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Beyond Sunset: The Different Phases of Twilight – Digital Photography School

A Post By: James Brandon

Sunsets are one of the most common and widely photographed events in nature. They are stunning and inspiring to watch and never seem to last quite long enough before everything is over. I’ve been on quite a few photo walks with groups of photographers during sunset, and I always notice the same thing: Once the sun dips below the horizon, the majority of people pack up their gear and head home. They see a setting sun as the end of a wonderful night of shooting, but they are missing so much!

I see the same thing with portrait photographers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out shooting a lifestyle or engagement session at a popular location during sunset and watched all the photographers scramble to get their shots in. Sure enough, as soon as the sun sets the place clears out, which is fine by me!

What most photographers don’t understand is that once the sun has disappeared, a new window of opportunity begins, there is still plenty of useable light left! Twilight is the period of time in between day and night, and is caused by refraction and the suns rays scattering from the atmosphere. What most people don’t know is that there are three different phases of twilight, each with very distinct and unique features that open up different worlds of opportunities for your images. My goal for this article is to shed some light (pun definitely intended) on what happens after the sun goes down, and to let photographers know that the setting sun is just the beginning!

Sunset and Sunrise

The period of time leading up to sunset or directly after sunset are the most popular times for photographers. The light is beautiful and perfect for portraits and landscapes. The sunlight is diffused and less harsh, and beautiful warm tones are cast across the horizon. Sunsets and sunrises are also popular photographic opportunities because the sun acts as another interesting element in a photograph because of it’s low relative position to the horizon, which can’t be done during the day time in most cases. I think there is also something very spiritual about these times of day, they have a way of making people stop and take everything in. It’s both calming and invigorating. But all across the world, at all the sunset watching parties and photo walks, as soon as the sun hits the horizon people begin to pack up and head home. Little do they know that twilight is upon them and the many photo ops of the evening have just begun.

Civil Twilight

© Jacob Lucas

Civil twilight is the brightest phase of twilight and occurs from the moment the sun dips below the horizon and lasts until the center of the sun is geometrically 6 degrees below the horizon (or from the time the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon until it hits the horizon in the morning). This period of time lasts about 30 minutes on average but can be longer or shorter depending on the time of year and your position on the globe. During civil twilight, you may also be able to see the brightest stars in the sky, as well as some planets like venus. The horizon is clearly visible and taking handheld pictures is relatively easy to do. Objects are clearly defined and no additional light is needed in most cases. The light cast during this phase can be anywhere from warm golden tones to cool pink tones.

During civil twilight, the colors of the sky are going to be changing quickly. The sunset colors are going to go away and an entire new set of colors are going to splay out across the sky. These colors are going to become cooler in temperature as time goes on and it’s important to be able to adapt to the quickly changing conditions. As the next phase of twilight approaches, the gradation from the sunset point to the other end of the sky is going to become very smooth and pleasant, and the dynamic range of light in your images is going to decrease drastically.

Nautical Twilight

Nautical twilight occurs right after civil twilight in the evening, and right before civil twilight in the morning. This phase occurs when the center of the sun is between 6 and 12 degrees below the horizon in the evening. This period also usually lasts around 30 minutes and the primary color cast across the atmosphere is usually a deep blue tone with still noticeable orange and yellow hues left over from the fading sun. The horizon is still visible during this time but hand held shots are going to be somewhat difficult by now. The light has started to dissipate quickly and silhouettes are going to be more prevelent in your shots. Details will be harder to make out during this time but there is still some remaining light on the horizon from the sun.

This is a great time to start looking for artificial light for your images. During nautical twilight, the artificial lights in buildings and structures will really begin to take over the scene, and there are endless opportunities for compelling images. Be sure to use a tripod during this time as hand held images will be extremely difficult. Pay attention to the way the remaining light and manmade light in your scene interacts with the subjects in your image. Use the directional light from the horizon to add hints of definition to objects and be ready to take multiple images as the light conditions will change rapidly.

Astronomical Twilight

The last phase of twilight is known as astronomical twilight, or “astro” for short. This period of twilight occurs when the center of the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon and slowly degrades over a period of 30 minutes before night time officially begins. Getting hand held images during this time is pretty much impossible, and a tripod is strongly suggested. During this phase of twilight, there is still some useable light to make for very interesting pictures but night will be approaching quickly.

Cityscapes really comes to life during this time and the smallest light becomes a powerful tool of illumination. There is still a faint cast of dark blue across the horizon at first, and this slowly turns to black as night time begins. Away from the city, stars will be very visible and can be incorporated into some shots. Details will be somewhat difficult to make out without the help of some sort of artificial help. This phase of twilight is certainly the most difficult for creating images, but it can still be very rewarding.


I hope this article will inspire you to stick it out after the sun dips beneath the horizon. Whenever I schedule a client shoot 30 minutes before sunset, they often have a freak out moment because they are afraid 30 minutes won’t be near enough time for a photo shoot. I then explain to them what I’ve explained in this article; that sunset is just the beginning and there is still plenty of time afterwards for amazing light and amazing images. Getting shots during twilight completely depends on your commitment to getting the shot. Are you prepared to stick around when everyone else has left? Are you willing to go out and take pictures while everyone else is eating dinner or still in bed? Are you ready to carry that tripod with you even though it’s bulky and inconvenient? If the answer is yes, I guarantee you will walk away from your experience with dramatically different images than anyone else.

If you have an iPhone, I strongly recommend purchasing an app called SoLuna. It finds your location and tells you the exact time of day for sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, as well as exact times for each phase of twilight. It’s great for planning when to go out and when to have your tripod and camera set up by.

