge than photographing animals in the wild. Zoo animals are waiting and willing subjects, creating the image is about dealing with the surroundings and isolating the animals from their not-so-natural habitat.

Choose the Right Zoo

I have three animal-loving kids, and any time we travel to a new city they want to check out the zoo. After visiting dozens of zoos over the years, it is very obvious that when it comes to photography, all zoos are not created equal. The types of animals can vary from zoo too zoo, but more importantly the types of habitats the animals live in vary significantly.

Safari-type zoo exhibits are the easiest to type to get natural looking animal photos. The downside is that you usually ride through the exhibit with a large group. Because of this both the shooting position and the time spent looking at the animals are not under your control.

More and more, zoos are designed with open exhibit types, where the enclosure is surrounded by lower walls and you don’t have bars and/or netting to contend with. The downside to this exhibit type is that they often (but not always) rely on elevation to help contain the animals. The enclosure sits lower than the viewing area, so the walls  are waist high but the animal enclosure sits down below. This leaves you with an unobstructed but top down only view of the animals.

Zoo exhibits surrounded by glass may offer close up and fairly unobstructed animal views, although reflections and glare present their own challenges. We will look at how to deal with those challenges in a minute. Exhibits surrounded by bars may seem like a problem, but if the bars are widely spaced, you can likely shoot between them without much trouble.

My least favorite exhibit types to photograph are those surrounded by fencing, mesh, or narrow bars. While a fully fenced exhibit like this presents some serious challenges to photographers, it doesn’t mean that getting a good image is impossible. We will look at how to deal with this enclosure type later in the article.

The enclosure type matters significantly but so does the type of exhibit the animals live in. Many zoos create exhibits that bear little resemblance to cages, and instead provide a beautiful, natural habitat for the animals to live in. The better and more natural the habitat the animal lives in the more likely you are to be able to get a natural looking photograph of the animal.

Another thing to look into is what types of behind the scenes tours and experiences your zoo offers. Often available for an extra charge, you may find the experience worth the cost for a close encounter with an animal you want the opportunity to photograph. Also as a side note, while most zoos expect and encourage photography, there are often rules that prohibit (or require special permission for) images that are to be used for commercial purposes.


Use a Long Focal Length, and a Wide Aperture

You don’t need fancy (i.e. expensive) equipment to get good zoo images. As a general rule the animals are not moving super quickly and they are contained in an enclosure which is designed for optimum viewing. Because of this, you don’t need the same focal lengths you would need if you were photographing on the African Savanah. However, long focal lengths and wide apertures provide a very distinct advantage in zoo photography. They allow us to photograph with a narrow depth of field.

Shallow depth of field allows you to blur the background, possibly hiding a less than realistic animal enclosure. Shallow depth of field is also important in that it allows you to photograph an animal right through the fence or enclosure that is surrounding it. When an animal is surrounded by fencing, netting, or bars use your longest lens and your widest aperture and focus on the animal. If the fencing falls far enough out of the cameras zone of focus it will become “invisible” in your image.

Both the focal length and the aperture of your lens will affect the depth of field. The longer the focal length and the wider the aperture the shallower the depth of field. (You can check out an online depth of field calculator to get an idea of how focal length, aperture, and background distance affect depth of field). The more shallow your depth of field, the more likely you are to be able to keep the enclosure out of focus while the animal is in focus.

It’s important that the animal is far enough back in the enclosure that when you are focused on the animal the fence can fall outside of that focus area. The more shallow the depth of field, the less distance you need between the animal and the fence in order for the fence to be out of focus. If the animal is resting right up against the front of the cage, this won’t work at all, but I’m always surprised at how often I can photograph an animal through the cage without it being a problem.

As a side note, you may find that you need to manually focus your lens on the animal, as the cage in front can often confuse the cameras autofocus system.

