Babies got back... button focus.


Back button focusing allowed me to take this photo and two others of the same subject without refocusing since the distance from the camera to the shutter didn't change.

Over the past couple of weeks I've become a huge fan and advocate for making the change to focusing with the button on the back of your camera instead of pushing the shutter button down halfway, commonly referred to as back button focus.  It was one of the most revolutionary changes I ever made to how I take pictures.  It seems like such a small thing, yet it's a huge difference in the way you take pictures and how your camera focuses.  This should really be the standard setting on all cameras, cause once you try back button focusing, you're gonna like it.  In fact, you'll probably even love it!  If you're one of the people who have never tried this -- STOP EVERYTHING NOW and do this. You'll thank me :).  If you don't love it, let me know and I'll buy you lunch... but not an expensive lunch.  Let's say a sandwich and a drink... but no chips.  Okay chips, but no dessert.

One of my biggest frustrations when shooting photos is having to refocus ever time I recompose the shot.  When you're taking a bunch of pictures in a short amount of time, this can be really time consuming, frustrating and just an overall pain in the ass. The biggest thing that has impacted my images in the realm of focus is switching from using the shutter button to control focus to using the back "*" button to control focus. And if you're a Nikon shooter and don't have a "*" button, don't worry -- there is still hope for you. :).  Making this change takes some getting used to, mainly because for the first few times you try this after switching, you'll probably keep expecting your shutter button to do the focusing out of habit.  The problem is after making the switch, you're shutter button is only going to activate the shutter... WHAT IT'S SUPPOSED TO DO!!   

For this image I focused by using the back button method.  Put my camera on a tripod, locked in my focus, then took this picture and a few others  I recomposed three or four times but never had to refocus the camera.

The idea is to separate the focus function from the shutter function. I love it because when I'm shooting a stationary portrait, or some situation where the camera to subject distance is constant, I can lock in the focus (push the * button with the focal point on the spot I want in focus, then let go of the button) and shoot away, even re-composing, and the focus will stay dead-on. This has also freed me up from constantly changing my focus points and always refocusing every time I take a new shot, even though I didn't move the camera more that a little bit, or in some cases, not at all.  I'd still have to refocus because the act of focusing was attached to the shutter button. This was one of the most frustrating things I ran into when I used the ‘shutter half way down method of focusing. Sure you can lock in focus by holding the shutter half way down, then focus will stay locked as long as you hold your shutter in shutter-limbo. But then you have to hold your finger there! If you let go or accidently lift your finger just a little bit, the camera will refocus as soon as you press it down again. Or press the shutter a little too hard and you will take a picture before you’re ready. I now leave the center focus point selected and recompose after locking in the focus using the "*" button on the back of the camera. 

In the situation of a moving subject, I also like the back button because it allows me to track the subject and still get consistent focus. 

RC answers a question on what is the back focus button. He talks about how to set your Nikon or Canon to back focus and explains why you'd want to.

If you want to try back-button focusing, you need to change some of your custom functions. You can very easily search online for the directions for making this change to your particular camera.  I found the directions for my 5D Mark III in about three seconds and made the change in about six seconds.  It may have actually been seven seconds, but I was a little distracted.  You should notice that your camera will focus when pushing the * button but when you push the shutter button, your focus will not be impacted. 

Please let me know if you have any questions, or need any help making this change.

Depth of What???

When you are new to photography, there are tons of things to think about when you're taking a photo.  The shutter speed, the aperture, light, what you had for breakfast, etc.  Literally tons of things.  One of the more misunderstood terms is depth of field, or DoF.  You may have heard the term depth of field, but if you are new to photography you may not yet be taking advantage of how it can enhance your photos. A basic definition of depth of field is: the zone of acceptable sharpness within a photo that will appear in focus. In every picture there is a certain area of your image in front of, and behind the subject that will appear in focus.

This zone will vary from photo to photo. Some images may have very small zones of focus which is called shallow depth of field. Others may have a very large zone of focus which is called deep depth of field. Three main factors that will affect how you control thedepth of field of your images are: aperture (f-stop), distance from the subject to the camera, and focal length of the lens on your camera. Here are some explanations and answers to other common questions concerning depth of field.