Follow Me!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter if you aren’t already (@jamesdbrandon). I’m always available to answer questions there or in the comments below. I also do my best to share plenty of links to inspirational articles and other photographers work and what not. Good luck and happy shooting!

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Digital Photo Magazine – Just $0.41/Issue!! – Penny Pinchin’ Mom

Here is another great photography magazine deal!  You can pick up a subscription to Digital Photo Magazine for only $4.99 per year (58% off)! You can order up to 3 years at this price!  Add this magazine to your shopping cart and then enter the coupon code pennypinch and then you will see the price drop! This deal is good until Sunday 03/30/14 11:59 PM EST.

Covers the new desktop darkroom or home photo lab technologies, trends and methods for modern photo and computer enthusiasts. It is edited for a broad spectrum of readers, from the beginner to the advanced, who want to know how to creatively and effectively control and produce exciting images.



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How to Photograph a Steaming Cup of Coffee – Digital Photography School

A Post By: Darren Rowse

Ever wanted to photograph a steaming cup of coffee?

Steaming Coffee 01

Maybe not – but it could be a fun little evening project to hone your skills.

Here’s a video from the team at Learn my Shot to show you how to do it.

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The Path to Better Photography – Digital Photography School

Ed Verosky is a professional photographer and author based in New York. In this article, Ed presents his recommended path to learning photography. This, along with his eBooks on the subject, have greatly improved the skills of thousands of photographers. To learn more about improving your photography, visit his site and check out his extensive eBook collection (currently 62% off at SnapnDeals).

If you’ve ever wanted a little guidance when it comes to learning photography from top to bottom, this DPS post is for you! There’s a lot of information out there, and tons of books, tutorials, workshops, etc. to learn from. But it’s not always easy to know where to start, or where you should focus your efforts when it comes to really improving your knowledge of the art and craft of photography. With that in mind, here’s a “learning road map” I’ve put together for you that has helped many of my readers. I hope it helps you with your quest to become a better photographer.


Getting Started

First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this. You’re probably looking at this right now, excited about the possibility that you might actually learn something new, something that will elevate you as a photographer in some way. Whether you are a beginning photographer, or someone who’s been at this for a few years, you probably have the desire to improve on this thing that you love.

Photography means something special to you; it’s a kind of magic that allows you to express yourself. It’s your way of communicating and sharing with the world. Whether you’re doing what you love to earn extra income, or simply for the pure excitement and enjoyment of it, that’s reason enough to want to keep improving and learning and growing. It’s not only the technical skills, but the psychology and artistic sensibility of what we do as photographers that keeps us constantly in the need to learn and adapt to everything from new gear, to new people/clients, to our own ways of expressing ourselves.

How to Use this Post as a Guide

Print this post out. It’s your guide and starting point. It can serve as a road map to learning the basics of photography, helping you to build a solid foundation from which to grow and become really good at what you do. I encourage you to use this road map and seek out multiple resources, like DPS, to further your understanding of each topic that follows. My blog, newsletter, video tutorials, and ebooks will also definitely help you learn about these things quickly and in great detail. But I routinely direct people to outside resources as well, because I think it’s important to learn from more than one teacher in order to really drive home the knowledge and principles of photography.

I’m very excited about this journey you’re on, and it’s my goal to do everything in my power to help you get everything you want out of your photography. I’m obsessed with teaching and demonstrating what I’ve learned and all the new things I continue to learn. I’m sincerely happy that I have another person I can share this excitement with right now. That’s you!

Now, we’ll begin our discussion of the four topics that I feel are most important in your development as a good photographer: the camera, the lighting, the subject, and post-processing.

The Camera

The first part of becoming a complete photographer is knowing how your camera works, inside and out. Your camera is the main mode of communication between you and the outside world as a photographer. Like your voice, your photographic vocabulary is extremely limited without some good understanding of how best to tell a story. Put the effort into learning everything about your camera and and it will pay off, big time. Plus, you’ll be able to speak intelligently about your craft, and be able to ask the right questions when it comes to the topic of lighting. The camera and the lighting; knowledge of one topic supports an understanding of the other, so you need both. Start with your camera.


Good resources will provide numerous visual examples to help you understand how exposure works. The sequences above are just a few that I use in my eBooks to illustrate the interdependent nature of exposure controls on the camera.


Here are some of the most important things you should learn about:

