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Friday, December 21, 2007

Coloring Smoke

Yesterday I posted an article (Photographing Smoke) about taking pictures of smoke. This article will explain how to add color to your smoke pictures. This was the picture I ended with yesterday:

1. Open your picture file in Photoshop (or a similar program).
2. Create a new layer.
3. Use the brush tool to paint colors over your smoke in a new layer (color can be applied in other ways too; try using the gradient tool to fade from one color to another).

4. Apply a Gaussian Blur to your color layer (to blend the colors together).

5. Set the color layer's blend mode to Color (you can also try Soft Light, Overlay, or any other mode for a variety of color styles).

Feel free to experiment with combinations of colors, coloring techniques, and blend modes. And try inverting the final product. Here are some of mine:

The above is inverted without adding color.

The above is using a circular rainbow gradient.

Again, you can see the rest of my Smoke set on

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Photographing Smoke

One thing I've been doing a lot lately is photographing smoke. I think it makes some really interesting abstract shapes, especially when you get a really simple shape in the smoke. And it's not all that hard to do; it just takes a little patience.

Ideally, you should have a camera with flash, manual focus, and shutter speed control. If you don't have some of those features, you can probably still take these kind of pictures, but it might be a little harder to do.

Additionally, you'll need a stick of incense (or something similar that will continuously produce smoke without a flame), and it needs to be dark outside, preferably with little wind.

First, set your camera to use the flash, then set the manual focus to roughly two feet. Next, light the incense and let some smoke build up. Hold the incense at the same distance as your focus (in this case, about 2 feet away). Try taking a picture of the smoke against the night sky (so you have a solid black background). If your picture is out of focus, move the incense closer or further away. If it's too dark or bright, try to adjust your shutter speed to allow more or less light. For my smoke pictures, my settings are generally:

Exposure: 0.02 sec (1/50)
Aperture: f/5.6
Focal Length: 55 mm
ISO Speed: 400

Try moving the incense around to make different shapes or patterns. Move the incense up and down to make smoke rings. Experiment and have fun with it.

If you're like me, you'll end up with a bunch of really bad pictures, and a few really good looking ones. So I recommend taking a lot of pictures when trying this.

Check out the rest of my Smoke set on If you try to take some pictures like this, leave me a comment; let me know how it goes and show me some examples.

In my next post, I'll describe how to add some color to these pictures using Adobe Photoshop or similar software.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Alternate Angles

Sometimes it's cool to mix up your photography by experimenting with different angles. Rather than taking your pictures straight on, try moving yourself to a different position until you find a different perspective on the scene. Instead of taking a frontal picture of a group of people, maybe find a balcony above that you can take the picture from. Sometimes you'll end up with some pretty good looking pictures.

In the above picture of some stairs in the Vatican Museum, I wanted to capture both the height of the stairs and the geometric pattern. By taking this picture from straight above, you can see the spiral design of the stairs while getting a feel for its height.

This next picture (of a church tower in Rome) was taken from a lower angle. Sometimes you need to get low to the ground to get a more extreme angle to give a better perspective (or to make an exaggeration). Often times, that's necessary just to get the whole subject in the shot (the Washington Monument comes to mind).

Switching up angles can include getting really close to something to give the picture some depth (I'll go into this more later), like so (a picture from outside some gate of a fancy building):

Thursday, August 2, 2007

High Speed Photography

This is just a quick post to show you the opposite of my previous post. In the last post (Working with Slow Shutter Speeds), you learned how to leave the shutter open longer to expose the camera to more light and create photographs that show the passing of time.

High speed photography can be used to capture very fast motion, while still giving a clear picture (see the example at the end of the post).

This time, instead of increasing the amount of time you leave the shutter open, decrease it (something like 1/1000th of a second). Again, the camera will adjust the other settings for you, if possible.

You can use this to take pictures like this:

I used a 1/2500th of a second exposure time for this one, and I barely got it in time (it's near impossible to photograph a humming bird; they zip around too much).

Monday, July 30, 2007

Working with Slow Shutter Speeds

Many digital cameras (from digital SLRs to simple point-and-shoot cameras) now include an option to adjust the shutter speed, or how long the shutter of the camera is open. This allows you to capture not just a moment in time, but maybe a few seconds, or more, in your pictures.

The above picture is of the Champs-Élysées, a very busy street, in Paris, taken from the Arc de Triomphe. For this shot, I left the shutter of the camera open for 30 seconds. During that time, cars drove down the street, and because the camera captures any light while the shutter is open, it results in streaks of white and red lines from the cars' lights.

To use this feature, you'll want to look for any kind of shutter-control mode on your camera. Canon (and probably a few others) call it "Tv" mode, for "time value." Once you've found it, try increasing the amount of time that the shutter is open (a typical amount of time for a regular picture is usually between 1/200th and 1/1000th of a second, but for these kinds of shots, you want something usually more than 5 seconds). The camera will automatically adjust the other settings so that the image is properly lit.