How does aperture control depth of field?

We talked about aperture in a previous post.  If you forgot, or never read it, use the little search box in the upper right corner of this page and search for "aperture."  Anyway, aperture refers to the access given to light from the lens to the camera sensors. The size of your aperture (the diameter of the hole through which light enters the camera) controls the amount of light entering your lens. Using the aperture (f-stop) of your lens is the simplest way to control your depth of field as you set up your shot.

Large aperture = Small f-number = Shallow (small) depth of field
Small aperture = Larger f-number = Deeper (larger) depth of field

I know this can sound confusing.  Large things equal small numbers and vice versa.  WTF?  Just remember that the lower your f-number, the smaller your depth of field. Likewise, the higher your f-number, the larger your depth of field. For example, using a setting of f/2.8 will produce a very shallow depth of field while f/11 will produce a deeper DoF.  If you're not totally confused now, read on.

Now what about focal length?

Focal Length refers to the capability of a lens to magnify the image of a distant subject. This can get crazy complicated, but the simple answer is that the longer you set your focal length the shallower the depth of field.  Come on, that one is pretty easy, right?  At least easier than that DoF stuff above.

Wait, distance controls depth of field too?

The closer your subject is to the camera, the shallower your depth of field becomes. Therefore, moving further away from your subject will deepen your depth of field.

So when should I use a shallow depth of field?

Using a shallow depth of field is a good way to make your subject stand out from its background and is great for portrait photography. Shallow DoF can also be useful anytime you want the subject to stand out from its surroundings, like wildlife shots. This is also useful because many wildlife photo opportunities are low light situations, and increasing your aperture size will give you more light. Shallow depth of field is also very often used in sports photography, where many times you want to separate the athlete from the background to bring attention to them. The result of this should also help give you a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.

In this example, notice that the eyes are totally sharp and in focus?  That's where I wanted focus... for the eyes to be sharp.  However, the background right behind her is soft and out of focus.  That's a shallow depth of field.

Okay, I think I got it, so when should I use a deep depth of field?

Easy... Landscapes, period.  Okay, not period.  There are tones of examples where a deep depth of field would make sense that are not landscapes, but in general... landscapes.

Notice that everything is in focus here... from the front of the image all the way to the back... miles away.  that's a deep depth of field.

Hope that helps.  It's a concept that took me a while to understand, but once I did, I feel like i immediately became a better photographer.  If nothing else, when you're at a dinner party, talking about DoF will really make people think you know what you're talking about.  Try it, I promise it works.

Series: Behind the Photo

So, here we are again.  It's the Friday before a weekend where I feel like I should be creating  a blog entry, but I didn't really feel inspired by anything in particular.  So I decided just now to create a new series called Behind the Photo.  First of all, if I'm going to be honest, I didn't just think of this.... I thought of it yesterday, but that's not important.  So now when I'm inspired to do a blog post and don't have anything in particular I feel like writing about, I'm going to pick a photo or two that I really like, or has some special meaning, and I'm going talk about what went into creating that image.  It may be once a month, or it may be once a week, but I'll try and keep these coming, because cause I know when I was learning photography, I wanted to get every bit of info from other photographers.  I wanted to know why they made the choices they did and what went into creating their images.  This will be my attempt at helping readers get into my head.  Good luck in there.

So this entry's photo choice was a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned.  Anybody who knows me knows I'm a really big Giants fan.  I love those guys and last night was one of the most fun, exciting games I've ever seen.  In the last inning the Giants won with a walk-off homer by the most unlikely of heroes, clinching the National League Championship and sending them off to Kansas City to face the Royals in the World Series.  Since I'm still thinking about that game and the excitement is still coursing through my veins, I wanted to talk about one of my shots of the Giants from the game I went to in Milwaukee in August.  Since Angel Pagan is out for the season and will miss the World Series, I thought I would choose one of the photos I have of him from that game.