Watch Your Background: Control Your Shooting Angle

The easiest (and most obvious) way to get good, natural looking zoo images is to control your shooting angle. Although it’s rare to have a full 360 degree view of an animal enclosure, most exhibits offer a variety of viewing positions and sometimes shifting to the side or changing positions just slightly can mean the difference between a good image and a photograph that screams “caged animal”. Shifting your shooting position up or down can make a big difference as well. Often you can photograph the animal with either grass or sky as the background rather than fence. This is another reason that using a zoom lens can be an advantage, sometimes the only way to keep the image from obviously appearing to be photographed in a zoo is to crop in tight on the animal.

Use a Polarizing Filter

Many zoo exhibits are enclosed in glass, allowing you to see the animal up close from a natural position. The downside to glass fronted exhibits is that shooting through glass may be tougher than it first appears. If the glass is especially thick or dirty your camera might have trouble autofocusing and you may need to manually focus on the animal. Using the long focal length and wide aperture we mentioned before can also help render dirty glass out of focus. But the biggest challenge glass presents by far, is that it introduces the possibility of glare and reflections.

You can use a polarizing filter to help cut down on unwanted reflections. Also, if you are going to be photographing through glass, wear plain, dark clothes. A dark t-shirt will absorb light, rather than reflecting it back onto the glass in front of you and significantly reduce reflections and glare. You can’t control what everyone else is wearing, but if you wait for the kid in the bright red t-shirt to walk by, your darker clothes won’t be introducing new glare and reflections into your images. These tips for photographing through glass work well at aquariums as well.

Consider the Time of Day (and the Weather) Carefully

Like most outdoor photography, photographing earlier and late in the day can lead to more pleasant light. Of course, unlike most landscape photography, you are limited by opening and closing hours.  If you find yourself stuck photographing in direct sun head for the shady areas. In exhibits with good tree cover the overhead light won’t be as much of a problem. One thing to note is that bright sunlight reflecting off of bars and fencing can make them very difficult to photograph through.

Overcast days are some of the best to visit the zoo. With heavy cloud cover, not only will you not be dealing with harsh, high-contrast light, but crowds are often lighter as well. Cloudy overcast days often have the advantage of bringing cooler temperatures and in most cases animals are most active when the temperatures cool down.

Look for Gesture

When you start out photographing zoo animals, just getting a good portrait of an animal is enough of a challenge. Trying to find animals that are positioned in good light, with an available angle to photograph them that eliminates any indication that they are in a cage, and finding a way to photograph them through bars, fencing, glass, or other obstacles is a lot of work! But once you get down the animal “portrait” images, it’s time to start working on getting images with good gesture. Gesture isn’t limited to movement (although movement is great), it also includes the right head tilt, the positioning of the body, or the wings, anything that makes an image more than just a close up shot of an animal’s face. Free flying bird exhibits can be a good place to start capturing gesture. The secret to gesture is patience. Find the animal that is positioned in a way that works for a good photograph and wait.

Animals tend to be more active when the weather is a little cooler. Mid-day on a sunny, 90 degree sunny day and you will probably only get images of animals sleeping in the sun. But pick an overcast day when the temperature is in the 70s and the animals will all be much more active. Warmer winter days are also good for photographing active animals. The occasional 50 degree day in the middle of a 30 degree winter will have everyone out enjoying the (relative) warmth. And active animals are much more likely to provide interesting activity and gesture for you to photograph.

Be Flexible

The easiest way to come home with good animal photographs is to be flexible with which animals you intend to photograph. You will likely walk past a monkey playing adorably, which would make a perfect image if it wasn’t positioned right up against the bars of its cage. The lion will be sleeping half in sunlight, half in shadow with the harsh light and extreme dynamic range ruining an otherwise good shot. The elephant would be perfect if it wasn’t for that bright red fence in the background. And the penguins are active as they play in front of fake rocks and a brightly painted mural.

Eventually, though, you’ll find the animals where everything lines up to make a great image. But if you arrived determined to get the perfect shot of the elephant (or the monkey, or the lion, or the penguins) that day you’re going to leave disappointed. In most zoos there are some enclosures that will just never lend themselves to a good zoo photograph. If it is an animal you really want to photograph you might be better off trying another zoo. Every zoo will have enclosures that are harder to get a good photograph in than others. If that’s the case, and it’s an animal you desperately want to photograph, you can choose to be patient and wait until all of the elements line up to make a great image.

