Monday, December 31, 2012

Beginner Tutorial: The single most important thing you can do to improve your photos

If you are new to photography it probably seems there is an overwhelming amount to learn (and there is) but there are a few key things that can make your photos much better today with very little effort on your part. It doesn't matter if you use a $4000 dollar Nikon dSLR or a $100 point and shoot camera, getting the white balance correct in your photos will make them look much more professional.

The problem with white balance for a new photographer is they often don't know how to adjust it or even what it is.Take a look at the below photo . . .

Nice photo of my wife, right . . . but now take a look at this photo . . .

MUCH better . . . now take a look at them side by side . . .

The difference is most dramatic when you view the photos side by side. You instantly recognize the photo on the right as having more correct or life-like colors. The problems is when people take their own photos, they don't have a "correct" version to compare against so they often don't even know the colors in their photos are not correct, there is just a feeling that the photos are "not that great" or "just okay". So getting the colors correct in your photos can have a massive impact on how they are perceived. So now that you know this, what does it all mean and how do you fix your photos. 

If you are interested in the details of color temperatures and white balance, here is a good explanation from but, for the purposes of this tutorial, it's just enough to know that your photo may end up with a color cast that makes the whole photo either too "cool" blue'ish or too "warm" yellow'ish and it can be adjusted.

There are two ways to adjust color balance, either in-camera, or later in a photo editing program.

In-camera is definitely the preferred place to adjust white balance if you are shooting jpegs. If you are shooting RAW, you have much more latitude in the adjustments and can make later during processing and can adjust white balance then but chances are if you shoot in RAW, you already understand white balance and do not need this tutorial. 

Unless you have previously messed with your advanced camera settings, chances are you camera is in what's called "auto" white balance where it tries to automatically adjust the white balance for you. And thankfully with modern cameras, most of they are relatively good at doing this on their own. There are some cameras that are better than others and there are certain lighting situations that almost all cameras will get wrong. Some of these are mixed lighting situations, flash photography, shooting in darker sitations (shadows), etc.

 If you take a photo and the colors look good (not too much overall blue or yellow) great your done, if not though, it may be time to dust off the owners manual and figure out how to adjust the white balance on your camera. Most cameras let you choose between a number of presets such as sunny, cloudy, flourescent lights, incandescent lights, etc. Give them a try, you may be surprised how much better your photos look in tricky light situations when you get the white balance set correctly.

So what if you didn't get it right in the camera and now it's too late you just want to adjust the white balance if photos you've already taken that you now realize have a color cast. Any image editing program with a darn will have an option to adjust white balance. It my be color color cast, neutral color, or something along these lines.

The two image editing programs I recommend are Picasa, a free download from Google which I recommend for beginners or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 , the premier image editing program for advanced users and well worth it's cost. 

In Picasa, choose the 2nd tab and use the "Color Temperature" slider to adjust your white balance. Moving to the left will make the photo blue'er or cooler and to the right, will make it warmer or more yellow. You can also use the neutral color picker to pick a grey (neutral) color is the photo to have Picasa automatically set the white balance for you. This method can be tricky at first.

So go ahead and pull up some of those old photos. Are they too warm or too cool? Now that you know, you can fix it. Give it a try and you may be amazed at how much more professional some of your photos will look. 


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Triggertrap Mobile Review. Does it really work?

Triggertrap Mobile is a promising new application for iOS or Android that allows you to use your smartphone for trigging your camera shutter. But how well does it really work?
The first thing you should understand about Triggertrap is that the way the application interfaces with the camera is very limited. It is nothing more than a fancy cable release. This means the application is limited to only being able to do the same thing the shutter release button on your camera does. Focus and open/close shutter.
The mobile phone simply sends an audio signal that is translated in the Triggertrap dongle that the camera needs for focus or shutter. There is no photo viewing, settings changing, etc. which is a major limitation of Triggertrap . . . more on that later. That being said, using a custom app and the sensors on your mobile phone does allow for some promising control over your camera.

Purchase Experience
The TriggerTrap app is $10 to buy in the Apple Store. You also have to buy a dongle and a cable release cord that plugs the dongle into the camera. Recently, TriggerTrap has added a free version of the app as well that assume has less of the triggering options but might be a good way to first test things out. Figuring out which dongle and cable release cord to buy is trivial thanks to TriggerTrap's easy reference page.

TriggerLESS Triggertrap
I received my dongle and shutter release cord, plugged everything in excited to try it . . . opened the Triggertrap app, clicked the button to take a photo . . . and nothing. I tried over and over and . . . nothing!