It should be noted that you'll want something to stabilize your shots. As hard as you try, you won't be able to hold your camera perfectly still for any longer than about a 10th of a second. A tripod will work perfectly, but if you don't have one, try to find something to rest your camera on. For the above picture, I had to rest my camera on a crooked ledge while reaching my arm outside of the fence they had on the top of the Arc. So anything stationary will work fine.

Next, you'll want to find a subject. Water shots can make some beautiful pictures (rivers and waterfalls will have a very soft feel to them, for example), as can nighttime shots of a city or a street, like the one above. Here are some examples:

(The Eiffel Tower at night)

(A fountain in Rome, with some cars going by)

If you don't use a tripod or surface to balance your camera, you can still get some interesting shots. This is a picture I took of the approaching metro in Paris. Because the blurriness conveys a sense of motion, it works pretty well with the high speed of the train.

So as always, experiment with it. Take a few shots with different shutter speeds. Let me know if you come up with anything cool.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Rule of Thirds

Almost everyone who has picked up a camera has heard of the rule of thirds, but not everyone uses it when composing their photographs. And while some photographers write it off as a trite technique, there's no denying that it can improve your pictures.

The idea is to envision a 3x3 grid when looking through the viewfinder of your camera. Imagine where the grid's lines would cross, and place your subjects at those intersections (like in the grid that follows). In addition, it is a good idea to place any lines (horizons, edges of buildings, etc) along the lines of the imaginary grid.

In doing so, you draw attention to certain points in the picture, while at the same time introducing an interesting, non-symmetrical composition.

I used the rule of thirds to compose this photograph of a statue in Rome, with some ruins in the background. I've put a grid on the picture to show how I used the rule of thirds to create a more interesting picture. Notice how the top right intersection lies in the center of the statue's forehead, the top left intersection lies on his fist, the bottom left intersection is right at his elbow, and the bottom right intersection is very near the center of his chest. Also, notice that I aligned the background column with the left grid line, while the right grid line divides the statue's torso in half vertically.

In this next example, notice how the tree runs along the left grid line, and the bottom grid line is right by the horizon. Also, notice the intersection of the grid lines where the trunk of the tree meets the branches.

So next time you're out taking pictures and care about the composition (sometimes you're just taking pictures of friends and in that case it's not a big deal), keep this in mind, and take a few seconds to think about your shot before you take it. Move around a bit to get things to line up how you want them (I had to move until the column was in the right spot in the first picture) and zoom in or out until you find something that aligns with that grid.

It's important to note, however, that this technique is just a suggestion. While it's very useful for quickly composing a shot, it's important to experiment and come up with your own creative compositions.

Hard Light

So I'll start this blog off with a quick post about using the blend mode known as hard light. If you've used the layer feature in Adobe Photoshop, you probably know that there are a multitude of blend modes, from normal to overlay to soft light, among many others. These blend modes can be used for a variety of effects, including special effects as well as simple photo touch-up.

I like to use the hard light blend mode to brighten up my pictures (usually landscape or nature photographs). Adobe describes hard light as follows:
Multiplies or screens the colors, depending on the blend color. The effect is similar to shining a harsh spotlight on the image.

If the blend color (light source) is lighter than 50% gray, the image is lightened, as if it were screened. This is useful for adding highlights to an image. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the image is darkened, as if it were multiplied. This is useful for adding shadows to an image. Painting with pure black or white results in pure black or white.
Right. Basically what that means is that bright things get brighter, and dark things get darker. These are the steps I use to add some extra color to my more dull pictures:
  1. Duplicate the background layer.
  2. In the new layer, increase contrast by about 40.
  3. Gaussian blur, around 8-12 (adjust depending on size of the picture).
  4. Set blend mode to hard light.
  5. Decrease layer opacity until you get something you like.
I don't believe in giving exact values for these steps, because I feel like it's better to adjust the numbers until you end up with the result you wanted. So play around with these values as much or as little as you want.

As I said, this is one of my favorite ways to make my pictures more vivid. The results can be subtle or strong (click the images for larger, clearer versions):


Subtle, medium, and strong.
(Layer opacity: 25%, 50%, 100%)

So that's the end of this post. If you use this for any of your pictures, show me!


Well, I decided to start up with another blog again. My idea for this blog is to post pictures I've taken/edited (only a few at a time) and write about maybe what's in the picture, any special techniques I used to take it, any editing techniques I used, etc. Maybe I'll post some before and after shots. I hope to make this into a blog that can help other people produce better-looking photographs.

I think what I'll do is post a picture, then explain something about it.

This is inspired by a few friends who praised some of my recent pictures :).

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