In most cases though, the best way to approach zoo photography is to remain flexible. Make your goal to come home with a few good animal photographs rather than to dictate which animals. If you remain flexible you will find, with practice, that you are able to quickly walk by the animals that just won’t make good photographs that day, instead spending your time on the enclosures where all of the elements line up to make a good image.

Think Beyond the Animals

So far in this article I have assumed that the goal of photographing in a zoo is to get good, natural looking animal images. But this isn’t the only way to photograph a zoo. Zoos are filled with interesting people, and turning your camera on the observers may make for interesting and unique images. Maybe instead of photographing animals in a way that makes them appear “wild” you want to photograph the story of their captivity. Many zoos have interesting plants and foliage, or interesting objects and exhibits that make for good photographs. And photographing detail shots, textures, or abstract images (of the animals, or otherwise) would be an interesting self-assignment while photographing at a zoo.

I went a year where I challenged myself to photograph at zoos using only the Fuji x100 series camera, with its built in 23mm lens. This is pretty much the opposite of how I would normally approach zoo photography, but it forced me to look past the images I would normally make, the ones that required a telephoto lens, and to find completely different, unique images.

Whatever your subject, or style, or equipment choices, I encourage you to check out your local zoo and see if you can come home with some beautiful and unique photographs this summer. What do you think? Is the zoo somewhere you enjoy photographing, or is it somewhere you generally avoid as too cliché? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Take Better Night Sky Photos with Image Stacking

Star photography can have great image quality, too. Just try stacking images.

he night sky is one of the most alluring subjects for landscape photographers. It’s also one of the most frustrating. If you’ve ever tried to do astrophotography, you’ve probably run into all sorts of issues: blurred stars, high ISO noise, and shallow depth of field.

What can you do about it? One answer is often overlooked, but surprisingly helpful and easy to put into practice: stacking images.

Fundamentally, the big problem with shooting the stars is that you lose a lot of image quality at ultra-high ISO values. Otherwise, you could shoot every Milky Way image at f/5.6 and 10 seconds (maximizing star sharpness) while simply using an insane ISO like 51,200 to get your image to be bright enough.

Stacking photos essentially eliminates that problem.

But what do I mean by stacking photos? There are two routes, one of which is simpler and more flexible than the other. But each has its place.

(All this assumes that you don’t have a problem with blending photos. If you need to capture everything in one image for whatever reason, take a look at our tutorials on Milky Way photography, getting enough depth of field at night, and the optimal settings for star photography.)

Stacking Method One: Use an Astro Tracker

I’ll start with the harder-to-implement method because it’s easier to explain.

Today, you can find plenty of “astro trackers” available for relatively reasonable prices. These are rotating attachments for your tripod. Point an astro tracker at the North Star (or the Celestial South Pole), and it follows the movement of stars across the sky. Then, just attach your regular tripod head to the astro tracker and compose however you want.

How does this work with image blending? The answer is that astro trackers let you get sharp stars, but not sharp foregrounds:

By tracking the stars, you slowly add rotational blur to your foreground, and the photo is blurry anyway. So, you simply turn off the astro tracker, then take a second photo that prioritizes the foreground:

And then blend the two together easily in Photoshop or other photo editing software:

The Milky Way cuts across the Chilean night sky at La Silla Observatory. A suite of telescopes at the site can be seen, many which are used by the ESO Member States for targeted projects. The Moon and Jupiter can be seen to shine very brightly to the right.

This method lets you get extraordinary levels of detail in the stars. Take a look below:

That’s pretty awesome, much better than I could have gotten with a single tripod-based image:

Astro trackers let you use almost arbitrarily long shutter speeds. You’ll only get blurry stars if you use extremely long exposures (10+ minutes) and longer lenses, if your polar alignment isn’t quite perfect. Or if you use an unstable tripod in windy conditions.