I logged into the Triggertrap web site and to my dismay their forums are full of people with the same problem. Maybe it's just me but an applications that exist to remotely trigger your camera that can't remotely trigger your camera seems like a bit of an issue. It turns out according to Triggertrap they had an issue with their supplier and "a small percentage if dongles were not functioning". They had a whole series of steps and elaborate workflow diagrams to test your dongle . . . telling me this was much more than a "small" problem.

Anyhow obvious quality control issues, but stuff happens. so no big deal . . . Triggertrap had a form to fill out to request a replacement dongle. It took a full MONTH before I received the replacement dongle. Not only did it take forever to send a replacement, when they finally did, they sent it the slowest shilling option possible. This was completely unacceptable. Meanwhile the forum was filling up with more and more folks with bad dongles because Triggertrap did nothing to recall the bad inventory that was already in circulation. Shame on you Triggertrap!
I plugged in the new dongle and it did work. Finally!

Setting up Triggertrap
Setting up Triggertrap is a bit of a pain. Luckily the documentation is pretty good. Remember how I was saying the only thing Triggertrap can really do is autofocus or press the shutter button . . . Well this introduces a couple of problems. First of all if you tell Triggertrap to take 2 photos . . . one immediately after the other, you have to worry about shutter lag. If the second trigger signal is sent to the camera too soon (before the first shot is complete), the second photo is never taken. Triggertrap does has some pretty well documented steps to follow to figure out the lag time on your camera and set this on the app but this is something the customer should not have to deal with. Note: this has been addressed in more recent versions of the app; more on this later.

The second big problem with trigger trap only being able to "push" the shutter button is that the only way the app has to control exposure is by holding the shutter open for different amounts of time in bulb mode. This presents some challenges mechanically and it turns out the fastest exposure achievable this way (at least with my Nikon d7000) is 1/4 a second. Triggertrap claims 1/60th of a second but that's definitely not the case in my testing. It may be faster with other cameras or with the built in iPhone camera but the only testing I have done is with the d7000. This, by the way, is why only LE (Long Exposure) HDR is available and not regular HDR.

Using TriggerTrap
Setups complete, now to give the app a real workout. That night I setup a startrails photo outside my back door. It was setup to take 120 photos, 1 minute each over a period of 2 hours.
I got up at 2 am and brought the camera inside to see what it did. It had only taken about 13 photos. Grrrr! I've tried at least two other times to do star trails and neither was completely successful. One of them, the Triggertrap app completely froze my iPhone once and the other try, it only took about 30% of the photos it should have taken.

At this point I was done with Triggertrap and I didn't try it again for six months.

TriggerTrap 1.5
When I finally decided to give Triggertrap another go, iPhone version 1.5.2 was out. Triggertrap has finally addressed the confusing setup issue by allowing you to simply choose a camera profile . . . in my case "nikon autofocus" and that's it . . . your set, ready to go. At this time they only have presets for Cannon or Nikon otherwise you have to choose from some universal presets which I did not try. This is a big improvement to the app that allows you to get going and start successfully using the app sooner.

The application has a number of different types of triggers:
  • Cable Release
  • Bang (sound trigger)
  • Timelapse
  • Timewarp
  • DistanceLapse
  • Seismic (vibration or movement)
  • Peekaboo (face detection)
  • Star Trail
  • LE HDR (Long Exposure HDR)
  • LE HDR Timeplapse
  • Tesla (magnets)
  • Motion
  • Bramping
Cable Release
Cable release allows you to choose from four different modes.

B (Bulb) does the same thing the shutter would do if you pushed it on the camera while in bulb mode. The shutter remains open as long as you hold the button down and closes as soon as you release it.

T (Timed Bulb) this is same as bulb except you don't have to hold down the button the whole time. Just press it once to open the shutter and press it again when you want to close the shutter.

P (Program) All this does is press the shutter button once. It's designed to be used to take a photo when you already have the camera set to whatever settings you want to use. This is a traditional remote shutter. It just fires the shutter once, period . . . end of story.

M (Manual) I really don't get why this option even exists. This option is for when the camera is in bulb mode and allows you to dial in how long the shutter should be open for . . . from 1/60sec or longer (remember the app is not capable of any shutter speed quicker than 1/60th a second . . .  1/4 a second in my testing). So what's the point!??? I'm connected to the camera anyhow so why not just operate in "P" mode and set whatever shutter speed I want on the camera without the 1/4sec limitation . . .

To me, the most useful option here is P mode or the traditional cable release mode. With the latest app version and my dongle that works now, cable release mode works very reliably.

Bang (sound trigger)
Blah, it works, who cares . . .  I think some of these mode are very gimicky. This mode I could see being useful if you have to be a few feet from your camera or something and want to trigger with a clap of your hands or something . . . but in general, I don't really every see myself needing this mode.

