Monthly Archives: December 2016
Hints and tips on how to shoot lightning in a storm
I’m in Turkey and just as I’m getting ready to go to bed, there’s an almighty boom from outside. I open the curtain to see a thunderstorm is creeping up on us from the Mediterranean.
As silly as it sounds I get a rush of adrenaline. I’ve never had a legitimate chance of photographing a storm before. I have a good idea how I’m going to approach it and my experience in travel photography tells me one thing – do not wait around.
Make a split second decision if you’re going to go, and if you do go, go all out. Stand by the curtain wondering whether to step outside and every flash is a potential photo gone. I grabbed my Nikon and 10.5mm fisheye lens – that’s all I need for this situation. There are plenty of objects that can substitute for a tripod. Also any lens other than a fisheye won’t be able to capture the scale of the storm.
Using a pier post as a tripod
Photographing lightning without a tripod or wireless remote
After a brief jog down to the beach I’m faced with an oncoming storm. It’s a big one and its approaching land from the south. I walk along to the end of the pier and set up. My tripod consisted of resting the camera on a post at the end of the pier with the strap firmly round my wrist in case it fell. I wanted to capture the bolts of lightning so I set the up camera accordingly. I went for a three-second exposure with a wide open aperture and a low ISO. The low ISO meant the photo wouldn’t be grainy but the wide aperture meant the depth of field might be a problem. It turns out it was. In my haste I didn’t double check the focus of the camera.
And now a fold up chair and a wallet
Disaster! The setup was brilliant. The angle, field of vision and placement was spot on. But the camera had focused on the rail to the bottom right and I hadn’t noticed. Gutted. I decided that I should move back and give the storm more scale. Also, I was worried that if the spray from the sea increased I’d have a soaked camera. I retreated to a fold up chair as a tripod and my wallet under the lens to point the camera towards the sky. The trick to not jolting the camera when pressing the button is to keep your finger on the camera. That way the camera will just keep taking photos as quick as it can. You don’t move the camera as you are not pressing the button repeatedly and you don’t miss any of the action. Your finger may get tired after 20 minutes of doing this but you have another 9 digits to take over. I kept the same settings apart from increasing the shutter from three to four seconds to allow more light in and make the photo more dramatic. Zeus, the Greek god of thunder and lightning, smiled on me around 1am.
Keep your eye on the coming storm potential
After seeing this I settled down a bit and started thinking more rationally. Happy in the knowledge I had captured a great shot I noticed that this wasn’t the only storm. I’m not too hot on the nature of storms but there were a further two lighting areas approaching from the left and right. All three looking to clash right above my head. So I turned the camera to the storm on the left. There are three main types of lightning. The most common is the one captured and that is lightening that travels within the cloud it originates. Then you have lightning that travels between clouds. I was seeing this on the right of me but to be honest it wasn’t particularly spectacular. The third and most studied type is cloud to ground lightning where a fork will come down like a silver finger and touch some poor tree or cow. This was the lightning approaching fast from the left. It would have looked great coming down and zapping a pylon and making 5000 kettles simultaneously boil but alas it was probably touching some poor dolphin or fisherman.
Be patient and set up your shot
The photo above gives a nice feel of an incoming storm but it’s not intimidating. I went with a 30-second shutter to try and get the stars and sea in, but I don’t feel that the photo gave the right impression of three converging lightning clouds. I relaxed and waited a while for the clouds to approach. I decided to go with settings halfway between the two previous setups. I ended up on an eight second exposure and raised the ISO to 400. I wanted a bit more light to give a stormy feel knowing it would white out the strike itself. The photo I ended up with I was very happy with.
Soon after this the main storm came close and the rain started. Being on a pier 50 metres out at sea during a storm standing next to a 10 metre flagpole was not the safest place to be so I retreated back to my ground floor hotel room and set up again. The following hour was a delight. The storms as far as I could tell did converge right above us and produced a phenomenal show. I could count how close it was getting using the age old “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, two Mississippi…” BOOM! The photos captured don’t even look real, but I assure you they are not photoshopped.
The final photograph of the storm
So there you have it. Just a camera and a fisheye is all you need to photograph a storm. Oh and a wallet to prop up the camera to point it at the sky.
Without a doubt, you should have a good, solid tripod as part of your kit. After all, a stable base is one of the most important elements of capturing the best photos, particularly long exposures or photos in low-light situations.
But sometimes, lugging a tripod around just isn’t in the cards. You might also find yourself in a situation in which your tripod is broken or you simply forget it at home.
Rather than raise the white flag and give up, there are plenty of tricks to use that will help you overcome the lack of a tripod and get pleasing images in challenging situations.
Hold the Camera Like You Mean It
Look around at people taking photos with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, and the chances are that you’ll see a lot of folks not holding the camera in a way that maximizes stability.