However, astro trackers aren’t always ideal. It worked well for the photo above because the foreground and sky had a very distinct separation. But if your foreground is something like a tree, you’ll run into major difficulties with this method. In the tracked image, where your stars are sharp, the tree will be a large blur. If you try pasting the sharp tree image on top, you’ll get a “blur halo” around it. Not a good look.

Luckily, there is a way to simulate an astro tracker without using one – and without capturing a blurry foreground in any of your images.

Stacking Method Two: No Accessories Needed

The second method of capturing insanely sharp stars at night is actually quite easy. It’s also pretty satisfying, since you get to use the settings you always wanted to use – no need for an astro tracker or other accessories.

For example, if you need f/5.6 to get enough depth of field, just use f/5.6. If you need 10 seconds of exposure in order to eliminate star trails, use 10 seconds. And if you need ISO 51,200 to get a bright enough photo, you can use that, too. (Though I actually recommend a lower ISO combined with brightening the photo later, as you’ll see in a moment).

Then just take several photos in a row using the same settings. When you get home, you’ll stack the photos in post-processing software to minimize noise.

In the Field

How many photos does this method take? It depends on the quality you’re after, the ISO you started with, and simply the time you have in the field. But I would take pictures for at least 4 minutes if possible, and ideally longer – more photos can only help. After all, you are simulating an ultra-long shutter speed with this method, so it’s no doubt that 10 minutes is better than 4, which is better than 2, and so on. (The smaller your aperture, the more photos you should capture, since you need to make up for lost light.)

What specific camera settings are best? The most important thing is to avoid any star trails in your images. If that means shooting at 5-10 seconds when normally you would shoot 15-30 seconds, so be it. This technique cannot get rid of star trails – nor can any technique I know of.

Beyond that, don’t be careless about your settings just because you have a bit more flexibility; you’re still trying to capture every last photon. In terms of aperture, pick what you need in order to get enough depth of field, nothing more. You’ll usually be good with a reasonable aperture like f/4 to f/8 (full frame equivalent).

And for your ISO, I know I said earlier that 51,200 can work fine, but I recommend sticking with a lower value in general. Quite simply, if you go too high, you might blow out some details (especially colors) in the stars. It’s better to shoot at a lower ISO like 3200 to 6400, even though the photo will look too dark, and then brighten it later (before you start doing the photo stack).

Some photographers will augment this method by taking “dark frames” to subtract patterned noise out of the image. However, this is not a requirement. But note that I do not recommend shooting with long exposure noise reduction turned on, since the delay from shot to shot may make stacking more difficult.

Post-Processing Image Stacks

Next, we’re going to stack the photos in specific astrophotography software designed for the task. It doesn’t really matter what software you use. Sequator is a popular free option for Windows, and Starry Landscape Stacker is a popular $40 option for Mac (I couldn’t find a free competitor unfortunately). You can use Photoshop for image stacking, and you can find some tutorials/actions online if you’re interested. But dedicated software tends to do a better job in the more tricky situations.

Load the photos into your software and begin the star-identification process (in this case, every red dot – most of them added automatically – representing a star):

Touch up any areas that the software masks incorrectly, like some areas of the tree below that the software accidentally labeled as sky. This can take some time if you have foreground details like trees in your image, since you’ll need to fix any errors in the auto generated mask manually – but it is possible:

By stacking multiple photos together, you “average out” the noise and end up with tack-sharp stars. The level of detail in your nighttime photos has almost no upper limit, similar to using an astro tracker. Here’s the final image:

Even the tricky areas, like pine needles against the night sky, look great. Though, again, it did take some manual corrections to get the best possible result. (With this worst-case scenario image, I spent about 30 minutes of manual masking to get the final version.)

How does this compare in image quality to a single photo? Here’s a before/after with one of the 14 composite images I used to make this photo stack:

Not bad! Because I used 14 images for this stack, and each had a 10-second shutter speed, I was simulating a 140-second exposure. You can go much longer than that and capture even lower amounts of noise in your images. The limit is totally up to you.