  • Raw and JPEG. The differences between Raw and JPEG file formats. Learn what the differences are and why one is not always better than the other. For example, I strongly recommend that people shoot in the largest Raw format their cameras produce. But that’s not always the practical choice, nor is it always necessary. In general, however, Raw will provide you with the highest quality file from which to work with. From there, you can export out to fine-tuned JPEGs that are sure to produce prints and web display images of excellent quality. But this isn’t the whole story, and you should probably investigate what these file formats are capable of, and how they work with your post-processing software, so you can make the most informed decisions according to the demands and limitations of your schedule, software, and client needs.
  • ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. These are the fundamental components of exposure and a huge topic for photographers. Our cameras are able to keep these three components in check for us in automatic shooting modes, but the auto-metering and exposure mechanisms don’t always get it right. Understanding exactly how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed interrelate will give you complete control over exactly how your exposures turn out. You need to understand this topic in order to make educated decisions about how to adjust exposure even when using automatic shooting modes. There are shortcuts to learn, too. But I cannot stress how important it is to get a real, rock-solid, understanding of exposure.
  • How to do the math of photography. It’s easy once you get the hang of it, and it’s an essential part of working with all aspects of exposure and lighting. What is this “math” all about? Well, it comes down to how light is measured in photography; we talk about light in terms of “stops” which are traditionally full increments of camera and lighting adjustments. Each stop either doubles or halves the amount of light you’re working with. For example, when working with apertures (often talked about in terms of f-stops), moving from one full f-stop of say, f/5.6 to f/8.0 cuts the light entering the camera by half. Likewise, changing your shutter speed from 1/500 sec. to 1/250 sec. allows twice as much light to expose the camera sensor. ISO works the same way; ISO 200 makes your sensor twice as sensitive to the light hitting it as ISO 100. Lighting has a similar math with a few good rules you can follow. Knowing all of this and putting it to use will put you in complete control of your lighting and exposure.
  • White Balance. Light comes in many different colors, even when it looks white to your eyes, a light source can reproduce as blue, green, or orange. Learn how to control and fix it both in-camera and during post-processing. When you’re using different types of light sources together like flash and household incandescent lamps, you’ll have to make some decisions about how to handle the difference in light color, if at all.
  • Shooting modes. Which camera mode do you typically shoot in? There are several to choose from including full automatic, program, aperture priority and shutter priority. There’s also manual mode which is very important to know how to use. In fact, for studio-type lighting, manual mode is usually the best choice. Learn what each camera shooting mode does. Each one has a real purpose and knowing how to choose the right one is crucial.
  • Manual mode. Understand how to use it and gain total control over every aspect of exposure. No, you don’t have to shoot in manual mode all the time to be considered a “real” photographer, but for many situations, knowing how to use your camera in manual mode will save you from disaster. Manual mode is also important in studio work and anytime shooting conditions require you to do the thinking when your camera’s auto modes aren’t cutting it.
  • Understand all the metering, focusing, and drive modes on your camera. It’s easy to find one thing that works and simply stick to it. But sometimes you need to switch things up to get better results as conditions change. Learning what your camera’s capabilities are is going to come in handy.
  • Evaluate and fix your shots. Know how to most effectively use all the tools available on your camera to properly evaluate and adjust your exposures as you’re shooting.

Ok, remember the broad list of things you need to learn: camera, lighting, subject, and post-processing? Well the list above is just the CAMERA part! Trust me, I know that part alone can seem overwhelming, and that’s why most people never bother to learn it all. That’s a real shame, because it’s the first part of becoming a complete photographer; you need to know everything about how your camera works.

Fortunately, you don’t need to know everything from the start. If you’re using your camera in a way that’s working for you right now, keep doing that. There’s no reason to give that up. But in the meantime, start building on your current understanding and usage of the camera and learn a little bit more as the weeks go on. Soon, everything’s going to start coming together and you’ll find that you have a total command of the camera. That’s the goal. Read the best resources on using your DSLR, and just commit to wanting it. It’s going to happen, I promise!


Although setting your camera to one of the auto exposure modes is a great way to solve the immediate problem of getting a properly exposed image, it won’t solve your lighting concerns, and it’s your lighting that really makes the difference. Many photographers soon realize that what separates their images from better work is the application of good lighting techniques and different types of lighting sources. I would say that the ability to skillfully use lighting is the number one technical skill a photographer should seek to acquire in order to produce good work. Unfortunately, this is also the number one place photographers tend to drop the ball.


Learning how to control your light will allow you to easily create effects like overpowering daylight (above). Here, the right combination of camera settings and flash power create a nighttime effect, even though there is actually bright window light coming into the studio.


Sure, lighting isn’t easy at first, and maybe that’s why so many photographers just give up on learning how to do it properly. It takes time, experimentation, and a good teacher to help you get to where you need to go with photographic lighting. Good books and tutorials can help you with that. When I teach, my goal is to show readers how to use natural, constant, and flash lighting in a way that really gives them a handle on it quickly.

In order to really master lighting for photography, you should learn the following things:

  • How light actually behaves. By learning the properties of light, you can easily control the way it can be directed, redirected, and modified to suit your needs.
  • How light is measured in photography. There’s a very easy and powerful math to photographic lighting (which I touched on earlier). It’s been around for a long time and has served photographers well. Learning how to measure light is crucial to good lighting and good exposures.
  • How to use strobe/flash lighting. This is one of the most powerful and convenient types of lighting you can learn to use. Knowing how to use both on-camera and off-camera flash is what separates many photographers. While it’s ok to feel comfortable being a “natural light only” photographer, it’s also limiting.
  • Lighting for portraiture. Using your knowledge of lighting will transform your portraiture work to a new level. There are five important lighting patterns you should absolutely know. Starting with a single light source, you can apply these patterns and build upon them to eventually create portraits that take advantage of multiple lights.
  • Mixing and matching light sources. Make sure to understand how different light sources (although many appear to look white to your eyes) will cause major color shifts in your exposures. You can handle these problems in-camera with good white balance techniques and also during post-processing.

The Subject

I believe in teaching portraiture in a semi-traditional way; instructing on the fundamentals and quickly moving to a more freestyle approach. An appreciation for traditional lighting patterns and contemporary portraiture will give you a good foundation for all of your portraiture work. But in today’s marketplace, the old traditional portraiture isn’t the only game in town. Working photographers should look beyond typical portraiture to find ways to differentiate themselves from others. One of the main things I like to stress is that you should start thinking about unconventional posing, directing, lighting, etc. eventually developing your own style.


Great subjects can inspire you to get creative with your posing and lighting techniques. This type of experimentation will help you develop your own unique style.