So this is the photo.  Angel Pagan taking his swing at the plate in the first inning of the game against the Brewers.  In fact, this was actually the first batter of the game.  There is a roof over this stadium and I didn't know how that would affect the light as the game went on, so I tried taking a lot of pictures right away, before they closed the roof and the light changed.  First thing to notice is that this picture was taking with my Panasonic micro four thirds camera and not my Canon 5D.  I was traveling with only a carry-on and frankly, i didn't know if they'd let me take a big camera into the game, so I thought it was safer to just bring this.  It doesn't take as good of pictures, and it's much slower to shoot and to focus, but it's better than nothing and I couldn't risk my Canon 5D being not allowed into the stadium.

This photo was taken at 1/640 sec at f/5.6, ISO 1600 and I used a 45-200 lens at 78mm.  Anything jump out at you?  Yeah, me too.  Why the heck would I use ISO 1600 for a shot outside?  Well, good question, I'm glad you asked.  You'll notice my aperture was wide open for the lens at 5.6.  That was going to get me the most shallow depth of field and would let in the most light.  For this shot I was mostly concerned about shutter speed, because I didn't want to bat to just be a blur as he swung.  So, even though it was outside, we were in the shade and it really wasn't that light in the stadium.  That ISO was required to get the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the bat.  In fact, if you notice, the bat isn't tack sharp.  I was trying to get a bit of movement, but I wanted a clear shot of the bat and not a bat-blur, which is a term I just made up.

Another suggestion when you're taking sports photos... take lots of pictures.  It's hard to predict where the players are going to be, how fast they'll be moving, how long they'll be standing there, etc.  So to remove as many variables as possible, take a lot of photos.  You can always toss out the ones you don't want when you're done.

The above image is a perfect example of why you should take a lot of photos when you're shooting sporting events.  This shot was literally taken 10 seconds before the above image.  In this image, Pagan didn't swing at the ball and the catcher took longer to get into position so the photo is much less dramatic.  Now, it's also cropped differently, but you can see that the image itself is totally different and doesn't have the movement or the emotion of the photo above it. 

This image didn't take a lot of post processing and everything I did do was done in Lightroom. You can see the untouched photo below.  The first thing I did, which is the first thing I always do is take down the highlights and open the shadows a bit.  There wasn't many shadows to open, so I didn't do much with that slider.  After doing that I bumped up the vibrance a bit and then it was almost all dodging and burning.  After the dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) and a little bit of noise reduction, I added a vignette to the whole image and that was about it. Voila, we're done!

So take lots of photos, decide what you want your photo to look like and make camera choices that will deliver those result and... most importantly... GO GIANTS!!!!  Next week is gonna be exciting regardless of what happens, but at the end of the season, no matter what happens, I'll have a bunch of great photos of the Giants losing to the Brewers in Milwaukee. ;-)

Taking a Pano (Part II)

... and we're back!  

When I left you last week we were learning about how to put together a panorama, uh, I mean pano, in your camera.  If you're not familiar with this process, check out last week's post.  We learned how to set up your camera and the process of how to take a pano.  Well, now is the easy part.  We've got all these separate images that we took, but how do we put them all together so they look a little more like this.

Okay, you have all these photos of a scene, taken from the left side of your view to the right and you've overlapped them like we talked about last week, but now what?  Well, the easiest thing to do is print out all your photos and tape them together on a big white board.  If you look at this board from, oh, I'd say about fifty feet away, nobody will be able to see the seams or the tape and will think it's a perfectly processed pano.  Since that's the easiest, but not the best, let's talk about other options.  There are a bunch of programs out there that will stitch together your images, but I've found that plain old Photoshop, or Photoshop Elements, is not just the easiest, but does a darn good job and a lot of photographers already have them, so you don't have to go out and buy new software. Here’s how:

Open up Photoshop and choose File > New > Photomerge Panorama. You’ll get a pop-up menu asking you if you want to use individual images (“Files”) or all the images in a single folder (“Folders”). Alternately, you can just open all the files you want to use prior to selecting “Photomerge Panorama,” then you can choose “add open files.”