Admittedly, this method does not always work right. If something in your photo is moving, like clouds across the sky, it can lead to some strange blur artifacts or extra noise. And in extreme cases like the image above – where practically the entire photo has trees that need precise masking – the software’s default attempt may require some correction.

Then again, the image quality benefits to this method are impossible to ignore. Plus, the fact that it can work in tricky situations like forest photography – where an astro tracker generally would not be feasible – makes it quite flexible overall.

Note that I still recommend taking one or two photos using single-image Milky Way settings – i.e., the ones we cover here – just in case. You never know if something might happen to make image stacking impossible. This also applies to astro tracking.

Conclusion

For years, my goal was to capture the Milky Way as sharp as possible in a single image, along with the foreground, too. I wasn’t willing to deal with astro trackers, and the idea of stacking images in dedicated software seemed to carry a lot of potential for error. (It’s also not allowed in certain publications and photography competitions, which I respect.)

But if you have no aversion to blending images, the two techniques outlined in this article are game changers. You can shoot f/16 photos at night! Not to mention, with the second method, you can carry a lighter bag while capturing better results than before.

Cheating? It’s so useful that it almost feels like it has to be. To me, though, this is not cheating any more than focus stacking. But that’s something you need to decide for yourself. If these techniques do cross your line, our standard Milky Way photography tutorial may be more up your alley.

Hopefully, either way, you found this article to be interesting! If you have any questions about the finer points of image blending for night sky photography, feel free to leave a comment below.

How to Take Better Reflection Photos

Taking good reflection photos is both challenging and rewarding

Wondering how to take better reflection photos with your camera? Most of us are aware of the basic guidelines of a good landscape photograph. It needs an interesting foreground, mid-ground and a background. Generally, the most challenging aspect of landscape photography is to find a good enough foreground that syncs with the mid-ground and a non-boring background. But reflection photographs come up with additional challenges. Reflections are all about balance and symmetry in the frame. As with every other aspect of photography, there are no hard and fast rules. But there are a few guidelines which would help make better reflections and we shall take a look at them one by one.

Find Still Water

The first requirement in photographing reflections is obviously still water. Most of us think, we need large lakes to get those lovely reflections. But in reality, even a small puddle is good enough. What is more important is that it should be stagnant.

In fact, smaller and shallower water bodies give better reflections most of the time. The larger the water body, the longer it will carry the flow of air. Most of the time, the speed of air increases as it cruises through uninterrupted surface. The lesser the wind / breeze, the better the reflections.

Generally, the air is almost idle during early hours of the day. The first step is to have a guess on when the air is static. A scout trip becomes mandatory here and it is unlikely we would go to a spot and bag a good reflection shot in a few hours. Once you have picked your spot, have a few days planned for that spot alone. When the air is stagnant, the light might not be good or vice versa.

In my experience, 2-3 days in a spot could certainly guarantee a few hours of still water. In practice, it is pretty difficult to get absolutely still surface. Mild ripples often seem to be present. But don’t let that limit your photographic opportunities. When the reflection is not still, get creative to see what best you can bring out of a picture.

Equipment Considerations

When it comes to photographing reflections, a good tripod takes top preference. A tripod that allows you to get low would be most preferable. While photographing reflections, most of the time we might want to take multiple shots and bracket them for exposure and / or focus stack them in post. For both of the above-mentioned criteria, a tripod becomes mandatory.

Next comes lens choice. This is subjective. A wide or an ultra-wide angle lens is desirable in most cases. What works best for me is a focal range between 15mm to 30mm (on full frame). There are exceptions as always. An ultra-wide angle lens works only if you have a subject that fills the mid-ground significantly.

If the subject whose reflection you seek to get is too far away, then the subject, as well as its reflection, get pretty insignificant due to perspective distortion that is more exaggerated in ultra-wide angle lenses.

If your subject is far off, you might want to think about a mid-range lens around 35mm. Each option has its own pros and cons. If you have an ultra-wide angle lens (wider than 24mm), the mild turbulence in the surface (which is present almost always) gets insignificant. Whereas with increasing focal lengths, the turbulence gets more pronounced.