Timelapse is one of the modes I really like to use. With time lapse, you just choose how many photos to take and over what period of time to take them and the application does the math and tells you how many seconds of video that will make at 15fps and at 30fps as well as what the delay will be between each photo being taken.

It would be nice if the app let you specify either of the two (# of photos, total time period, time between photos) and automatically calculate the other. As it is, you always have to set # of photos and total time.

Timewarp I haven't tried yet but it's a great idea. All it is is time lapse but it speeds up or slows down as it goes. I imagine for you time lapse fanatics out there, you could do some cool stuff with this.

This uses the GPS on your iphone to take a photo every time you've moved X number of yards or meters. This is great for time lapse photography while on a road trip or something like that. If you are in traffic or such, you won't get tons of photos while stuck in traffic or at a stop light. It will create a smooth lapse based on movement rather than time. Of course, depending on what you are trying to do with time lapse, this might not be a good thing but it's a cool option to have.

Seismic (vibration or movement)

Blah . . . if you come up with any good uses for this, let me know.
Peekaboo (face detection)

I think this really only works with the iphone camera so . . . blah

Star Trail
This is what I use my remotes for the most and the main reason I bought TriggerTrap. With the traditional timers, you always end up with a one second gap between photos. With Triggertrap, there is a gap between photos but it should be much shorter. Be sure to change the TriggerTrap camera profile to manual focus so it doesn't delay the triggering of the shutter to wait for focusing to occur (for star trails you'll be manually focusing anyhow).

LE HDR (Long Exposure HDR)

This is another mode I don't really see a point for. I just setup bracketing on my camera and then use the "P" mode of the standard cable release mode.

LE HDR Timeplapse
I haven't tried this yet but it's definitely something I'd like to play with . . .

Tesla (magnets)

Blah . . . they talk about using this mode with magnets to photograph door movement like a security system or such . . . . whatever . . . not a mode I waste my time with.

Another "blah" mode.

Bramping is short for bulb ramping. This mode allows you to do time lapses but also specify the starting exposure time and the ending exposure time and the app automatically changes exposure as it goes. The idea would be to do a timeplapse of a sunset or something like that.

There are a few useability issues in the UI. When moving the sliders, they are very touchy and its difficult to get them to actually stay where you set them as you move your finger off the slider. Most of the sliders have a drop down menu where you can spefically choose the #'s you want but still the slider issue seems like something that could be fixed and is annoying.

Over all now that Triggertrap has improved their application and (hopefully) fixed their dongles, its a useful application, especially for the price.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Coming Soon . . . A review of the Triggertrap Mobile Application for iPhone

Triggertrap Mobile is a promising new application for iOS or Android that allows you to use your smartphone for trigging your camera shutter. But how well does it really work. Full Review coming soon . . .

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How to Make a DIY Light Box For Photographing In Your Own Mini Studio

Have you ever needed a photo for Ebay but you wanted to make it look more professional than just a “snapshot” or you just wanted a photo of any objet with a clean background that looks professional. It is EASY to make your own little studio for photographing whatever it is you want to photograph and everything you need is probably just laying around the house. Even if you have to buy the supplies, they will only cost you a few dollars.
Here is what you will need.
  • 1 cardboard box – I used 18”X18”X16”
  • Some tracing paper or tissue paper . . . something that is white and will still let a good deal of light through.
  • white poster board
  • tape
  • a box cutter
That’s it. The light box is pretty self explanatory. Here are some photos of mine after it was completed.Cut out one side of the box completey so you can place the box over your subject. Three of the sides are cutout with the box cutter and then covered with the tracing or tissue paper. I left two flaps on the top of the box to control how much ambient light is let in and to just give the box more stability.
DSC_4388 DSC_4389 
The idea is to use the poster board as the background so you have a nice smooth white background. You can then light up the box with desk lamps, a flash or two, etc. For mine, I use my sb-700 Nikon flash and I also use the built in camera flash although, I make sure to tone it down a lot. Here is a photo of my setup for the photos I took in this post. Depending on what you are shooting, you might want more than one flash/light. You can play around to get some really nice affects. This can also produce some nice shadows that are soft and diffused. If you want edgier shadows, just crank up the flash a bit.
It’s not a professional studio, but for a few minutes and a couple dollars, you can get some pretty nice photos.

Favorite Photography Books

I love this book. It is the best photography book I have read on photo lighting, ever. Joe McNally has a no nonsense way of communicating what is important for specific lighting scenarios. He has some more recent books as well but this is the one I like the best.

The Moment It Clicks: Photography secrets from one of the world's top shooters

If you are interested in following his blog too, it is here: Joe McNally's Blog