What’s common is for people to hold the camera body with one hand, then grab the lens on the side, but without much of a grip.
Instead, try bringing your elbows in toward your chest so they have something to rest on, then move the hand on the lens to its underside, as seen in the image above.
This does two things: first, your elbows now act as a sort of tripod, gaining stability from your core. Second, the hand on the lens takes more responsibility for keeping the camera steady because it’s positioned under the lens, not to the side.
Another option is to use your elbow and knee together to form a tripod. In this instance, you create a stable base by sitting or kneeling on the ground, with your arm then supported by one knee. As seen in the image above, this will work with just about any lens, including a heavy, long telephoto.
Find Something to Rest On
For even more stability, pair a proper hold of the camera with a stable object on which you can either rest your body or rest the camera.
For example, you can use a tree, a fence post, a column or wall, or even the body of your car to lean against, thereby helping you to maintain a more stable base.
Sure, it might not be ideally comfortable to lean against something, but if it helps stabilize your body, and thereby your camera, it’s worth a few seconds of being uncomfortable if it means the photos you take are nice and sharp.
You can also use objects around you as makeshift tripods. A rock here or a table there provides more than enough stability to keep your camera nice and steady. Of course, if the surface of the object on which you rest your camera is uneven, you might need a bean bag to help keep the camera level.
Use a HandlePod
One of the best options for working without a tripod is to have a device like HandlePod that offers all sorts of options for supporting your camera.
Not only can you use HandlePod as a tripod by sitting it on a flat, even surface like a tabletop, but you can also use it as a rock solid grip, pressing it against something like a fence post to give your camera a substantial amount of stability.
HandlePod even comes with an integrated elastic cord, so you can attach the device to just about anything – a post, a fence, or even a tree branch – and your camera will be steady for the shot.
Even if the surface upon which you attach HandlePod isn’t level, no worry! It has three-axis movement, so you’re sure you can adjust your camera such that the photo is level.
Perhaps best of all, HandlePod is small enough to fit in your pocket, so it’s easily transportable. It’s also a breeze to use – literally just pull it out of your pocket, attach it to your camera, and you’re ready to go.
That makes HandlePod an ideal solution for taking photos without a tripod. After all, that’s why it’s one of our 12 Things Photographers Shouldn’t Leave at Home.
Make Your Own Monopod
Yet another alternative when a tripod isn’t available is to construct your own monopod.
This can be done quickly and simply:
Buy a threaded eyelet that you can screw into the tripod mount on your camera.
Buy a length of cord (here I’m using a bungee cord) that is long enough to reach the ground, with several inches of extra slack left over
Tie the cord to the eyelet.
Secure the string/bungee cord by stepping on it with your foot, using the tension in the string as a makeshift monopod.
That’s it! As simple as a string monopod is, it provides a surprising amount of support.
It’s a method that requires finesse, however. Too much tension will cause the camera to be pulled downward; not enough tension defeats the purpose. As a result, you’ll need to practice using your DIY monopod to find the ideal amount of tension to keep your camera nice and steady.
Change the Camera Settings
If you find yourself in dire straits with no tripod and no tripod alternative, you can always adjust your camera settings to make camera shake less likely:
Increase the aperture so your camera collects more light, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed.
Boost the ISO setting, that way your camera’s sensor is more sensitive to light, again, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed.
Now, there are some complications to this strategy.
If you increase the aperture, the depth of field will be reduced. So, if you’re taking a photo of a landscape, which benefits from a large depth of field, some of the scene will become blurry.
On the other hand, increasing the ISO causes digital noise, which appears like grain in the image. Though noise isn’t all bad and can be used as a creative element, it can also become too prominent and just serve to distract the viewer’s eye.
As a result, it might be most prudent to use a larger aperture and a higher ISO. Doing so gives you more light, but without reaching the extremes of the aperture and ISO ranges that cause the most significant blur and noise.
Let’s dispel a myth right away – you don’t need to be a professional to take travel photos. You just need to know the basics of your camera and follow a few rules. Some of the best photos you’ll take will be from being in the right place at the right time, and that happens often when you’re travelling.
I have broken this short guide into five sections to give you some fast tips on travel photography. Happy snapping!
There is no standard equipment for taking photos but when travelling you best make sure you have the necessities with you. Most people will be taking a point and shoot or a DSLR due to space constraints. For both cameras the following is recommended:
Make sure you have a big enough memory card for the camera – Rather than buy one huge memory card, I would recommend buying three or four smaller ones and keep them separate from the camera. That way if you lose your camera you don’t lose all of the photos.
Bring a charger – Nothing is worse than being in a foreign country and the battery on your camera dying, and spending all afternoon trying to find a place that might sell your charger.