But on the positive side, with a mid-range lens, you get a majestic subject and a big enough reflection as your foreground. So ultimately, it is the scene that dictates what focal length you should be using. In my experience, anything over 50mm rarely works for photographing reflections.

Zoom lenses are more preferable than primes for photographing reflections. It is true that zooms cannot often come close to primes in terms of sharpness, sun stars, levels of chromatic aberration, ghosting and flare, as well as color rendition.

But on a practical note, sometimes it is impossible to zoom with your feet, which becomes mandatory when using primes. For example, if you have a rock in the middle of water that you want to have as a foreground, then getting near gets practically impossible.

Zooms also let us control the size of our subjects to a certain level where zooming with feet is not always possible. If you have a zoom like the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 or the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 and a prime like the Nikkor 20mm f/1.8G, then you are all set – all of these are excellent choices! When I bring along a zoom and a prime with me, I start with the prime. If the prime does not give the desired composition, then I switch to a zoom. For Nikon crop bodies, the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 is a great choice.

As with the camera choice, the one you already have should work great. If your camera has a wide dynamic range, even better, but it is not necessary, since you can expose to the right without blowing any highlights out, or if the conditions are extreme, use the bracketing technique.

Most landscape photographers use polarizing filters extensively and I am no exception. But when photographing reflections, a polarizer becomes a big no. It is for the obvious reason that, one of the basic characteristics of a polarizer is to cut reflections. It might help by reducing glare on wet or metallic surfaces, but it destroys the reflections and as a result, it lets the light from what is beneath the surface into the frame. You should not be using one unless you want to get creative and bring out a blend of what is under the surface and just a reflection of the hues.

Camera Settings

Below are a few recommended settings for most reflection shots:

  1. As with most landscape photographs, sticking to your base ISO or somewhere close to it is the way to go. Most of us already know that the widest dynamic range, as well as the lowest amount of noise in images is achieved at base ISO. Since you are going to be using a tripod, adequate lighting is never a problem. Low-light conditions are not an issue either, since you can do long exposure shots.
  2. Generally a smaller aperture works well. As a standard practice, I try to use the aperture in which the lens yields maximum sharpness. For most fast lenses, the best aperture is between f/4 to f/5.6 and for slower zoom lenses it is generally at the f/8 mark. When I am talking about maximum sharpness, I mean maximum overall sharpness and not just center sharpness. So my general aperture recommendation would be f/8 or smaller (depending on subject distance). Another reason for smaller apertures is to achieve the maximum depth-of-field.

There are two possible shutter speeds that can be used depending upon preference. A shutter speed of at least 1/250 is desirable if you want the reflections to be sharp. As I have already mentioned above, there is most certainly some disturbance on the surface even with the least possible breeze. A slow shutter speed will smooth out the reflection. On the other extreme, a smoothed out reflection will call for an extremely slow shutter speed which gives a sharp subject and a soft, blurred out water around the subject, making it stand out. Both options will convey different messages. An image with a sharp reflection will make a geometrically symmetrical mirror image. On the other hand, a reflection with ripples will generally convey the message of a subject and a water body around it.

  1. To be able to have a full control of the exposure, shooting in manual mode is recommended. I put metering mode to Spot and hover the focus point around the brighter spots of the frame to read the values of the recommended shutter speeds. Then after turning into manual mode with ISO and Aperture fully set, I adjust the shutter speed to the value where the brightest spot in the frame falls just inside overexposure or a third of a stop below the values where blinkies just start showing up.Another way of doing it is by using the highlights protection metering mode, if your camera has one. This mode calculates and meters for the highlights (brightest spots) in the frame. If you shoot in any other mode, you can adjust exposure compensation to get the brightest spot in the frame just inside the right edge of your histogram. This is how you properly expose to the right!