If you choose “Files” or “Folders,” you’ll then need to navigate to the directory where your photos are stored.  This is all way easier if you're working in Lightroom, but for this post we're gonna assume you're not.

Now choose “perspective” from the layout menu. In the perspective layout, the software will choose the center image as its reference point, and then stitch all the other images together around it, skewing, stretching or repositioning as necessary. There is also an “interactive” layout, which allows you to manually position everything, but that's way more difficult and right now we're talking easy!

Now Photoshop will give you the option of blending the images, which means it will select the best place to join the photos and will blend the colors in order to create an invisible seam. You can also choose to remove any vignettes that may have occurred in the images when you were taking them, and to correct for distortion. It is, of course, better to avoid these problems rather than expect Photoshop to fix them for you, since the software may not do a perfect job and we all know you will, right?

And that’s it – at the basic level, of course.  You've just made your first panorama.  It's actually even easier than this if you're working in Lightroom, cause you can just "merge to panorama in Photoshop" right from your Lightroom library!  

This can be a little difficult to read about, but I promise, once you've tried it a few times, it's pretty easy.  As always, though, feel free to contact me ( if you have any questions and I can walk you through it.

See ya next week!

I'm back!

Well, after a week in Israel and two missed blog postings, I'm back.  I'd say I missed you all, but I didn't really.  I love traveling and this was quite the traveling experience.  I went for my sister's wedding, but one of the benefits of a destination wedding is the ability to take photos... lots and lots of photos.  I took about four 16GB memory cards and I almost filled three of them with hundreds, if not thousands of photos.  I've been back for almost a week and since then I've culled them down to about 600 keepers.  I feel like some of those are really great and some will only be great to my family, but I had a great time and really loved bonding with my camera.  It was an amazing place and over the next week or so, I'll be sharing tons of the photos from my trip.  In the meantime, I thought I'd share one to wet your appetite.  Let me set the stage for you. I was in Tel Aviv for the second half of my trip and I decided, without any knowledge of where I was going, to try and get up for sunrise and head over to the Mediterranean to take some photos.  So I set my alarm and got directions for how to go down to the water.  It was about a 20 minute walk and it went off without a hitch.  However once I got there, I realized that there wasn't anything but empty beach around.  I could see the old city far beyond and the sky scrapers of the new city as I looked in the opposite direction, but where I was, there wasn't a lot.  It just goes to show you that when you're in a new place, it really benefits you to do a little research before heading off to take photos. After walking for a little bit and thinking that my morning was hopeless, I happened upon this old pier.  I was stoked and I knew with a long exposure, this had the potential of being a really cool shot.  There was a fisherman on the pier getting ready to fish for breakfast, but after I asked he graciously said he was happy to share the space with me.  The most interesting part of the experience wasn't getting to the sea, it was coming back.  I quickly realized that I had no idea where I had walked to or how to get back to my hotel.  The good news is everybody in Tel Aviv that I ran into was really nice and I felt very safe.  People were more than happy to try and point me in the right direction.  Having my camera with me actually saved me as I couldn't remember the address to my hotel.  The good news was I had taken a photo of the chocolate shop a few blocks down from where I was staying and that photo was still on my camera.  So, not speaking the language wasn't a problem... I could just point to the photo on the back of the camera and folks knew exactly where I was trying to go.  The fact that everybody I asked gave me DIFFERENT directions is besides the point... they meant well.  So that 20 minute walk I took to get me down to the water was over an hour and a half walk to get back!

Here's the photo I came home with:

This photo was taken right at sunrise.  It was a 30 second exposure which is why the water looks so silky and creamy.  Using a long exposure does the exact opposite of what using a fast shutter speed would do.  A fast shutter speed freezes all the action... that would mean the water and waves would freeze right where they were.  The long exposure blurs the area of the image with movement, so although the pier is really sharp (because it wasn't moving), the surrounding water that was flowing in and out is creamy smooth.