A padded bag – There is a strong chance you will be knocked around on trains and buses. Make sure you get a bag padded enough to take these blows. Nothing is worse than opening up your bag to find it in pieces after being kicked on a bus.
A small tripod – Most cannot take a bit 6ft tripod. But there are some really nifty 1-2 ft fold down ones that fit in a handbag. They aren’t very big but if you want to do self photographs, scenery or night time shots they are a god send.
Using the Camera
Before you go look at your itinerary and see what landmarks there are. But more importantly look at what else there is. Remember that the locals know the best places. If they talk about a park or a museum then it might be worth a look. Most countries know what a camera is and most countries are used to tourists. If you are in a place where there is a lot of action then keep your camera to hand. But not obviously. Do not walk around with it hanging round your neck all the time. I tend to have a hoodie on that it tucks into or if it is warm it sits at the top of the backpack.
Don’t just look. Observe. With your camera to hand and an eye for a picture you can often get very spontaneous photographs. If you are in a place where there aren’t a lot of tourists and you wish to photograph the locals the best way to approach it is to not have your camera out. Put it away, go up to the locals and talk to them. Mention you are taking photos and get it out. Show the camera to them and to an extent let them have a go. Once they are comfortable with it then ask if you can take some photographs. The trick with kids is to take one photo and show it to them. Often enough they then laugh and play up to the camera creating a better photo.
Remember you are just a tourist taking photos. You are not doing anything wrong. So don’t act like it. Be friendly, and talk to people. Don’t just walk up take a photo and run away.
When thinking about settings the best thing you can do is learn about what you have got. If it is a point and shoot then learn what each setting does. Most have settings for indoors, low light and outdoors. Make sure you know when to use these settings. There are no perfect settings to take a photo but there can be wrong settings. So learn what each of them does. If you have a DSLR your horizons are massively widened but so are the settings. If you camera has a manual setting then learn to use it. Start by grasping a basic knowledge of Shutter speed, Aperture and ISO. There are plenty of YouTube tutorials showing you how to use these. All have an effect on the light and texture of a photo. The best tips to have are to leave it on auto if you are unsure. But when you get to grips with how to use light in the manual setting the world is your oyster.
If you are comfortable with the manual setting then here are a few tips:
For photographing people, use a high shutter speed as they move and become blurry otherwise.
For scenery you can have a slow shutter speed. A slow shutter speed often makes things like a sunset look more glowing.
If you have a tripod, use it. Especially at night. Slow shutter speeds at night need a tripod otherwise they come out blurred and/or ruined. Unless you are an abstract artist that is.
Place the subject off centre. A simple photo of a girl leaning against a wall is much more interesting and aesthetically pleasing if she is off centre. It’s not rocket science but placing the subject off centre and following a rule of thirds can turn the most boring photos into something worth looking at.
Depth of field is an important setting. This is controlled by the aperture. A small number means a short depth of field and a large number means a bigger one. The rule of thumb is that for people use a small number. This focuses more on the person and not the background. For buildings and landscapes use a large number as this gives you the longer depth so more of the subject is in focus.
What to Look For
If going to a place where there are lots of tourists try to give another angle on things. For instance rather than just standing by the Eiffel tower, go to one of the side streets covered in graffiti and shoot it from there. Give the viewer something different. Once you find your subject, find your angle. How do you want your image to end up?
Side streets and off the beaten path is where I shoot my best stuff. Go to the places you wouldn’t have considered before. You can do this while still staying safe. Don’t just rock up into a ghetto with your camera out.
While people are shooting the landmark, shoot the people. Sometimes the most interesting thing about a landmark is the people there to see it. You could take a photo of the leaning tower of Pisa. Or you could take a photo of the girl on her dad’s shoulders pretending to push it over not realizing her ice cream is about to fall on his head.
Most importantly, capture what you are doing. If you are having fun at a bar with some new friends get the camera out. Don’t worry about being all artsy with it, capture the moment. If someone tells a joke take a photo of everyone laughing. You will look back on that photo and remember the joke.
When taking photographs of scenery, take one or two. Get the setting right and move on. There is no point taking 10-15 photos of the same object. Try to make use of the golden hour. The golden hour is the hour before sunset where everything looks magical. People walking along a beach look like they are from Baywatch. The sun setting over tall buildings makes them look like mountains. Use it. Your surroundings may be boring during the day but during the golden hour they have a whole new perspective.
Look up! Don’t keep your camera street level. Look up to the sky and the scenery up there. The quagmire of coloured roofs in Amsterdam or the spiral buildings of Moscow.
Look down! Get on your hands and knees, take photos of things a foot off the ground. A flower sprouting in the middle of a Berlin pathway. A hedgehog sleeping in a bush by The Louvre.
All these things are around you but you do not see them as most people’s cameras are glued to their face in a region between 5-6ft high.