Again, this all begins with really knowing the fundamentals of lighting, and getting very comfortable with your gear so it becomes an extension of your vision and not something that gets in the way of the creative flow. But simply knowing how to use the tools and basic techniques of your craft isn’t enough. You need to let go of the things that hold you back from creating your best work and explore new ways to look at and create portraiture. Yes, the soft skills like working with subjects and clients are important which is why it’s one of my favorite things to teach.

Here are some of the most important themes and topics I tend to discuss on a regular basis:

  • Classic Lighting. The basic traditional lighting patterns are classics and always look great. Even if you’re the type of photographer who doesn’t like to do things the traditional way, get to know the classics because they come in handy and the principles they’re based upon apply to ALL types and styles of lighting.
  • Creative Lighting. I strongly encourage you to go nontraditional, too. Working with your subjects in a way that encourages creativity includes bending and breaking the rules of traditional lighting.
  • Developing Your Own Style. It’s imperative for working photographers to do this in order not to drown in a sea of competition where so many are producing work absent of any unique style or vision. Amateurs have even more reason to explore the artistic areas of portraiture since it is a part of the amateur heritage to do so, and also because they don’t have the burden of producing work according to the tastes and needs of paying clients. When I talk about developing your own style, I don’t necessarily mean that you can, or should attempt, to do it deliberately. I don’t think you can create a true style as much as you can identify it by looking back at your work as time goes on. But in the meantime, take this as a cue to work in a way that is your own.
  • Portraiture Projects. One of the best ways to expand your body of work, as well as come up with new imagery that you otherwise might not have thought of, is to start a photo art project. Starting with just a simple idea or theme, you might find yourself discovering many different ways to express it. Even a very general concept has a tendency to build on itself as it becomes, at the same time, more defined and diverse. This process of creation and discovery can only enhance your artistic vision and technique.
  • How to Find Great Subjects. Good models are everywhere, you just have to know how to find them. This is another thing I talk about in my books, but the main message here is that family, friends, and strangers can all make great subjects. You don’t always have to look to “model” directory websites to find great people to photograph. I’ve gotten some of my best results through other means.
  • How to Direct Your Subjects. Whether your portrait subject is a client or a collaborator in your next artistic vision, it’s very important to get them excited and on-board with your ideas for the shoot. They are the actor in your drama, the star of your movie, even if your “theater” is only an ad-hoc studio setup, your subject’s confidence and enthusiasm are key ingredients for a successful shoot.
  • Make Your Work Personal. This is very important. No matter what, or who, you photograph, if you invest something personally in your efforts, it will show. Your work will be less generic and more substantive. It’s often said that all portraits are really self-portraits. While it’s not always that evident, the truth is that the best portraits happen when you recognize something special as you click the shutter. And what you recognize most often comes from a very personal place.


It can be argued that post-processing happens the moment a digital camera processes the data off the sensor, and certainly when a file is converted, via some programmer’s algorithm, for view in a RAW conversion engine common in most digital workflows. Why not make the absolute most of the tools available to you, just as photographers have always done? It used to be darkroom tools, like various ways of developing film and selectively exposing photographic paper during the printing process, which allowed the photographer to enhance or correct problems with an original negative. Now it’s digital. Of course you can ruin any photograph with overdone effects or cheesy gimmicks. But used thoughtfully, post-processing techniques can help make a good picture an outstanding one.


  • Raw Conversion Software. I recommend that you learn how to use Raw conversion software which powers and comes built-in to Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom products. Working with Raw files has gotten to be a rather seamless part of the normal workflow.
  • Image Editing. Software like Lightroom and Aperture make organizing and basic editing a breeze. Adobe Photoshop is the standard professional editing (retouching) tool of choice, however, the less expensive Photoshop Elements might have just enough features to allow you to do the type of post-processing you’re interested in.

Try out these products for free by clicking on the following links. You should see a “Trial” link on each product’s information page:

Of course there are also other fun and effective ways to post-process your images, including using some popular mobile device apps. This is one of my favorite topics to cover as I’m a big fan of iPhone photography and mixing DSLR photography with phone photography editing and sharing technologies.

Some of the things you might be interested in learning include:

  • Retouching. Using Photoshop tools like the clone tool, liquify, and healing tools to remove blemishes, tighten up body parts, and otherwise improve the overall look of your portrait subjects. “Photoshopping,” “airbrushing,” or retouching is so prevalent these days, it’s almost expected that you offer this to paying clients as part of the service. You can learn to do at least the basics by watching a few tutorial videos on YouTube, but I suggest you also invest in some basic detailed instruction from books like the popular ones by Martin Evening. Once you get that under your belt, you’ll be ready to tackle more advanced topics.
  • Effects. There are several effects that are popular with photographers these days, including texturing, compositing, and alternative color processing and black and white conversions. Some effects can be purchased as presets and actions making them simple to apply. However, I recommend you also learn how to create and manipulate images directly so you’ll know exactly how to get the looks you want and make them unique.
  • Image Preparation. You’ll also want to know the best ways to prepare your images for use in various applications like prints of specific sizes, on-line web galleries, distribution and presentation on the web, etc. Knowing the ins-and-outs of image resolution and quality settings will help you make the most of your photography. After all, what good is all the work you’ve done up to this point if you don’t know how to best present your images in the end?

This Is Just The Start

I realize there’s a lot of information in this post. At the same time, it’s not complete, just one general outline based on my experience and teaching methods. But I strongly encourage you to find your place on this map and start navigating your way through it. It will take some time, but that’s one of the best things about photography, the discovery.