This is one photo with lots more to come.  Stay tuned.  I promise there will be at least one that you like and if not I'll give you your money back.


I Said a Bud Light! (Photos From the Pigeon Point Lighthouse)

Hopefully, you're all old enough to get that joke.  If you're not and have no idea where "I said a Bud Light" is from, or what it's in reference to, please don't tell me.  I feel old enough already and if you tell me you don't understand my corny jokes referencing lame TV commercials from the '80s, just have a Coke and a smile with Mean Joe Green and go read another blog. 

Okay, who's still with me?  Anyone... Bueller... Bueller? (see what I did there).  For those of you STILL reading, which is probably only my Grandmother and my mom, thanks!  I'll try to move onto something more interesting.  The Pigeon Point Lighthouse.

Last weekend my family was away and I had Sunday to myself.  I decided I wanted to go somewhere to take photos and I decided on the Pigeon Point Lighthouse.  I've always thought lighthouses were cool.  There's something really classy and poetic about a lighthouse, sitting out on a cliff next to the ocean, guiding in ships and preventing them from hitting the impressive rock formations that make up the coastline.  The Pigeon Point Lighthouse is over 140 years old and is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States.  It's 115 feet tall, so it can make for some pretty impressive photos. 

So the first question I had to ask myself was if I wanted to go at sunrise or sunset.  My first inclination was to go at sunset, because if you go at sunrise, it means you have to get up BEFORE sunrise and that kinda sucks. ;-)  The problem with this particular spot is  it's location and the direction it's facing.  It's on the West Coast and from where you can stand (assuming you're not in the ocean) it's facing east.  So, if I went at sunset, I would have had beautiful golden light shining on the back side of the lighthouse.  I may have had a beautiful sunset to look at, but I wanted good light on the lighthouse itself, so that meant I had to get up at the ass-crack of dark-thirty to make it in time for sunrise.  Again, if I wanted the light of the golden hour to hit the lighthouse, I had to get the sun rising in the east to hit the east-facing side of the lighthouse.  So I made my coffee, threw my equipment in the car and made it to the lighthouse 30 minutes before the sun came up.  I knew when the sun was coming up, because I'm using a really cool app called the Photo Sundial, which tells you not only when the sun sets and rises, but also where the sun is throughout the day, so you can plan your shots really accurately. I pulled up to my spot and could already tell, with no light, that there was a lot of fog and that was really going to impact my shoot.  I also knew I was going to be taking some black and white photos, because when you have a dull gray sky, black and white photos don't know that the sky isn't a beautiful blue and you can make some really interesting photos.  Because there's not a lot of light at this time of the morning, a tripod is necessary.  I was taking exposures in excess of 20 seconds most of the time and that would be impossible without a tripod.  Anyway, below are some of my favorite shots from the day.  What do you think?


Making this photo black and white meant it didn't matter that it was totally foggy and the sky was really gray.

Sometimes the fact that it's foggy helps make for a really interesting shot. 

When you have a single subject, don't just stick it in the middle of your shot and call it a day, try moving around and getting other interesting aspects into your shot.  Putting something in the foreground and the lighthouse in the upper right makes for a more interesting shot that hopefully looks different from all the other shots taken at this popular location.

Lots of cool pictures to take here... Not just the lighthouse.

A Steady Camera = Sharp Shot

So, I'm just about to head out to a class I'm taking on studio portrait lighting.  What better way to spend the day when my girls are out of town?  Turn on sports, invite the guys over, hire some professional dancers and get some fireworks?  Nope... I'm taking a photography class. Wait until you hear what my plans are for tomorrow morning.  I'll give you a hint... it involves getting up at sunrise and a lighthouse, but that's all I'm saying for now.