On-Location Tips and Considerations

  1. Get close and get to as low of an angle as possible. Sometimes you might end up with your feet and your tripod legs in the water to get to an angle where the bottom tip of your lens is barely a few inches above the surface. As you walk closer to the surface of the water body, you will notice that you will cover more of your mid-ground in the reflection and it gets more pronounced as you angle almost parallel to the surface.
  2. The reflected image is approximately a stop darker than the actual subject. So make sure you get the darker tones well within your histogram unless you deliberately want to leave them dark.
  3. Sometimes the number of stops of light available in the scene exceeds the dynamic range of your camera. In such cases, bracket. I take three shots one stop apart. I make it a general practice so that I can merge them in post if I end up with blown out highlights or blacks that have lost all the details in any one of the images. If the stops between the bracketed images are too high, it would be difficult to seamlessly merge them in post.
  4. There are big debates about the ratio between the subject and the reflection. A lot of people argue that a 2:3 is the best and others go for 1:1. In my opinion, the scene dictates the ratio to be used. I prefer 1:1. If I have to include any patterns, details under shallow water (foreground), I push the actual subject a bit up in composition.
  5. In addition to bracketing exposure, more often than not, you might need to focus stack images. I generally shoot at least three images for the purpose of focus stacking. One for the immediate foreground, one for the actual subject and one in between them. I then blend them all together in post later. This step will certainly become mandatory if you have any foreground objects very close to your lens.
  6. If you have to bracket for exposure and focus stack, you have to click a total of bracketed shots multiplied by the focus stacked shots. For example, if you need 3 shots for focus stacking and 3 for exposure, you need to take a total of 9 shots (3 exposures for each focus stacked image). This is another reason why a manual exposure is recommended. When you place your camera in aperture priority or any other auto mode, it might add or subtract a few thirds of stops in either direction. It will get very tricky to get a seamless final image while working on it in post.
  7. Mind the leading lines. They are pretty important in any landscape photograph. They are even more important when you are photographing reflections, as one of the primary objectives is to attain a sense of symmetry. A small tilt in the horizon might make the final image practically useless. You might rotate it a bit in post, but it is best to get it right in the camera. That is because when you tilt the picture you might end up compromising on your composition.
  1. Have some negative space around your subject and its reflection. A very tight composition might have all the technical ingredients of a picture, but most of the time it lacks emotion.
  2. Include clouds in your frame. With the subject and its reflection, the mid ground and the foreground is taken care of. But a blank cloudless sky looks boring unless you deliberately seek to make the image abstract.
  1. Most of the time we seek to get geometrical mirror images. But do not limit yourself to just that. Get creative – sometimes even distorted reflections of a subject might turn up interesting.
  2. Try to photograph when the sun in behind you. If you decide to shoot against the sun, make sure the sun is around the horizon and not too high up in the sky. Sometimes to get the blue / cyan tones reflected in the water, you might want to shoot when the sun is much higher. The blue wavelengths will be feeble or absent during early and late hours with the exception of the blue hour. In such case, get to an angle that avoids the reflection of the sun in your frame.

Post-Processing Tips

  1. The first step of post-processing should be merging all images in case you bracketed or focus stacked them.
  2. If you decide to adjust the daylight settings or color correct using curves, make sure to make the same adjustments on all layers you are going to merge.
  3. Try merging images manually by using layer masks and avoid HDR algorithms. Most of the time they either render a flat image or an image that looks artificial. One major issue I have found with most HDR algorithms is, most of them seem to introduce halos around the edges.

Since you will be dealing with too many stops of light in your frame, the saturation also might vary to a great deal. In such cases be careful while using the saturation slider. Use vibrance or adjust local areas individually. Please take a look at my article on Saturation for more information.

You can solve the reflected area being a stop or more underexposed by adding a gradient layer mask for the Exposure layer. On top of your current layer, add an Exposure layer and increase the exposure slider to about 1 stop (marked blue). Then click on the Gradient tool (marked with red) and use a gradient on the layer mask (marked with green):

That’s all there is to it. I have shared most of the practices I do in the field and in post processing, specific to photographing reflections. If you have any questions or concerns, please leave a comment below.