To get started, you can download my popular eBook bundle at a special discounted price (62% off) on SnapnDeals. Everything I’ve talked about above (and more) can be accessed now so you can get started today.

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The Photographer Behind Windows XP’s Iconic ‘Bliss’ Background Shares His Design Tips

In January 1996, Charles “Chuck” O’Rear captured the above photo on his Mamiya RZ 67 film camera while driving through the wine counties of California. It would go on to become the default wallpaper for Windows XP — an image that has been seen by hundreds of millions of people. Here is the story behind the iconic photo, along with O’Rear’s design tips for perfect wallpaper creation.

As the default background for Microsoft’s most enduring operating system, Chuck O’Rear’s ‘Bliss’ has been eyeballed by a hell of a lot of people. With more than 450 million copies of Windows XP sold, there’s no telling how many individual times the image has been seen — and that’s before you add the untold swathes of pirated copies to the equation.

While it might not have the inbuilt gravitas of Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ or Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’, ‘Bliss’ is far more likely to be instantly recognised the world over. It may even be the most widely viewed image in history.

So what is the secret behind Bliss’ success, other than the fact that it presumably took Bill Gate’s fancy? In an attempt to find out, we chatted to O’Rear about his design process and the origin of his hugely successful desktop background.

“The trick to capturing the perfect desktop background, or any photograph for that matter, is all about serendipity,” O’Rear claims. “In the case of [XP’s Bliss] it was serendipity with a capital S. When I drove by those hills that day, a storm had just passed through which gave this great visibility. I stopped my truck and ‘made’ a photograph of that scene — I prefer this phrase to take, it sounds sexier.

“The photo then went to my stock photo agency called Corbis which is where Microsoft found it. At the time that the photo was selected, I didn’t even know Microsoft was in the process of building XP. So it really was a lucky string of events. It just clicked at the right place and the right time.”

According to O’Rear, while there’s a certain amount fortuitous happenstance involved with taking a great photo, it’s not just about blind luck — preparation and location familiarity are also incredibly important.

“My 25 years at National Geographic taught me that you have to make serendipity happen; it doesn’t happen for us,” O’Rear explained. “In other words, you need to be prepared.

“With the Windows XP photo, I knew that the area with those amazing green hills only lasted for a maximum of about two weeks of the year. So I did my research and was prepared even though I didn’t know exactly what I was going to find.”

Naturally, if you want to take a great desktop background, it helps if the subject has some kind of significant meaning. ‘Bliss’ holds a special place in O’Rear’s heart that goes beyond the Windows XP connection — it was actually taken on his way to visit the woman who later became his wife.

“Before we got married, I used to drive from my home to hers which was about fifty miles away. We’d spend the weekend together and then I’d come back. The road passes through this gorgeous area of Californian wine country which is where Bliss’ was taken. So if it wasn’t for my wife, the photo probably wouldn’t exist.

“Obviously, if you’re going to create an image for your own desktop, you want something that you like, whether it’s your dog, cat or favourite car. Choosing the right photo will make you feel good every single day when you turn your computer on.”

O’Rear says that the key to taking a good desktop background — especially for commercial purposes– is to convey something positive. In the case of ‘Bliss’, Windows XP engineers were looking for an image that would express serenity, peacefulness and a nondescript calmness.

Or as O’Rear quips: “It’s got green hills, blue sky and white clouds — how could you go wrong? Nobody is going to look at it and say “oh my god, I want to throw up!” (We’re guessing he’s unfamiliar with hardcore Linux users.)

As a final piece of advice, O’Rear recommends that you take a lot of photos — even if that means leaving the camera at home and using your smartphone:

“Finding the right moment has always been the challenge for professional photographers; we would roam the world never knowing when that moment would happen. Nowadays, with instant, high resolution photography at your fingertips, it’s hard to make an unusable photograph.

“So to anybody who wants to create an image for their desktop, just be always ready and prepared.”

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Shooting With Intent – Digital Photography School

A Post By: Rick Berk

For this image of Lower Falls in Letchworth State Park in New York, I knew I wanted a creamy look to the falls.  They were flowing well so I knew a moderately slow shutter speed would give me what I wanted.  I also knew as I composed it that I wanted the falls framed by some of the gorgeous colors of the fall foliage.  I set my exposure based on two things- I wanted a slow shutter speed and I wanted deep depth of field. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L, ISO 100, f/25, .3".

For this image of Lower Falls in Letchworth State Park in New York, I knew I wanted a creamy look to the falls. They were flowing well so I knew a moderately slow shutter speed would give me what I wanted. I also knew as I composed it that I wanted the falls framed by some of the gorgeous colors of the fall foliage. I set my exposure based on two things- I wanted a slow shutter speed and I wanted deep depth of field. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L, ISO 100, f/25, .3″.

A good friend of mine is passionate about photography, and she recently acquired a reminder of the way she approaches photography.  A tattoo that wraps around her bicep that states simply “Shoot With Intent”. This is one of the biggest lessons a beginning photographer can learn.  It’s very easy to go out with a camera, set it on AUTO, and come back with some nice, perhaps even great images.  Today’s cameras make that fairly easy, even without shooting on full auto. If you’re using aperture priority or shutter priority, just allowing the camera to come up with an correct exposure, you can still great images without considering all aspects of the exposure.  However, without considering all aspects of the exposure and allowing the camera to make decisions for you, you’re not really shooting with intent.