I  wanted to dedicate this post on taking sharp photos.  It's really important when you're taking photos, if you want them to look good, to keep them sharp!  When shooting at shutter speeds that are lower than the focal length of the lens you're using, you have to keep the camera as steady as possible to avoid camera shake.  So, what does that mean.  We'll if you're shooting with a 200mm lens, it means shooting at a 1/200sec or faster, or if using a 50mm lens, it means shooting at 1/50sec or faster.  So if you're using at 85mm lens and shooting at 1/20sec, you run the risk of camera shake. If you're wondering what camera shake is, it's simply movement of the camera and lens that's captured when the shutter is released and a photo is taken.  The resulting photos look blurred even when the subject is focused and you haven't been drinking!   For the record, if you have been drinking, all your photos will probably appear blurry... this is not from camera shake.  This is from eyeball shake and a lack of focusing ability and it will go away within a few hours.

Many lenses have a feature known as image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR). This is a mechanism inside the lends that counters movement, allowing the you to shoot at shutter speeds lower than normal.  So, if you're shooting with a 50mm lens, to be safe you might be able to shoot with a shutter speed as slow as 1/30sec.  This feature is pretty amazing.  If your lens has it, you'll notice when you're looking through the viewfinder that you're image will stop shaking right before your eyes, once the feature if activated.  The thing you have to remember about image stabilization is that even though it will help you to shoot at shutter speeds slower than normal, you still have to keep the camera as steady as possible.  This lens feature can be very effective, but it can't perform miracles. 

The best way to shoot at slower shutter speeds is to use some form of support.  This can be a tripod, but it doesn't have to be.  You can use rest your camera on a car window if you're inside a car, a rock if you're outside, or even a half eaten, beached, whale carcass if one should happen to wash up on shore while you're shooting on the beach.   Using a support will illuminate camera shake and will allow you to take pictures will as long of a shutter speed as you need.

Still Not Sold on Lightroom? Watch This!

So, if I'm done this properly, you'll be reading this blog post (if you're one of the few people who read these posts, not including my wife and my dad) while I'm at Disneyland. I mean, actually at Disneyland. I'm probably waiting in line for Space Mountain right now. Funnel cake in one hand, giant turkey leg in the other hand, with a bunch of sweaty tourists standing both in front of me and behind me... and yes, they're standing too close!!! Anyway, I imagine we're having a great time and taking lots of pictures. I'll be sure to post some of the good ones as soon as I return.

In the meantime, I wanted to revisit one of my favorite subjects... Adobe Lightroom. I've dedicated previous posts to this subject and I've professed my love to Lightroom to whoever will listen... on Facebook, on Twitter... in line at Disneyland. However, as hard as I try, there are still people who either don't think they need it or think it's too hard to use. So I found a great video that will help with the second issue. In this tutorial, take a look at how a photo can be saved using some of the recovery tools in Adobe Lightroom.  In this real world workflow this guy Gerard shows many techniques to organize and improve photos.  Watch as he compares multiple images using a Survey View.  He also selectively improves the image using new tools in Lightroom 5 to make spot adjustments within his image.This video helps illustrate just how easy it really is to use. For those of you who don't think you need it--well, I can't help you anymore. I've told you that you do need it... everyone needs it. It will make any camera's pictures look better... It will make your iPhone pictures look better! Anyway, here's the video. Take a look and see what a difference it can make and just how easy it is to use. In fact, if you want, send me a picture (, any picture at all and I'll retouch it for you and you can see what a difference it makes. Preferably the picture will be of Heidi Klum, but any picture will do. Send me a photo you think is overexposed, blown out, covered in shadows, too blue, too yellow... whatever. Send it to me and let me fix it for you. If you like the pic buy me a cup of coffee. If you don't like it I'll buy you 10 cups of coffee! 

Controlling Shadows in a Portrait

Being able to control your shadows when taking a portrait is both easy and important as long as you have the right equipment and knowledge. This video really helps illustrate the technique of being able to use your off-camera flash to both soften the shadows and make them more manageable. If you're using an on-camera flash, you won't have as much flexibility, but the principle remains the same and you can use this technique when using the sun as your key light too! Unless your subject is just really, really, really ugly... I'm talking shaved dog butt walking backward kinda ugly (I don't even know what that means!), than you probably don't want their face covered in darkness, but that's your call.