I wanted to capture this image of trees reflected in the Merced, but the water was undulating just enough to cause problems with the reflection. A slower shutter speed helped smooth the ripples and give me a better reflection. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L, ISO 100, f/16, .3".

I wanted to capture this image of trees reflected in the Merced, but the water was undulating just enough to cause problems with the reflection. A slower shutter speed helped smooth the ripples and give me a better reflection. EOS 5D Mark III, EF 70-300 f/4-5.6L, ISO 100, f/16, .3″.

Shooting with intent means you take into consideration all aspects of the image you’re creating.  It starts with the lens you choose to put on your DSLR and carries all the way from subject and composition, to shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, you think through every aspect of the shot, and how those variables will affect the image.  Let’s assume you’ve chosen a lens, a subject, and decided how you want to compose the image, since those are the two most basic aspects of creating an image. You look through the viewfinder, or on the LCD screen, and you decide where things should go in the frame.  That’s about half of the decisions you need to make right there.

Next, you need to consider the three aspects of exposure- aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  This is a balancing act where you need to prioritize what’s most important to you. Take your aperture. Let’s say you’ve decided you want everything in focus. You’ll want to select a smaller aperture, say, f/11 or even f/16 to provide the greatest depth of field.  But then what about your shutter speed?  If you’re in Aperture Priority mode, the camera will figure that out for you.  But if there’s something moving in the shot- trees blowing in the wind, a waterfall, or waves on the ocean, or even people- is that something you want to just leave to the camera?

You can still be in Aperture Priority  and pay attention to your shutter speed.  Let’s assume you’re shooting a water feature. If you want smooth, misty water, you’ll know you need a slower shutter speed.  But how slow?  That depends on what the water is doing, and on how you want the water to look. That’s where your INTENT comes in.  If you still want some definition in the water, you’ll want a slightly faster shutter speed that allows for that. How fast depends on how fast the water is moving. If you want that milky look to the water, you’ll want a slower shutter speed.  Again, how slow depends on the water’s movement.

The point is, before just allowing the camera to set the shutter speed, or the aperture, or anything else, regardless of what mode you’re in, figure out what it is you really want out of this capture.  Decide what your intent is, and double check what the camera is doing to be sure that your intent is carried through.  And if it isn’t?  Change it.

Make sure your images say what you meant to say. Be sure your intent is clear.

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Correcting Perspective Lens Distortion In Photoshop – Digital Photography School

A Post By: James Brandon

Lens distortion is a potential problem for any photographer without access to a tilt shift lens, and not all of us have the ability or desire to dump a couple grand on one. There’s a lot of things that two grand could go towards besides a niche lens like a tilt shift. If you’re an architectural photographer, that is certainly a different story, but most people aren’t.

There are quite a few types of lens distortion, but this article is going to focus on perspective distortion. I’ve found, for photographers, lens distortion only becomes a problem once you discover what it is, and if you haven’t discovered it yet then I apologize in advance because now it will drive you nuts when you don’t want it! When I first started out, I had no idea that my lens distorted reality and therefore I never noticed it in my images. I remember when I first started posting photos to flickr when I was brand new photographer, I put up an image I took at a really old methodist church. I took the shot from the second floor balcony, which unknowingly to me at the time was probably the best place to shoot when trying to get straight lines all throughout your image. Unfortunately for me, I tilted the camera down a bit, which caused the vertical lines in the scene to lean in towards the center of the image.

When somebody tried to point this out to me, I was befuddled. I looked and looked at the image, but I couldn’t see what he was talking about. He just told me that the lines weren’t straight! I wasn’t looking at the lines in the scene in comparison to the edges of the frame, I was just looking at the lines themselves. They looked pretty dang straight to me, and I was getting pretty ticked off at this guy! Eventually, he told me to compare the lines in the scene to the outer edges of the framing itself and that’s when I had that first “aha” moment with lens distortion.

It’s important to note that lens distortion isn’t good or bad in and of itself. Like most things, it just depends on how and when you use it, and whether or not you meant to use it!

If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, here are a few examples of intentional lens distortion…

Image by Jacob Lucas

Here’s a great example from Jacob Lucas. Notice how the pillars lean in toward the center of the frame? They don’t go straight up and down like they would in real life. This is pretty obvious distortion, but it works great in this image.

Image by Trey Ratcliff

Here’s another example from Trey Ratcliff. This is one of his famous images from a bamboo forest in Kyoto, Japan. This is intentional lens distortion at it’s best. Trey pointed his lens straight up into the trees, so the distortion created a canopy of bamboo that seams to close in on you. If you go to this forest and stand in this same spot, these trees would all be pointing straight up.

If you didn’t notice this before, I hope you’re having your own little “aha” moment right about now. Perhaps you noticed things like this in your subconscious, but never really thought about why an image looked the way it did. This type of lens distortion is most prevalent with wide angle lenses, and is caused by pointing the camera up or down relative to a subject. This is why if you look up and take a picture of a really tall building, or anything with vertical lines, it looks like it’s falling down on you. This isn’t necessarily bad, I think it certainly worked in the examples above, but it’s important to know how to fix it if that isn’t what you want in your final image. Sometimes, the composition demands straight, perfect lines.

Ok enough already, tell me how to fix it!

Ok ok, fine. There are numerous ways to fix lens distortion, but this tutorial will cover how to do it in Photoshop. I know for a fact you can do the same thing in Lightroom 3, and there are probably plug-ins out there that would allow for something like this in Aperture. I know, not everyone has Photoshop and I understand that, but you should seriously consider saving up for it if you don’t already own it. It’s an incredibly powerful program and I use it on a daily basis. Sure, it’s a bit pricy, but it’s highly worth it I promise!

Here’s an image from my library that we will use for an example…

Before we get started, if you are/were a fan of the series Prison Break, maybe this building looks familiar to you? Personally, I loved the show, but thought the last episode ruined everything. I just finished season 4 the other day and I was livid at the last couple minutes of that show! But I digress. You’ll notice in this shot that we definitely have some lens distortion to deal with. Take a look at the brick columns on the far left and right side, we want to use those columns as a guide to correct the distortion and make everything nice and straight. Here’s what you do in Photoshop…

If you can’t quite read what’s circle on the screen shot, just click the image to view it full size. You’ll notice that I numbered everything, so let’s go in order here…

  1. Once your image is in Photoshop, select the crop tool from the left hand toolbar. You can also do this quickly by hitting the short cut “C.” Once selected, drag the crop tool over the entire image.
  2. Once the crop overlay is covering the image, make sure that “Grid” is selected. This is a better option than the “Rule of Thirds” option in this case, as it will help you line up the distortion correction.
  3. Here’s the little box that a lot of people don’t know about! Without this box selected, you can only make standard crops by dragging the corners or sides up and down. With this box selected, you can now drag the corners in to correct perspective lens distortion!
  4. As you can see here, I grabbed each top corner in and used the far right and left columns as a guide to make the grid line up with the angle of the columns. That’s it! Photoshop will do the rest of the work from here, so once you have the crop overlay where you want it, just hit enter and see what happens.

Here is the final result…


As you can see, the columns around the doors are now perfectly straight up and down. You might think it unfortunate that I lost the columns on the far right and left, but here’s a secret: I knew when taking this shot that I’d need to do some lens correction on it. Therefore, I took a few steps back and placed those far columns just inside the frame to act as a guide later in Photoshop. Once you learn tricks like this, you can plan ahead later on.

If you have any questions about this tip, or you want to talk about how awesome Prison Break was until the last episode, be sure to leave a comment. If you know of a plug-in that can do this in other programs like Aperture, be sure to let us know that as well!

Finally, I’m always looking for cool, fellow photographers to connect with on Twitter, so be sure to follow me (@jamesdbrandon) if you don’t already. Cheers, and happy shooting!

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How to Stay Motivated to Photograph Nature after Months in the … – Digital Photography School

A Post By: Valerie Jardin

I am a photographer. I love the outdoors and I live in the state of Minnesota. Even if you love snow and extreme temperatures, I can assure you that, by the end of January, you will be starved for some color in nature and less bulky clothing. Living in a ‘black and white’ landscape for several months every year makes you appreciate little things. As a photographer and nature lover you develop an eye for details. Here are a few tips to help you survive a long, cold and snowy winter while photographing nature.

First and foremost, be ready for extreme temperatures and wind chills before heading out into the woods. Hand and feet warmers and layers of clothing are common sense. Thin gloves under your heavy mittens so that you don’t get frostbites when you need to make camera adjustments are a good idea. Having a large plastic bag handy to seal your camera or your entire gear bag in before going back to room temperature will prevent heavy condensation on your precious equipment.

In the middle of winter, there will be a time when you find yourself in a creative rut, when you are going to get tired of photographing ‘Winter Wonderland’ however pretty it may look. You are starting to dream about grass, dirt, spring flowers and the return of the migratory birds. I usually reach that state of mind around mid January. So what do I do? I get out there with my camera and my snowshoes and I shoot.

What do I look for when out on a nature walk in January? I pay attention to details, patterns, the slightest bit of color, animal tracks, wildlife. Why not experiment with some black and white photography or use a creative effect lens such as the Lensbaby Composer? Here are a few examples of images I shot on some of the most dreary and cold days this winter, most of them within walking distance from my house:

The color of the blue spruce really stands out in the snow.

Look for interesting shapes, here the shadow and drift look like a giant spoon

Patterns in the snow

Snow covered fox tracks

Use a shallow depth of field to isolate a detail

Deer always look so beautiful in the snow. They are almost impossible to spot in the woods any other time of the year.

Experiment with black and white

Need a little creative boost? A special effect lens such as the Lensbaby Composer can be a really fun tool to look at nature differently

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you are located in a cold state or country, spring is coming… Happy winter shooting!

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How To Keep Your Memory Cards Healthy – Digital Photography School

In this post, Steve Berardi from PhotoNaturalist explains how to keep your memory cards healthy.


Memory cards are one of the most often neglected parts of digital photography. But, they’re extremely important because they’re responsible for safely storing your photos until you get them to your computer.

So, it’s important to take care of them properly. Here are a few tips for keeping them healthy:

1. Format new cards as soon as you get them

Many memory cards are advertised as “pre-formatted” and “ready to use,” but it’s always a good idea to reformat the card again when you receive it, since some cameras have special requirements for the file system of memory cards. Formatting the card with the camera you’ll be using it with will ensure that the card is in a format that the camera recognizes.

2. Never fill your cards completely

Most cameras have some kind of indicator on the LCD screen that tells you how many more photos you can shoot before filling the card. Keep an eye on this number and make sure you never get too close to filling the card, because if you happen to shoot a photo when the card is already full, there’s a chance your camera will still try to write part of the photo to the card (and potentially triggering a write error).

3. Never let your batteries drain completely

It’s also important to never let your batteries drain completely, because if your camera runs out of energy at the exact moment that it’s trying to write a photo to the memory card, then there’s a good chance that the camera will only write part of the file (which could corrupt the rest of the card).

4. Reformat your cards instead of deleting all the photos

Instead of deleting the photos on the card from your computer, always reformat the card from within the camera. This will ensure the card is in a format that the camera expects.

5. Use good quality memory cards

With all those camera bodies and lenses being so expensive, it’s tempting to save some money by getting inexpensive off-brand memory cards. But, remember the importance of these cards: they’re responsible for safely storing your photos. It’s worth a few dollars more to ensure your photos arrive safely at your computer :) Two brands that I can personally recommend are SanDisk and Lexar (if you’ve had good experience with another brand, please let us know by leaving a comment!).

Steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a nature photographer and software engineer. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.

Read more of his articles on nature photography at PhotoNaturalist.

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6 Tips for Getting Better Parade Photos – Digital Photography School

A Post By: Darlene Hildebrandt

My last article I went over 15 tips for successful fireworks photography. This week I’m following up with 5 tips for better parade photos. I figured it is the season for parades and they’re so much fun I want to give you a few quick tips to help you get more engaging, stunning photos at any parade.

#1 Location, location, location

Find a good spot by getting there early and checking out the parade route. This seems like a no-brainer, but the lighting can be tricky especially if you’re in a spot where the floats and people are half in the sun, and half in the shade. So select a spot where you can either get them all in the shade (and have a shady background too), or all in the sun. Don’t be afraid to move if you find the location you selected isn’t working, for whatever reason. Maybe the lighting is bad, or the background is too busy or too bright. Then see tip #2 below!

#2 Use your feet

Unless this is prohibited by parade marshals or the local police (check first if you aren’t sure so you don’t get in trouble), don’t be stuck to sitting on your butt on the curb.  Get up and move around. Most people that attend parades find a spot and basically camp out there for the duration. But what do you see the real photojournalists doing? The guys and gals that work for the newspapers? Right, you see them following the parade and getting right out on the street.


Notice where I am standing here? In between the dancers, they literally walked around me!

**NOTE: do not get yourself in trouble, if the parade marshal or police tell you to cease and desist please listen to them and follow their guidelines. Perhaps find out ahead of time if you need special permission to walk the parade route.**

#3 Join the parade and a part of it

I followed this float for 5 blocks because their music was so good!

I followed this float for 5 blocks because their music was so good!

Joining the parade either officially, or unofficially can get you closer to the action. Volunteer to be security, or help out and ask if you can bring your camera along. You may get access to backstage areas, or being on the street in places that you might not otherwise get to go.  Many parades, at least here anyway, encourage people to get up and join in and march along behind the bands, or dance behind the floats with the great music. That’s part of what makes parades to universally fun. We have a parade called “Cariwest” which is a celebration of Caribbean culture and music. They highly encourage people to follow them and dance along the entire parade route. I love to attend this parade because it’s so colorful and I can get close to the action. Try to find ones like this, often in smaller cities or towns the rules are more relaxed, so get out of the big city if need be.

#4 If in doubt, back-light your subjects

As I mentioned earlier you can encounter some really tricky lighting situations at a parade. I tend to like to put the sun behind my subjects, then I expose so they are well lit and the background gets overexposed or blow out. I’m fine with that as opposed to the opposite of drab photos in the shade with no sense of drama and separation. The sun creates a rim light (outline on the subject) and separates them from the usual boring buildings behind them.


#5 Use a telephoto lens but get in close

Often in my beginner photography classes my students assume that the longer telephoto and zoom lenses are for photographing things far away. While that is sometimes the case, as in wildlife or birds, they have other great uses as well. See my article on “How to achieve blurred backgrounds in portraits” as those tips apply here as well. Using a longer lens and large aperture, will help you get the distracting background of the parade route more out of focus.


I also suggest you get physically closer to the people you’re photographing. This will do two things . . .

First it let’s them see you’re taking their photo, and allows interaction with them if only by eye contact. They know they’re on display in the parade and expect to have their photo taken many times. So if you are hesitant or tentative taking people’s photos this is a perfect opportunity because you have a whole stream of willing subjects literally parading in front of you (sorry pun intended). Sometimes you’ll get a great reaction when they see your camera like the series of images below. She turned, saw me, and I captured a few shots as she rotated and pointed right at me. If I were out on the street edge, likely that wouldn’t have happened.

Second, it will simplify your images and allow you to focus more on one thing at a time. Parades can be visually stimulating, and overly busy so getting in closer will help solve those problems. Pick one person, or one part of a float and get closer.

Float details

Float details

#6 Try to create a series of images that tell a story

Over on my own site I wrote “What is your message? Storytelling photography” and gave some examples. As you photograph the parade try and create a series of images that tell the story of the event, and relate it to someone that wasn’t there. What do you see, hear, feel, taste and touch? What is the main thing you want tell people that see your images of the parade? Journalists will say that you need to cover: wide, medium and long. What that means is show the big picture by shooting some wide shots; show the medium range like one person or one float; and show long or tight shots like details of costumes of floats or musical instruments.  Try to also capture some action images, dancers in mid-bounce, drummers with hands or drumsticks all a blur in motion. A story also needs a beginning, middle and end. Think of those things while you photograph and you may surprise yourself with the results.


Hmm, is it just me or are these firemen enjoying the parade just a little too much?!

Hmm, is it just me or are these firemen enjoying the parade just a little too much?!

Bonus tip

Don’t forget to drink lots of water, stay hydrated, and have some FUN with it!

Have a great summer (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) and enjoy it while it lasts.

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